Post Your Opinion
Ecce Dionysus
by Hugh Graham

In December 1888, in Turin, Nietzsche broke down in tears and embraced a beaten carriage horse. In his final mental collapse, it so happens, he was also embracing the rediscovered roots of his own philosophy in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy: the acceptance of life as unprogressing beauty, chaos, and pain. That's one of the last of many illuminations in Lesley Chamberlain's moving book, Nietzsche In Turin. In a portrait that is far from the arrogant and forbidding `Superman' of popular judgment, she has nearly achieved the impossible: to understand the mind of Nietzsche during the last year of sanity, when brilliance flowed imperceptibly into madness.

Nietzsche had lived his life like a force of nature: a swift ascent to the chair of philosophy at Basel; its abandonment in a crisis of life and meaning; an abrupt descent into the night of the newborn philosopher; a `daybreak' of illumination; an upward ascent to greater works despite near-anonymity; a penultimate explosion of brilliance in the deepest solitude in the Alps, cut short abruptly by a terminal crisis; and a conclusion in eleven years of entombment in insanity.

It is the brief and fiery sunset of those last months in Turin that concern Chamberlain. The result is `micro-biography' raised to an art; one is left with the feeling that a longer span of time couldn't have gotten you closer to Nietzsche the solitary, womanless misfit whom, the author states flatly, she is attempting to "befriend". Chamberlain has set herself the task of bringing the man in his depths face to face with the work at its most intense. Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The AntiChrist, and Ecce Homo were all written in this short interval. What emerges is a philosopher whose work must have been forged more intensely out of his experience of life than that of any other thinker.

The thought of Nietzsche is underwritten by a constant urge to self-overcoming. And so it is that the greatest iconoclast of Christianity turns out to have been born in a severe German Pietist household. His father was a Lutheran parson who died when Nietzsche was a boy-and with that conflicted and complex man, Nietzsche claimed, died his own best self. By contrast, his mother, sister, and aunts represented for Nietzsche the life-denying Christian obedience, resentment, and hidden vindictiveness which the future philosopher would diagnose as the illness of Western Civilization. Thus the philosopher who as a boy obediently walked home from school in the rain while the other boys broke the rules and ran, turned in wrath against Christianity's crushing of the will.

Nietzsche blasted his obvious enemies. Anything that imposed on existence a structure that did not come from life itself was a feeble human contingency, an historical neurosis-and that included not just Christianity, but Bismarck and modern Europe and, finally, ideology itself. He then turned against his own mentors and finally against all those elements of residual Christian weakness and pettiness in his own self that stood in his way. He was a revolutionary to the core-literally.

But it is the case of his friend and mentor, composer Richard Wagner, that haunted him and that came to a climax with the writing, in Turin, of Nietzsche Contra Wagner. As long as Wagner embraced the essential tragedy of life that exalted the bittersweet dead-end love of his Tristan und Isolde and stood opposed to the mindless progress of Bismarck's Germany, Nietzsche was his champion. When Wagner deserted this Dionysian resistance for the Christian-flavoured piety of Parsifal and German nationalism, his one-time protégé spread his own wings and swooped down on Wagner with a vengeance.

Consistent to the end, Nietzsche, in these last months, mounts his final resistance against himself. Chamberlain gives us a man without social ease, devoid of any public `personality' or the least savoir faire with women, a solitary walker ridiculed by schoolchildren and fussy to the point of universal alienation. Above all Nietzsche castigates himself for his own bitterness while attacked by vomiting, headaches, and near-blindness. And yet he develops the physique of an athlete, a determination to be `healthy' that carries him through four books in nearly as few months. And further, through the love of a life and world devoid of metaphysics or ideas, but which presents itself bluntly in its colour and violence and exuberance as its own highest value without further redemption in any beyond-but whose transcendence is inward-all expressed to the point of ecstasy.

In the solitude of a mountain hotel room and a flat in Turin, he replaces formal philosophical oppositions with personal ones like sickness and health. He opposes what is morbid and northern and introspective to all that is bright, southern, and exuberant; the enfeebling sturm und drang of Germany to the calm sea of the Mediterranean and its depthless blue skies. He rejects finally the moody turbulence of Wagner for the bright zest of Bizet's Carmen.

Under all this metaphor (which Nietzsche would protest is merely life itself) there is still philosophy. "He declared," writes Chamberlain, "that surface phenomena, as they became familiar, all too readily grew in the human mind into `essences' and the only possible counter-move was the constant conjectural challenge of artistic creation. Still, ultimately created objects too would become absorbed into the establishment of unquestioned and revered things. How can we stop ourselves, as human beings, creating totems?" And so the realm of Plato's Ideas is discarded for life itself as the highest value. On the surface of things there is profundity; in `profound' self-involvement with conscience and morality is timid superficiality. As he finally liberated himself by transcending his own suffering, Nietzsche wanted to unburden all of humanity of the moralistic, censorious `thou shalt' of Judeo-Christianity. Thus it is with supreme irony that he called himself "the crucified".

Chamberlain gives us the last weeks of deteriorating sanity in an atmosphere of suspense. We know that syphilis was eating away at Nietzsche's brain. But the cause of the latent madness doesn't seem to matter; what matters is that Nietzsche, incredibly, senses that the end is near and must say everything that remains unsaid, or insufficiently said, before night descends-and it is a fast-engulfing twilight. Indeed, in Chamberlain's gentle hands, abnormality is merely a highlight: "The confusion of Nietzsche's inner life, between his view of himself and things around him, which in an emergency so quickly acquired a fairy-tale strangeness even without resort to opiates, suggests a form of continuing autism".

The feverish, egotistical tone of his swan song, Ecce Homo, may have been coloured with a lack of restraint and tact brought on by syphilis. But it seems to me some of its gotterdammerung came from sheer, impatient desperation and exultation. Ecce Homo is, above all, a coming home. The near-forgotten youthful work, The Birth of Tragedy, had celebrated the values of Dionysus, of the pre-Socratic Greece which exulted in the dramatic, tragic view of life-as-it-is. Nietzsche later suggested that the Dionysian principle had to be suspended in a restraining balance with Apollonian order. In the last month, as Chamberlain tells us with great drama, Dionysus Zagreus, the creative destroyer-god returns to haunt the banks of the Po beyond Nietzsche's window. On the threshold of death it is to this intoxicated god of life that Nietzsche gives in completely, first in Ecce Homo, and then in the final, pathetic bacchanal of his surrender to insanity.

Chamberlain pulls no punches in describing Nietzsche's ungainly personality. But she has so successfully befriended him that she almost writes as the companion he never had. Indeed, we have so much of the desperately human Nietzsche, struggling and infirm, that we want to be reminded at times of whence, precisely, came the greatness. But that's a small price to pay for a biography that can take a few months of a life to imply that the greatness came-inscrutably-from the bitterest experience of life itself. 

Hugh Graham is a Toronto writer. He is currently at work on a book about the history of political left and right for Stoddart.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us