Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born in Röcken, in Prussian Saxony, in 1844. His father and grandfather were parsons, and his mother, the enigmatic Franziska, to whose bosom Friedrich was to return after his mental collapse at the age of forty-four, was the daughter of a pastor. The father, born in the same year as Nietzsche’s future father figure, Richard Wagner, died when Friedrich was four, a loss from which the son never fully recovered. The young Nietzsche was brought up in a household of women—grandmother, mother, his rabidly anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth, and two maiden aunts. He was educated at Schulpforta, a re-nowned school run on military lines, where despite privations and the harsh discipline he was happy, and did well academically, though not to a remarkable degree. Later he attended the university in Bonn, studying theology and philology, the latter subject being the one in which he began a career that was to be quickly aborted.

In 1865, while still a student, Nietzsche visited Cologne, where he was taken by friends to a brothel. The details, and even the likelihood, of this visit were long disputed, but it is accepted now that it was on this occasion that he contracted syphilis. In 1867 Nietzsche was treated for a syphilitic infection which eventually led to the mental collapse of January 1889, effectively the end of Nietzsche’s life, although he was to live, silent and lost in himself, until 1900. In her excellent account of Nietzsche’s last days, Lesley Chamberlain gives a useful summary of his many illnesses.

As for the drama of ill-health, it never left him after he reached his mid-twenties. Even in childhood he had suffered headaches and myopia, and the weakness seemed to run in the family since it also afflicted Elisabeth, and their father Carl Ludwig, who had died at thirty-six of a brain disease. Nietzsche gave out never to know quite what was wrong with himself, though he suspected a hereditary problem and congratulated himself on surviving beyond his father’s age. Yet how can he not have known he had syphilis, with a scar close to his foreskin and a history, albeit brief, of treatment? He surely lied to Wagner’s doctor, Otto Eiser. The syphilis caught from prostitutes in his student days was complicated by diphtheria and dysentery contracted as a medical orderly in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Nietzsche was left with a delicate stomach and poor digestion and a recurring migraine, with constant vomiting and retching maximizing the pain in his head and the disruption [of] work. For days he could do nothing but lie in a dark room….

Syphilis was the AIDS of its day, and when we read Nietzsche, especially the late work, we should keep the fact of his illness firmly in mind. Apart from prostitutes, Nietzsche, so far as we know, never slept with a woman, although he had a number of loyal and loving women friends, among them the formidable Lou Andreas-Salomé. The secret love of his life, however, was surely Cosima Wagner: the French critic Charles Andler remarked that the triangular entanglement of Nietzsche and the Wagners was the great unwritten romantic novel of the nineteenth century. Cosima was one of the people he wrote to in the last, frantic days before the collapse at the beginning of January 1889. Among the dementedly playful missives he fired off in all directions comes the anguished cry he addressed to her: “Ariadne, I love you. Dionysus.”

After Bonn he studied at Leipzig, and in 1867 was conscripted to serve a year in a field artillery regiment of the Prussian army. This bout of military service was not strenuous, although an injury sustained in a riding mishap caused him much pain and required a long convalescence. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 Nietzsche served as a medical orderly, and suffered a physical and emotional collapse after a train journey of three days and two nights which he spent in a closed carriage tending six severely wounded soldiers.

A year previously, at the remarkably early age of twenty-four, Nietzsche had been appointed to the chair of classical philology at Basel, where he met the historian Jakob Burckhardt1 and the agnostic theologian Franz Overbeck—the latter was to be a lifelong friend. However, more important to him than these friendships, or academic success, was his virtual adoption by the Wagners. He first visited the composer in May 1869 at Tribschen, the Wagners’ house near Lake Lucerne, and thereafter became a regular visitor: at Christmas a year later he was present at the famous first performance of the Siegfried Idyll in the front hall.

