A Vacuum of Meaning

Sue Prideaux, I am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, Faber, October 2018

The Daily Telegraph, Oct 13th 2018

Another biography of Friedrich Nietzsche: do we need one? Certainly, Nietzsche’s intellectual importance is beyond question, now that we are past seeing him as the tutelary spirit of the Third Reich. His life is both interesting in its own right and directly relevant to the interpretation of his philosophy. But there are a good few biographies already, the most recent, by the philosopher Julian Young, only eight years old. Before him, we have had perfectly serviceable lives by Curtis Cate (2003), an English translation of Rüdiger Safranski’s German biography (2001), and a revised edition of RJ Hollingdale’s 1965 classic that came out in 1999.

The outlines of Nietzsche’s life – the religious childhood, the precocious academic success, the association with Wagner, the peripatetic years of horrific illness and frenzied writing, the eventual descent into madness, the embrace of his views by the Nazis after his death – have been covered well enough in these books that a new biography couldn’t be justified by a claim to be telling a neglected story. I read Sue Prideaux’s new biography with some pleasure, occasional illumination and a strong sense of déjà vu, the sense never leaving me that I had heard this story before, and told at least as well.

Prideaux’s narrative is roughly chronological, and the approach pleasingly old-fashioned. There are psychological speculations, but Nietzsche for one could hardly begrudge them. He was, after all, the pioneer of seeing the work of philosophy as “a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”. But Prideaux neither seeks nor entertains any grand psychoanalytic explanations.We follow Nietzsche from his early childhood in a straitened household of devout women through his days at school and university to his appointment at an absurdly early age to a professorship at Basle. Then begins his association with Richard and Cosima Wagner, a fraught friendship to which some of Prideaux’s best pages are devoted.

Prideaux is good at rendering these soap-operatic episodes, sensitive to the constant shifting of the Wagners’ attitudes to their sincere, but all too independent-minded, admirer, and justly mocking of their self-importance and anti-Semitism. She is also good on Nietzsche’s fascination, and later disappointment, with that brilliant and impossible femme fatale Lou Salomé who would later enrapture Freud and Rilke.

There is an argument of sorts running through the narrative: that Nietzsche was not, despite his later co-option into the Nazi pantheon, the anti-Semite of the old demonology. This is no longer controversial in scholarly circles, but the point remains worth making and Prideaux makes it well, arranging her evidence thoughtfully throughout the text. Nietzsche had nothing but contempt for the attitudes of such standard-issue racists as his sister, Elisabeth, and her equally risible husband, Bernhard Förster. Prideaux’s brisk account of the Försters’ ill-fated attempt to set up a colony of pure-bred Aryans with a band of naïve fellow anti-Semites in Paraguay is in turns funny, alarming and damning.

Prideaux’s Nietzsche is – in his excellent phrase – “human, all-too-human”, a bona fide genius given to vainglory. He is, from his childhood onwards, a vulnerable creature, all the way to the ignominious decade of madness when he was subject either to doctors or the awkward ministrations of his mother or paraded before guests in a white dressing gown by his unspeakable sister. Prideaux rightly sees in Nietzsche’s state of health and his anxieties about it the impetus for the increasingly frenzied writing of his middle years and his fondness for a fragmented, allusive and aphoristic style full of ellipses and deliberate elisions. As she has it, “Brevity held great attraction for him because the periods when he was capable of reading or writing were becoming ever briefer.” Her rendering of his final descent into insanity, with an unglossed slideshow of quotations from a set of increasingly unhinged letters, is chilling yet compassionate, and shows her at her best.

Prideaux writes in unmannered, faintly caustic prose, with a talent for the well-timed digression. Her sentences are sprightly, her chapters short, and the characters, major and minor, painted in broad brushstrokes. The photographs printed with the text have been thoughtfully chosen, and there is even a helpful appendix collecting Nietzsche’s best-known aphorisms. The narrative has the energy of a James Bond movie, ever anxious to get to the next set piece in some attractive European city. It is often funny, usually at the expense of some pompous German grandee, sparing no one, certainly not Nietzsche himself. But it is not, despite its dutiful attempts at summarising each of Nietzsche’s books, an intellectual biography except in the minimal sense that it is the biography of an intellectual.

Nietzsche’s writings, as Prideaux admits, raise special difficulties for the would-be paraphraser. The challenge is not that of working out what he is saying – as philosophers go, he is without equal in his directness – but what he is trying to do. And here, Prideaux seems ill at ease. Her pages of summary consist in awkward combinations of quotation, near-quotation and gloss. The quotations, as other writers on Nietzsche have found, have a tendency to dominate the page; the glosses are bound to sound flat in comparison.

This, for instance, is her attempt at a famous passage from Beyond Good and Evil: “Having called into question the nature of self and declared objective truth to be an impossible fiction, he mischievously goes on to point out that to assert that objective truth is a fiction is to make a statement of objective truth which must itself be a fiction.” If to paraphrase is, as Valery said of translation, “to reconstitute as nearly as possible the effect of a certain cause”, this (and this is a representative example) must count as a failure: where the original amuses, provokes, exasperates, this sort of thing simply bores.

Nietzsche once wrote that “Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.” I did not once get the sense that Prideaux had lost a moment’s sleep over Nietzsche’s questions: “What happens when man cancels the moral code on which he has built the edifice of his civilisation? What does it mean to be human unchained from a central metaphysical purpose? Does a vacuum of meaning occur?” The syntax of these lines from Prideaux’s concluding chapter is awkward, the metaphors are ill-matched. A writer on Nietzsche needs to try harder to sound right.

There is a small mercy in the fact that she does not use Nietzsche to prosecute some battle in the culture wars of the moment. But the absence of any effort to tie Nietzsche to the present moment – to the crisis in liberal democracy, for instance – make her book feel not so much what Nietzsche would call ‘untimely’ but unmoored, as if it may just as well have been published in 1990 or 1960 as now.

I found myself wishing that Prideaux had turned her ironic gifts to a different Nietzsche, his sister Elisabeth. Vulgar, overweening and unintellectual, she would have offered Prideaux a better angle on her period, and a subject much better suited to her evident gifts for artful narrative and arch commentary, without a philosophical corpus of genius getting in the way.