I just finished Julian Young’s Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (Cambridge), and wanted to share some initial thoughts about it. Some readers of this blog may wish to straighten me out on a few things, or lend their own observations. I’ll eventually work these first impressions into a more formal review.
First things first: this is a great biography. It offers an even integration of biographical detail and philosophical analysis. It improves hugely upon Safranski and Hollingdale, sizably upon Kaufmann, and marginally upon Hayman. (Hayman’s book is underrated, I think, and often criticized for trying to psychoanalyze Nz. But in fact there really isn’t that much psychanalysis in it, and it is both masterful and beautifully written.) I would say that Young has a keen sense of how much detail to go into without becoming tiresome; but then again, it is a big, heavy book, with smallish print, and over 500 pages, so possibly only those with Nietzschephilia will agree with me on this point.
Young goes into a fascinating depth of historical detail, with useful excursions into the Franco-Prussian war, Bismarck, the “Life-Reform” movement, and the lives of Nz’s friends, enemies, and acquaintances. It also has interesting intellectual discussions of Holderlin, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, and it is to Young’s great credit that he devotes ample insight and space to the importance of music to Nz’s thought and life. Cambridge UP has made Nz’s music available on the web, and Young frequently alludes to various pieces, their importance, and how they were received. Nz’s music has gotten a bad rap, it seems — some notable musicians, like Lizst, quite liked it. And when they are performed well, many of them have kind of “Schubert Lieder” feel to them. Young also sensibly and sensitively treats Nz’s changing attitudes towards women, both the women he knew and the whole “species.” Basically, it ends up looking like Nz was something of a feminist until Lou jilted him, and then he became a misogynist in variable strengths.
When it comes to philosophical analysis of Nz, Young’s book is also sound, I think, and Young’s close detective work integrating letters and notebooks with Nz’s published works lead to many intriguing and compelling observations. But there are three distinctive claims Young makes that are sure to raise some eyebrows among the specialists.
The first is that an overarching aim of Nz’s philosophy was to provide “a new religious outlook to re-found culture.” This might sound wholly implausible, but I think all Young means by “religious” is a certain attitude of reverence toward something. And Nz certainly has that: he reveres many things, including life, nobility, hardness, and cultural achievement. To the extent that Young only means to say that Nz had a kinda religiousy outlook upon what he labels as “virtues,” maybe this claim will pass. But Young does come pretty close to claiming that what Nz wanted was a kind of return to Greek polytheism, and that does seem a bit much.
The second is that Nz, far from trying to demolish traditional morality, was out to “re-found” the sorts of values we might today identify with communitarianism. Young returns to this claim frequently throughout his book, and gathers up surprisingly good evidence for the claim. But, in the end, when we find out that Nietzsche wants a society infused with compassion and high culture, and bound together in a concern to combat global warming (!), one is left wondering whether Nz has once again been tamed into something more familiar and friendly to our own attitudes. One wonders why Nz thought someday his name would be associated with some terrible calamity, if this is indeed all he was out to establish.
The third is Young’s claim that, by the end of his life, Nz had repudiated the “will to power” doctrine, or at least had backed it off a bit so that it was only a claim about the value of health to bring happiness to a human life. Again, Young marshals strong evidence for this claim, though I again am worried that Young might be taking the edges off Nz’s fangs and claws.
A reviewer for the NYT noted that the book is marred by frequent references to pop culture and recent politics. I guess that’s just a matter of taste (dry classicism vs. juicy immanentism), but one is surprised to see Young’s speculation that Nietzsche would have been hopeful about Obama’s promise of providing “spiritual leadership with global power.” There are also a couple of simply bizarre tangential observations, that Robert Mugabe’s violence perpetrated on his own people is somehow related to his enjoying good health, and that the “stench” of the Nazis is still present in the Nietzsche Archive house in Weimar. I’m not sure what to make of that.
But, as I say, it’s a really big book, and its many fruits far, far outweigh any blemishes. I found myself slowing down as I reached the end, as I really didn’t want the immersion into Nz’s thought and life to end. I think it will be – at least – the biography of this and the next generation of Nz scholars. After that, of course, the scholars will need to tell it all over again to themselves. (Recurrence of the same, don’t you know.)