Illustration by Joon Mo Kang (New York Times)

In John Logan‘s play Red, one of the first topics discussed by the painter with his studio assistant is The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche. While Rothko waxes rhapsodic about the profundity of the ideas in the book he also takes time to brow beat his new assistant, a young artist, for never having read it. The arguments and insights as voiced by Rothko are still relevant and compelling to a 21st century audience, part of what makes the play so satisfying. And yes, the studio assistant does, in the course of time covered by the play, read the book for himself. Near the end he articulates his own take on its significance to his generation of artists. Nietzsche’s ideas have the ability to reformat as the pressure points in the culture change and morph.

So Nietzsche continues to be a vital force all these years later. Complex and complicated as a man and a thinker, his legacy still incites debate and multiple interpretations. A new book, American Nietzsche, by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, focuses specifically on the German philosopher’s imprint on American thinkers. Reviewed in the Times Book Review by Alexander Star, the book is a fascinating exploration of Nietzsche’s impact on the very particular drift of American culture. From the review:

Today’s inescapable and perplexing Nietzsche is not necessarily the same Nietzsche who inspired readers in the past…Though Nietzsche loathed the left, he was loved by it. As Ratner-Rosenhagen explains, the anarchists and “romantic radicals” as well as the “literary cosmopolitans of varying political persuasions” who welcomed him to America believed they had found the perfect manifestation of Emerson’s Poet, for whom a thought is “alive, . . . like the spirit of a plant or an animal.” To read Nietzsche was to overcome an entire civilization’s inhibiting divide between thinking and feeling. Isadora Duncan said he “ravished my being,” while both Jack London and Eugene O’Neill saw him as their Christ. Emma Goldman ended her romance with the Austrian anarchist Ed Brady because he didn’t appreciate the great author who had taken her to “undreamed-of heights.” For such readers, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” with its incantatory calls for a race of overmen to establish a new morality that would “remain faithful to the earth,” was the true Nietzsche. Thrilling to its rhapsodies, they felt confirmed in their judgment that pious, stultifying America was no place for a serious thinker. Ratner-Rosenhagen nicely writes, “Many years before members of this generation were ‘lost’ in Europe, they felt at home in Nietzsche, and homeless in modern America.”

Exploring the role Nietzsche played in the evolution of Emersonianism and postmodernism as well as the thinking of H. L. Mencken, Harold Bloom and Stanley Cavell is a worthy journey.

The final paragraph of the review captures an essence of his thinking that I have come back to again and again:

In a 1985 book “Nietzsche: Life as Literature,” the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas argued that Nietzsche’s perspectivism does not imply that all beliefs are equally valid but that “one’s beliefs are not, and need not be, true for everyone.” On this reading, to fully accept a set of beliefs is to accept the values and way of life that are bound up with it, and since there is no single way of life that is right for everyone, there may be no set of beliefs that is fit for everyone. At its best, American individualism is not about the aggrandizement of the self or the acquiescent assumption that everybody simply has a right to think what they want. Rather, it stresses that our convictions are our own, and should be held as seriously as any other possessions. Or, as Nietzsche imagined philosophers would one day say, “ ‘My judgment is my judgment’: no one else is easily entitled to it.”

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