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.
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...
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