(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Carl Pletsch’s book is in large measure a psychobiographical study of Friedrich Nietzsche from his birth in 1844 to his break with Wagner in 1876. Readers with little faith in the interpretive viability of psychoanalytic categories inevitably will find themselves awed by Pletsch’s occasional flights of speculation, or perhaps irritated by his apparent confusions of needs, motives, and causes. Still, even among the unconverted, who could think of Max Weber in quite the same terms after reading Arthur Mitzman’s psychoanalytical biography, The Iron Cage (1970)? Or of Martin Luther after Erikson’s Young Man Luther (1972)? Similarly, after Pletsch’s analysis, few readers will be able to think of Nietzsche’s early works in quite the same way.

Pletsch argues that careful study of Nietzsche’s life and development may well shed valuable light not only on Nietzsche himself but also on the thorny issue of the nature of genius in general. When Plato alerted the Greeks to the striking resemblance between the artist and the cosmic Demiurge, he was expressing a common and recurrent theme: The extraordinary creative power behind genuine innovation imbues the innovator with an unmistakable godlike quality. For the most part, divine inspiration would long be the obvious explanation for the mysterious brilliance of the genius who, like the Christian God, “creates from nothing.”

But in the eighteenth century, the creative genius himself became secular saint, hero, and even god to an emerging middle class eager to liberate individual human potential from the chains of aristocracy and religious orthodoxy. It is from this eighteenth century invention of the modern idea of genius that Pletsch takes his tart. “For many educated people,” he writes, “God was retreating to the wings, and the genius was taking his place.” By the end of the century, however, the genius had been assigned a decidedly ambiguous position in society. By turns admired and resented, worshiped and reviled, monumentalized and trivialized, and genius stood out as a critic of middle-class values, an alienated and arrogantly indecent bohemian. As Arthur Schopenhauer explained it, talented human beings might hit a target visible to all; but with insight hitherto assigned only to prophets, seers, or gods, the human genius hits targets that only the genius himself can see. Accordingly, the genius must expect and even welcome the suffering and isolation of his calling. The glory of that calling lies in his role as a godlike Unmoved Mover of future apprentices capable of participating in the power of his intuitive vision.

It was Goethe who highlighted apprenticeship as a component in the development of new geniuses—a development, he noted, “joining the acquired with the innate, so that the result is a unity which astonishes the world.” Goethe mused that it might well be this very astonishment engendered by geniuses, rather than their actual ideas, which productively inspires subsequent generations. “Becoming a genius” thus involved not only some kind of innate capacity but also inspiration and apprenticeship in the learning of a role. Nietzsche, Pletsch argues, was such an apprentice, in his adolescence finding productive inspiration in literary discipleship to Goethe himself. Later he would turn to the literary inspiration of Schopenhauer before submitting to Richard Wagner, the embodiment of the Schopenhauerian ideal. This ideal, however, involved less an apprenticeship to ideas than to a “personality.” Through such an apprenticeship one might unfold one’s own personality.

Pletsch argues that the “cult of genius” in German intellectual and artistic circles bound the young Nietzsche to its lessons with an iron grip. Explaining why this was so is one of Pletsch’s main objectives in his book. His answer is that the dynamic of Nietzsche’s development lies in the powerful and unresolved oedipal tensions surrounding his relationship to his father, a young Lutheran pastor who died when Nietzsche was five years old. Mercifully, then, Pletsch is permitted to limit to a few passages his treatment of the child Nietzsche’s breast-feeding and toilet-training habits. Instead, the crucial moments of Nietzsche’s childhood come during his later transition from the oedipal to the latency stage of his development. The elder Nietzsche dies at a time when his son, standing at the threshold of identification with his father, is nevertheless still in a position to “win” the oedipal conflict. The resulting tension would produce the recurring psychodrama of Nietzsche’s life.

Compelled to identify with a lost father, Nietzsche held himself to a decidedly idealized picture of the man. He imagined his father as an accomplished pianist and writer, and played out his rivalry for his mother by presenting her with musical and literary creations. At the same time he was a good boy, seriously intent on fulfilling his father’s...

(The entire section is 2018 words.)