HAS EVER THE DISCREPANCY between a man’s thought and person been greater than in Friedrich Nietzsche? The high-altitude prophet of the Übermensch, the walrus-mustachioed eulogist of God, the trumpeter of eternal return was, in person, kind, courteous, and impeccably well mannered. At a pension in Nice, he was affectionately known as the “dear, half-blind professor.” Julius Paneth, a Viennese zoologist, described him as “very simple and natural […] he bore no trace of pomposity or prophetic bearing.” When the feminist intellectual Lou Andreas-Salomé first met him, she found him entirely unremarkable: a man of medium height, simply but carefully clothed, with plain, brown hair and a large mustache. He spoke and even laughed softly, bending his shoulders slightly. Still, there was something about the man that set him apart. “One could only with difficulty imagine this figure within a crowd,” she wrote. “He gave the impression of standing aside, of standing alone.”

This was, as Stefan Zweig wrote, the tragedy of Nietzsche’s life: that it was a one-man show, a monodrama “wherein no other actor entered upon the stage.” The deeper and more demanding Nietzsche’s thinking became, the more his readership dwindled in size. The Birth of Tragedy (1872), his first book, sold 625 copies in six years; the three parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published between 1883 and 1885, sold fewer than a hundred copies each. Not until it was too late did his works finally reach a few decisive ears, including Edvard Munch, August Strindberg, and the Danish-Jewish critic Georg Brandes, whose lectures at the University of Copenhagen first introduced Nietzsche’s philosophy to a wider audience. By then, Nietzsche’s descent into madness had already begun. In his final letter to Brandes, he signed himself: “The Crucified.”

As we learn from Sue Prideaux’s masterful new biography, I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche, the German thinker’s solitude was partly forced on him by his debilitating health. Insomnia, jaundice, vomiting, hemorrhoids, blindness, crippling headaches, wrecked bowels, chronic exhaustion — I Am Dynamite! sometimes reads like a calamitous medical record. Yet in spite of his deteriorating health and accelerating insanity, Friedrich Nietzsche somehow managed to drag himself and his trunk of books over the mountains of Europe, writing in short bursts of intense self-discipline the philosophical texts for which he is now known. “He ranged like Promotheus over the high places,” Prideaux writes, “but his ascent always had to stop short of the greatest heights, where the bright light of the eternal snows pierced his eyes like bared swords, as he noted down his thoughts toward the next book.”

What sets Prideaux’s biography apart from previous accounts of Nietzsche’s life is its vibrant intimacy. Eschewing philosophical rigorousness for human proximity, Prideaux quite simply gets closer to Nietzsche than anyone before her. The Zarathustrian mask falls away and the vulnerable human is bared. We are permitted to see how his ideas, his style, grew from the feeble timber of his physical being. Nietzsche recognized this essential relationship, of course. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes that philosophy is “a confession on the part of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” Nietzsche wanted his readers to know this also, to see through the prejudice of philosophers, his own included. “You had not yet sought yourselves: and you found me,” Zarathustra says to his disciples. “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves.”

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Nietzsche was born in 1844 in Röcken, 15 miles south of Leipzig in the eastern German state of Saxony. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, a local pastor and former court tutor, was a meticulous man and gifted pianist admired for his Bach recitals. But he suffered from a mysterious nervous disorder that increasingly affected both his eyesight and his power of speech. He died in 1849, just 35 years old. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche described him as “delicate, lovable and morbid, like a being destined to pay this world only a passing visit.” He noted, too, that the age of his father’s death was the same age at which he began to suffer himself. As Prideaux explains, interest in the cause of Karl Ludwig’s death has for this reason been considerable, though the exact nature of the degenerative brain disease he suffered from is not known.

