Sue Prideaux: I am dynamite. A life of Friedrich Nietzsche





For my own interest I am writing about books, partly so I can remember what I read. I have no qualifications in philosophy.  I am not  convinced that Nietzsche is a philosopher.  He is intoxicating.

He loathed anti-semitism and was dismissive about German nationalism.  He pretended to be a Polish aristocrat…

But to get back to the book… well what a collection of characters.  It’s like reading a  version of Viz… in which all the characters are intellectuals.    Wagner…  he would be a splendid villain.  He was an anti-Semite,   his father was probably Jewish.  If he were not a great composer he would be loathsome.  Cheat, liar, adulterer, dripping with perfume and silk underwear…  and yet… and yet…  you long for him to be a rubbish musician but he isn’t.  Its as if Sting were any good.   Or Bono.  Or Mick Hucknall.  Waste of a villain was Wagner.  And he did leech money out of poor mad King Ludwig possibly bringing about Ludwig’s death.  Bloated, self-centred, narcissistic, fraudulent, dishonest to the core, a great composer.  Go figure.

Cosima Wagner…  also an anti-Semite and without the excuse.  A  staunch Catholic,  Wagner’s mistress, dauntingly imperious,  Wagner was hopelessly in love with her.  You read accounts of their evenings reading Shakespeare to one another and you wonder why they never thought to top themselves.  Later she had to endure Wagner’s affairs with younger and younger women.   And  there is Friedrich’s sister Elisabeth.  Anti-Semite, early Nazi,   mad as a bag of frogs.  But cunning with it.

Wagner took Nietzsche up when Nietzsche  was unknown … clever but weird.  Nietzsche  became the closest friend of Wagner and Cosima.  Wagner looked on him as a son.  Wagner was at  the height of his cultish quasi-religious appeal when he met the unknown and unprepossessing Nietzsche.  Wagner was best friends with kings and counts and German aristocracy…

Freud was to call Nietzsche  the man who understood the  mind best… Yet Nietzsche did not notice that Cosima was about to give birth when he stayed with the Wagners and when he woke up and there was one more person …  it came as a surprise.  So Freud… Nietzsche may have uncovered the secrets of the mind but…

Inevitably… given Nietszche and Wagner they fell out.  But Nietzsche looked back on their friendship as the happiest time of his life.  Nietzsche also managed to have an affair… or was it a relationship… with the most enigmatic woman of his time Lou Salome.  Freud was also fascinated by Lou Salome.   You cannot help but ask: wht did Lou see in Friedrich?    His myopia led to him wearing blue tinted glasses and with his ludicrous militaristic moustache and his awkward behaviour and his ineluctable (I don’t know what that means but it sounds good) strangeness you wouldn’t have thought he’d make it on Love Island.

Nietzsche was antagonistic to contemporary culture… despised democracy, socialism, christianity, the bougeoisie.  He preached the Superman.  He felt that a Superman… say Napoleon… created their own moral world.  So the lower creatures gang up and do down the Superman.  Good on them I say: kill the Superman.  But Nietzsche disagreed.  Some folk say that he just meant that you should be your best self but I can’t bear the idea that he was some kind of early Californian Positive Thinker.

But let’s not get carried away with Nietzsche’s thoughts.  For me they are provocative but not coherent, frenzied  attacks on the status quo… a philosophical punk.  I am the Antichrist… Sid Vicious stole it off Nietzsche.  Nietzsche’s appeal to Goths and nihilists owes something to his very short sentences and  a kind of doomy biblical feeling to his work… he denies  religion in the voice of an old testament prophet.  Kind of having your cake and eating it?

Take a deep breath:  in a cast of intellectual nutters you are about to meet the queen of fruitloopery.    Nietzsche’s sister was a hyper-organised anti semitic germanophile  and a crook …  the word crook is a bit harsh… yes crook.  Nietzsche does write about  successful tricksters…  they are actually seized by their delusions which makes them charismatic.   One can’t help thinking of another strange man with a strange moustache.

Nietzsche was painfully ill all his life.  He does talk about the military as if he were an old sweat but as far as I can see his military service consisted of falling off a horse and being hospitalised… to his credit he despised the expansionist policies of Bismarck at a time when many Germans intoxicated by nationalism.