Wagner graciously accepted Nietzsche’s adulation, cannily spotting a disciple who could be expected to spread the Wagnerian creed; in fact, Nietzsche was to be a relentless critic of Wagner and Wagnerism. Cosima, who was thirty-four when Nietzsche first came to Tribschen, was amused and probably a little flattered by this intense young man’s attendance on her as the Master’s muse. For his part, Nietzsche, alone and adrift, was captivated by the little world of Tribschen, seeing it as a version of Valhalla, while managing to ignore Wagner’s maniacal self-absorption and petty-mindedness, Cosima’s condescension, and the constant if casual anti-Semitism of the household. When the break came, and Nietzsche turned on Wagner, castigating him as a fraudulent purveyor of opiates, the result was devastating, for Nietzsche if not for the infinitely tougher Wagner; having lost his natural father, Nietzsche now was faced with the task of killing the surrogate, a grim task he had still not completed when he came to the end of his rational life.


In 1869 Nietzsche had successfully asked to be formally relieved of his military obligations, which under the regulations of his militaristic homeland meant he would cease to be a citizen of Prussia. He applied instead for Swiss citizenship, but was turned down. Thus from then on Nietzsche was to be stateless. It was an apt con-dition for a man of such a restless disposition. After suffering a general nervous collapse in 1870, Nietzsche became a dedicated hypochondriac, wandering through Switzerland and Italy in search of cures not only for his bad health but for the incurable condition of being himself. He secured longer and longer leaves of absence from his post at Basel, and eventually relinquished the chair altogether, and for the rest of his life would live from hand to mouth on a minuscule pension. For all his brilliance—perhaps because of it—he was not suited for the academic life, as was made clear by the publication in 1872 of The Birth of Tragedy, an entranced, dithyrambic reinterpretation of the origins of Greek tragedy which scandalized his peers by its poetic tone and lack of scholarly apparatus.

With this book Nietzsche showed himself to be, as Hans-Georg Gadamer has it, “an ecstatic witness,”2 identifying in the figure of Dionysus the savage force at work at the heart of Greek life and art. Although this early work is deeply flawed, it contains in embryonic form many of the most enduring of Nietzsche’s philosophical themes. For Nietzsche, the function of tragedy is not to provide catharsis, as Aristotle saw it, but to offer an exemplary spectacle of glorious waste. As he wrote in Twilight of the I dols:

Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types—that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not so as to get rid of pity and terror, not so as to purify oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge—it was thus Aristotle understood it—:but, beyond pity and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming—that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction…. And with that I again return to the place from which I set out—Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values….3

Despite such attitudinizing, however, he knew himself for the frail poor creature that he was. As he wrote in a notebook, “And I, too, have tried to affirm—but ah.” As the Italian critic Claudio Magris has observed, he was a Jesus who longed to be a Dionysus.

In the mid-1870s Nietzsche embarked on what would be more than a decade of restless flittings from the mountain country of the UpperEngadine to the south of France and on into Italy, in search of a place to rest his weary and increasingly frenetic spirit. Lesley Chamberlain writes:

…In almost ten years of wandering, Nietzsche had lived in Sorrento, Genoa, Venice, the Swiss Alps, Zurich and Nice. Becoming a Wanderer, talking to his Shadow, gave him common experience with exiles from Diogenes to Dante. What glory it was to be homeless and how it deepened his sense of being European!4

Like so many Germans before him, notably his beloved Goethe, Nietzsche had only to step onto Italian soil to fall in love with the country. In Turin, where he came in April 1888, he thought he had found his true place at last. “But Turin!” he wrote to his friend Peter Gast, in the exclamatory style of an excited tourist.

