Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche: Part One

In the spirit of “eternal recurrence,” it seems fitting to follow the account of Nietzsche’s death with a look back at his youth.  The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, written by Daniel Blue, was published in 2016.  It offers many insights into Nietzsche’s student years prior to his professorship at Basel.  Most of this information was previously unavailable to me when I started this philosophical biography back in 2008.  As such, it is a welcome resource peering into the formative years of his mind and personality.

For all the discussion about the impact that the death of Nietzsche’s father had on his youth, Blue reveals that Nietzsche, being so young, barely knew his father.  The larger impact was made by the expectations Nietzsche’s family placed upon him in light of his father’s religious calling.  More specifically, it was Nietzsche’s mother who impacted his preschool youth more than any other singular force.  Blue’s discussion of this reveals much of Nietzsche’s personality at the time.

“In Franziska’s eyes, all was not well with her son.  She worried that he was shy and fearful, and she sought to ‘toughen him up’ (her words) by making him do things for himself and by dosing him with cold water in summer.  She also worried that he was becoming ‘pedantic,’ by which she apparently meant that he was inordinately devoted to rules.  [Elizabeth] Forster-Nietzsche tells several stories about her brother which, even if exaggerated, illustrate what his mother had in mind.  In what is probably the best known of her anecdotes, she records an occasion when heavy rain erupted, just as school was dismissed.  A swarm of boys raced through the downpour, while Friedrich walked through the torrents at a stately pace, his cap and handkerchief pressed protectively over his slate and books.  Asked what he was thinking, he explained that the school rules called for boys never to jump or run in the street but always to walk decorously to their homes.” (pp.40-41)

“…a well-behaved boy, who met the expectations of others, but only because he himself approved the deed and not because some authority figure said so.  This rather passive-aggressive form of obedience had two consequences.  Friedrich really was well-behaved, as report cards show: he repeatedly received the highest grades in deportment.  His consciousness of always being right may also have been reflected in a dignified bearing which seems to have been distinctive to him all his life and which was already evident in these early years.” (page 57)

His family was deeply religious and, by default, Nietzsche attended church services and participated in various Christian activities through the year.  He was a Christian but with an important catch.  It was his choice, his control, an idea he looked at far more critically than one might expect given his upbringing.  It seems, somewhat surprisingly, that he never truly took the religion to heart.  
“It is striking, however, that in his memoirs Friedrich says virtually nothing about personal participation in prayer or services, nor does he mention a single religious book he read or a church figure who influenced him.  Indeed, were it not for one oblique sentence in his 1858 autobiography, readers would never know that he was destined for the ministry at all.  Not only does he never state this except for the one time mentioned, but several documents created during his childhood suggest decidedly irreligious tendencies.” (page 58)

Though surrounded by the trappings and rituals of religion, Nietzsche’s first true passion, his initial form of self-expression, was not found there but, rather, in poetry.  “…the final months of 1855 – he broke new ground by composing poems, a development which arguably figures among the most important events in his life.” (page 65)

“Poetry could have been another pastime that he entertained before proceeding to another interest, as he had with board games, theater and drawing.  Instead, this first collection seems to have awakened him to powers that he found inscrutably exciting.  Not all the poems he wrote were successful, and some seem technical exercises practiced by someone honing skills.  These failed poems indicate more clearly than inspired works that Friedrich worked at poetry, that he did not wait for inspiration to strike but kept to his task doggedly, like a pianist practicing scales.” (page 69)

After poetry came his passion for musical composition.  “Friedrich may also have written less poetry in 1857 because this was the year in which he began seriously to compose music.  The boy had received piano lessons earlier (it is difficult to determine the date) but he was perhaps too young to benefit at that time, for this instructions seems not to have excited much interest, and it was discontinued.  In 1854, however, inspired he said by a church performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and probably [his friend] Gustav’s growing skill with the violin, Friedrich enthusiastically embraced music.  Franziska encouraged this, and although she had already learned to play the piano as a girl, she took lessons herself from a local cantor and passed her learning on to the boy.  When she moved to the new home by the Marien Gate, she purchased a new piano and had her son taught by ‘the best teacher in Naumburg,’ a woman, who is never named.  At this point, Friedrich’s musical interests and abilities seemed finally to bloom coherently and he began to make sustained progress.” (page 76)

“Friedrich was sufficiently skilled that he could play four-hand Haydn sonatas with his mother…, and he began to compose, turning out a succession of pieces, some with grand titles such as ‘sonata,’ others described merely by their tempos.  It is striking that, as with poetry, the boy was no sooner smitten with a field than he tried to participate in it himself, and active approach which probably allowed him to appreciate certain arts more immediately that the passive spectator.” (page 77)

