Friedrich Nietzsche demands a certain amount of deference. Or so it seems to me. Whatever you might say about him, it’s rather frowned upon to dismiss him or actively dislike him. And it is not that hard to understand why. The dude was a genius, right?
But not just any kind of genius, but that kind of genius scholars like best – the complicated, complex, self-contradictory kind. The Rorschach test kind. The kind of genius that said a thousand short, sharp little things about the world of the present and the world of the past that come through with such perfect analytical clarity – and yet, put them all together and what you get is messy, unclear something-for-everyone. (A thinker for all and none!, he might have said.) Which means, of course, that everyone gets to play the analytical game of Who Is Nietzsche? – indeed, being a contestant is so popular we can now even write entire books not ourselves partaking in the game, but documenting and explaining how everyone else has played it.
Despite all the varying interpretations, however, a general trend holds true: whatever Nietzsche was, he is not easy to categorize politically. In fact, it seems that it is precisely because of all these different Nietzsches that the only consensus that can be manufactured out of this diversity is that Nietzsche must be regarded, in some sense, as uncategorizable. Nietzsche is obviously not a socialist, nor a leftist in any conventional sense, nor certainly not a liberal, and, of course, Nietzsche is not a conservative.
Or is he? Looking back on my own personal encounters with Nietzsche, it is starting to seem strange how off-the-table this take on Nietzsche has always seemed. In college, where I first came to know Nietzsche beyond a vague impression, he was not presented in the context of a discussion about conservatism. And as I went on to encounter him in graduate school, he almost never came packaged as a conservative. On the contrary, for me he has been presented much more often as a figure that conservatives are rather terrified of.
Take, for example, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s recent book, American Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen does discuss the admiration some figures with right-leaning inclinations had for Nietzsche; I finally discovered, for instance, why conservatives are so into H.L. Mencken. But many more pages are spent both on discussing how various socialists and anarchists were inspired by Nietzsche, and how various types of conservatives – from the religiously inclined to the eccentric Allan Bloom – viewed him as a threat that had to be vanquished. And I remember, while reading the extended discussion of leftists’ relationships with Nietzsche, waiting to hear about how they squared their love for him with his obvious, and extensive, disdain for socialism or an egalitarian conception of politics. But this discussion never came.
Let me be clear – I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t there because of a large oversight on Ratner-Rosenhagen’s part. On the contrary, I suspect it wasn’t there because it wasn’t there; ie, it never materialized in her sources as a major theme of her American Nietzsche. What I am suggesting, however, is this: isn’t this weird? Wouldn’t we expect a man who decried how altruism, egalitarianism, and democracy drained Western civilization of all its brave and daring beauty to be a little bit more present in the annals of conservative thought? Where is the deep, rich history of conservatives – of the non-theological variety, of course – setting up societies to emulate and bring about the era of the uber-masculine overman? Could they have asked for a more attractive, brilliant, imposing figure to adorn their ideological altar?
Of course, there is the ease with which, starting with the editing wiles of his sister, Nietzsche was packaged for ideological use by the Nazis. Yet any scholar worth their salt knows that there is no clear line linking Nietzsche and the Nazis. So the conversation about that connection, it usually seems, comes to an end with its debunking.
All of this explains why I was surprised when I read the introduction to Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. For behold, there in the opening stanzas, was an easy, breezy, nearly afterthought identification of Nietzsche with conservatism. As he wrote, summarizing the argument of his book, “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia, with Adams, Calhoun, Oakeshott….” (the list goes on).
“Whaaat?” I remember thinking (and, in my imaginative retelling, I’m cocking my head like a dog). “That’s unusual. Refreshing, however.” Robin went on to discuss Nietzsche a little further in The Reactionary Mind, but only through his influence – claimed by her to be nonexistent but clearly quite significant – on Ayn Rand. Although Robin described Rand’s incorporation of Friedrich as a kind of “vulgar Nietzscheanism,” he also noted that the profile of one of her aborted literary characters, a murderer of a young girl, was “not a bad description of Nietzsche’s master class in The Genealogy of Morals.”
Then in the spring of 2013, Robin published an article that elaborated on some of his thoughts about the relationship between Nietzsche and the right – and in this case, particularly the neoliberal politics of the Austrian school. The pushback was not only considerable in its intensity, but in its breadth. There were very few people it appeared to please. On the one hand, many liberals and leftists didn’t see the connection, or thought it too tenuous. Even more compellingly however, conservatives – especially libertarians – strenuously resisted the association of their intellectual heritage with Nietzsche. The response then, in broad strokes, seemed to be this: those on the left didn’t want their Nietzsche tarnished, and those on the right didn’t want him at all.
