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American Idol: On Nietzsche in America

(Original review by Ross Posnock at The Nation.com...)

“Beware 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.” Ralph Waldo Emerson published these words of warning in 1841, and they can be read as both self-description and prophecy. Self-description because they occur in the essay “Circles,” one of the most dazzling bursts of American prose ever written, a hymn to a fact exhilarating and terrifying—that “nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.” The risk of conflagration erupts in the rhythm of Emerson’s thought and the pulse of his writing, evoking a world of “sliding” surfaces, of “whims” and “experiment,” of “surprises” and “abandonment,” where “permanence is but a word of degrees,” the essay slowing down just long enough to make a culminating statement that offers no anchorage: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Emerson had already tailored his actions to his words, having resigned from the ministry a few years earlier and chosen a life of unsettlement as a freelance lecturer and writer.

His warning to beware when “God lets loose a thinker” was borne out thirty-three years later, when a 30-year-old German academic quoted it in his autobiographical essay “Schopenhauer as Educator” to inspire his own act of liberation from settled routine. Friedrich Nietzsche would soon leave his Basel professorship in philology for the wanderings of a free spirit, making philosophy a way of life, as it had been for the ancients and the sage of Concord. Nietzsche had been reading and revering Emerson (in translation) since 1862, finding his words so intimate and penetrating that he couldn’t praise them: they are “too close to me,” he confessed. Born from this union—one of the most significant acts of transatlantic cross-fertilization in Western intellectual history—was “the enfant terrible of modernism,” the “epitome” of its unsettling spirit, to borrow the words of an early commentator. There was no turning back: “Where once the moral life was couched in terms of foundations, now, ‘after Nietzsche,’ thinkers and writers imagined it as life on the open sea.” “Beware,” Emerson had warned..."


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(Deleted comment)
Nov. 5th, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
I like the un-selfconscious irony of an American writing such a glowing (and mildly defensive) review of a book on the influence of Nietzsche on American thinking. It tickles me.
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