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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2018

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.

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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 calling, memorizing massive numbers of hymns and scripture passages. Painfully shy and withdrawn beyond his small sphere of influence, he was deemed, and deemed himself, a “little pastor” and “educator” to his friends and sister as he sought to exercise a supervisory role in their lives. But always Nietzsche looked for father surrogates, finding them in his friends’ fathers, or even in the strict discipline of the eliteGymnasium from which—true to his calling—he was graduated as the top student in his class. He would eventually reject the calling of the scholarly good son, as well as the Christian trappings, but the fervor of his search for a father would never lose its religious quality. With Nietzsche’s discovery of Schopenhauer and then Wagner, that fervor, woven into the virtual worship of the genius, propelled Nietzsche out of the brilliant career as a philologist which so readily availed itself to him at the University of Basel. In Wagner, the father became a bonafide genius with all the typical markings: the alienated, misunderstood, and dominating creator who lived for the sake of his music. Wagner embodied the attainment of that disinterested overview of the Whole which constituted the highest aesthetic redemption in the Schopenhaurerian universe. By way of his music, the worthy could share in that redemption.

Nietzsche’s abject servility toward and subsequent contempt for Wagner is well known. Pletsch’s innovative twist is to argue that underlying Nietzsche’s deference was his agonizing struggle to define his own creative potential. The best sections of Pletsch’s book are those in which he analyzes Nietzsche’s pre-1876 literary and scholarly works in light of these struggles. It is safe to say that after Pletsch’s analyses, no one will be able to read these works in quite the same way. Under his scrutiny, they become chapters in a powerfully told narrative of cultural and personal self definition.

Appointed to a chair in philology in Basel at age twenty-four, before he had received his doctorate, Nietzsche, by Pletsch’s account, was deeply divided between his scholarly commitments and his creative and philosophical aspirations. His 1869 inaugural lecture, purportedly a defense of philology, was actually a subtle protest against the impossibility of exercising creativity under the stifling blanket of historicist orthodoxy which covered the discipline. The desperation of his career choice was brought home to him as he recuperated from injuries incurred during a harrowing stint as a Prussian medic in the Franco-Prussian War. The result was his first book, the Birth of Tragedy (1872), which effectively ended his scholarly prospects, and forced him into the stance of the outsider. Pletsch’s treatment of The Birth of Tragedy transmutes the Apollonian and Dionysian into modes of Nietzsche’s personal struggle against the forces threatening to eclipse his own—as well as his culture’s—creativity. His evocation of the “heroic and exuberant willing” which underlay the Greek spirit brought professional vilification, but met with accolades from his father and master, Wagner, whose personal hold on Nietzsche would soon prove as stifling as that of academic orthodoxy.

As Pletsch convincingly shows, Nietzsche’s subsequent pre-1876 literary output, including not only published works but also personal notebooks as well as abandoned projects and lectures, reveal both a tortured attempt to redefine the nature of genius and creativity in general, and a progressive personal declaration of independence from his own masters, Schopenhauer and Wagner. Wagner’s vision of his own musical genius as a source of cultural and personal redemption, a vision which had so inspired Nietzsche, conferred on Wagner’s listeners the status not of an audience, but of a congregation gathering for worship. Though his notebooks reveal that for some time he had been critical of Wagner’s own claims to genius, in his final installment of the Untimely MeditationsRichard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), Nietzsche turned his attention toward those worshipers. His abbreviated attendance and final disillusionment with Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival of 1876 would place him outside of that congregation. Now the ultimate outsider, Pletsch argues, with no professional prospects, and isolated from his “father,” Nietzsche finally “becomes a genius” in his own right, embodying in himself the marks which characterized the role. In turn, that role enabled Nietzsche to define his own sense of mission. He had learned his lessons well.

Nevertheless, by the end of his intellectual life in 1889, Nietzsche proclaimed a redefined notion of genius, stripped of its cultic and redemptive pretensions. God is dead, and when God died, so did God’s secular surrogates. The creative genius cannot redeem us. And so Nietzsche would become a genius who rejected the cult of genius. In Ecce Homo (1908) he would write, “No new idols are erected by me; let the old ones learn what feet of clay mean. Overthrowing idols (my word for ‘ideals’)—that comes closer to being part of my craft.” And, as Pletsch points out in his concluding chapter, Nietzsche’s fictional genius, Zarathustra, issues Nietzsche’s final pronouncement on the cult of genius: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves.”

As intellectual history and biography, Pletsch’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the development and context of Nietzsche’s early life and thought. But when it comes to Pletsch’s claim to deal with Nietzsche’s own career as a genius-in-the-making, the outcome is less successful. Pletsch wants to show that the concept of genius was a culturally defined role which proved irresistibly attractive to Nietzsche due to his creative tensions and oedipal anxiety. Certain conditions necessary for Nietzsche to “become a genius” were met over the course of his development. Yet Pletsch also seems to advance the quite different claim that Nietzsche met those conditions because he was becoming a genius, as if Nietzsche met them in order to become a genius. Such a claim confuses descriptions of ends with explanations. Moreover, one might suspect that the very term “genius” needs some firming up here, since it is by no means evident that taking on the role of genius is one and the same with being a genius. One must conclude that Pletsch’s repeated assertions to the effect that at virtually every stage of his life Nietzsche was “creating himself” as a genius are neither very clear nor very convincing.

Nevertheless, the book’s strengths outweigh its difficulties. As a case study of the “cult of genius” and its pervasive influence among German intellectuals and artists, Pletsch’s book helps to elucidate the roots of the nineteenth and early twentieth century German preoccupation with the definition and acquisition of culture (Bildung); the fear that modernity had crushed all hopes for the expression of individuality; and the concern over the nature and attainment of “personality.” There questions remain relevant even apart from their historical significance. The book is well written, carefully organized, amply notated, and includes a useful—though rather restricted—concluding bibliographical essay. Pletsch avoids technical and trendy jargon, a temptation to which recent interpreters of Nietzsche often fall prey, and the result is a challenging and highly readable work of intellectual history.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. July 14, 1991, XIV, p. 5.

Kirkus Reviews. LIX, June 1, 1991, p. 716.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 1, 1991, p. 2.

National Review. XLIII, August 26, 1991, p. 40.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, January 16, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, August 4, 1991, p. 8.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, August 25, 1991, p. 13.

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