Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Intimate Fritz

I have read the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche since my college days. Like Tolkien and Thoreau, Nietzsche has been a lifelong pursuit.

Today, I finished rereading (been doing a lot of rereading lately) Lesley Chamberlain’s excellent biography “Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography.” I have several biographies on Fritz the human being, a few others on Fritz’s life as the great philosopher. It is sometimes impossible to separate the man from his writings, but there was a life being lived as the thoughts were being written.

A great example is Nietzsche and his umbrellas. Chamberlain’s biography is the only one in my rather healthy Nietzsche collection that mentions this “intimate” detail.

This short quote regards a young boy named Zuan who played pranks on Fritz:

“Rain or shine, Nietzsche never went out without a red umbrella to shield his afflicted eyes from the light. Over the years other witnesses recalled a grey umbrella and a yellow one. Lou Salome remembered his putting a red shade over the interior light in the Thuringen Forest resort of Tautenberg, near Jena. Zuan and his friends, in their insensitivity, put a handful of stones in the folded umbrella so that when the absorbed thinker opened it the pebbles showered down on his head.” – page 130.

The biography is filled with little nuggets like this. I find them deliciously light, yet full of Being. In that sense they are inspirational.

Chamberlain does a good job of paraphrasing Nietzsche’s unfinished “Transvaluation of all Values”, the work that was to be the summation of his philosophy. She chooses to write about it like this, some odds and ends…

“In a letter of late October Nietzsche speaks of his preoccupation with ‘an uncanny solitary act of transvaluation’. …Nietzsche…counsels psychological insight…urges self-determination…underscoring the chaos of existence…look inwards to find self-understanding…prepared to be out of season…cultivate self-discipline…belong only to themselves…deal with the world out of strength, not out of weakness…drags all that is significant about his past into the eternal present, swelling its rapture…The made self, the enabling power of self-overcoming…that process by which a man discovers himself already in the world.” - from pages 158 – 170

Nietzsche’s profound loneliness and self-chosen sense of isolation defies the fact that other people (who still managed to interact with him even though he gradually filtered everyone out up to his insanity) found him to be pleasant, humorous, entertaining, conversational on diverse topics, clever with his piano playing, and a great person to dine with. The loneliness is real for all of us, but I think Fritz a fool to perhaps turn it into a virtue simply because he was inept at being close with his friends, as Chamberlain shows.

“He knew how to be chivalrous but not how to be intimate,” she writes. – page 133

Chamberlain doesn’t go in to Nietzsche’s madness, only its initial personal manifestations. He banged on the piano in his room at all hours. He got naked and performed “Dionysian rites”. A doctor was called and his best friend came to take him to Jena for medical evaluation. The book ends with poor confused Fritz not wanting to leave Turin, but being won over by false promises from Bettmann, a psychiatric nurse.

Bettmann described the great ceremony waiting to greet Nietzsche as a celebrity at the railway station in Basel. That persuaded the first tragic philosopher, the first and last Dionysian, to leave Piazza Carlo Alberto. But even then Nietzsche lingered outside and begged a last favour from his esteemed landlord: ‘Dear Signor Fino, will you let me have your papalina?’ He wanted Fino’s triangular popish nightcap with tassle for the journey. When he put it on it must have made him look like a clown.” – page 217

Here is an nice short report about Nietzsche's experience in Turin that aired on NPR once.

I usually read more than one book at a time. Simultaneously with Chamberlain, I am rereading Hollingdale’s splendid biography along with a different sort of intimate account of Nietzsche that has been on my bookshelf for awhile going unread. “The Good European” offers numerous intimate details of Nietzsche from the perspective of places he lived and traveled. Lots of photographs attempt to capture his work environment. It is a picture book accentuated by a nice intimate biography filled with Nietzsche's letters and the thoughts of his contemporaries. There are many pics of magnificent places of natural and architectural beauty.

Within the past week, I also have watched a couple of films on Nietzsche, both of them of mixed quality. The lesser of the two is an adaptation of the novel by Irvin D. Yalom, "When Nietzsche Wept". There are some decent moments in the film and small details that only a person familiar with Nietzsche could appreciate. There is also some ridiculously bad acting accompanied by irritatingly created, almost laughably constructed dream sequences. Armand Assante does a respectable job performing Fritz, however.

The better film is artsy, almost like a modern day silent movie set to his writings from Turin at the end of his sanity. The soundtrack is heavily Wagnerian. “Days of Nietzsche in Turin”, a Brazilian film, actually captures the magnificence of the city, the setting for Nietzsche’s short, prolific period where he wrote three major philosophical works in 1888 along with several signifcant minor works before he lost his mind. Though flawed and really only suitable for the Nietzschephile (like me), it makes an excellent visual companion to Chamberlain’s book on the same period of time in his life.

I plan to finish “The Good European” before moving back into Nietzsche’s writings themselves, perhaps beginning with his last great work, Ecce Homo.

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