“The Weightiest Questions in the Smallest Number of Words”: Retelling the Nietzsche Story

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE KNEW his controversial philosophy was “dynamite,” but his work wasn’t appreciated until after he descended into madness. His megalomaniac sister Elisabeth, who had a penchant for National Socialism and deceitfulness, took control of his work, exploiting and manipulating it. Antisemite ideology disgusted Nietzsche, yet ironically Elisabeth left him with a false antisemitic reputation that still lingers.

It’s a tragic story, but now that Elisabeth’s interference has been untangled, Nietzsche’s work seems to be more popular than ever, if new books such as Hiking with Nietzsche by John Kaag (who I interviewed for LARB here) and the seven-way bidding war for the manuscript of Sue Prideaux’s biography titled I Am Dynamite! are any indication. Prideaux’s investigation illuminates Nietzsche as a brilliant man of polar extremes with a sense of humor and despair, an ability not to take himself too seriously, a love of both Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of life, and many love-hate relationships — with his sister, mother, Richard Wagner, Lou Salomé, and others. I interviewed Prideaux about Nietzsche’s enduring appeal and relevance.


SKYE C. CLEARY: You’ve already written two terrific biographies of men influenced by Nietzsche: Edvard Munch and August Strindberg. Upon discovering Nietzsche, Strindberg wrote the play Miss Julie, which you describe as “a Nietzschean psychodrama, forensically tracking the force fields of submission and control thrown up by the mutual ressentiment and the conflicting will to power between the Übermensch and Untermensch, played out through the Dionysian impulse of sex.” And Strindberg introduced Nietzsche’s work to Munch, who was so moved by it that he painted The Scream, representing existential terror upon realizing that God is dead. How did your first biographies influence your thinking about Nietzsche?

SUE PRIDEAUX: I couldn’t ignore Nietzsche any longer after the effect he’d had on those two. As a teenager, I adored Nietzsche. I liked that I didn’t understand him completely. Reading him was the best up-all-night student conversation: headlong, exciting, wanting more at dawn. Then I grew up and put him away alongside other teenage crushes that I was embarrassed about. The effect he’d had on Munch and Strindberg made me hungry to read him again. Maybe he didn’t just speak to the unresolved chaos of the teenage mind? I went back to see — and was bowled over.

Quite a few biographies have already been written about Nietzsche, so what was it that inspired you to write a new one?

When I went back to read Nietzsche, I had no intention of being presumptuous enough to write a biography. And then I read his letters. Some made me laugh out loud. There’s a letter he wrote when he was 24. Nietzsche had been invited to meet his hero, Richard Wagner, so he ordered a new suit. The evening of the party came, the tailor arrived with the suit and Nietzsche tried it on. Perfect! The tailor wanted payment. Nietzsche blustered. No money: no suit. A tug-of-war ensued and the tailor wrestled it off him. “There was I,” Nietzsche writes, “an insignificant little man in my shirttails. Ah well, I thought, the old black velvet will have to be good enough for Richard.” He rushed off through a snowstorm, arriving late for the meeting with Wagner, but they bonded immediately over Schopenhauer. It was the start of the most important friendship of his life.

“Good heavens,” I thought when I read that letter, “this is unexpected. He’s funny. He laughs at himself.” It gave me an itch to explore, and I began to wonder whether a biography might be written employing the map-maker’s technique of triangulation, using time rather than place as the fixed point. I would triangulate: one, the events in his life. Two, what he’s reading and writing privately (letters and so on). Three, the work he’s producing for public consumption. This falls into the biographical fallacy, I know, but my justification is a passage from Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche says that every great philosophy is a form of involuntary and unperceived memoir. In other words, all philosophy is, to an extent, autobiography. One illuminates the other. It looked like a green light to me.

Nietzsche seemed convinced of his own brilliance and, as you suggest in I Am Dynamite!, developed a God complex: “[S]ince the old God has abdicated, I shall rule the world from now on…” But his books did not sell well early on, and he spent a lot of money financing the publication of his work. Do you think this slow start was because it took readers time to interpret and value his radically new form of writing — which you refer to as a “direct and arrestingly modern way of communication”?

Even today, his style is arresting. Nietzsche loves to pose the weightiest questions in the smallest number of words. It must have been seen as annoyingly disrespectful by his 19th-century contemporaries, who expected heavyweight thoughts to be delivered in heavyweight prose. Yet it’s not just his style that people had to catch up on, but his ideas. Take, for instance, his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, a book well before its time in stressing the importance of dream, myth, and sexuality, and introducing the concept of the Dionysian and the Apollonian held in constant tension within ourselves, our culture, and our society. When it was published, in 1872, it only sold some 600 copies. It came into its own some 28 years later, in 1900, when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. The influence of The Birth of Tragedy on 20th-century culture was incalculable across the arts. Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Delius’s Mass of Life, Stravinsky’s shockingly Dionysian Rite of Spring in which Nijinsky danced. Nijinsky was obsessed by Nietzsche. Isadora Duncan danced “Dyonisically.” Graf Zeppelin saw himself as an Übermensch rushing headlong into the heavens. Jung, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Albert Schweitzer, W. B. Yeats, Shaw, T. S. Elliot, H. L. Mencken — that’s just a few on a long list of writers. As you said, he directly inspired the great masterpieces of each of my previous biographical subjects, Munch and Strindberg. Picasso acknowledged an enormous debt to him. Think of Cubism in response to Nietzsche’s aphorism; “There are no truths, only perspectives.”

