American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideasby Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen
If you were looking for a philosopher likely to appeal to Americans, Friedrich Nietzsche would be far from your first choice. After all, in his blazing career, Nietzsche took aim at nearly all the foundations of modern American life: Christian morality, the Enlightenment faith in reason, and the idea of human equality. Despite that, for more than a century
If you were looking for a philosopher likely to appeal to Americans, Friedrich Nietzsche would be far from your first choice. After all, in his blazing career, Nietzsche took aim at nearly all the foundations of modern American life: Christian morality, the Enlightenment faith in reason, and the idea of human equality. Despite that, for more than a century Nietzsche has been a hugely popular—and surprisingly influential—figure in American thought and culture.
In American Nietzsche, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen delves deeply into Nietzsche's philosophy, and America’s reception of it, to tell the story of his curious appeal. Beginning her account with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche read fervently, she shows how Nietzsche’s ideas first burst on American shores at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they continued alternately to invigorate and to shock Americans for the century to come. She also delineates the broader intellectual and cultural contexts within which a wide array of commentators—academic and armchair philosophers, theologians and atheists, romantic poets and hard-nosed empiricists, and political ideologues and apostates from the Left and the Right—drew insight and inspiration from Nietzsche’s claims for the death of God, his challenge to universal truth, and his insistence on the interpretive nature of all human thought and beliefs. At the same time, she explores how his image as an iconoclastic immoralist was put to work in American popular culture, making Nietzsche an unlikely posthumous celebrity capable of inspiring both teenagers and scholars alike.
A penetrating examination of a powerful but little-explored undercurrent of twentieth-century American thought and culture, American Nietzsche dramatically recasts our understanding of American intellectual life—and puts Nietzsche squarely at its heart.
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American NIETZSCHEA HISTORY OF AN ICON AND HIS IDEAS
By JENNIFER RATNER-ROSENHAGEN
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Making of the American Nietzsche
I tunneled into the foundations, I commenced an investigation and digging out of an ancient faith, one upon which we philosophers have for a couple of millennia been accustomed to build as if upon the firmest of foundations—and have continued to do so even though every building hitherto erected on them has fallen down: I commenced to undermine our faith in morality. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Daybreak (1881) The uncovering of Christian morality is an event without parallel. He that is enlightened about that ... breaks the history of mankind in two. One lives before him, or one lives after him. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, "Why I Am a Destiny," in Ecce Homo (1908)
"I shall never forget the long night in which I read through the Genealogy of Morals," remarked Wilbur Urban, recalling the summer of 1897 in Jena, Germany, when he read Friedrich Nietzsche's book from cover to cover. "It was, I believe, the greatest single spiritual adventure of my life." Urban had not come to Germany for spiritual adventures; he had come, like so many other American students at the turn of the last century, to obtain his doctoral degree in philosophy. He did not learn about Nietzsche's work in philosophy seminars, though; he stumbled across it "almost by accident" while rummaging through the densely packed shelves in a Jena bookshop. Intrigued by what he had found, Urban purchased the book, took it home with him, and read it voraciously through the night. "In the grey light of the morning," he recalled, "I found myself surveying the wreckage of my beliefs in a curious mood—one in which a profound sense of loss was not unmixed with that unholy Schaden-freude in which the naturally destructive instincts of youth so often find satisfaction." As the bright morning sun began to filter into his room, the "curious" mixture of terror and delight that marked his all-night vigil with Nietzsche lingered. Though still enlivened and bewildered by what he had read, though his mind continued to race with new ideas, one thing was certain: Urban knew immediately that he had encountered a thinker who would forever change his view of himself and his world. "I knew from that moment that, not only was [Nietzsche's] problem of values my problem, but also that it was destined to be the key problem of the epoch in which I was to live." In the course of a single night, by his later recollection, Urban had parted ways with the moral world of the nineteenth century and entered Nietzsche's universe.
Shortly after his first encounter with Nietzsche's Genealogy, Urban passed his doctoral examinations at the University of Leipzig in 1897. He returned home to America to launch a distinguished career as an analytic philosopher with an interest in value and language, securing professorships at Trinity College, Dartmouth College, and Yale University, and a term as president of the American Philosophical Association from 1925 to 1926. Like countless other young aspiring scholars at the turn of the last century, Urban found that his studies at German universities had started him on the road to professional success in the American academy. But when later asked to recall the origins of his intellectual biography—the psychological reasons as well as the philosophical concerns that guided his scholarly pursuits—Urban's memories hovered around his first encounter with Nietzsche's philosophy. It was this contact with Nietzsche that would, as Urban put it, "start all that was individual in my thinking." Time at the university had provided him with encyclopedic learning and a proper pedigree, but it was his stolen moment of ecstasy during his late-night session with Nietzsche's philosophy that put Urban on the course toward himself.
