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
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The Independent Culture
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.