image by imp kerr

America was once seduced by a violent, charming, but ultimately insane egotist with a distinctive mustache, a superiority complex, and a penchant for unabashed cruelty. Captivated by his mercurial flashes of comedy and brutal passion, and by the verve with which he quoted Italian, Americans were of two minds about his unapologetic domination of weaker, yet more moral, men; but his final undoing was brought on him, unexpectedly, by the woman we knew as his sister.

I refer, of course, to Kevin Kline’s Oscar-winning performance as “Otto” in A Fish Called Wanda. But it is also remarkable that this distinctively American comic villain should spend so much of his time on screen reading and quoting from the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. John Cleese’s screenplay depicts Otto, a buffoonish but egomaniacal ex-CIA killer who hates more than anything else to be called stupid, as a fervent Nietzschean, perfectly condensing a recognizable American type into a single broad stroke: Reading Nietzsche provides Otto both with a way to congratulate himself on his intelligence and with a programmatic justification of his amorality based on a presumed natural superiority to the people he torments, robs, and kills. And so Otto’s climactic dressing-down by Jamie Lee Curtis’s “Wanda” follows naturally:

OTTO: Don’t call me stupid.

WANDA: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?

OTTO: Apes don’t read philosophy.

WANDA: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.

The movie’s audience is let in on another important feature of Otto’s reading of Nietzsche here, even if we hadn’t gotten the joke far earlier: It is wrong. Animated by pure ressentiment while thinking himself an Übermensch, Otto has misread Nietzsche comprehensively at the same time as he thoroughly identified with him. For Otto as for so many other American readers, a seductive image of Nietzsche and a self-congratulatory “Nietzschean” pose have triumphed completely over the difficult process of reading what his texts actually say.

In America, that is, Nietzsche the smasher of idols has himself become an idol. This is the subject of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche — whose subtitle, appropriately enough, turns the iconoclast into an “icon,” and whose first chapter has nearly as much to say about that icon’s iconic mustache as it does about his ideas. It is neither a book about Nietzsche, nor one that would help us to interpret his work, except, perhaps, by accumulated negative example. And perhaps more surprisingly, neither is it purely about American “Nietzscheans,” at least in the narrow sense of self-identified, dogmatic followers. Instead it is a cultural history of the phenomenon that Ratner-Rosenhagen has aptly called “the Nietzsche image”: a chronicle of the places, often improbable, where Nietzsche’s name, texts, ideas, and/or mustache have appeared in American usage, and the ends, often similarly unlikely, which they have been made to serve. American Nietzsche is the story of a collection of Nietzsche fads ranging from the 1890s to the 1990s, an overlapping series of partial readings and misreadings, dogmatizations and popularizations, efforts to assimilate Nietzsche’s thought, to symptomatize it, or to reject it (and sometimes all three at once). From this perspective the “why” that appears, symptomatically, in the titles of so many volumes of recent Nietzsche scholarship — books like Why Nietzsche Now?, Why Nietzsche Still?, and Why We Are Not Nietzscheans — begin to seem less like a genuine philosophical question and more like an unanswerable demand, equivalent to asking for an explanation of any other fashion: Why unkempt mustaches now?

What treating intellectual history as fashion history in this way allows us to see with startling clarity is that in America, Nietzsche has never gone out of fashion. The landmarks of Nietzsche reading in America — H.L. Mencken’s jaundiced Olympian Darwinism, Walter Kaufmann’s proto-existentialist postwar recuperation, and the French-derived deconstructive “New Nietzsche” of the 1970s — turn out only to be the most memorable, not the only, versions of Nietzsche’s thought to have taken hold in the United States. As this reception history amply demonstrates, the only possible way to synthesize all of Nietzsche’s American incarnations is just to list them in all their irreconcilability:

Over the course of the century, progressives and anarchists, Christians and atheists, provincials and cosmopolitans, hawks and doves, academic scholars, and armchair philosophers discovered in Nietzsche a thinker to think with.

His thought was described alternately as materialistic, subjective, relativistic, positivistic, historicist, nominalistic, phenomenological, monistic, romantic, atheistic, immoralist, pragmatist, hedonistic, epicurean, ascetic, and stoic, and sometimes several of the above, even in the same discussion.

