Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Ecce Nietzsche

August 20, 2000|LESLEY CHAMBERLAIN | Lesley Chamberlain is the author of, among other works, "Nietzsche in Turin."

Nietzsche is one of the irregulars, the awkward squad like Giovanni Battista Vico and Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Georg Hamann who even at the height of the Enlightenment distrusted the exclusive claims of reason to disclose human truth. A late Romantic and an early Modernist, he was a writer of superb style and insight who anticipated much of what Freud would say about the discontents of civilization and the need to befriend our frightening passions. But when, as critics, we claim these labels and affinities for Nietzsche, it is out of a kind of desperation to make him belong somewhere. Nietzsche himself had no sense of belonging, nor did he belong. I often think he is so much loved, despite his bombast and his destructiveness, because he cuts such an unprotected figure. He is this brave human being who destroys each and every one of his supports in life as he briefly passes this way. To be involved in Nietzsche's existence hurts because there is so much loss to bear. But the deeply personal quality and the sharpness of his writing compensate. The dark humor, the manic imagination, the trenchant judgments and the despair that fill his void enrich us immeasurably.

When Nietzsche died a hundred years ago, on Aug. 25, 1900, he had existed in mental darkness since 1889. The few glimmers of light which allowed him to go on playing Wagner at the piano in his first hospitalized weeks soon dimmed. In Turin in January that year he collapsed after a final intense struggle against a decaying brain. Though the nature of his illness is still disputed, it looks to have been an atypical case of syphilis, the tertiary stage almost miraculously held at bay by the victim's relentless efforts at self-cure. Destroyed by brain-wasting, Nietzsche's handwriting, graceful and regular as a Bach fugue, unraveled to a barely legible string. His mouth fell into uncontrollable grimaces which, to cover up, he pretended he had assumed deliberately. As the frontiers of his identity also blurred, he became the dead Vittorio Emanuele, King of Savoy, and Jesus Christ. His body could no longer give his thoughts a form to live in. It is a miserable picture, made worse by the fact that this fleshly remnant with the name Nietzsche lived for another 11 years under the care of his sister Elisabeth in Weimar. Yet I like to dwell on it because it seems like a point of truth before Nietzsche became a legend; before Elisabeth welcomed Hitler to the Weimar villa and presented Mussolini with a silver-bound edition of the collected works.

The true Nietzsche has no practicable politics and no time frame. He addressed himself vaguely to free spirits and to a future in which in his atheism and his extreme individualism, and also in his science of joy, he might feel more at home. But the man who made his historical currency out of "eternal recurrence" was not an optimist. The only copula he could imagine between himself and a more inviting world was a long period of "bloody wars." Nietzsche had a violent imagination nourished by the Bible. To let it run rampant was one of his ways, in the writing that was his life, of doing without spiritual support.

He didn't belong to any place, despite sometimes imagining that he belonged to a European future that would transcend national pettiness. There was a time when, by an accident it is pleasing to construe symbolically, he had no passport. In 1844 he was born in southeastern Germany, in Saxony, in the village of Rocken, to a family which had seen three generations represent the Lutheran Church. But by the time Nietzsche took stock of his homeland, the chauvinism of Bismarck's first empire disgusted him. Wagner's embrace of German patriotism was part of what drove Nietzsche away from his greatest friend. Nietzsche had already left Germany for Switzerland, where he taught at the university in Basel, when illness compelled him to join the small cohort of rich peripatetic Victorian semi-invalids who wintered in Nice and summered in the Alps in search of a healing climate. He became, to echo the title of his 1880 addition to "Human All Too Human," a wanderer, talking to his shadow.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|