For most of his adult life, Friedrich Nietzsche cast himself as the intractable enemy of Christianity. He famously declared the death of God in the late 19th century, and as he slipped into madness at the end of his life, he titled one of his final books “The Antichrist.”
Sympathetic readers have given him the benefit of the doubt, attributing his vitriolic attacks to a type of hyperbole – especially since religion, in all its myriad forms, continues to flourish around the globe, more than a century after he died under his sister’s care.
What complicates matters even further is how he wrote. His engaging aphorisms intentionally defy systematic analysis, sounding as lyrical as they do philosophical.
And as Giuseppe Fornari shows in his groundbreaking work “A God Torn to Pieces,” Nietzsche wanted “to go beyond all ethics and every normative and objective vision of reality.” He thus wrote from a normative subjective point of view, using his personal anguish to diagnose the ailments of fin-de-siecle Europe.
To make his case, Fornari, professor of the history of philosophy at Bergamo, Italy, thrusts us into the complex, deceptive and ultimately dispiriting world of Nietzsche’s psyche: his lifelong crisis to combat his rivals (writer David Strauss, operatic composer Richard Wagner, his absent father) – a lifelong crisis to reconcile what he knew he was in himself and what he yearned to become.
This crisis, Fornari tells us, was “not psychological or theatrical, but religious.” And religion for Nietzsche meant one thing only: the tension between “the god that he invokes more than any other, Dionysus, and the god that he detests more than any other, the biblical God, especially the God of the Gospels.”
We can see from just this sliver of Fornari’s provocative study that he relies on a method that many American scholars would balk at: reading into a thinker’s writings his unwitting state of mind, interpreting psychologically what may not always be present on the page.
Indeed, the process that Fornari attributes to Nietzsche has to be unconscious to be effective.
That Nietzsche ended his life in madness is well documented. The cause remains hotly debated, however, alternating between the debilitating effects of syphilis, which he supposedly contracted as a young man, and a more active breakdown from his vision of a godless Europe headed toward the gulags and concentration camps of the 20th century.
Fornari offers a third alternative: that Nietzsche’s insanity was a “psychic suicide,” a spiritual self-destruction. Because he could not become the god he wanted, Dionysus, and because he could not destroy the god he detested, the biblical Creator, he sacrificed himself as their victim, his mind torn to pieces.
What lends Fornari’s analysis its compelling force is that it constitutes a nearly textbook example of Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry, which posits sacrificial violence as the origin of human culture, and Christianity as the antithesis of such violence.
In the end, “A God Torn to Pieces” presents a fascinating, original interpretation of one of the most misunderstood thinkers in the history of philosophy.
Fornari’s book may be overwritten for American audiences, and his psychologizing may border on the ad hominen at times, but there is still a persuasiveness to his case: the tragic necessity of Nietzsche’s death, and the intriguing possibility that he sought to be forgiven in the midst of his madness.