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Nietzsche Biographies: Dichtung und Wahrheit, Daniel Blue

Rarely does a chance discovery give the reader an opportunity to examine the fundamental bases of a literary genre. This, however, is what Mark Anderson has accomplished with the paper at hand. Although his immediate subject seems limited–explanations for similar wording in two biographies of Nietzsche–the terms he offers and the themes he introduces take the reader beyond the authors in question into more fundamental issues such as the interplay of scholarship and artistry in biography. This response will examine Anderson’s assumptions and show how these allow readers to cast a critical eye on biographies in general and on two dealing with Friedrich Nietzsche in particular.


Professor Anderson begins by taking exception to a remark made by a previous reviewer (this writer) that every biographer of Nietzsche necessarily tells the same story.[1] He rightly notes that the word, “story,” can refer either to the events of Nietzsche’s life, the story to be covered, as it were, or to a narrative account of those events, the story that is told. The former in theory is as fixed as the myths Greek dramatists used when fashioning their plays. The “story” on the other hand (and that word will be put in quotation marks when referring to the story told) is likely to vary significantly from one writer to another depending on sensibility, thematics, and presentational skills. As a conspicuously successful example of “story” in the second sense, Anderson proposes Curtis Cate’s Friedrich Nietzsche, a biography published in the United Kingdom in 2002 and republished in the United States in 2005.[2] Anderson claims of Cate that his research was thorough and that he synthesized the results in storytelling of exceptional accuracy and grace.

More recently (2010) Julian Young published Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, a book that has received considerable praise.[3] Repairing to his assumption that every biography will be different, Anderson is surprised to find that Young’s book includes passages strikingly similar to sections in Cate’s. These parallelisms are of two kinds, wording and narrative structure, and Anderson presents examples of each. Unable to account for these echoes, he faces an apparent contradiction. Every biographical story will be told differently, he believes, yet here is a case where two overlap.

Young has responded with a disarmingly short and graceful explanation in which he informs readers that during a project that took years to complete he recycled passages from Cate’s book, transferring them from one draft to another until he lost or forgot these quotations’ provenance. While one is grateful to Professor Young for replying so simply and clearly, the issues are by no means resolved. For a start, we may regretfully accept the loss of an occasional footnote. More difficult to understand is how he could have lost all of them and, more generally, how he could have forgotten that he used Cate so extensively in the first place.

Moreover, Young imported two kinds of material from Cate. Obviously, there was the duplication of language, which Anderson has noted and Young has acknowledged. But this was not just a question of stylistics. Cate’s language summed up research and distilled hours spent in the libraries. This labor was Cate’s, and in the process of repeating his words Young implicitly annexed these findings as his own.

Ultimately, one must note that while Young appeals to forgetfulness to account for his lapse, it is the task of the biographer or historian not to forget—to bear witness to what memory has abandoned or suppressed. Here it is Professor Anderson who has played the role of the true scholar, for he has discerned in a “new” text traces of an unacknowledged ancestor and restored Cate’s authorship and a sense of his achievement to the reader’s view.



My principal concern, though, is the distinction Anderson makes between story and “story.” First, it must be observed that by focusing on the similarities between Young’s book and Cate’s, Anderson has somewhat overemphasized the resemblance and undercut his own hypothesis. In fact, the two books are strikingly different and for the reason he gives: individual storytellers are at work, and the tales they tell are individual as well.

Certainly, the extent of Young’s debt should not be exaggerated. If we exclude the apparatus, his text comes to 560 pages, of which roughly 260 are devoted to biography.[4] Of these, the vast majority are in language surely Young’s alone. There is no mistaking this, since Young likes to insert himself personally into his narrative, often using the first person singular, and operating in effect as an omniscient narrator. Cate by contrast prefers to escape from view, largely abstaining from commentary and avoiding the word “I” outside the Preface and Epilogue. Unlike Young, he fosters the illusion that his story is an anonymous recital of events from which the author has disappeared.

