Nietzsche Among the English

It is unfortunately common that when I tell people of my studies of Friedrich Nietzsche one of the first things that they mention is his decent into apparent insanity, then his use by the Nazis, his favour among angst-ridden teenagers and finally his association with a collection of murders. For better or for worse I have made of these exchanges a certain kind of explanatory performance, and yet the question of the murders still largely escapes my comprehension. I suspect, however, that it has less to do with Nietzsche than with how he was translated and received by the English speaking world.

The English speaking world has historically had the most abhorrent reactions to his writings. From the sordid case of Leopold and Loeb, the murderers from the University of Chicago to Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Canadians Atif Rafay and Sebastian Burns, and the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona, unhinged and unstable anglophones have claimed him as their bloody muse, or else panicked and pained commentators have sought to attach him to the crimes by way of some shaky explanation.

With some delay, in the nineteenth century Nietzsche’s writings appeared in English to fascination, confusion and no small amount of outrage, an outrage which was in no ways mollified by the editing and commentary of one on Nietzsche’s early translators, the aristocratic apologist Thomas Common (1850-1919).

In 1989 Alfred Russel Wallace condemned Nietzsche’s views of morality as narrated by Common for its element of “social darwinism”:

But perhaps the most erroneous and most vicious of Nietzsche’s principles, according to Mr. Common, is that enunciated in the last sentence of (5)–“And it is still more absurd to advocate, . . . that the inferior class should be allowed to breed like vermin, and that their spawn should be supported at the cost of the better classes.”

Yet questions of translation, editing, and commentary cannot account for the grisly wreckage. Even in Germany, Nietzsche’s posthumous reputation was fed into the more virulent channels of eugenics and nationalism, edited and arranged by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as she courted first the Kaiser’s and then the Nazi’s support. Indeed, the claim belief that there is something inherently fascist in Nietzsche’s thought is not born out by the wide spectrum of political thinkers who would like to claim him as an ancestor, and to reject him for this particular appropriation is to likewise reject Darwin, the Bible, Shakespeare and every other cultural resource that any opportunistic individual or regime could use to bolster its own authority. In this regard, the particular cases of violent appropriation are much more difficult to understand than the larger, national ones. Though they are of a kind.

I have been unable to find any indication outside of the English speaking world of similarly inspired crimes as those of Leopold and Loeb, and it seems to me as if a combination of alienated, intellectually inclined youth and a culture of violence in the context of a particularly English tradition of reading Nietzsche is the closest explanation that can be found. Many people shake their heads, and say that those inclined to violence will find justification in any way they can, and this remains the case, yet it is also true that that which has the greatest power over us must have it for good and for ill.

The only other option is to create nothing great at all, and even then the answer is at best uncertain as to whether or not it can assuage the erratic blood lusts of the human animal.

For More Information:

Gilman, Sander L. The Nietzsche Murder Case. In New Literary History Vol. 14, No. 2, On Convention: II (Winter, 1983), pp. 359-372.

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