Friday, November 4, 2011

"American Idol: On Nietzsche in America" review

"American Idol: On Nietzsche in America"


Ross Posnock

November 1st, 2011

The Nation

“Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.” Ralph Waldo Emerson published these words of warning in 1841, and they can be read as both self-description and prophecy. Self-description because they occur in the essay “Circles,” one of the most dazzling bursts of American prose ever written, a hymn to a fact exhilarating and terrifying—that “nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.” The risk of conflagration erupts in the rhythm of Emerson’s thought and the pulse of his writing, evoking a world of “sliding” surfaces, of “whims” and “experiment,” of “surprises” and “abandonment,” where “permanence is but a word of degrees,” the essay slowing down just long enough to make a culminating statement that offers no anchorage: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Emerson had already tailored his actions to his words, having resigned from the ministry a few years earlier and chosen a life of unsettlement as a freelance lecturer and writer.

His warning to beware when “God lets loose a thinker” was borne out thirty-three years later, when a 30-year-old German academic quoted it in his autobiographical essay “Schopenhauer as Educator” to inspire his own act of liberation from settled routine. Friedrich Nietzsche would soon leave his Basel professorship in philology for the wanderings of a free spirit, making philosophy a way of life, as it had been for the ancients and the sage of Concord. Nietzsche had been reading and revering Emerson (in translation) since 1862, finding his words so intimate and penetrating that he couldn’t praise them: they are “too close to me,” he confessed. Born from this union—one of the most significant acts of transatlantic cross-fertilization in Western intellectual history—was “the enfant terrible of modernism,” the “epitome” of its unsettling spirit, to borrow the words of an early commentator. There was no turning back: “Where once the moral life was couched in terms of foundations, now, ‘after Nietzsche,’ thinkers and writers imagined it as life on the open sea.” “Beware,” Emerson had warned.

American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s lively history of the reception of Nietzsche’s ideas in the United States, from which I have drawn the preceding quotation about the moral life, wisely devotes its prologue to Emerson’s impact on the philosopher: “Nietzsche used Emerson not to get closer to him but to get closer to himself. For Nietzsche, Emerson provided an image of the philosopher willing to go it alone without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” These themes, encompassing Nietzsche’s persona and ideas, figure prominently in American Nietzsche. The facts of the philosopher’s lonely nomadic life—his books largely ignored upon publication, his genius burdened by ceaseless physical pain and eventually insanity—were, for most readers, inseparable from the scandalous self-described “immoralist” with his emphatically modern “philosophy of the future,” as he called his thinking. And this fusion of life and work made him, especially in the eyes of Greenwich Village radicals in the twentieth century’s opening decades, a prophet and martyr embodying what Ratner-Rosenhagen calls a “cautionary tale about the perilous course of the intellectual in the democratic era.”

Nietzsche paid a heavy price for daring to strip away the comforting props of Victorian piety, bringing readers face to face with the imperative “to become what you are.” He launched his own version of Emerson’s project, which begins with the recognition that man is but “a half-man,” a “dwarf of himself.” The time was ripe: how thrilling it must have been for Americans long shackled to the “agonized conscience” of Puritan rectitude, the “yoke” of the genteel, in George Santayana’s phrasing. Cease hiding behind conformity and habit and laziness, Emerson and Nietzsche implore; the former invites “every man to expand to the full circle of the universe,” while the latter will eventually call for the overcoming of the human, summoning what he will name the “overman.” Better known as the notorious Übermensch, this figure would be appropriated and distorted to help sponsor German imperialist aggression during World War I and then the Nazis’ genocidal onslaught. How Nietzsche’s reputation managed to survive both disasters is among the stories Ratner-Rosenhagen tells. In the postwar era, it was above all the labors of Walter Kaufmann, as translator and interpreter, who rescued Nietzsche from the taint of totalitarianism, locating him in the ambit of the Enlightenment tradition and turning him into a rugged individualist with immediate appeal to an American readership already swooning over French existentialism. Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a persuasive case for Kaufmann’s pivotal importance.

