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“In all radical parties, I enjoy a strange, almost mysterious respect.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

This is a curious business, this matter of writing about a book, and at that a book written about a book, or books, or even more curious, the writer of books. This “meta” business is potentially so tedious. I guess we have the French to thank for that. Yet, it is something I am drawn to, a thing I am compelled, for reasons which escape me, to further in my own singular  fashion. So, I layer on, like a hiker going out into a New England winter, layer upon layer: the writer writing about other’s who have written before him. And it is so that I come to a biography of a writer who took the writers and their work before him and tried to make sense of it all. And someone writing about him writing and me writing about that writer and the writer of which he wrote. It does make sense, however; is that not what we all do, try but to make sense of what precedes us? And make sense of that sense? What if in doing so, we are driven, like some wild beast gone crazy, to a center that cannot hold, that makes us mad, that renders us to the world inchoate, such as the subject of this biography, Friedrich Nietzsche. What if then?

I doubt, no, I am certain, that Nietzsche was not aware of his life, how it had been lived, when he exited this world. And this saddens me. For as Freud said of Nietzsche “he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was likely to live.” And yet he went mad. Which begs the question as to what the common individual, a poor sap, a simple reader-writer, might expect; can a person come too close to the edge, peek over into the void, and be ruined for it? Punished even? Do we turn to a pillar of salt if we look too deeply? Was his “penetrating knowledge of himself” destructive, such that the self disappeared?

That is what draws me to Nietzsche. It is not his philosophy, entirely, though that is part of it. It is not the time, the place, the history, the events, the books read or the languages learned, though these things too exert their influence. Rather, it is the life lived. “…we want to become poets of our lives,” he wrote. How did he live? It is not lost on me that the ancient philosophers of Athens where judged, not only on the quality of their thought and their philosophy, but on the life they lived. That is why I come to books: to learn how to live. I fear that I will never find the book that reveals to me that secret, though I am most certain and expectant that it is out there, a naiveté which I refuse to expunge. As Guy Davenport said, to paraphrase, the life of the reader is still valid, it is just the challenge of finding the right books to read which validate it. And so it was, that I came to the new biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, a book subtitled, A Philosophical Biography, by Julian Young. For in Nietzsche I held out hope that a template would be discovered, held out hope even against the mirror of his madness. Socrates said, while defending himself against charges of corruption of the youth of the state, and not without a good bit of self-righteous indignation, that the unexamined life is not worth living–a tag line that has captivated my attention since I was nine years old. If there was an examined life out there, I was going to find it. Nietzsche seems, amongst few others (Montaigne and Thoreau come immediately to mind), as a possible candidate. In that self-appointed yearning spirit, I read Julian Young’s “philosophical” biography of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The book starts page one, paragraph one, with the meat of the matter, that is, this business of how to live. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration…” writes Young, “was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning.’” Young continues:

“In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not an expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful. [Nietzsche’s] own particular task was to become able to do this, to reach a point where he could shout ‘Da capo!’ to his own life. Let us see what he had to contend with before reaching that point.”

What follows are six-hundred and forty-nine pages (including notes and index) describing the titanic struggle of one individual to shout Da capo! Sadly, we all know how it ends, this struggle. The hero is lost unto himself.

Nietzsche–”Fritz”–was born October 15, 1844 in a Prussian Saxon village. He died August 25, 1900. Consider this: Fritz was fifteen years old when Darwin published The Origin of Species; He was twenty-seven when Bertrand Russell was born, forty-one when Ezra Pound came into the world. The year he collapsed into madness, 1888, Susan B. Anthony organized a Congress for Women’s Rights in Washington DC and Katz’s Delicatessen is founded in the Lower East Side. The year he died, 1900, saw the first flight at Kitty Hawk, the first automobile trek across the United States (It took fifty-two days. It was a Packard.), and the first Tour de France. If ever there was a thinking person dropped into a critical time of behavioral, intellectual and industrial history, it was Nietzsche.