This response puzzled me. It was not only that I was, apparently, amongst the few that found Robin’s case pretty compelling. It was also the way in which I sensed some kind of deep resistance to treating Nietzsche in this way; to clearly connecting him to developments in political thought in even the roundabout manner of pointing out “elective affinities.” This is not how academics usually handle Nietzsche, who is presented first and foremost, in most cases, as an existentialist: he is there to guide us, to help us through our own questions, but not to whisper any answers in our ear. Or, as Ratner-Rosenhagen puts it, “encounters with Nietzsche’s philosophy and persona provided an opportunity for observers to examine their ideas about truth and values in a world without foundations.” And Nietzsche, after all, was trying to transcend all values, right? So to label him – or even simply associate him – with this politics or another must be deeply flawed. He was indeed a radical of sorts, but not of any kind that we can fairly categorize.
But I wonder if the predominance of an ambiguous, or even apolitical Nietzsche is due at least in part to the monopoly scholars have enjoyed in interpreting him. For until recently, academics have argued primarily with other academics over which Nietzsche is the correct Nietzsche. And among academics, the argument that Nietzsche can be read as a conservative has been uncommon ever since he was rescued from being a Nazi. Therefore, the argument hasn’t been handled in part due to it rarely being made.
And as a consequence, this interpretation of Nietzsche as anything but conservative falls most heavily on the heads of those lacking academic capital. On the more lighthearted side of this dynamic is the stereotype of the young, alienated young man who gravitates towards Nietzsche for guidance. After all, who can recall that scene in Little Miss Sunshine – “Is that Nietzsche? You don’t speak because of Friedrich Nietzsche?” – and not smile? Yet sometimes such sentiments turn dark, and we end up with a case like Jared Lee Loughner, who credited Nietzsche with inspiring him to open fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several of her supports as they left a campaign event.
When such reports hit the press, popular media outlets are flooded with essays from scholars explaining why it is a mistake to associate such atrocious acts with the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, they decry, has got to be the most misunderstood genius that ever put pen to paper. You sense the frustration coming through in these defenses, and in some cases, scholars defending Nietzsche against vulgar Nietzscheanism slip into participating in some crude stereotyping of their own. Angry, horny, narcissistic young men – who think they are much more clever than they actually are – are the sort of people that will chronically misinterpret Nietzsche. It requires, in short, that you’re already pretty much a monster for Friedrich to have this effect on you. True, some of his writing does lend itself to this interpretation – but any close, thoughtful reading will reveal it to be exactly the opposite of the message you were supposed to receive.
Let me take a moment here to clarify what I’m hinting at. I’m not implying the opposite of what these defenses of Nietzsche suggest – I’m not arguing, in short, that the “true” Nietzsche is a straightforward guidebook to sociopathy. Nor am I suggesting that the line between murderous intentions and “conservatism” as such is clear-cut, although I would be hard pressed to deny that contemporary conservatives often seem to fetishize violence.
But what I am implying is that it might do well for us to reconsider why we so easily dismiss the not terribly unusual cases of individual readers picking up on the darker edges of Nietzsche – the Nietzsche that seems to celebrate violent self-expression that takes not the time to pity its victims, the Nietzsche that despises democratic culture and egalitarianism as the herd morality of slaves, the Nietzsche that promotes misogyny. For if there is one thing encountering Nietzsche should remind us, it is that the line between author and reader, between intent and result, is not always as clear as it seems.
Consider Ratner-Rosenhagen’s reflection, for example, that Nietzsche’s admirers “used the philosopher’s terms and aspects of his life to describe themselves to themselves. And yet the varieties of the selves fashioned suggest that the distinctions between reception and production, and between readership and authorship, are blurry at best.” The conclusion she draws from this confusion is that the diversity of “Nietzsches” readers created suggest just how tenuous the link between the intent behind a text and the actuality of their impact can be; or, in other words, “Despite the readers’ sense that Nietzsche happened to them, we do better to see how they happened to Nietzsche.”