I’ve just been rereading Tom Wolfe’s glorious Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. Wolfe plays around with Nietzsche, comparing car design to Nietzsche’s eternal becoming, and dividing cars into the Apollonian (the ones that come off the Detroit production line) and Dionysian (fantastically cool customized cars). Nietzsche’s influence shows no signs of dying just yet.

One of the themes you highlight is that Nietzsche saw himself as a “‘Don Giovanni of knowledge,’ a reckless figure who chases up to the ‘highest and remotest stars of knowledge’ to explore forbidden realms, willing to sacrifice his immortal soul and forever endure the fires of Hell in order to gain occult revelation.” It would seem that he has succeeded in this quest, albeit posthumously. Why does Nietzsche’s influence live on?

Because we’re still gazing into the existential abyss he cracked open. Let’s take the death of God. Nietzsche was at school when On the Origin of Species was published. Darwin studied the beak-shapes of finches on the Galápagos Islands, and his findings wiped out the whole great universal idea of form and design that had shaped European belief, purpose, morality, and culture for two thousand years. Only Nietzsche articulated the problems that Darwin had raised. God is dead. If God is dead, how do you live? Where do you find meaning? If there is no heaven to aim at, what are you aiming at? If religious rules no longer apply, what do you do for morality? How does morality without sanction maintain itself? These remain our problems.

You refer to Nietzsche as the “philosopher of perhaps” because he often ends his work in ellipses, thereby “putting the reader in charge of the conclusion while, at the same time, acknowledging that objective truth is not even conceivable for humans, the striving for it mere illusion,” which, I would add, is one of the reasons why he’s been tied to existentialism. Another example of Nietzsche’s ambiguity is the ideal of the Übermensch: he doesn’t say what the Übermensch is, how to become one, or give any examples. Do you think this provocative and inconclusive approach is an integral part of Nietzsche’s appeal too?

Absolutely. I’d say that is one huge difference between Nietzsche and previous philosophers. They give answers. Philosophy is a desire for order, a desire to trap truth. Philosophers lay down systems and posterity turns them into –isms. Nietzsche wants us to think for ourselves: to think beyond him. He says it often and in many ways. “A pupil repays a teacher badly by merely remaining a pupil.” “A mind that is made up is a dead mind,” et cetera. Had he, for instance, given us a description of the Übermensch he would have been laying down a philosophical system. You could do x, y and z, and, hey presto! — you would turn into an Übermensch! Systems limit ambition, limit aspiration. Nietzsche refuses to give us “how to”; he gives us “perhaps.” He acknowledges the thicket of chaos and challenges us to do the same. Face up to the fact there are no answers, but there is eternal becoming. Risk the furthest thought. There’s more to life than the sterile spin of atoms, and there’s no end to how far and how high he wants us to fly on the enabling wings of his thought. 

Nietzsche’s friends Franz Overbeck and Peter Gast initially thought that he might be feigning or self-imposing his madness because they knew Nietzsche believed, as you say, “Insanity must be risked, if it was the crucible of knowledge,” and “only the fragile bark of madness could carry the human mind over the Rubicon that must be crossed to reach revelation.” He seems to have returned to such an infantile state in his final years that it’s hard to imagine that he was feigning it.

I think there’s no escaping from the fact that the end of his life was a terrible tragedy. He certainly wasn’t feigning it. But I have to say that I love the way that even his madness continues the debate that he provoked, relating back to the huge question he asked. Was his madness hubristic punishment? Had God reserved a special Dantean circle in Hell for the man who announced his death? Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad …

Can there be a worse fate for a brilliant intellectual than to be returned to the state of drooling, incontinent infantilism? Ten — nearly 11 — years in this ghastly state, helpless in the hands of his sister, whose beliefs were completely opposed to his own. Elisabeth was a friend of Hitler and an admiring correspondent of Mussolini. Nietzsche died in 1900 and Elisabeth in 1935. Elisabeth was an extremely competent publicist and networker and she spent those 35 years lying, forging, and cutting-and-pasting her brother’s literary estate to fit her own political convictions. Nietzsche, who had repeatedly stressed his hatred of nationalism, racism, and antisemitism, became the plaything of Nazism. It has taken 50 years of hard scholarship to unravel the injustice. That’s not irony, it’s very serious tragedy.

Do you think he reached the revelation he hoped for?

In terms of his philosophy, I don’t think he thought in terms of revelation. That’s a religious concept. He did have a lightning moment at the “Zarathustra Rock” on the shore of the lake at Sils-Maria, when the idea of Eternal Recurrence came to him. But this is just an aperçu, not a full-blown revelation as I understand the word. His “revelation,” if you can talk in such terms, was rather the realization of the value of the slow process of constant becoming that leads to the state of the Übermensch, the affirmative being whose morality has no metaphysical overlay.

