Or, The Birth of Tragicomedy.
In life, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) was, or tried to be, many things. Intellectually influential, however, he was not, as the following Google Ngram chart suggests:
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Born well into the Romantic period, Nietzsche in many ways embodies, with diverse degree of success, notions associated with that movement: the man struggling alone against frightful difficulties, against society itself and its norms, to bend the world to his will: the Übermensch (Superman).
Nietzsche's goal in life:
"I teach you the overman [i.e. Übermensch, literal translation; superman]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?" (link)
|"Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog" [A]|
It was in death (first intellectual and, then, physical) that Nietzsche became influential. There is little more romantic than that.
During most of his childhood, after his father and little brother's deaths, Nietzsche was the only male in a not very affluent Prussian household, dominated by strong female authority figures (including his mother and domineering sister, Elisabeth -- two years younger -- grandmother and two unmarried aunts).
Never much of a "farfallone amoroso" (oblivious to his shyness, moody disposition, and chronic financial insolvency, Nietzsche apparently attributed his lack of success with the ladies to his appearance alone), Nietzsche twice turned to the military in pursuit of fulfilment ("Cherubino, alla vittoria! Alla gloria militar!"), in spite of his poor eyesight and health.
The first time (1867), as a trainee artillery officer, a horse-riding accident left him disabled. A few years later, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), fully recovered from his injuries, he volunteered for duty but, after a short stint, was sent home in defeat, not by French bullets or bayonets, but by diarrhoea and diphtheria.
After that experience, Nietzsche settled for academic life. However, unhappy with the professorship his teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, got for him at the University of Basel, in 1878 Nietzsche resigned, to become a gardener. A few weeks later, he quit his new career; his weak back taught him the seemingly unimagined: gardening involves not only fresh air and the magnificent Alpine outdoors; it involves back-breaking work.
Then, he attempted a writing career, but his books wouldn't sell, leaving him always short of cash.
On January 1889, Nietzsche's writing career came to an end, after suffering an irreversible mental breakdown. A final indignity awaited for him: his care fell upon Elisabeth (for whom Nietzsche had mixed feelings), until his death in 1900.
Those proved to be Nietzsche's luckiest career moves, as the Google Ngram chart also suggests. Elisabeth would become his best literary agent: immortality finally was at hand.
As is often the case with philosophers, Nietzsche's work is subject of interpretation. For Alain de Botton [*] a generous interpreter (from whom I draw heavily), Nietzsche is a moral philosopher and tragic romantic hero whose own life illustrates his philosophy of struggle in the face of overwhelming adversity:
"Like his father, he [i.e. Nietzsche] had wished to offer us paths to fulfilment. But unlike pastors … he had judged difficulties to be a crucial prerequisite of fulfilment, and hence knew saccharine consolations to be ultimately more cruel than helpful." [page 243]While that interpretation allows us to salvage something valuable from his life, Nietzsche himself conspires against it, for his own inadequacies (among them, lack of empathy, and egotism) and lack of self-awareness. More a tragicomedy than a drama.
[*] De Botton, Alain. 2000. "The Consolations of Philosophy". Sydney: Penguin Books Australia.
[A] "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog", 1818, by Caspar David Friedrich. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain. Wikipedia
(17-08-2014) Added the short paragraph on Nietzsche's luckiest career move.