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Ernst Bertram, Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology, trans. with an Introduction by Robert E. Norton

 452 pp. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2009). 978-0-252-03295-0 ($90) 978-0-252-07601-5 ($35)

Reviewed by Keith Ansell-Pearson

The first thing to say at the outset is that this publication, which appears in Richard Schacht's excellent series 'International Nietzsche Studies', is a significant one and a major contribution to Nietzsche-research and scholarship by Robert Norton. Bertram's appreciation of Nietzsche was first published in Germany in 1918 and translated into French in 1932 and, perhaps surprisingly, this is the first time it has been translated into English.[1] It is one of the most original and striking books ever written on Nietzsche in any language and the book was admired by some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century such as Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. Both the translator and the editor of the series in which it appears are to be congratulated on now making this book available in English for the first time. One can only speculate as to the reasons why this remarkable book was not published into English until now: clearly in the interwar period the reception of Nietzsche was marred by his adoption for the cause of German nationalism and militarism in the Great War of 1914-18; and after the end of the Second World War the prevailing view was, perhaps, that what was needed to rehabilitate Nietzsche for an English-speaking readership was not a Nietzsche 'mythology' but something much more sober and constructive. Bertram's study was thus for the most part of the twentieth century a victim of bad timing.

There have been judgments of the book and there seems to be in English-speaking reception a deep-rooted bias against it. For example, in his Archaeologies of Vision (2006), Gary Shapiro claim holds that Bertram uses Nietzsche to promote the cause of German nationalism. This is a crude judgment to make of the book which is, in fact, remarkably subtle and dexterous on Nietzsche's relation to German culture and identity. Walter Kaufmann, the figure who played such a seminal role in informing the work done on Nietzsche in North America and, to a lesser extent, the UK in the post war period — his book on Nietzsche was my own entry point into Nietzsche as a graduate student working in the UK in the early 1980s — may have set the tone for the reception of Bertram's book in the English-speaking world. In the prologue to his classic study of 1950, entitled 'The Nietzsche Legend', in part a direct reference to Bertram's book which begins with an Introduction entitled 'legend', Kaufmann establishes the mission of his book which consists in tracing the origin of the Nietzsche 'legend' and constructively refuting the assumption that Nietzsche lacks a coherent philosophy which allow for different, even wildly divergent, interpretations. Kaufmann notes that Nietzsche became a myth even before he died in 1900 and is alarmed by the fact that in the reception of his work there appears to have been no basic agreement as to what Nietzsche stood for, with admirers and critics both at odds about this (little then has changed in the years since he wrote this!). He traces the origin of the legend of course to Nietzsche's sister. But he also includes in his account of the legend Stefan George and assimilates Bertram's study to the George Circle. It is in Bertram's book, Kaufmann maintains, that the legend first appears fully grown. Let me make it clear: the work Kaufmann does in his prologue and in the book as a whole is brilliant and was for the most part necessary and indeed constructive. But his reading of Bertram is misguided in at least two key respects: first, it fails to appreciate the extent to which Bertram is his own man and has an independence from George's ideas about art in general and Nietzsche in particular; second, it fails to consider whether or not Bertram has a serious thesis about Nietzsche as a 'legend' and might be doing novel intellectual work in approaching him in this way.

Bertram, a highly gifted poet and critic, is in possession of admirable intellectual skills and is capable of producing throughout the book numerous original, novel, and thought-provoking insights into Nietzsche's corpus and ideas. Where Kaufmann's rehabilitated Nietzsche by presenting as sober and helpful introduction to the main ideas of his philosophy, Bertram set himself a quite different task. He assumed, I think, that Nietzsche was largely well known amongst European readers and on this basis set himself the task of writing a very different book to the popularisations which abounded at the time. He does not set out to simplify but rather to bring out Nietzsche's extraordinary complexity by focusing on what he sees as the 'psychological antinomies' that structure his existence and intellectual project and to write something akin to a work of art. It should not be a question of pitting the books of Kaufmann and Bertram against one another; they are different books and both are exceptional studies in their different ways. Moreover, in spite of these differences they share a similar conception of Nietzsche, namely, that he is best understood when he is placed within the heritage of European (especially Goethean) humanism.

The novel character of Bertram's book is evident in its contents. It is composed of nineteen headings which cover topics that range from 'Ancestry', 'Knight, Death, and Devil', 'The German Becoming' to 'Justice', 'Illness', 'Judas', 'Mask', Indian Summer', 'Claude Lorrain', 'Venice', 'Socrates', and finally 'Eleusis'. These are essentially portraits of Nietzsche, each one providing a set of rich and fertile insights into both core aspects of Nietzsche's thought as well as topics that are often neglected and treated as marginal. Bertram is especially good in illuminating the art Nietzsche admired, including literature (for example, Adalbert Stifter) and painting (Lorrain). His book is also full of probing insights into Nietzsche's relation to Wagner and into the importance of Goethe for Nietzsche. There are definite weaknesses and limitations to the book — he is impatient with the thought of eternal recurrence, for example (he calls it at one point an 'illusory revelation', ( 294), at another 'monomaniacal',(306)), and he has virtually nothing to say on it as well as on core doctrines such as the will to power and the revaluation of values (and Kaufmann took him to task for this). He prefers instead to focus on what some may take to be the more peripheral topics such as 'justice', 'masks', 'health and illness'. However, one of the effects of the book is to challenge how Nietzsche's thoughts and ideas get divided up with some classified as central and others as peripheral.

The author is especially good on Nietzsche's German-ness and relation to German culture and questions of German identity. Bertram shows in what ways Nietzsche is a writer and thinker. He knows well that for Nietzsche to become 'more German' meant ridding oneself of German-ness and overcoming the German in oneself in order to perfect German identity ( 60; see also 72-3, 163, 178). Far from promoting a nationalist Nietzsche, Bertram is faithful to Nietzsche's good European ambitions (we should not overlook the answer Nietzsche gave towards the end of his intellectual life to the question of why he wrote in German when he was so opposed to German chauvinism: he does so, he answered, because he 'loves Germans'). One aspect of the book Kaufmann did not like is the way it interprets Nietzsche as a figure related to German romanticism, especially figures such as Hölderlin and Novalis. However, I think his claims about Nietzsche's relation to this tradition merit being taken more seriously than Kaufmann was able to.

Those like me who have been so influenced by Kaufmann and have not encountered the book before will have a preformed prejudice against it. His judgment of the book is a negative one largely because he thinks it promotes a false Nietzsche, one whose thinking is riddle with self-contradictions. In addition, he takes Bertram to task for the alleged 'cultivated incoherence of his chapters and a wilful disregard for the sequence of Nietzsche's thought', as well as breaking with 'previously accepted standards of scholarship'.[2] However, Bertram is a much more serious and much deeper reader of Nietzsche than Kaufmann gives him credit for. As Norton points out in his helpful Introduction, Bertram is keenly aware of Nietzsche's intellectual development and almost each reading on a specific topic respects this development and traces it in ways that are illuminating. It is questionable whether Bertram flagrantly broke with accepted standards of scholarship (the book did not provide references for its quotes from Nietzsche and the translator has now inserted these where he could trace them which is the vast majority). As I read him, he is trying to do something different and produce a novel book on Nietzsche. For the most part the author's knowledge of Nietzsche is deeply impressive and even where one will want to take issue with aspects of his interpretation, including the emphasis he places on Nietzsche's alleged unconquerable Northern, Christian, and Lutheran identity, and which so irked Kaufmann and which I can empathise with, he is a reader of Nietzsche that is well worth engaging with. It also simplifies Bertram's effort to say that he reads Nietzsche as perpetually contradicting himself and that he is guilty of projecting his own personality into Nietzsche's in conceiving him as an ambiguous figure. Bertram is never as simple-minded or as crude as this. Kaufmann reads Bertram as perpetuating 'relativism' with respect to Nietzsche and in his strongest criticism argues that it is then one step from this to the subjective historiography of Nazism (he then notes Bertram's complicity with the regime, including his defence of the Nazi's suppression of free speech; Thomas Mann took Bertram to task for his great stupidity after the end of the War). Kaufmann does make some pertinent points and it is no doubt the case that Bertram fails to grasp the ways in which Nietzsche breaks with all those things that so deeply formed him, including his Lutheran background and Protestantism and his devotion to Wagner.

