I read “The overman: How Fredrich Nietzsche Inspired and Provoked His American Readers” in the Time Book Review of last week, and it has me thinking, as book reviews often do and Nietzsche always does. First off, I was wondering if you have to understand or agree with someone to write on a a subject? I know the philosophical journals will frown on it. However, the misreading could be as important and meaningful as a more grounded piece.
First off, much of what Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen inspired me to remember my undergraduate philosophy class. My mind was on fire and full of ideas, but like an impatient easybake cook, many were half baked. At that Time I was also taking Spanish lit and reading Jose Ortega y Gasset. I heard resonances between Nietszche and the Spanish philosopher in the review, though I don;t remember them from 89. Ortega y Gasset’s argument that The Masses were, essentially, spoiled and too self important, sounds a lot like the snippets of Nietzsche in the article. Though this seems to moderate the idea and suggest a way forward.
The true task of the overman was to overcome himself, not others, and to do so by sculpturing his impulses and thoughts and inheritances into a willed unity that could be called “style.” (11)
If I can keep this straight in my head, and it is getting messy with Cake playing in my ears waiting for the kids to wake, Nietzsche wants to celebrate anybody willing to step forward, in an almost transcendentalist gesture. Of course, he has been appropriated by all sides of most arguments, consciously or unconsciously. I guess this is the problem of paradox and relativism. Everything, in this world without absolutes, is a Rorschach test. We all fill the Nietsche stuffy with our own fluff. And, I guess this is what he would want. That we feel empowered to be our own “overmen.” Of course overmen who want to evangelize a particular view are fascists.
I was taken by her description of the nuance of “overmen” as opposed to the more common understanding. There is a good wiki page on this, here. What was most interesting for me was the links towards the end of the review on Nietzsche’s debt to Emerson:
the man [Nietzsche] himself regarded as “the most fertile author” of his century — Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, one can show that Emerson anticipated many of Nietzsche’s most famous utterances. There is a direct line from Emerson’s “oversoul” to the “overman.” Several decades before Nietzsche wrote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Emerson wrote, “In general, every evil to which we do not succumb, is a benefactor.” More profoundly, Emerson foreshadowed Nietzsche’s concern with the ubiquity of flux and power, and the value of overcoming the past. “Life only avails,” Emerson once wrote, “not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transitions from a past to a new state.”
I think it is clear that Nietzsce was a better writer, in a copy-writer sort of way, with more-ZING. I have to say Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil are much more fun to read than “Representative Man” and “Nature.” But as I think of it, I see a thread that a better writer than myself would be able to clearly argue. Nonetheless, all three philosophers state in paradoxical “find it for yourself” ways, how to look at the world with amusement and joy (albeit somewhat cynically). Emerson’s non-religious transcendentalism dovetails nicely with Nietzsce’s assassination of God (actually, a rejection of religion) and Ortega yGasset’s vilification of the capitalist deification of the (un-reflective) common man. Looking for goodness in structure might be the thread I was looking for. Order, while necessary, is highly over-rated and fits in with my distrust of centralization and mass-production (I have to post those haikus someday).