Autobiography as history Construction and narration
Whatever Ecce homo is, it is not a representational realist autobiographical chronicle intended to communicate factual information that corresponds to the reality of the author’s life. Scholars have long noted the almost bizarrely hyperbolic character of many of Nietzsche’s claims.7 “I have to go back half a year to catch myself with a book in my hand.”8 On the contrary, there is good evidence that Nietzsche actually read several books during the period of time in question.9 “I do not know what other people’s experience of Wagner has been: over our skies not a single cloud appeared.”10 Wagner and Nietzsche quarreled bitterly before their notorious falling-out. “I am a Polish nobleman, pur sang, without a single drop of bad blood, or at least not German blood.”11 “Julius Caesar could be my father ... As I am writing this, the postman is bringing me a head of Dionysus.”12 “I am by far the most fearsome human there ever was.”13
Yet though an admittedly idiosyncratic account, certainly it is not accurate to say, following Kaufmann, that “Ecce homo show[s] so strange a lack of inhibition and contains such extraordinary claims ... that knowing of his later insanity, one cannot help finding here the first signs of it.”14 Ecce homo is too complex, too carefully composed to be the work of an unhinged mind. More realistically, the contention has been made by Ridley and Norman that Nietzsche is, “opportunistically [reinterpreting his] past in a way that makes it seem providential.”15 This fictional opportunism is said to be instrumental for Nietzsche’s stated effort of ‘loving one’s fate,’ a form of cathartic therapy16 or apologetic confessional17 by which Nietzsche reveals himself, like Caravaggio’s rendition of Christ in the painting by the same name, a downcast but dignified all-too-human idol. Through selecting, exaggerating, underplaying, and manipulating the raw data of the past, Nietzsche was allegedly trying to forge for himself a palatable self-image for the sake of fate-affirmation.18 Along this interpretation, the principle that guides Nietzsche’s explanatory history to select those incidents and events that contribute to a ‘healthy’ self-image is the entirely subjective desire to affirm his particular fate - apparently when that means choosing only those colorations of events that one is already happy to affirm. The work counts, on this reading, as a narrative fiction, one whose worth as art
See, for example, Large (2007), xx. 8 EH “klug,” 3; KSA 6, 284. 9 Cf. Brobjer (2008), 7.
EH “klug,” 5; KSA 6, 288. 11 EH “weise,” 3; KSA 6, 268. 12 EH “weise,” 3; KSA 6, 269.
EH“Schicksal,” 2; KSA 6, 366. 14 Kaufmann (1950), 66. 15 Ridleyand Norman (2005), xx.
Dietzsche (2000), 473—482; compare Coe and Altmann (2005—2006), 116—128.
R. White (1991), 291—303; Pletsch (1987), 405—434. 18 Cf. Conway (1993), 55—78; Kofman (1992).
or literature or even therapy may be substantial but which would hold no more value as an historical document than do the works of Tolkien or Tolstoy. Even sympathetic scholars like Hollingdale have claimed as much. “If, under the guidance of the literature on the subject, you approach it as ‘Nietzsche’s autobiography’ you will get very little out of it and probably won’t even finish it, short though it is. As autobiography it is a plain failure.”
If a historical narrative is defined as an account that includes more than the pure facts - “a species of the genus Story” - then Nietzsche’s Ecce homo is without question a narrative. Then again, most anything from world histories to diary entries would be considered narratives too. Apart from embellishments, omissions, and emphases of certain details, even the causal relations they employ to link one moment to the next - whatever moves us from ‘first x and later y’ to ‘x led to y’ - are, as we showed in Chapter 5, interpolations on the part of the historian and therefore indicative of narration.  Postmodern philosophies of history maintain a more specific definition of narrative, however, which presumes “that contemporary phenomena have a potentially infinite number of causally relevant, highly contingent, antecedent events. It is impossible to know them all. The job of the [...] historian is to tell a coherent causal story about how a puzzlingly contemporary phenomenon, a trace, was produced.” These stories are neither deductions nor explanations since they aim only at informing from a particular point of view, never at definitive proof. Narrative history is, for Keith Jenkins, nothing more than “a self-referential, problematic expression of ‘interests,’ an ideologically-interpretive discourse without any ‘real’ access to the past as such; unable to engage in any dialogue with ‘reality.’ In fact, ‘history’ now appears to be just one more ‘expression’ in a world of postmodern expressions: which of course is what it is.”
