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What Friedrich Nietzsche Did to America

January 18, 2012

Alexander Star in The NYT Book Review:

In 1889, when Friedrich Nietzsche suffered the mental collapse that ended his career, he was virtually unknown. Yet by the time of his death in 1900 at the age of 55, he had become the philosophical celebrity of his age. From Russia to America, admirers echoed his estimation of himself as a titanic figure who could alter the course of history: “I am by far the most terrible human being that has existed so far; this does not preclude the possibility that I shall be the most beneficial.”  (…)

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.

Though Nietzsche loathed the left, he was loved by it. As Ratner-Rosenhagen explains, the anarchists and “romantic radicals” as well as the “literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions” who welcomed him to America believed they had found the perfect manifestation of Emerson’s Poet, for whom a thought is “alive, . . . like the spirit of a plant or an animal.” To read Nietzsche was to overcome an entire civilization’s inhibiting divide between thinking and feeling.  [More]

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