Nietzsche was expected to follow in his father’s pastoral footsteps, and during his school years there was no reason to suggest he wouldn’t. He attended Schulpforta — “the foremost classical school in the German Bund” — and there distinguished himself as a student and musician, singing in the school choir and dazzling his peers with his improvisations on the piano. He excelled in Greek and Latin, and in his final year wrote a philological paper in Latin on the Greek poet Theognis of Megara that was considered exceptionally brilliant. When he graduated in 1864, he was said to have been “the most gifted pupil that Pforta has ever had.”

Nietzsche’s work ethic was impressive, given the growing catalog of physical afflictions he had to endure. On at least 20 occasions during his time at Pforta he was admitted to the sick ward where, Prideaux writes, his various headaches and stomach pains were treated with leeches “fastened to his earlobes to suck blood from his head.” He was put to bed in darkened rooms, wore smoked glasses to shield his eyes from the daylight, and was predicted by the school doctor to one day suffer total blindness. “At every age of my life,” Nietzsche later wrote, “suffering, monstrous suffering, was my lot.”

After Pforta there followed two semesters at the University of Bonn, where Nietzsche joined a student fraternity, Franconia, whose members were known to frequent the brothels of Cologne. It was during this time that, as legend stubbornly has it, Nietzsche contracted syphilis, the alleged cause of his mental breakdown. When he was first admitted to an asylum, in 1889, he told the doctors that he’d “infected himself twice,” though as Prideaux observes, he was probably referring to gonorrhea, not syphilis: “Had they looked at his medical records, they would have discovered that he had gonorrhea twice, a fact he admitted to doctors while still in his right mind.”

In 1865, Nietzsche left Bonn for Leipzig University, where he founded the Classical Society and began giving well-attended talks on philology, a dry subject he brought to zesty life. Four years later, the University of Basel in Switzerland offered him the post of Professor of Classical Philology, a remarkable achievement for a 24-year-old. But even as he accepted it, Nietzsche knew it was not a profession to which he was entirely suited. “I would like to be something more than a drillmaster for competent philologists,” he wrote to his friend Carl von Gersdorff. “To permeate my discipline with this new blood, to transmit to my listeners that Schopenhauerian seriousness which is stamped upon the brows of the sublime man, this is my wish, my daring hope.” To Erwin Rohde, a friend from his Leipzig days, he wrote: “I am gradually habituating myself to being a philosopher.”

The single most important event of Nietzsche’s tenure as a professor was his friendship with Richard Wagner, at the time Europe’s most celebrated composer. They had first met in November 1868 at the home of Wagner’s sister, where they had a long conversation about Schopenhauer, whom they both admired. Then in his mid-50s, the German composer was living in Tribschen with his second wife, Cosima, just 50 miles south of Basel. He invited the young philologist to come visit them. “During the course of the next three years,” Prideaux writes, “[Nietzsche] would visit Tribschen twenty-three times.” It was, he later admitted, the happiest time of his life.

But all the impassioned conversations and happy domesticity could not conceal the principal differences between them. Wagner was an antisemite, a Francophobe, and a German nationalist. “I am the most German person,” he wrote in his diary, “I am the German spirit.” Nietzsche, on the other hand, was “a bad German, but a good European,” as he himself put it. His experiences as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War anaesthetized him to the supposed virtues of Prussian military might. Tending to the thousands of wounded scattered across the battlefields of Wörth, Hagenau, and Nancy, Nietzsche was repulsed by what he saw. He feared the bellicose nationalist mood would triumph over culture and intellect. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles was, I fear, the end of German philosophy,” he wrote in The Twilight of Idols. Indeed, he gave up his Prussian citizenship in order to teach at Basel so he wouldn’t risk being called up for military service. For the rest of his life, he remained stateless.