Poetry and music took up far more of his critical thinking and creativity than Christianity itself.  “If Friedrich left little record of poems composed in 1857, in 1858 he produced more than those of the previous two years combined.  The new poems register as well a new level of quality and with it the first traces of that sardonicism so often associated with the later Nietzsche…Friedrich himself delighted in storms and the depiction of those terrified adults scampering in terror from a phenomenon which he personally enjoyed sounds suspiciously like mockery.” (page 80)

Blue draws heavily upon six autobiographical manuscripts Nietzsche composed between the ages of 13 and 24.  The author believes that these narratives are highly revealing because Nietzsche took them so seriously when they were written.  “On the one hand, certain events in the past –the death of his father and the subsequent tragedies that befell his family (the death of [his younger brother] Joseph, the departure from Rocken [his birthplace]) – plainly affected him and explain, he says, his more sorrowful demeanor as compared to his cheerful schoolmates.  Yet he also says that he simply liked to be alone, a proclivity which would have estranged him to boys regardless of previous experiences.  In this case both factors – his response to the environment and intrinsic tendencies of his character – reinforce one another, accounting for his comparative isolation during his school years.” (page 88)

When Nietzsche entered the school at Schulpforte he discovered another passion that was perhaps even more important to him than poetry and music. “’A general drive to knowledge, to universal learning has seized me,’ he recorded, listing, thirty-six areas he found of interest.  Inevitably when compiling that list, its sheer multiplicity began to perplex him.  He was not sure how these subjects cohered, and he cast about for ways to organize them effectively.  In subsequent years this ‘drive to…universal learning’ began to seem somewhat sinister, as though in pursuing so many subjects he was dispersing the self and frittering away time and opportunity like an educational dilettante.

“By Easter in his second school year, he was made Primus, a title which indicates not just that he was academically at the top of his class but that he would be the one responsible for keeping order in his cohort when the teacher was away.  In succeeding years he was to become Primus several more times and to earn three ‘firsts,’ grades so unusually high that several years could pass before they were duplicated.  Teachers began to discuss him outside of class, and in his sixth year, an instructor could enthuse in private about one of his essays.  Apart from these academic accomplishments and on the side, Nietzsche pursued his artistic ambitions, turning out lyrics, plays, and fiction as well as numerous musical works.” (pp. 110-111)

Though he certainly enjoyed solitude, Nietzsche was highly sociable and, during his youth, was in no way the recluse that he would become in his later life. “…his letters and journal entries teem with the names of associates and casual friends, as might be expected in such tight and intimate circumstances.  He lived with classmates twenty-four hours a day and under every condition from intimacy of the dormitory to the intellectual spheres of the classroom and the shared activities of eating and athletics.  Inevitably, he would bond with some of them provisionally and within a specific context.  Nonetheless, if any of these relationships blossomed into sustained friendship, the memory has not been preserved.  So far as is now known, during the first year and a half of his stay at Schulpforte Nietzsche’s fellow students were at most companions.” (page 115)

Nevertheless, he enjoyed only a select few close friendships.  Paul Deussen was one of the first such friends.  “Deussen writes that his initial hopes of making friends with Nietzsche were disappointed, but eventually, the boys did grow closer, possibly because both felt alien at Schulpforte but also because both loved their studies.  According to Deussen, a shared appreciation for the lyrics of Anacreon, as well as for the comparatively easy Greek in which they were written, united the pair, and they began to recite the poems aloud on shared walks.  Eventually, they pledged friendship (and the right to address one another with the familiar ‘du’) in a pact, sealed with mutual taking of some snuff that Deussen had concealed in his trunk.  Deussen suggests that the two boys clung to one another with the relief of outsiders who had at last found someone to talk to.” (page 116)

With poetry, music, and a thirst for knowledge inspiring his life, Christianity ebbed into an inconsequential influence of his family.  “Nietzsche had never seemed interested in dogmatics and, unlike his father, never evidenced a significant fear of God or concern that his personal behavior might be sinful.  The one place Nietzsche addressed religion frequently and fervently was in music and poetry.  While most of his verse dealing with religious themes seems more dutiful than convincing, such writing does evince a religious spell to which the very spheres to which he was most vulnerable – in the imagination and the arts.  If he never speaks of dogma and rarely of personal adherence to religious principles, he seems to have found a place for Christian mythology exactly where it would most entrance him and in a way that Deussen describes in his memoir: as a spell, an imaginative transport, a rapture in which he gives himself up to a vision.” (page 120) 

