the Nietzsche effect
The 2012 release of American Nietzsche by University of Wisconsin Madison History professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen adds a rich new layer of scholarship to the life and work of modernity’s most volatile philosopher. The Nietzsche we meet in the early pages of this book is not simply the upstart hooligan of brash ideas against Christianity and late Western morality in toto, but before then a rare kindred spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, among America’s greatest and most original reflective voices. In this book readers learn that young Nietzsche deeply revered Emerson and we see photographic evidence that his encounter with Emerson involved overflowing marginal notes in all personal copies of his work.
But these Emersonian origins for Nietzche’s mammoth mission in Philosophy are not the primary reason for including the word American in the title of this book. The majority of the chapters center, instead, on how Nietzsche influenced American thinking, not how American thinking influenced him. Ratner-Rosenhagen takes us on a sweeping tour of Nietzsche’s critical reception in America by every kind of reader from theologians to pulp fans. We follow Nietzsche’s impact on American thinking from his first days of publication, through the sudden termination of his career and sanity, through his isolated death in 1900, and into the intellectual upheavals and wipe outs of the 20th century, many his offspring.
It becomes painstakingly clear on this journey that Nietzsche sent shock waves of every kind into the heart of the American experience, consistently forcing it to reckon with its own needs, limitations, and hypocrisies. Time and again the reader encounters electrified examples of how unrelated readers yearned for some aspects of Nietzsche’s message, yearned against other aspects, and frequently struggled to make universal sense of the message at all, never reaching easy consensus. The Nietzsche who distills out of this treatment is the quintessential version: challenger, motivator, hero, hellion, and icon. Ratner-Rosenhagen aptly notes that the common factor in all encounters with the explosive work of Friedrich Nietzsche by thinking Americans is that for all of them it became undeniably personal.
As if true in secondary form, that effect occurred for me also while reading this book. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s detailed examination of what mattered to Americans and to what ends they employed, resonated, and objected to Nietzsche made for lively reading, as if inviting me into the same situation. I found myself taking a deeper interest in the fact of being interested in Nietzsche at all, and about what my interest in him reflected about my position in the world as a reader and an American. In fact, after finishing this book, I have a new urge to coin a phrase about Nietzsche, all credit for the assist to Ratner-Rosenhagen. My new phrase is “the Nietzsche effect” and its primary meaning is that Nietzsche brings forward the urgent philosopher in all of us. If for no other reason, reading this book is worthwhile if only to better inhabit yours.
But for the intellectually curious, I also recommend it as a profoundly informative rhapsody on the philosophical stakes of defining America and the nature of Meaning across the revolutionary historical expanse of the 20th century. The book clarifies in many ways how deeply embedded Nietzsche is in the intellectual and spiritual trajectory of the species at present, a fact of which he was well aware, far in advance of full recognition of it by anyone else, coloring his self-assessments as outrageously egomaniacal , bombastic, and strange. Still: he was right! Nietzsche first called out the moral and creative decline of the human spirit under the influence of stale institutions whose secret agenda is a universal will to power. In many ways, this revelation dovetailed well with the American quest for personal liberty, even when confronting it for its gall or lack of gall. This book illuminates that process.