A review of American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

Friedrich Nietzsche's success in America is a topic many will associate with Allan Bloom's bestseller of 25 years ago, The Closing of the American Mind. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, makes Bloom's book the culmination of her inquiry, the moment when tens of thousands of American readers, or purchasers, took notice of Nietzsche's influence on themselves and their country. At this point Nietzsche came to light in America in a scholarly book aiming to show that, for some good and more ill, Nietzsche was in control of America's mind.

Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen's book is written with charm and verve, and it discusses intelligently the many Americans, from Wilbur Urban in 1897 to Richard Rorty in our day, who have taken Nietzsche as their guide. But it does not present the same view of Nietzsche's success as Allan Bloom's. She is an intellectual historian. Her book, she says, is not a book about Nietzsche but about the remaking of modern American thought inasmuch as American readers of Nietzsche were "responding to a particular set of…circumstances." She also says that the main message of Nietzsche was the ability to create one's own self. The contrast between responding and creating is left unexplored. She says nothing of the goal of Bloom's book, which, as he put it, was to find again "a world to which we can put our questions and be able to philosophize." Bloom had said that the "success" of Nietzsche in America was to have almost snuffed out its openness to philosophy, to have almost accomplished the closing of the American mind.

Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen's theme is instead that Nietzsche was in tune, if not with all of America, at least with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Persuaded by the writings of Harold Bloom (quite another Bloom than Allan) and Stanley Cavell, she takes Nietzsche's admiration of Emerson, expressed with enthusiastic notes in the margins of German translations, so far as to call Emerson his "mentor." Although she speaks of the "stark challenges" of Nietzsche to Americans, she does not regard Nietzsche as a menacing figure and a challenge to American principles, as did Allan Bloom. She seems quite happy with "anti-foundationalism," understood as the rejection of "universal truths" or "absolutes."

Emerson would not have been so happy about this, for he said in his address "The American Scholar" that "the soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates." Nietzsche would have liked the word "create," and he did give philosophy a poetic cast, like Emerson, but where Emerson rhapsodized, Nietzsche agonized. For Nietzsche the soul was not in tune with nature, as Emerson thought, nor was history the "universal mind" of man, the "correlative of nature," as Emerson said. Emerson's sunny romanticism was not tested with the historicist critique of every absolute, as Nietzsche did for himself. In this critique each absolute was found to be meaningful only for its time, hence meaningless for Nietzsche and his time, which was cursed with the knowledge of history that made all history meaningless, and was thus introduced to the awareness of nihilism. Unaware of nihilism, Emerson did not have to struggle to overcome it as did Nietzsche, who was far from satisfied with "anti-foundationalism." Nietzsche did his best to recover a notion of nature that would revive a universal truth, in particular the truth of man's ranking in the whole and of the best man's superiority to, or beyond, or over, other men. Next to Nietzsche, Emerson with his confidence that America had outlived its "long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands" (again "The American Scholar") seems like a babe in the woods.

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After this unconvincing beginning, claiming in effect that Nietzsche had had a previous life in Concord, Massachusetts, Ratner-Rosenhagen turns to the Americans who read Nietzsche as something startlingly new. There were Catholics and the preachers of the Social Gospel, both of whom had to choose between harsh rejection of him and uneasy, uncertain acceptance. There were women who wondered whether there might be in store for us a superwoman, "the mother of the transfigured man of the future." As opposed to this notion, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, felt that the notion of feminine chastity might well be overthrown by an earthy Übermensch offering an image of "life in its fullness and all that is high, beautiful, and daring." Next come three Harvard professors, Josiah Royce, William James, and Irving Babbitt, who, though struck by Nietzsche's boldness, appropriated his thought to suit their own systems and did not chew and digest what they had incautiously eaten. During World War I George Santayana, also a Harvard philosopher, pronounced himself sickened with "the aroma of German philosophy that has reached my nostrils"—meaning Nietzsche. At the Leopold and Loeb trial in 1924, the defense attorney Clarence Darrow argued that the boys were victims of Nietzsche's philosophy, and victims as well of the University of Chicago that had made Nietzsche available to them. Darrow said that when the boys read Nietzsche, "they could not help but think that they were reading themselves." Here "Darrow was on to something," Ratner-Rosenhagen says approvingly. Nietzsche's Übermensch helped early 20th-century Americans to see their possibilities clearly and to come "to terms with their modern America." Too bad, one supposes, that two of these Americans, Loeb and Leopold, did this by brutally murdering another boy they randomly picked up.

After World War II Nietzsche came to the universities thanks to Walter Kaufmann, who somehow succeeded in turning Nietzsche, by then said by a nameless professor to be "dead as a doornail," into an "indispensable philosopher for postwar American life." His translations of all Nietzsche's books, plus a work of interpretation published in 1956, gave him "hegemony" over English-language Nietzsche studies despite the prevalence of analytic philosophy in that time. Kaufmann argued that Nietzsche was one of the great philosophers of all time, perfectly clear and coherent, and that he was guiltless of responsibility for Nazism. Ratner-Rosenhagen does not comment on his translations, but the benign gloss he put on Nietzsche can be sampled from one of his translated phrases in Beyond Good and Evil: for Gewaltmensch der Kultur ("violent man of culture") Kaufmann wrote "cultural dynamo."

From Kaufmann Ratner-Rosenhagen carries the story to the anti-foundationalists of France—Jacques Derrida, who at the bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976 lectured at the University of Virginia not on the Declaration of Independence as he had been asked, but on Nietzsche. She lets this little move pass without criticism because it was by then participating in "a long-standing practice in American intellectual life," thinking about America by thinking with Nietzsche. Then we have Harold Bloom, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Cavell. Along the way she mentions a book by Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, that "enlisted Nietzsche to consider the soft power of ideas in the fight for racial justice." And she reminds her male readers that in the first issue of Playboy (December 1953) Hugh Hefner proposed to his male readers from 18 to 80 (this reviewer now barely qualifies) that for an evening of drinks and mood music they invite in "a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." Cool!

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Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen ends the text of her book more seriously with her program for education in the absence of absolutes. It is to "provoke, not instruct, young souls to shoot arrows of longing." "That longing, from Emerson to Nietzsche and indeed down to [Allan] Bloom, is a longing worth longing for." A longing for what, one might ask? The answer is given at the end of the extensive Acknowledgments that follow: "love is a foundation that need never be questioned." So there is a foundation after all. But in our time at least, must we not question it? The question one must always ask love is love of what? To find out, look up the answer in this informative book.