Nietzsche excelled in Greek and ancient texts, he had a clear knack for it.  Philology initially fascinated him.  His thirst for knowledge led him to elevate the power of reason above human religion.  “…during the period from autumn 1858 to spring 1861 Nietzsche had moved from a mediocre student to becoming one of the more signal prodigies of Schulpforte.  His determination to excel scholastically was particularly evident that spring, for not only was he made Primus again but he composed as essay on Mithridates, the Bythnian king, that secured him a ‘first,’ grade given only every several years.  Probably without even recognizing it until faced with the consequences, he had shifted allegiances.  Scholarship could never replace religion in his eyes: it could provide neither the visionary inspiration nor the ethically resonant way of life offered by Christianity.  Nonetheless, Nietzsche had moved from a fundamental religious orientation, where reliance on tradition, authority, and imaginative investment were primary, to a worldview that affirmed reason, evidence, and a preference for explanation through natural causes.  The die was cast.  It was just a matter of developing what already had been done and recognizing the consequences.” (page 128)

Soon his studies and his creative expression transformed him from a passive religious person who wanted to please his family into someone who began to actively question his family’s religion.  “Between the summer of 1861, when he ceased to work on his oratorio, and the spring of 1863, when a mortifying event brought certain kinds of experimentation to an end, he repeatedly probed limits, exploring new cultural and ethical viewpoints in an attempt to put critical distance between himself and traditional beliefs.  Such behavior is not unusual for adolescents, and some of Nietzsche’s rebelliousness no doubt reflected activities typical for his age.  Nonetheless, as his demand for self-responsibility indicates, he had given this natural process a theoretical and emancipator meaning.” (page 142)

“Just as Nietzsche’s literary tastes were changing, so he began to explore new music, and – given music’s visceral appeal – it is likely that new tastes here would be at least as beneficial as those in the more evidently mediated language of poetry.  During the Pforta years he was exposed to music several times a week, not just as listener but as performer.  He sang in the school choir, both on Sundays and during ceremonies, and he sometimes toured the surrounding countryside with this group.  Meanwhile, he continued to improvise at the piano.  As might be expected at this school, his efforts at composition took a systemic turn; he studied a text on counterpoint by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (Beethoven’s early teacher) and turned out so many fugues that Gustav [one of his closest friends] advised him to show restraint.” (page 147)

This testing of new perspectives and rebellious nature led to typical youthful transgressions.  “On Sunday, April 12, 1863, he joined a classmate at a railroad station tavern and drank four mugs of beer.  According to Deussen, he was not used to alcohol and for that reason easily showed the effects.  During his return to campus, a professor noted the symptoms and brought him and the other student to the attention of the authorities.  Again there was a secondary charge: Nietzsche was not only accused of drunkenness but of being too ‘devil-may-care.’  Accordingly, he was relieved of his status of Primus for the remainder of his time at Pforta.

“This time Nietzsche did not try to dismiss the incident.  ‘Dear Mother,’ his letter home began.  ‘If I write you today, it is about one of the most unpleasant and saddest incidents I have ever been responsible for.  In fact I have misbehaved very badly, and I do not know whether you can or will forgive me…Last Sunday I got drunk, and I have no excuse, except that I did not know how much I could take…Through this affair I have spoilt the fairly good position I succeeded in winning for myself the previous term…I do not need to give you any further assurances how seriously I will pull myself together, for now a lot depends on it.’” (pp. 159-160)

But such experimentation also led to a slight shift in his intimate perspective; a refinement that would last with him into his later years.  “It may be recalled that from his first autobiography onward he had assumed that one could know the self only externally, by observing its actions.  In none of these narratives had he tried to consult his thoughts or feelings, to understand the self through introspection.  During the Easter holidays of his final year at Pforta he at last made such an attempt, observing moods rather than activities.  The occasion was apparently unusual.  He had just bade farewell to an unnamed friend, until his feelings were turbulent as he tried to come to terms with the loss.  Yet he does not center his essay either on the friend or specifically identified feelings.  Rather he treats the occasion abstractly, observing the interplay of forces as thoughts and emotions combine to form moods and the moods in turn induce dynamics of their own.

“The resultant essay, ‘On Moods,’ begins with Nietzsche poised over a sheet of paper and bewildered by the many thoughts which demand to be recorded.” (page 171)

In most respects “On Moods” is a mature reflection of a Self upon itself.  It was a major advance for the young Nietzsche.  But his often brilliant school tenure at Pforta was over.  In a huge disappointment to his family, he willfully chose to pursue philology over theology and religion.  His school choice was the University of Bonn, certainly a highly respected college.  But he became something of a party boy there and his ultimate intellectual path would not be found in the year he spent at Bonn.