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What I have read: Cate on Nietzsche

C. Cate’s, Friedrich Nietzsche (Overlock Press, 2005), is a long and somewhat involved biography of this great mind. As is well-known, Nietzsche (1844-1900) had a difficult life. He probably suffered from syphilis from around 1865 and, as a consequence, went mad shortly after his 44th birthday and the completion of his disjointed, rambling Ecce Homo. EH is described by Walter Kaufman as ‘one of the treasures of world literature’: It is certainly one of the most bizarre autobiographies ever written. It starts with chapters “Why I am so wise…Why I am so clever…Why I write such good books” and then proceeds to review of all of his earlier published work.

A professor of philology at 25, Nietzsche, in fact, had only a rather abbreviated academic career because of recurrent illness. He spent most of the rest of his productive life thinking, struggling and writing. For Nietzsche, music was an indispensible part of life, he composed and for a time thought of becoming a professional musician. Some of his musical compositions remain available today on CD. Although he had many friends he probably never had a sexual relationship with a woman of his own class, though it was clear that one was very much sought. His life had tragic aspects to it as well as heroic ones. Walter Kaufman believes Nietzsche avoided marriage not because of inhibition but because of his syphilis.

Nietzsche’s relationship with Richard and Cosima Wagner as well as the bizarre platonic friendship with the brilliant though demanding Russian woman Lou Salome (Nietzche was clearly in love with her) were highlights of his life. Nietzsche would have hated Nazism with an intensity and he was certainly not anti-semitic. His struggles with terrible bouts of illness, his sensitivity to the seasons (he hated bright sunlight because of his sensitive eyes, but also disliked cold, gloomy weather) and the extreme pace within he could produce literary treasures were noteworthy. He wrote Ecce Homo in 20 days.

In a sense Nietzsche’s life reflected his philosophy which emphasised the value of struggle. He wanted people to reject the values of the herd and to become ‘free spirits’ whatever the cost. An early admirer described his philosophy as ‘aristocratic radicalism’, a phrase Nietsche approved of greatly.

I found Cate a most interesting book though, in one sense it mixes, the detailed story of his life with attempts to decipher Nietzsche’s restless, non-systematic philosophy. I found the straight biographic material better than the interpretations. I particularly found Chapters 18-19 describing Nietzche’s eventual collapse into madness very moving. The frustrations of his life came together as his mind gave way. In a poignant moment. in early 1899 in a Turin St, just before his collapse, Nietzsche placed his arms around the neck of a lagging horse that was being savagely beaten by a cart-driver. As Cate points out ‘Nietzsche , who had endured so many humiliating slights and physical sufferings, was clearly identifying himself with this poor, maltreatted creature’. After his mental collapse, Nietzsche had only a few intervals of lucidity although, even close to his deathbed, he enjoyed the piano music of his friend ‘Peter Gast’ and attempted to applaud when Gast performed. Nietzsche was a heroic, inspired though imperfect man. Cate’s book is great biography.

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