Book review: I Am Dynamite! A Life Of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux

When I was an adolescent, I adored Nietzsche. He was the philosophical version of heroin: forbidden, dangerous, ecstatic, incomprehensible. I knew all the key phrases '“ 'what does not kill me makes me stronger', 'become who you are' and most notoriously 'God is dead'.

Sue Prodeaux: I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche
Sue Prodeaux: I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche

Later on I was – I almost wrote cured – redeemed by the work of Søren Kierkegaard. His Knight of Faith seemed so much more wonderful than Nietzsche’s marred Übermensch. It is a testament to how good Sue Prideaux’s new biography of Nietzsche is that it made me re-read him and find a different figure altogether. Kierkegaard, whom I do not think Nietzsche ever read, would have approved of the subtle afterthought to his most well-known epigram. God is dead, and we have killed Him.

This is a brave book in allowing its subject to remain a riddle. It does embody Nietzsche in that it is more about the living human than the abstract thought. Take one question – a question one might also ask about Kierkegaard – did Nietzsche ever have sex? It has often been asserted that his final madness was due to syphilis, but Prideaux tiptoes around the problem very graciously. We know he was once in a brothel; but it seems he spent his time there playing the piano. We know he was in love – with Cosima, the wife of Richard Wagner, his idol and the idol he had to crush – and possibly with Lou Salomé, a woman of formidable swagger. It was she with whom he was photographed, she brandishing a crop and he, and the other part of their intellectual ménage à trois, Paul Rée, pulling her cart. (This makes the statement “when you go to women, do not forget the whip” rather more masochistic than sadistic).

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Nietzsche was, it is claimed, a great admirer of a now not well known author, Walter Savage Landor, whose Imaginary Conversations pitted historical figures against each other (I read such books so that you, dear reader, do not have to). Though his own philosophy often centred on antagonisms, reading Prideaux made me think about how Landor might have treated Nietzsche. One way would have been to put him up against Kierkegaard, and have them battle about faith, doubt, madness and sex. The alternative adversary would have been Freud, who would have had a field day. To its credit, this biography does not play the obvious card. But a man who loses his father in early childhood, becomes obsessed with a father figure whom he later denounces, and who, in the most famous story of his life, finally goes insane on seeing a labourer beating a horse, would lie quite kindly on the Viennese chaise longue. Lying in bed is what poor Nietzsche did for the rest of his life. He managed to be exhumed before he was buried. The author of The Birth Of Tragedy and Ecce Homo was a shell of his genius.

In a way, this is as much a biography of Nietzsche’s dark sister, Elizabeth. Not allowed to be educated, and not allowed her brother’s luxury of giving up his prodigious academic career, the woman her brother called “The Llama” fell in with a charlatan called Föster and voyaged off to found an Aryan colony in Paraguay. This inevitably failed, but Prideaux is precise on the lies that Elizabeth spread during the collapse. Tail between her legs, she returned to find, luckily, her genius brother bed-ridden. The later use of Nietzsche’s philosophy as a structure for Nazism is due to Elizabeth’s anti-Semitism and fraudulent use of her brother’s unpublished papers.

The Will To Power is not his work, but a concoction of his sister’s. He, like Kierkegaard, was a far more literary, far more ingenious thinker. His bombastic titles – “Why I Write Such Good Books” being my favourite – are part provocation, part insanity and part comic-hall turn. When one reads of Elizabeth giving Nietzsche’s cane to Hitler (who never even read him, and would have despised his comments on how thick anti-Semites and German nationalists were) you can hear the sound of a corpse turning in the grave.

What do we find when we return to Nietzsche? A strange capacity for joy, whether it be Alpine views, Dionysian rapture or late Romantic music. I tried, in vain, to find some online recording of his own musical compositions, which Wagner was dismissive of, and could not find any. Rather than re-reading Thus Spake Zarathustra or Human, All Too Human, I would like to hear the music that he made.

I Am Dynamite is a wonderful insight into an almost impossible character. Having already written biographies of Munch, who painted Nietzsche, and Strindberg, whose work is uncannily similar to his, one wonders where her piercing intellect will go next. But in this book, she does what he himself, in his scatterbrained brilliance and deep kindness, prophesied: “only where there are graves, will there be resurrections”. Kierkegaard and Freud would agree. But Prideaux gives back the humanity to the all-too-human Nietzsche, and even manages to do so for his wicked sister.

I Am Dynamite! A Life Of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Sue Prideaux, Faber and Faber, £25