A nascent trend in the Second German Reich that Nietzsche especially abhorred was antisemitism. It was an essential part of German nationalism in the 19th century and widely espoused by influential historians like Heinrich Treitschke and Friedrich Rühs. (Rühs once suggested that Jews ought to wear a yellow patch on their dress to better identify them.) Ever the individualist, Nietzsche recognized antisemitism as a trope of the herd animal, of the intellectually lazy German for whom he had so much contempt. “[It] would perhaps be a good idea,” he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “to eject the anti-Semitic ranters from the country.” In 1889, when he had already gone insane, he wrote to his friend Franz Overbeck: “I am just having all anti-Semites shot…”

The awful irony of Nietzsche’s anti-nationalism and good-Europeanism is that his sister, Elisabeth, ended up marrying Bernhard Förster, an antisemitic crackpot who in 1883 immigrated to Paraguay and founded Nueva Germania, a racially pure German colony. He was, Sue Prideaux writes, “a fanatical proselytizer for open-air hiking, vegetarianism, the health-giving properties of gymnastics, and the abolition of alcohol and vivisection.” (Why are fascists always teetotalers?) Nietzsche thought him monomaniacal and intellectually mediocre. How was he going to start a colony in the jungle if he didn’t eat meat? he teasingly asked his sister. When Elisabeth and Bernhard sent him money one year for Christmas, he cheerfully informed them he’d been so happy he immediately found a cafe and drank “three very large glasses of a sweet local wine and got a bitzeli drunk.” When he learned that Bernhard Förster’s nickname for Elisabeth was “Eli,” he sarcastically remarked to her that Eli means God in Hebrew.

Still, Nietzsche loved his sister dearly. He knew Elisabeth was “an intelligent female and he treated her as such.” When he was still a student, he had attempted to encourage her independence of thought. He showed her the process by which he himself had begun to question his faith. “If we had believed since youth that all salvation came not from Jesus but from another — say, from Mohammed — is it not certain that we would have enjoyed the same blessings?” he asked. He wanted to show her how believers deduce from their own inner experience the infallibility of their faith: “Every true faith is indeed infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth.” Not that he sugarcoated the alternatives either. “If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, then have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”

He wasn’t kidding: Nietzsche’s own search for the truth never once gave him either happiness or peace of mind. During his time as a medical orderly, he had fallen dangerously ill and was diagnosed with both dysentery and diphtheria. “He was treated with silver nitrate, opium, and tannic acid enemas,” Prideaux writes, “the normal treatment of the time, the effect of which was to ruin the patient’s intestines for life.” In the years to come, his health only deteriorated further. He began to rely on friends to help him read, engaged Elisabeth to help keep house for him, and in 1876–’77 took a year’s leave of absence from the University of Basel. In 1879, he finally resigned. He sold his possessions, entrusted his financial affairs to his friend Franz Overbeck, and like Zarathustra himself “went into the mountains” to enjoy his spirit and solitude. “I live as if the centuries were nothing,” he wrote to a friend, “and I pursue my thoughts without thinking of the date and of the newspapers.”

For the 10 years of sane life he had left, the stateless Nietzsche was in a near-constant state of nomadic wandering. He had no luck in love, only very few friends, and virtually no readers. His headaches and vomiting sometimes kept him incapacitated for as many as 30 days straight. He couldn’t eat or sleep, and increasingly relied on powders of chloral hydrate to relieve his insomnia. But incorrect doses of this drug, Prideaux notes, produced “nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, confusion, convulsions, breathing and heart irregularities: all the symptoms, in fact, that Nietzsche was taking it to relieve.”

And yet he only seemed to become more prolific, more ambitious. He boldly took it upon himself to reevaluate all of Western philosophy, to think through the moral and religious prejudice that has kept us from seeking the truth — or, perhaps, kept the truth hidden from us. For Nietzsche believed that Western philosophy from the time of Socrates on had been an enormous misunderstanding, an epic blunder. Centuries of Christian morality had led to the current crisis of decadence and nihilism by teaching us to combat our instincts and exterminate our passions. Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche believed life was dominated by irrational impulses and animal desires, by a blind, ceaseless will to live. But where Schopenhauer could see only meaninglessness and suffering, and thus resigned himself to pessimism, Nietzsche affirmed the will to live. “We others, we immoralists,” he wrote, “have on the contrary opened wide our hearts to every kind of understanding, comprehension, approval. We do not readily deny, we seek our honor in affirming.”

