“We have here the peculiarly American way digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”
— Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.
Back in May, I did a segment of Silicon Graffiti which I punningly titled “Weimar? Because We Reich You,” exploring the rapid growth of interwar German culture — philosophy, aesthetics and technology — in postwar America. As I mentioned in the video, the precursor to the popularization of all things Germania was H.L. Mencken and his efforts to spread the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche far and wide amongst American intellectuals in the first half of the century.
The recent book American Nietzsche: a History of an Icon and His Ideas, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen explores the efforts of Mencken and other Americans to popularize Nietzsche, and it’s a pleasant enough read. Though in his review at City Journal (with a quote in his review from the same brilliant passage in Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind that also inspired my video and was quoted in a follow-up post to the video), Fred Siegel points some of the flaws and missing tangents in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, which as Siegel notes, soft-pedals many of Nietzsche’s darker influences on the culture of Europe and America:
Writing for [a 1914 edition of] The Atlantic in “The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,” Mencken celebrated Nietzsche as the inspiration for the new Germany, which was “contemptuous of weakness.” Mencken wrote that Germany was a “hard” nation with no patience for politics, because it was governed by the superior men of its “superbly efficient ruling caste.” “Germany,” he concluded, “becomes Nietzsche; Nietzsche becomes Germany.” Mencken approvingly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that “the weak and the botched must perish. . . . I tell you that a good war hallows every cause.”
Surely, in writing a book on Nietzsche’s reception in America, Ratner-Rosenhagen is duty-bound to respond to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s well-regarded 1970 New York Review of Books essay, “The Gentle Nietzscheans.” Yet she ignores this, too. O’Brien tellingly quotes from Nietzsche’s posthumously published The Will to Power on the “annihilation of decaying races.” “The great majority of men,” Nietzsche wrote, “have no right to existence, but are a misfortune to higher men. . . . There are also peoples that are failures.” This was an argument that appealed to supporters of eugenics as well as to the Nazis. Walter Kaufmann explained it away by noting that Nietzsche hadn’t mentioned the Jews and Poles directly.
Moving into the contemporary era, Ratner-Rosenhagen cites, apparently without irony, the postmodernist literary critic Paul de Man and the Black Panther Huey Newton as examples of people who put Nietzsche to good use in liberating, respectively, literature and African-Americans from outdated prejudices. She declines to mention de Man’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. As for Newton, who thought of himself as a superman of sorts, the question is: did he murder three innocents? Or was it four, or five?