But I’ve interrupted myself lets go back to the fragrant Elisabeth Nietzsche.  She part idolised and part despised Friedrich.  As a young professor she was his housekeeper (irresistably one thinks of Hitler employing his half sister as housekeeper).  It may have crossed her mind that she might meet eligible young men but Nietzsche’s friends tended to be loopier than he was.  Which is saying something.  Eventually she settled on Bernhard Forster.  Good looking, charismatic, anti-semite he had a following who he mesmerised with his vision of  founding an Aryan paradise in Latin America.  It could be said that Elisabeth called his bluff.  She offered to help finance a colony in Latin America.  Oh and they would get married.  One feels for Bernhard… talking about doing something is one thing…  Elisabeth was excellent at fund raising and publicity and before you know it they were off.

Right from the get go Bernhard was useless and Elisabeth was a deceiver.  The colonists starved in Germania in Uruguay while Elisabeth lived like an Empress with servants and so on and wrote letters to anti-Semitic nationalist papers in Germany saying how wonderful if was and encouraging more people to make the journey.  Bernhard was continually drunk until he summoned the energy to commit suicide.  A lesser person than Elisabeth might have read into this a form of criticism  but Elisabeth was made of sterner stuff and  managed to recast Bernhard’s death as heroic.

She returned to Germany where she wrote articles about how successful the colony had been.  By a stroke of luck, for her,  Nietzsche became insane.  In Milan he broke down over a man beating a horse.  Nietzsche who had always despised pity.

It did not take Elisabeth long to realise that you can monetise a mad philosopher.  So you have Nietzsche who is irrecoverably insane.  He has at the same time become a cult figure,  rather like  Wagner.  Elisabeth managed his reputation…  her home was a kind of shrine and money came her way.   She publicised his work through German nationalist anti-semitic papers.  Hitler said he was a follower but I have my doubts if he had the capacity.  Elisabeth enjoyed her role as guardian of the prophet and quasi -Empress.   Then she died and Adolf attended the funeral.

There are so many characters in this work that each of them deserves at least an article in an Encyclopedia of Scumbags that I am contemplating starting.  I have sketched the Kissinger article in my mind.  The en passant people:  Catulle Mendes: the handsomest man of his generation, a blond christ.  He was cruel and nasty: “a lily in urine.  ”

So what was Nietzsche’s philosophy?  Well…  I don’t really know and I doubt if anybody does.  I don’t think he had a coherent philosophy and there was a lot of the trickster about him: he liked to shock.   He was so ill that he could only write for brief spells.  Main ideas: God is dead.  Man must create his own values.  The Superman will create his own values.  The will to power is the motive force. Greek philosophy gave us logic, rationality… but there is also a darker neglected aspect of intoxication, madness, irrationality.

So far so good.  Nietzsche by no means exults that “God is dead,” it appals and horrifies him.  Since my education by Irish Christian Brothers I do not recognise Nietzsche’s depiction of Christianity as a religion of meekness.  The aboriginal people of America and Australia and New Zealand might not recognise it either… if they were still here…  The will to power is convincing… not unlike Schopenauer’s  “will to life.”

Philosopher or not Nietzsche was a poet.   My favourite Nietzsche: “Plato is boring.”  Or: “I cannot believe in a god who wants to be praised all the time.”

So how do I feel about Nietzsche?  A  ragamuffin noble.  Somehow the sincerity of his work overcomes the view that he is in many ways ludicrous… I think he was the initiator of the macho tough guy tradition in philosophy where he emphasises his masculinity which suggests to me that there is not much to emphasise.  Nietzsche did display extraordinary fortitude considering his health, but in this tough guy stuff I think I see a trend of the intellectual longing to be the man of action. One thing I admire is Nietzsche’s ability to walk in mountains in spite of all his illnesses.  I go from memory but he said something like: “All great thinkers were walkers.” And I cannot despise him even though he was a natural Tory.  Something about the brilliant noble idiot pulls your heartstrings.


To  get back to the Wagner entanglement.  Nietzsche went to see his doctor complaining about his health.  Wagner had suggested specialist.  Unknown to Nietzsche Wagner wrote a letter to the doctor suggesting excessive masturbation (what is the right amount?) might be the cause of Nietzsche’s distress.  Nietzsche learned of this correspondence.

You need a heart of stone not to dance around whooping.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s