American Nietzsche

By Alexander Star

In 1889, when Friedrich Nietzsche suffered the mental collapse that ended his career, he was virtually unknown. Yet by the time of his death in 1900 at the age of 55, he had become the philosophical celebrity of his age. From Russia to America, admirers echoed his estimation of himself as a titanic figure who could alter the course of history: “I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far; this does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial.” His origins were humble for the role. The son of a small-town Lutheran minister, he steeped himself in classical literature while growing up in eastern Germany. When he was 24, he secured a professorship in Basel, Switzerland, and a few years later published his first book, “The Birth of Tragedy.” Against the common view of the ancient Greeks as the epitome of serene equipoise, Nietzsche emphasized the “Dionysian” excess and frenzy that complemented the “Apollonian” virtues of clarity and repose. The book’s success was limited, and its author was mocked by one leading classicist as an atavist run amok who should “gather tigers and panthers about his knees, but not the youth of Germany.”

In fact, he would gather none. Suffering from violent migraines, Nietzsche resigned his academic post when he was 34 and began the life of a little-heeded nomad-­intellectual in European resorts. With escalating intensity, he issued innovative works of philosophy that challenged every element of European civilization. He celebrated the artistic heroism of Beethoven and Goethe; denigrated the “slave morality” of Christianity, which transfigured weakness into virtue and vital strength into sin; and called on the strong in spirit to bring about a “transvaluation of all values.” The “higher man” — or as Nietzsche sometimes called him, the “overman” or “Übermensch” — did not succumb to envy or long for the afterlife; rather he willed that his life on earth repeat itself over and over exactly as it was. In later works, Nietzsche wrote with continued brilliance and growing megalomania of his disdain for the common “herd,” the dangers of nihilism and the possibility that the will to power is the “Ur-fact of all history.” He spent his last stricken decade in the care of his mother and then his sister, a fervent anti-Semite who would put him in good standing with the German nationalists he despised.

As Nietzsche faltered, his writings began to spread. Small circles of European radicals, literary aristocrats and misfits styled themselves apprentice Übermenschen, ready to fashion the new values the age demanded. The German aesthete Count Harry Kessler plotted to build a Nietzsche memorial in Weimar with a stadium, a temple and a statue; it would, he hoped, effect “the transposition of the personality of Nietzsche into a grand architectural formula” expressing “the unity of lightness, of joy and of power.” But if Nietzsche inspired rapture and devotion, he also puzzled and dismayed. A sickly recluse with impeccable manners, he praised cruelty and strength. He decried Christianity as “a crime against life” even as he claimed that it made man interesting for the first time, and he proposed that everything we know is merely a partial “perspective knowing” even as he composed some of the most categorical remarks ever made: “God is dead”; “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”; “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

From the start, Nietzsche’s American readers were bewitched and bedeviled. His hatred of Christian asceticism, middle-class sentimentality and democratic uplift was an assault on 19th-century America’s apparently most salient characteristics. For that very reason, he attracted young Americans who felt estranged from their culture, and has continued to do so. But today’s inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past; and it’s the achievement of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “American Nietzsche” to show how that is the case.

Though Nietzsche loathed the left, he was loved by it. As Ratner-Rosenhagen explains, the anarchists and “romantic radicals” as well as the “literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions” who welcomed him to America believed they had found the perfect manifestation of Emerson’s Poet, for whom a thought is “alive, . . . like the spirit of a plant or an animal.” To read Nietzsche was to overcome an entire civilization’s inhibiting divide between thinking and feeling. Isadora Duncan said he “ravished my being,” while both Jack London and Eugene O’Neill saw him as their Christ. Emma Goldman ended her romance with the Austrian anarchist Ed Brady because he didn’t appreciate the great author who had taken her to “undreamed-of heights.” For such readers, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” with its incantatory calls for a race of overmen to establish a new morality that would “remain faithful to the earth,” was the true Nietzsche. Thrilling to its rhapsodies, they felt confirmed in their judgment that pious, stultifying America was no place for a serious thinker. Ratner-Rosenhagen nicely writes, “Many years before members of this generation were ‘lost’ in Europe, they felt at home in Nietzsche, and homeless in modern America.”

But Nietzsche’s American admirers faced a discomfiting problem: How to separate his intoxicating attacks on convention from his disgust with democracy and its herd of citizens? The editor Benjamin Tucker, whose anarchist newspaper printed America’s first serialized Nietzsche translations, welcomed the advent of “another great Egoist.” But he also worried that unfettering the ego of the overman might not be such a great idea if, as Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it, “for someone to be over, someone else must be under.” Meanwhile, others held Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism in his favor. The journalist Vance Thompson was bolstered in his disregard for the “monstrous fallacy that all men are born free and equal” while H. L. Mencken, Nietzsche’s most influential American interpreter, championed “the greatest individualist since Adam” for exposing an elementary truth: It is “only the underdog . . . that believes in equality.”

