Conversations with Nietzsche

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1997

Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries contains eighty-five extracts from works by fifty-eight different memorialists of the philosopher’s life. As the editor reveals in his introduction, it is a much-reduced version of his Begegnungen mit Nietzsche (1981; revised edition, 1985). All periods of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life are covered, including his boyhood years and the years of his insanity. While the coverage is chronological, the different periods are labeled—for example, “Childhood and School Days (1844-1858),” “Migrant Years (1879-1889).” The table of contents, as well as the headnotes in each chapter, provides a chronological sense of the material. A thorough familiarity with the table of contents will prove helpful for readers unfamiliar with the trajectory of Nietzsche’s career: The chapters are not interrupted to mark the passing of the years. The book’s apparatus includes a list of sources for all contributions and biographical notes on all the contributors.

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In one case, chapter contents do not entirely conform with chapter heading: In “University and Military Time (1864-1869)” there is no material directly from Nietzsche’s stint in the army, though references to his attitude toward the service, as well as to the German imperial ideal to which it gave significant embodiment, occur later. The shortest chapter is the one recounting Nietzsche’s childhood, while the longest details his “Migrant Years”—his various journeys as well as his stay in the Engadine district of Switzerland. In general, there is a wealth of fascinating and sometimes contradictory evidence about Nietzsche’s life and times which, quite apart from its intrinsic interest, is all the more welcome for being, for the most part, translated into English here for the first time.

The range of contributors to Conversations with Nietzsche is wide. Beginning, inevitably, with the philosopher’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who did so much work to propagate her brother’s name (not all of it by any means beneficial; she has been thought of as one of the primary reasons that Nietzsche’s name became associated with Nazism), the book has a large dramatis personae. It includes Nietzsche’s mother; boyhood, school, and undergraduate friends; colleagues and comrades from his academic career at the University of Basel; visitors and acquaintances to Sils-Maria, the philosopher’s domicile in the Engadine; and, not least, a somewhat ghoulish parade of the curious who came to see him when, after his mental collapse, he was under the care first of his mother, then of his sister at Weimar, where he died.

This last phase is discussed in the chapter “On Display at Weimar (1897-1900),” a title that reveals as much of an editorial slant as may be found in Conversations with Nietzsche. Such a slant is a means of drawing attention to the growing cult of Nietzsche, a phenomenon which embodied a mordant irony, since the one from whom these votaries presumed to learn was on his deathbed, incapable of the vivifying conversation on which the bulk of the other recollections is based.

One of the most interesting features of this book’s cast of characters is that so many of those with whom Nietzsche conversed were female. Not only does this reveal an important aspect of the philosopher’s intellectual life, but it is also revealing about the intellectual climate of Nietzsche’s day. Undoubtedly, many of these women were formidable in their educational attainments, conceptual propensities, and cultural commitments. The best-known of them is that intellectual femme fatale Lou Andreas-Salomé, who would be famous for her connections with Sigmund Freud and Rainer Maria Rilke even if she had never been closely associated with Nietzsche. Yet, in the company which she is obliged to keep in Conversations with Nietzsche, she seems more biographically significant than intellectually impressive. Intellectually, she is eclipsed by both Ida Overbeck, wife of Nietzsche’s most loyal Basel colleague, and Malwida von Meysenbug, herself a philosopher and free spirit—rather freer in spirit than Nietzsche found it possible to be. In addition to these two women, Helen Zimmern, the philosopher’s first translator into English, deserves mention, not only because of her linguistic skills, but also because of the fresh, direct character of her contribution.

Ida Overbeck’s commentary on Nietzsche’s Basel years shows an almost unsettling degree of psychological insight, which may be one reason why it has been preferred for this collection over her husband’s reminiscences, from which only one selection is made. Frau Overbeck writes as one reflecting on conversations with Nietzsche after the effect: hence the strongly analytical character of her insights, which in turn has given rise to a somewhat impenetrable style. Meysenbug, in contrast, attempts in her accounts to re-create her conversations with the philosopher, which feature her own wit and intelligence as much as Nietzsche’s. The claims made on Nietzsche’s behalf by these two particularly interesting memorialists have, because of their less than worshipful attitude toward him, an authenticity, responsiveness, and thoughtfulness which do not always mark the dispositions of members of the Nietzsche circle.

Thus, for example, important as Meta von Salis-Marschlins was to Nietzsche (she rented the Villa Silberblick in Weimar where he spent his last years and which is the site of the Nietzsche Archive), it seems that she had little to offer the philosopher by way of intellectual empathy. It is from her pen that torrents of essentially hagiographical sentiment descend. Such downpours are quite revealing in the context of Conversations with Nietzsche, since the book is premised on materials that are to provide the intimate portrayals of the philosopher. Thus, in contrast to the image of Nietzsche as a monster of Übermenschheit, there is a strong and consistent emphasis throughout on the purity of Nietzsche’s spirit, his sensitivity, his emotional refinement, his gentlemanliness. Contributors such as Salis-Marschlins (and they are by no means all female) protest too much about the prominence of such qualities in the man they knew. Nevertheless, there is no doubting the value of such testimony.