…What a dignified and serious city! Not at all a metropolis, not at all modern, as I had feared, but a princely residence of the seventeenth century, one that had only a single commanding taste in all things—the court and the noblesse. Everywhere the aristocratic calm has been kept: there are no petty suburbs; a unity of taste even in matters of color (the whole city is yellow or reddish-brown). And a classical place for the feet as for the eyes! What robustness, what sidewalks, not to mention the buses and trams, the organization of which verges on the marvelous here! One can live, it seems, more cheaply here than in the other large Italian cities I know; also, nobody has swindled me so far. I am regarded as an ufficiale tedesco (whereas I figured last winter in the official aliens’ register of Nice comme Polonais).5 Incredible—what serious and solemn palaces! And the style of the palaces, without any pretentiousness; the streets clean and serious—and everything far more dignified than I had expected! The most beautiful cafés I have ever seen. These arcades are somewhat necessary when the climate is so changeable, but they are spacious—they do not oppress one. The evening on the Po Bridge—glorious! Beyond good and evil!

Nine months after writing this dith-yramb to an idealized city, Nietzsche flung his arms about the neck of an ill-treated horse in the Via Po and collapsed into a dementia from which he would never recover.


In Nietzsche in Turin Lesley Chamberlain declares her intentions in the first line of her preface: “This book is an attempt to befriend Nietzsche.” Naturally, the reader’s heart quails a little, and Chamberlain knows it. “Philosophers may smile,” she writes, “…But it seems to me important to know, approximately, what it was like to walk down the road with this strained, charming, malicious and misunderstood thinker so important to the present age.” She succeeds to a surprising degree in communicating a sense of the man and the thinker, in all his strangeness. His friend Erwin Rohde said of him that he was like a man who came from a country where no one else lived. Of himself, Nietzsche remarked: “Some people are born posthumously.”

Loneliness was the condition of his life—“I have now forty-three years behind me, and I am just as alone as I was when a child.” In July 1888, sounding uncannily like his admired Heinrich von Kleist at the end of his tether, Nietzsche wrote from the village of Sils Maria, his refuge in the Upper Engadine, to Malwida von Meysenbug, one of those women who cared for him far more than he could understand or would acknowledge.

I involuntarily have no words for anyone, because I have less and less desire to allow anyone to see into the difficulties of my existence. There is indeed a great emptiness around me. Literally, there is no one who could understand my situation. The worst thing is, without a doubt, not to have heard for ten years a single word that actually got through to me—and to be understanding about this, to understand it as something necessary! I have given humanity its profoundest book.6 How one must atone for that! It places one outside all human intercourse, it brings an unbearable tension and vulnerability—one is a wild animal which is constantly being wounded. The wound is not hearing any answer, and having to bear, most terribly, on one’s own shoulders, alone, the burden which one would have liked to share, to shed (why else should one write?). One could die of being “immortal”!

The works of this last period in Turin are cries from the deepest pit of loneliness. There are ugly thoughts here.7 Of course, without the excesses there would not have been the extraordinarily acute and devastating insights.8 Had he been less solitary he probably would not have been allowed to say many of things that he did. I believe, and I suspect he too believed, that in particular the company of women would have curbed his tongue, if not his thought. Yet he is as much in need of female sympathy now as he was when he was living.

He gets that sympathy from Lesley Chamberlain. She is not a scholar, at least not in the professional sense. Unlike her subject, she is a linguist, having studied German and Russian at Oxford, and speaks five languages. She worked as a journalist in Moscow, has written books on cooking, and has edited Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook (by now the philosophers’ smiles will have turned into full-blown sneers). She displays an almost maternal sympathy and fondness for Nietzsche as she traces the increasingly desperate trajectory of his final months before the collapse into horror and madness. In the opening pages of Nietzsche in Turin we find him traveling south from Nice for his first visit to Turin, fussed and pernickety and burning with travel fever:

In Savona he probably misread a platform sign, or the destination on the side of a train. He spoke only a few words of Italian and was three-quarters blind without his spectacles. He put himself and his hand luggage in the Genoa train, instead of the one bound for Turin. Hurt by his own incompetence he turned his rage on the Sampierdarena locals, accusing them of exploiting him with high prices he could neither afford nor avoid. The result was an immobilizing migraine attack. This, he told…Franz Overbeck, was his worst journey ever.