* * *

Nietzsche-mania erupted in Europe a decade before the philosopher’s death in 1900, spreading throughout the continent and on to Russia, and reaching the United States in the new century’s first decade. A question raised almost at once (and periodically revived) was why Nietzsche was proving so popular here: “What is the philosophy of an anti-Christian, antidemocratic madman doing in a culture like ours? Why Nietzsche? Why in America?” Ratner-Rosenhagen wonders. Nietzsche became the exemplar for those seeking, in Emerson’s words, “not instruction, but provocation”; not intellectual doctrine but the visceral sense of liberation in hearing the inadmissible given voice. Radical leftists—anarchists, socialists and feminists—were early enthusiasts, including Emma Goldman, Randolph Bourne and the Harlem socialist Hubert Harrison, who found in Nietzsche’s contempt for religion and democracy a way to rouse the masses from obedience to Christian ideals of submission and democratic fictions of a free market. But interest was hardly limited to a bohemian coterie of freethinkers. One of the most distinctive aspects of the Nietzsche rage, and one of the striking findings of American Nietzsche, is the diversity of the philosopher’s readership, perhaps reflecting “the sheer range of Nietzschean liberation,” which attacked bourgeois pieties incubated in the home, the university, the church and the public square. Ratner-Rosenhagen writes that “over the course of the century, Progressives and anarchists, Christians and atheists, provincials and cosmopolitans, hawks and doves, academic scholars and armchair philosophers discovered in Nietzsche a thinker to think with.” The variety produces some amusing, if inadvertent, juxtapositions, as Lionel Trilling and Huey Newton are discussed alongside Hugh Hefner (who advised the postwar urban sophisticate to supply a dash of Nietzsche, along with Picasso and jazz, as a conversation starter) and Hitler (who bestowed upon Mussolini a specially bound complete edition of Nietzsche’s work for his sixtieth birthday).

Who got Nietzsche right? What were legitimate and illegitimate uses of his ideas? On one level, the encouragement to be bold that’s central to his appeal can be taken as justification for an impudent self-sovereignty that’s impossible to tame. By celebrating the attractions of becoming an untrammeled “free spirit,” Nietzsche played to a danger already inherent in romantic individualist societies such as our own. Recall Leopold and Loeb, two rich young self-styled Übermenschen of 1920s Chicago who kidnapped and murdered a boy. Their lawyer, Clarence Darrow, described them as victims of Nietzsche’s ideas! Beneath his cynical opportunism, Darrow had a point, if not an exculpatory argument. On another level, the uses made of Nietzsche by German nationalists, Nazis and Italian Fascists were distortions, his ideas and words ripped from their contexts and cobbled together to rationalize murderous ideology. In fact, Nietzsche was a fierce foe of anti-Semitism and nationalism.

As a historian of reception whose aim is to “listen to” rather than “adjudicate” claims about Nietzsche, Ratner-Rosenhagen implicitly finds the question of the legitimacy of someone’s grasp of Nietzsche’s ideas to be beside the point. Of the Übermensch she asks rhetorically, Was it “an ally or an antagonist in the campaign to overcome atomistic individualism in American public life?” It depended on whom you asked. The answer was “ally” to the socialists Jack London and Max Eastman, and to George Bernard Shaw (whose examination of the Übermensch, Man and Superman, played in New York in 1905). Yet to H.L. Mencken, the Übermensch was a “Dionysian aristocrat” of, in his words, “absolute and utter individualism.” Perhaps the most interesting answer was from the “most thoroughgoing Nietzschean theologian” of the early twentieth century, the remarkable George Burman Foster, a Baptist minister and University of Chicago professor, whom Ratner-Rosenhagen usefully recovers. She notes that for Foster, Nietzsche “had shown that modern man should not try to deny his messianic urges, but instead become an Ubermensch worthy of them.” Foster argued that despite the philosopher’s hatred of Christianity, Jesus and Nietzsche would have been friends, for Jesus too was a “revaluator of values” and “lived dangerously.” In Foster’s “functionalist” view, Nietzsche had helped him realize that Christianity had to be reinvented for the new century, its absoluteness and otherworldliness irreconcilable in a world “where the fixed had yielded to flux.” Ratner-Rosenhagen concludes that for Foster, Nietzsche is “a saviour who teaches man to find the saviour in himself.” And “like so many other early twentieth-century liberal Protestants,” Foster “enlisted Nietzsche to come to terms with what his own Christianity meant to him.”