Anderson clearly believes Cate to be the finer stylist, and he comments admiringly on the imaginative finesse and verbal artfulness of Cate’s presentation. What he does not consider is the underside of this apparent virtue. At the risk of recapitulating what Plato said of the poets, this writer must point out that artistry is exactly what makes the genre of biography questionable as a contribution to scholarship. Both Cate and Young in theory have examined sources and are giving an interpretation that will be true to these. Yet neither of them is writing an uninflected chronicle of facts. Rather, as Anderson reminds us, they are telling a story, and this implies the use of techniques associated with fiction and certain forms of journalism. One might mention the setting of scenes (at which both writers are exceptionally adept), depiction of character, and the narration of anecdotes. This is not to say that facts are made up. The responsible biographer uses the techniques of the fiction writer without writing fiction itself. Nonetheless, the temptation to err in the direction of plain fiction seems difficult to resist, particularly when certain facts necessary to the narrative are unknown.

Cate, for example, is particularly skilled at yet another technique, and that is the metaphorical replacement of a comparatively colorless statement with a sensuous re-creation. An extended example can be found at the close of his first chapter. By this point in the story Nietzsche’s father and brother have died, and the family has to vacate the country parsonage where he has spent his first five years. Here is how Cate describes Nietzsche’s final hours in the village:

His last evening at Röcken, with the melancholy evensong of the Angelus echoing over the dark fields as the moon rose in a star-filled sky, remained such a vivid memory that ten years later Friedrich Nietzsche could describe it as though he had left the village just the day before. Unable to sleep, he got up after midnight and went down into the courtyard, where loaded carts and carriages were dimly visible in the pale glow of a coach-house lantern. (9)

Here is the account as Nietzsche wrote it:

The curfew bell sounded with its melancholic tone over the flooded fields; thick darkness spread over the earth. The moon and the twinkling stars were shining in the sky. I couldn’t sleep long. Already at half past twelve I returned to the yard.  There stood several wagons, that had been loaded. The dull light of the lantern dimly illuminated the courtyard. (KGW I.1, p. 287)

As the reader can see, Cate has “fictionalized” in the sense of adding color and resonance (“melancholy evensong of the Angelus,” “pale glow of a coach-house lantern”), but he remains true to the evidence, freshening it up, as it were, without doing it violence. His book is replete with such transformations, some of them much shorter. After discovering Schopenhauer, Nietzsche informs us, he always went to bed at two a.m. (KGW I.4, p. 513). Cate renders this, “snuffing out his oil-lamp at 2 a.m.” (52), a simple but vivid dramatization.

While both these examples hew plausibly to a text, there are also occasions when Cate seems to make things up, as in a rapturous description of spring in the Rheinland:

[Nietzsche] found [Bonn] at its loveliest with the no longer bare-branched lindens in full aromatic bloom, the fruit erupting into springtime bouquets of white and pink, the undulating hills now a tender green. The Rhine, free of the chunks of ice that had clogged it in January, was more inviting than ever—not only for paddle-steamer excursions but also for rowboat outings with congenial friends. (47-48)

Cate claims to base this description on a letter from Nietzsche, but all the latter says is that

It is a glorious spring morning. We have steady weather with warm noons, beautiful sunsets, and mildly cool nights, which go well with the flowering trees and the green-waved clear Rhein. (KSB, II, 454 (49-50)

There is nothing in Nietzsche about bare-branched lindens, springtime bouquets, or green hills. As for boating, he does not mention the Rhein in winter but confides that he likes to join friends on rowboat excursions, especially after sunset when the evening star is overhead and a couple of bottles of wine are on board.

Obviously Cate’s fictionalizing can be excessive. However, even if in most cases he is respectful of his sources, the mere mention of “fictional techniques” should inspire misgivings among scholars. The term suggests invention, the introduction of personal proclivities, and the possibility that facts and evidence are more subject to interpretation and manipulation than is admissible in the open-and-shut way they are sometimes presented in textbooks. Above all, it suggests a replacement of methodological systematicity by ad hoc syntheses of the imagination. Accordingly, to call biography scholarship simpliciter is a bit naïve, which is one reason surely why researchers sometimes view the genre askance. Readers of this article presumably do not share this prejudice— otherwise they would not be reading the biographies at hand at all—but they are surely aware of how problematic the transmutation of facts into imaginative reconstruction can be.

