Superman And The Little Pastor Essay, Research Paper
Superman and the little pastor Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography by Rudiger Safranski 412pp, Granta, £25 Zarathustra’s Secret by Joachim Kohler 278pp, Yale, £19.95 No single adjective captures the rich, strange genius of Friedrich Nietzsche. Enigmatic, vatic, emphatic, passionate, sometimes absurd, occasionally nauseating, and often breathtakingly insightful, his works together make a unique statement in the literature of European ideas. His life was no less extraordinary than his work, although considerably less heroic; but it had a different ending. Whereas his work has grown in the estimation of the world, his life came to a terrible conclusion: he went mad at the age of 45, and died a decade later without recovering. His fame had just begun in the last months of his sanity, so he understood it only enough to send letters to the Kaiser and the king of Italy summoning them to meetings to hear his instructions on the future of the world. Each in its way, the books by Rudiger Safranski and Joachim Kohler recount the euphoria-punctuated torment of Nietzsche’s life, and thereby seek to explain his thought. Safranski has already proved his capacious talents in biographies of Schopenhauer and Heidegger, and here repeats the formula of highly readable narrative coupled with intelligent and perceptive accounts of his subject’s work. Kohler’s book has a more particular focus, which is to reveal the nature of Nietzsche’s sexuality and its influence on his thought. Although Kohler’s book first appeared in German 10 years before Safranski’s, the latter ignores it – except obliquely, in a few paragraphs accepting but downplaying the significance of Kohler’s thesis. In the absence of Kohler’s book this would be a fault, for as Kohler succeeds in showing, Nietzsche’s masochistic homosexuality explains much that he said and suffered – for Nietzsche himself said that sexuality is the summit of an individual’s spirituality, and his concept of the ideal existence embraced Dionysian orgiastic freedom, as expressed in his own day by the life of the naked sun-kissed youths of Sicily (which Nietzsche called “the isle of the blessed”) so lovingly photographed by Wilhelm van Gloeden. For Kohler, Nietzsche’s swingeing attack on Christian morality is the product of this repressed and unfulfilled erotic longing, and explains his ideal of the “Superman”, who overthrows traditional pieties and life-denying inhibitions in order to live passionately and supremely. Safranski sees the erotic in these themes too, but is more concerned with a straightforward exposition of Nietzsche’s ideas. Whatever their source, these ideas are revolutionary and subversive. They challenge a morality Nietzsche sees as based on the enslavement and weakness suffered by the Jews in exile, which gave rise to an “inversion” of values: the feeble, the fearful, those that weep and mourn, are the good and shall inherit the kingdom, says the resulting moral code. Nietzsche pours contempt on this view. Man should instead, he proclaims, “overcome himself” by expunging the weaknesses in his nature, and aspire to be a Superman, which means to live heroically and powerfully. The Nazis later appropriated Nietzsche’s ideas, especially those of the “superman” and the “will to power”. After 1945, commentators defended him against these pillagings, blaming his sister Elisabeth – a convinced anti-Semite and devotee of the master-race ideology – for manipulating his oeuvre during his decade of madness and after his death, in ways later congenial to Nazism. Generally speaking, the commentators are right: Nietzsche was hostile both to anti-Semitism and German nationalism, and it is only by an act of systematic misrepresentation that he can be described as a Nazi prophet. But the Nazis found enough to bend to their purposes in his writings: the superman doctrine itself is grist to their mill, as are the numerous withering remarks about degenerates, the weak and feeble, and people who are natural slaves, together with his equally outright remarks that millions of these would need to be cleared away to let one superior group of human beings flourish: “Mankind sacrificed en masse so that one single stronger species of man might thrive – that would be progress,” he wrote in one of his chief works, The Genealogy of Morals . Nietzsche was born in Saxony in 1844, the son of a mild- mannered pastor who died of “softening of the brain” when Nietzsche was five years old. As one would expect, he was a precocious child – everyone called him “the little pastor”, an ironic label given his later views – and he easily gained entry to the distinguished Schulpforta school, and later the universities of Bonn and Leipzig. While at the latter he discovered Schopenhauer’s thought, and although he later came to reject its pessimism, he was for a time enthralled by it. Even before he had completed his degree, his brilliance earned him a professorship, aged just 24, at the university of Basle. Soon after arriving in Basle, he encountered the other great influence of his life: Wagner, first his master and ideal, later his enemy. But academic life did not suit Nietzsche. His first book was regarded by the scholarly community as so bad that it was inevitable he would turn his back on it. When he did so, it was to begin a life of solitary wandering in Switzerland and Italy, writing and thinking, publishing ever more provocative, controversial and striking books, until at last he produced his masterpieces, Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Genealogy of Morals . In the first he gave a full statement of what he regarded as his greatest philosophical insight: the doctrine of “eternal recurrence”, which says that everything that happens will happen again, exactly as it happened before – and therefore one must live so that one will not mind repeating one’s life endlessly. Both Safranski and Kohler recount the pathos of the ending of Nietzsche’s sanity. Increasingly frantic, delusional and alone, he at last broke down completely when he saw a horse being maltreated in a Turin street, and threw his arms sobbing about its neck. From the thinker who in his “revaluation of all values” scorned pity as a weak emotion, it was a touching farewell to the world.· AC Grayling’s most recent book is The Meaning of Things (Weidenfeld).