Why does this kind of complacency about the Nietzschean challenge, the certainty that one can have one’s nihilism and eat it, feel so quintessentially American? One reason, American Nietzsche clarifies, is that Americans have been adept at taking from Nietzsche only those ideas that reinforce their own beliefs or political goals.
…In America, the readers most receptive to the idea of the Übermensch turn out to be the most lumpen of Untermenschen: the deluded, frustrated and envious—exactly the kind of people Nietzsche would have denounced as the herd. Thoughtful and educated Americans, on the other hand, usually managed to make Nietzsche the servant of their own purposes, no matter how different those purposes may have been from his own.
…Depending on how you look at it, there is something either pathetic or reassuring about America’s ability to learn from Nietzsche without becoming Nietzschean—or, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, to create a “philosophy that never abandons… humanistic promises.”
…The prospect that tomorrow may not bring pleasure and power, but in Nietzsche’s words “profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished” is—even in these days of recession and uncertainty—a notion as remote from American thought as from American experience.
On the one hand, I remind you again that Nietzsche himself famously said that one repays a teacher badly if one remains only a student, so the concept of an army of “Nietzschean” disciples may very well have made him throw up his hands in disgust in a Life of Brian moment. And as should be common knowledge by now, he disagreed fundamentally with the very notion of an internally consistent philosophy that contained absolute truths, saying, “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” He was more of a poet and an intellectual provocateur than a philosopher in the scholarly sense, so it makes sense that he would serve as a fertile source from whom all sorts of new perspectives might grow, rather than a top-down arbiter of truth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with making use of him for our own ends. Being a perennial spur to Dionysian creativity might very well be the way he would have been happiest to be remembered.
On the other hand, it’s true that there is a typically Myrrhkin trait of wanting to turn every fucking thing into a “teachable moment” in a slightly narcissistic quest for endless self-improvement, and in that sense, it’s true that many of them are being superficial and dishonest in refusing to seriously consider his affront to their buoyant progressive optimism.