site author: Anthony Wheeler email: firstname.lastname@example.org
I just finished reading American Nietzsche, and would like to provide a response, hopefully one you will appreciate. As an American reader of Nietzsche, I was fascinated by your intellectual history of his trans-Atlantic journey, and admire your exploration of this fascinating topic.
My response will include the following: an outline of my encounter with Nietzsche, necessary to provide context for my later assertions; a few comments on the American thinkers you discuss (Kaufmann, Rorty, Harold and Allan Bloom, specifically); and finally my principle point, that you failed to mention, let alone discuss, the most Nietzschean of all American intellectuals, the person who had, in my judgment, the most significant and lasting impact on non-academic American culture. I found the absence interesting and worthy of comment.
As for my encounter with Nietzsche, it begins in a way you may find ironic: in 1992 I read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I didn’t understand Bloom’s argument because I didn’t know anything about Nietzsche at the time (or Heidegger – another irony, as in my effort to learn more about Heidegger, I picked up George Steiner’s book on the thinker, and after reading it, turned to Steiner and away from Heidegger, and have since read everything George Steiner has published) so I immediately read Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morals, and Zarathustra, none of which left a deep impression. While I found the books interesting and meaningful (except for Zarathustra – I understood very little of it) I didn’t grasp the essential power of Nietzsche’s thought. Until I read Kaufmann.
It’s still 1992 when I finished Kaufmann’s Nietzsche. That book had the same impact on me in the 1990’s that you described it had on American’s beginning in the 1950’s. It brought Nietzsche’s thought into focus for me, and allowed me to read the rest of his work with great satisfaction. I actually saved Daybreak for years, holding off the last of his work until earlier this year, when I read it and marveled once again at the endless depth and breadth of the man’s mind. Despite the controversial genesis and editing of Nietzsche’s Will to Power, encountering that work in 1996 was the most powerful and influential intellectual experience of my life.
In addition to Kaufmann’s work on Nietzsche, I have read many other book-length treatments of the philosopher, including (in no particular order):
And finally, just a few months ago, Curtis Cate’s biography of Nietzsche. Finishing his work left an intellectual hunger to learn what happened next, in terms of Nietzsche’s intellectual legacy. American Nietzsche perfectly satisfied that desire.
You assert that Kaufmann softened many of Nietzsche’s rough edges, perhaps created a Nietzsche better suited for popular consumption. You may be right. I haven’t re-read his book since 1992, and when I do, it’s quite possible I will find myself at odds with his interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought, now that I have encountered all of it firsthand. (That happened when I re-read Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Understanding his argument left me unconvinced and not terribly impressed.) But in very important ways, it doesn’t matter. I realize that academics and intellectual historians must engage in arguments concerning ‘genuine meanings’, ‘priorities,’ ‘proper interpretations,’ and ‘final positions,’ but readers like me don’t care. Nietzsche can be used and mis-used in infinite ways. His expressions demand response, and the reader will respond in ways particular to his/her mind-set and cultural/historical surround. Sure, I think (that is, I think that I know) that Nietzsche cannot legitimately be used to support National Socialism (he would never uphold any herd, regardless of how noble) but that doesn’t mean phrases of his can’t be mined to do exactly that. I read him as an anti-anti-Semite, in part based on his many comments openly admiring Jews, along with pointed criticism of the German Volk. He writes as a European, in my opinion, but arguments can easily be made to make him appear more Germanic. His words often scream of violence and drip blood red. You can argue that he writes in metaphor, and doesn’t really mean war (violent clashes between masses of deadly-armed men) when he writes the word Krieg, but instead, conflict internal to the individual. But the words are there, on the page, to be embraced by one sort of mind or another.
As an independent, individual, non-academic thinker, it doesn’t matter to me. I can take or leave any aspect of Nietzsche’s thought (or anyone else’s) I please. I can make of it what I will. That’s one of the things I learned from Nietzsche. As you quote Harold Bloom to say, “…I will consider what Nietzsche has done, and goes on doing, for me.” Exactly.
Having encountered and appreciated Emerson and Mencken prior to reading Nietzsche, I found the connections you made between them satisfying, creating for me pleasant moments where I whispered to myself (pace Montaigne) ‘Ah, that is so.’ Richard Rorty, not so much.
I never discerned a trace of Nietzsche in Rorty, so I will have to trust your academic judgment that it’s there. In my opinion, Nietzsche’s fundamental thinking diverges considerably from Rorty’s (or James’) Pragmatism. Almost the opposite, with little or nothing in common. Different ball parks, even.
We are all pragmatists. We don’t consider evolutionary implications when we eat a sandwich; we eat ‘cause we’re hungry. We don’t conduct philosophical debates when we stop at a red light; we stop so we don’t crash.
Pragmatism is to philosophy what engineering is to physics. The theoretical physicist attempts to understand the fundamental nature of nature; the engineer builds bridges. A pragmatic philosopher may support belief in a supreme being (‘the will to believe’, James called it) in order to improve one’s life, even when such a belief has no metaphysical or empirical foundations. The genuine philosopher thinks true regardless of consequences, no matter how painful authentic thinking may prove. This Nietzsche teaches. Not safe, comfortable ‘Truth’, but painful, difficult, ugly life and struggle to genuine understanding. Nietzsche descends deeper, and flies higher than any other thinker in the Western tradition. He blows holes in stale aging walls so that others may actually attempt to breach them; he builds bridges of understanding to far off cliffs, ones he invites us to transverse and then to climb. He doesn’t offer answers or fixed positions, but instead, a bracing confidence to explore new intellectual territories and to create modes that never before existed.
It’s true that most of us will never achieve anything of note. But it’s a way of living, a demand to critically assess all received values, challenge every inculcated truth, a way to think as independently as possible, that ultimately offers endless possibility. Besides, once a thinker discovers Nietzsche’s essence, it’s impossible to un-know it, in the same way you can never retrieve the ancient air from a broken vessel. It’s gone, in the same way Nietzsche’s truth never is, once it becomes embedded in one’s mind.
On the other hand, philosophical pragmatism is giving up. Admitting/assuming the truly difficult questions simply can’t be answered, or honestly faced, so let’s just go with something that will ease the pain, make life’s journey a bit more comfortable.
But there is a prominent American thinker/writer/philosopher you haven’t considered, one that genuinely ‘revalued all values’, who attempted to bring to literary life a genuine ‘ubermensch’ (while actually depicting literature’s greatest uberfrau), who explicitly and stridently challenged American morals and values with a vision of her own, the philosopher/novelist Ayn Rand.
Not to say she was entirely successful, or that what she expressed was necessarily ‘true’ (whatever that means), but only that she did what any genuine disciple of Nietzsche would do: she created an original heroic vision of what man could be, and expressed that vision in powerful literary prose.
I would assert that her influence far exceeds the Blooms, Mencken or Rorty, and stands second only to Kaufmann in bringing Nietzsche’s fundamental influence to America. For example, her novel Atlas Shrugged ranks second in influence only to the bible in this country, based on a survey done in 1991. On the reader’s list of top 100 books written in English in the 20th Century, Rand’s novels rank #1 (Altas Shrugged), #2 (The Fountainhead), #7 (Anthem) and #8 (We the Living).
As far as Rand’s relationship to Nietzsche, she originally encountered him as a young woman in St. Petersburg prior to emigrating to the US in the 20’s. Later in life she vehemently denied his influence on her thinking, but it’s obviously there. (And that provokes the question between influence and confluence – does it really matter? She found a kindred soul in Nietzsche, and who can tell, even herself, what impact that powerful soul ultimately had on her own?)
Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind explicitly provides the connection between Nietzsche and Rand when he writes:
There is always a girl* who mentions Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a book, although hardly literature, which, with its sub-Nietzschean assertiveness, excites somewhat eccentric youngsters to a new way of life.
Anne Heller further documents Rand’s encounter with Nietzsche in her biography, Ayn Rand and the World She Made. For example:
It was Vera who, while reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, remarked that Rand reminded her of Zarathustra, the German philosopher’s prophetic outlaw hero, or at least that Nietzsche had “beat me to all my ideas,” Rand recalled.
Heller offers several philosophical links between Rand and Nietzsche, including the following:
Heller also indicates where Rand begins to diverge from Nietzsche, the inevitable overcoming necessary for every genuine Nietzschean:
Rand intended Wynand to be the book’s great tragic figure: a Nietzschean antihero who allows the weakling Toohey to destroy his empire because he misunderstands the nature of power. In fact, his character was partly her critique of Nietzsche’s will to power; although she, like Nietzsche, still held the masses in contempt, she no longer believed in dominating or forcing them.
So Heller reads Nietzsche as a philosopher who would employ violent force against others:
Roark, on the other hand, needs no power other than his own dynamic drive to create and build. Never does he suggest that the masses are there to serve him, as … Nietzsche [does].
This is interesting, because I don’t read Nietzsche in this way, but I certainly can understand the case that can be made for those who do. Political philosophy is of particular interest to me, and I am sensitive to overt political statements, and Nietzsche expressed very few. Various political philosophies can be derived from his books (you documented the tremendous range they can take), but if I had to choose a particular political philosophy that best fits Nietzsche’s words, based on my overall impression, I would go with Emma Goldman’s Anarchism. While it requires a stroll along very thin ice towards the uncertain center of the partially frozen lake known as Nietzsche’s written thought, I would assert that the living Nietzsche would never extol a nation state to commit unnecessary violence against anyone, or casually go to war. When push came to violent shove, I suspect Nietzsche would back away from the policies needed to violently mold a group of people in one way or another, especially after his war experience. But that’s just my un-researched impression.