While Nietzsche’s early readers took him as an antidote to Americanism, that did not mean they saw him as a representative German. Believing that his ancestors were Polish aristocrats known as Niezky, some attributed his thinking to “Slavic emotionalism.” All that changed in 1914, with the start of what a British newspaper called the “Euro-Nietzschean war.” The philosopher of personal liberation was transformed into a proto-storm trooper who believed might makes right and welcomed the sinister rise of the Teutonic “blond beast.” In 1924, Nietzsche’s reputation was further damaged when Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the teenage sons of wealthy Chicago families, committed a random murder with the apparent intention of establishing their bona fides as overmen. (As Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, the case nearly confounded the great defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who sought to blame the author of “Beyond Good and Evil” for the crime, but not too much; in his 12-hour speech to the judge, he called Nietzsche “the most original philosopher of the last century” and took pains to argue that “Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche. He may be the only one who was influenced in the way that he was influenced.”)

If Nietzsche’s image reached its nadir during the Second World War, when Hitler presented Mussolini with a bound edition of his works and the historian Crane Brinton wrote a book asserting he would have been “a good Nazi,” a resurrection was soon to come. The German émigré and Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann almost single-handedly revived his standing with his many translations and forceful reminder that Nietzsche hated anti-Semites and German nationalists as well as woolly-headed romantics. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was a late flower of the Enlightenment, a tough-minded rationalist with the courage to face the Darwinian revelation that there is no purpose to nature or to our existence. The true task of the overman was to overcome himself, not others, and to do so by sculpturing his impulses and thoughts and inheritances into a willed unity that could be called “style.”

But did Kaufmann and others who treasured Nietzsche’s intransigent individualism as a defense against the threats of totalitarianism and mass culture lose sight of his actual writings? As Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, a later generation of American interpreters, influenced by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, esteemed Nietzsche not as the guarantor of the individual but as its dismantler. “The ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed,” Nietzsche wrote in “On the Genealogy of Morals,” and the implication was clear: If God was dead, so too were equally fictitious entities like the self. There was no objective truth, only the truth-effects engendered by the workings of power and the instabilities of language. Even as this poststructuralist Nietzsche occupied the university in the 1980s, it bred a counterreaction from conservative intellectuals. In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom decried the “Nietzscheanization of the Left,” by which he meant the rise of a disabling relativism that supposed any belief was as good as any other. For Bloom and other students of Leo Strauss, however, Nietzsche was not just the disease, he was also the diagnostician and possibly the cure. More brilliantly than anyone, Nietzsche understood the peril of modern nihilism and the need to cultivate robust souls who would strive to achieve excellence without authoritative religious belief.

“American Nietzsche” is a sober work of intellectual history, but as Nietzsche insisted, all scholarship reflects the temperament of its creator, and it’s clear that Ratner-Rosenhagen finds neither the poststructuralist nor the conservative Nietzsche at all satisfying. At the end of her consistently insightful book, she turns to Harold Bloom and the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who emphasized Nietzsche’s affinities with the man he himself regarded as “the most fertile author” of his century — Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, one can show that Emerson anticipated many of Nietzsche’s most famous utterances. There is a direct line from Emerson’s “oversoul” to the “overman.” Several decades before Nietzsche wrote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Emerson wrote, “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb, is a benefactor.” More profoundly, Emerson foreshadowed Nietzsche’s concern with the ubiquity of flux and power, and the value of overcoming the past. “Life only avails,” Emerson once wrote, “not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transitions from a past to a new state.”

Ratner-Rosenhagen concludes that Cavell, Bloom and the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty constructed “an American Nietzsche” by drawing upon “philosophical interpretations which understood that in a world without foundations, our views of truth, language and the self are not mirrors of reality but useful fictions to explore new avenues of discovery, new sources of wonder.” Stressing Nietzsche’s Emersonian and pragmatist heirs, Ratner-Rosenhagen inevitably neglects some of his other pertinences. She doesn’t take into full account how Nietzsche thought his beloved Emerson was “too much infatuated with life” or how he doubted most people could ever discover anything at all. Nor does she say much about his broader presence in the culture. In 1933, the Hays Office forced the producers of the Barbara Stanwyck film “Baby Face” to remove “The Will to Power” from the hands of a German-American cobbler whose paeans to self-fulfillment inspire the Stanwyck character to become a prostitute. Nietzsche’s more bombastic utterances would later enter popular culture without hindrance. In every generation Nietzsche finds admirers who blur his message with that of Aleister Crowley, the Nietzsche-reading occultist who wrote, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

If Nietzsche was terrible, was he also beneficial? In a 1985 book “Nietzsche: Life as Literature,” the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas argued that Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not imply that all beliefs are equally valid but that “one’s beliefs are not, and need not be, true for everyone.” On this reading, to fully accept a set of beliefs is to accept the values and way of life that are bound up with it, and since there is no single way of life that is right for everyone, there may be no set of beliefs that is fit for everyone. At its best, American individualism is not about the aggrandizement of the self or the acquiescent assumption that everybody simply has a right to think what they want. Rather, it stresses that our convictions are our own, and should be held as seriously as any other possessions. Or, as Nietzsche imagined philosophers would one day say, “ ‘My judgment is my judgment’: no one else is easily entitled to it.”


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