Friedrich Nietzsche’s legacy has fostered the image of a man of insistent boldness and indomitable ideas. The Nietzsche of popular imagination is the prophet of supermen and the unflinching messenger of dead gods. But like supermen, iconoclasts are not born but made. Independent scholar Daniel Blue’s decision to devote his book entirely to this early stage of Nietzsche’s life opens a window into the making of just such an iconoclast. By the end of the book, when Blue (and his readers) part ways with Nietzsche, he’s barely into adulthood — 24 years old. While Nietzsche’s legacy inevitably obscures the nuances of a real human being, Blue’s book shows us the beginnings of the man who would eventually produce that legacy.
The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche is a carefully considered and well-paced biography that knows exactly how much it intends to say and doesn’t aspire to take on any more than is necessary. The biography is punctuated repeatedly by and hangs upon Nietzsche’s own repeated attempts at self-evaluation. The periodic autobiographies Nietzsche wrote from age 13 through 24 served to help the young man understand himself more deeply and to allow Blue to summarize the course of Nietzsche’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development from childhood to young adulthood.
Midway through the book, Blue carefully curates young Nietzsche’s important first engagement with the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and draws back to explain the realities that might elude a too-cultivated retelling of the significant moment. This consideration is characteristic of his approach throughout the entire book, from the beginning when he lays out how the book will negotiate the controversial writings of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche to the end when he provides context for Nietzsche’s final autobiographical record: his curriculum vitae for the authorities at Basel. It’s an approach Blue sticks to faithfully throughout, especially when he pinpoints reasons Nietzsche, his sister, or their contemporaries might have had to portray history a certain way.
Blue’s writing is immensely readable and animates even the driest moments of the young man’s life. He’s careful to account for the human inclination to rewrite history and uses each of the successive autobiographies Nietzsche wrote (along with his letters) to show a man organically coming to terms both with his own spiritual and intellectual evolution and the climate of the mid-19th century German states. The Nietzsche that emerges is more uncertain and doubtful of himself than another biography (one less focused on how he became Nietzsche than what the icon accomplished) might have revealed. After all, as Blue reminds the reader up-front, “he did not become the Nietzsche known today ‘naturally'”, but rather it came through a conscious effort to not only direct his course, but to understand himself more fully.
The image that Blue leaves us with is of a tireless young man driven to understand himself — but not immune to the ordinary flaws of young adulthood. The Making of Nietzsche is a process of discoveries and setbacks, some self-inflicted — by self-doubt, by hubris, by equivocation — others by both the circumstances of his times, or by mere chance (such as the debilitating horse-riding accident during his brief service in the military). One thing that Blue makes clear is that, despite the ferocity of Nietzsche’s intellect, and despite his uncharacteristic insistence on self-examination, it was far from inevitable that Nietzsche would become the man he did.
Nietzsche is hardly an island, but this survey of his young adulthood — studied specifically through the lens of how he was understanding his own development — often depicts a family that glided at the periphery. They may have been in his thoughts, and certainly provided the necessary financial and emotional support he could default to when necessary, but Nietzsche largely lives without their immediate presence for much of the book. His friends play an important role both in his life and the book, but they also come and go, to eventually be replaced by other close friends. It is, of course, a natural process and fits with the time period the book is meant to document, but it also importantly allows Blue to foreground that this stage in Nietzsche’s life was one largely driven by his own self-construction. With few exceptions, young Nietzsche’s discovery of both Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner are the only serious influences that seem (once fully established) most firmly rooted in place throughout the book.
By the end, Blue uses Nietzsche’s final autobiographical effort to summarize the journey both the philosopher and Blue have taken the reader on over the course of the past 300 pages. Blue quotes Nietzsche, near the end of the book, “My upbringing was left up to me in its principal aspects,” and it is characteristic of young Nietzsche to make such an influence-erasing claim. After all, Blue has just given us over 300 pages of men and women who influenced Nietzsche’s upbringing in their own way, but like many of the cocky claims the young Nietzsche makes throughout, it’s difficult to say he’s entirely wrong, either.