“What Nietzsche Did to America”

From the Sunday Book Review, New York Times: “What Friedrich Nietzsche Did to America” —

And really, there’s no such thing as too much Nietzsche:

“With escalating intensity, he issued innovative works of philosophy that challenged every element of European civilization. He celebrated the artistic heroism of Beethoven and Goethe; denigrated the “slave morality” of Christianity, which transfigured weakness into virtue and vital strength into sin; and called on the strong in spirit to bring about a “transvaluation of all values.” The “higher man” — or as Nietzsche sometimes called him, the “overman” or “Übermensch” — did not succumb to envy or long for the afterlife; rather he willed that his life on earth repeat itself over and over exactly as it was. In later works, Nietzsche wrote with continued brilliance and growing megalomania of his disdain for the common “herd,” the dangers of nihilism and the possibility that the will to power is the “Ur-fact of all history.”

American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Chicago Press) sounds like an excellent study to me. (interesting note: you can buy a 30-Day ebook license of American Nietzsche for $7.00): “Ratner-Rosenhagen concludes that Cavell, Bloom and the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty constructed “an American Nietzsche” by drawing upon “philosophical interpretations which understood that in a world without foundations, our views of truth, language and the self are not mirrors of reality but useful fictions to explore new avenues of discovery, new sources of wonder.”

An intellectual history of Nietzsche in the United States covers a lot of ground, after all (the relationship between Nietzsche and Emerson is particularly interesting). I’ll resist quoting page-long passages here. But, here are a few of the good parts:

  1. “From the start, Nietzsche’s American readers were bewitched and bedeviled … young Americans who felt estranged from their culture, and has continued to do so. But today’s inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past”

  1. “The German émigré and Princeton professor Walter Kaufmann almost single-handedly revived his standing with his many translations and forceful reminder that Nietzsche hated anti-Semites and German nationalists as well as woolly-headed romantics. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was a late flower of the Enlightenment, a tough-minded rationalist with the courage to face the Darwinian revelation that there is no purpose to nature or to our existence. The true task of the overman was to overcome himself, not others, and to do so by sculpturing his impulses and thoughts and inheritances into a willed unity that could be called “style.”

  2. “As Ratner-Rosenhagen shows, a later generation of American interpreters, influenced by Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, esteemed Nietzsche not as the guarantor of the individual but as its dismantler. “The ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed,” Nietzsche wrote in “On the Genealogy of Morals,” and the implication was clear: If God was dead, so too were equally fictitious entities like the self. There was no objective truth, only the truth-effects engendered by the workings of power and the instabilities of language. Even as this poststructuralist Nietzsche occupied the university in the 1980s, it bred a counterreaction from conservative intellectuals.”


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