Graceful, detailed account of Nietzsche's life; Nietzsche: A Critical Life, by Ronald Hayman. New York: Oxford University Press. $19.95

More than any other 19th-century figure, Nietzsche believed that logicality prove to be a fiction and that there might be no necessary connection between words and the things they purport to name. Long before Michel Foucault, the contemporary French philosopher and critic, explored these unsettling possibilities in his historical studies, Nietzsche had inferred from them the idea that our science and our morality were terrifyingly arbitrary.

He was driven mad by his solipsistic vision, and died at age 55 in August 1900.

It is his "alertness to illogicality" that makes him so influential a philosopher 80 years later, argues his latest biographer, Ronald Hayman, in a gracefully written and sympathetic portrait. Indeed, it was just this awareness of Nietzsche's which contributed to his ill health, Hayman says. His illnesses, in turn, made it difficult for him to write sustained prose; hence, his preference for aphorisms and fragments.

Unlike Heidegger, who also wrote on Nietzsche but ignored his life, Hayman has opted to "study the tissue of experience from which ideas grow." The result is an extraordinarily detailed account, based on researches in previously unknown correspondence of Nietzsche and his associates, of the German philosopher's friendships and quarrels, his illnesses and depressions, his teaching, and his everyday thoughts and musings.

While Hayman's approach produces few surprises in the interpretation of Nietzsche's ideas, it is spectacularly successful as theater. The drama of Nietzsche's life comes alive before us as it never has before. Hayman was an actor and director in the theater before turning to writing, and his experience is apparent at many points in the narrative.

Hayman is especially good on Nietzsche's relations with Richard and Cosima Wagner. Interpreting Nietzsche's feelings for the composer as filial, Hayman shows how they lay at the source of Nietzsche's own attempts at "total works of art" in philosophy. "Polarized by Wagner and the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk,m he would go on -- long after his rejection of Wagner -- trying to combine philosophy with poetry, fact with creative fiction." Having lost his own father, a Lutheran pastor, when he was 4, Nietzsche spent most of his 20s and early 30s under the sway of the mesmeric impresario, hailing him as the cultural savior of a decadent Germany.

Preoccupations with his own loss of Christian assurance and strength would later resound in Nietzsche's philosophical reflections on what he saw as the insincerity of Judeo-Christian altruism and the necessity for a revivified Kultur,m cleansed of hypocritical obeisances and false dichotomies.

But before the general renaissance he called for, there would have to come a rebirth of the self. Preparation for this event began at home. Nietzsche obsessively scrutinized his every action and intention, from the time he rose in the morning, to the diets he followed, the hours he devoted to thought and writing, the assignations he made with friends. Not surprisingly, actions did not keep pace with intentions, plunging him into further depths of introspection and despondency.

One way to read Nietzsche's life is as a case study in the dissolution of the self. While Freud survived the nightmares he reports in "The Interpretation of Dreams" -- published, incidentally, in the year of nietzsche's death -- Nietzsche never fully recovered from his own self-analysis. Freud's survival, one senses, depended on his belief in the individual ego and the alacrity with which he urged the ego's predominance. Perhaps Nietzsche was the more clear-sighted of the two in having glimpsed the false bottom in the other's system.

Plentiful quotations from Nietzsche's letters reveal his fascination with language, which is, or should be, the proper basis for an appreciation of his philosophical importance.Growing up in a devout Lutheran home, the young Nietzsche was "encouraged by precept and by example to believe that the main function of words was to express reverence." His subsequent loss of faith invalidated this specific use for him, and because he chose the philologist's profession, the analysis of words and their derivations became mental habit that enabled him to dissolve his most tenaciously held propositions and prejudices.

So, for example, his book on the "genealogy of morals" was an excavation of the history of such terms as "good" and "bad," which revealed their manipulation (Nietzsche would say "invention") by the strong to help subjugate the weak. His vitriolic condemnation of a traditional ethical vocabulary was not lost on his contemporary moralists, who were anxious to avoid anarchy in the face of the threat Darwinism posed to traditional views of God, creation, and morality.

But Nietzsche's single-mindedness in obliterating accepted distinctions (a procedure, by the way, not original to Jacques Derrida) presented him with a dilemma. For if his philological imagination impelled him to question the language used in all assertions, how was he to communicate the results of his inquiry without getting hopelessly entangled in the web of assumptions and rationalizations he had labored to unravel? By the sheer force of intellect and will, Nietzsche flagellated the Cartesian Cogito, Ergo summ ("I think, therefore I am") into exhaustion, and so provided the point of departure for this century's retreat from subjectivity.

In 1887 he noted in "Beyond Good and Evil": "It is falsifying the facts to say that the subject 'I' is a condition of the predicate 'think'. A thought comes to me when 'it' wants, not when 'I' want. Itm thinks, but that this 'it' is identical with the good old 'I' is at best only an assumption." The sense of impotence brought on by this realization was particularly acute in a man whose chosen task was to "revalue all values."

Even his formulation of the Ubermenschm (superman) idea, intended, says Hayman , as a way out of the nihilism he so happily embraced, didn't enable him to continue functioning as a normal human being.

Considering Nietzsche's reluctance to propose anything truly positive at the end of a critique, and recalling that the last decade of his life was spent in mental debility, one is a little doubtful of Hayman's upbeat denouement: "One of Nietzsche's achievements as a philosopher was that he reasoned his way towards a new humanism, a way of apprehending good and evil without divine sanctions."

That he launched fatal salvos against the old humanism inherited from the days of Michelangelo and the Medicis is beyond doubt. That he created anything new out of the debris is questionable. By suggesting so, Hayman allies himself with that other most influential exegete, Walter Kaufmann, whose reinterpretation 30 years ago rescued Nietzsche from the latter's sister and her protofascist friends. It is as if Hayman, is so characterizing Nietzsche's legacy, hoped to ward off the anxiety his life and work tend to radiate.

The most that can be said is that Nietzsche left humanity a map and dared us to follow him into the ensuing darkness. The only refreshment he offered those who accept his dreadful invitation was "masochistic pleasure in the cold metallic hardness of the negative."

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