NEW YORK TIMES Editors’ Choice • THE TIMES BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR • WINNER OF THE HAWTHORNDEN PRIZE
A groundbreaking new biography of philosophy’s greatest iconoclast
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most enigmatic figures in philosophy, and his concepts—the Übermensch, the will to power, slave morality—have fundamentally reshaped our understanding of the human condition. But what do most people really know of Nietzsche—beyond the mustache, the scowl, and the lingering association with nihilism and fascism? Where do we place a thinker who was equally beloved by Albert Camus, Ayn Rand, Martin Buber, and Adolf Hitler?
Nietzsche wrote that all philosophy is autobiographical, and in this vividly compelling, myth-shattering biography, Sue Prideaux brings readers into the world of this brilliant, eccentric, and deeply troubled man, illuminating the events and people that shaped his life and work. From his placid, devoutly Christian upbringing—overshadowed by the mysterious death of his father—through his teaching career, lonely philosophizing on high mountains, and heart-breaking descent into madness, Prideaux documents Nietzsche’s intellectual and emotional life with a novelist’s insight and sensitivity.
She also produces unforgettable portraits of the people who were most important to him, including Richard and Cosima Wagner, Lou Salomé, the femme fatale who broke his heart; and his sister Elizabeth, a rabid German nationalist and anti-Semite who manipulated his texts and turned the Nietzsche archive into a destination for Nazi ideologues.
I Am Dynamite! is the essential biography for anyone seeking to understand history's most misunderstood philosopher.
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About the Author
Sue Prideaux is a novelist and biographer. Her books include Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and Strindberg: A Life, which received the Duff Cooper Prize and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
Read an Excerpt
On November 9, 1868, the twenty-four-year-old Nietzsche recounted a comedy to Erwin Rohde, his friend and fellow-student at Leipzig University.
“The acts,” he wrote, “in my comedy are headed:
1. An evening meeting of the society, or the sub professor.
2. The Ejected Tailor.
3. A rendezvous with X.
“The cast includes a few old women.
“On Thursday evening Romundt took me to the theatre, for which my feelings are growing very cool . . . we sat in the gods like enthroned Olympians sitting in judgement on a potboiler called Graf Essex. Naturally I grumbled at my abductor . . .
“The first Classical Society lecture of the semester had been arranged for the following evening and I had been very courteously asked if I would take this on. I needed to lay in a stock of academic weapons but soon I had prepared myself, and I had the pleasure to find, on entering the room at Zaspel’s, a black mass of forty listeners . . . I spoke quite freely, helped only by notes on a slip of paper . . . I think it will be all right, this academic career. When I arrived home I found a note addressed to me, with the few words: ‘If you want to meet Richard Wagner, come at 3:45 p.m. to the Café Théâtre. Windisch.’
“This surprise put my mind in somewhat of a whirl . . . naturally I ran out to find our honorable friend Windisch, who gave me more information. Wagner was strictly incognito in Leipzig. The Press knew nothing and the servants had been instructed to stay as quiet as liveried graves. Now, Wagner’s sister, Frau Professor Brockhaus, that intelligent woman whom we both know, had introduced her good friend, Frau Professor Ritschl to her brother. In Frau Ritschl’s presence, Wagner plays the Meisterlied [Walther’s Prize Song from Wagner’s most recent opera, Die Meistersinger, premiered a few months earlier] and the good woman tells him that this song is al- ready well known to her. [She had already heard it played and sung by Nietzsche, though its musical score had been published only very recently.] Joy and amazement on Wagner’s part! Announces his supreme will, to meet me incognito; I am to be invited for Sunday evening . . .
“During the intervening days my mood was like something in a novel: believe me, the preliminaries to this acquaintance, considering how unapproachable this eccentric man is, verged on the realm of fairy tale. Thinking there were many people to be invited, I decided to dress very smartly, and was glad that my tailor had promised my new evening suit for that very Sunday. It was a terrible day of rain and snow. I shuddered at the thought of going out, and so I was content when Roscher visited me in the afternoon to tell me a few things about the Eleatics [an early Greek philosophical school, probably sixth-century BC] and about God in philosophy. Eventually the day was darkening, the tailor had not come and it was time for Roscher to leave. I accompanied him so as to continue to visit the tailor in person. There I found his slaves hectically occupied with my suit; they promised to send it in three-quarters of an hour. I left contentedly, dropped in at Kintschy’s [a Leipzig restaurant much frequented by students] and read Kladderadatsch [a satirical illustrated magazine] and found to my pleasure a notice that Wagner was in
Switzerland. All the time I knew that I would see him that same evening. I also knew that he had yesterday received a letter from the little king [Ludwig II of Bavaria] bearing the address: ‘To the great German composer Richard Wagner.’
