A review of a Nietzsche book in The New York Times is rare, and even rarer, it seems, is the decision to enlist a reviewer competent in the material. Although Curtis Cate's biography of Nietzsche appeared nearly two years ago, just today the Times has run a lengthy review of the book by the writer and novelist William Vollmann, who, best I can tell, has no expertise in the subject, and who certainly displays none in the review.
The review--predictably, I suppose, for the Times--concentrates mostly on gossip about Nietzsche's personal relations, and although there are breathless references to Nietzsche's "bravery," his "savagely independent intellect," and "his incomparable mind," there is almost no actual discussion of his philosophical ideas. The one exception comes towards the end, where Mr. Vollmann bizarrely ascribes to Nietzsche "a 'realism' which asserts that cruelty, being innate, can be construed as moral," a view which Nietzsche does not hold (and, of course, no text or passage is referenced in support). Is it really too much to expect that a lengthy review of a biography of a philosopher might say something (accurate) about the philosopher's ideas?
Our first hint that Mr. Vollmann is well out of his depth comes early on, when he praises Cate's summary of "the relevant aspects of Schopenhauer, Aristotle and others by whom Nietzsche was influenced and against whom he reacted."
Many figures from antiquity--Thales, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato, Pyrrho--loom large for Nietzsche (as both targets and inspirations), but as every serious student of Nietzsche knows, Aristotle is notable for his almost total absence from the corpus. There are a mere handful of explicit references to Aristotle in Nietzsche's writings (even in the unpublished notebooks), and no extended discussion of the kind afforded Plato or Thales. And apart from some generally superficial speculations in the secondary literature about similarities between Aristotle's "great-souled man" and Nietzsche's idea of the "higher" or "noble" man--similarities nowhere remarked upon by Nietzsche himself--there is no scholarship supporting the idea that Aristotle is a significant philosopher for Nietzsche in any respect.
Perhaps aware that the waters he has entered are too deep and turbulent for his feeble stroke, Mr. Vollmann declares immediately after this peculiar Aristotle reference that Mr. Cate's summaries are "asking the world to pick nits. Nits will be picked. No matter." But thinking Aristotle matters for Nietzsche is no nit: it's the difference between knowing something about the subject matter (about the formative intellectual influences on the philosopher) and knowing next to nothing. Nits do not matter, but having some idea what one is talking about does in the life of the mind.
Lack of real familiarity with the subject is manifest at other places in Mr. Vollmann's review, in between the People magazine speculations and meaningless philosophical name-dropping (the silliest instance of the latter follows upon Mr. Vollmann's quoting Lou Salome accusing Nietzsche of wanting a physical menage-a-trois with her and Paul Ree; Mr. Vollmann adds: "Well, why not? Nietzsche would ultimately reject Plato."). Mr. Vollmann repeats the standard story about Nietzsche's syphilis, apparently unaware of the detailed (and rather convincing) debunking of that explanation of Nietzsche's final collapse by a medical doctor, Richard Schain, in his 2001 book The Legend of Nietzsche's Syphilis. On the question of anti-semitism, Mr. Vollmann says, oddly, that "Nietzsche was plentiful in his praise of individual Jews," though such references to individuals are few and far between by comparison to Nietzsche's praise not for individuals, but for the Jewish people and Jewish culture.
So, for example, in the course of discussing "the anti-Jewish stupidity" of the Germans, he writes (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 251) that "the Jews are without a doubt the strongest, purest, most tenacious race living in Europe today," adding that given their virtues, "the Jews, if they wanted...could quite literally have control over present-day Europe--this is established. The fact that they are not working and making plans to this end is likewise established." Elsewhere, he remarks on the importance of logic and reason among early modern Jewish scholars, who needed these tools to overcome prejudice, adding that "Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making its people more logical, for cleanier intellectual habits--none more so than the Germans, as a lamentably deraisonnable race that even today first needs to be given a good mental drubbing" (Gay Science, sec. 348).
None of this is to deny that there are spectacularly harsh attacks on Judaism in Nietzsche's corpus, but Mr. Vollmann nowhere mentions the most pertinent fact about these attacks: namely, that the grave crime with which Nietzsche repeatedly charges the Jews and Judaism is giving birth to Christianity! (As Nietzsche quips in The Antichrist [sec. 24], "even today the Christan can feel anti-Jewish without realizing that he himself is the ultimate Jewish consequence.") In the annals of European anti-semitism, this charge would, of course, be unrecognizable as a contribution to the genre. And, indeed, more often than not--for example in the Genealogy--he uses "Jew" and "Judea" interchangeably with "Christian" and "Christianity," and for an obvious reason: he objects to the morality for which these religions stand, not anything particular to the religious cosmologies, let alone the "race" of people who embrace them (in the Genealogy, he goes so far as to invoke the Catholic Pope as evidence of the triumph of Jewish values). (For discussion, see pp. 195-197 of my Nietzsche on Morality [London: Routledge, 2002].)
To be fair, Mr. Vollmann's review is more empty than pernicious; his ignorance is palpable if one knows something, but he does not do too much damage to serious reading of Nietzsche. The broader issue, though, is about the responsibilities of newspapers, like The New York Times, that aspire to be serious and intellectual. If a decision is made to commission a long review of a book, why not enlist someone who actually knows something? It's true, to be sure, that Nietzsche attracts more than his share of intellectual tourists and sophomoric misreaders, but a publication that aspires to provide intellectual uplift to its non-scholarly readers ought to undertake to do better. The nepotism (by blood and by social circle) of The New York Times is, of course, notorious, but even in New York and vicinity, I count a half-dozen folks who, if asked, would have been able to say something intelligent, instead of trite or simply mistaken. The public culture in the United States is debased enough that one might be forgiven for entertaining the modest hope that a high-profile review of a book on a philosopher might be written by someone who knows something about the philosopher and his philosophy.
But perhaps Sartre is right, and we must live without hope.