'Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento': Wherein Nietzsche Finds His Voice

Paolo D'Iorio writes of the costs and rewards of a man in the midst of transformation.

Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento: Genesis of the Philosophy of the Free Spirit

Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Length: 159 pages
Author: Paolo D'Iorio
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09

A number of books this year have sought to take a closer look at various aspects or time periods within the development of Friedrich Nietzsche's life, from The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, which explored his development as a young man from 1844 to 1869; to Nietzsche's Great Politics and Nietzsche's Earth, which examined the philosopher's often misunderstood politics, and his thoughts as they might answer some of today's most pressing earth-centered questions like those of globalization and geopolitical categories. Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento is a thin volume, far thinner than the other three mentioned, but it's just as critically important to understanding the philosopher's values, philosophy, and identity.

It is Nietzsche's Journey to Sorrento that finds Nietzsche on the cusp of rejecting so much of what he had previously held onto, and forging so much of what he would come to be known for. Paolo D'Iorio is a steadfast and patient guide along this critical journey, which found Nietzsche re-contemplating his professional life, his dedication to certain ideas, and even some of his most constant and previously influential friendships. By the end of his journey to Sorrento, Nietzsche has effectively fallen away from his association with Richard Wagner, and even thrown some of his remaining friendships into doubt, given the new direction of his philosophical trajectory. The very woman whose invitation had brought Nietzsche south to Sorrento, Malwida von Meysenbug, "was the first to detect this profound change [in his thought] and to be horrified by it." Others, like Paul Ree, were thrilled by the changes, and in fact, cast themselves as "grateful mother" to Nietzsche's fatherhood of this line of philosophical thinking.

Journey to Sorrento is a straightforward and easily accessible snapshot of a critical moment in Nietzsche's life and intellectual development. D'Iorio tells within of a rupture in the philosopher's thought that both delights some friends and bewilders others, and ultimately destroys what had previously been a devotion to Wagner. The journey is not only characterized by this decisive break, but by the intensification of Nietzsche's physical ailments, ones which would remain with him for the rest of his life. Of his rejection of Wagner, Nietzsche himself writes, "[T]he corresponding baroque art of excessive tension and glorified exorbitance -- I mean Wagner's art... made me sicker and sicker."

As Nietzsche travels to the south, an idea that he had struggled with as a young man is facing its most strenuous test: how much did one's upbringing and culture define and restrict one's development? Here we find the historical and philosophical roots not only of Things Human, All Too Human but further of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and others.

D'Iorio can sometimes go off into expositions that may seem superfluous at first. The time spent extrapolating on James Joyce's understanding of the concept of epiphany seems, at first, undue. Could D'Iorio's explanation of Nietzsche's epiphany have stood entirely on its own? Possibly, but in time, it becomes clear that the author's narrative choices provide a more rewarding foundation for his discussion of various elements of Nietzsche's thought.

The book travels both with Nietzsche to Sorrento and away from it, before turning to what exactly Nietzsche took away with him from the seaside Villa in Chapter 5, "The Bells of Genoa and Nietzschean Epiphanies". As D'Iorio writes in this chapter, "In Sorrento, his deepest self had begun to speak again." It was here that Nietzsche's most authentic self, so to speak, shook off those restrictions of upbringing and cultural context his younger self had wrestled to understand for so long.

Beyond the philosophical changes D'Iorio explores in the book, and the consequences both personal and professional, the Friedrich Nietzche at the center of Journey to Sorrento is multi-faceted and all too human. D'Iorio writes poetically both about the countryside into which Nietzshe retreated and of the transformations taking place within the man himself: "The beautiful friendship and the intellectual solidarity, the brotherhood of arms at the heart of the Bayreuth project for the rebirth of Hellenic civilization in Germany thanks to the magic of Wagner's musical theater were extinguished at the Hotel Vittoria."

Throughout Journey to Sorrento, Nietzsche can be morose, introspective, and tortured; but he can also be jovial, personable, and companionable. The salon of friends at the Villa Rubinacci provided him room to transform himself philosophically, and D'Iorio skillfully recreates an environment characterized by bursts of intense sociability and melancholy lows driven by physical and philosophical distress. The reader and Nietzsche both conclude the journey south with the certain awareness that the man who traveled to Sorrento was not the man who left; and that that transformation was only just beginning. Beginning, in fact, with the unanticipated but momentous rupture away from Wagner.

D'Iorio does an excellent job of balancing and explaining the journey's personal and philosophical consequences while recreating an account with all the energy and compelling narrative of a novel.

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