“At home I found no tailor. Read in a leisurely fashion the dissertation on the Eudocia, and was disturbed now and then by a loud but distant ringing. Finally I grew certain that somebody was waiting at the patriarchal wrought-iron gate; it was locked, and so was the front door of the house. I shouted across the garden to the man and told him to come in by the back. It was impossible to make oneself understood through the rain. The whole house was astir. Finally, the gate was opened and a little old man with a package came up to my room. It was six thirty, time to put on my things and get myself ready, for I live rather far out. The man has my things. I try them on; they t. An ominous moment: he presents the bill. I take it politely; he wants to be paid on receipt of the goods. I am amazed and explain that I will not deal with him, an employee, but only with the tailor himself. The man presses. Time presses. I seize the things and begin to put them on. He seizes the things, stops me from put- ting them on—force from my side; force from his side. Scene: I am fighting in my shirttails, endeavouring to put on my new trousers.
“A show of dignity, a solemn threat. Cursing my tailor and his assistant, I swear revenge. Meanwhile he is moving off with my things. End of second Act. I brood on my sofa in my shirttails and consider black velvet, whether it is good enough for Richard.
“Outside the rain is pouring down. A quarter to eight. At seven thirty we are to meet in the Café Théâtre. I rush out into the windy, wet night, a little man in black without a dinner jacket.
“We enter the very comfortable drawing room of the Brockhauses; nobody is there apart from the family circle, Richard and the two of us. I am introduced to Richard and address him in a few respectful words. He wants to know exact details of how I became familiar with his music, curses all performances of his operas and makes fun of the conductors who call to their orchestras in a bland voice; ‘Gentlemen, make it passionate here. My good fellows, a little more passionate!’ . . .
“Before and after dinner, Wagner played all the important parts of the Meistersinger, imitating each voice and with great exuberance. He is indeed a fabulously lively and fiery man, who speaks very rapidly, is very witty and makes a very private party like this one an extremely gay affair. In between, I had a longish conversation with him about Schopenhauer; you will understand how much I enjoyed hearing him speak of Schopenhauer with indescribable warmth, what he owed to him, how he is the only philosopher who has understood the essence of music.”
Schopenhauer’s writings were at that time little known and less valued. Universities were highly reluctant to recognize him as a philosopher at all, but Nietzsche was swept up in a whirlwind enthusiasm for Schopenhauer, having recently discovered The World as Will and Representation by chance, the same chance or, as he preferred to put it, the same chain of fateful coincidences seemingly arranged by the unerring hand of destiny that had led up to this meeting with Wagner in the Brockhauses’ salon.
The first link in the chain had been forged a month before the meeting, when Nietzsche heard the preludes to Wagner’s two latest operas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. “Every fiber, every nerve in my body quivered,” he wrote the same day, and he set himself to learning the piano arrangements. Next, Ottilie Brockhaus had heard him play and relayed the news to her brother Wagner. Now the third link: Wagner’s deep attachment to the obscure philosopher whose writings had been Nietzsche’s com- fort when he had first arrived in Leipzig, rootless and unhappy, three years previously.
“I [Nietzsche] lived then in a state of helpless indecision, alone with certain painful experiences and disappointments, without fundamental principles, without hope and without a single pleas- ant memory . . . One day I found this book in a second-hand book- shop, picked it up as something quite unknown to me and turned the pages. I do not know what demon whispered to me ‘Take this book home with you.’ It was contrary to my usual practice of hesitating over the purchase of books. Once at home, I threw myself onto the sofa with the newly-won treasure and began to let that energetic and gloomy genius operate upon me . . . Here I saw a mirror in which I beheld the world, life and my own nature in a terrifying grandeur . . . here I saw sickness and health, exile and refuge, Hell and Heaven.”
But there was no time, that evening in the Brockhauses’ salon, to speak further of Schopenhauer, for what Nietzsche described as Wagner’s spirals of language, his genius for shaping clouds, his whirling, hurling and twirling through the air, his everywhere and nowhere, were hurtling on.
The letter continues:
“After [dinner] he [Wagner] read an extract from his autobiography which he is now writing, an utterly delightful scene from his Leipzig student days, of which he still cannot think without laughing; he writes too with extraordinary skill and intelligence. Finally, when we were both getting ready to leave, he warmly shook my hand and invited me with great friendliness to visit him, in order to make music and talk philosophy; also, he entrusted to me the task of familiarising his sister and his kinsmen with his music, which I have now solemnly undertaken to do. You will hear more when I can see this evening somewhat more objectively and from a distance. For today, a warm farewell and best wishes for your health. F.N.”