- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005


By Curtis Cate

Overlook, $37.50,

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689 pages

The incident is now famous in the annals of philosophy. During the Christmas season of 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche suddenly embraced a horse he saw being harshly beaten on the streets of Turin, Italy, and wouldn’t let go. The philosopher whose works denounced compassion and pity as unhealthy and undesirable expressions of weakness had succumbed to those very feelings to save an old nag pulling a cart from the wrath of its master.

Nietzsche’s sanity never returned. He was taken back to his rooms. When a friend came down from Switzerland to see what he might do, he found the philosopher — who had turned 44 the previous October — stark naked and frenzedly dancing in the privacy of his bedroom.

When Nietzsche went mad, his major works — “The Joyous Science,” “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” and “Beyond Good and Evil,” among others — were hardly known in Europe. But by the time he died, in 1900, a little over a decade later, he had become famous and his books widely discussed.

That fame would increase steadily. His notion of the “Superman” — the man who allows no moral or religious constraints to hinder his full development — appealed to large numbers of young men (and often young women, too). Nietzsche’s fierce, relentless attacks on Christianity and middle-class sobriety found outspoken approval among surprisingly large numbers of educated Europeans who were already beginning to learn to despise their own traditions.

German soldiers carried copies of Nietzsche’s “Zarathrustra” with them to the front during World War I. Twenty years later, he was the philosopher Adolf Hitler and other Nazis professed to admire above all others. But adulation was not confined to right-wing circles. Philosophers fell under his sway. So did Christian theologians and even feminists, although Nietzsche was often rabidly anti-Christian and more than a little bit misogynistic. In recent decades, the post-modernists have made great use of his thought.

So it comes as no surprise that there is no shortage of scholarship on Nietzsche and that his extraordinary life has spawned a number of biographies. Three years ago saw the publication, in English by Yale University Press, of Joachim Kohler’s controversial “Zarathrustra’s Secret.” Mr. Kohler’s book, which had appeared in German in 1989, claimed that the philosopher had been homosexual and that this fact explained both his tortured life and the nature of his thought.

In the same year, Rudiger Safranski’s superb “Nietzsche — A Philosophical Biography” appeared in English. Now comes a book much larger than either of the two previous works, journalist Curtis Cate’s “Friedrich Nietzsche,” which offers a great deal of often interesting and well-presented information, but which ultimately fails to pull all of the vast detail into a meaningful and coherent whole.

But perhaps that is the fault not of the biographer but of his subject. Nietzsche lived a life of ecstatic highs followed by the bluest of depressions. He had close friendships — with the composer Richard Wagner, for example — but then came to denounce those friends as the foulest of enemies. And his books, laden with aphorisms and very passionate (and often beautiful) prose and poetry, are difficult going, with what’s said on one page seemingly contradicted by something appearing a few pages later.

With this difficult material, Mr. Cate, who has written highly regarded books on George Sand and Andre Malraux, has done as well as any biographer can. His Nietzsche above all is a man beset by relentless, debilitating illness and severe eye problems. Too much heat or too much cold weather could bring on prolonged periods of vomiting and convulsions that sent him to bed in a darkened room for days at a time.

Thunderstorms upset him profoundly. So did an uncomfortable train trip. In 1879 alone, Nietzsche wrote his sister Elizabeth, he had experienced 118 days of these days, when little work could be done and which he passed in solitude, away from anyone who might bring solace.

But despite these problems, Nietzsche was impressively productive, turning out book after book beginning in 1872 with his “The Birth of Tragedy” down to (and after) his turn to insanity, a 16- year period of creativity extraordinary for any writer, and even more amazing for a man so ill.

Mr. Cate is at his best on Nietzsche’s day-to-day life: his birth, for example, in 1844, the first child of a Lutheran pastor, who was to die at age 36 of what was diagnosed as “softening of the brain,” and his early school, where teachers took note both of his brilliant mind and exceptional memory, and of his extreme sensitivity and irritability.

Nietzsche mastered ancient Greek and Latin, and decided to pursue a scholarly career in philology. That didn’t happen, partly because of his poor health and partly because he was temperamentally incapable of pure scholarship which requires sharp focus on small areas of knowledge.

Early on, Nietzsche realized that he was far more interested in the broader picture than in minutiae, in the nature of good and evil, in why men behave the way they do, and what the purpose of life should be. Mr. Cate accurately divides Niezsche’s thought into two periods.

In the first, up to 1883, when he published the first section of “Zarathrustra,” Nietzsche wanted “to give written substance” to what he called “free-spiritedness,” a quality obtained only by a “happy few” who “are brave enough to face the terrifying reality of man’s cosmic insignificance” in an indifferent universe.

But Nietzsche, according to Mr. Cate, quickly came to see that free-spiritedness could not be an end in itself, and after 1883, his books came to be a search for an authority worthy for man to pay homage to. And this authority was the Superman, the man who had through his own effort overcome the quotidian world and made of himself a superhuman, a work of art and discipline.

Nietzsche’s is a philosophy of becoming. Nothing should remain the same, man must constantly change, grow stronger, shed all that is weak. The Nietzsche that emerges in Mr. Cate’s biography is a man striving with his whole being to overcome the illnesses his body was all too prone to, and ultimately not succeeding.

Mr. Cate is right in underlining Nietzsche’s importance as a social critic. No one has more accurately denounced the pomposity and smugness of academics; rarely have anti-Semitism and German nationalism — feverishly growing in Nietzsche’s time — been attacked with more telling accuracy. He was, he wrote, “so alien in my deepest instincts to everything German that the merest proximity of a German retards my digestion… .”

One of the fundamental questions asked in Nietzsche’s writing is what makes man noble and distinguished, notes Mr. Cate. Nietzsche feared that the egalitarian movements of his time were making all men the same. He saw science stripping life of mystery. Nietzsche’s philosophy, Mr. Cate says in a well-chosen word was a “desperate” attempt to overcome these trends, and restore man’s dignity.

Mr. Cate’s biography is uneven. The last chapter, a summing up, is weak. There are a number of errors copyediting could have eliminated: At one point, for example, Nietzsche’s confirmation is said to have taken place when he was 16, but a photo caption has it at 13. And there are others.

Still Mr. Cate has taken on a tremendous task, and performed it for the most part with impressive skill. For what it must have been like to be Nietzsche on a daily basis, there is no better source.

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