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NietzscheReview - Nietzsche
A Philosophical Biography
by Rudiger Safranski
W.W. Norton & Company, 2001
Review by Costica Bradatan
Oct 24th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 43)

Those readers who will expect to come across the “true story” of Nietzsche’s life in this book will be soon disappointed. It is true, Safranski’s work is subtitled A Philosophical Biography, but in reality this only means that his book is “philosophical” and speculative to a high degree and only to a limited extent “biographical” and historical. More precisely, Safranski deals almost exclusively with those facts, events, and encounters in Nietzsche’s life that decisively transcend their strict factual importance, having instead something significant to say about his philosophy as such. And here lies, I think, one of the important merits of Safranski’s book: namely, to have pointed to some of the possible links connecting Nietzsche’s ideas to some of the circumstances of his life, to have revealed the subtle and unexpected ways in which one of the boldest and most provocative philosophies of the nineteenth century has been nourished, “tested” and eventually given (brilliant) shape, by such a tormented life as that Nietzsche lived before his mental collapse in January 1889.

Another interesting thing about Safranski’s book is, I think, the fact that it seems to be narrating Nietzsche’s “philosophical biography” somehow from within. As a result of what might be called a deep spiritual empathy (Einfühlung), Safranski succeeds in conveying the impression to the reader that his story of Nietzsche’s intellectual development is such that only an unseen eye-witness to the whole process by which Nietzsche’s philosophy was born, given shape and disseminated would have been able to tell.

Nietzsche’s “life was a testing ground for his thinking. The essay was a mode of living.” (p. 28) This is one of the central ideas around which Safranski’s book is clustered, and thanks to which the intensity and vividness of his account on Nietzsche’s life is as it were assured from the very beginning. Nietzsche had a special relationship with the act of writing. To him writing was not a current activity among many others, but played a privileged role throughout his life: “At first he simply wrote about his own life; then he wrote with all of the life force he could muster, and ultimately he wrote to stay alive.” (p. 25) For all his not very friendly attitudes to religion, writing had for him, ironically, all the marks of a liturgical gesture, which he performed properly, with all the required solemnity, commitment and self-dedication. The famous scene of inspiration he talks about in detail in Ecce Homo (chapter “Zarathustra”), to give only one example, is highly indicative of his quasi-religious approach to the act of writing. From this point of view, he would have been in complete agreement with Kafka’s (otherwise enigmatic) saying that writing is praying.

As a matter of fact, the importance he attributes to writing is only one facet of the complex relationship he bears with the realm of language. To him, language is not an external fact, merely a “social tool” to pragmatically use in communication, but language belongs to our ultimate ontological make up. Through language only we can shape and order ourselves, and it is through language that we eventually discover, if not simply “invent”, ourselves. And Nietzsche grasped this fact quite early in his development, and valued it so highly that he eventually made it one of the distinctive features of his approach to himself and to the world around: “Self-configuration through language became a passion for Nietzsche. It contoured the unique style of his philosophy, which blurred the boundaries between detection and invention. Since he considered philosophy a linguistic work of art and literature, thoughts were inextricably bound to their linguistic form. The magic of his linguistic virtuosity would suffer considerable loss if his words were to be expressed any other way.” (p. 55) This feature, again, points to a certain sacerdotal dimension of the act of writing: like within a sacred text, the words written down in the moment of inspiration cannot be changed, they belong to - and are the expression of - an “order of things” that cannot be otherwise than it is.