When Urban sat down to read Nietzsche on that fateful night, he did so in what he described as "the most unphilosophical atmosphere the world has ever seen." At the time of his studies, Continental and Anglo-American thought were saturated in a scientific positivism that sought to banish metaphysics from the realm of philosophical inquiry. Since the mid-nineteenth century, virtually all fields of thought were moving toward scientific verification and away from speculative thought. It was this rigidly positivistic atmosphere that Nietzsche's writings in the 1870s and 1880s stridently opposed. However, the thinker who Urban discovered in the pages of Genealogy did not advise returning philosophy to the speculative realm of metaphysics. Metaphysics and positivism represented, for Nietzsche, opposing sides of the same coin: both were grounded in the principle of universal truth. Metaphysics rested on the belief in timeless foundations of universal values, whereas positivism assumed the universality of the scientific method and objectivity. Nietzsche posed his philosophical anthropology in opposition to both the older and the newer trends in thought. Urban discovered in Nietzsche a thinker who rejected the search for both the metaphysical and the natural foundations of truth and values, and sought instead to examine the human origins, cultural genealogy, and value of values.
As Urban read Nietzsche, he embarked on an excursion into the history of Judeo-Christian morality, which, since his childhood as the son of an Episcopal priest, he had assumed to reflect transcendent moral imperatives. Following Nietzsche's lead, Urban began not only to excavate the tangled trajectory of Western moral thought but also to rethink the standard against which he would judge all claims to universal truth. As Urban noted, "The problem widened out for me, as it did for Nietzsche himself ... into the problem of values at large, including the values of knowledge and logic." Over the course of the night, Urban had discovered in Nietzsche the "enfant terrible of modernism," a thinker who was "not only the most incisive intellect of our time, but [also] the epitome of ... the spirit of modernism."
As Urban felt himself inexorably drawn into the dawn of a new moral era, the philosopher who made that possible was sinking deeper into his twilight. While the young American experienced his moral awakening that night in Jena in 1897, Nietzsche lay slowly dying in Weimar, a mere thirty kilometers away. After struggling his entire adult life with a battery of debilitating illnesses, including degenerative myopia, severe migraines, excruciating digestive problems, and periods of depression, Nietzsche entered the final phase of his illness in 1888. These chronic symptoms had already plagued him as a teenager at Schulpforta, accompanying him through graduate school, military training, and his professorship in Basel; and they had continued to torment him during the years in which he sought relief from one health retreat to the next. Pain was Nietzsche's constant companion during the sixteen-year period between 1872 and 1888, in which he produced all his major works.
For the duration of Nietzsche's productive years, most of his work received little attention from readers beyond his circles of friends and colleagues. After the modest success of his earliest works—The Birth of Tragedy (Geburt der Tragödie ) and Untimely Meditations (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen [1873–76])—the books that followed—Human, All Too Human (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches ), The Wanderer and His Shadow (Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten ), Daybreak (Morgenröthe ), and The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft )—sold so few copies that they were a serious drain on his publisher. Nietzsche was convinced that with Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Book One (Also Sprach Zarathustra), a prose poem he divined in ten days of feverish exhilaration in January 1883, he had finally realized the masterwork that would command an audience. In a letter enclosed with the manuscript, he assured his Leipzig publisher, Ernst Schmeitzner, that "my little work—not even a hundred pages" is "far and away the most serious and also the gayest of my products, and accessible to everyone," trying to convince him that this book would surely have the broad appeal that had eluded his earlier works. More to the point, he assured Schmeitzner that he had penned the "fifth gospel." Schmeitzner may have agreed, but he clearly thought the first four Gospels still took precedence over the fifth: The press temporarily shelved production of Zarathustra in order to print a rush job of 500,000 church hymnals in time for Easter. Not only did the announcement of God's death have to wait until after the anniversary of his (re-)birth, but Nietzsche's prediction that this would be his breakout book was wrong. A full year after publication, only 85 copies had been sold.
In the years that followed, Nietzsche forged ahead with the subsequent Zarathustra books, Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse ) and On the Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral ), still with little recognition for his work. But in 1887 he became aware that a small readership among radical groups and fringe literary societies had begun to take an interest in his philosophy. It was not until 1888, when the prominent Danish literary critic Georg Brandes gave a series of lectures on Nietzsche at the University of Copenhagen, that Nietzsche's work started to attract a broader audience throughout Europe. Brandes, a well-known commentator on major European literary developments, had discovered Nietzsche a year earlier, and in November 1887 had written him to praise "the breath of a new and original spirit" he encountered in his writings. Brandes lauded Nietzsche's contempt for asceticism, his "deep indignation against democratic mediocrity," and what Brandes referred to as his "aristocratic radicalism." He confessed to Nietzsche that he did "not always know towards what issue you are headed," but, given the elegance and brilliance of his writings, he would willingly follow him on the journey. Clearly flattered by the attention of a major critic, Nietzsche replied in a letter to Brandes a month later that he, too, didn't always know where his thinking would take him, but he did know it would open up a new moral universe for himself and his readers. "Just how far this mode of thought has brought me, how far it will still carry me—I almost dread to imagine. But there are paths that do not allow one to turn back; and so I go forward, because forward I must."