While Mencken, Bourne, Goldman and London are well-known early Nietzsche enthusiasts, each of whom Ratner-Rosenhagen carefully discusses, many unsung ordinary Americans also expressed devotion to the philosopher. Their passions are embodied in a trove of some seventy letters sent to the Nietzsche Archive in Germany, founded by the philosopher’s Nazi-sympathizing sister, Elisabeth, and which Ratner-Rosenhagen uses to great effect. In these letters from immigrants and the native born, “all the brows are represented” and all political persuasions. The letters are mainly worshipful, intimate confessions of the philosopher’s profound influence on his readers, and they frequently include requests for a relic of their saintly sufferer. Perhaps the most poignant letter is from Helene Bachmuller of Dayton, Ohio, who explained that Nietzsche inspired her to look beyond the immediate dreariness of her “trivial,” “ugly” and “commonplace” world; and she vowed to “hold on to” her “hunger”: “If I never manage to have a soul, at any rate I will remain, by hook or crook, aware of it and I will desire one all my life, I will not accept substitutes.”

* * *

With vigor and intelligence American Nietzsche covers a great deal of ground—more than a century of response to the philosopher, from music critic James Huneker and philosopher Josiah Royce to feminist writers Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler. The book concludes with a consideration of how three influential thinkers—Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell—relied on Nietzsche as a way to recover “expressions of antifoundationalism on American native grounds.” Reading Nietzsche brought Bloom and Cavell back to Emerson, and helped Rorty reclaim the pragmatists William James and John Dewey. In each case, Nietzsche was the indispensable lens through which differences were clarified and understanding sharpened. Two terms are basic to Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion here. One is foundationalism, which means that for beliefs to be certain they must be underwritten by what Descartes called a “divine guarantee” independent of strictly human perception. The other term, antifoundationalism, means that all beliefs are in principle revisable, that none can have the absolute certainty required by Descartes. “Emersonian antifoundationalism,” Ratner-Rosenhagen writes, “is not a theory, it is a way of thinking and living in a world without foundations.” And she describes “thinking about thinking without foundations” as the principal activity of Emerson and Nietzsche, and of Cavell in his imagining of their dialogues. In the final two pages of the concluding chapter, each term appears no fewer than ten times.

At this point the limits of reception history become hard to ignore. They might be traced to Ratner-Rosenhagen’s distinction between listening and adjudicating. She is a superb listener, but a consequence of her withholding judgment is that Nietzsche’s ideas—and Emerson’s, for that matter—tend to be rendered in broad, formulaic strokes, the principal one being the antithesis of foundationalism and antifoundationalism. But there is a larger problem. From the outset of the book antifoundationalism is ubiquitous but only hurriedly defined—“the denial of universal truth”—and never reflected upon critically. This is especially unfortunate given that the book’s protagonists reflect upon it incessantly. American Nietzsche also seems to misunderstand the nature of the antifoundationalist claim, which, as the literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish rightly noted years ago, is a “thesis about how foundations emerge” and refutes the metaphysical assumption that “foundations do not emerge but simply are, anchoring the universe and thought from a point above history and culture.” In seeming to literalize the metaphorical, Ratner-Rosenhagen would have us believe that we can function in a world of constant flux, without foundations. But there is a basic logical problem here that Emerson identifies in “Circles”: “Yet this incessant movement and progression, which all things partake, could never become sensible to us, but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul. While the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides.”

Logically, we need a foundational principle to grasp the reality of “incessant movement.” Experientially, we always live with foundations, with truths and certainties, as Nietzsche but also Emerson and William James teach us. What counts is how we regard them. These thinkers regard them not as metaphysical but as agreed upon and revisable; above all, they are indispensable to the conduct of ordinary life. “Our experience meanwhile is all shot through with regularities,” James remarks in Pragmatism, where he describes our “tramp and vagrant world, adrift in space.” And he shows that “we let our notions pass for true without attempting to verify. ” In the opening of “Circles” Emerson looks at technological progress as a parade of invented foundations, all of them temporary. Just as there is “no end in nature, but every end is a beginning,” we observe in human history that “new arts destroy the old. See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gun powder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam; steam by electricity.” We can update his list. So there are foundations aplenty; the mistake is to revere them as God-given and here to stay. “Permanence is a word of degrees.”

Nietzsche, as a number of philosophers have argued, retreated from the radical attack on truth in his early essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (“truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions”), which was a key text for postmodern Nietzscheans like Paul de Man. As Bernard Williams noted, “Repeatedly Nietzsche—the ‘old philologist,’ as he called himself—reminds us that, quite apart from any question about philosophical interpretations, including his own, there are facts to be respected.” And truths to be pursued: Emerson and Nietzsche, ultimately, share Plato’s vision that philosophic inquiry is a heroic enterprise: the bold seeker is on a quest for truths undetectable by slaves to conformity, truths they know will be superseded. “How much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare,” Nietzsche tells us, is the ultimate “measure of value.”

American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas


Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

ISBN-10: 0226705811
ISBN-13: 978-0226705811

"Jared Lee Loughner's Nietzsche: Why the philosopher is misunderstood by angry young men"


Matt Feeney

January 14th, 2011


If we never discovered that Jared Lee Loughner honed his murderous outlook while sitting alone in his bedroom, reading Nietzsche and thinking about nihilism, that would have been real news. Instead of real news, though, we've gotten a dreary iteration of a cultural cliché. The New York Times and other media are saying the addled and alienated young man arrested for trying to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, and for the murders of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green and five other people, took himself to be a Nietzschean.

Of course he did.

I suppose we could start plucking out incendiary quotations from Nietzsche's works and assess how much blame to lay on his head for Loughner's alleged crimes and the crimes of other young men with similar philosophical interests, but such a project would tend toward philistinism or obscurity. Better, I think, to leave aside the indictment and treat the nexus of Nietzsche and troubled young manhood as Nietzsche himself would have—that is, anthropologically.

The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious, but it isn't exactly simple. It is built from several interlocking pieces. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety (and mocks difficult writers you'd prefer not to bother with anyway). He's funny and (deceptively) easy to read, especially compared to his antecedents in German philosophy, who are also his flabby and lumbering targets: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and, especially, Kant. If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you're a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I'm a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity. Nietzsche seems to believe in aristocracy, which is taboo these days, which might be why no one recognizes you as the higher sort of guy you suspect yourself to be. And crucially, if you're a horny and poetic young man whose dream girl is ever present before your eyes but just out of reach, Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic.

If you're a thoughtful and unhappy young man, in other words, why wouldn't you want to read someone who seems to reflect both your alienation and your uncontainable desire back to you as masculine bravery and strength? Indeed, there's something in every book you're likely to pick up—some enticement of form or content or both—that addresses your horniness/alienation and flatters you in the pretense that, though you have no formal training and are actually kind of a crappy and distracted reader, you are doing philosophy.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche's first work, it's the celebration of anarchic and sexually with-it Dionysus over boring Apollo, who's like the Greek god of algebra or something. In Zarathustra, it's the beckoning first-person narration, a crazy novel or memoir kind of thing, a heroic story of Zarathustra "going under," gathering spiritual strength in hermetic solitude that reminds you of your own bedroom, and then "rising" to "shine" upon a people who don't even understand or deserve him. In The Genealogy of Morals it's Nietzsche examining the real history of that Bible stuff your lame pastor barks at you in church (which you understand as saying two main things: no sex, no touching yourself) and proving that morality originates not in God but in the will to power—ancient priests seizing power over ancient masters by guilt-tripping them about the suffering of slaves. (Christianity is just "slave morality." So much for that dilemma.) In Ecce Homo it's those excellent chapter headings ("Why I Am So Clever," "Why I Write Such Good Books"). And in Beyond Good and Evil it is, well, the awesome title of the book itself, and that hilarious opening line ("Supposing truth is a woman—what then?"), and that first chapter where he mocks all those philosophers you don't have to read anymore, now that Nietzsche has told you how lame they are.

And, also in Beyond Good and Evil, it's the aphorisms—a section entitled "Epigrams and Interludes" comprising over a hundred one- and two-sentence masterworks of moral paradox and counterintuition, calculated outrage and elegant eye-poking. Nietzsche is aphoristic even when he's being systematic, and when he's being aphoristic, his writing is simply unmatched in its beauty and mayhem, its uncanny mix of compression and infinite suggestion. And for a young guy who's intellectually hungry but doesn't much enjoy reading, finding this section of philosophy-bits in the middle of this famous book is like a homecoming. You don't even have to know what these epigrams mean to enjoy them. You just feel manly and brave in entertaining them at all, not flinching but laughing when Nietzsche says: "One is best punished for ones virtues." (You even get to work out some of your girl-troubles by lingering over Nietzsche's several jabs at women.)

