Nietzsche Ruckus Highlights Importance of Citations in Biographical Works

This morning, I stumbled upon an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, When One Biographer 'Borrows' From Another, the Dispute Gets Philosophical. The article describes an academic storm that has been slowly growing in the biography genre; in particular, with regards to the citation to past works.

In 2010, Julian Young published a biography on Friedrich Nietzsche entitled, Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Mark Anderson, at the time a professor at Belmont University, stumbled upon several un-cited or questionably cited similarities between Young's book and the late Curtis Cate's 2005 biography, Friedrich Nietzsche. What followed was an interesting (and somewhat escalating) rumble between academics, with a focus on biography as art and the gray area between writing fiction and reporting history. What makes the melee even more interesting is that the players' thoughts and responses have been published in the Journal of Nietzsche Studies.

History vs. Fiction

In Telling the Same Story of Nietzsche's Life, Anderson makes his initial case against Young's lack of citation to Cate, pointing to parallels in phrasing and narrative structure. Among the many examples, Anderson underscores the following similarities between Cate and Young:

For the next six weeks, despite the consoling presence of his sister, he suffered acute eye-aches and headaches, and convulsive stomach upsets, some of them so protracted that blood came up with the vomit... Nietzsche's friend, Professor Immermann, seemed to be at his wits' end as to how to deal with this new crisis... (Cate)

For the next six weeks, despite the consoling presence of Elizabeth, he suffered acute eye-aches, headaches and terrible stomach convulsions, some of them so violent that blood came up with the vomit. His friend and doctor, Professor Immermann, at his wits' end... (Young)

While much of the article is devoted to biographical parallelisms and citation problems, Anderson offers some interesting views of the biographer in general and how he or she functions as a writer. His views touch upon the fine line between reporting history and authoring history, the latter being creative and susceptible to unintentional borrowing or intentional plagiarism. Anderson says that compilation and collation aside, a biographer must also be an artist, not in the chronological ordering of events, but in selecting facts, interpreting these facts in the narrative and using prose to characterize biographical subjects.

A Unique Biographical Voice

Young provides a brief reply in which he notes the un-cited incorporations of Cate but marks them as unintentional. He mentions the lodging of phrases in his mind and illustrates the movement of material over the years from "notes to notes and drafts to drafts," with contact being lost between him and the sources. However, in his second reply, Young downplays the un-cited incorporation as minimal ("the total number of words involved is less than 300."). But he does acknowledge that biographical/historical facts, like ideas, are subject to acknowledgement, having assumed wrongly that "the manner of reporting humdrum historical facts no more counts as intellectual property than the manner of reporting a bus timetable."

More interesting is Young's defense of his narrative:

In addition to highlighting the recycling of phrases from Cate, Professor Anderson also makes the more nebulous claim that elements of Cate's "narrative structure" appear in my biography. Now even where the order in which one narrates events or the selection of quotations from original sources is suggested by someone else's work, I do not believe that one is required to acknowledge this fact.

....

I believe that during the course of writing the biography I developed a unique kind of sympathetic intimacy with Nietzsche that enabled me to present him, for all his strangeness, as a rounded human individual-one who was at times, of course, like all of us, "all-too-human."

To this, Anderson responds unfavorably, noting that Young's qualifications dilute his acknowledgements and that the "less than 300" words assertion does not reflect a thorough and careful inspection of Young's text.

Biography as Art and Scholarship

In the thick of it all is Daniel Blue, a scholar who is working on his own Nietzsche biography. Blue has two irons in the fire: his response to Anderson and his reply to Young.  In his response to Anderson, Blue flushes out the relationship between scholarship and biography's artistry. He notes that:

the word, "story," can refer either to the events of Nietzsche's life, the story to be covered, as it were, or to a narrative account of those events, the story that is told. The former in theory is as fixed as the myths Greek dramatists used when fashioning their plays. The "story" on the other hand ... is likely to vary significantly from one writer to another depending on sensibility, thematics, and presentational skills.

Similarly, in his reply to Young, Blue underscores biography as more than just an "aesthetic artifact." He also labels biography "scholarship," making it subject to the constraints of researched and codified knowledge. He states:

It is evident then that biography is a work perpetually in progress, a creation of accumulated scholarship, and many facts in a personage's life are no more established once and for all than are certain astronomic measurements-the size of the solar system, for example-which are recalibrated and made ever more precise over time. The serious biographer will know and be grateful to those researchers who discovered and proved something new. The latter will also be cited in footnotes, not just as an act of transparency, but as a tribute to those who contributed to the advancement of knowledge.

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Comments

Anonymous
Anonymous
  • 11-05-2012

This is another 'bus timetable borrowing': "Dear Editor: Philosophy Now published my review of Professor Julian Young’s book Friedrich Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography in Issue 83 (March/April 2011). In the autumn of 2011, The Journal of Nietzsche Studies (42) published Professor M. Anderson’s analysis showing how numerous passages from the above book were reproduced from an earlier biography by Curtis Cate, Friedrich Nietzsche (2002). Professor Young never denied his ‘unauthorised copying’. As he explained: “certain phrases lodged themselves in my mind without my retaining any memory of their original source.” As I mentioned in my review, I had been surprised to read Young’s diagnosis of Nietzsche’s madness: “Probably the most plausible description of Nietzsche’s condition is… bipolar disorder with, in its later stages, psychotic features” (p.560), since here is my own diagnosis, published ten years previously: “Nietzsche’s overall clinical picture meets DSM-IV criteria for bipolar affective disorder, consisting of brief manic episodes with some psychotic features…” (‘The madness of Nietzsche: a misdiagnosis of the millennium?’ Hospital Medicine, 61, 2000). Although there have been a number of subsequent psychiatric revaluations of Nietzsche’s illness, my formulation remains unique. The fact that Young, as a non-clinician, ventured into a diagnostic territory at all is only symptomatic of his arrogance. Professor Anderson’s report, with Professor Young’s response, can be found at hunter.cuny.edu/jns/discussion. With hindsight, my praise and recommendation of Young’s book is potentially misleading, and I wish to withdraw these. I suggest anyone interested in Nietzsche’s life should read the sources mentioned. Dr Eva Cybulska, Psychiatrist