At the same time, this language-centered philosophy, by the emphasis it necessarily places on the play of “beautiful” appearances, by the sophisticated system of rhetorical procedures and techniques it brings about, reveals another major Nietzschean contribution: his ontologically rooted aestheticism, the notion that the fundamental question about existence - human existence included - is whether or not it is justified from an aesthetical point of view. More precisely, as he puts it in The Birth of Tragedy (§ 5): “Existence and the world are eternally justified solely as an aesthetic phenomenon.” Raised in his first philosophical writing, this is a issue that will in some way or other remain central to all his subsequent works, and serve as a hallmark of his style of philosophizing. If something exists only insofar it appears as being “beautiful” and “justified” aesthetically, then the truth itself, along with its definition, criteria, and means of “production”, is to be dramatically reconsidered: “Cognition is a power play of creative forces, a process that culminates in successful, powerful, and vital forms and ideas. Whatever holds its own in this way is called truth.” (p. 287) As it were, the knowledge is a sophisticated playful process through which certain configurations of factors, as they appear from certain perspectives, are given priority and truth value, just as others are removed or neglected. As far as the production of the philosophical discourse is concerned, a proposition becomes true when it is aesthetically irreproachable. In Safranski’s words, “[t]he beauty and strength of propositions become virtually synonymous with their truth value.” (p.180)

It should be noted at this point that there is nothing superficial or facile about this metaphysical aestheticism. On the contrary, as Nietzsche saw it, this was a very serious and dangerous concept to work with, it was a matter of life and death as it were, which conferred upon his philosophical exercise the dreadful aura of vivere periculosamente: “Unlike Schopenhauer, Nietzsche was powerfully attracted to Dionysian nature; he sought to step right up to the abyss because he envisioned even more alluring secrets there and considered himself impervious to vertigo.” (p. 50) Seen in this light, Nietzsche’s choice to become a philologist should be regarded not as, say, an attempt at gaining a secure position within the establishment of the German humanistic scholarship of the day, but as some form of sophisticated disguise, as a mask by means of which he sought to obtain what Unamuno would later call la seguridad de la consciencia: a minimal existential protection against the devastating “black despair” that looking the abyss into face brings necessarily about. As Safranski says, “[h]e had chosen philology as a means of discipline in the face of temptation by the enormous horizons of perception and artistic passions. The ‘groping hand of instinct’ had obviously not led him to travel out onto the open sea, but instead recommended that he be content with looking out onto the horizon from the shore.” (p. 43)

As such, his subsequent failure as a professional philologist was not only unavoidable, but in some way carefully “engineered”. He did nothing to prevent it; on the contrary, he did almost everything to trigger it. For example, well aware as he was that The Birth of Tragedy would not be exactly what his teachers, mentors, and colleagues were expecting from him, he proceeded however to write it: “surmising that, while it would most likely not move him ahead in his profession, it would afford him a better understanding of himself. […] Still grounded in philology, but overpowered by the will to dance, Nietzsche wrote his first masterpiece: The Birth of Tragedy.” (p. 58) Yielding to the “will to dance” is indeed a gesture whose boldness and loftiness are not, I am afraid, the most common currency within the academic world. After the book was published, Ritschl, one of his former mentors, one of those who supported him “unreservedly”, called it “witty carousing” (p. 83). Nevertheless, the most symptomatic reaction came from Ulrich Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, the all-famous classical philologist. As a matter of fact, Wilamowitz-Moellendorf functioned in a way as the mouthpiece for the entire philological establishment, as his views on The Birth of Tragedy expressed the concerns and fears of an entire generation of scholars that was then confronted with a completely new approach to the classical scholarship: “Let Mr. Nietzsche keep his words, let him take up the thyrsus and move from India to Greece, but he should step down from the podium from which he is supposed to be teaching scholarship; let him gather tigers and panthers at his knees, but not Germany’s young generation of philologists.” (p. 83)

