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Tarantulas and Dynamite

Sean Sheehan

I Am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux, Faber & Faber, 464 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0571336227

The New Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, edited by Tom Stern, Cambridge University Press, 464 pp, £26, ISBN: 978-1316613863
Moral Psychology with Nietzsche, by Tom Leiter, Oxford University Press, 224 pp, £37, ISBN: 978-0199696505
Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy: Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy, Human All Too Human, Daybreak, The Gay Science, Untimely Meditations, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, Cambridge University Press

A friend at university was a member of the Catholic Society but his beliefs underwent a dramatic change and his apostasy took the form of joining a groupuscule, the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). CPGB-ML looked to Enver Hoxha’s Albania as the only country that enshrined its core principles and my friend’s next “holiday” was a work trip to the country where, as a condition of his entry, his far from long hair was shorn at Tirana’s airport. On his return, mockery was water off a duck’s back. He was, having swapped one militancy for another as swiftly as his change in hairstyle, unassailable.

Our friendship was challenged again when conveying to him my excitement at reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. He didactically pronounced that the author was a decadent philosopher who had influenced Hitler and on no account should I have any truck with such a poisonous thinker. This level of misunderstanding, not spectacularly uncommon at the time, has mercifully been rectified and it’s clear now that Elisabeth curated her brother’s writings to make them Nazi-friendly. The biopolitics of antisemites and the libidinal satisfaction they derive from persecuting Jews were completely foreign to Nietzsche. He was repelled by the antisemitism he was exposed to at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 and the prejudices of Richard and Cosima Wagner contributed to the eventual breakdown in his relations with the composer. Relations with his sister were permanently fractured after she married a rabid antisemite.

In Joyce’s story “A Painful Case”, Mr Duffy’s choice of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science for his neatly arranged bookshelf reveals another and not unrelated level of misunderstanding about Nietzsche. Solitary-minded Duffy, shutting out love from his life, is emotionally obtuse but he probably sees himself as a kind of Übermensch who has risen above the common herd of his fellow citizens. If the style of what he writes in his journal – “Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.” – is a conscious imitation of Nietzsche’s liking for aphorisms (his way of dealing with excruciating ailments that made prolonged writing an ordeal), it’s a misguided one. In Human, All Too Human, there is a less declarative remark that touches on the same subject: “Women are quite able to make friends with a man; but to preserve such a friendship – that no doubt requires the assistance of a slight physical antipathy” (aphorism 390). The key difference is that Nietzsche’s remark is one of sixty in a section concerned with women, men and children whereas Duffy, writing two months after his breakup with Mrs Sinico, is justifying to himself the failure of their relationship, avoiding any responsibility by attributing it to love and friendship’s implacable antagonism when men and women get close to one another.

Duffy, of course, is no Übermensch; quite the opposite. He lacks the Dionysian affirmation of life that is first celebrated in The Birth of Tragedy and is closer in spirit to the tarantulas that Nietzsche castigates in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy, perhaps the conceit and envy of your fathers; it erupts from you like a flame and the madness of revenge.” What Duffy cannot do, even after his epiphanic moment on the crest of Magazine Hill, is what Nietzsche called for in The Gay Science: the resolve to “live dangerously” and “Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!”

Sue Prideaux’s sparkling and finely written biography is superb at showing how Nietzsche became the brave iconoclast who could describe his own work as having the explosive power of dynamite. Ill health first afflicted him in his schooldays but he studied with tremendous self-discipline at Pforta, a school with a rigorous regime that began daily at 4am. A spectacular reward came when he was unprecedentedly invited to take up the chair of philology at Basle University at the tender age of twenty-four. He felt like an impostor, bought new clothes that would make him look older in front of students, and as his Christian faith faded away found comfort in Schopenhauer. He took a train to Lucerne to visit the composer whose music he was finding compelling; and the four-page description of Wagner’s fabulous Tribschen home that Prideaux provides would suggest he must have been equally impressed by what he witnessed: a carpet made of flamingos’ feathers; attar of roses from Persia; gifts from King Ludwig strewn about the place and Wagner, dressed as a Renaissance painter, greeting him for a personal tour of his home.

Nietzsche was enraptured by his new friendship, finding someone who did not share the sense of isolation that made him feel “there is about me something very remote and alien so that words have other colours than the same words from other people”. When health problems forced retirement from teaching he became a seasonal migrant, spending summers in alpine regions before moving south to Italy or the French Rivera over winter. He loved Sils-Maria, a small village outside St Moritz that is still an attractive destination for non-skiers given its scope for the kind of meditative walks that fuelled Nietzsche’s thinking. The house where he stayed is open to the public and the monastic modesty of the room where he slept and wrote remains testimony to the simplicity of his lifestyle.