For Nietzsche, nihilism is not a belief in nothing, but a refusal to believe in what is. Christianity, by redirecting our gaze away from our animal existence toward some illusory divine harmony, was therefore nihilistic, hostile to life:

Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life; it has depraved the reason even of the intellectually strongest natures by teaching men to feel the supreme values of intellectuality as sinful, as misleading, as temptations.

What is still thrilling about Nietzsche’s agon with God and Christianity is the fact that he was not a disinterested party. He knew that God’s death was not a deliverance into serene, rational light but a profoundly disruptive and disorienting experience that would make great demands of humanity. He valued strength, will, courage, and power because he knew the task that lay ahead was a serious one. “Christianity is a system,” he writes in Twilight of the Idols, “a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.” As a result of God’s death, all of morality will have to be dismantled, razed to the ground. Nothing less than a revaluation of all values is required.

This is where many of Nietzsche’s readers, I imagine, begin to fidget and shift a little in their seats, looking around for an excuse not to go on reading. For his attempts at filling the void left by God, his affirmation of life and the will to live, his theory of eternal recurrence and deification of the individual free spirit (the Übermensch), can often sound hyperbolic, self-aggrandizing, or simply insane. Nietzsche thought so himself. “He who knows how to breathe the air of my writings knows that it is an air of the heights, a robust air,” he writes in Ecce Homo. “One has to be made for it, otherwise there is no small danger one will catch cold.”

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In his engaging new memoir-essay, Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, the American philosopher John Kaag makes an impassioned effort to breathe that air, to scale those forbidding heights and peer into the post-Christian abyss. He takes seriously Nietzsche’s claim that in order understand him “one must be accustomed to living on mountains.”

Kaag’s book opens with an account of a journey he made as a 19-year-old philosophy student to Sils-Maria in Switzerland, where he spent several weeks hiking the same terrain Nietzsche knew so well: Splügen, Piz Corvatsch, Val Fex, the Julier Pass. Kaag stays overnight at the same boardinghouse where the German philosopher summered in the 1880s. He hikes for up to 15 hours a day, a copy of Nietzsche’s writings always at hand. On one occasion, he spends a cold night camping in the mountains, alone in the utter blackness. The temperature plunged so low frostbite left a permanent scar on his earlobe.

“Thirty-one days dilated, compressed, and slipped away,” Kaag recalls. “I stopped eating and sleeping. My hair grew shaggy and my pants loose.” His mother tells him he sounds “a little off” on the phone. Alone with Nietzsche’s writings, he comes close to suicide, lulled into a sense of vertigo by the peaks, gorges, and chasms all around him. He recalls Nietzsche’s words from Beyond Good and Evil: “And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” In the end, fortunately, he chickens out, as he puts it. On his last evening in Sils-Maria he breaks down, goes to a grand old hotel nearby, and splurges on a sumptuous six-course dinner.

Almost two decades later, Kaag returns to Sils-Maria with his wife, the Kantian philosopher Carol Hay, and their three-year-old daughter. In the intervening years, Kaag has become a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, written a highly regarded book on American transcendental philosophy, and largely left his youthful Zarathustrian mania behind. But when he starts teaching a seminar on Nietzsche, the old demons begin to stir: “[O]n quiet nights, after a day of teaching Nietzsche, the high peaks once again began to beckon.” At his wife’s suggestion, the little family makes the trip to Switzerland together.

Kaag’s account of his return to Sils-Maria and of his reunion with the philosophical idol of his youth is an engrossing one. Now closer to middle age than his teenage years, he realizes that Nietzsche’s writings are actually “uniquely fitted” for adulthood. “Nietzsche’s philosophy is sometimes pooh-poohed as juvenile — the product of a megalomaniac that is perhaps well suited to the self-absorption and naïveté of the teenage years,” he writes. But Nietzsche’s task was “wakefulness itself,” as he put it, and when do we need that most urgently if not when we have begun to settle down? “At nineteen, on the summit of Corvatsch, I had no idea how dull the world could sometimes be,” Kaag writes. “How easy it would be to remain in the valleys, to be satisfied with mediocrity. Or how difficult it would be to stay alert to life. At thirty-six, I am just now beginning to understand.”