And so it was in 1888 that Nietzsche's philosophy began its march toward international fame. It was also in 1888 that Nietzsche felt himself to be reaching the zenith of his intellectual life. And with good reason. In the course of a single year, he produced a flurry of works, including The Twilight of the Idols (Götzen-Dämmerung ), The Antichrist (1895), Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1895), and Ecce Homo (1908). But it was also during this year of growing recognition and productivity that Nietzsche's sicknesses and his mania escalated dramatically. In his writings, his language became more strident and yet more crystalline and poetic as he "philosophize[d] with a hammer," sparing no idol. With an unprecedented jubilance, elegance, and vitriol he tore into the sacred personalities of Jesus, Luther, Kant, Rousseau, and Wagner, ravaging modern Western ideals of Christian humanitarianism, scientific materialism, and democratic and socialist egalitarianism. As his disdain for the decadence of Western culture grew, so too did his estimation of himself and his enterprise. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche proclaimed himself an opponent of Jesus, referred to his own unmasking of Christian morality as an "event without parallel," and likened himself to a "force majeure" whose philosophy "breaks the history of mankind in two."
By the end of the year, it had become clear to Nietzsche's friends and family that his robust sense of self had ruptured the acceptable bounds of a healthy ego. Shortly after Christmas, Nietzsche wrote his friend Peter Gast, suggesting that he had crossed the "Rubicon," and in the first days of January 1889, he sent to a number of his friends wild postcards signed "Nietzsche Caesar," "Dionysus," and "The Crucified." These were among the last words he would ever write. On January 4, he collapsed on the Piazza Carlo Alberto in Turin, Italy. He had been taking one of his daily strolls when he came upon a coachman beating his horse. Horrified by the brutal sight, he lunged to throw his arms around the neck of the horse and collapsed on the pavement. Nietzsche lost consciousness and had to be carried back to his lodgings. A few days later, Franz Overbeck came to Turin to retrieve his deranged friend, whom he discovered in a state of delirium, slumped in the corner of a couch while chewing and reading proofs of Nietzsche Contra Wagner. Nietzsche leapt up to passionately embrace Overbeck before collapsing once again onto the couch in a convulsive "stream of tears." After Nietzsche stayed briefly in clinics in Basel and Jena, his sister, Elisabeth Föster-Nietzsche, moved him to his childhood home in Naumburg and then to a villa in Weimar. There, atop the Nietzsche Archive founded by Föster-Nietzsche (now his self-appointed literary executor), Nietzsche would spend the last three years of his life completely mad. His days of intellectual ecstasy and agony were over, along with his ability to read, write, or even recollect that he was once an avid reader and prolific writer.
The terrible irony of Nietzsche's life—one noted by virtually all Nietzsche scholars—is that his works began to be appreciated by a broader audience only after his mental collapse. Shortly after Brandes's famous lectures in 1888, the German philosopher started to gain a significant following in northern Europe within aesthetically and politically radical circles. Interest in his work spread so rapidly that by the early 1890s, observers could refer meaningfully to Nietzsche "cults" and the widespread "Nietzsche vogue." The most prominent readers fascinated with Nietzsche's work came from left-leaning liberationist, progressive circles, including anarchists, socialists, feminists—both hard-boiled Marxist materialists and more aesthetically inclined romantic radicals. However, the early fascination with Nietzsche cut across the political spectrum, as right-leaning cultural conservatives were also drawn to his writings. Yet the one divide that the Nietzsche enthusiasm did not traverse in any meaningful way in the initial years of its European vogue was the gulf between the worlds of radical cultural politics and the German academy. With few exceptions, the closest Nietzsche's philosophy came to the academy was in the form of goods smuggled into the lecture hall. Charles Bakewell, a newly minted Harvard philosophy Ph.D. who had studied under William James, Josiah Royce, and George Santayana, later recalled his days as a postdoctoral student at the University of Berlin: "It was quite the usual thing to observe the German student enter the class room with a small volume under his arm, which he would open whenever the lecture failed to interest him. In every case, it was a volume of Nietzsche."
Because few academic philosophers had taken Nietzsche into serious consideration, young Americans like Bakewell and Urban who learned about him while studying abroad in the closing years of the nineteenth century did so either by hearing German friends toss his name around in a smoke-filled Kaffeehaus, stumbling across one of his books in a secondhand bookshop, or seeing a well-worn copy of his Zarathustra peeking out of the pockets of their classmates' leather Schultaschen. It was because their first contact with Nietzsche's philosophy almost always occurred on the periphery of their formal studies that they described their initial encounter with it as a discovery, and their experience reading his works as a forbidden adventure.
Excerpted from American NIETZSCHE by JENNIFER RATNER-ROSENHAGEN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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nice history of his effect on american thought and vice versa.