Sue Prideaux I Am Dynamite: A Life of Nietzsche (Faber & Faber)
By Nicolas Hausdorf
Biographies of philosophers are a cause for suspicion. Are they not attempts to dispel the mystique of the thinker, whose bread and butter is ambiguity, style and allusion to continuously inspire exegesis? Rarely does the biographical endeavour escape the pull of the Freudian century – of reducing the person to the psychological-affective dimension, and thus to the nether domain of saucy sexual gossip and childhood trauma.
Friedrich Nietzsche, who constantly spoke of being inescapably ‘enchained‘ to his despised sister and mother, would have certainly hated this. Admittedly, he‘s had it coming: in anticipating Freudian disillusionment by ruthlessly disenchanting Christian virtue as originating in slave morality and perceiving the work of philosophy as ‘a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’, he perhaps deserves the staggering number of biographical studies written about him – some of which subjected him to careless associations with Nazism and humiliated him by parading his irregular sexuality.
Sue Prideaux’ biography I Am Dynamite, while perhaps not contributing any novelty to the genre, at least seems inoculated against this kind of indecency. We sense that the English novelist and biographer who has previously written on two artists influenced by Nietzsche, August Strindberg and Edvard Munch, maintains a more respectful and cautious distance to her subject and spares the reader excess psychologisation.
Instead we get an impression of gentle innuendo, colourful eloquence and light-hearted perspective. In 22 chapters, readers are familiarised with the political and cultural environment influencing the philosopher. There‘s the quaint upbringing in idyllic Saxony, at the time a Prussian province of the pre-imperial German Confederation; followed by the austerity of the education regime he underwent at Pforta, a prestigious school inspired by classical virtue (at the time du jour in Germany). Prideaux provides a panorama of Nietzsche‘s spiritual antecedents, contemporaries and determinants from Humboldt to Kant, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Hölderlin, all introduced with brevity and clarity.
Readers become acquainted with Nietzsche as a premature, awkward and promising student who alternated between bouts of strong-willed eccentricity, episodes of ill health and strict work ethic. At only 25, the talented Nietzsche, still a student, receives the chair of professor of philology at the University of Swiss Basle. It is also the time, where he visits and immediately befriends the composer Richard Wagner, a major intellectual influence twice his age and already of worldwide fame and pronounced material ease due to generous patronage by the Bavarian Prince Ludwig I. Stylistically, one senses that Wagner at this point stands in to provide a flamboyant aspect to Nietzsche‘s biography. The young philosopher is drab, unfinished and caught in between modest work at the institutions and first intellectual milestones which fail to secure him the position as a recognised or financially secure philosopher. He contrasts sharply with Richard and Cosima Wagner‘s opulent interiors, exotic floral arrangements, preferences for silk and velvet, Schopenhauerian terms of endearment before transcendental Swiss landscapes.
Famously, the friendship doesnt last. Wagner‘s skyrocketing fame, increasingly fervent nationalism bodes ill with Nietzsche who despises German pedantry, fails to achieve sufficient sales and remains mired in controversy. Prideaux also describes another pronounced determinant in Nietzsche‘s life: His impressive list of accumulating physical ills:
‘Nietzsche was suffering from wrecked bowels, jaundice, insomnia, vomiting, haemorrhoids, a constant taste of blood in his mouth (…)‘
Ill health increasingly prevents him from working at the university thus cutting him off from financial security, constraining him to permanent European nomadism in the search for pleasant climates. In Rome, he encounters Lou Salomé, a Russian aristocratic femme fatale and intellectual It-girl. Prideaux attributes significant influence to Salomé on an enchanted and often maladroit Nietzsche whose marriage proposals are rejected more than once. Comparison of Nietsche with the urbane Salomé accentuates the impression of the tragedy of a figure, adored by loyal followers but ignored by the many, writing on against the zeitgeist, despite poor sales and increasingly violent physical ailments including a continuously deteriorating eyesight. There are memorable and counterintuitive descriptions that contrast with his dashing and polemic writing: Nietzsche as the European gentleman of soft voice and good manners, helpless but kind with women, wearing a green visor and green or blue spectacles to protect his tortured eyes from bright lights.
Prideaux in the process manages to always remain lighthearted and entertaining, aware of the grotesque while abstaining from cruelty. While she shies away from an in-depth examination of Nietzsche‘s philosophy, this does not strike as particularly detrimental as it is hard to adequately match the vitality of the thinker‘s bombastic, provocative and contradictory tracts. In the best moments of ‘I am Dynamite’, Nietzsche‘s metaphysical splendour still manifests. In my favourite chapter ‘Twilight in Turin’, the philosopher experiences a prolonged manic episode while producing ‘Ecce Homo‘, exerting unprecedented charisma and authority over everyone he encounters. Prideaux produces a series of his triumphant, self-assured, insulting and hillarious letters to his peers. A part of me wished the book had ended here and not continued on to Nietzsche‘s sad and extinct ending as a passive and ill subject under the care of his Macchiavelian sister Elisabeth.
Perhaps, it is here that we again encounter the limits of the genre. As readers, we are inevitably drawn to the idea of Nietzsche’s work as mere product of mania, his eccentricities as tantrums of a sexually frustrated madman. But reading Nietzsche has always been about surging unexpectedly and manically against systems and certainties, about transcendental maybes and metaphysical explosives in unexpected places. Forcing Nietzsche into the corsett of biography, even a good one, we are certain to gain in perspective, comprehension and clarity. Ironically for moderns, we risk losing a God.