As for Rand, you need to know that I am not a Rand apologist, that I do not subscribe to her dogma known as Objectivism, and that my second (unpublished) novel was in many ways a literary refutation of her philosophy. I consider Objectivism an ideology not unlike Marxism or Christianity (not in terms of specific dogma, but in terms of scope and intent). One could adopt Objectivism for pragmatic reasons, to serve as a guide for someone unwilling to think for themselves. But in terms of philosophy, I believe Rand stops short of reaching any new depths, or creating new insights. She failed to effectively engage other thinkers, or explore the inevitable weaknesses in her system. It’s impossible for an Objectivist to go beyond her thinking, as she answers all questions, solves all of life’s riddles, and scorns any who fail to adopt her system in its entirety. Yet her epistemology fails to consider what we have learned about the human mind, and how it actually functions. Metaphysically, she considers the universe ‘benevolent’, when in fact, it’s brutally neutral. She builds her ethics from a base assumption that ‘life’ is good, and anything that supports life is good as well. Her definition of art is uncharacteristically imprecise, and open to obvious criticism. She never treats language as problematic, when it is frighteningly so. The only part of her intellectual structure that remains completely intact (for me) is her political philosophy, one based on the following principle:
Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.
Violence can only be used in self-defense, and only against those who initiate it:
It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction. A holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man. I seek no values by means of evil, nor do I surrender my values to evil.
Despite my critique of her ideology, I consider Ayn Rand worthy of serious consideration, both as a philosopher and a novelist. She creatively criticized American culture with refreshing originality, yet gets disrespected, or largely ignored by academic intellectuals (witness American Nietzsche).
While I wouldn’t place Rand in the first rank of Western thinkers (Plato, Newton, Nietzsche, for instance), she certainly stands solidly in the second, and near the top of any list of American intellectuals. When I do a brief survey of the modern thinkers I consider creative and original, ones that prompted me to think in new ways, the list comes out something like this:
Ayn Rand’s name belongs on this list. (And note how few pure non-Jewish Americans: Kaufmann and Steiner are actually refuges from Nazi Germany, and Rand was born Russian. And so many European Jews: Arendt, Benjamin, Rand, Kaufmann, Steiner, Wittgenstein...)
I am familiar with many other thinkers (Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, for instance) but find them largely un-rewarding. When I read something of Walter Benjamin or Wittgenstein I don’t understand, I blame myself, and my intellectual inability to grasp their significance. On the other hand, when I read Heidegger or Derrida and don’t understand, I blame them, either for poor writing and/or shallow/muddled/unoriginal thinking. When I read Foucault, I find myself asking, ‘So what?’
As I write this letter, it strikes me as odd that I would be so interested in these thinkers, and interested enough, and bold enough, to send this letter to you. As a middle-aged straight white American male with two full-grown daughters and having earned a BA in Asian Studies and an MBA in International Business, currently the owner and operator of a small Inn in the Adirondacks, and formerly an executive within telecom, with no known Jewish blood and the closest European ancestor my German maternal grandfather who died the year I was born, I offer no explanation. (Sometimes I wonder why EVERYBODY doesn’t read what I read, so compelling and important I believe it to be.) I read what interests me the most. When I encounter a highly regarded thinker I don’t understand (Nietzsche, Heidegger, for instance), I work hard until I think I do, or decide any further effort a waste. That effort generally leads me to another source, one I will explore until it grows stale. And so on.
Reading American Nietzsche was of particular interest as I discovered that I discovered Nietzsche in the same way many Americans did. And then to learn the impact Allan Bloom’s book had on the popular culture was fascinating (and in my case, ironic, as it led me directly to Nietzsche). I admit I didn’t discern Nietzsche’s importance to Harold Bloom when I read his work, but in hindsight, it makes sense. Harold Bloom celebrated what he found great in literature, and asserted that one reads to confront greatness (I think those are his exact words). He wrote against the critical tide, one that wished to drag humanity through lower muddy depths of human experience. This is how Rand described what Harold Bloom resisted:
The composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets, who emits inarticulate sounds resembling snarls and moans, who crawls through a bloody muck, red froth dripping from his jaws, and struggles to throw the froth at his own non-existent face, who pauses periodically and, lifting the stumps of his arms, screams in abysmal terror at the universe at large.
These aren’t Rand’s finest words, but they are characteristic of her uncompromising, Nietzschean intellectual spirit.
Powerful affinities exist between Nietzsche and Rand. Modern American culture has been significantly impacted by the fiction and non-fiction of Ayn Rand. That being the case, if you publish another edition of American Nietzsche, I highly recommend you include Ayn Rand in your intellectual history.
With warmest regards,