A few pages from the prologue of American Nietzsche. If you ever asked yourself how Nietzsche happened, how the “mad, mustachioed Teutonic philosopher of the hammer” ever found his way to our cultural bloodstream. This is the book for you.
“American Nietzsche is neither a biography nor a formal analysis of philosophical concepts. Professor Ratner-Rosenhagen is a historian, and the subject of her book is presented through the lens of her discipline. It is, in short, an insightful and skillfully written treatment of the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas and image on American culture. Refreshingly, I detected no axes being ground, no hidden agendas skulking in the shadows. The author has simply identified an important story that needed to be told, and has done so in a thorough, well-organized, and interesting manner. Whatever your level of familiarity with Nietzsche the person or his work, or your opinions about either, if you have an interest in the events, ideas, and people that shaped 20th century American culture then you will very likely find this book engaging.”
And so it was that in 1862 Nietzsche discovered in Emerson a thinker to think with. While the American author impressed on his young German pupil that the life of the philosopher is a life on the open sea, he also taught him that no other thinker can tell him where he’s heading or where to find firm land. He simply works by “provocation” along the way.
And provoke Nietzsche, Emerson did. Nietzsche continued to read Emerson intensively throughout 1863, later noting that of all the books he “read the most,” Emerson’s topped the lists” And this was just the beginning. From the age of seventeen up until his mental breakdown at the age of forty-four; from his days as a gymnasium student through his graduate studies, his professorship, and then his years as an itinerant writer; and from the safe harbor of Christian faith to the tumultuous seas of indeterminacy, Friedrich Nietzsche turned repeatedly to Emerson, who then pushed him forward. In time, many others would propel Nietzsche’s thinking — Plato, Kant, Goethe, Lange, Schopenhauer, and Wagner — but none survived his penchant for slaying his own intellectual gods.
He never sought to slay Emerson, however; the enthusiasm he expressed for him as a teenager reappeared in his essays, journals, and letters, over the course of his entire intellectual career. Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche was unmistakable even to Nietzsche himself. As he thought about himself while writing an early draft of his autobiography, he couldn’t help but think of Emerson. Indeed, it was a rereading of Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws” (1841) that suggested “Ecce Homo” as an appropriate title for his autobiography.” As he reflected on his intellectual path, he couldn’t help but reflect warmly on Emerson’s company along the way: “Emerson, with his Essays, has been a good friend and someone who has cheered me up even in dark times: he possesses so much skepsis, so many’possibilities,’that with him even virtue becomes spiritual.”
Yet Nietzsche’s ideas are not carbon copies of Emerson’s. If they were, his uses of Emerson would be a lot less interesting than they are. The sheer fact that he read Emerson in translation reminds us that Nietzsche had a lifelong relationship with a highly mediated Emerson. Even accounting for linguistic variations, though, the similarities are striking enough that the additional awareness that Nietzsche “loved Emerson from first to last,” as Walter Kaufmann put it, has made many, like Kaufmann himself, insist that nevertheless, “one would never mistake a whole page of Emerson for a page of Nietzsche.”
Perhaps. One might take Kaufmann up on the challenge and place a Nietzschequotation, image, or broad concern alongside its Emersonian counterpart and see how easy or difficult it is to drive a wedge between the two. One could juxtapose their criticism of barren scholarship; their concern that excessive reverence for the past makes us “fatalists,” as Emerson believed, and makes the past our “gravedigger,” as Nietzsche had; or their anxiety over belatedness, which fostered a longing in Emerson to be “born again,” and a fear in Nietzsche of being “late-born.” One could examine how both authors expressed an abiding interest in power. While Emerson averred that “life is a search after power,” Nietzsche came to believe that “life simply is will to power.’” Both emphasized a conception of power as something striving, pressing onward.
For Emerson, “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a last to a new state.” Nietzsche celebrated “plastic power,”which he described as, “the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken molds.”
It might be of no consequence that Nietzsche was rereading Emerson in 1881-82 while preparing The Gay ,Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85). What is noteworthy, nonetheless, is the philosophers’ shared aversion to the view of revelation as something historical, rather than ongoing, and to any belief in a divinity outside the self. Emerson believed this created a bankrupt spirituality, “as if God were dead,” to which Nietzsche had his madman announce in the affirmative that “God is dead.”
Someone well versed in Emerson and Nietzsche might never mistake Emerson’s line from “Compensation, “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb, is a benefactor,” with Nietzsche’s from Twilight of the Idols, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” But at least it is worth noting that Emerson’s line in Nietzsche’s personal copy is heavily underlined.
Whether we look for affinities or influences, the parallels between Emerson and Nietzsche mount. But we miss what Emerson meant to Nietzsche if we fail to consider how Nietzsche used Emerson not to get closer to him but to get closer to himself. For Nietzsche, Emerson provided an image of the philosopher willing to go it alone without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.
As Nietzsche made his way from spiritually-adrift teenager, to philology professor, to freelance philosopher, Emerson’s image of the philosopher, and his approach to philosophy as a way of life, proved essential to his self-definition. Emerson gave Nietzsche a way of describing himself to himself, as we see in his letter of 1866 to an old friend, Carl von Gersdorff. In it, Nietzsche dreamily imagined himself” as Emerson so excellently describes [it] … pure, contemplative, impartial eye.”
