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Biography and Scholarship: A Reply to Professor Young, Daniel Blue

In his latest response Professor Young has provided an account of how certain words and structures that occurred in a biography by Curtis Cate reappeared in his own book. His basic explanation—that he read Cate’s book five years before starting to write and forgot the provenance of materials—is more specific and to that extent more plausible than the one he offered earlier. Unfortunately, he hedges this admission with questionable claims and covert attacks. Professor Anderson, their principal target, will respond to those. I would like to address certain puzzling notions Young entertains regarding biography.

I would also like to shift the focus from earlier interchanges. In his original article Mark Anderson rightly drew attention to the artistic element in biography and in particular to the way an author tells a story. Here I highlight the other side of the genre, the ways biography is not just an aesthetic artifact but a work of scholarship, and subject to the same constraints as any other presentation of researched and codified knowledge.

We might begin with Young’s rueful statement, “I tended to assume—wrongly—that the manner of reporting humdrum historical facts no more counts as intellectual property than the manner of reporting a bus timetable.” This remark, although humble enough and no doubt humorously intended (“a bus timetable”), nonetheless suggests that Young still somewhat underestimates the genre’s requirements. For the biographer there are no “humdrum historical facts” because every truth, once unequivocally established, represents an accomplishment made by some individual scholar. Facts from the past are not immediately given, nor can they be inferred; they are contingencies and have to be hunted down and verified, one by one, often laboriously and sometimes through the grace of luck. Only when definitively established can they form a reliable basis for the superstructures of interpretation and further research.

To give an example, we might consider the date of Friedrich Nietzsche’s enrollment at the University of Leipzig. On the surface this might seem a mundane and easily specified piece of information, a fact as “humdrum” as one could wish. It has nonetheless enjoyed a contested history. Most biographers mention this event, for Nietzsche records that the rector welcomed the new students by informing them that they were arriving on the hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s own matriculation.[1] Few biographers could resist such symbolism, and Nietzsche himself was pleased and inspired by what he hoped would prove a good omen. Yet if one compares accounts, one finds chaos. Some biographers apparently thought that rather than search the archives, they could take the date of Goethe’s enrollment and add a hundred years. Yet inexplicably, they seemed not to be united on the Goethe date. Cate gave it as 18 October 1765, Ulf Heiseas 19 Oct., and Werner Ross as the 20th.[2] (An afternoon in a library today yields Oct. 19.)[3] As the reader might imagine, these biographers dated Nietzsche’s matriculation accordingly: Cate as the 18th (which Young followed) and Ross as the 20th.[4] Ronald Hayman also cited the 18th in his biography, and Curt Paul Janz bridged the gap, giving “the 18th or 19th of October, 1865.”[5] As it turns out, Ross, who checked the archives, was correct, at least with regard to Nietzsche. When Ulf Heise examined the university records, he too confirmed Nietzsche’s enrollment as occurring October 20th, 1865, and he published a copy of the document to settle the matter finally.[6] The putative coincidence with Goethe’s admission, which seems decisively to be Oct. 19, turns out to be inexact and a red herring.[7]

As errors go, these may seem negligible. What the above does indicate, however, is how careful one must be with sources. In biography as in history, little can be taken for granted, and one should maintain a margin of skepticism even when reading the most revered masters (Janz).

Young augments his basis in Cate with readings in memoirs, including several found excerpted in Friedrich Nietzsche: Chronik in Bildern und Texten.[8] None of these reminiscences, however, were written before Nietzsche’s collapse, and in my first reply I indicated how some were probably incorrect. Memoirs by definition are written after the events described, and not only does memory simplify and deceive; one’s view is framed by one’s character, not to mention occasional desires to settle scores or emphasize proximity to now famous people. Nietzsche was frequently impatient with Paul Deussen and accused him (among other things) of “an unphilosophical lack of seriousness in life”[9] What he thought of his sister is painfully evident in altercations over Lou Salomé and the marriage to Bernhard Förster. Consider then how unhappy he would be to find the memoirs of these two populating the footnotes in virtually all Anglo-American biographies. The researcher should be proportionately wary.

Letters provide far more reliable source material—first, because they are written at the moment events are happening, and second, because they are addressed to another person and, if dishonest or irresponsible, may provoke immediate response. In addition, biographers have been ferreting out facts from unexpected sources, particularly concerning Nietzsche’s milieus. By immersion in the Naumburg archives Martin Pernet discovered religious tensions in the town that illuminate the boy’s upbringing and the views of both his family and teachers.[10] Anacleto Verrecchia deployed the newspapers of Turin to uncover not only the cultural events Nietzsche attended but which ones he missed, not to mention the topics of local importance that he would have heard discussed in cafes.[11] Reiner Bohley immersed himself in the records of Schulpforta to present an account of all aspects of the school at the time Nietzsche attended—the disciplinary infrastructure, the instruction in classics and religion, portraits of his teachers, and a review of the sociological background of his fellow students.[12]

It is evident then that biography is a work perpetually in progress, a creation of accumulated scholarship, and many facts in a personage’s life are no more established once and for all than are certain astronomic measurements—the size of the solar system, for example—which are recalibrated and made ever more precise over time. The serious biographer will know and be grateful to those researchers who discovered and proved something new. The latter will also be cited in footnotes, not just as an act of transparency, but as a tribute to those who contributed to the advancement of knowledge. The scholars mentioned above—and many more, most of them German-speaking or Italian—provided hard data which is now indispensable for those who wish to study Nietzsche’s life. Facts serve as evidence; and just as a scientific theorist would never knowingly devise comprehensive theories based on false data, so correct information is a sine qua non for any understanding to be achieved by the biographer. Young’s casual attitude toward “facts” and his apparent lack of awareness of how many we have and how contested some of them are, limits his ability to interpret Nietzsche’s life in a way convincing to those versed in the available scholarship.