It is certainly true that narrative can illuminate many things and clearly has a powerful performative impact on its audience. Fiction can and commonly enough does involve explanations, as much as history can and commonly does involve narrative elements. 25 What is at stake in thinking
Nietzsche’s Ecce homo presents a narrative in the strict postmodern sense is the demotion of a meaningful historiographical account of an ontologically real past to the level of a mere story - just one more expression in a world of expressions. I do not think this is justified. Most obviously, because it seems to me Nietzsche must think the subject of his book — himself — is real in a way different than Dickens has David Copperfield think of himself. And about that real subject Nietzsche is not just offering any old explanation, but, as we saw in our response to postmodern historiography generally in the previous section, what he considers the best explanation of the real phenomenon under examination given the circumference of his and his audience’s perspectives. Nietzsche is quite clear that he believes his story is more compelling than any other, practically screaming in the very first paragraph of the book, “Listen to me! Since I am the one who I am [Denn Ich bin der und der]! Above all, do not mistake me for anyone else! "26 Beyond this, however, Ecce homo resists characterization as a postmodern narrative for at least four reasons.
First, it would really be rather absurd to think Nietzsche could offer an “infinite number" of reasons for how he became who he is. No doubt different explanations would highlight different parts of his life than others, would stress different periods or influences as the ‘most formative,’ as in fact has been the case with the numerous biographies of Nietzsche written since his death. But while there are perhaps an infinite number of ways that story could be told in terms of its composition, each one of them would have to rely upon a forever fixed and non-infinite number of events that occurred in Nietzsche’s life in the process of giving their reasons why he became who he is. The influence of his mother and sister, for example, can be foregrounded or covered over to any degree, but that these two women were Franziska and Elisabeth and no one else means there is not an infinite number ofstories to tell. In this sense, Nietzsche’s historiography is indeed constrained by the real world in a way fiction is not.27
Second, to judge whether Nietzsche is composing more than idealized fiction, one need only consider what Nietzsche says about Amor Fati. “To accept yourself as a fate [Fatum], not to want to be ‘different’ - in situations like this, that is the great reason [grosse Vernunft] itself.” The Bejahung of Nietzsche’s life is central to the work as a whole. To effectively love his own fate and not some made-up ideal of it simply requires that this autobiographical account be earnest. Were it not, then what else should one label the affirmation of the fictive other than ‘delusional’? Indeed the ability to present a genuine account of oneself actually receives special mention as one of the virtues of which Nietzsche is proudest. In too many places we read that Nietzsche is trying to be honest, trying to avoid the historical teleological idealism that has plagued the “hidden history of the philosophers” to believe his own account is intended to be mere fictive revisionism. “One has robbed reality with respect to its worth, sense, and truthfulness [Wahrhaftigkeit] to the extent that one made up an ideal world.”
Third, the historical context of his composition makes clear that Nietzsche is not just telling any old story, but earnestly trying to introduce himself to his readers. Ecce homo was likely never to have been published as a stand-alone work of philosophy. It was intended as the preface or “Vorspiel” to his never-completed project, Umwerthung alter Werthe, and as such was composed with an eye toward stimulating the interest ofpotential readers in the author of the work. This would account, to some extent, for its exaggerated self-approbations, at the same time mitigating the hypothesis that Ecce homo was intended to be pure fiction.
Fourth, had Nietzsche wanted to compose a fictive narrative, he certainly could have done so. Zarathustra ranks as one of the finest such narratives in German. Its value consists in the philosophical insight it conveys through its narration - but an insight that is certainly not tied to explaining anything about the real historical person of Zoroaster. Though narratively brilliant in its own right, Ecce homo also explains the character of a real historical person in a way that Zarathustra neither can nor intends to.
Again, I contend that Ecce homo, filled with however complex a narrative, is nevertheless not a postmodern narrative simply. It is a historical explanation, one intended to describe who Nietzsche is and explain how Nietzsche became what he is in a way consistent with his ideal of proper historiography. It remains to be shown how the text does so.