One reason for the seeming extravagance and air of unreality about some of the statements made in praise of Nietzsche may be the translation. This is not merely a matter of questioning the translator’s competence. The text does contain a number of minor stylistic solecisms, though sentences such as the following are rare: “I was making my first independent journey in still very young years.” The problem, rather, is the difficulty of finding a reasonably familiar idiom in English that would convey the exalted view of Nietzsche ardently held by many of his devotees. Such a problem has to do with more than Nietzsche’s uniqueness as a philosopher, a fundamental component of which is his dazzling ability as a stylist and prosodist. (Part of Nietzsche’s fascination for modern philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida lies in his being a philosopher of language.)

In addition, however, Nietzsche’s uniqueness seems to have created verbal problems for his adherents, the literalness and reality of whose attachment prevented them from resorting to parable and parody as means of communicating their perceptions. Conversations with Nietzsche thus clearly demonstrates, particularly for the nonspecialist reader, how Nietzsche’s being difficult is a primary, inescapable, and all-important fact. As this book brings out, his difficulty was evident in every phase of his existence—health, thought, personal relationships, career, sexuality, reputation, and achievement—and it is the main reason that his position in European culture is so significant. What is difficult in and about Nietzsche prefigures many of the difficulties—psychological anxieties as well as epistemological adventurism—that typify twentieth century thought.

In the unobtrusive but inescapable manner in which Conversations with Nietzsche brings the reader face-to-face with the philosopher and the reality of his life, it performs an invaluable service. Moreover, in viewing Nietzsche in the round, it also provides interesting documentary material in a variety of other areas—the state of German music, the state of German academic life, and medical matters (including the treatment of the insane) in this period of German history. It must be pointed out, however, that there is no direct evidence from the two outstanding intellectual presences in Nietzsche’s life, Jakob Burckhardt and Richard Wagner. Burckhardt, the pioneering cultural historian, was a colleague of Nietzsche at Basel. Wagner, of course, whose music-drama Nietzsche championed and then denounced, is one of the most celebrated figures in late nineteenth century European cultural life.

The omission of such figures is revealing in a number of ways. In the first place, it maintains a balance and unity among the contributors, not because of the uniformity of their testimony, but because they all achieved a degree, however minor, of unproblematical intimacy with Nietzsche. This achievement may have been facilitated by their relative lack of fame. Secondly, the reader can have few if any expectations of testimony provided by unfamiliar witnesses. Such openness would be less likely if the contributors were famous. In addition, the fame of a Burckhardt or a Wagner might tend to overshadow the authenticity of, say, a Paul Deussen or Resa von Schirn-hofer (to name two important contributors not previously mentioned).

The obvious connection between composition and omission in Conversations with Nietzsche is not merely of interest in its own right. More important, it draws attention to the questions of genre which the book raises and which increase its interest and value. The nature of such questions can be understood in part from the following remarks by the editor at the end of his introduction:No attempt has been made to clarify contradictions between the various views of specific incidents, as no single view is most probably “correct.” Conversations with Nietzsche presents (as did its German source) a “new” Nietzsche in that the contradictions in the perceptions of those who knew him are made manifest. Thus the volume can serve as a biography in contradictions of this most contradictory of thinkers.

Incompleteness, lack of ostensible editorial or authorial finality, selectivity, and omission are therefore the preeminent features of Conversations with Nietzsche. Explicit formal deficiencies in the text are offered as a means of more direct access to the subject than the mere orthodox, or at least the more familiar, requirements of the single-author biography. Just as Nietzsche’s own aphorisms evoke the art of the lacuna, the vignettes and meditations included here evoke the art of silence. The reader of the aphorism extends its thought, filling in its various implications, providing it with the structure of which it is the keystone. Comparably, the auditor of these conversations completes and integrates what he overhears.

In one sense, Conversations with Nietzsche offers an extremely sophisticated account of a familiar aesthetic option, “less is more.” In another sense, however, the book provides a stimulating challenge to assumptions about the nature of biography, its use of a central coordinator and its perhaps arrogant, unnecessary, and irrelevant pretense to a final, singular point of view. Even if such a challenge is not taken up, the reader who considers Conversations with Nietzsche as a text will be obliged to acknowledge the paradox that the raw materials of biography, presented without the intervention of the biographer’s shaping hand, produce a more vivid, complex, and intimate portrait than conventional biographical methods provide, whether or not they are applied to Nietzsche.

Such an outcome may well be a tribute to Nietzsche’s gifts as a conversationalist and to his arguably more uncanny ability to inspire commitment and loyalty in those who came into contact with him. These considerations may tend to give credence to clichés about the mystique of a given subject’s personality. In this case, however, the mystique is replaced by evidence of those intangible qualities that show a Nietzsche who is human, all too human. This view is the most unexpected and most instructive which Conversations with Nietzsche conveys. It arises from the subtle, challenging, and finally simple harmonization—between subject, material, and method—which this book achieves.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19

Kirkus Reviews. LV, June 1, 1987, p. 835.

Library Journal. CXII, August 20, 1987, p. 119.

The New York Review of Books. XXXV, February 4, 1988, p. 35.

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