Though I am hesitant to call this period the birth of modernity, it is a time and place and collection of new ideas befitting that notion. Louis Menand wrote in his book, The Metaphysical Club, that “Modernity is the condition a society reaches when life is no longer conceived as cyclical.” He continues:


“In a premodern society, where the purpose of life is understood to be the reproduction of the customs and practices of the group, and where people are expected to follow the life path their parents followed, the ends of life are given at the beginning of life. People know what their life’s task is….In modern societies, the preproduction of custom is no longer understood to be one of the chief purposes of existence….Modern societies do not simply repeat and extend themselves; they change in unforeseeable directions, and the individual’s contribution to these changes is unspecifiable in advance.”

To Nietzsche, the world he examined was a world apart, a place and time without culture, myth or shared continuity with the past. It was a place, to use Menand’s phrase, of “change in unforeseeable directions.” Modern man, Nietzsche wrote, is a “mythless man.” A sea change was taking place and he knew it. Everything was up for grabs. Religion had lost it’s hold (“God is dead.”) and scientific materialism had picked up the mantle as forerunner of thought and action. Indeed, as Young suggests, “Nietzsche’s whole life and philosophy is, above all else, a struggle to find a new religious outlook that will re-found culture.” Nietzsche observed that as moderns, we are subject to a “pandemonium of myths…thrown into a disorderly heap.” (It is refreshing to read a book by an academic that is not, well, academic. Young is not afraid to weigh-in with his personal observations, though they sometimes detract. For instance, as he discusses this pandemonium of myths, he writes: “ our culture is full of shiny things, of ‘gods’ and ‘heros’: Princess Di (as immortal as any of the Olympians) Madonna, the Beckhams, the winner of the latest Oscar or reality TV show, and so on.”) He was driven to put an end to the pandemonium and set humankind (again) on a proper course.

Nietzsche’s life-work sought to address the shifting cultural topography of his times. His goal was nothing less than the creation and preservation of a new community, a culture modeled on the ancient Greeks, sans metaphysics. (It is here, sadly, with an image of a Nietzschian culture and the overtones of his later übermensch concept, that many readers will think: Nietzsche the anti-Semite, the precursor of the Nazi Aryan race. Young masterfully dispels both notions, demonstrating once and for all, the posthumous damage done by Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, to his reputation, his work and his memory. Nietzsche called himself “the anti-anti-Semite”. (Indeed, Nietzsche once wrote that he “lost [his] sister to anti-Semitism.” Among the photographs in the book is one taken of Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Chancellor Adolf Hitler.)

Nietzsche was, arguably, the first modern man. I am drawn to him for this reason. Like Thoreau, he recognized the troublesome onset of what he called “the herd mentality.” (Nietzsche was eighteen when Thoreau died in 1862.)To anyone interested in a unique life of non-conformity, Nietzsche holds certain and obvious appeal. Later philosophers, particularly Heidegger and his “dictatorship of the They” and Sartre with his faith gone sour, latched onto Nietzsche’s insight on and aversion to conformity. Sadly for us perhaps, Heidegger wrote that authenticity is linked to a non-technological lifestyle (one must worry/wonder what he would make of our iPod-slinging subway-riding, text-messaging society); Sartre felt that we, as moderns (or properly, post-moderns), where already lost. (My imagination runs wild with the worry that Nietzsche figured this out, saw the harsh truth, knew that he had failed humanity and it drove him mad.)

Nietzsche could peer deeply into the mist of the past. The ancient Greek ideal obsessed him. Too, he could see far forward. His mind, it seemed, did not know time. There are instances of his prescience evident in the notebooks and writings. He worried, for instance, that cutting down trees would cause the world to warm. His concept of the Dionysian clearly predates Freud’s “life drive”, though Freud claimed to have avoided Nietzsche, worried at the influence he might wield. To this reader, a particularly striking observation is his summing of modernity, using poignantly, “the Americans”, as the quintessentially troublesome example:

“The Americans strive for gold; and their breathless haste in working…is already spreading to the old Europe…Already one is ashamed of keeping still; long reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in hand, as one eats lunch with an eye on the financial pages…all forms are being destroyed by the haste of the workers…one no longer has time and energy for ceremony…more and more it is work that gets all good conscience on its side the desire for joy already calls itself ‘the need to recuperate’…’one owes it to one’s health’–that is what one says when caught on an excursion in the countryside. Soon we may well reach the point where one cannot give in to the desire for a  [contemplative life]….”

“Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers since Plato whom large numbers of intelligent people read for pleasure.” That quote comes from Walter Kaufman, Nietzsche scholar and translator, writing in 1966, almost fifty years ago. And still we come. We come to him not only as a philosopher and writer, but as a human being. For this reader that holds the greatest appeal. Young’s book, A Philosophical Biography, ties the human to the ideas, ties the man to the world.

I have purposefully avoided here outlining the philosophy of the man. There are many who are better suited for such tasks. Young’s book, however, will for the lay reader provide insight and education to that end. I once held an aversion to secondary texts, the explanation and explication of a primary source, usually dumbed down for the non-specialist reader. Not so now. No so, after discovering here that Nietzsche learned his Kant and a few other mind-numbing thinkers from secondary texts. “Biographies,” writes Young, “sweeten the hard-to-swallow pill of philosophy.” One can learn Nietzsche here, as I think one should: the life and the mind.

Give me the man wrapped up in his thoughts, as it should be. Deconstructionism be damned.

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Doug Bruns DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

6 Responses to “The First Modern: On Nietzsche”

  1. [...] I’ve been away all week and the only reading I got done was on the plane home from BWI, too tired to pay attention. I was just a robot turning pages. So, I determined that today, after the morning visit to the farmer’s market, I would place my backside in my favorite and catch up. It’s been three hours, backside planted in chair, and still going strong, but for this quick break. I’m inside of fifty pages to the end of Julian Young’s new biography of Nietzsche.  It has taken me one hell of a long time to get through this book, reminding me of reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this summer. I have an essay about this reading experience at The Nervous Breakdown, called The First Modern: On Nietzsche. [...]

  2. Gloria says:

    Wait… didn’t Nietzsche go mad not because of the insanity of Knowing, but because of “atypical general paralysis attributed to tertiary syphilis?” The dude had an STD. What I like to think of as The Thinker’s STD (Van Gogh, Beethoven, and Keats had it, too. Interestingly, Salvador Dalí did not have it, as is widely reported.)

    Man…the passage at the end where Nietzche comments on “the Americans” is depressing. 110 years later and it’s all still true. Even without syphilis, it’s enough to drive me crazy.

  3. Doug Bruns says:

    G – Thanks for your comments. Interestingly, as you might imagine, Young discusses the syphilis theory in depth. The diagnosis was made by a doctor specializing in neurosyphilis, Ludwig Wille, a psychiatrist. Young writes, “To those good at hammering, it is said, everything is inclined to look like a nail.” Wagner, under who’s spell Nietzsche fell as a young man, confessed to a friend that he believed Nietzsche of guilty of “unnatural debauchery” and that the cause of his troubles, headaches, eye problems and so forth, were due to masturbation (Oh, my God! Say it isn’t so.). Wagner’s comments made their way to Nietzsche and the friendship began to unravel. But the seed of sexual misadventures had been planted. Say’s Young, “Notice that though the visits to brothels might seem to tell in favour of the traditional story that the madness into which Nietzsche lapsed in 1889 was caused by end-stage syphilis, the fact that he explicitly confronts and rejects the possibility of syphilitic infection tells against it.” This after demonstrating that Nietzsche “had a very strong aversion to telling anyting other than the strict truth…” There doesn’t seem to be any pathology to support the theory.

    All of that aside, yes, the comment about “The Americans” haunts me. His thoughts on modernity, about which I didn’t have much knowledge previously, are certainly of the greatest revelation to me. He was dead on–sadly.

  4. That last quote, I agree, is pretty haunting, and still true.

    I wonder: can someone peer into the void long enough, seeing for themselves some version of the “truth,” that they could be driven mad by it? Certainly, my limited knowledge of biology and science in general might reject that possibility, though I have often wondered this question myself. The whole “fine line between genius and insanity” thing has persisted, perhaps, for a reason.

  5. Jake says:

    Interesting outline of this author’s interpretational book on Nietzsche. I do HATE how it must always be ‘cleared up’ that he wasn’t an anti-semite! as if a man’s credibility hinges on whether he loved or hated the Jews, or helped propel the Germans.

    Despite his earlier writings, Nietzsche’s later writings indeed had a positive influence in the Pagan flare that nearly saved the Jewdified/Christianized West, and his writings linger still among those of us who believe in Eugenics and the practical advancement of Western man.

    Call us what you will, label us degraders of Nietzsche’s image, but the Superman we still ever strive for in this modern day of decay.

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