Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review of a new biography of Nietzsche

Young, Julian. Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, xxxii + 649 pp.

A massive effort that combines biographical narrative with textual interpretation, Julian Young's new work on Nietzsche demands attention. This is due partly to the importance of its subject, and partly to the impression of thoroughness conveyed by the book's length. Though not without its flaws, Young's biography is worth reading for anyone who wants to enter more deeply into Nietzsche's life and work.

What makes Young's biography worth reading? It is written in an unpretentious style, refreshingly free from academic jargon. It contains a wealth of small but telling details about Nietzsche's life that, while not unattested by previous biographies, deserve to be better known than they are. For instance, after winning in 1885 a court settlement against his publisher and paying off his debts to bookstores, Nietzsche purchased and designed his father's tombstone, with a verse from 1 Corinthians inscribed on it ("Love never faileth") (9). This happened thirty-six years after his father died. Young admirably brings out Nietzsche's dedication to teaching his students, his determination to become (as he put it in a letter to Erwin Rohde) a "really practical teacher" (68). We learn that he even offered them five-course dinners at the end of the semester (102). One imagines that he cooked well; in 1876 or 1877, while living in Sorrento, he learned how to make risotto (293). Despite the blasts in his autobiography against coffee, he apparently frequented the Venetian open-air cafés in St. Mark's Square, where he "discovered Italian coffee to be the best in the world" (291). Writing from Sils Maria, Nietzsche asked his mother to send him a needle and thread, implying, as Young says, that he could "sew as well as cook" (317). Neither his disdain for the English nor his experimentalism stopped him from being brand-loyal to Horniman's English tea (454). He appears to have delighted in fan mail sent to him from Baltimore (322). In company he read aloud short stories by Mark Twain (166), whose "craziness" he professed to love "more than German cleverness" (236). Young's book is rich in such details. They serve to humanize the alternately forbidding and buffoonish figure that emerges from Nietzsche's autobiography.

Another primary strength of Young's book is its attention to the role of music in Nietzsche's life. Nietzsche loved music—to hear it, to compose it, to improvise at his piano. Months after his collapse, he continued to play beautifully, according to his friend Heinrich Köselitz (551-52). Though Nietzsche is often considered a poor composer, Young shows that the truth of this evaluation is hardly self-evident. It derives, he argues, in no small part from Hans von Bülow's graceless conjecture that Nietzsche's music was a joke, perhaps intended as a parody of "so-called music of the future" (154). Was von Bülow right about Nietzsche's lack of compositional talent? The reader can judge for himself, since Young provides not only his own assessment, but also links to recordings of Nietzsche's music on the book's Web site. While devoting appropriate attention to Nietzsche's conflicted relations with Wagner, Young shows that his musical horizons extended further. Nietzsche thought highly not only of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Mendelssohn, but also of his contemporary Brahms. As Young shows, he sought (fruitlessly) to convince Wagner of his validity and sent Brahms a copy of his "Hymn to Life." Brahms did not reciprocate Nietzsche's interest. Despite the extension of his interests beyond Wagner, Young concludes that Nietzsche was dominated by an "innate musical conservatism" (37, 496). Only a handful of composers were able to give him what he sought from music, "the experience of self-transcendence" (459).

The chapter on "Nietzsche's Circle of Women" is among the most valuable in the book. Young spends due time on his problematic relationships with his mother, his sister, and Lou Salomé. Going beyond these well-known figures in his life, Young shows that despite his anti-feminism, Nietzsche surrounded himself with a number of "feminist friends." To one such friend, Resa von Schirnhofer, he chose to communicate orally, in a manner she found "alien" and "terrifying," the doctrine of the eternal return, before resuming (as she says) "his normal way of speaking and usual self" (389). Beyond its amusement value, the vignette shows that in spite of his more notorious remarks, Nietzsche's emotions toward women were not confined to fear, anger and contempt. Well after he was rejected by Lou Salomé, Nietzsche actively sought women as interlocutors. Young shows in admirable detail the importance of von Schirnhofer, Malwida von Meysenbug, Helen Zimmern, Meta von Salis, and Helene Druskowicz for Nietzsche's life. Perhaps most important, Young concludes, is Cosima Wagner, his "ideal woman" with whom "four-handed piano playing and long metaphysical conversations were major elements in their relationship" (399). Given Nietzsche's love for Cosima to the very end, what explains his later tendency to emphasize his anti-feminist side? Young concludes that while Nietzsche treasured the company of educated, intelligent women, "what terrified him was women's access to power" (400). But why? Young's explanation seems less to solve the problem than to reinforce its difficulty.

