I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche BY Sue Prideaux. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover, 464 pages. $30.
The cover of I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche

The Nietzsche that emerges in the first pages of Sue Prideaux’s ambitious and stylistically accomplished biography is not the prodigy philologist or the ruthless diagnostician of modernity, but the fanboy. In a letter to a friend, he recounts getting ready to meet Wagner for the first time. Still a university student, Nietzsche is eager to make the most of the opportunity to meet the older celebrity composer and has ordered a new suit. A misunderstanding over the suit payment leaves him brooding on the sofa “in my shirttails and consider[ing] black velvet, whether it is good enough for Richard.” In the end, he rushes out, “into the windy, wet night, a little man in black without a dinner jacket.” The sartorial disaster is redeemed as the two men bond over Schopenhauer and Nietzsche gets invited for a visit at Wagner’s house in Tribschen.

Introducing Nietzsche, the iconoclastic creator of an individualistic, self-creating ethic, as a star-struck young man hints at the central project of Prideaux’s book. She is interested not just in the man of ideas but the man of appetites and ailments, insecurities and disappointments, humanized and imaginable to a contemporary reader. Skipping the customary throat-clearing that usually comes with the territory, Prideaux pays special attention to clothes, furnishings, physicality, geography, conjuring the sensory world of her subjects with a novelist’s feel for detail. At the moment of meeting Wagner at twenty-four, Nietzsche is “stout but not fat,” “short and ordinary,” appearing in photographs “as if his clothes are borrowed” but with “peculiarly arresting eyes,” “one pupil slightly larger than the other.” Though Cosima Wagner’s diary noted the first evening they hosted him as “tolerable,” Nietzsche ended up becoming one of Wagner’s closest friends and confidants. It was the kind of relationship that included being given his own room in Tribschen, the Denkstube (“the Thinking Room”) and being commissioned to buy Wagner tailor-made silk underpants from Basel. “Once you’ve chosen a God, you’ve got to adorn him” was Nietzsche’s justification to himself. He would later characterize these years as the happiest of his life.

The point of historicizing Nietzsche is to offer a necessary corrective to his persistent miscasting—as everything from Nazi ideologue to vague spiritualist—and scale the ideas to the man. From the mid-twentieth century on, Nietzsche has been subject to various restorations; like a ruin in reverse, his philosophical association with the Nazi regime was meticulously unpicked by Walter Kaufmann and attributed to Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth’s talents for fabrication and propaganda. The way to make Nietzsche “safe” was to depoliticize him, casting him as strictly a philosopher of culture; and from there onwards he has been fair game for appropriation by almost everyone, from existentialists to deconstructionists, hippies to libertarians, and, more recently, the alt-right. Against this cluttered context, Prideaux endeavours to replace the popular perception of a bellicose noli me tangere misogynist with the guilelessly sincere, tender, and spiritually generous thinker who emerges in her book. It’s a rescue tactic that prioritises Nietzsche’s personality and persistent physical afflictions—from debilitating headaches to uncontrollable nausea and declining eyesight—but at times occludes some of the political implications of his work and thought.

After his father’s death from “softening of the brain,” Nietzsche became the sole focus of the all-female household of two aunts, his mother Franziska, and Elisabeth. Repaying their unfailing devotion and praise by “becoming the superior little man they wished him to be,” he was accepted by the prestigious classical school Pforta, described by a rector as “Athens in the morning, Sparta in the afternoon.” “I would rather be a Basel professor than God,” he wrote to Jacob Burckhardt, his other great influence, after his appointment as the Chair of Philology at Basel at the age of 24. His early success was accompanied with a sense of deepening alienation: “The most irksome thing of all,” he wrote to his friend Erwin Rohde, “is that I am always having to impersonate someone—the teacher, the philologist, the human being.” He sent musical compositions to his friends, met with reactions ranging from dogged avoidance of the subject to crushing takedowns. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy was initially met with public silence—“It feels,” Nietzsche wrote to a friend, “almost as though I had committed a crime”—followed by a hit-piece in the form of much-circulated pamphlet. Upon entering his thirties, he had some little-read writing behind him, a fading academic reputation, and his close friends were either getting married or “finding themselves” through priesthood. Wagner urged him to marry or write an opera.

Beyond Jesus Christ and Zarathustra, Wagner is the person who features most in Nietzsche’s writing. In many ways Nietzsche’s life and work could be read as a long process of overcoming idolization altogether and learning to practice what Michael Tanner calls “systemic ingratitude”—turning ‘”discipleship into apostasy while not betraying what one has been.” What caused Nietzsche’s actual falling out with Wagner was more prosaic. If Wagner’s materialism, as displayed in Bayreuth—a ludicrous subversion of his original conception of a free, democratic festival of cultural renewal—and his rising anti-Semitism and nationalism had already eroded their relationship, it was Nietzsche’s discovery of Wagner’s ill-judged correspondence with his doctor, attributing Nieztsche’s bent of mind to excessive masturbation and possibly pederasty, that constituted the final affront.

