U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

Prior Entries: Part I, Part II

Reviewing the reviews of American Nietzsche continues to be a fruitful way to think about the book’s contents as well as its strengths and weaknesses. The former is perhaps less systematic than one would want. But the latter helps us see the larger ideas with which American Nietzsche deals, and something of its place in the historiography.

After Posnock’s review in The Nation, Thomas Meaney tackled American Nietzsche for The Wall Street Journal about six weeks later. Meaney opens his piece provocatively, asserting that Americans have a tendency to give Nietzsche a happy ending in the course of celebrating individualism and creativity. Unlike Nietzsche, we prioritize efficiency and equality in individuals over excellence. Meaney then praises Ratner-Rosenhagen’s goal (as he sees it): to answer the question about what “our use and abuse of Nietzsche’s thinking says about us?” Meaney praises the author’s connection between Emerson and Nietzsche on the notion of self as “constantly becoming.” We “generate meaning” for ourselves “through a continuous act of self-creation.” Meaney then dwells on the fact that H.L. Mencken found inspiration in Nietzsche, and that “Mencken’s columns put Nietzsche’s name on the American cultural map.” That stamp was diminished by the Leopold and Loeb trial, as well as because of the Nazis’ appropriation of Nietzsche. But then there was a turn in Nietzsche’s fate. Meaney asserts that Ratner-Rosenhagen’s tracking of the influence of Walter Kaufman during the post-war period was the “best chapter of her book.” And Meaney is right to reinforce the book’s argument that “the Nietzsche we encounter in print today is largely Kaufmann’s Nietzsche—mediated by his translations, collations and introductions.”

Meaney critiques the book by arguing that “Ratner-Rosenhagen is not quite up-front about the story she is telling.”
Meaney believes she privileges the Emersonian readings of Nietzsche by Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Rorty offered at the end of American Nietzsche. Here I think Meaney has confused both the complexity of their reappropriations of Nietzsche, as well as the place of those three in the chronology of the twentieth century, with Ratner-Rosenhagen’s intentions (i.e. Meaney has mistaken narration with valuation). I assert confusion by the reviewer because Ratner-Rosenhagen shows neither favor nor disapprobation of the Bloomian, Cavellian, and Rortian Nietzsches.

Bloom both used Nietzsche himself, in relation to his work on the anxiety of influence (American Nietzsche, 276-279), and used Nietzsche to critique deconstructionist thought (pp. 279-283). Ratner-Rosenhagen points out that Rorty was a foundationalist before embracing a Nietzschean pragmatism, or “pragmatist antifoundationalism” (p. 285-287). She notes that Rorty’s Nietzsche led Rorty to a “no-man’s land between public commitments and private longings that [Rorty’s] pragmatist critics found so objectionable” (p. 293). Rorty could not reconcile pragmatic instrumentalism and democracy, and lost the “spirit of social hope.” Ratner-Rosenhagen concludes that Rorty found “no way to philosophically justify America” (p. 295). That doesn’t exactly make for an optimistic reading of Rorty’s Nietzsche, or Rorty’s Emerson. As for Cavell, Ratner-Rosenhagen is not critical of his use of Nietzsche via Emerson. Indeed, it’s Cavell’s knowledge of Emerson that intrigues the author (p. 297). Cavell helps Ratner-Rosenhagen bring her story full circle. Cavell also helps the author tackle the question of Nietzsche’s significance to philosophers and in the history of philosophy (pp. 297-302). Ratner-Rosenhagen uses Cavell to reinforce part of the book’s thesis:

If, as Nietzsche instructed, knowledge exxacts a mode of life, then the reverse is also true: a mode of life exacts a knowledge. In Emerson, antifoundationalism is that American way of life. Emersonian antifoundationalism is not a theory, it is a way of thinking and living in a world without foundations. …From a European past America cannot domesticate, Emerson moves toward a New World of men (and women) thinking, finding their way everyday, the here and now, a culture ready to be “born again.” …Cavell achieved his Emerson by putting him in constant dialogue with Nietzsche. His Emerson and his Nietzsche finish each other’s thoughts. (pp. 302-303).

Meaney rightly, then, pegs the Emerson anchor. But he misses the simple fact that this is how history played out—no matter that it fits nicely with the Ratner-Rosenhagen’s goal. The only way to know whether the book’s author manipulated the narrative is to explore Nietzsche’s place in philosophy and intellectual history after the 1990s. But the author defers to the limits of hindsight when she only offers an Epilogue dealing with Allan Bloom’s work through the 1980s, and Bloom did not write about Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche.