As a guide to the events and people in Nietzsche's life, Young's book is reliable. Its interpretations of Nietzsche's texts are necessarily more controversial. Some of its attempts to describe and adjudicate controversies in Nietzsche interpretation are valuable. For instance, Young's assessment of Nietzsche's "perspectivism" and what it implies—and does not imply—is clear and balanced (473-76). Even if it unlikely to convince readers inclined to the "postmodern Nietzsche," it stands as a worthy contribution. Occasionally, however, the book proposes summaries that will leave serious readers unsatisfied, regardless of where they fall in the usual interpretive divides. Understandably enough, Young wants to give the reader new to Nietzsche an idea of each of his published works. Yet if there is any author whose writing defies brief summary, it is Nietzsche. This is particularly true of the middle period works, dominated by the aphorism. Young proposes to reduce the "central argument" of The Gay Science to "three stages" (327). The first stage Young describes as a "general theory of cultural 'health.'" Ought we to assume that such a general theory is possible? In Aphorism 120 of The Gay Science Nietzsche claims "there is no health as such, and all attempts to define a thing that way have been wretched failures." A reconstruction that begins with an assumption explicitly rejected in the very text under reconstruction is not promising. Perhaps one can point to other loci where Nietzsche accepts, or appears to accept, the assumption. Yet it remains antecedently improbable that the 383 aphorisms of the Gay Science, bookended on each side by a beguiling collection of rhymes, can be reduced to a tidy three-stage argument.

Fortunately, Young does not spend the bulk of his work trying to reduce labyrinthine works of aphorism to simple structures. Sometimes he attempts the course, potentially less hazardous, of interpreting a single aphorism. Though his comments are frequently insightful, he does not always escape the snares of superficial interpretation. Consider (for example) his handling of the difficult aphorism 344 of The Gay Science ("How we, too, are still pious"). Among the questions provoked by this aphorism are the following. If truth proves to be more harmful than useful, do we abandon truth, preferring what serves life? Or do we heroically strive after truth, whatever the disadvantages for life? Throughout his corpus Nietzsche raises this problem in a dozen ways. Does he resolve the problem? As far as I can tell, he does not draw any definitive conclusions. Yet Young finds in aphorism 344 of The Gay Science a neat solution to the problem. "Truth 'at any price' gives way to truth 'when the price is right'" (443). Truth only when the price is right? Surely this is more Bob Barker than Nietzsche.

Young performatively demonstrates the difficulty of interpreting Nietzsche's texts within the confines of a biography. He is typically on stronger ground when narrating Nietzsche's life, though not without making the occasional questionable inference. Addressing Nietzsche's descent into madness, Young admirably presents the traditional diagnosis of syphilis, along with a series of objections to the diagnosis. He then presents Leonard Sax's alternative diagnosis of a brain tumor on the right optic nerve, as well as some pointed objections to Sax. So far so good. But he proceeds to claim that since these two diagnoses are uncertain, "the most plausible conclusion appears to be that Nietzsche's madness was, in fact, a purely psychological condition" (562). Are no diagnoses other than these two possible? And just what would "purely psychological" mean to an author for whom the physiological and psychological are so deeply entwined? Of course Young is free to reject Nietzsche's own conception in favor of "pure psychology" divorced from anything bodily. But does this not amount to a rejection not only of Nietzsche, but of modern neuroscience? Certainly the latter would be puzzled by Young's idea that Nietzsche's condition, though plausibly described as "bipolar disorder with, in its later stages, psychotic features" (560), lacks any physiological basis.

That any book as long and ambitious as Young's would be entirely free from mistakes is unlikely. Many of these are minor, though the cumulative effect is one of annoyance. Some examples: misuse of the word "prevaricate" (258, 360); attribution of the words "adultery of the heart" to Jimmy Carter, as though Matthew 5:28 did not get there first (258); the "abolition of the metaphysical word" (242); the confusion of "venal sin" with "venial sin" (572). These small mistakes can be corrected in a second edition. Also requiring correction, as Young himself has acknowledged, is insufficient citation of a previous Nietzsche biography. Like many other biographers of well-known figures, Young depends on the work of writers before him. In a non-trivial number of places, Young's structure and wording are remarkably similar to passages in Curtis Cate's 2002 biography of Nietzsche, as Mark Anderson has documented in detail (Journal of Nietzsche Studies 42 [2011]). Young has replied to Anderson, admitting to "scholarly lapses" which he promises to correct in the next edition. Certainly Young's explanation of the lapses is plausible. Nonetheless the magnitude of his dependence on Cate's work, together with the lack of proper acknowledgment, must be noted as a defect of the book in its present state.

The complexities of Nietzsche's life and writings, not to mention the multiple relations between the life and the writings, render any biography of the man intensely problematic. Young's effort is no exception. It contains some superficial interpretations, questionable attempts to make Nietzsche timely, insufficient acknowledgment of a key source. Nonetheless, the book's virtues are sufficiently numerous and robust to make it well worth reading, despite its flaws. Any student of Nietzsche will want to own Young's book.

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