Or to put it another way, the central story told in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s history is really another, longer list, a roughly chronological sequence of Nietzsche images, each of which was determined, presumably, by its larger circumstances in American social, cultural, and intellectual history at least as much as by the works themselves. The form of interpretation of philosophy’s history that Nietzsche himself practiced — “the backward inference from the work to the maker, from the deed to the doer, from the ideal to those who need it, from every way of thinking and valuing to the commanding need behind it” — is difficult to bring to bear on this sequence of Nietzsche images while still retaining any focus on Nietzsche himself. If American Nietzsche sometimes reads like a prosified list, a capsule summary of each American who’s ever referred to Nietzsche, it’s hard to imagine what other form it could’ve taken. In any case, one interpretive conclusion is inescapable: Americans have seen largely what they wanted to see, and what they wanted to fear, in their readings of Nietzsche.


For the cosmopolitans of the 1890s Nietzsche was a modern, indeed proto-Modernist, harbinger of a future avant-garde. He was still an almost entirely extra-academic inspirational philosopher at this point; the 1890s Nietzsche vogue among German youth slowly brought him into fashion in the U.S. as an exotic import. Among the first American academics to recognize his importance, the idealist philosopher Josiah Royce argued for the intellectual value of Nietzsche’s self-contradictions, becoming the first of many to tag him with the famous line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Even in doing so, though, Royce half-missed how direct was the line of intellectual descent that connected the two, with both Whitman’s quip and so many of Nietzsche’s ideas deriving directly from each one’s passionate encounter with Emerson — indeed one of the most striking things about Nietzsche’s American reception is how late, and how partially still, the Emersonian connection has been made. Americans have recurrently found many of Emerson’s ideas seductively exotic when they returned home in German clothes. It’s only appropriate, then, that Ratner-Rosenhagen’s history both begins and ends with Emerson, the man we might call the one true “American Nietzsche.”

For many American Christian theologians of the 1910s and ’20s, Nietzsche was first and foremost the man who wrote “God is dead.” And so he became a favorite sparring partner and a usefully invigorating opponent of stale dogmas, even sometimes emerging, quite counterintuitively, as a “muscular” new prophet himself. But elsewhere in early 20th century America, Nietzsche was a role-model iconoclast rejecting established values, a guru of self-discovery, and an exemplary manifesto-writer, for “radicals” of various sorts, whether socialists, anarchists, or just aesthetic avant-gardists (Ratner-Rosenhagen is a lumper for left political categories, a splitter for the right). For readers from Rosa Luxemburg to Upton Sinclair to Kahlil Gibran, a bracing early encounter with Nietzsche served as a propaedeutic to radical self-determination. The Genealogy of Morals, especially, helped readers across the political spectrum to historicize and relativize moral codes, to become post-Victorian. So even quite against his will, Nietzsche gave some impetus to sexual liberation and to anarchist politics in American life; the revaluation of all values, for them, suggested novophilia of any stripe, a willingness to embrace change even for its own sake. If Nietzsche meant anything to these readers, he meant the difficult commitment moral self-determination: self-reliance, that most Emersonian virtue.

But in pre-1960s America, Nietzsche meant above all else — even above his association with Nazism — the idea of the “superman.”

The word would only be restored to the original Übermensch, even in the common parlance of academia, decades later.
In prewar America and through the 1950s, the “superman” did constant duty as a reduction of antidemocratic elitism, serving as a figure for every kind of egotism and antisocial behavior, as well as gaining currency as a word for the simply superior. Though Ratner-Rosenhagen does not remark on it, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics Man of Steel surely owes his name to the American language’s absorption of Nietzsche’s terminology; that which does not kill us makes us stronger, with the exception of Kryptonite. But the midcentury fascination with the terrifying idea of the Übermensch reached its extreme in Clarence Darrow’s defense of Nathan Leopold, one half of the notorious “Leopold and Loeb” murder case. Darrow claimed the seduction of Nietzsche as a major exculpating factor in the killing:

Nietzsche believed that sometime the superman would be born, that evolution was working toward the superman. He wrote one book which was a criticism of all moral codes as the world understands them — a treatise holding that the intelligent man is beyond good and evil, that the laws for good and the laws for evil do not apply to those who approach the superman. He wrote on the will to power. Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche. He may be the only one who was influenced in the way that he was influenced.…

Many of us read this philosophy but know that it has no actual application to life; but not he. It became a part of his being. It was his philosophy.…

Is there any question about what was responsible for him?…

Why should this boy’s life be bound up with Frederich Nietzsche, who died thirty years ago, insane, in Germany? I don’t know. I only know it is.

