To say something new about Friedrich Nietzsche is quite a task. There’s no shortage of books on the subject of his life and work, and no shortage of translations of those works themselves. Beyond the survey of all this primary and secondary richness of source material, digging to the root moreover constitutes a researcher’s worst nightmare. Put simply: the man spent just 16 years publishing books, and the man’s sister spent nearly twice that amount of time disfiguring them for her own nefarious ends.
To prune back the branches on Nietzsche’s influential tree, long and perhaps often still ill-used as switches to deliver the punishing ideology of white supremacy, is hard enough. But then to also burrow down into the wet, searching underground matrices of this man’s true mind—a man who felt himself three-quarters blind philosophically as well as literally physically, is a tremendous feat. Many have done it poorly, and their failure is frequently obscured by an adherence to the main bullet points of Nietzsche’s story, leaving the detritus in these books to float along and be swept up into acceptance by complacency.
Those bullet points: As a person, Nietzsche was often miserable. As a teacher and writer, he was often unsuccessful, and as a corporeal entity, he was constantly ailing. He published several books during his lifetime, many of which were written in haste and poorly received by friends and reviewers alike. The two most influential people in his life were his sister, Elisabeth, and the composer, Richard Wagner. Nietzsche’s work was much more popular after his lifetime than during, because it was regularly used to justify the evils of anti-Semitic genocide.
Sue Prideaux‘s I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Nietzsche succeeds where many have failed. The title itself speaks to the twins problems of the task. She constructs “a life”, because this man’s philosophical thinking hinged always on the admission of “perhaps”, meaning that nothing arrives as the level of the definitive and also that any kind of arrivals must still necessarily remain open-ended. Hers is but one version of an extremely twisted and mystical story, yet it is, for all those caveats, one of the best attempts. This is in large part due to Prideaux’s willingness to throw dynamite into the bullet points.
Tone is a peculiarly touchy thing to negotiate for biographers, and probably more so when the subject is a philosopher. In treating Nietzsche’s life, we expect a certain degree of objectivity, not only in the provision of facts but in the diction and syntax used to convey those facts. Prideaux goes the distance as far as the presentation of facts, but her tone has more in common with proper storytelling. A good historian can weave the facts into a narrative that at least flows, even if holes among the facts mean the story can never properly cohere. She braids the strands of philosophy and biography together with this historian’s flair for storytelling. When this type of tightrope act fails, we say that the biographer did too much editorializing. Prideaux, however, is surprisingly adept at cutting through what’s already been said to get at something likely a little closer to the truth.
Most gratifyingly, she gets beyond the bullet point about Elisabeth bastardizing her brother’s work to serve the Nazis and actually spends a great deal of time on proper characterization of the woman herself. Elisabeth was intellectually dumb, possessed of an extraordinary capacity for jealousy and manipulation, and a very selfish person who went to great lengths to mold her family’s image in the public eye. For example, there’s a bunch of terrific detail about how she was briefly the queen of a colony in Paraguay, until it collapsed as a bankrupt pyramid scheme. Sometimes the facts speak ill of their subject without any help from the author, but Prideaux is also happily able to point out the nature of Elisabeth’s weaknesses and failures where they are not self-evident in her own quotations or actions. Her brother’s philosophy was very damning of her life, and she barely knew it.
Also very amusing is the author’s depiction of Wagner. In reportage of actual conversations that took place in his salons, based a good deal on Cosima Wagner‘s diaries and correspondence, Prideaux leaves no doubt as to the composer’s ridiculousness. Richard Wagner comes off looking like a clown, luxuriating in his piles of silks and exclaiming all manner of passionately Dionysian nonsense to anyone who will indulge him in the fantasies of his own greatness. The story of their marriage is a good one all on its own, and Prideaux’s choice of the very astute and intelligent Cosima for so much primary source material provides an impressive and refreshing angle on the underbelly of Wagner’s friendship to Nietzsche.
All of this is accomplished in a remarkably fluid and flexible style of composition. So much of the biographical or philosophical work on Nietzsche is bone dry and dull, even when it makes impactful arguments that are meant to upend all manner of previous assumptions. Prideaux’s I Am Dynamite! wins the day because it’s written in a style that eerily parallels that of Nietzsche himself. The writing is poetic and spirited, zigzagging amongst quotations and paraphrasing and editorializing with astonishing alacrity for such a frequently bleak subject. She can go tit for tat on ornate and romantic syntax to set the scene and sweep across Nietzsche’s best hopes for himself, then turn around and decimate the results with a brisk humor and aphoristic finality.
The book hangs together nicely. Both life and work receive ample attention—and what’s better, real connection. The mini biographical treatments given to those in Nietzsche’s orbit are themselves fresh and compelling. This is a detailed book, woven with precision and care, then tempered most judiciously by a sense of how strange and funny any life is, rather than the urge to make more tabloids out of such a sensational subject. Prideaux’s effort will please well-versed philosophers, but it’s also a lovely introductory story for those that do not know Nietzsche well.