Conservations with Nietzsche
A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries
edited by Sander L. Gilman
translated by David J. Parent

selected from Begegnungen mit Nietzsche
edited by Sander L. Gilman

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Oxford University Press: New York, 1987

276 pages June 2017

Nietzsche's Friends, Neighbors, Colleagues

This is not a biography, but the stuff out of which biographies are made. Conservations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries is edited by Sander L. Gilman, and translated by David J. Parent from Gilman's "much more extensive" German original. It's important to keep in mind what kind of material this is, as the editor discusses:

Until the introduction of acoustic recordings of speech in the late nineteenth century ... no literary conversation was set down which is not suspect. In all cases we must consider the author of the conversation as a more or less creative artist who is shaping (if not inventing) the conversation.

Does this face, however, vitiate our use of this material? If we wish to use the Platonic dialogues, Boswell's conversations with Johnson, or Eckermann's reports of Goethe's views as the unmediated report of the views and opinions of Socrates, Johnson, or Goethe, then we are stymied. This material is not original in the same way as a text ascribed to an author, a letter written or dictated by him, or even the copy or printing of such material. If we wish to place this material in the complex reception of the writer, as part of the mythbuilding which occurs in the creation of a writer's reputation, then we have an extraordinarily rich and complex source. Not only can we examine the literal recreation of the fictionalized persona of an historical figure, but we can examine it within the bounds of an identifiable tradition, that of the conversation. ...

For the joy of the "imaginary conversation" is that the mute are given tongue, that the dead are given immortality in their discourse.

I think this book is best read after one has read at least one biography of Nietzsche, as well as his own major works. So I'll recommend Conservations with Nietzsche not as a biography in itself but as a unique supplement of biographical source material. It's nice to read this relatively unfiltered and unencumbered.

That said, while most of this material is by Nietzsche's contemporaries, and some of it exists as contemporary letters, most of it was not written contemporaneously, but rather years afterward "when Nietzsche's name literally had become a household word". The credit for soliciting many of these memoirs and recollections belongs to Nietzsche's sister, Elizabeth-Forster-Nietzsche, gathering for her biography of her brother. Unfortunately her efforts at managing her brother's legacy via the Nietzsche Archiv in Weimar resulted in considerable distortion to his reception and reputation.

Even those who have a fair idea of Friedrich Nietzsche's life, character, and personality from biographies and introductions to his works will find a lot of fascinating details and insights in Conservations with Nietzsche. I recommend it highly.

As Gilman says,

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the masters of modern autobiographical self-analysis. Strongly conscious of his own strengths and weaknesses, he submitted the course of his life to constant scrutiny.

So we'll let Nietzsche make a vital point in his own words:

Under these circumstances I have a duty against which my habits, even more the pride of my instincts, revolt at bottom — namely, to say: Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.
Friedrich Nietzsche
Ecce Homo, Preface
translated by Walter Kaufmann

© 2017 Robert Wilfred Franson

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