Hiking with Nietzsche serves as a straightforward and even practical introduction to the German philosopher’s writings, and makes a convincing case for why they continue to matter. Even readers not necessarily tempted to descend into the Nietzschean abyss will surely find Kaag’s exploration of selfhood, decadence, companionship, and physical duress both invigorating and thought-provoking. Contrary to the how-to-live-your-life genre, and in keeping with Nietzsche’s explosive and discomforting ideas, Kaag manages to ask all the right questions without irritably reaching for any palliative answers or solutions. Reflecting on Nietzsche’s beloved aphorism, become what you are, Kaag remarks:

The enduring nature of being human is to turn into something else, which should not be confused with going somewhere else. This may come as a great disappointment to one who goes in search of the self. What one is, essentially, is this active transformation, nothing more, nothing less. This is not a grand wisdom quest or hero’s journey, and it doesn’t require one to escape to the mountains.

Above all, Kaag’s portrait of Nietzsche, like Sue Prideaux’s, is a deeply moving one. Walking in his footsteps, he shows us the heights to which Nietzsche rose and the depths to which he sank, the sacrifices he made and the suffering he endured. “He continued to want, and now imagine, more than he could ever have,” Kaag writes in what is perhaps the most insightful and devastating observation in this elegant, incisive book.

The importance of these intimate, deeply human portraits of Nietzsche cannot be overstated. The identification of his thought with fascism and Nazism endures. After his storied breakdown in Turin in 1889, Nietzsche remained a mental invalid until his death in 1900. For most of those years, he was left in the care of his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, fresh from her Aryan debacle in Paraguay where, after their colony had predictably been splintered by disagreements and fraud, her husband had taken his life. For the next four decades, Elisabeth tried to shape and control her brother’s posthumous legacy in a way that suited her racist and nationalist sympathies. In her own writings during World War I, she encouraged the cruelest misinterpretations of Nietzsche’s thought, portraying him as a conservative, militant patriot. Later still, Elisabeth happily allowed National Socialists to join her in the Nietzsche archive and aid in preparing his texts for new editions. Among them was the philosopher Alfred Bäumler, who helped orchestrate the book burnings in Berlin’s Opera Square in May 1933. Adolf Hitler, too, was a guest of the Nietzsche archive. In 1933, incredibly, Elisabeth presented him with Nietzsche’s walking stick.

The philosophical sanitation of Nietzsche’s ideas undertaken by Walter Kaufmann from the 1950s on is not yet complete. Deliberate misinterpretations are still with us. We need only look to the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in whose recent book Enlightenment Now Nietzsche is portrayed as a philosophical monster. “Nietzsche argued that it’s good to be a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath,” Pinker writes. Cherry-picking quotes from prejudicially scanned writings, he attempts to show that Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi: “The connections between Nietzsche’s ideas and the megadeath movements of the 20th century are obvious enough: a glorification of violence and power, an eagerness to raze the institutions of liberal democracy, a contempt for most of humanity, and a stone-hearted indifference to human life.”

Ironically, like the Nazis before him, Pinker ascribes beliefs to Nietzsche that would have horrified the philosopher. But just as Nietzsche has already debunked the positivistic liberalism still espoused by Pinker, so he knew that people would abuse and misrepresent his ideas. “I am frightened by the thought of what unqualified and unsuitable people may invoke my authority one day,” he wrote. “Yet that is the torment of every great teacher of mankind: he knows that, given the circumstances and the accidents, he can become a disaster as well as a blessing to mankind.” Nietzsche seems always to have had the last word. In that sense, too, he was a truly posthumous man.

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Morten Høi Jensen is a writer and critic from Copenhagen, Denmark. He is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen.