Commentary Magazine

The Closing of the American Nietzsche

American Nietzsche:
A History of an Icon
and His Ideas
By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
University of Chicago Press, 
452 pages

American Nietzsche bills itself as a capacious history of the American reception of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). But as she takes us through a cacophonous century of readers, hostile and generous alike, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen also tells the story of an America that cannot but see itself through European eyes—one European’s in particular.

Perhaps Nietzsche is so appealing to America because his thought can appear as a sort of a homecoming, the return of a prodigal son. The father in this case is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who exerted an early and ongoing influence on Nietzsche. He took Emerson’s subjunctive from the 1838 “Divinity School Address”—“Men have come to speak…as if God were dead”—and made it a thundering exclamation in the mouth of a madman in his Gay Science of 1882. In the margin of Emerson’s essay “Spiritual Laws,” Nietzsche wrote the phrase “Ecce Homo,” which would become the title of his infamous autobiography. In a discarded section from Ecce Homo (1888), Nietzsche called Emerson “a good friend” and “a unique case”—unique among
Nietzsche’s intellectual gods, Ratner-Rosenhagen remarks, because he is the only one he did not kill. 

American Nietzsche opens and closes with Emerson; in between, Ratner-Rosenhagen, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, traces the reception of Nietzsche from the few fan letters he received from American readers during his own lifetime to a surprising struggle over Nietzsche in the latter part of the 20th century between lefty American academics and a group she dubs the “lyrical right.”

She begins by tracing the first wave of Nietzsche’s American reception, prior to World War I, which was peopled by “anarchists, leftist romantic radicals, and literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions.” What bound this eclectic band together was an anxiety about whether America would ever be modern, and whether it could rebuff the deadening forces of capitalism and democracy. Right and left, these Americans turned to Nietzsche as the quintessentially European modern and regarded him less as a human and more as an “event”—a decidedly European event they were anxious to repeat on native shores. She moves on to the early Christian reception of Nietzsche, in which both Catholics and Protestants, orthodox and liberal, try to come to terms with Nietzsche’s damning critique of a Christian morality of ressentiment.

She then charts the American “naturalization” of one of Nieztsche’s signature concepts, or characters: the Übermensch. The literal translation of Übermensch is “over human being,” but it was never rendered that infelicitously. A lively debate centered on how to understand the prefix über: Did it connote superiority, a lordly and condescending height, and thus an overman? Or did it connote some “beyond” man, a man who has moved past conventional notions of morality, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil? George Bernard Shaw opted for superman in the title of his play Man and Superman, which in the hands of two Jewish comic-book writers in the 1930s would give birth to another American icon. 

One of Nietzsche’s most interesting early readers, the progressive Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), was perfectly suited to rescue the Übermensch from the mistaken assumption that he would be a “blond beast” born to rule over others. Like Nietzsche himself, who reflected endlessly on his own frail, diseased body and viewed it as a source of intellectual vitality, Bourne was not a glorious physical specimen. He was misshapen at birth from a forceps delivery, and at four he was dwarfed by spinal tuberculosis. In Ratner-Rosenhagen’s rendering, Bourne emerges as the first American reader of Nietzsche to see clearly that his blistering critique and agonistic ethic are aimed internally, at one’s own slave morality and insidious idols. For Bourne, the Übermensch is committed to self-overcoming, not lording his power over others but perpetually overpowering the lower, meaner iterations of himself. 

Ratner-Rosenhagen also brings us into the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, where she finds a collection of fascinating fan mail from Americans written to Nietzsche’s sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, fawning over Nietzsche as a new kind of celebrity. We meet Jennie Hintz, for example, a 67-year-old self-described “spinster” from Yonkers who wrote in 1913 that she wished she had known of Nietzsche before his death so that she could have made a pilgrimage to see him; as it was, she settled instead for a devotional relic, a photograph of the philosopher his sister sent her in a grateful reply.

From the touching case of Hintz we turn to the sleazy appropriation of Nietzsche by none other than Hugh Hefner, who in his editorial for the first issue of Playboy thought that American men might well use him to get laid: “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” This anecdote comes from chapter five, which is thankfully not focused on Hefner, but on Walter Kaufmann, the Princeton professor of philosophy whose translations of Nietzsche nearly cornered the market in the second half of the 20th century. Between his translations and his widely read 1950 classic, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Kaufmann served as the gatekeeper of Anglophone Nietzsche studies until his death in 1980.

Throughout this story of American readers of wildly uneven sophistication and insight runs a single thread: These readers turn to Nietzsche as the quintessentially European modern, the critical crest of the old world that can provoke the new to its own native modernity, or beyond. This thread becomes most interesting near the end of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account, which centers on a conflict that erupted in the late part of the 20th century—in which the lefty academic rage for the “New French Nietzsche” in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s was pitted against the stodgy, grumpy, but “lyrical” conservative cultural critics, best represented by Allan Bloom and his The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

Inspired by such French thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the “New French Nietzsche” refers to “the academic surge of interest in postmodernism that began in languages and literature departments in the 1970s, [and] moved into various cultural studies programs and departments during the 1980s.” For Ratner-Rosenhagen, these American readers of Nietzsche interpreted him, through a French lens, as endorsing a radical “antifoundationalism,” according to which the death of God means nothing less than the end of every “univocal meaning” or “final aim, goal, or purpose.”

She highlights Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler as representatives of this movement. Both, she argues, applied Nietzsche’s critique of the “metaphysics of substance” to demonstrate that even something as universal and pronounced as gender is a “socially constructed” conceit.

To their critics, the antifoundationalism of the New French Nietzsche was little more than a vapid relativism. Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is an extended lament that the American academy had embraced Nietzsche’s relativism and peddled it to their students. But like “savages” who convert to Christianity without any sense of the gravitas of the revelation, Bloom argues, his students nod approvingly at the news that God is dead and use that news to settle into a comfortable “nihilism with a happy ending.” The end is “happy,” he argues, because it releases them from the struggle to long for those lost absolutes, and in so doing to recreate themselves with a grander, more tragic sensibility.

Bloom is deeply ambivalent about Nietzsche. He is the villain of The Closing of the American Mind, the “foreign influence” whose deadening effect must be rooted out of the classroom and thereafter the entire culture. But he is also the hero who understood better than anyone what it meant to struggle in perpetual self-overcoming under the threat of a nihilistic entropy death.

Whether one regards Bloom as a prophet or, as one critic put it, “the right crank at the right time,” one thing is clear: He repeats rather than breaks the pattern that Ratner-Rosenhagen has been following. In the end, Bloom does not advise that we break with Nietzsche, but that we turn Nietzsche against himself, to resist the pathogen of his own caricature in the fashionably lefty academy, in order to remind us of the awesome task of self-creation of which he is also the exemplar. Either way, for better or for ill, Bloom insists, “Nietzsche is us.”

Ratner-Rosenhagen suggests that the “Sturm und Drang” of the 1980s and 90s culture wars over Nietzsche’s proper interpretation and place in American intellectual life in effect “drowned out” the voices of a third way, an “antifoundationalism on native grounds” at play in the work of the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosophers Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell.

Let me focus on Cavell, who spent his career in Emerson Hall, home to Harvard’s philosophy department. Cavell takes the relationship between Nietzsche and Emerson as an occasion to reflect on the American tradition of using Europe as its mirror. In his work This New Yet Unapproachable America (1989), Nietzsche’s debt to Emerson is emblematic of “how America’s search for philosophy continues, by indirection, Columbus’s great voyage of indirection, refinding the West by persisting to the East.” Although some regard Emerson as “advis[ing] America to ignore Europe,” Cavell regards him as advising America how precisely to inherit Europe. America cannot lose its fixation, but it can free itself from expecting that the inheritance will be rendered in the same currency, and shake off the pathology of measuring itself with the equivalent of a philosophical metric system. 

In the few pages that Ratner-Rosenhagen devotes to Cavell, she succeeds in conveying how his reception of Nietzsche is the one that most explicitly takes the question of that reception itself as part of its enterprise. Cavell receives Nietzsche precisely by reflecting on how we receive everything—and most important, ourselves—by indirection, as through a mirror, the image of another, or the return of a prodigal son. 

When the German’s writings found an audience on American shores, it was as if Emerson’s words in “Self-Reliance” were a prophecy fulfilled: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Ironic, then, this American passion for Nietzsche, who himself lamented the American fetish for Europe—even in his beloved Emerson, whom he faulted for drinking too much from the “milk glass” of German philosophy. Nietzsche wished Emerson would instead be, as Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it, “perhaps a little more American.”

About the Author

Charles M. Stang is assistant professor of early Christian thought at Harvard University. This is his first piece for Commentary.

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