Prideaux treats the question of Nietzsche’s sexuality with skepticism and discretion. The book focuses primarily on dispelling notions of Nietzsche as a woman-hater. We learn of his enduring friendships with progressively minded women, from Malwida von Meysenbug to Resa von Schirnhofer and Meta von Salis-Marschlins and of his unwavering support of women’s education; he actively encouraged his sister to attend lectures as a listener (the only way at the time) and gently tried to improve her writing style. His unhappy love life, punctuated by a handful of rejected marriage proposals, culminated in a philosophico-erotic triangle with Lou Salomé and his friend Paul Rée. Salomé was the only person ever to receive a personal primer on Nietzsche’s philosophy; after spending three weeks with him, she concluded that his conception of the Dionysian was“a mask for bodily lust.” Lou and Rée eventually ran off, abandoning a bewildered and heartbroken Nietzsche to retreat to Genoa and embark on heavy self-medication, writing out prescriptions and signing them “Dr. Nietzsche.”

Prideaux shares a temperament with Nietzsche and a belief in the importance of style—“the physiognomy of the mind,” as Schopenhauer writes. Unlike most of her predecessors, she does not announce herself in relation to the material, avoids polemic, and doesn’t mistake familiarity for intimacy. While there are better primers on Nietzsche’s philosophy out there—Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, for example—Prideaux’s book is the most seamless in its treatment of the material. Her sensory awareness reflects Nietzsche’s own development as an intensely subjective philosopher. Nietzsche grew to be especially concerned with incorporating the physical reality of his body into his thinking. He praised the pre-Christian superficiality of the Greeks and saw it not as a negation but a reflection of their profundity. By the time he wrote Ecce Homo, his quasi-satirical auto-eulogistic last book, he had woven in references to his preferred diet, climate and geography as central to his philosophy. He complicated the notion of living well, not in the contemporary sense of utilitarian minimization of discomfort and or controlled mental withdrawal, i.e mindfulness, but in the sense of accepting one’s fate—physical, social, historical—and living so that the prospect of the eternal return (the endless repetition of days as you’ve known them) would inspire not fear but happy affirmation.

It has been subject to speculation how much the ebullient, self-celebratory bent of Nietzsche’s later writing could be attributed to his impending mental collapse. Prideaux’s tracking of Nietzsche’s slow descent into megalomania and madness against the backdrop of his work—casting himself as a second Christ, “another living god who has been condemned to death” in Ecce Homo, for example—accounts for some of the most moving passages of the book. Progressively losing control over his facial features and emotional equilibrium, Nietzsche took it as a sign of his cosmic chosenness, and impending fame. That his writing found the wider readership he always predicted shortly after he was admitted to an asylum and then placed in the custody of his Nazi-endorsing sister is a turn of fate that, as recounted by Prideaux, is hard to read without pain and indignation.

It is difficult to think of a writer who has suffered more from superficial readers, from cut-and-paste populists to contemporary literalists like Steven Pinker. As the Nietzschean concepts of “master morality” and the “Übermensch” are once again entering into alt-right circulation, bite-sized and decontextualized, Prideaux is eager to defend Nieztsche as an apolitical, even anti-political figure. Insisting that he was “only ever interested in man as an individual, rather than man as a herd animal—be the herd political or religious,” Prideaux supports the Kaufmann school of interpretation and concludes that his project is about “the possibility of meaning as something completely personal.” Nietzsche did however concern himself with the necessity of communities for art creation and did imagine an anti-democratic program based on establishing a transatlantic elite that would create “a new, truly European high culture,” sustained by a form of slavery—in a non-figurative meaning of the word. While this does not necessarily undermine Prideaux’s own interpretation that all of Nietzsche’s work was about self-mastery and the struggle “against the petty emotions in oneself,” it would have been worth acknowledging the unsavory, darker undercurrents in his thought, if only to better discredit his continuing, ahistorical relevance to the right.

In a sign of her unwillingness to fully countenance the anti-egalitarian Nietzsche, Prideaux ends her biography with selection of hand-picked aphorisms whose easy transferability she compares to Bob Dylan lyrics. Listed under sections from “The Abyss” to “Post-Truth,” “Reality TV” and “Travel Supplement,” they point less to Nietzsche than to the gift book counter. While this ending feels like a capitulation of sorts, Prideaux’s stylistic virtuosity and narrative talent has carved a much wider entry point to Nietzsche’s life and thought, setting a new standard for the genre.

Maria Dimitrova is a writer and editor in London.