You’ve addressed many misconceptions about Nietzsche: syphilis was probably not the cause of his madness and death; he was not antisemitic; he was not in an incestuous relationship with his sister; and he was neither a homosexual nor a chronic masturbator, as Richard Wagner conjectured. But you don’t dispute that Nietzsche was a misogynist. Some people are reluctant to give Nietzsche the blanket label of misogynist because although he says some awful things about women, he is critical of men, too. I wonder if he’s more a misanthropist.

I don’t leave out the worst things he says about women, but I certainly don’t give Nietzsche the blanket label of misogynist. His remarks are often provocative, and I suspect they’re sometimes even deliberately unfair: goading us into reaction, making us think beyond his words on the page, as he always wants us to.

Looking at how he lives his life, there are even grounds to call him a feminist. Nietzsche was unusual for his time in thinking of women as intellectual equals. He loved bright women, they are the ones he fell in love with. In childhood, he tries to get his sister to think independently and improve her prose style. When he’s a professor at Basel, he votes for women to be admitted (the vote was defeated). His close and enduring friendships included half a dozen pioneering feminists like Meta von Salis, the first Swiss woman to obtain a PhD.

When he’s with the love of his life, the wonderfully named Lou Salomé, he writes what I think is one of the most perceptive and sympathetic passages concerning the psychological dilemma of 19th-century women. It is in The Gay Science, where he observes how monstrous it is that women are brought up being told that sex is shameful and sinful, only to be hurled into marriage and subjected by the man they are taught to worship as a god, into the terror and duty of sex. How are they expected to cope with the shocking proximity of man and beast? “There,” he observes perspicaciously, “one has tied a psychic knot that has no equal.”

After Lou deceives him and runs off with Paul Rée, he calls her an “evil-smelling she-ape with false breasts.” If you’re going to troll your ex, you might as well troll her good. It’s a stylish insult with Darwinian overtones. That’s jilted love for you.

Which of your insights about Nietzsche do you find most exciting?

His faith in human potential. Become who you are, he says, having learned what that is. No borrowed opinions, no hypocrisy. Having learned who you are, take responsibility for your own life and shoot as high as appeals to you. It’s a pretty cool agenda, and not impossible to achieve.

How is Nietzsche relevant now?

Well, the big one that leaps out at you has to be the political situation today. It’s very similar to the political climate in Nietzsche’s day when Bismarck, Germany’s Blood-and-Iron chancellor who presented himself as the common man, was building the German Reich. The Reich was a Big State constructed at the expense of the rest of Europe on the building blocks of thuggish nationalism, populism, racism, and antisemitism. Nietzsche saw these attitudes as founded on insecurity and ressentiment. Nietzsche was for internationalism. He said he’d rather be a good European than a good German, memorably expressing his contempt for the national anthem Deutschland Deutschland über Alles and saying he’d like all antisemites to be shot.

So much in current politics, whether it is President Trump or the various populists in Europe, is drinking from the well of ressentiment, the poisonous ideology of blaming the Other for our own shortcomings and then pulling up the drawbridge and loading the heavy cannon to shoot an enemy who doesn’t exist.

Nietzsche’s good on fake news, too. He warns us that “convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies” and that “there are no truths, only perspectives.” Question everything, he tells us; see where it’s coming from.

When you’re thinking about Nietzsche’s influence today, Jordan Peterson inevitably springs to mind. His extraordinarily successful self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, quotes extensively from Nietzsche. You could say that Peterson’s concern, to restore value and self-respect to the lives of the young men who feel dispossessed and left behind by society, has its foundational thinking in Nietzsche’s identification of the slave mentality: individuals who shove away blame, who think of themselves as victims and who seethe against life. Nietzsche’s message doesn’t discriminate. He writes for the so-called left-behinds as well as for everybody else. Embrace your fate. Love it. Take responsibility: “Want nothing different, neither backward nor forward for all eternity. Not just to tolerate necessity but to love it.” That’s the road to becoming an Übermensch. Whatever you think of Jordan Peterson, he is saying the same thing; he is trying to rescue people who boil with ressentiment at a life they perceive to be unjust. Though of course in laying down 12 rules, Peterson is stopping them thinking for themselves. That’s very un-Nietzschean — along with the lobsters.

As for Nietzsche being taken up by the alt-right today. Have they read him? No better than the Nazis who pulled out a few phrases in the 1930s and abstracted and twisted their meaning. How on earth do white nationalists square their beliefs with Nietzsche’s oft-repeated denunciations of nationalism, racism, and antisemitism?

What effect do you hope I Am Dynamite! will have?

Primarily I’d like it to get people reading his books. I also hope it may help people see how he is warning us about what is happening again today. I want people to take heed when they see how terrifyingly simple it was for his sister to fake a legend that completely misrepresented him, blatantly manipulating his texts and putting them in the hands of the Nazis.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know yet. Who will amuse me and amaze me for four years? That’s how long a biography takes me. Nietzsche is going to be a hard act to follow. I’ll miss him.


Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.