What Friedrich Nietzsche Did to America

From The New York Times:

NietzcheThe “higher man” — or as Nietzsche sometimes called him, the “overman” or “Übermensch” — did not succumb to envy or long for the afterlife; rather he willed that his life on earth repeat itself over and over exactly as it was. In later works, Nietzsche wrote with continued brilliance and growing megalomania of his disdain for the common “herd,” the dangers of nihilism and the possibility that the will to power is the “Ur-fact of all history.” He spent his last stricken decade in the care of his mother and then his sister, a fervent anti-Semite who would put him in good standing with the German nationalists he despised. As Nietzsche faltered, his writings began to spread. Small circles of European radicals, literary aristocrats and misfits styled themselves apprentice Übermenschen, ready to fashion the new values the age demanded. The German aesthete Count Harry Kessler plotted to build a Nietzsche memorial in Weimar with a stadium, a temple and a statue; it would, he hoped, effect “the transposition of the personality of Nietzsche into a grand architectural formula” expressing “the unity of lightness, of joy and of power.” But if Nietzsche inspired rapture and devotion, he also puzzled and dismayed. A sickly recluse with impeccable manners, he praised cruelty and strength. He decried Christianity as “a crime against life” even as he claimed that it made man interesting for the first time, and he proposed that everything we know is merely a partial “perspective knowing” even as he composed some of the most categorical remarks ever made: “God is dead”; “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”; “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

From the start, Nietzsche’s American readers were bewitched and bedeviled. His hatred of Christian asceticism, middle-class sentimentality and democratic uplift was an assault on 19th-century America’s apparently most salient characteristics. For that very reason, he attracted young Americans who felt estranged from their culture, and has continued to do so. But today’s inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past; and it’s the achievement of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s “American Nietzsche” to show how that is the case.

More here.