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.