Yet notice how interpretations of Nietzsche are thus taken to say something about his admirers, but drastically less about Nietzsche himself. It seems to me, in other words, that it is not so much that the distinctions between reception and production are being blurred so much as reception is being declared as an irrelevant place to look for the real historical significance of ideas. The reception of any given thinker, of course, is historically relevant as long as it is clear that the topic is her reception and not the actual meaning of her words – but given any amount of complexity in reception, it is unsound to suggest that a study of receptions can also reflect back on how we asses the author herself. Ratner-Rosenhagen declares as much in the opening of her book, clarifying that it is “neither a hagiography of, nor a screed about, Nietzsche. It is not even a book about Nietzsche. It is a story about his crucial role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern American thought.”
Such a sharply conceived project is, of course, the model of a well-designed scholarly research project. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there is something very odd about this move, which seems rooted in an inclination I’ve discussed before – the desire to study and evaluate ideas independently from their observed consequences. While at times this approach seems appropriate, at others it begins to border on antisocial – a word I use with its political connotations. For does it make sense to segregate the evaluation of a thinker from the impact of her thoughts? Should we not hold Nietzsche responsible for some of the more overtly elitist, anti-democratic, and sexist ideas he advocated and, not surprisingly, others thus read him as advocating? If so, perhaps classing Nietzsche as some kind of conservative – and thus holding his feet to the fire of his political pronouncements – is one way of doing so.
One of the most common objections to such an approach, of course, is that it does violence to the work of a thinker by neglecting or altogether ignoring original intent (usually to be understood in the context of her historical moment). That’s certainly what scholars of Nietzsche routinely say when called upon to reckon with his fascist, objectivist, or violent admirers; indeed, it is as though they feel the tragedy of their thoughts and actions are compounded by their having to drag down poor Friedrich with them, where he clearly doesn’t belong.
But whether they may be right or wrong, consider how such logic would fare in any other situation. An architect constructs a building and, either out of laziness or some kind of self-satisfying blindness, creates a beautiful but sadly not functional structure. It collapses and kills dozens of people. At this point, when the public looks to hold the architect responsible, no one considers arguing that because it was not her intent to kill people with her design, we should, therefore, not factor their deaths into evaluating her work. We would, certainly, consider it much less of a crime than had she done it on purpose, at which point she would experience a permanent form of social death. But nonetheless, in such circumstances questions of intent are regarded to only have limited relevance in determining the social value of someone’s actions.
It is not clear to me why a similar logic does not hold for the authors of ideas. Perhaps it has something to do with the relationship between the perspective of individualism and its corresponding nightmare, oppressive social censorship. We protect the integrity of Nietzsche’s project as he intended it to be expressed, and, in turn, view the Jared Lee Loughners of the world not as social products enmeshed in and influenced by the ideas they encounter, but as singularly sick people. We isolate their interpretations, in other words, from the memory of Nietzsche; or at the least, attempt to contain those negative associations with assertions of expertise and scholarly authority. This is not what Nieztsche really is, we want to believe, because it is not who we say he is. This has to be so, for if the value of ideas rests not only in the way they create new possibilities for ways of being for individuals, but also must be evaluated according to their practical impact on our larger social existence, well, then, how can we keep such a project from getting out of control? Who decides what has good or bad social consequences, and aren’t we just setting ourselves up for some kind of perpetual, low-level McCarthyism? (Or worse?)
These are good questions, and ones I can’t answer comprehensively. And, moreover, any attempt to evaluate ideas socially – which is to say, to consider their impact as just as important as their intent – will run into a host of problems. Nietzsche is a prime example of this, for it is precisely that his impact seems so diverse that any attempt to categorize him would seem to run afoul of contradictory evidence.
And yet – and yet there are still the words on the page, advocating at the least an embrace of some kind of elitism, and at the worst a violent one at that. And although we all know what a wreck Nietzsche’s sister made of his work, there have been many texts much more difficult to package for Nazi consumption than his. I am also not willing to imagine that the interpretations of Leopold and Loeb, Ayn Rand and Jared Lee Loughner, have nothing to little to tell us about Nietzsche or the value of his ideas. It seems to me that to do so is to indulge in a form of elitist, antisocial idealism, where only those who hold degrees are allowed to decide which evidence counts and possess, moreover, a monopoly on authoritative pronouncements about the social value of ideas.
And so, for myself, it makes sense to consider Nietzsche a conservative – a weird one, a thrilling one, and one I even have thought of in my lifetime as a friend – but, nonetheless, still some kind of conservative.
 Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 34.
 Robin, The Reactionary Mind, 90, 91.
 Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 24.
 Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche, 207.
 Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche, 27.