American Idol: On Nietzsche in America

American Idol: On Nietzsche in America

American Idol: On Nietzsche in America

Why early twentieth-century Americans—from anarchists to Baptist ministers—fell for the philosophy of Nietzsche.


“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.”

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