Three weeks after Meaney’s review and almost two months after Posnock’s essay, the next prominent reivew of American Nietzsche came from Alexander Star. Star is a senior book review editor for The New York Times, and his piece appeared January 15, 2012. Star’s review, using Ratner-Rosenhagen’s findings, answers the question posed by Posnock: “Who got Nietzsche right?” Star’s answer is everyone. Everyone got Nietzsche right because his answers, his aphorisms, were capacious enough for for almost every kind of philosophical question. This could only be the case, of course, if there were contradictions in Nietzsche’s thought and in the thinking of his appropriators. When that is the case, adjudication simple does not pay for the scholar. Star concluded: “American Nietzsche is a sober work of intellectual history, but as Nietzsche insisted, all scholarship reflects the temperament of its creator, and it’s clear that Ratner-Rosenhagen finds neither the poststructuralist nor the conservative Nietzsche at all satisfying.”

Star mildly critiques Ratner-Rosenhagen’s work on two points. The first is a scholarly point with with two parts. Star asserts that American Nietzsche does not attend to Nietzsche’s thoughts on Emerson’s failings. Star argues that “she doesn’t take into full account how Nietzsche thought his beloved Emerson was ‘too much infatuated with life’ or how he doubted most people could ever discover anything at all.” The former, in relation to the knowledge of the author of this essay, is an argument between scholars. I cannot say whether Nietzsche’s Emerson was correct on all points. But I can see how that might color one’s appreciation for the deepest sources of personal liberation in American thought. Still, if thoughtful Americans were not precisely appropriating Emerson via Nietzsche on that topic, they were were appropriating Nietzsche as Walter Kaufman connected him to the existentialists. Nietzsche was going to find a home with most any American audience alieanated from the conformist aspects of middle-class culture.

On Star’s latter point about novelty, the structure of the sentence makes it unclear whether he was referring to Nietzsche or Emerson, so we’ll have to let that scholarly point lie. But novelty does matter in that the Overman will likely need to find some way to oversome the limitations of his times. If tradition (i.e. God) is dead and unhelpful, how did Nietzsche see how a new paradigm could come into being? Nietzsche’s answer seems to have been less about what would come into being and more about the fact that mankind had the inner resources to stand, to survive.

The second critique, not pressed by Star as a failing of the book, is that Ratner-Rosenhagen could have done more in relation to Nietzsche’s “broader presence in culture.” He wrote:

In 1933, the Hays Office forced the producers of the Barbara Stanwyck film “Baby Face” to remove “The Will to Power” from the hands of a German-American cobbler whose paeans to self-fulfillment inspire the Stanwyck character to become a prostitute. Nietzsche’s more bombastic utterances would later enter popular culture without hindrance. In every generation Nietzsche finds admirers who blur his message with that of Aleister Crowley, the Nietzsche-reading occultist who wrote, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

So, is Star saying that he wanted Ratner-Rosenhagen to catalag every unmediated presence of Nietzsche in American culture? I don’t think so. But is he being fair to the limitations of her study—her focus on how Nietzsche was actively and intentionally used and appropriated? I don’t think so. Wouldn’t any historian prefer clear manisfestations of use (e.g. letters and publications) over speculating about how unnamed masses might have absorbed Nietzsche through popular culture “without hindrance”? This is not to say that Ratner-Rosenhagen could not have used those manifestations. And she could have perhaps provided more of a rationale for their exclusion (i.e. which unmediated appearances may have mattered or not). But the author notes that Nietzsche fads have occurred, but she never promised to explore the full circumstances of each. As Star himself notes, this is a “sober work of intellectual history.” As such it is focused on the life of the mind where empirical evidence exists.

Star doesn’t answer Posnock’s question about “Who got Nietzsche right?” for Ratner-Rosenhagen, but Star does pose and answer another question. In the final paragraph of his review he queries: “If Nietzsche was terrible, was he also beneficial?” Star cites “Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas” (note the “credential dropping”) to argue that Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not argue that all beliefs are “equally valid,” but rather that your beliefs are not necessarily true for everyone.  Since, as Ratner-Rosenhagen similarly noted in the context of Cavell, that beliefs are associated with a way of life, the fact that ways of life exist for individuals might imply that there is no one set of beliefs that can apply to us all. We should accept, then, that American individualism has always contained, and will likely always contain, some degree of antifoundationalism. Or, as Star puts it, we should be able to live with the fact that “our convictions are our own.” This, he believes, would be a beneficial contribution from Nietzsche to America’s culture—provided Americans took the true Nietzsche seriously, or really understood him.

This concludes Part III of my serial review of American Nietzsche. Next week I will analyze the last of the reviews, and then enter into my own reading of the book’s weaknesses and strengths—with an eye toward offering larger extensions and impressions.