The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography 
by William Schaberg.
Chicago, 297 pp., £29.95, March 1996, 0 226 73575 3
Show More
Show More

Another book on Nietzsche – to add to the thousands that already attest his towering presence in our world. But this one is different. It restricts itself to one central theme, Nietzsche as author, and to the history of the 56 works and compositions that he prepared for publication. We are told how and when and with whom these books, pamphlets and musical scores were published, according to what plans and instructions, with what covers, what quality of paper, what price, what fate. Nietzsche’s works – or at least those written after the rigorously philological ones of his early years – were sacred texts for him. Their life was his life, and hence this closely focused book, this ‘bibliobiography’, as Schaberg calls it, is of surpassing interest even if it omits almost all discussion of content and substance. Here are the earthbound details that illuminate one aspect of the life of a soaring spirit.

William Schaberg is a bibliophile who in 1984 was able to buy an 1889 copy of Götzendämmerung (Twilight of the Idols), the purchase of which set him on a collector’s hunt for other early copies of Nietzsche’s works and on a study of their history. There was restrained passion in this labour: ‘I had read Nietzsche for years and consistently found him to be the most stimulating and most infuriating of writers.’ Schaberg’s book is a deliberately narrow study, rich in its suggestiveness, self-indulgent in its minutiae, regrettable in its flaws. He is censorious of the few who made earlier attempts at this kind of reconstruction; he records their tiny errors, missing commas and the like. His own book, however, is marred by mistranslations, by unacknowledged cuts in quotations, by a failure to indicate Nietzsche’s single underlinings (only the multiple ones are indicated). His bibliography should have been proofread, his command of German seems shaky, the historic context he supplies is sparse.

Still, the book is eminently useful, for it records Nietzsche’s devotional concern for his books. As his friend and helpmeet in publishing, Peter Gast (the familiar pseudonym for Heinrich Köselitz), wrote to him, probably after having seen early versions of passages from Ecce Homo (in a letter not cited in Schaberg’s book): ‘Life and philosophy are the same for you: thus you must tell your life yourself, your philosophy is only a conceptual manifestation of it, you yourself the incarnation of a system of human and world-encompassing maxims.’ Nietzsche of course knew this, and he became increasingly obsessed with the proper and exact publication of his life’s work.

Schaberg reminds us that the sheer volume of that work is astounding. Born in 1844, Nietzsche published reviews and texts in classical studies in his early twenties; hence his appointment as professor of classical philology in Basel at the unprecedentedly early age of 25. In 1871, he published The Birth of Tragedy, a book that marked his first break with traditional German scholarship, quickly followed by four essays entitled Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen. (Schaberg thinks ‘Unconventional Observations’ would be a better translation than Walter Kaufmann’s Untimely Meditations because indicative of his ‘aggressive intent’. I prefer Kaufmann’s rendition.) The definitive turn from classicist to philosopher-psychologist-prophet came with Human, All Too Human, published in 1878, with a dedication to Voltaire’s memory on the occasion of the centenary of his death. That book heralded Nietzsche’s new intent and a new style: for what he already envisioned as a transvaluation of all values, he sought a large audience, which would be attracted, even seduced, by a new aphoristic style. The break with conventional scholarship was unmistakable. The books would be ‘fishing hooks’ with which he would catch audiences.

In the remaining ten years of his active life, and despite – also because of – his often wretched health, Nietzsche worked at ever more feverish tempos. Composition was swift (an early example was his essay ‘Of the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life’, which he wrote in two months in 1873). But all his works were preceded by multiple outlines and arrays of possible titles, and followed by title changes, additions and deletions, often continuing while the book was being produced. He had thought of publishing Human, All Too Human anonymously, for he was a secretive and private person who wanted a large public yet wrote for an imagined élite. He demanded swift publication, and by our standards, though not by those of the 19th century, the printing was amazingly rapid: what Nietzsche wrote in a few months was often put into book form in an equally short time.

Schaberg reconstructs the often stormy relations between Nietzsche and a succession of his publishers. Nietzsche cared desperately for his books: these were his offspring, and he often referred to his ‘birthpangs’ in composing them. With publishers he was courteous and angrily exacting by turn – and financially always unrewarding. In later years Peter Gast read and corrected proofs for him, and in some instances even had Nietzsche’s permission to enter his own changes.

