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Nietzsche Studies (II)

Timothy J. Madigan looks at some other books on Nietzsche.

For anyone desiring further knowledge on the life and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, I highly recommend Lesley Chamberlain’s Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography. While ostensibly dealing with the last and most productive year of Nietzsche’s life, 1888, a time in which he wrote five impressive books while combating the syphilis which would finally drive him insane, this sensitive book does far more than that. It ranges throughout the life of this tortured genius, helping us come to grips with him as a human, all-too human seeker of truth.

Chamberlain begins her book by stating that it is an attempt to “befriend” this friendless man, a task she ably accomplishes. In particular, as a woman herself, she demolishes the stereotype of Nietzsche as vicious misogynist, and shows that he was a strong defender of women’s education and independence. She also does an exemplary job in discussing Nietzsche’s relationship with Richard Wagner, their initial shared love for the writings of Schopenhauer, and the painful break between them which was to haunt Nietzsche until his death.

One reason for Nietzsche’s rejection of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of compassion, Chamberlain demonstrates, was his own personal struggle to overcome malice and pettiness; attributes he came to consider central to the teachings of the world’s religions. Pity was just the polite face for such contemptuous feelings, and Schopenhauer’s advocacy of compassion did not rise above such crippling conceits. Yet the relationship between these two philosophers is a complex one, which has surprisingly been little discussed in the voluminous literature about Nietzsche. Fortunately, that has now been rectified by the book Willing and Nothingness: Schopenhauer as Nietzsche’s Educator, edited by Christopher Janaway, one of the leading Schopenhauer experts in the world today. The contributors examine such issues as the two mens’ views on art, truth, religion, pessimism, morality, and determinism.

Also included are two helpful appendices: the first is a previously untranslated essay by Nietzsche from 1868 entitled ‘On Schopenhauer’, which shows that even at this early date Nietzsche was raising substantial questions about Schopenhauer’s methodology. The second, a priceless resource for scholars, is a compendium of every explicit reference to Schopenhauer made in Nietzsche’s works. But, as the contributors to this volume all point out, the implicit references are also crucial, for Schopenhauer’s writings were constantly in Nietzsche’s mind. As Janaway puts it in his informative introduction; to discuss Nietzsche without knowledge of the influence which Schopenhauer had on him is, at best, like Hamlet without the Ghost.

Those desiring further information on Nietzsche’s relationship with Richard and Cosima Wagner should read, with caution, Joachim Köhler’s Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation. The often fractious friendship between these three headstrong individuals was certainly fascinating, and Köhler clearly shows the many ways in which the domineering composer made use of the young professor’s initial adoration to help foster his own artistic vision. But much of this book is speculative, dwelling upon unsavory moments when none of the participants demonstrated much admirable behavior.

Perhaps it was the pettiness of Wagner’s household which fueled Nietzsche’s desire to forge his own identity. Still, the grandeur of this household – which produced some of the greatest music in Western history – is nowhere to be found in Köhler’s book. Nor is there much emphasis on the philosophical discussions which helped to forge this unlikely friendship in the first place, especially their mutual fascination with Schopenhauer’s work. To rectify this oversight, I once again recommend Lesley Chamberlain’s more evenhanded, and far more sympathetic treatment.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2000

Lesley Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography. New York, Picador, 1999, ISBN 0-312-19938-4.

Christopher Janaway, ed. Willing and Nothingness: Schopenhauer as Nietzsche’s Educator. Oxford, Clarendon, 1998, ISBN 0-19-823590-9.

Joachim Köhler, Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation. (trans. Ronald Taylor) Yale UP, 1998, ISBN 0-300-07640-1.

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