Nietzsche is the most literary of all philosophers but it is easy to be seduced by what appears as breathless provocation into thinking this enfant terrible must have been a loud extrovert. But this was never the case. To other people, he was quiet, well-mannered and notably courteous to women. Prideaux attributes a noli me tangere aura to his presence while Nietzsche himself observed how a large moustache allowed the gentlest of men to “sit as it were in its shade and feel safe there; others will associate it with a military type, easily angered and occasionally violent – and as such he will be treated”. It seems he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way but when Lou Salomé entered his life he dropped his mask. There is something terribly sad about the way their relationship never developed in the way Nietzsche so deeply desired. She came to know the man behind the mask and quoted one of his aphorisms from Human, All Too Human: “People who think deeply feel themselves to be comedians in their relationships with others because they first have to simulate a surface in order to be understood.”

As many of the contributors to The New Cambridge Companion show, it is all too easy to underestimate the therapeutic intention behind his philosophical writings. Nietzsche wants to propel readers into assessing the quality of their lives and their values and this underlies the different modes of his writing. There is the ebullient brio of The Birth of Tragedy; biblical rhetoric in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; complex and investigative ambivalence in On the Genealogy of Morality; intellectual autobiography in Ecce Homo and, what is most often associated with his style of expression, the use of aphorisms that begins with Human, All Too Human and becomes more evident as his health deteriorates. Common to his writing is a dizzying and poetic fervour that helps explain why so many readers, especially philosophy students coming to him after dry discourses on Cartesian dualism or Kant’s finely honed analytic, find his delirious prose so enjoyable. Sixteen scholars contribute to The New Cambridge Companion and their essays are usefully divided into four sections that mirror how one might set about becoming acquainted with a thinker who wants to dethrone a mindset premised on notions about Christian morality. Nietzsche’s peeling away of the onion of metaphysics and finding no core is what lies behind his graphic tale in The Gay Science of the madman who lights a lantern in bright sunshine and runs around the marketplace crying ‘I’m looking for God’. Non-believers laugh at him until he makes his point: “We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers ... What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun? Where is it moving to now?” The whole of his speech needs to be read to appreciate its astonishing force and the import of the madman’s act in throwing his lantern on the ground. He has arrived too soon, he realises, because the world has not found a way of living in a world without a God.

 The first of The New Cambridge Companion’s four sections, Nietzsche’s “influences and interlocutors”, covers Schopenhauer, Wagner and the philosopher’s subversive engagement with the culture of ancient Greece. The sunlit vision of classicism is turned on its head and used combatively to remind us that inhumanity and violence cannot be divorced from cherished values that we cling to as a form of therapy. All of this is a sound preparation for the book’s second section, which covers particular texts: The Birth of Tragedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality. In terms of getting to grips with nuanced and complex ideas, the last of these is the most challenging and insightful of all Nietzsche’s books and the essay on it by Christa Davis Acampora is admirably clear in adumbrating its concerns. Nietzsche call for the will to power continues to cause consternation, casting a shadow over his reception, and its appropriation by fascism as a rationale for violent domination is an underlying source for the misunderstanding of the term. But Nietzsche is going beyond the idea of power over others and urging instead an existential and moral re-evaluation, a self-mastery that will bring out what is life-affirmatively best in us. The prismatics of this central theme are explicated in many of the essays that make up the final two, thematically-based sections of the Companion. The book as a whole, refreshingly free of academic aridity and point-scoring, serves admirably as a reliable introduction to Nietzsche.

Moral Psychology with Nietzsche has an antithetical orientation. Brian Leiter attributes to the philosopher the fatalistic idea that individuals have different psycho-physical natures that determine their moral outlooks and attitudes to life. People are like plants, asserts Leiter in his typically snappish and judgmental tone: a tomato cannot grow into an aubergine, natural facts circumscribe possible trajectories even though there are variables (soil condition, plant food and so on). People’s trajectories, likewise, are causally shaped by certain givens in their nature while also subject to external factors that will affect them. To say that we are a mix of nature and nurture is no great insight, though for Leiter what he calls “natural facts” are of primary significance in determining one’s character and personality. Leiter claims credit for establishing scholarly agreement that Nietzsche is a “naturalist” but Stephen Mulhall, in his essay for the New Cambridge Companion, rightly points out that the term “naturalism” is woolly and more open than Leiter is prepared to accept. If humans can be divided into different psycho-physical types then psychology plays a part but sociological factors may also be relevant; we live as part of a natural order but also a cultural one. Leiter thinks Nietzsche’s naturalism benefits from results of the empirical sciences and his final chapter purports to show the evidence. To take one example, he refers to studies that for him clearly show how genetic factors substantially account for the tendency to use violence; “aggressive antisocial behaviour” as psychologists, he says, call it. Presumably, then, there is a genetic explanation for the disproportionate number of black people in US prisons for crimes and misdemeanours involving violence. And if so, should one also look to a genetic explanation for the disproportionate use of violence by white police officers against black people?

Nietzsche’s writings are available from various publishers but the volumes in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy distinguish themselves for the quality of their translations and clarity of presentation. They have sound introductions, suggestions for further reading, indexes, and some of them have notes. The texts are testimony to the inflammatory nature of his prediction that living in a world without God is as terrifying as it is liberating:

I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful – of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite.

1/12/2019

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).

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