A comprehensive biography of the philosopher who famously wrote that “God is dead!...And we have killed him.”
Novelist and biographer Prideaux (Strindberg: A Life, 2012, etc.) portrays the German author Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) as a writer desperately in search of an audience. His father was a Lutheran pastor, and Nietzsche believed he would become one, too. He was “unusually sensitive to music” and composed throughout his life. By the age of 12, he said, he started to “philosophise,” and he went on to become one of the youngest to receive a professorship at Basel University. Schopenhauer’s work was an early influence, but Richard Wagner, whom he first met in 1868, and his wife, Cosima—whom Nietzsche had a crush on—inspired him greatly. His closest female friend was his sister, Elisabeth. Prideaux chronicles in detail their often rocky relationship and how, after Nietzsche’s death, she rewrote his works, infusing them with her anti-Semitism, garnering Hitler’s enthusiastic approval. In 1872, Nietzsche published his first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, which Prideaux describes as an “impassioned attack on the cultural degeneration of his day.” She does a fine job of explaining how Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy developed, book after book—most self-published—while the texts grew briefer and more aphoristic. She dramatically reveals a man obsessed with writing. After finishing Twilight of the Idols, he began The Will to Power the next morning. Prideaux also describes in detail his lifelong battles with severe headaches and eye problems. Finally, there’s her sad figure of an itinerant man still writing and dejectedly carrying around with him his entire wardrobe of personal possessions. Prideaux notes that Nietzsche has appealed to an odd assortment of followers, from Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer, and James Joyce to Eugene O’Neill, Jack London, and Mussolini. What an irony, she writes, since Nietzsche “expressed his horror at the idea of having disciples.”
Although a bit dry in places, this is a rich, nuanced guide to a complex and tortured man.