Young as well is sometimes overenthusiastic in his fictionalizing, but since he actively inserts himself into the story-telling process, his inventions are more straightforwardly identifiable as hypotheses. He doesn’t call them hypotheses, of course, but all claims must be so considered until they are backed up with evidence; and this Young is not always able to do. For example, he says of Nietzsche and Friedrich Ritschl’s wife, “Nietzsche of course fell in love with Sophie,” and he later rhapsodizes, “Sophie Ritschl being his impossible love.” (101) Despite Young’s emphatic language (“of course”), this romantic imputation is a hypothesis, and one for which there is little evidence. On the contrary, during the time the pair were playing four-hand music, Friedrich Nietzsche was between the ages of 21 and 24 and Sophie Ritschl 45 to 48 and already a grandmother.[5] Given this discrepancy, Nietzsche may well have found in his teacher’s wife a maternal figure, as he likely did Malwida von Meysenbug a few years later, but an attraction of the kind Young envisages (“fell in love,” “impossible love”) seems unlikely unless Nietzsche’s tastes were rather more specialized than anyone has heretofore supposed. But Young seems quite the matchmaker throughout his book, and frequently when Friedrich Nietzsche encounters someone suitable of the opposite sex, sparks are assumed to fly. “[Nietzsche] was predictably attracted to [Bachofen’s] wife. . . .” (103) “Nietzsche . . . fell for a beautiful blond called Louise Ott. . . .” (227) With Isabella von Pahlen and Baroness Claudine von Brevern Nietzsche “talked flirtatiously through the night—a travellers’ romance. . . .” (230) “Nietzsche still carried a candle for Louise Ott.” (237) While there is some textual basis for such romantic imputations, it is not strong enough to justify Young’s assertoric language. Such extravagances might be interpreted as inspired flights of imagination, comparable to quite different but equally excessive passages in Cate. Nonetheless, something different seems to be going on in Young’s book. Repeatedly in his biography (32, 324, 551) Young takes strong exception to and argues explicitly against the proposal made in Joachim Köhler’s book, Zarathustra’s Secret,[6] that Nietzsche’s sexual interests were largely homoerotic. Since every “heterosexual” attraction Young can cite falsifies Koehler’s thesis, it may be that that he is multiplying romantic encounters under the guise of merely reporting the facts. This author is not quarreling with Young’s thesis. Köhler’s book is so poorly argued that it scarcely demands a reply. Nonetheless, given the discrepancies between the evidence and Young’s interpretations, it seems prudent to question the latter’s methods.

To move to quite another aspect of Nietzsche’s life, his religious upbringing, Young presents as facts hypotheses imaginatively compelling yet so empty of specifics that one does not see what truth conditions could confirm or falsify them. What is the reader to do with a sentence like “Christianity was the material and emotional foundation of an extended family that filled his childhood with love and security, a warmth he never ceased to value” (5)? Not only does this sentence seem logically confused, mixing the descriptive and sentimental, but there is much evidence never addressed by Young that brings its edifying overtones into question. Although Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche sentimentalizes her childhood for the public, she wrote in private that her mother was “a woman without character, who never really loved her children and was never loved by them . . . .”[7] As for Friedrich, one need only read the attacks on his mother and sister that he penned in his final emendations to EH (“Wise” 3) to have concerns about Young’s account. One might also ask how much “security” a four-year-old boy could feel who watched his father collapse and die under degrading circumstances and always within earshot in a small house? And does Young know anything about the character of Nietzsche’s paternal grandmother, who treated her son so harshly?[8] While this writer has no desire to denigrate a family that knew more than its share of sorrow, the happy and untroubled childhood that Young presents strains the imagination, particularly if one is aware of recent spadework on the dynamics of the Nietzsche household, to say nothing of the religious tensions of the time.[9]

One might note that in both the above cases Young seems to be tacitly shoring up positions he has taken elsewhere. The romantic linkage between Nietzsche and Sophie Ritschl serves as part of a string of “proofs” of Nietzsche’s erotic desires. And the religious celebrations are remarkably consonant with themes advanced in Young’s previous book, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Religion. One might say that if Cate sometimes fictionalizes in the interests of color and beauty, Young does so to prove a point. As mentioned in this author’s book review, partisanship is perhaps not amiss in a book written with polemical intent, but it seems disingenuous in a work touted as authoritative and above the fray. In any case, Young’s interpretations have moved far from the safe shores of scholarship, and the line where we departed from indisputable facts can be difficult to discern.



It is clear that although Cate and Young are both telling a story, they are also sometimes “telling stories” in an invidious sense, that is, they are making things up. This seems less a failure on their part than a risk inherent in the genre. Insofar as story telling is intrinsic to the art of biography, the latter will always run the danger of overstepping its brief and moving into the realm of fiction.

Having reached this disquieting conclusion, one might reasonably ask, why should anybody want to write or read a biography of Nietzsche at all? Wouldn’t it be more rigorous and scholarly to stick to his texts and not eke them out with adventitious and merely personal information of the kind a biography affords? As the man himself stated, “I am one thing, my writings are another” (EH “Books” 1).[10]

Such caution might be appropriatef if one were contemplating a biography of Spinoza, Hume, or Kant. Nietzsche, however, is a special case, for he has made his personal psyche and physiology intrinsic to the interpretation of his texts. This is explicit in EH and not difficult to discern in the 1886 prefaces with their accounts of his illnesses and his mole-like existence. Nietzsche’s personality is also frequently on display in BGE and GM if only because of his rather personal language and idiosyncratic attitudes. Once the reader has learned (or rather been trained by Nietzsche) to discern the man behind the prose in these books, it is easy to go back to the Freigeist volumes from HH through GS and to read into those aphorisms the human being who wrote them. The man of whom it was said that he made even his philological articles “like a Parisian novelist—absurdly gripping,” was himself no stranger to fictional techniques. (EH “Books” 2) The first person to fashion a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche was Friedrich Nietzsche.

This presents a challenge to his readers. Will they accept the philosopher’s account of his life, in which case they risk becoming one of those disciples Zarathustra so eloquently admonished: “You revere me, but what if your reverence collapses some day? Beware lest a statue slay you.”[11] One way to avoid such passive acceptance would be to examine Nietzsche’s life as exhibited in biographies. One must do so critically, of course, with the same wariness one might bring to Nietzsche, for the more we know of this philosopher the more artful he seems. Yet few philosophers have so invited personal scrutiny. Biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche are a regrettable necessity, but the person who made them essential was Friedrich Nietzsche.[12]


[1] Daniel Blue, “Book Review, Julian Young: Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography." The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 41 (Spring 2011): 115-119, esp. p. 116.

[2] Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche, (London: Hutchinson, 2002).

[3] Julian Young, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] These are rough figures and do not reflect a page-by-page examination of the text. They are based rather on Young’s own separation of biographical from philosophical sections as indicated by whether their titles are italicized. Occasionally biographical materials appear within the philosophic sections and philosophic reflections amid the sections defined as biographical. None of these exceptions seem so lengthy that they need to be counted separately.

[5] Sophie Ritschl was born 21 August 1820, making her five and a half years older than Nietzsche’s mother (born 2 Feb. 1826). Her first grandson was born 20 May 1866 and her second 21 March 1868. See Otto Ribbeck, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Philologie, 2 Vol., Neudruck der Ausgabe 1879-1881,  (Osnabrück: Otto Zeller, 1969): I, 160; II, 388.

[6] Joachim Köhler, Zarathustra’s Secret: The Interior Life of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Ronald Taylor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). The original German version is considerably longer: Joachim Köhler, Zarathustras Geheimnis: Friedrich Nietzsche und seine verschlüsselte Botschaft (Nördlingen: Greno Verlag GmbH, 1989).

[7] Quoted in Klaus Goch, Franziska Nietzsche: Ein biographisches Porträt (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1994) 13. Elisabeth’s remarks, which continue in the same vein, were written in a letter to a physician during Nietzsche’s final illness.

[8] Klaus Goch, Nietzsches Vater oder Die Katatstrophe des deutschen Protestantismus: Eine Biographie. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000. See especially pp. 60-185.

[9] For the troubled childhood, see the references given towards the close of this writer’s book review. For a discussion of religious tensions in English see, for example, Robert M. Bigler, The Politics of German Protestantism: The Rise of the Protestant Church Elite in Prussia, 1815-1848 (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1972).

[10] Translations from Ecce Homo by Judith Norman in Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[11] Z I “On the Bestowing Virtue,” 3. The translation given here is a conflation of Kaufmann’s and Parkes’.  See Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra : a book for all and none, trans. with preface by Walter Kaufmann (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1983) and Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and Nobody, trans. with introduction and notes by Graham Parkes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[12] I would like to thank Paul Loeb and Christa Davis Acampora for their helpful suggestions during the writing of this paper.  I should also mention belatedly that Dan Fincke read an early version of the book review and provided valuable feedback.

Published in JNS 42 (Autumn 2011)