[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on July 26, 2007 ]
Before the age of the Internet, dissertations had a rather limited circulation. One copy was kept by the dissertation's author; one was given to the dissertation director; two were given to the library of the institution where he or she presented the dissertation; finally, one was sent to University Microfilms at Ann Arbor, Michigan, which made copies available on demand, for a fee. Few dissertations found many readers. This once limited readership is now beginning to be widened, thanks to the Internet.
Dissertation Abstracts, an online database, now offers the full text of many recent dissertations. Scanning through these recently, I found two concerning H. L. Mencken's interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche. One dissertation examines the impact of Mencken's interpretation of Nietzsche on other authors such as Theodore Dreiser. The other dissertation, by James Mark Anderson, entitled H. L. Mencken's Nietzsche: Recovering a Lost Tradition, was most interesting. Presented at Vanderbilt in 1998, Anderson's dissertation defended Mencken's study of Nietzsche as being still worthy of serious consideration. Although critical of Mencken's mistakes, Anderson finds more merit in Mencken's work on Nietzsche than in many contemporary works. The following paragraph is taken from Anderson's abstract of his dissertation:
" I believe our contemporary understanding of Nietzsche is both unfaithful to his work and is a distraction from his main interest: life. The dominant reading of Nietzsche as a proto-postmodernist is contrary to Nietzsche's real aim in that it removes him from direct contact with this world, with life, only to relocate him in an all-encompassing text. "
Anderson is especially critical of Walter Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950). Kaufmann was concerned to demonstrate that Nietzsche had no political significance, probably because he did not want Nietzsche to be seen as a forerunner of National Socialism. Anderson concludes that " The combination of Kaufmann's antipolitical reading and the anti-metaphysical reading produced a Nietzsche who was unconcerned with real-world affairs. " The anti-metaphysical reading is typified by postmodernists and deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida.
Anderson admits that Mencken's reading of Nietzsche was " at times superficial," but he finds it to be " more faithful to Nietzsche's thought than contemporary understanding would suggest. Our contemporaries regard Nietzsche as a progenitor of their own postmodernism. I would suggest that men like Mencken, men who were more nearly Nietzsche's contemporaries, were closer to the truth when they regarded Nietzsche as an adherent of their own brand of realism. "
The last point is a telling one. Many contemporary scholars approach any number of literary and philosophical works with the assumption that they can understand such works much better than they could be understood by their contemporaries. How much of this assumption is conjured up out of their need to find or manufacture something new about which to write and publish? How much forced novelty is at work throughout the scholarship of the humanities? It is often almost amusing in Nietzsche's case to see who is drawn to him. One intriguing example is Herbert Marcuse, a man of the far left who detested the European civilization in which Nietzsche saw himself as "a good European."