When I began my biography of Nietzsche’s youth, The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, I expected eventually to dislike my subject. Biographers frequently start by admiring their protagonists, then become hostile. Why should I be different? My experience, however, was the opposite. I found a great deal repellent in Nietzsche at the beginning, then decided that my job was neither to like nor dislike him but to find his life interesting. And so it was, to such an extent that I now wonder, What makes Nietzsche’s life so fascinating?
First, we can rid ourselves of the myth that someone’s life requires external adventure if it is not to be dull. Anyone who has wrestled with visceral problems offers material worth recording. Perhaps it is harder to depict the effort needed to master Aristotle than to climb the Chimbarazo, but that difference reflects a challenge to the biographer, not a deficiency inherent to the event. Up to the age of twenty-four Nietzsche may have done little but go to school. However, as countless adolescents can attest, this can be one of the most exciting adventures imaginable, especially when the student is Friedrich Nietzsche. School was the venue where he grew into someone new.
School was the venue where he grew into someone new.
Academia was the more interesting for him because he took little for granted but struggled with almost every aspect of the experience. Indeed, he seemed a paradigm case of searching youth, of someone bewildered and suspicious of adult guidance, who was also aware that he had only one life and he didn’t want to fail it. He not only questioned the content taught in schools but the theory behind that education, examining the latter to see if it lived up to its pretenses and whether those pretenses were valuable in the first place. He did not just ask questions; he followed through on the implications. It is partly this willingness to take action based on his findings that makes his youth so meaningful. Thus, after years training to become a minister, he decided he couldn’t accept Christianity or that vocation. Instead, he became a philologist, only to decide that that field too didn’t suit him. He was seeking a third alternative when events overtook him, removing the decision from his hands.
Recognizing all this, I wanted to do greater justice to Nietzsche’s resourcefulness and courage, to show how he grappled with his life, extracting from it all he could, regardless of the consequences. To leave him the last word we might consider a poem he wrote when he was thirteen. Titled “Two larks,” it describes a pair of birds who are fascinated by the glory of the sun. One tries to fly into that flaming disk but retreats because the light is too terrible to bear. The other decides to journey all the way to the tragic conclusion.
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