Of course, Nietzsche scholars will tell you not to run too far with these little wisecracks. You need to understand them in the context of his larger body of work, in which he often circles back to themes, again and again, revising and even contradicting his earlier writings. You have to understand the aphorisms as part of a vast poetic project of self-creation or becoming in which nothing is truly settled. Nietzsche himself predicted he would be misread, acquire misguided disciples, and so he has.

Loughner's favorite book, according to news reports, fits with these troubled-guy tendencies and their associated pitfalls. It's not Beyond Good and Evil, but rather the notorious compilation of Nietzsche's working notes (which Nietzsche's sister peddled, wrongly, as his great systematic work). The observations are longer-form in The Will to Power, but, like the "Epigrams and Interludes," they are too-easily separated from Nietzsche's other work. They have a tidy thematic organization that is largely his sister's. This scheme is helpful to the scholar who knows his other books. It's also helpful to the troubled young man obsessed with one thing in particular. In Loughner's case, this one thing was apparently nihilism, which happens to be the first topic in The Will to Power.

That Loughner was reading Nietzsche on nihilism fits so perfectly into a template for such tragedies that it's easy to miss the gaping confusion in news stories about the shooting. These stories echo claims by some acquaintances that Loughner was a nihilist, and by others that he was "obsessed with nihilism," as if these are the same thing. But Loughner didn't see himself as a nihilist. He saw himself as fighting nihilism. This is evident in his fixation in his YouTube videos on the idea that words have no meaning, or have somehow lost their meaning in a process of nihilistic decline—a fixation that seems to lie at the basis of his tragic grudge against Gabrielle Giffords.

Nietzsche, oddly, has suffered a similar fate. Because of his assault on religion and rationalist metaphysics, and because of the hints of anarchy in his assorted visions of the future (e.g., "the transvaluation of all values"), he's taken as the West's über-nihilist. But he saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, which grows from, in Alexander Nehamas' words, "the assumption that if some single standard is not good for everyone and all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time." It presents itself as mindless hedonism and flaccid spirit, but also as fanaticism.

So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner's pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche's project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the "most abysmal thought," that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.

Jared Loughner's despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world (a mania of moralism and narcissism) for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction. This, then, really is a kind of nihilism, only not the kind that people think Nietzsche was guilty of. It's the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was trying to warn us about, and help us overcome.

A rebuttal...

"Nietzsche on Eggshells"

A new book on the philosopher’s American reception soft-pedals his dark influence.


Fred Siegel

January 20th, 2012

City Journal

American Nietzsche: a History of an Icon and His Ideas, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Chicago, 464 pp., $30)

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche is a 464-page footnote to Allan Bloom’s comment in The Closing of the American Mind that American readings of the German philosopher have produced “nihilism with a happy ending.” Her sense of Nietzsche is based heavily on the writings of the German-born Princeton scholar Walter Kaufmann, famed for softening the philospher of the übermensch’s writings. Like the apologists for jihad who portray it as an internal quest for purification, advocates for Nietzsche acrobatically rope off his praise for war and cruelty as matters of spiritual struggle.

Ratner-Rosenhagen begins with an examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s enormous influence. Emerson’s assertion that “permanence is but a word of degrees” becomes in Nietzsche’s writing what later thinkers would call perspectivism, the view that no firm footing exists for asserting the truth or falsity of any particular claim. Or, in Nietzsche’s words, “truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions.” Presenting herself as an historian of the reception of ideas, Ratner-Rosenhagen traces the adoption of perspectivism in twentieth-century America. Perspectivism, she rightly notes—first as turn-of-the-century pragmatism and today in the form of postmodernism—has been central to the liberal critique of American ideals.

Ratner-Rosenhagen’s principles of selection seem askew. She discusses the plays of George Bernard Shaw, including Man and Superman, only in passing. But Shaw’s plays were one of the primary means through which Americans came to know of Nietzsche’s ideas. Instead, she devotes an entire chapter to letters from obscure Americans to Nietzsche and to his sister Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who became the keeper of the Nietzschean flame after her brother’s death in 1900.

