U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Plastic Nietzsche, Part II: A Review of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche

Prior entry: Part I.

Several positive reviews of American Nietzsche have already appeared. Indeed, though the book lists a publication date of 2012, reviews began appearing in November and December of 2011. Ridiculous as it may seem in relation to the present publication of my own review, I think I received my copy in early December of last year. (That’s right. I’ve had this book for ten months before writing my review. In my defense, I did finish reading it in early April. All I can say is that sometimes life gets in the way of my scholarly work.) That aside, given the earlier accolades and critiques, what can be offered here that has not already been said? Let’s review the reviews. Along with helping ensure that my analysis will be different, the reviews provide a chance to reflect on the contents of American Nietzsche—and whether the reviewers gave that content their full consideration.

Ross Posnock’s November 21, 2011 essay, titled “American Idol,” appeared in The Nation. Posnock offers both summary and critique. Like the book, he begins, rightly I believe, with Emerson—noting the similarities between him and Nietzsche. Posnock then offers some of Nietzsche’s biography, reminding the reader of the latter’s emergence as the antifoundational “enfant terrible of modernism.” The review then transitions to one of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s prominent theme: the notion of the “philosopher willing to go it alone without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims” (p. 17, of book). Next Posnock recalls, using the book, Nietzsche’s call to overcome (i.e. the overman/Übermensch) and its disastrous appropriation by fascism. Most importantly, however, is the rectification of that misappropriation by Walter Kaufman. He connected, recovered really, Nietzsche’s thought in relation to existentialism and the American tradition of rugged individualism. Posnock then backs up, moving his review chronologically toward the Nietzsche vogue of the early nineteenth century. The reviewer argues that one of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “striking findings” was the diverse appropriations of Nietzschean thought, which results in some “amusing, if inadvertent, juxtapositions,” such as “Lionel Trilling and Huey Newton [being] discussed alongside Hugh Hefner…and Hitler.” Like Posnock, I appreciated the fact that the range of thinkers presented in American Nietzsche makes it an intriguing read.

Posnock then poses the rhetorical question of “Who got Nietzsche right?”
A worthy question. In Posnock’s hands it serves as a transition to discuss how Ratner-Rosenhagen avoids the adjudication of claims about the philosopher in favor of listening to those who received and used Nietzsche’s works (p. 24, of text). The judgment is beside the point. Posnock does not directly say whether he approves of the approach, but he most certainly does not condemn it. In discussing the reception of Nietzsche in America, Posnock notes the personal letters from unknown figures sent to Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche. Apart from these lesser known figures, Ratner-Rosenhagen also covers public figures and intellectuals who responded to and used Nietzsche: Josiah Royce, Judith Butler, Stanley Cavell, Harold Bloom, and Richard Rorty. For all these figures, Posnock rightly identifies that the dualism, the dichotomy, used in American Nietzsche underlying their thinking is ‘foundationalism’ v. ‘antifoundationalism’. Posnock notes that “in the final two pages of the concluding chapter, each term appears no fewer than ten times.”

Here the review turns toward criticism—though less of Ratner-Rosenhagen and more of the method behind the text (i.e. reception history). Posnock begins this line of critique by noting that the author “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.” This, in Posnock’s view, results in a deeper, theoretical problem with the book: “From the outset…antifoundationalism is ubiquitous but only hurriedly defined—’the denial of universal truth’—and never reflected upon critically.” Posnock continued, ultimately linking the problem back to an observation by Emerson:

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.” …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.”

In other words, in Posnock’s view, because Ratner-Rosenhagen merely listens and does not adjudicate, one can finish the text thinking that one can actually “function in a world of constant flux, without foundations.” Here, I think, Posnock’s critique misses the mark. Is it the historian’s job to adjudicate? Perhaps. But the nature of the author’s study necessitates a minimization of that analytical path. Further, she gets antifoundationalism right in the text. Ratner-Rosenhagen may not reflect on this point extensively, but she most certainly observes that Nietzsche saw foundations as rooted in “history and culture.” It is noted in the book’s passages about Wilbur Urban’s encounter with Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (pp. 29-31). And, like it or not, we know Nietzsche’s solution: the Ubermensch. Did contemporaries and enthusiasts offer wild interpretations of Nietzsche’s solution? Absolutely. But must we, as historical thinkers, attend only to those wrong-headed enthusiasms? Ratner-Rosenhagen rightly notes the ambiguity of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The figure, taken as an exemplar, could root the reader-follower in a vision of transcendant man who overcame. The Ubermensch, then, is a kind of Enlightenment figure of secular progress written on the earthbound individual (p. 110-111). This is Nietzsche’s proposed foundation for man: a kind of Emersonian self-reliance.

If there is any problem in American thought as it has appropriated Nietzsche’s thought, it’s that those historical figures have forgotten Posnock’s, Fish’s, and Emerson’s point. The Ubermensch is not a weak-minded fascist conformist, but a strong individualist unafraid of the future. As Ratner-Rosenhagen notes, some interpreters saw in the Ubermensch a “self-sovereign…[who] had found his natural habitat in [America’s] culture of possessive individualism” (p. 111). Problems with rugged individualism and prot-Libertarianism notwithstanding, this was a part of the new foundation of American culture. This was the American Nietzsche. Posnock may not like it, and perhaps neither does Ratner-Rosenhagen. But it’s good to look hard and clearly at the historical Nietzsche without fascist-colored glasses.

It seems, then, that Posnock wanted another book, something more prescriptive and assertive. But a presentist study, of that type anyway, was never the goal of American Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s historicism could never satisfy Posnock’s not-so-rhetorical question: “Who got Nietzsche right?” The book asserts, in essence, that this question can’t be answered. Nietzsche’s thought was plastic; it could be transformed in the heat of one’s passions and imagination. Nietzsche’s writings are too vague to give solid ground, to provide transcendence. This will never satisfy philosophers, historians, and earnest readers who seek ultimate truths. Then again, mere historical thinking never really satisfies those who put history solely in the service of the present.

The next installments of this serialized essay will address other reviews, and then my own impressions, critiques, and extensions. – TL