Wednesday, April 18, 2012

American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen


This book examines what American readers were drawn to in this philosophy and its author, and what, in turn, they drew from them. It analyzes the dynamic history of how Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism (the denial of universal truth), together with his sustained critiques of Christian morality, Enlightenment rationality, and democracy, has compelled many Americans to question their religious ideals, moral certainties, and democratic principles. Turn-of-the-last-century scholars, writers, political radicals and ministers (Intellectuals) form the first generation of Americans whose confrontations with his thought compelled then to reevaluate their inherited values in light of his criticisms. It was at this time when Nietzsche’s concepts such as the “trans-valuation of all values”, “slave morality”, and “will to power” and the newly minted term Nietzschean made their debut in American English. This history of the transformation of modern American thought reveals that their new language signals a dramatic development in both the style and substance of moral inquiry. Where once the moral life was couched in terms of foundations, now, “after Nietzsche,” thinkers and writers imagined it as life on the open seas.

Chapter Four (excerpt):

Expressing the sentiments shared by a generation of early twentieth-century American literary radicals and political reformers, the novelist and popular lecturer John Cowper Powys described his lingering romance with Friedrich Nietzsche: “I cannot see a volume of Nietzsche in any shelf without opening it. . .; [I] cannot open it without feeling, just as I did at first, the old fatal intoxication.” Preferring imagery more suggestive than mere alcohol, Isadora Duncan likened her first encounter with the nineteenth-century German philosopher to the voluptuous joys of the flesh when she recalled that “the seduction of Nietzsche’s philosophy ravished my being.” Others described their experience of Nietzsche’s philosophy in spiritual terms. Jack London and Eugene O’Neil were two of many who referred to Nietzsche as their “Christ”: and Thus Spoke Zarathustra as their “Bible”. Throughout the essays, letters, and autobiographies of many young writers who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is a virtual library of rich imagery for Nietzsche and his thought. HE is described as a prophet and a martyr, and his philosophy was portrayed as an intellectual intoxicant, and emotional elixir, and a spiritual astringent, as well as a romp in the hay. Though the metaphors for Nietzsche and his writings are as diverse and colorful as their authors, a theme runs throughout. They described their experience with Nietzsche in deeply intimate terms; indeed, many of them confessed to feeling as though Nietzsche had developed his philosophy expressly for them.

If part of the intellectual historian’s task is to recover the lived experience of historical persons, to try to recapture not only what they thought but how they felt about certain ideas, then perhaps we should start by taking these young writers – those who contributed to the “Chicago Renaissance”; who participated in the traffic of ideas and lovers at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 23 Fifth Avenue salon; who cobbled together magazines like The Masses, The Seven Arts, and The New Republic; who spent their summers working and playing together in Massachusetts as members of the Provincetown Players – at their word. In their novels, critical essays, plays and memoirs, they documented in great detail their first encounters and their ongoing “relationships” with Nietzsche’s ideas. If they felt, as they said they did, that Nietzsche was s[peaking to them personally, then we will get a better understanding of their mental and moral worlds if we actually listen to what they had to say. Their references to Nietzsche’s image and ideas provide an opportunity to understand their vision of the Beloved Community of liberated individuals, and to grasp their conception of their roles as intellectuals in fostering it.

Nietzsche’s arguments for the interpretive and provisional character of human knowledge and beliefs provided early twentieth-century literary radicals with a romantic and pragmatic approach to the study of culture and political ideals in America. His writings presented them with a description of Western culture teetering on shaky intellectual and moral foundations that mirrored their own impressions of a modern America that could no longer be supported by its moral and cultural inheritances. Nietzsche emboldened them in their revolt against the stifling genteel sensibility, the psychic bankruptcy of a de-spiritualized Christianity, and the airy idealism of late nineteenth-century democratic theory. He taught them that their battle with their inheritances was no standard revolt of sons against fathers, or New Women against the matriarchal ideal, but rather a full transvaluation of intellectually feeble and yet culturally robust moral absolutes, which had overstayed their welcome in a modernizing America. In his assessment of a will to power underlying all human knowledge and belief, his savage critique of the life-denying impulses of Christian asceticism, and his attack on the “slave morality” of democratic egalitarianism, Nietzsche offered the radicals a method and language for critiquing an American life that they believed had not yet fulfilled its promise.

Playwrights, novelists and poets like George Cram Cook, Upton Sinclair, and Kahlil Gibran found in Nietzsche a romantic model of modern divinity after the “death of God”. Socialists including Max Eastman and Hubert Harrison enlisted Nietzsche’s theory of “slave morality” to challenge American capitalism, racism, and militaristic nationalism. The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks drew from Nietzsche as he criticized the tepid aesthetics of the American bourgeoisie, while self-identified pragmatists such as William English Walling and Walter Lippman turned to Nietzsche’s romantic instrumentalism as an antidote to modern drift. And figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, H.L. Mencken, and Ralph Bourne mined Nietzsche’s texts for his critique of Judeo-Christian asceticism and moral psychology as they attempted to come to terms with the lingering influence of Puritanism on modern American thought. They bewailed an infertile American culture that failed to nourish native intellect at its roots, and pointed to Nietzsche as an example of the kind of genius they believed America could never cultivate. Many years before members of this generation were “lost” in Europe, they felt at home in Nietzsche, and homeless in modern America.

The literary radicals had many uses for Nietzsche, but their broader aim was singular: Nietzsche helped them think about thinking in modern America. His new moral vocabulary enabled them to articulate their criticisms of and longing for American culture. His writings demonstrated the practical power a mighty pen could yield. And his ideas showed them the ecstasy and and agony of a world beyond the good and evil of their religious and moral inheritances. Nietzsche influenced them with both the intellectual life he theorized and the one he lived. Young intellectuals wrote extensively about his persona in an effort to come to terms with the perils and possibilities awaiting the oppositional intellect who longs for a footing in modern democratic culture while tearing up the ground beneath his feet.

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The greatest contribution of this book is the revelations it contains with respect to the debt that Friedrich Nietzsche himself owed to the American Author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nietzsche’s own notes, journals, letters and annotations are full of references to Emerson who he considered the greatest of modern genius. Many of Nietzsche’s works are eloquent re-phrasings of Emerson’s. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell pointed out, the entire passage in Genealogy of Morals in which Nietzsche lamented that “men of knowledge” are especially unknown to themselves because they are strangers to their own thinking dialogues intimately with Emerson’s essay “Experience”. Cavell cited a “circuit” of concerns between the two authors, finding in Nietzsche a direct “transcription of something Emerson means.”

It is amazing, and a somewhat mysterious irony: the extent to which American intellectuals, in the midst of a craze for Nietzsche that extends even to the most recent times, manage somehow, almost always, to “forget” Emerson.

1 comment:

  1. This is the first in a series I identify as Hospital Readings. Reports on the books I read while recuperating from liver transplant surgery in the Hospital and at a respite house in Boston