The Trouble with Publishers

Fritz Stern

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

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.

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[*] How appropriate that these scholars were Italian! Nietzsche early on proclaimed his antipathy to Germans, especially to the then new Reichsdeutsche. Conversely, he had great faith in Europeans, in Europe itself, and we have a draft of a letter from late December 1888 – just before his breakdown – to Giosuè Carducci, urging him to publish Nietzsche contra Wagner first in Italian. In 1877 a French translation of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth appeared, the only translation of any work into a foreign language during Nietzsche’s active life, and he wrote to Schmeitzner: ‘Let us hope that Europe will be kinder than Germany.’ Indeed, the few critics who did recognise him were mostly non-Germans: Brandes, Taine and Strindberg among them.