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The Bookchurch Review: 'Ecce Homo' by Nietzsche



Let's start today's breathless review of the Oxford University Press new edition of Ecce Homo (Friedrich Nietzsche's curious autobiography) with something completely different. A shouty imperative and then a nice video just like teacher used to show.

IF YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO FEELS THE ABSENCE OF TRUTH HAS, AT TIMES, BOUGHT YOU CLOSE TO MADNESS THEN READ NIETZSCHE. WORTH A GO IF YOU ARE AN IDIOT TOO.

I feel that justifies itself by appealing to both halves of humanity. First group no need to be embarrassed that you ever believed in such an adolescent, orphic reality construct as 'truth'. Just get down the shops and pick up Zarathustra. The rest of you pull those mental socks up!

Now for that instructive video.

A video of Christopher Hitchens making a recent speech at the Atheist Alliance International 2007 conference.

The content of this video is intriguing enough in itself. How about that pseudo 'righteous' feel to anti-theist arguments or the problem of evil as the standard trump over religiosity? Interesting yes but why have I bought them into today's review?

Because they aren't just today's great issues they were Nietzsche's first, showing that of all writers or artists Nietzsche is the one to be engrossed by right now. I'll offer good reasons in a moment; namely his great relevance and poetry.

Ecce Homo, however, is a weird piece. Only it's last, darkly prophetic chapter reveals the importance of Nietzsche. Importance? What a cardboard word. What about the beauty, the bravery, the contradictions? Far better I run you through those first. So, sweet reader, let me take you round the houses for the grander view.

Nietzsche, a man who ended his life in dribbling insanity, is everywhere at the minute. Just look at the video! Religion, Iraq, the clash of civilisations, rationalism versus spirituality. This is Nietzsche territory and for us post-modern citizens, have no doubt about it, his spectre riddles the zeitgeist.

For example? Ever heard the phrase 'God is dead'? Freddy said that. Yet he didn't get stuck crowing about it as so many modern intellectuals have and he certainly didn't duck the next tricky question.

What on Earth next?

What indeed? Art, science, yoga? We certainly need something. The beautiful, quixotic thing about Nietzsche was that he not only defined the modern, Godless mindset (taken up by Hitchens and the like) but signposted a way forward.

His ideas are always intellectually sound and emotionally compelling. Take, just as examples, the notions that an idea need not be true to be useful, that artists were just a development of the 'priest type', that a purely rational outlook was only going to degrade into nihilism. Anyone who has ever felt the Great Western Emptiness will whinny approvingly at all that.

Whinny you say? Yes there is another reason to read Nietzsche other than his cultural influence. His tenderness. There is a misconception of Nietzsche as all ego and fury. Nothing could be further from the truth. For all the bravado there is poetry and a softness always near.

Take the tragi-comic legend of his downfall. Its said his final, crushing breakdown came after witnessing a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin. Nietzsche threw his arms around it's dripping neck, telling the dumb creature to take heart, it was not at fault. Can it be true? No one is sure but it sticks in the mind.

One can't help seeing the horse as a metaphor for himself and even all humanity. The story resonates with that vein of kindness and emotionality that runs through Nietzsche like gold through rock.

Embrace both rationalism and the natural ego, he urges like a loony preacher! Fuse fury and enlightenment and transcend the sadnesses of the humdrum! Balls to religions that tell us the next world is the thing! See what is delicious and amazing in this! Your only life!

Quite the message and as always his work rattles the tin for joy. The most famous example comes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Those who care about the issue of being (and let's face it it's a whopper!) will see what a diamond it is. Especially those poor sods skewering themselves trying to be romantic and rational. And isn't that awful contradiction what we have to be these days?

So then an autobiography of this fascinating man should be essential stuff. Ecce Homo however, his last , semi-complete work, is perhaps one only for the established Nietzscheans. He doesn't explain his life, anecdotes of childhood or first love. Nothing of that. Rather Ecce Homo is a leaflet in support of the philosophy already set out in his masterpiece Zarathustra.

There are still summoning things in it, glimpses of that baroque turn of phrase. In the last chapter, beguilingly named 'Why I am a Destiny', you can't help but feel a shiver. This is nothing short of Nietzsche's own Revelations, it's grim passages foreshadowing our twisted future. He even predicts his own fate, he knows the name Nietzsche will be bound up with a terrible catastrophe. It was too, the Nazis were fond of his Ubermensch concept.

A very short while after he wrote these last pages he descended into the decade of madness that ended with his death. Ecce Homo is then the sputtering crust of his genius, tinged perhaps with the coming storm.

Although I would suggest starting elsewhere this O.U.P. edition is a fine book.A new translation by Duncan Large (Nietzschean cum porn star? ) he also provides the introductory essay. Excellent it is too, in truth more interesting than most of the text.

Overall the spooky last chapter and the additions of the essay and notes make this well worth a look but if you are interested in exploring Nietzsche then pick up Zarathustra and go from there.


notes and links:-

Actually C.Hitchens may well have posed the question 'what next?' in his new book God is not Great: How religion Poisons Everything.

For anyone who has abandoned a religious outlook of late and is feeling a draft in the belief systems then try the American or British Humanist Associations.