For The Birth of Tragedy in 1871, Nietzsche found the Leipzig publisher E.W. Fritzsch, who happened to be Wagner’s publisher as well. Nietzsche, with a passion for music, met Wagner in 1868 and fell under his spell, perhaps the more easily as Wagner was born in the same year as Nietzsche’s father, who had died when Nietzsche was four. For some years Nietzsche’s writings celebrated Wagner’s genius, and his infatuated tributes were much encouraged by Wagner and by Cosima, his then companion and later wife. Nietzsche and Fritzsch had met without Wagner’s help, but Wagner gave his specific blessing to Nietzsche’s manuscript. Two years later, Fritzsch was in financial straits and delayed the meagre royalties due to him. (At the same time, rumours reached Nietzsche that the Socialist International was trying to destroy Fritzsch in order to ruin Wagner. A first in the history of paranoid inventions about the socialist menace?)

At roughly the same time, a Chemnitz publisher named Ernst Schmeitzner approached Nietzsche and offered his services. They were accepted, and Schmeitzner published the fourth of the Untimely Meditations, ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’, and bought out the remains of Fritzsch’s stock, offering them now under his own imprint. For a time he also invested Nietzsche’s money for him. In this close, if intermittently stormy relationship, Nietzsche more than once denounced ‘the whole accursed printing business’. Yet they continued working together, and it was Schmeitzner who published Human, All Too Human in 1878. That book – with its dedication to Voltaire and its subtitle ‘a book for free spirits’ – affronted Wagner, who sensed (correctly) that Nietzsche had now freed himself of Wagner’s power.

Then, in 1883, Nietzsche sent Schmeitzner the first part of Zarathustra, composed in ten days and finished on the day Wagner died. He had by now completely emancipated himself from the Wagners, yet that particular coincidence haunted him. This time his intermittently troubled relations with Schmeitzner turned into irreparable conflict. The publisher began to neglect Nietzsche’s works and by his own admission spent most of his time travelling and publishing on behalf of Germany’s growing number of anti-semitic authors, including the work of Eugen Dühring, controversial political economist (see Engels’s Anti-Dühring) and self-proclaimed ‘founder’ of anti-semitism.

Schmeitzner procrastinated over publications and payments, and in April 1884 Nietzsche wrote to his close friend Franz Overbeck: ‘This accursed anti-semitism spoils all my expectations regarding financial independence, disciples, new friends, influence, it created enmity between R[ichard] W[agner] and me, it is the cause of a radical break between me and my sister, etc, etc.’ (This passage is incompletely and wrongly translated by Schaberg, as is, inter alia, Nietzsche’s letter to Overbeck in November 1884 and his letter to his sister in mid-August 1885, which is also about Schmeitzner and the isolation he experiences precisely when he feels at his strongest.) Shortly thereafter he broke with Schmeitzner and their relations ended in a lawsuit; Schmeitzner’s remaining copies were bought up by Fritzsch, Nietzsche’s previous publisher.

At this point Nietzsche went to a printer, C.G. Naumann of Leipzig, to publish his works at his own expense. With Naumann as with his predecessors, he carried on an intense correspondence, impatient, often imperious, giving lists of friends and readers who should receive complimentary copies because they had come to appreciate ‘the dynamite’ contained in his works; these included Georg Brandes and Hippolyte Taine.

And still he was unread and unrecognised – though certain that his time would come, that the world would listen to him. In a letter to Over-beck – not cited in Schaberg – he wrote that the first response to Zarathustra I had come from an unknown person in prison. ‘This very first reader had a feeling what this is about: about the long-promised “Antichrist”. Since Voltaire there has been no such assault on Christianity – and in truth, even Voltaire did not have an inkling that one could attack it thus.’ Nietzsche gratefully recorded every such recognition, and he appreciated even the unfriendly reviews; but there were hardly any reviews at all.

Schaberg reports on the appallingly meagre sales. Most of Nietzsche’s works sold fewer than a thousand copies; by 1893 – four years after his breakdown and at a time of suddenly quickened interest – the two parts of Human, All Too Human had sold 291 copies; On the Genealogy of Morals had sold 600. Schaberg gives a total reckoning of Nietzsche’s works, again as of 1893, as 31,950 copies printed and 22,894 sold. It is not clear how many of the latter were sold after his breakdown. The discrepancy between virtual oblivion in lifetime and overpowering posthumous presence is probably unparalleled in its scope and human anguish.