Turin, however, that most Apollonian of places, was an immediate balm for his troubled heart. It was and still is unique among Italian cities, showing scant trace of the Renaissance, but bespeaking its Savoyard past from every massive wall and beetling monument. It is a planned city, the narrow canyons of the streets laid out on a very un-Italian grid system. Here Nietzsche found lodgings in the house of Davide Fino and his family at No. 6 Via Carlo Alberto. His room, Lesley Chamberlain tells us, “was on the top floor of the four-storey building.”9 He settled down at once to a “frugal and practical” routine: plain food, little alcohol (what an irony that such a devoted follower of Dionysus should have been almost a teetotaller), and rigorous exercise. (In all his writings he insisted on the equal importance of a philosophy of the body and of the mind, defending the body against philosophers such as Descartes who, he believed, held it in contempt as a mere vessel for the “spirit.”) Apart from gymnastics,10 Nietzsche was an inveterate walker. And Turin is made for walking, with its ten kilometers of arcades, its neat parks, its magnificent prospects along the River Po.

And as always, there was work. In these final months (he stayed in Turin from April to June, when he visited his beloved Sils Maria, returning to Turin in September) his productivity was astonishing. First there was The Wagner Case, in which he crystallized at last his arguments against what he saw as the decadent trickery of Wagner’s music. The chapter which Chamberlain devotes to The Wagner Case, and to Nietzsche’s theories of music in general, is the aesthetic high point of her book. Nietzsche, with that ponderous frivolity that was typical of him at the end, chose to set Bizet, of all composers, against Wagner. What he loved in Carmen, he declared, was its lightness, its suppleness, its “politeness,” “its African cheerfulness.” “‘What is good is light, everything divine runs on delicate feet’—this is the first proposition of my aesthetics.”

What we Halcyons miss in Wagner—la gaya scienza; light feet; humour, fire and grace; bold logic; the dance of the stars; an exuberant spirituality; the tremor of southern light; the smooth sea—perfection.

On the other hand, Wagner’s music has for him the leaden weightiness of kitsch. Nietzsche had always adduced “the actor” as the opposite of the authentic man, and now he saw Wagner as a histrionic phenomenon: “As a musician…he was only what he was in general: he became a musician, he became a poet because the tyrant within him, his actor’s genius, compelled him.”11 By means of tonal sleight-of-hand and dramatic trivia, Wagner “won the crowd, he corrupted taste.”

Everything that has ever grown out of the soil of impoverished life, the whole counterfeit industry of transcendence and the Beyond, has found its most sublime spokesman in Wagner’s art—not in formulae: Wagner is too clever for formulae—but in the persuasiveness of sensuality, which for its part makes the mind rotten and tired. Music as Circe…12

As Chamberlain points out, however, here as elsewhere Nietzsche’s position was deeply ambiguous. A failed composer (when Wagner called him that, Nietzsche responded sharply by accusing Wagner of being a failed philologist), Nietzsche took a sour delight in championing the relatively minor Carmen over the epic venture of The Ring. He was, of course, jealous of Wagner (as composer and husband), and he knew it. Ostensibly condemning Parsifal as “a work of genius in its seductiveness,” he admitted, “I admire this work; I would like to have written it myself, in the absence of which I understand it.”

The Wagner Case is as much diatribe as argument, and in its account of the composer are discernible the early signs of the mental disorder that was gathering force, as syphilis ate away at his brain. All Nietzsche’s books,13 as Chamberlain puts it, “have an improvised feel; they are asymmetrical, discontinuous, tightly concentric while without an obvious center,” but, brilliant as they are, the works composed in this last, brief segment of his life, with their new note of shrillness and desperation, point unmistakably in the direction of madness. The heightened tone that before had sounded like Romantic rhapsody but was in fact the result of that state of philosophical amazement normal to Nietzsche now is unsettlingly reminiscent of the rantings of a street-corner zealot.

