Jonathan Rée in Prospect:
“I am not a man, I am dynamite!” Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for this kind of bombast, but most of his works are unassuming in tone, and his sentences are always plain, direct and clear as a bell. Take for instance the celebrated assault on “theorists” in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. Theorists, Nietzsche says, know everything there is to know about “world literature”—they can “name its periods and styles as Adam did the beasts.” But instead of “plunging into the icy torrent of existence” they merely content themselves with “running nervously up and down the river bank.”
Read this word by word and the meaning seems straightforward enough. But it looks rather different when you zoom out to take in the book as a whole. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by postulating an eternal conflict between two artistic principles: Dionysiac fury versus Apollonian cool. He then denounces philosophical reason as a sworn enemy to “healthy, natural creativity,” and concludes by saying that salvation lies in German music, beginning with Bach and Beethoven and culminating in Richard Wagner.
You don’t have to be a philosophical genius to notice that something strange is going on. Nietzsche’s grand theory of world culture can hardly be exempted from his own strictures on know-it-all theorists who deliver commentaries from the safety of the river bank.
But that, it seems to me, is where the fascination of Nietzsche lies.