Schaberg relates the publishing disappointments to Nietzsche’s pecuniary concerns. In 1879, because of his tormented health (days of crippling headaches, vomiting, insomnia and steadily deteriorating eyesight) and his new sense of calling, he had given up his professorship at Basel at the age of 34; he received a pension for six years – a good part of it was continued beyond the original term – and also benefited from a small inheritance, but the ascetic life he chose to lead was also in part materially determined. Hence income from, and expenses for, his writings were important to him, and Schaberg’s account suggests, surprisingly, that the meagre sales translated into a useful supplement to his other income. By Fritzsch and Schmeitzner he was paid a flat fee, usually 30 or 40 marks per press sheet. In late 1888, he received 2800 marks from anonymous friends to help defray publishing costs and ‘to make up for mankind’s sins against you’.

Schaberg‘s principal source throughout is Nietzsche’s correspondence; his letters to publishers and friends deal in extenso with all aspects of his writing. Schaberg also consulted the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, the Nietzsche Haus in Sils-Maria in Switzerland, where he spent every summer in the 1880s, grateful for its beneficent beauty, and the Library of Basel University.

Schaberg’s concentrated study is an invitation to go back to the same principal source – Nietzsche’s extensive correspondence – now splendidly edited by the great redeemers of the Nietzsche Nachlass, Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari.* How magnificent, how revelatory that correspondence is. Colli and Montinari cite Nietzsche’s pre-emptive condemnation of any possible publication of his letters: ‘To publish something from my letters I count among the great offences. That gives such pain as few other things – it is the rudest breach of confidence.’ But the injunction had been broken long before Colli and Montinari; it began shortly after his breakdown in 1889 and continued immediately after his death in 1900. The posthumous publications, most notoriously of The Will to Power, and correspondence were tampered with and partly falsified, notably by his doctrinaire sister.

To his friends Nietzsche confides so much. Already in his late twenties he is tormented by bouts of illness, exhaustion and depression, and by failing eyesight, yet he writes long letters and gives of himself fully in them. They are suffused with his yearning, with his solicitous affection for his friends, with his compassion for them, with his candour. ‘The sunlight of friendship’ nurtures the germs of thought. These high-spirited letters contain the first intimations of his thought, the reiterated, refined premises of his new ethic. He also vents his daily concerns about health, sleep and weather, about financial worries, and, always, about the anguish and excitement of writing and the trouble with publishers. He is loyal and deeply courteous as well as angry and contemptuous. The obverse of his boundless self-celebration and his sense of calling, even destiny, is what he early on called his ‘chronic vulnerability’. He speaks of his loneliness, of being the most independent man in Europe. Egotism comes in bouts of self-exaltation and self-abasement. And still the dominant tone is one of willed modesty. An odd thought: the harshness and stridency, the verbal violence, the indifference to, or indeed exaltation of, suffering, the brutal outbursts and the contempt for ‘the botched and the bungled’ – all this is chiefly found in the public Nietzsche, in his published writings, while the private Nietzsche craves and extends love, lives by gratitude and generosity. This, too, is a reversal of the usual values: don’t most writers affect an agreeable presence in public while venting spleen and frustration in private?

There is one thread in Nietzsche’s experience that caused him anger in his lifetime and led to the deepest, often deliberate misunderstanding after his death. His turn to cultural criticism in the early 1870s coincided with the rise of the new anti-semitism in Germany: the very word Antisemitismus was coined in that decade. While Nietzsche attacked the symptoms of Germany’s desiccated culture, its mendacity and spiritual emptiness, the anti-semites were vilifying Jews as the instigators of all corruption. Nietzsche more than any other German writer or public figure encountered this anti-semitism in various and intimate ways.

Consider the break with Schmeitzner, which was largely caused by ‘the accursed anti-semitism’. There was Wagner’s much publicised dislike of Jews, powerfully abetted by Cosima, and above all Nietzsche had to suffer anti-semitic presumption from the closest quarter: his once much cherished sister had married one of the very few men of the time who truly deserves the sobriquet of proto-National Socialist. Bernhard Förster, a racist anti-semite, founded a Germanic colony in Paraguay and swept up Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche in the anti-semitic movement that he promoted – well beyond his means.

