Book review: I Am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche

If my reading habits came down to a desert island choice; you know, what kind of reading material would I take with me: genre fiction, literature, or non-fiction – I’d have to go with non-fiction. I’m picky when it comes to genre fiction; if I’m not hooked right away, I abandon. I’ll never read everything I want to in this life so no time to waste. As much as I love literature, sometimes it’s just too much trouble, therefore, I have to go with non-fiction as my desert island choice.

The real lives of real people are so fascinating, so inspiring it makes for much better reading. And with that in mind I move on to the point of this post and that is the biography of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux.

I can’t claim to have known much about the philosopher before taking on this bio. This was another book I snatched from a hotel library – I think it was during our last summer’s vacation in Greece – which is symbolic considering Nietzsche was a lover of all things ancient Greek.

Nietzsche’s homeland was known as Prussia during his lifetime, a fiefdom within Germany, and the education he received has most likely disappeared. It was rigorous to say the least – waking up at 5:25am and into the first lesson by 6 – and the rhythm of the day didn’t let up; it was full gas from pre-dawn until dinner at 7pm. “What is called study in Germany is truly admirable, fifteen hours a day of solitude and labor for years on end seem to them a normal mode of existence.”

Interestingly, Giuseppe Mazzini makes an appearance. The name struck a bell as I had just finished The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco just before getting into this one, and sure enough, Mazzini was a real-life character under Eco’s pen.

Nietzsche suffered from bad health his entire life, and something was up with his eyes. The pain could get so bad he would be unable to anything but just bear it. In his day, the latter half of the 19th century, doctors still treated patients with leeches and Nietzsche’s was advised to drink silver nitrate for stomach ailments, which could have caused gastrointestinal bleeding and his advisors also hinted that he should never masturbate as that would lead to blindness and encouraged visits to brothels where Nietzsche eventually contracted syphilis and/or gonorrhea.

Nietzsche memorial in Turin

Nietzsche’s academic career went into a downward spiral after the publication of his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. He left his post as a professor at the University of Basel, received a decent pension, and spent decades wandering around Europe with extended stays in Sorrento and Nice but his favorite temporary home was in Turin where he wrote most of Thus Spake Zarathustra and his rise to fame began. If there is one take away, Nietzsche owes his life and output to his total freedom. He was free to read, write, and think, he wasn’t rich but could keep himself afloat.

As a lover of bullfighting, I was delighted to read that he went to a corrida in Nice and I would’ve loved to have been there with him but who knows how that would have turned out as Nietzsche was a heavy opium user and as negative a perception we may have of narcotics, he produced some of his best work while high.

“All truths are only personal interpretations.”

Nietzsche was mentally gone by the time he reached fame. No one really knows what happened, but one morning in Turin, he witnessed a man beating a horse and Nietzsche lost it, ran to the horse threw his arms around the beast and howled for mercy. He was never the same again. he ended up being cared for by his sister while he descended into madness drinking his own urine and playing with his feces.

He died from a stroke at 50. Nietzsche has gone down as one of the philosophy world’s greatest writers and like so many writers before him, never got to enjoy his success and recognition.

“…objective truth is not even conceivable for humans, the striving for it mere illusion.”

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