It was Emerson who imparted to Nietzsche the image of philosophy as a spirit of play, laughter, and dancing. Nietzsche repeatedly employed this image of levity and joyousness when he considered his own thinking. In the aphorism “Learning to think,” Nietzsche complained, “our schools no longer have any idea what this means…. Thinking has to be learned.. . as a form of dancing…. Who among Germans still knows from experience that subtle thrill … of intellectual light feet”
It was Emerson’s characterization of the liberated thinker as “intellectual nomad” that helped Nietzsche to imagine himself as a “free spirit” in a quest for truths of his own making.” Likewise it was Emerson who impressed on Nietzsche the power of the oppositional intellect to make the world anew. “Let an American tell them what a great thinker who arrives on this earth signifies as a new centre of tremendous forces,” affirmed Nietzsche in “Schopenhauer as Educator” (1874). Quoting this American’s essay “Circles” (1841), Nietzsche affirmed, “Beware,’ says Emerson, “when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.”
But of all the uses Nietzsche had for Emerson, it was his notion that a philosopher without foundations works by provocation, not instruction, as an “exemplar,” not a guide, which most vividly suggested to Nietzsche the possibilities of his own philosophy. The philosopher is useful insofar as he helps carry one to one’s self. “No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone,” Nietzsche insisted. “There exists in the world a single path along which no one can go except you: whither does it lead? Do not ask, go along it.”
Nietzsche found confirmation in another quotation from Emerson’s “Circles”: “A man never rises higher than when he does not know whither his path [will] lead him.” If Emerson sent Nietzsche on the path of philosophy without absolutes, on a path to become who he was, he also reminded him that he would not be waiting for him upon his arrival.
Throughout the 1880s Nietzsche sent manuscript after manuscript to his publisher, and his publisher, in turn, sent them off as books to a German reading public as yet indifferent to his ideas. Nietzsche never forgave his German contemporaries for leaving him in the lurch. Undaunted, he spent most of the final year of his productive intellectual life, though struggling with illness, swept up in a euphoric mood. It was during what would become his final sprint of productivity that a third fan letter arrived from America, this time from Karl Knortz, a Prussian-born freelance writer in New York, who wrote to express his admiration for Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche now had reason to believe that the praise it contained truly signaled that his dawn was finally breaking, for just a few months earlier the prominent Danish literary critic Georg Brandes had delivered a series of high-profile lectures on him in Copenhagen, at long last drawing attention to his genius. In his letter, Knortz, a translator of American authors into German and a promoter of German literature for American readers, also relayed his desire to promote Nietzsche to American audiences.
But in order to do that, Knortz would need Nietzsche’s help. So he asked the German author for a description of himself and a characterization of his oeuvre. Nietzsche gladly obliged. In a letter of reply dated June 21, i888, he sketched a portrait of his work and himself for his would-be American audience:
The task of giving you some picture of myself, as a thinker, or as a writer and poet, seems to me extraordinarily difficult…. The thought of advertising myself is utterly alien to me personally; I have not lifted a finger with that end in view. Of my Zarathustra, I tend to think that it is the profoundest work in the German tongue, also the most perfect in its language. But for others to feel this will require whole generations to catch up with the inner experiences from which that work could arise.”
Nietzsche may have thought that his philosophy awaited an audience of readers yet unborn, but given Knortz’s enthusiasm, he had reason to suspect that he might first find that audience in America. In a letter to his publisher asking for his assistance in facilitating Knortz’s propaganda, he speculated about the value of securing a readership across the Atlantic. “In principle all my experiences show that my influence begins on the periphery and only from there will the currents ripple back to the `Fatherland.” That summer, Nietzsche sent off a flurry of letters to friends telling them that he had “admirers in North America.” Soon Americans would learn, he enthused, that “I am the most independent spirit of Europe and the only German writer — that’s something! — .”n
Though Nietzsche liked the image of himself as an intellectual nomad, and though he long ago decided that the thinker without foundations must go not only without compass or guide, but also without a final destination, his desire for freedom never fully subdued his longing for an intellectual home. He knew from his own experiences that a feeling of refuge — while fleeting — is necessary even for the free spirit. He likewise knew from his own experiences reading Emerson that sometimes it is abroad that the aboriginal intellect finds a home.
A home in America for Nietzsche’s philosophy? After almost three decades with Emerson’s writings, the prospect seemed likely indeed. After all, it was America that had created the thinker with whom he thought as he came to terms with himself and his world. It was the American Emerson who showed Nietzsche the possibilities of thought beyond the good and evil of Christian piety.
It was the American Emerson who critiqued sterile ideas and made philosophy a friend to life. It was the American Emerson who understood that philosophical inquiry in a world without absolutes works by example and provocation only. And it was the American Emerson who Nietzsche believed never could have been produced within the suffocating philistinism of his native German culture. Nietzsche did not know much about America, but he did know — or at least he believed — that with one exception (himself), Germany could never have given birth to such a dynamic thinker. He summed up his feelings for Emerson this way: “Emerson. Never have I felt so much at home in a book, and in my home as — I shouldn’t praise it, it is too close to me.
Nietzsche understood what it meant to travel imaginatively through time and space in order to find a thinker to think with. Just as he had to travel to the mental and moral world of a mid-nineteenth-century American philosopher enroute to himself, twentieth-century American readers would now turn to him for the same. They would look across the Atlantic for an example of the perils and possibilities of the aboriginal intellect. They would look to a nineteenth-century German thinker in order to feel at home.