In his younger years, especially the Wagnerian years, Nietzsche made the occasional, almost conventional remark against Jews; they virtually ceased in the late 1870s. However complex and controversial his attitude to historic Jewry and Judaism may have been, however much his philhellenism and his attack on Christianity (as a noxious, concentrated progression from Judaism) informed his judgment of the historic place of Jews and their religion, he had nothing but contempt for the cheap demagogy of latter-day anti-semitism. He pondered the place of the modern Jew, not always in sympathetic terms, but he loathed the whole range of anti-semitic attacks, from Wagnerian ‘idealism’ to rabble-rousing sermons, seeing them as expressions of ressentiment, as trivial responses to the spiritual and cultural transformations of modernity that he himself was feeling and analysing in a very different way. Yet he was claimed precisely by those he scorned.

Nietzsche suffered his breakdown in January 1889; he sank into ever deeper mental paralysis, indeed insanity, and died in 1900. For more than a decade he had longed for followers, even as he feared unreflective disciples. The ease with which he could be appropriated and his teachings traduced became manifest a few months after his breakdown, when Julius Langbehn, a failed art historian, offered to ‘save Nietzsche’ by reawakening his intellectual powers, demanding that Nietzsche, then in a psychiatric clinic, should be given into his exclusive care, with a sworn affidavit from his mother abjuring all rights to care for or visit her son. In what I would want to imagine was a moment of lucid anger Nietzsche threw a table at Langbehn, whereupon the latter disappeared – and devoted himself to the propagation of his first book, Rembrandt als Erzieher (‘Rembrandt as Educator’, the very title evocative of Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer als Erzieher). To maximise interest, Langbehn published the book anonymously, as Nietzsche had thought of doing for Human, All Too Human. In its strictures, its attacks on German culture, on modern science and rationality, on all-pervasive mediocrity, Langbehn’s aphoristic work had Nietzschean echoes. But his means of salvation – a great imperial future, a Caesarist polity freed of Jews, a populist art, the verbal celebration of the mysterious – all this would have been anathema to Nietzsche, as would Langbehn’s meretricious, pretentious style. In the first year, 60,000 copies of Langbehn’s book were printed, and 100,000 were sold in its first decade. Nietzsche traduced or vulgarised won instant acclaim. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, returned from Paraguay after her husband’s suicide, promoted, out of avarice and conviction, ‘a cult of Nietzsche’ – which the National Socialists later selectively appropriated.

But no single party could claim Nietzsche’s work for long. Our century has certainly confirmed his own extravagant self-assessment: we are all his intellectual heirs. He has been read by millions, and since the last war and in America at least, beginning with the late Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche, published in 1950, analysing him as philosopher and psychologist, Nietzsche’s influence in philosophic-moral thought has been exceeded by none. Already in 1920 Max Weber remarked: ‘The honesty of a contemporary scholar and above all of a philosopher today can be measured by his attitude towards Nietzsche and Marx. Whoever does not acknowledge that important parts of his own work could not have been done without the work that these two did deceives himself and others. The spiritual world in which we ourselves exist is to a large extent a world formed by Marx and Nietzsche.’ And some three decades later Albert Camus wrote: ‘In the history of the intelligence, with the exception of Marx, Nietzsche’s adventure has no equivalent; we shall never finish making reparation for the injustice done to him.’ Marx and Nietzsche: an odd but historically correct pairing. The two shared almost nothing except their moral outrage at the world they lived and suffered in. In our culture today, they are no longer equally present, but Marx, now unencumbered by his withered-away perverters, may yet regain intellectual currency.

Schaberg’s book recounts Nietzsche’s encounter with his publisher’s dallying with anti-semitism, but the worst was yet to come. In 1887, Nietzsche’s sister asked him for material support for her husband’s anti-semitic experiment, and Nietzsche’s draft response can be taken as his innermost reckoning with that phenomenon. He declined all help, and said he ‘would be happy at the ruin of the anti-sem[itic] movement’. He wished that anti-semites would be pushed out of Germany and Jews given power in Europe ‘so that they would lose those characteristics (because they would no longer need them) by virtue of which as a suppressed people they have asserted themselves so far. Furthermore it is my honest conviction: a German who claims that simply because he is a G[erman] he is superior to a Jew belongs in a comedy, provided he does not belong in an insane asylum.’ Even Nietzsche could not have foreseen that four decades later such people were elevated to the highest offices of the land and that their power created an unprecedented tragedy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences