Occasionally a book is published that daunts the reviewer's attempts to do justice to its subject--in this case, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)--and to the book's content. Curtis Cate's new biography is such a work.
Cate chronicles Nietzsche's life and works in "quantitative detail," from his birth in Ro(e)cken, Germany, on Oct. 15, 1844, until his mental collapse in Turin, Italy, in Jan. 1889, and his death in Weimar on Aug. 25, 1900. One marvels at how minutely Cate narrates the year-by-year, month-by-month, and week-by-week events in Nietzsche's life.
Cate describes Nietzsche's many friendships, from his early school years at Pforta, Wilhelm Pinder and Gustav Krug, and later with Paul Deussen, Carl von Gersdorff, Erwin Rohde, Franz Overbeck, Dr. Paul Ree, Malwida von Meysenbug, Heinrich Romundt, Albert Brenner, Heinrich Koselitz (Nietzsche's loyal disciple, whose musical pseudonym was "Peter Gast"), and, above all, his relationships with a beautiful and extremely intelligent 21-year-old Russian woman, Lou Salome, and with the Richard Wagner and Wagner's wife, Cosima.
Over a period of three years, Nietzsche made 23 visits to Tribschen, the home of Richard and Cosima Wagner near Lucerne, Switzerland. And over the period of seven years, Nietzsche wrote close to eighty letters to Cosima, the daughter of Franz LIszt.
Cate points out that Nietzsche's books are a sustained attack on metaphysical and religious beliefs. Nietzsche argued, writes Cate, that "the attention focused on otherworld fantasies had kept human beings from dealing in an honest, healthy way with the everyday realities that are of the most immediate concern to their well-being. . . . [His] whole philosophy was aimed at achieving a 'higher and nobler' degree of culture."
In a letter to his busybody sister Elisabeth, who so often, during his life and especially after his death, meddled in his affairs, Nietzsche wrote: "Do we in our research seek repose, peace, happiness? No, solely the Truth, even if it be exceedingly deterring and ugly. . . . Here men's ways diverge. If you wish to aspire to peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be the disciple of the Truth, then search."
Against philosophical and religious "seriousness," Nietzsche wrote, "I would believe only in a god who knew how to dance. Come, [with our laughter] let us kill the spirit of gravity."
Cate shows that Nietzsche's philosophy was profoundly personal, rising as it did out of deep existential struggles: "Of all that is written I like only that which one has written with one's blood. Write in blood and you will find that blood is spirit. A book that has no fire in it deserves to be burned."
Nietzsche argued that, because of the inexorable advances of science, which, he believed, showed the world to be ungottlich, unmoralisch, and unmenschlich ("non-divine," "non-moral," and "non-human"), Europe was now plunged into a grave spiritual crisis, the crisis of nihilism.
In the opening pages of his posthumously published work, The Will to Power, Nietzsche wrote: "Nihilism stands at the door. When comes this uncanniest of all guests? . . . What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. The aim is lacking; 'why?' finds no answer." It is a will to nothingness, in which a hopeless despair adjudicates everything to be valueless and worthless, without goal, meaning, or purpose.
Nietzsche's central philosophical project was to "live through nihilism" to its bitter end and, hopefully, with the creation of new values, emerge on the other side. That he failed in this project seems evident, but never has a philosopher struggled so valiantly and courageously in wrestling with the demon of nihilism, of staring for a long time into the abyss.
Cate writes, "Nietzsche conceived of his mission as a thinker to be that of the herald of a new 'dawn' in philosophical thinking, the prophet of a new, more honest, less visionary morality, purged and purified of a vast accretion of moral, political, social, and metaphysical prejudices and misconceptions, which had reduced the vast majority of his contemporaries to a collective condition of sheep-like stupidity."
Georg Brandes, a Danish professor and one of Nietzsche's early admirers (he delivered a series of lectures on Nietzsche's philosophy at the University of Copenhagen) described the German philosopher's basic stance as being "aristocratic radicalism." Nietzsche responded with appreciation and hearty approval, saying that Brandes' _expression "aristocratic radicalism" was the "cleverest word" he had ever read about himself.
Indeed, Nietzsche's elitism exalted everything that was noble, distinguished, and excelling, and derogated all forms of mediocrity, mendacity, and anti-intellectualism, including anti-Semitism (Nietzsche was an anti-anti-Semite) and the saber-rattling stupidity of a jingoistic German nationalism.
At the very heart of Nietzsche's philosophy, writes Cate, is "resistentialism." This means that "it is not what assists Man that strengthens and ennobles him, but, quite the contrary, what resists his slothful inclinations and prejudices." His philosophy calls us grow up and become men in our thinking, rather than remaining dependent children, to reject the comfort, safety, security, and certainty of the herd and become an "free spirit" who dares to travel our own paths. "This is my way," wrote Nietzsche; "where is yours? The way doesn't exist."
A key motif of Cate's biography is his chronicling of Nietzsche's illnesses. All of his adult life, Nietzsche was plagued by debilitating migraines that often kept him bedridden for days, by acute negative reactions to metereological changes, causing him to wear dark glasses and become a wanderer throughout Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy in search of a climate conducive to his health. He suffered frequently from stomach upsets, nausea, fits of vomiting, and acute nervous seizures.
Cate's numerous accounts of Nietzsche's struggle with ill health, scattered repeatedly across hundreds of pages, are impressive in their details, impressing on the us the long, hard struggle Nietzsche to lead the semblance of a normal life. And, although Cates only hints at the idea, one wonders if Nietzsche's "yea-saying," affirmative philosophy and his embrace of "amor fati" (love of fate) was not a defense mechanism against the perennial threat of a spirit-crushing pessimism into which he could have fallen because of his prolonged suffering.
After five weeks of giving diligent attention to Cate's masterful biography, I conclude that it will take its place alongside Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist as one of the best--indeed, in some respects, the best--biographies of Nietzsche available in the English language. This is a distinguished volume. I recommend it most highly.
Roy E. Perry of Nolensville, Tennessee, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Note: Curt Paul Janz's excellent three-volume German biography of Nietzsche has not yet been translated into English.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Curtis Cate is the author of acclaimed biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, George Sand, and Andre Malraux as well as several other books of non-fiction. He holds degrees from Harvard (History), Ecole des Langues Orientales (Russian), and Oxford (Politics and Economics). He was the European Editor for The Atlantic Monthly for eight years (1958-1965) and has written articles for the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times Magazine and the New Republic. He resides in France.