Kaufmann charges that Bertram does not deal with Nietzsche's philosophy but instead focuses all his attention on his 'unblessed' individuality. Robert Norton seems to confirm this view when in his Introduction he writes anyone with an exclusively or narrowly philosophical focus will be disappointed by the book (xxvi). This is only partially correct: if there is one thing Nietzsche can positively do to philosophers it is to encourage them to expand their conception of what philosophy is and the topics it can cover. Moreover, it is manifestly the case that his texts are unique ones in the history of philosophy with a large portion of each one not being devoted to narrowly conceived 'philosophical' problems (e.g. the problem of masks, questions of health and illness, the fate of music, and so on). Some readers may indeed share what seems to be on show in Bertram's book: that Nietzsche's strengths do not reside in any contribution he makes to traditional areas of philosophical inquiry, such as epistemology and metaphysics, but elsewhere.

Bertram commences his appreciation with a provocative thesis: historical method fails to give us a window on any lived reality 'as it actually was' but instead 'de-realizes' a past reality and in so doing transposes it into a different order of being: 'it is an establishment of values, not a production of reality' ( 1). He thus claims that in the case of Nietzsche's existence we are never dealing with the life itself but rather its 'legend', a word he insists not to be understood as a category of romance or religion and which is also beyond biography and anecdote. His most incisive definition of it is the following: 'Legend truly is what the word in its plainest meaning says: not something written, but something that is always to be read anew, that comes into existence only through a constantly renewed rereading…All of the past wants to become image, all that is living to become legend, all reality myth' ( 5). The commentator seeks to be faithful to the legend and not to any supposed naïve reality of a great life and mind: '…far from tempting us to succumb to historical scepticism and agnosticism' the effort is to be made to be conscientious 'in recording and bequeathing every single moment of a legend's growth, which will never repeat itself' ( 4). Bertram conceives his book, then, as studies toward a mythology of 'the last great German' for which the stages of unconditional idolization, faddishness, and contempt are behind us. Things admittedly get a little odd with this 'mythology' when we encounter statements such as the following: 'Like his century, Nietzsche was born under the sign of Libra, that balance of a "dangerous Perhaps" that constitutes the magic and the calamitous fate of his intellectual century…' ( 7). It's not clear to me how Bertram can prevent his mythology, which has ingenuous aspects to it, from occasionally sliding into hagiography.

'Ancestry' explores the importance for Nietzsche of ancestors, tradition, continuity, and genealogy (e.g. his desire to be descended from Polish noblemen and for which, as Bertram notes, there is scant evidence). Nietzsche's 'guiding dream', he maintains, was the self-renewing duration of the highest human values (13), and to this end he is a preserver of tradition since without an inheritance we are nothing. Bertram rightly notes Nietzsche's interest in atavistic persons and in the idea of atavism in general:

    Nietzsche thus defines the mission of families and castes that conserve a people in an extremely aristocratic sense — an aristocracy once-removed, as it were: they should not merely steadily preserve a precious type, they should instead maintain the possibility of the rare person, of the person who does not take after his immediate predecessors, but instead embodies a very old cultural heritage and the most distant biological memory. They should continue to enable such re-emergence and regrowths of ancient, precious instincts and drives within an increasingly rapid democratic mixture of races, habits, and values…A race that has not died out is a race that has constantly grown…the rarest people are always the people with the longest inner memory, He therefore regards 'Jews' as the strongest race in our uncertain Europe… ( 25).

He notes how Nietzsche constructs a 'mythology' of his own philosophical ancestry (which includes Heraclitus, Empedocles, Spinoza, and Goethe) and he fastens onto Nietzsche's appreciation of the rarity of the genuine philosopher, rightly drawing attention to how he ends the section 'We Scholars' in BGE, in which Nietzsche maintains that one has to be born for every elevated world, that is, 'bred' for it and so what one gives one the right to philosophy is one's descent and ancestry, one's blood. Where contemporary Nietzsche-commentary has little to say on such issues — issues which Nietzsche himself took very seriously — Bertram's study makes them its focus.

In 'Knight, Death, and Devil' Bertram explores an intriguing aspect of the Nietzsche 'legend': his attachment over many years to Dürer's Ritter, Tod, und Teufel from 1513 (Nietzsche received a print of it as a present in 1875). He notes that this was probably the only pictorial representation that Nietzsche expressed a serious interest in: Nietzsche admits to being indifferent to historical scenes in paintings and to preferring landscape paintings. Bertram notes that in fact the figurative arts seem to remain remote to Nietzsche musician's gaze which is trained inward. In effect, what one is exploring when one takes into account Nietzsche's fascination with this painting is his interest in the Germanic seriousness with respect to life, or what Nietzsche himself called — and which guided his picking up of Schopenhauer's book in Leipzig in 1865 — 'the ethical atmosphere, the Faustian odor, cross, death and crypt' ( 39). Schopenhauer, of course, is the Dürer knight for Nietzsche. Bertram notes, however, that in time Nietzsche came to see Schopenhauer as a coward in the face the terrifying and questionable character of existence, someone who enjoyed little and suffered little: 'His passion for knowledge was not great enough to want to suffer on its account: he entrenched himself' (Nietzsche cited in Bertram, 42). From this consideration Bertram goes on to explore in this chapter Nietzsche's relation to Luther, Pascal, Angelus Silesius, and Bach and ends it by noting how Nietzsche's conscience led him to bid a difficult farewell to Gothic romanticism.

In 'The German Becoming' he begins with Nietzsche on Heraclitus, of course, and then goes on to explore Nietzsche's relation to the tradition of Bildung thinking, Goethe, Hölderlin, and the general character of this 'Greek-obsessed German soul' ( 78). The chapters that follow these opening ones all assume a similar pattern: taking a concept (justice), a prominent theme (illness), a historical figure (Socrates, Napoleon), or a place (Weimar, Venice, Portofino) and unravelling its seminal role in Nietzsche's life and thinking and across his development. There are thought-provoking insights in the vast majority of these chapters. There is, however, a real limit to this book and for me it consists in the extent to which Bertram reads Nietzsche as a figure of 'crisis', especially of German conscience. This is no doubt an astute judgment on his part at the time but as a focal point around which much in his book moves it has its limitations for the reception of Nietzsche today. However, it is testimony to the richness of the book that this limit does not unduly restrict its relevance to contemporary appreciation. It is, as the promotional material has it, a fascinating document in the historical reception of Nietzsche. But it is also much more than this and for specific areas of Nietzsche-research the book has much to offer and it merits finding a new generation of readers.

There are two errors I can draw attention to: 'gerichtet' is wrongly translated as 'condemned' and not 'judged' on page 261 (from KSA 11, 680-2; WP 1051); and Wolfgang Müller-Lauter does not say in his book on Nietzsche (Nietzsche. His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of his Philosophy), as the translator supposes, that Bertram's study is 'beyond discussion'. What he actually says is that Bertram's reduction of eternal recurrence to a pseudo-revelation and delusional mystery is 'beyond discussion'. Clearly, there is an important difference here and it seems as if in correcting errors and misjudgements of the past we all run the risk of reproducing sloppiness in places.

University of Warwick


   1. A new French edition appeared in 2007 published by Éditions du Félin and featuring a preface of great interest by Pierre Hadot from 1990.
   2. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche. Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press, fourth edition, 1974), p. 13.