In a letter to his doctor Otto Eiser, written in early January 1880, Nietzsche makes this terrible confession: “My existence is an awful burden - I would have dispensed with it long ago, were it not for the most illuminating tests and experiments I have been conducting in matters of mind and morality even in my state of suffering and almost absolute renunciation - the pleasure I take in my thirst for knowledge brings me to heights from which I triumph over all torment and despondency.” (p. 178) The major revelation that this passage brings forth is, I think, the fact that Nietzsche had taken his own life as a testing ground for his philosophical exercise, for all his bold ideas and dangerous speculations. Almost needless to say, such a fact is very difficult to overestimate. It is one of the most interesting enterprises ever undertaken, at least to such a scale, in the history of Western philosophy, and it is probably this particular feature, more than any others, that confers on Nietzsche’s philosophizing an unparalleled intensity, seriousness and gravity. However strange, “exotic”, peculiar or revolting his philosophy might appear to you, you cannot simply ignore or overlook it, but you have to consider it seriously. Even if one completely disagrees with Nietzsche’s answers, one cannot deny the pathos and authenticity of the questions he sought to answer through his philosophy. There is a profound sense of intellectual honesty and frankness in his enterprise, not to say anything about its unsayable heroism.

It is the letter to Nietzsche’s doctor quoted above, with its mentioning of the torments, sufferings and all the rest, that betrays one of Nietzsche’s most obsessive questions he had incessantly asked himself from the very beginning of his philosophical efforts: “How much truth can a person endure without being destroyed by it?” In more general and philosophical terms, this question is, as Safranski puts it, “whether knowledge and the will to truth are really subordinate to the ‘instinct to preserve the species’, or whether the will to truth might break free from life and even take aim against it.” (p. 236) The issue certainly belongs to the Schopenhauerean legacy, but the way in which it was reformulated by Nietzsche, the pathos and intensity he invested in it, made it almost unrecognizable. In the last instance, all what Nietzsche did throughout his writings was to grapple with this overwhelming question: “Might the will to truth aspire to become the master of life instead of its servant, even if the result is the destruction of life?” And he eventually paid with his own mind for having dared to do so.

Finally, let me also add that, although Safranski deeply empathizes with Nietzsche’s case, seeing his philosophical development “from within” and looking into its most intimate secrets with passionate understanding and dedication, he does not however omit to mention and lucidly discuss those odd parts in Nietzsche of which Alexander Nehamas once said: they are “at best incomprehensible and at worst embarrassing and better forgotten, or at least tactfully over-looked.” (Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Harvard University Press, 1985, p. vii)  Nietzsche wrote, for example: “In order to have a broad, deep, and fertile soil for artistic development, the overwhelming majority must be slavishly subjected to the necessities of life to serve a minority beyond the measure of its individual needs.” (p. 148) Most importantly, it should be immediately remarked that this was not simply an attempt at empathetically understanding the Greek polis on Nietzsche’s side, some peculiarity belonging to his views as a professional historian. No, this belonged to his opinions on the “current affairs”, and was part of his vision of an “ideal society”: “He was against shortening the length of the workday from twelve hours a day to eleven in Basel. He was a proponent of child labor, noting with approval that Basel permitted children over the age of twelve to work up to eleven hours a day.” (p. 148) On reading such passages, one cannot help thinking that, in a way, it has been better that it was Marx’s utopia that was sought to be put into practice and not Nietzsche’s.

It is this extremely revealing confession, by Lou Andreas-Salomé, Nietzsche’s muse for a short while, that I would like to conclude my (undeservedly schematic) review of Safranski’s book with: “Strange how in the course of our conversation we managed inadvertently to descend into abysses and those dizzying places people go along to gaze down into the depths. We have always chosen the mountain goat paths. If somebody had listened in on our conversation, he would have thought that two devils were talking.” (p. 254)

© 2002 Costica Bradatan

 

Costica Bradatan is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Durham (UK). His research interests include early modern philosophy, history of ideas, philosophy and literature, philosophy of religion. Bradatan is the author of two recent books (in Romanian): An Introduction to the History of Romanian Philosophy in the XX-th Century (Bucharest, 2000) and Isaac Bernstein’s Diary (Bucharest, 2001), as well as of numerous book chapters, scholarly papers, articles and reviews, published in both Romanian and English.


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