U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

Prior Entries: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Having closely analyzed early reviews by Ross Posnock, Thomas Meaney, and Alexander Star, today I turn toward one last assessment of American Nietzsche before offering my own praise and criticism.

I draw your attention to Roger Bellin’s review, “Superman/Everyman,” in The New Inquiry for its style as much as its content. Bellin’s opening is my favorite opening from all the reviews. He begins with A Fish Called Wanda, noting the main character, Otto (played by Kevin Kline), and his parallels with one of the historical caricatures of Nietzsche: wild mustache, egomaniac, disdain for the everyman, and a penchant for violence. If the associations weren’t clear enough, Otto also reads and quotes Nietzsche. Otto is a comical, literal Ubermensch. Bellin also relays Wanda’s “dressing down” of Otto as a prelude to the work of unmasking of the protagonist in American Nietzsche.

After the eye-catching introduction, Bellin provocatively summarizes Ratner-Rosenhagen’s work: “It is neither a book about Nietzsche, nor one that would help us to interpret his work, except, perhaps, by accumulated negative example. And perhaps more surprisingly, neither is it purely about American ‘Nietzscheans,’ at least in the narrow sense of self-identified, dogmatic followers. Instead it is a cultural history of the phenomenon that Ratner-Rosenhagen has aptly called ‘the Nietzsche image’: a chronicle of the places, often improbable, where Nietzsche’s name, texts, ideas, and/or mustache have appeared in American usage, and the ends, often similarly unlikely, which they have been made to serve.”

Bellin seems to agree with this reviewer that, in American, Nietzsche is at base plasticized—molded for use by each reader in multiple contexts over time. This is a truism for historians, but the wider public and enthusiasts of philosophy do not always, of course, think historically. Like other reviewers, Bellin is fascinated with Ratner-Rosenhagen’s accounting of the forms Nietzsche has taken in American life. He concludes: “Americans have seen largely what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to fear, in their readings of Nietzsche.”

Unlike Thomas Meaney (who reviewed American Nietzsche for the Wall Street Journal), who faulted Ratner-Rosenhagen for privileging the Emersonian readings of Nietzsche by Harold Bloom, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Rorty, Bellin praises the author for emphasizing the same. Bellin writes: “Indeed one of the most striking things about Nietzsche’s American reception is how late, and how partially still, the Emersonian connection has been made. Americans have recurrently found many of Emerson’s ideas seductively exotic when they returned home in German clothes. It’s only appropriate, then, that Ratner-Rosenhagen’s history both begins and ends with Emerson, the man we might call the one true ‘American Nietzsche.'”

Excepting a few points of departure, Bellin’s review then covers much of the same grounds of summary offered by other reviewers. Those points of departure do, however, hold forth some interesting topics. Bellin observed, for instance, that Ratner-Rosenhagen “is a lumper for left political categories, a splitter for the right.” I didn’t notice this while reading, and would have think more about the truth of his assertion. Bellin also draws the reader’s attention to an obvious cultural marker: Superman the action-comic figure, first appearing in 1939 and made famous via television and eventually film. The reviewer notes: “Though Ratner-Rosenhagen does not remark on it, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics Man of Steel surely owes his name to the American language’s absorption of Nietzsche’s terminology; that which does not kill us makes us stronger, with the exception of Kryptonite.” Taking Bellin’s speculation a bit further, could the comic figure Superman have been, ironically, an indirect attempt to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermeansch? I’ll cease my musing here because surely there’s an article or two that explores this potential connection, either debunking or fulfilling Bellin’s prophecy of a firm link.

Finally, bringing his observations full circle back to film, Bellin notes the presence of Nietzsche in Hitchcock’s Rope. Since the film was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (covered in American Nietzsche, pp. 144-146), it is logical to underscore as a manifestation of Nietzsche’s thought in popular culture. Ratner-Rosenhagen chose to stick with the case itself, but Bellin walks the reader through the film’s significance to Nietzsche. Bellin dwells on Jimmy Stewart, who acted as both Clarence Darrow and the fictionalized philosophy professor (“Rupert Cadell”), and who taught Nietzsche to Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Bellin does fine job making connections between Nietzsche, the murdering boys, Emerson, and the film, so here is Bellin’s narrative (bolds mine):

And so [Cadell’s] confrontation with the killing committed by his students, in a stunning turn of stage-y Fifties didacticism, forces him to recant his Nietzschean doctrine: “Tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. But I thank you for that shame, because now I know that we are each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong?” Cadell’s sudden conversion from philosophical Nietzschean into the familiar Capra-movie Jimmy Stewart sermonizer is completely intellectually incoherent, of course, but it’s also representative of the American image of Nietzsche as an almost irresistibly seductive force for immorality. In both Rope and the original Darrow argument, Nietzsche is anti-socialism incarnate: He has a disturbing power to warp the young, not educating them in moral self-reliance but rather tricking them into substituting self-reliance for morality.

Putting the somewhat anachronistic “Fifites didacticism” reference aside (the film was released in 1948, so I’d link it to film noir and early Cold War fears), I love it that Bellin linked the incoherence of Cadell’s conversion to the general incoherence of American interpretations of Nietzsche. Nietzsche the evil trickster, much like the Nietzsche I personally encountered as an undergraduate, dominates in Rope.

As is the case with other reviewers Bellin admires Ratner-Rosenhagen’s treatment of Walter Kaufmann. Here’s how Bellin assessed her work: “It is…entirely fitting that Kaufmann is the subject of an entire chapter in American Nietzsche, which gives a thorough and very charitable account of his work, though Ratner-Rosenhagen’s defense is something of a recovery-job. While it’s true that criticizing Kaufmann as a translator and interpreter is perhaps too de rigueur these days in the academy, there are good reasons for this: The errors and distortions in the texts (as translator, he would occasionally omit a “not” in order to make a difficult passage less counterintuitive), the didactic oversimplification with which Kaufmann insisted on his own interpretations, along with his sometime simple-mindedness as a philosophical writer. Still, it is good to see Kaufmann’s tremendous accomplishment in reviving Nietzsche, much more than just a popularization, chronicled.”

I am not familiar with that de rigueur criticism, but I am willing to take Bellin’s word for it.

To summarize, Bellin’s review follows some familiar lines of critique (e.g. more popular culture could have been included) and praise (e.g. strong argument regarding reception, all variations of Nietzsche covered, Emerson links, Kaufmann acknowledged). I appreciated Bellin’s style more than anything else. His review is one of the better ones for that reason alone.

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This concludes Part IV of my serial review of American Nietzsche. Having reviewed most of the reviews to my satisfaction, next week I will finally get to my very own criticisms, praise, and extensions.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Yes, Kaufmann’s existentialist take on Nietzsche, in his translations and analysis, is not taken very seriously anymore, in both literature and philosophy departments.

    It is interesting that Ratner-Rosenhagen chose Bloom, Rorty, and Cavell as the exemplary Nietzscheans of the late-twentieth century, all of them figures associated with the so-called continental tradition. Does she address the Continental-Anglo-American divide? (a divide that does not hold so much anymore, a fact pointed out by philosophers like Brian Leiter, an influential scholar of Nietzsche).

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