Finding your Nietzsche in the 21st century

Geoff Dyer discovers the human - all too human - side of a great iconoclast; Nietzsche in Turin by Lesley Chamberlain, Quartet, pounds 10

The first thing I did on finding myself in Turin a few years ago was to visit Piazza Carlo Alberto. Massive construction work was underway. The noise of grinding metal and pounding jack-hammers was deafening. It was impossible to stay for more than a few minutes, but I was standing where Nietzsche - who aimed to "philosophise with a hammer" - suffered his final breakdown.

According to legend, in January 1889, Nietzsche, having witnessed a cab- driver flogging his horse, flung his arms round the nag's neck and collapsed. He had shown signs of increasing mental instability for some time - the brain-rotting consequence of tertiary syphilis. Thereafter, apart from odd interludes of lucidity, he remained helplessly bed-ridden for the last 12 years of his life.

Lesley Chamberlain's love of Nietzsche lured her to Turin for a prolonged engagement with the philosopher's life and work. Her book recounts an intellectual and physical pilgrimage taken to befriend the strange, solitary figure who claimed to "walk among men as among fragments of the future". A century later, when it is difficult to imagine how we would recognise ourselves without recourse to the inventories Nietzsche compiled of those fragments, he still has need of such friendships. As recently as 1992 John Carey sought in The Intellectuals and the Masses to get away with a travesty of Nietzsche's thought. Camus was right: "we shall never finish making reparation for the injustice done to him."

Chamberlain's first gesture of reparation is to greet Nietzsche as he arrives at Turin railway station in spring 1888. She offers a detailed itinerary of the philosopher's daily life over the next ten months. In a period of astonishing creativity he composed The Case of Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ and the brilliantly deranged autobiography, Ecce Homo. We come to know Nietzsche - and Turin - intimately in these pages. This is extremely helpful, for Nietzsche's "philosophy" was often a coded expression of a day-to-day existence in which solitude and illness "magnified every common perception" to the point of frenzied illumination. A febrile combination of infirmity and resilience, Nietzsche was obsessive about climate, diet and exercise.

The regularity of his working habits, however, could not prevent the increasing wildness of his thoughts. Unknown outside a small circle of converts, he was derided by local children, who filled his umbrella with pebbles which cascaded over him when it was opened. His megalomania became both petty - a waitress kept back the sweetest grapes for him, he was sure; he had only to think of someone and presto! a letter from them arrived - and colossal. His books were among the greatest gifts that had ever been vouchsafed to mankind; he would become "a destiny"; his fame would exceed all reckoning.

About the grapes and letters we can't be sure, but his delusions of posthumous grandeur were spot on. A vehement "anti-anti-Semite", he even hinted, in Ecce Homo, at the hideous irony by which his work would be distorted - thanks, largely, to his sister - to provide a philosophical underpinning for Nazism.

Initially, Chamberlain's stance is French Lieutenant's Woman-ish but she gradually eases back from quasi-novelistic interventions in favour of spirited exposition. This is almost literally a running commentary. Nietzsche liked to work while out walking; he distrusted any thoughts that came to him indoors. This puts many commentators at a disadvantage. Alexander Nehama's Nietzsche: Life as Literature is an example of the kind of library-bound analysis to which Nietzsche in Turin is such a sprightly alternative.

Much of its spring comes from the way that it seems to have been written on the move, in hotels or on trains to and from Turin. This gives her writing great immediacy but her book would have benefited from some sedentary revision. There are far too many mistakes in it.

There are other weaknesses. A few speculative passages are grounded in conjecture and some of the ideas could have done with closer scrutiny, but the momentum and angle of approach should carry readers over such hindrances in anticipation of the insights to come.

She is right, for instance, to emphasise that although Nietzsche has been packaged in images drawn from German Romanticism, he is more accurately seen as Munch pictured him in his "allegorical portrait": the harbinger of the rippling, curdled colours of European expressionism. "How to move out of the 19th century"; that was the question Nietszche's readers found posed in his work. But for us, as Chamberlain's book demonstrates, he also points the way into the 21st.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us