The book is stronger when it deals with Nietzsche’s influence on major figures such as H.L. Mencken and Randolph Bourne, both of whom devoted themselves to freeing the country from the strictures of Victorian morality and denouncing the American effort in World War I. “No author,” writes Ratner-Rosenhagen, “did more to establish the persona of Frederick Nietzsche in America than H.L. Mencken.” Indeed, Mencken was Nietzsche’s first American popularizer. The sage of Baltimore followed his 1908 book, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, written when he was only 28, with The Gist of Nietzsche, a collection of the German’s aphorisms, in 1910, and a translation of The Anti-Christ, published in the aftermath of World War I. Mencken, Ratner-Rosenhagen notes, told a friend that his denunciations of American life and culture “were plainly based on Nietzsche; without him, I’d never have come to them.”

Ratner-Rosenhagen complains that in the postwar period, the Nietzsche once celebrated by radicals such as Max Eastman and Margaret Sanger as a “crusader for truth, a debunker of superstition, and an iconoclast who placed conscience above convention” was now seen as “the martial ideal of imperial Germany.” But in her own version of Kaufmann’s softening, she insists—ignoring or failing to read Mencken’s writings on Nietzsche and World War I—that “there is not a straight trajectory from. . . Mencken’s aristocratic. . . Übermensch to the image of the Übermensch as a menace to democracy during the war.” She’s wrong.

Writing for The Atlantic in “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” Mencken celebrated Nietzsche as the inspiration for the new Germany, which was “contemptuous of weakness.” Mencken wrote that Germany was a “hard” nation with no patience for politics, because it was governed by the superior men of its “superbly efficient ruling caste.” “Germany,” he concluded, “becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche becomes Germany.” Mencken approvingly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that “the weak and the botched must perish. . . . I tell you that a good war hallows every cause.”

Surely, in writing a book on Nietzsche’s reception in America, Ratner-Rosenhagen is duty-bound to respond to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s well-regarded 1970 New York Review of Books essay, “The Gentle Nietzscheans.” Yet she ignores this, too. O’Brien tellingly quotes from Nietzsche’s posthumously published The Will to Power on the “annihilation of decaying races.” “The great majority of men,” Nietzsche wrote, “have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men. . . . There are also peoples that are failures.” This was an argument that appealed to supporters of eugenics as well as to the Nazis. Walter Kaufmann explained it away by noting that Nietzsche hadn’t mentioned the Jews and Poles directly.

Moving into the contemporary era, Ratner-Rosenhagen cites, apparently without irony, the postmodernist literary critic Paul de Man and the Black Panther Huey Newton as examples of people who put Nietzsche to good use in liberating, respectively, literature and African-Americans from outdated prejudices. She declines to mention de Man’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. As for Newton, who thought of himself as a superman of sorts, the question is: did he murder three innocents? Or was it four, or five?

The book closes with a sympathetic discussion of the philosopher Richard Rorty’s attempt to reconcile pragmatism’s emphasis on political practicality with Nietzsche’s concern with states of being rather than outcomes. Rorty embraces the Nietzschean absence of truth as socially liberating—but advertisers and politicians find the absence of truth liberating, too. Trapped in his own perspectivist logic, Rorty invokes the sense of empathy, “the inspirational value” derived from reading great novels, as the basis for his intellectual and political viewpoints.

In Ratner-Rosenhagen’s sunny reading, Americans have managed to rope off Nietzsche’s anti-democratic, aristocratic radicalism while embracing his perspectivism, all without doing damage to the body politic. But as we’ve unfortunately become a far more hierarchical and unequal society, it’s difficult to see how that judgment can hold. The absence of commonly held truths is all too compatible with a less democratic society dominated by an aristocracy of the successful and politically connected. They’re only too happy to manufacture their own truths.

[Fred Siegel, a contributing editor of City Journal, is scholar in residence at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.]

Friedrich Nietzsche [Wikipedia]

Nietzsche Chronicle

Count Harry Graf Kessler...extraordinary observer of history

Hugo many do, misconstrues "uberman"

“God remains dead. And we have killed him.”...things change

Thanks to POSP stringer Tim.

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