NR Digital

Waiting for Übermensch

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

A  vast majority of Americans who read any economists at all read exactly one economist, and the vast majority of Americans who read exactly one economist read Paul Krugman in the New York Times. One can see the danger of a large swath of the American populace’s relying on the views of a single thinker for their understanding of such a broad and complex field of inquiry. Especially since, for a thinker to have such a broad cultural presence, he must be middlebrow, or present himself as such, and he must be easily digestible. In the field of canonical Western philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche presents the same sort of problem. If an American has read any philosophy at all, she has probably read Nietzsche.

But Nietzsche was not middlebrow — he despised that set — and his thought was far from digestible. And yet he is ubiquitous in American culture, and not just among the mopey suburban kids who shuffle into our universities each year with well-worn copies of On the Genealogy of Morals. No, Nietzsche has been with mainstream America, and for over a century: Clarence Darrow felt the need to discourse at length on Nietzsche’s morality before the judge set to determine the fates of his clients, Messrs. Leopold and Loeb, who purported to have acted on behalf of Nietzsche if not at his behest.

Nor were the murderers alone in their esteem for him. The list of Nietzsche’s admirers in turn-of-the-20th-century America was a veritable who’s who of (largely leftist) men of arts and letters: Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, Walter Lippmann, Khalil Gibran, and H. L. Mencken, among others. By the Cold War, Nietzsche had even been made fit for the masses. In an editorial voice that smells of stale pipe smoke and Brylcreem, the premiere 1953 issue of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy announces: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex . . .” By 1966, even Time was in on the act, running a shock-and-awe cover that asked “Is God Dead?”

How did all this happen? How was the mad, mustachioed, Teutonic philosopher of the hammer rendered safe for American consumption, and what — if you’ll forgive the metaphor — came out the other end? Answering that question is the task of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche, an exquisitely and exhaustively researched work in the socio-history of ideas.

In an early section on young Nietzsche’s intellectual development, we learn that before any American could even crack the covers of a Nietzsche book, the man’s philosophy was already heavily American, at least by provenance. Ratner-Rosenhagen has it that Nietzsche best loved and was most lastingly influenced by the ur American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that he traveled everywhere with his heavily annotated German edition of Emerson’s Essays, from time to dreary time seeking intellectual refuge in his safe harbor.

Though it was news to me, this connection makes a fair bit of sense. Emerson was preoccupied with the Promethean role of genius — of greatness — in the affairs of mankind, a preoccupation Nietzsche would take to exhilarating and terrifying new places. But while antebellum Emerson despaired that America seemed congenitally to lack great men, a half century later the brash, dark musicality of Nietzsche’s writing made it an anthem for an American culture finally ready to enter its angsty adolescence — that phase when we become simultaneously aware of both our waxing strength and our great vulnerabilities, of both our potential and our finitude; in short, the time when “greatness” becomes a live psychological issue. The Nietzsche vogue arrived in American literary circles at just the time that our collective psyche had progressed to a state in which it both realized its long cultural inferiority to the Old World and suddenly cared about it. (Theretofore, one supposes, we had been too busy making things.) No one better personified this view of Nietzsche as a cure for civilizational low self-esteem than H. L. Mencken, the early Nietzsche popularizer who hated the quintessential American on his way to becoming one.

But America’s early interaction with Nietzsche was not universally positive, and the first wave of critical articles, essays, and books shared an aim not to explain Nietzsche, but to explain him away. He was seen, fundamentally, as a threat — a threat with a bit of Euro sex appeal for the parlor chats of the overeducated and the underemployed, to be sure, but a threat nonetheless. These early takes were hued and skewed by all the other pop hokum, junk medicine, and intellectual fads of the day. Many seized on the connection between Nietzsche’s thought and his physical and psychological ailments, using everything from the waning pseudoscience of phrenology, to the emergence of Freudianism, to the growing obsession with health and “hygiene” that marked the West’s transition from Victorian to modern modes of living, as wands with which they could wave away Nietzsche’s apocalyptic challenge to bourgeois pieties.

A second, more sustained and substantive wave of Nietzsche criticism came from the theologians, and here Ratner-Rosenhagen’s lengthy treatment is interesting in large part because the clerical response was not what one would have expected. Many reformist Protestants fretted over Nietzsche and secretly feared he was right about everything. These sought ways to water down both Nietzscheanism and Christianity so that the one might accommodate the other. Catholic clerics were, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, generally “deeply critical of, though comparatively untroubled by,” Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity, seeing any appeal they held as predicated in the first instance on a turn away from the eternal truths of the church and toward an aberrant historicism. Prefiguring Alasdair MacIntyre by a few generations, Catholic commentators coalesced around the charge that Nietzsche’s philosophy “reflected the fundamental flaw of nineteenth-century secular thought” — namely, the belief “that moral problems could be resolved through man’s immanent intellectual powers rather than their transcendent source” — and thus opened itself “to the problems of competing moral codes which lacked legislative force.”

But so devastating was Nietzsche’s broadside — not just against any one conception of the Absolute, but against the very concept of it — that many conservative theologians, Catholic and Protestant alike, welcomed him as the enemy of their enemies. They shared with Nietzsche a contempt for the liberal reformers who had helped themselves to modern principles of democracy and humanitarianism while rejecting the Judeo-Christian revelation that had delivered those principles, and for the scientists and positivists who were, to Nietzsche’s mind, merely substituting one foundationless capital-T Truth for another. Nietzsche was even enlisted by various Christian writers as an ally of religion, and the theme developed of Nietzsche the champion of a harsh sublimity, rousing the forces of (in the words of sundry theologians) “muscular Christianity” to rescue the “feminized” or “milk and water” Christianity in which “pretty picture[s] of the eternal grandmother” substituted for “the enthralling spectacle of God as Father.”

Indeed, the cooptation of Nietzsche by sundry causes that would appear in the first (and quite often the last) analysis to be opposed both to the man’s thought and to one another is the overarching theme of the book. Most prominently, Nietzsche’s development of the concept of the Ubermensch (a word first used by Goethe, oddly enough, and variously translated as “beyond-man,” “overman,” and “superman”) was versatile enough that it could signify the movement of man beyond the stifling conventions and institutions of one’s choice. Early glommers-on to the superman concept were either Left-socialists — Jack London, George Bernard Shaw, Max Eastman — social Darwinists, or inscrutable iconoclasts such as Mencken, and in all cases critics of bourgeois-capitalist mores and hierarchies. But the phrase’s plasticity meant that even feminists such as Margaret Sanger could read the sometimes blatantly misogynistic Nietzsche as a fellow traveler.

This intellectual abuse could cut both ways, however. After what might be called the innocent phase of Nietzsche criticism, wherein airy debates about the moral and epistemic consequences of his thought could be discussed idly, his import was quickly reified by his fatherland’s two forays into global domination. As the Kaiser unleashed World War I on Europe, Anglophone critics had already found new affinities between Nietzsche’s will to power and German “moral abnormality” and “tribal arrogance.” And with the rise of the Third Reich, Nietzsche was positively blacklisted for a generation as a warmongering “immoralist.” It took the transformative translation and exegesis of the Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann (through whom most American students of philosophy, this reviewer included, have in recent years been introduced to Nietzsche) to rehabilitate him in the late Fifties and Sixties. Ratner-Rosenhagen dedicates a chapter — too obsequious, for my taste — to elaborating Kaufmann’s reading of Nietzsche and its subsequent influence on everyone from the post-Holocaust Jewish diaspora to Huey Newton and the Black Panthers.

American Nietzsche argues that all of these appropriations get the man wrong — or, at least, none get him entirely right — but that the error is sort of beside the point, because each misappropriation is put to use in the grand, century-long project of helping America understand itself. It’s a plausible, and conciliatory, picture that remains agnostic on the question of what Nietzsche “really” meant. That’s not to say that Ratner-Rosenhagen doesn’t have her favorites. Once we get to the “new French Nietzsche” of the 1970s and ’80s, she slips quite comfortably into the bizarre rhythms of poststructuralism and postmodernism: Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty are treated with admiring deference, and we are told enthusiastically of “Nietzschean hermeneutic[s]” that “challenge compulsory dualisms in human sexuality” and show how “antiessentialism was essential for queer theory.”

Coming as it does toward the end, this gratuitous agitation of the conservative Spidey-sense for pseudointellectual jabberwocky can be forgiven. The book contains far more sense than nonsense. And if Ratner-Rosenhagen has her favorite iteration of the American Nietzsche, so do I — namely, the Nietzsche of the early-20th-century American pragmatists, who both were influenced by the German thinker and had common intellectual ancestors with him. In an engaging section, Ratner-Rosenhagen shows us how Josiah Royce understood Nietzsche as an individualist, rugged but romantic, longing after “self-mastery” — a kind of joyous ascetic. But unlike Nietzsche’s less skilled or more dogmatic readers, Royce realized that the self-creation of values Nietzsche was after offered no answers to the ensuing question of how to harmonize those values with a social and political whole — Nietzsche never even bothered to ask the question. Royce’s Harvard colleague William James tried to get from Nietzsche to politics by reading the self-made values of übermenschen as a kind of innovation — supermen as early adopters, moral entrepreneurs paving the way for the rest of us.

The irony of this proliferation of American Nietzsches is that, his considerable vanity notwithstanding, Nietzsche would have had nothing but contempt for any attempt to systematize his thought: “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” He also warned that to pry a thinker out of his time and place and view him sub specie aeterni is to create a “conceptual mummy.” But since Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book is, in the end, about all the ways Nietzsche continues to haunt the American intellect, perhaps he’s less conceptual mummy than conceptual ghost.