The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche – An interview with author Daniel Blue
Written by: Daniel Blue
We talk to Daniel Blue, author of a major new biography of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, that radically reconceives Nietzsche's youth and reveals the importance of autobiography and environment to his early development.
Your new book, The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, covers the first twenty-four years of his life. Why do you focus on this period in particular?
I began the book in 2000 when the standard biography of Nietzsche in English was Ronald Hayman’s Nietzsche: A Critical Life. I thought Hayman’s book good, but it was published in 1980 and a great deal of information had been discovered since. I accordingly planned to rewrite Hayman, covering the entirety of Nietzsche’s life but bringing it up to date. However, as I studied Nietzsche’s early years, I found that whole dimensions of his personal and intellectual development had gone unexplored – not just by Hayman, but by everybody, whether in German or English. It became clear, for example, that previous versions of his life had followed the template laid down by his sister, who wrote two highly influential accounts. But during his adolescence and youth Nietzsche himself wrote a number of autobiographies, and these provided a more authentic and intellectually richer version of his life than anything written since. My move, then, was to put Nietzsche back into his biography and to tell his life from his own point of view — to consider not just what he did but what he intended to do and how he responded when his efforts succeeded or failed. This approach becomes more questionable after his 24th year, so it seemed best to end there.
Why did Nietzsche’s early autobiographies seem so important?
They reveal a project he began in early adolescence and was still pursuing at least as late as 1869. Being fatherless and skeptical of his mother’s competence, Nietzsche believed that he must see to his own upbringing. Accordingly, he didn’t just accept his formation and education. He intervened self-consciously to direct it himself. Many readers will already be aware of his motto, “Become what you are,” an expression he first coined at the age of 22. Yet he had been pursuing an analogous ambition since at least the age of thirteen, and in my book I show how he discovered it, pursued it, changed course as warranted, and brought it to a largely successful conclusion, although he somewhat outsmarted himself at the end.
What other new approaches do you take in your book?
Unlike other books in English, mine relies almost exclusively on research previously published only in German. Thanks to the efforts of these researchers, we are vastly better informed on Nietzsche’s social milieus than were our predecessors. This is important because Nietzsche conducted his experiment at an age when he was likely to overlook much in his surroundings. There was a great deal which he just could not know. I have therefore tried to discover not just what Nietzsche claimed happened but what actually occurred and within a wider context: what familial, social, educational, and political forces were in play that he might have overlooked. He was, after all, born into a world with its own demands and dynamics. He couldn’t change his ancestry, his social class, or the educational practices of his time. These formed the ecology, the social and cultural embryo in which he grew. Accordingly, my book pays exceptional attention to the environments Nietzsche inhabited. I wanted to nail down some of the specifics of those worlds and to show that he sometimes held assumptions that would never enter our minds. These insidious influences were by no means all bad. While Nietzsche rebelled against much in his environment, he also learned from it and drew on its ideals.
Your book includes a great deal of historical background. Did you find it easy to locate such information?
Much had already been discovered by the aforementioned scholars. For example I found the exact populations of Röcken and Pobles, villages which figure in the early chapters, in books by Martin Pernet and Klaus Goch. And several Nietzsche researchers have discussed the religious tensions in Naumburg (where he grew up) and the ways these impinged on the Nietzsche family. For other facts I had to troll the library stacks, often searching for years before I came upon the missing information. We know that Nietzsche was drafted into the army, for example. But what were the rules and circumstances under which his conscription took place? One day I happened to be searching through mounds of Prussian data and statistics when – to my inexpressible happiness – I came across specifics concerning the so-called Einjährige-Patent and what this meant for Nietzsche. But of course a lot of information is there for the taking. You just have to know what you seek and voilà – some patient scholar has already discovered it for you.
Did you visit any of the locations mentioned in the book?
When writing history there is no substitute for seeing locales with your own eyes. I did not make it to every small town Nietzsche visited, although of course I went to Röcken, but I repeatedly spent time in Bonn, Leipzig, Naumburg, and Schulpforte. I rarely learned anything specific from these trips, but they helped to ground me and inspired a sense of context.
What projects are you working on now?
I would have preferred to work on something entirely different, but given my age and the time remaining I would be ill-advised to switch horses. Recently I read the letters Nietzsche wrote while at Basel and was electrified. Here were wholly new dynamics and ambitions, and I wondered how they came to be. So I’m at work on Vol. II.
Can you describe your book in three words?
“Nietzsche’s own version.”