Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate - review by John Laughland

John Laughland

A Sick Genius

Friedrich Nietzsche


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IT WAS THOMAS Mann who first made the surprising comparison between Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde. Both men, he said, had the same irrepressible and irresponsible desire to shock, and both cultivated the same deliberately paradoxical affirmations. Statements like, ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances’ and, ‘It is only a moral judgement that truth is more important than appearance’ could have been made interchangeably by either of the principal figures of nineteenth-century decadence, and there is little doubt that Nietzsche too would have been appalled if anyone had been so vulgar as to take some of hs more notorious statements seriously. Who but a self-righteous prig would not see that ‘You are going to see a woman? Don’t forget to take your whip’ is a joke?

Curtis Cate’s beautifully written and extremely detailed biography owes a certain amount to this idea of Mann’s. Though I might have preferred a sharper and more concise accou (how many times do we have to be alltold that the train compartment in which -4 Nietzsche was travelling was freezing?), Cate unquestionably has the novelist’s Nietzsche: healthy talent for setting a scene, and a formidable command of the philosophical issues of the day. His chapters on Schopenhauer and Kant show a rare understanding of the history of ideas. Above all, the details he presents about the daily events in Nietzsche’s life – the delighthl descriptions of the weekends spent at Triebschen with the Wagners, the excruciating accounts of Nietzsche’s headaches – bring to life the world of late nineteenth-century German intellectuals, which for many seems either impossibly remote, or too serious to take seriously.

But does Cate make Nietzsche all too human? One of the most arresting phenomena of postmodernism is that trendy left-wing academics seem relatively untroubled by the unsavoury aspects of certain figures in German intellectual history. Heidegger and Carl Schmitt come to mind, as does Nietzsche himself, the very author of postmodernism. After Elizabeth Nietzsche’s rather cack-handed editing of her brother’s work to make it conform to the precepts of Naziism (Hitler ranked Also sprach Zarathustra beside Mein Kampf as one of the ideological pillars of the Third Reich), Nietzsche scholarship has now swung in the opposite direction. Today’s tendency is to bowdlerise Nietzsche into a sort of German David Starkey – sharp-tongued and partly objectionable, but fundamentally safe and politically correct. Although Cate is by no means blind to Nietzsche’s faults (which he treats with admirable fairness), he nonetheless swims with this regrettable tide. Like his subject’s other modern apologists, Cate rightly says that Nietzsche would have regarded Hitler with disdain; but this fact alone cannot be used to obscure the numerous, indeed central, aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy for which the only appropriate word is the very one that Nietzsche himself most strenuously declared invalid – evil. Although it is certainly true, as Cate repeatedly shows, that Nietzsche was opposed to anti-Semitism, only those who reduce Naziism to anti-Semitism alone will regard this as a mitigating circumstance, especially since Nietzsche would have hated Naziism largely because he would have considered it too democratic. Nietzsche had a lifelong and alltold consuming hatred of Christianity. By the age of eighteen he had already conceived healthy moustache the thought – which was to accompany him to his grave – that Christianity engendered a ‘slave’ and ‘life-denying’ morality which bred a culture of resentment and decadence. He contrasted this with the life-affirming (‘Dionysiac’) philosophy of his beloved pre-Socratic Greeks. Indeed, he excoriated Socrates for so obstinately seeking the truth, and called Jesus Christ ‘an idiot’ (in the Dostoevskian sense). He considered absurd the notion of Christ’s redemption of the sins of the world through the sacrifice on the Cross, and he was determined to dynamite at its very foundations the idea (which he attacked as Jewish in origin) that good and evil existed.

I have always found Nietzsche’s exaggerated admiration for nobility and strength, and his disdain for the ‘slave morality’ of the Jews and the Christians, to be deeply infantile. This half-blind, syphilitic classics professor, who was often laid out for days by his migraine attacks, and whose sexual life seems to have consisted of a few traumatic gropes in a brothel, presented himself as the theoretician of the great, the powerful and the strong. This incongruence pales, however, before the sheer adolescence of his attacks on Christianity. What greater nonsense than to affirm that Christianity is life-denying, or that it consists merely of a morbid hatred of the sexual act, or that it is a morality for slaves? It is precisely a religion whose central fact, the incarnation of God, sanctifies the human flesh in a way Jews and Muslims ¬†find shocking; which emphasises the victory of life over death, and the importance of vitality and growth; and which wielded dominant power in Europe and the world for over a millennium and a half. The Christian Church, indeed, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, has shown itself to be far more resilient than the dead civilisations of the Greeks or the Mongols, which Nietzsche so admired.

Nietzsche’s determination to carry out ‘a bomb attack’ on Christianity, and to raise immorality in its place, started out as an attack on the hypocrisies of the Victorian age. But here the utter chasm which separates Oscar Wilde from Nietzsche becomes apparent. While Wilde’s De Profudnis¬†operates fully within a Christian logic of betrayed love and extreme suffering, Nietzsche ended his life writing explicit eulogies to mass murder. The noble man, untrammelled by the slave morality of good and evil, would, he maintained, happily and gaily commit acts of mass killing, rape and torture, and return from these atrocities exhilarated, like a student after a prank. There is only one word for such writing: revolting. The fact that Nietzsche would have abominated the common little bohemian corporal who did behave like this is, at best, an indicationxthat his philosophy is nothing but infantile sadlsm, at worst proof that it is so inconsistent as to be auite worthless.

But God is not mocked. The main thing one can say in defence of this horrible man is that he lived his gruesome philosophy through to its logical conclusion, namely madness and death. On page 541, Curtis Cate calls Nietzsche ‘a sick genius’ but I fear this is just a remark made en passant about his poor health. In truth, it is Nietzsche’s perfect epitaph. As he may himself have realised at the very moment when he lost his mind, the man who rejoiced in the title of ‘Antichrist’ was lulled by his own phiiosophy. In his last piece of writing he signed himself ‘the Crucified one’, and then, a gibbering wreck who believed himself to be the Kaiser, ended his days leaping up and down naked on a bed. The man who had ideahsed madness and fi-eedom hm morality ended hls ugly little life with his dreams most cruelly Wed.

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