American Nietzsche: A History of An Icon and His Ideas

November 3, 2011

Who would have thought it? Who could have imagined in 1900, when Friedrich Nietzsche died, that the philosopher of the aristocratic distance and elitist heights would enjoy a reincarnation of sorts in the land of the radical democratic ethos and mass entertainment industry? And yet as Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen persuasively shows, this is exactly what happened to Nietzsche in the United States.

Few European philosophers have been more actively present on the American intellectual scene than Nietzsche; possibly nowhere has he been more variously interpreted, his ideas more imaginatively reformulated and his life story more spectacularly retold than in the US. Radicals and moderates, progressives and conservatives, believers and atheists, black activists and white supremacists, cowboys and Indians, all could find in him something to which they could relate. Nietzsche has never let anyone down.

If you were, say, a US socialist looking for revolutionary inspiration, Nietzsche was there to help you; he was, after all, a professional idol-breaker and "transvaluator of all values". If you were, on the contrary, a radical conservative, you could easily find in him plenty of anti-socialist remarks. For the atheist on a quest for philosophical arguments, there is always the Nietzsche who proclaimed that "God is dead" and added "Anti-Christ" to his signature. And for Christians in search of a modern expression of faith, there is the Nietzsche about whom University of Chicago theologian George Burman Foster mused: "In some ways Nietzsche and Jesus would have been good friends."

Ratner-Rosenhagen's work covers such a wide range of historical figures, intellectual fashions and cultural phenomena that, in a certain sense, what it offers in the end is a history of 20th-century American intellectual life as seen from the vantage point of its various encounters with Nietzsche. The book's stated aim is to "demonstrate that reception history can be more ambitious than simply enumerating the varieties of uses of a thinker or a body of thought in a new national context". Indeed, as Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, Nietzsche's work has profoundly and multifariously affected its US readership, as the strong passions (pro and anti) often displayed attest. One of the book's finest accomplishments lies precisely in charting the large repertoire of anxieties, longings, awakenings and concerns that US encounters with Nietzsche elicited.

In particular, Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a strong case for a Nietzschean philosophy, the naturalisation of which on US soil triggered an ample process of self-invention and cultural self-definition, in which Americans had to look at themselves with "alien" eyes and place themselves in front of a "foreign" mirror. One of the book's conclusions is that - through the questions he posed, the debates his work generated and the invitations to self-reflection that commentaries on it often formulated - Nietzsche helped Americans to acquire a better sense of cultural identity and, as a culture, a higher level of intellectual maturity.

Just as Nietzsche's own thinking was shaped by, among other things, its encounter with a US philosopher, namely Ralph Waldo Emerson, so a great number of 20th-century US thinkers, writers and public intellectuals became who they were as a result of their transformative contact with Nietzschean ideas. Ratner-Rosenhagen discusses at length the cases of William James, H.L. Mencken, Walter Kaufmann, Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, Alan Bloom and others who came to find themselves as thinkers via a Nietzschean detour. As Nietzsche himself must have learned from Emerson, the best teaching is by provocation; in trying to respond to Nietzsche's provocation, these thinkers, each in his own way, gained access to newer and deeper registers of creativity. Mapping out this complex network of kindred minds, interpretations and reinterpretations, provocations and creative responses makes for a suspenseful story that ably holds the reader's attention. Extensively researched, elegantly structured and smartly written, the book reads almost like a novel.

Nietzsche decried a lack of historical sense among the philosophers of his day. In ours, this deficiency has reached alarming proportions. This is why Ratner-Rosenhagen's book, while technically the work of an intellectual historian (if not because of that), should be made compulsory reading for philosophers. The image of philosophy as an ongoing round-table conversation where thinkers from different historical periods and various linguistic and cultural backgrounds simply take their seat and have their say is charmingly appealing, but relies on a serious misunderstanding. A philosopher is not only what we come across when we open her book. She is also what we don't find there: the specific physiognomy of the historical world in which she emerged and which we have to reconstruct. And, equally important, a philosopher is also everything that has happened to her books between their publication and the moment we open them. This complicates everything, no doubt, but who said the history of philosophy was a simple affair?

American Nietzsche: A History of An Icon and His Ideas

By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
University of Chicago Press
464pp, £19.50
ISBN 9780226705811
Published 15 November 2011

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