Human, all too human — thus Nietzsche

Writing to his friend Reinhart von Seydlitz in February 1888, less than a year before he collapsed in a Turin street, tearfully throwing his hands round a maltreated carthorse, Friedrich Nietzsche went on to pronounce himself «the foremost philosopher of this era, and perhaps even a little more, something decisive and ominous standing between two millennia.» Such spasms of narcissistic exaltation will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the philosophical oeuvre of Nietzsche – the enigmatic German philosopher who saw his writings as the trigger of a tectonic shift in the premises of orthodox philosophy. However, the collection «Friedrich Nietzsche: The Last Letters, 1887-1889» (edited by Jean-Michel Rey) of Nietzsche’s correspondence sheds light on aspects of his life that are not exposed in his formal philosophical writings. These include the courteous Nietzsche, the lonely Nietzsche and, ironically for the progenitor of the Superman, the ailing Nietzsche. To be sure, all of Nietzsche’s trademark characteristics are here – in an orgiastic blend that becomes all the more unintelligible as insanity sets in. Arrogant: «I can now say that my philosophical position is by far the most independent one, however much I feel myself to be the heir to several millennia. Contemporary Europe hasn’t an inkling of the frightful decisions about which my very essence turns, of the wheel of problems on which I am stretched.» (Letter to Franz Overbeck) Humorous: «In Germany there is much complaining about my ‘eccentricities.’ But since it is not known where my center is, it won’t be easy to find where or when I have thus far been ‘eccentric.’» (Letter to Carl Fuchs) Insightful: «There will be wars, the like of which we have never seen before.» (Draft of letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II) Nietzsche’s letters also illustrate his hostility toward both German nationalism – he even calls the Germans «a stupid race» – and anti-Semitism, the two most misconstrued Nietzschean themes. In fact, Nietzsche’s depiction as a Nazi prophet was the product of systematic distortion by his sister Elisabeth, who was married to a convinced anti-Semite – a man whom, as his letters to his mother show, Nietzsche deeply disliked. After Nietzsche’s death, Elisabeth, the soi-disant guardian of her brother’s legacy, put his protean writings into the service of the Reich. Although he praised vigor and health, Nietzsche possessed neither. He contracted syphilis during his voluntary service as a nursing orderly in the Franco-Prussian war. Ill health forced him to quit his chair at Basle after which he began traveling across various Swiss, French and Italian cities – Sils Maria (he cherished elevated landscapes like the Alps and, even more, their symbolism), Nice, Venice, Rome, Turin. His unrequited love for Lou Salome and the bitter end to his influential friendship with Richard Wagner increased the strain on his fragile health and sanity. Nevertheless, this turned out to be an extremely positive and prolific period. In 1887 to 1889, the years covered by the letters in the volume, Nietzsche completed many of his major works (though some were published posthumously), including «On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic,» «The Case of Wagner,» «The Anti-Christ,» «Ecce Homo,» «Nietzsche contra Wagner,» and «Twilight of the Idols.» Nietzsche was a fervent critic of the Platonic metaphysics which he thought underpinned much of Western philosophy and contained the seeds of the Christian promise of a life hereafter. He vehemently attacked Christian morality, countering it with his vision of the Superman, a higher type of human being that would transcend all life-denying inhibitions. Nietzsche’s correspondence reflects the benefit of traveling. Reading his correspondence, one feels that seeing different places becomes a condition of his thinking, a chance to impose a different perspective on things. His descent to the south in a way expresses his growing estrangement with Germany («They now resort to such expressions as ‘eccentric,’ ‘pathological,’ ‘psychologically disturbed’… And for years, not a word of comfort, not a drop of human feeling, not a breath of love.») and his moving closer to the Greek world of tragedy and the pre-Socratic thinkers. Reading his later correspondence, one can clearly see madness taking its toll. Nietzsche is now writing the most bizarre letters while signing himself «Caesar,» «Dionysus» or «the Crucified» – apparently in the belief that he was to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity. After his breakdown, Nietzsche was hospitalized as a mental patient in Jena, where doctors diagnosed «progressive paralysis.» His mother moved him to their family home in Naumburg and, after she died, Elisabeth took him to Weimer. Nietzsche died there on August 25, 1900. He was buried in Roecken next to his father, a pastor. Jean-Michel Rey (Ed.) «Friedrich Nietzsche: The Last Letters, 1887-1889,» translated by Emilia Manousi, Agra 2003, 207 pages.