Nietzsche declared that his program was nothing less than a “revaluation of all values,” and it is with this ringing phrase that he ends another of the books he wrote in Turin, The Anti-Christian, which he conceived as the first volume in the great projected work which would go under the general title Revaluation of All Values. Nietzsche confronted Western philo-sophy—indeed, Western culture in general—with the question of authenticity, the question of, as the subtitle to Ecce Homo has it, “How One Becomes What One Is.” As he said in the early essay “Schopenhauer as Educator,” “The riddle that the human being is supposed to solve can be solved only in being, in being what he is and not in being something else, in the immutable.”14 Yet for all his strident affirmations of Life, his repeated exhortations for us to love our fate, to embrace our destiny, to join Zarathustra in the dance of joyful wisdom, the would-be revaluer of all values was himself incurably equivocal, as was perhaps inevitable. As Heidegger wrote in another context, “The one who is questioning metaphysically is himself put into question by this questioning.”15 Nietzsche wanted to say Yes to the ordinary realities of life, yet it was those very realities that were beyond him. Of his own emotional and spiritual infirmities he was well aware, yet he refused to forgive himself or to allow himself to relax in his struggle to formulate a philosophy that would strip away illusions. In this he is surely a wonderful example of what it is possible to achieve with even the poorest of materials. As Leslie Chamberlain says, “Out of his incapacity to live he created a formidable life.”

Twilight of the I dols, The Anti-Christian, and Ecce Homo were all written in the last months in Turin. Nietzsche must have worked at a white-hot pitch. The sense of this ecstatic haste is one of the things that make these books so exciting to read: as we follow the molten line of his thought we have the impression that it is we who are doing the thinking. It was what he saw as the self-deluding nature and wishful thinking of Christianity that drove him to those final heights of furious indignation in Twilight of the I dols and especially The Anti-Christian: the personal god, he wrote, the God “who cures a headcold at the right moment or tells us to get into a coach just as a downpour is about to start is so absurd a God he would have to be abolished even if he existed.” He is as much poet as philosopher (although his poetry itself is execrable), and we are persuaded of his arguments—if we are persuaded—by the force and elegance of his language as much as by the rigor of his thought. In Twilight of the I dols he gave it as his ambition “to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book….” And in a passage discarded from Ecce Homo he declares:

My writings are difficult; I hope this is not considered an objection? To understand the most abbreviated language ever spoken by a philosopher—and also the one poorest in formulas, most alive, most artistic—one must follow the opposite procedure of that generally required by philosophical literature. Usually, one must condense, or upset one’s digestion: I have to be diluted, liquefied, mixed with water, else one upsets one’s digestion.16

At the start of his life as a philosopher, Nietzsche had written of Schopenhauer: “The fate of solitude is the gift he receives from his fellow human beings; regardless of where he lives, the desert and the cave are always with him.”17 Now as he wandered through the blue-grays and ochres of that splendorous last autumn in Turin, nursing his terrible thoughts, he entered his own state of transported self-delusion. The final letters are heartbreaking as they lurch from muffled appeals for help to pathetic braggadocio. Of Ecce Homo he wrote to Peter Gast: “It so transcends the concept of ‘literature’ that there is no parallel to it even in nature herself: it blasts, literally, the history of mankind in two—the highest superlative of dynamite….” Scholars of the city bowed before him in the bookshops, ladies had an eye for him. He wondered if he should go about the streets in disguise—as if there were anyone to recognize him. To his mother he wrote:

I never knew till now what it means to enjoy one’s food; honestly, I eat four times as much as in Nice, pay less, and have not yet had any trouble at all with my stomach. Admittedly, there and in other ways, Ireceive preferential treatment; Idefinitely get the tidbits. But it is the same everywhere I go—people regard me as a person of distinction; you would be surprised how proudly and with what a dignified bearing your old creature walks about here.