At the end of his piece, Young stresses what he calls a “unique kind of sympathetic intimacy with Nietzsche that enabled me to present him, for all his strangeness, as a rounded human individual [. . .] .” As Young is surely aware, any such attempts at empathy operate hermeneutically as a double-edged sword. Positively, this identification with a protagonist can guide biographers to insights that significantly extend the horizons of Nietzsche interpretation. Negatively, it can lead them to project their own proclivities onto a subject, recreating the latter in their own image. The complementary corrective to “hermeneutic” is “critique,” and the only way to evaluate instances of Young’s “sympathetic intimacy” is to treat his interpretations as hypotheses and to see whether the available evidence supports them. A full discussion of this is beyond the limits of this response, but in my previous reply I addressed some of Young’s imaginative guesses and noted that one of them, Nietzsche’s supposed romantic attachment to Sophie Ritschl, was almost certainly false and that certain others had only a slim evidentiary basis.

To conclude, I note that in his book Young refers at one point to “the dry-as-dust, speculation-shy, detail-obsessed ‘scientific’ study of the past.”[13] That sounds like scholarship to me. I would like to accept the challenge and suggest that the field of biography is remarkably analogous to that of classical philology. Both disciplines deal with individual occurrences—the life of a human being, the nature of a specific text. Both are ultimately hermeneutic in intent, and both are dependent on what others might regard as the menial discovery and verification of facts. In both the researcher is confronted with a great deal of what Nietzsche referred to as “counterfeit coins,” that is, pseudo-facts that have acquired currency and which must be tracked to their sources.[14] In seeking to locate and expose these, conscientious biographers are forced to emulate philologists as they too propose stemmata and lines of descent: “This claim surfaces in Förster-Nietzsche and is repeated in Blunck, then Janz,” etc. Nietzsche often inveighed against philology, but he returned to it in the end, praising it highly in The Antichrist. So, it might be appropriate to close with a comment from that book, which could well be applied to biography. “Philology should be understood here in a very general sense, as the art of reading well,—to be able to read facts without falsifying them through interpretations, without letting the desire to understand make one lose caution, patience, subtlety.”[15]

[1] KGW I.4, p. 510.

[2] Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche (London: Hutchinson, 2002), 51. Ulf Heise,“Ei da ist ja auch Herr Nietzsche”: Leipziger Werdejahre eines Philosophen (Beucha: Saxe-Verlag, 2000), 11. Werner Ross, Der Ängstliche Adler: Friedrich Nietzsches Leben (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), 114.

[3] Robert Steiger, ed., Goethes Leben von Tag zu Tag: Eine dokumentarische Chronik, Band I, 1749-1775 (Zürich: Artemis Verlag, 1982). I am not a Goethe scholar, however, and it is possible that this reference is incorrect.

[4] Cate, 51. Julian Young, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 63. Young doesn’t actually give the date, but he specifies “the next day” (after Oct. 17). Ross, 114.

[5] Ronald Hayman, Nietzsche: A Critical Life (New York: London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 71. Curt Paul Janz, Friedrich Nietzsche: Biographie. 3 vol.(München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1978), I, 176. The first 273 pages of Volume I of Janz’s biography largely incorporate (with editing by Janz) Richard Blunck, Friedrich Nietzsche: Kindheit und Jugend (München /Basel: Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, 1953). In this case Blunck quotes the Nietzsche memoir but does not venture a date (pp. 139-140). Adding Oct. 18-19 was an addition by Janz.

[6] For a copy of the registration, see Heise, pp. 12-13.

[7] It is difficult to explain how the mix-up occurred. Perhaps Nietzsche misunderstood the rector, who merely said that this was the start of the hundredth school year since Goethe’s enrollment, not that the day marked the exact anniversary of his matriculation. Perhaps enrollment took place over two days, the formal reception on the 19th, the completion of paperwork on the 20th. In his reminiscence Nietzsche concludes, “Later we received our papers.” The most obvious interpretation of “later” is immediately after the rector’s speech. However, he may have meant “later” as “on another day.” Work remains for the enterprising researcher.

[8] Stiftung Weimarer Klassik, Friedrich Nietzsche: Chronik in Bildern und Texten, Assembled by Raymond J. Benders, Stephen Oettermann, assisted by Hauke Reich & Sibylle Spiegel (München/Wien: Carl Hanser Verlag (hardbound), Stiftung Weimarer Klassik bei Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (paperback), 2000).

[9] KSB, p. 375. This is the draft of a letter and may not have been sent.

[10] Martin Pernet, Das Christentum im Leben des jungen Friedrich Nietzsche (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, Studien zur Sozialwissenschaft, Bd. 79, 1989).

[11] Anacleto Verrecchia, Zarathustras Ende: Die Katastrophe Nietzsches in Turin, tr. Peter Pawlowsky. (Wien, Köln, Graz: Hermann Böhlaus Nachf, 1986).

[12] Reiner Bohley, Die Christlichkeit einer Schule: Schulpforte zur Schulzeit Nietzsches. ed. Kai Agthe (Jena –Quedlinburg: Verlag Dr. Bussert & Stadeler, 2007). Although this book was first published in 2007, it was originally written as an academic dissertation in the 1970s. Bohley lived and worked in East Germany, and as his editor, Kai Agthe, remarks, “Since Nietzsche was viewed as persona non grata until 1989, publication of Reiner Bohley’s [. . .] scholarly work by a DDR press would have been unthinkable,” p. 384.

[13] Young, p. 103.

[14] KGW I.4, p. 446; I.5, p. 122.

[15] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, tr. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 51. Norman’s translation has been slightly modified (one word).