This argument, reworded and condensed, was also responsible for the other great Nietzschean of the silver screen: Jimmy Stewart’s performance as “Professor Rupert Cadell” in Hitchcock’s Rope, a fictionalization of the Leopold and Loeb case. But Stewart’s character was not just a fictionalized Darrow: he was the philosophy professor who taught the two boys about the superman. And so his confrontation with the killing committed by his students, in a stunning turn of stage-y Fifties didacticism, forces him to recant his Nietzschean doctrine:

Tonight you've made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. But I thank you for that shame, because now I know that we are each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare say that there's a superior few to which you belong?

Cadell’s sudden conversion from philosophical Nietzschean into the familiar Capra-movie Jimmy Stewart sermonizer is completely intellectually incoherent, of course, but it’s also representative of the American image of Nietzsche as an almost irresistibly seductive force for immorality. In both Rope and the original Darrow argument, Nietzsche is anti-socialism incarnate: He has a disturbing power to warp the young, not educating them in moral self-reliance but rather tricking them into substituting self-reliance for morality.

A different set of Nietzsche readings were adumbrated by the generation of German exiles of WWII, pedagogues, and thinkers wishing to recuperate a certain German philosophical tradition amid the European tragedy. For them Nietzsche was a crucial philosopher of modernity to be rescued from his status as a figurehead for Nazism, both in the Frankfurt School’s account as a pre-Freudian theorist of alienation and of the dark side of the Enlightenment, and in translator-popularizer Walter Kaufmann’s account as a forerunner of the existentialism fad, and a teacher of self-seeking and individual right living. Kaufmann’s translations of Nietzsche’s major works, complete with their didactic footnoting, are still ubiquitous in affordable paperback editions in America today, far more often read than any other English version. Kaufmann’s book on Nietzsche, his introductions, and his footnotes still exert far more control over Americans’ readings of Nietzsche than anyone else’s. It is, then, entirely fitting that Kaufmann is the subject of an entire chapter in American Nietzsche, which gives a thorough and very charitable account of his work, though Ratner-Rosenhagen’s defense is something of a recovery-job. While it’s true that criticizing Kaufmann as a translator and interpreter is perhaps too de rigueur these days in the academy, there are good reasons for this: The errors and distortions in the texts (as translator, he would occasionally omit a “not” in order to make a difficult passage less counterintuitive), the didactic oversimplification with which Kaufmann insisted on his own interpretations, along with his sometime simple-mindedness as a philosophical writer. Still, it is good to see Kaufmann’s tremendous accomplishment in reviving Nietzsche, much more than just a popularization, chronicled. Kaufmann, along with a few others like Arthur Danto, made it newly possible to claim that “Nietzsche make sense” among American readers, newly bringing him into dialogue with all the active philosophical traditions of the mid-century moment. If this still required Kaufmann to undertake the Sisyphean labor of smoothing over the interpretive difficulties inherent in reading Nietzsche, if it still required a lot of tacit simplifying of Nietzsche’s self-contradictions and performative strategies, then at least it wasn’t the first time.

The final images, the currently reigning American Nietzsches, make a neat pair of figures on the academic right and left, formed in the 1970s and ’80s. For the American readers who made postwar French philosophy into “theory,” the “New Nietzsche” was the beginning of a tradition of antifoundationalism, the man who decisively destroyed the metaphysical grounding of absolute truth and absolute morality. And for the conservatives on the other side of the same Kulturkampf, Nietzsche was the great philosopher of unapologetic, antidemocratic superiority; for Strauss and Fukuyama he was the first neoconservative, the lordly self forged by the Western philosophical canon. Paradoxically central to both the New Left and neoconservatism, deployed simultaneously in the service of antiauthoritarianism and a new “democratic” aristocracy, Nietzsche is still who he has always been in America: whatever his readers wanted. He still, somehow, contains all our multitudes.