The end was close. His handwriting began to decay, to such a degree that only his mother could read his script. A fragment of one of the Dionysus Dithyrambs of this time comes through her; Lesley Chamberlain describes it, accurately, as being of “Rilkean purity and inwardness”:

Solitude is
not pain but ripening—
For which the sun must be your friend.

The sun was the only friend left to him now. There was, as Kleist had said of himself, no help for him upon this earth.18 He suffered prostrating attacks of weeping, accompanied by trembling and facial grimaces. He hid in his room on the Via Carlo Alberto, watching the winter harden. Christmas came and went, and on January 3 in the Via Po he embraced a cabman’s nag and collapsed on the pavement. The police had already been called when his kindly landlord Davide Fino arrived. Nietzsche recognized him, and Fino brought him home, where behind the locked door of his room he raved and ranted and danced naked in the private bacchanal of his dementia.

From Turin he was transferred to a clinic in Basel, where he was treated by a Doctor Wille—another of those ironically named phantoms surrounding him at the end—and later was taken to Naumburg by his mother, after whose death in 1897 his sister brought him to Weimar, where she lodged him at her house, the Villa Silberblick. By now Nietzsche’s fame had spread throughout Europe, and his books were earning large royalties, which Elisabeth employed to keep herself in a style to which she was not accustomed. Count Harry Kessler visited the villa in 1897, and left an account of the sad state into which the philosopher had sunk: “In the lifeless, flabby face one can still see deep wrinkles dug by thought and willpower, but softened, as it were, and getting smoothed out. There is infinite weariness in his expression.”

On a subsequent visit Kessler was woken in the night by a loud roar from Nietzsche’s room. “Ihalf got up and again heard once or twice the long, coarse, moaning sounds he was uttering with full force.” In 1898 he suffered a minor stroke, and a more serious one the following year. He grew weaker still, and could barely speak. One day, when a new book was put into his hands, he said:”Didn’t I write good books too?”19 In August 1900 he caught a cold and had difficulty breathing. On the 25th he suffered another stroke, and died.

Affirmation was his credo. Even in the deepest pit of his distress, in that last October in Turin, as his reason was collapsing, he had been able to set this paragraph at the head of Ecce Homo:

On this perfect day, when everything has become ripe and not only the grapes are growing brown, a ray of sunlight has fallen on to my life:Ilooked behind me. Ilooked before me, never have Iseen so many and such good things together. Not in vain have I buried my forty-fourth year today, Iwas entitled to bury it—what there was of life in it is rescued, is immortal. The first book of the Revaluation of all Values, the Songs of Zarathustra, the Twilight of the I dols, my attempt to philosophize with a hammer—all of them gifts of his year, of its last quarter even! How should Inot be grateful to my whole life?—And so Itell myself my life.20

Despite the misunderstandings of the man and the misreadings of his work that have led many to regard him as pernicious, Nietzsche remains one of the greatest and most profound thinkers of the modern age. Without him, it would be hard to imagine the philosophical and literary map of the twentieth century, from Heidegger to Paul de Man, from Freud to Lacan, from Thomas Mann to Milan Kundera. In casual-seeming aphorisms—“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena”21—Nietzsche demolished whole walls of the house of Western philosophy. He brought us news of the death of God as a sustaining fiction, mounted a devastating attack on the foundations of Christianity, excoriated the contempt for natural life of which he believed priest and philosopher alike were guilty.

Not least, he set in place, in prose which is beautiful even in translation, a poetic interpretation of life remarkable for its insight, honest, grandeur, and gaiety. Ignored in his own time, traduced in ours, Nietzsche, for all his failures—and he knew himself to be “human, all too human”—is a determining intellectual figure whose light was quenched at the very dawn of a century so many of whose travails and terrors he prophesied. In William Gass’s formulation, “Nietzsche bit our values as if they were suspicious coins and left in each of them the indentation of his teeth….”22

This Issue

August 13, 1998