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Ishay Landa, The Overman in the Marketplace: Nietzschean Heroism in Popular Culture

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. Pages: 325 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7391-1985-3

Reviewed by Skye Nettleton

Putting on Nietzschean-colored glasses, Ishay Landa takes us on a behind-the-scenes adventure to look at the sometimes surprising Nietzschean influence in some of the most popular films and books in twentieth century Western culture. In The Overman in the Marketplace: Nietzschean Heroism in Popular Culture (2007), Landa presents a provocative analysis of which the central thesis is that a new heroic model emerged between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that Nietzsche’s philosophy was instrumental in this shift (1). Furthermore, Landa argues that twentieth century Western culture is “saturated with Nietzschean motifs” (2) but that most people are totally ignorant of the Nietzschean roots.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part lays the theoretical foundations, outlining popular culture theory and some of the key aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking relevant to his analysis. In the second part Landa analyses specific examples of what he calls ‘Nietzscheanism’ in literary and cinematic works of popular culture. Landa’s Nietzscheanism encompasses living dangerously, embracing struggle and war, crusading against the leveling down of mass society, as well as amorality, sadism and natural aristocracy, i.e. since God is dead, social hierarchy is determined by nature and the strongest, healthiest and most intelligent will be the supreme leaders.

Tarzan is given ample swinging space and Landa explains the significance of why it is Nietzschean that James Bond’s martini must be shaken, not stirred and why Hannibal Lecter’s brain sushi must be fresh. Landa also analyses the Lion King, Howard Roark (The Fountainhead), Jules and Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) and Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), to name just a few. All these characters, although they do not necessarily reference Nietzsche, do have affinities with Nietzscheanism, according to Landa.

The first curiosity one encounters is the paradoxical title. One might wonder what the elitist aristocratic philosopher who despised the mob would think of his philosophy being mass produced and consumed by the herds via popular culture. While Landa does not hypothesize on this, he spends considerable effort defending popular culture as consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s Aesthetic Theory, Landa proposes that popular culture is “a very fitting container” for Nietzscheanism because they both provide battlegrounds upon which ideologies and contradictions compete (10).

Landa does not draw significantly on Nietzsche’s discussion of the Übermensch in grounding his analysis of the ‘Overman.’ Instead, Landa uses definitions and classifications of heroes by Joseph Campbell (2) and Northrop Frye (125) and The Will to Power (published posthumously) is the dominant Nietzschean text referenced. This is perhaps a controversial maneuver, seeing as the only work which Nietzsche discusses the Übermensch is Thus Spoke Zarathustra (and briefly in Ecce Homo). In justifying this position, Landa asserts that Nietzsche’s discussion of the Übermensch was intentionally “more evocative than conclusive anyway, leaving the door ajar for interpretation to come in” (45).

According to Northrop Frye, modernity meant the demise of the classical and medieval heroes in favor of the realistic, mediocre, inferior protagonist. Landa adds to Frye’s thesis that the influence of the bourgeoisie was instrumental in the historical development of heroic narrative since the mid-sixteenth century. At a time when the bourgeoisie was weak and espousing egalitarianism and democracy, so too were its heroes. This is reflected in the nineteenth century plebeian heroes such as Dumas’ frivolous buffoons: The Three Musketeers.

With the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie gained power and its heroes became stronger, more independent and more heroic, reflecting the twentieth century liberal market society. Nietzsche’s “positive individualism” (52) was the perfect accompaniment to capitalism because both affirmed individualism, property, inequality, competition, excellence and genuine self-expression (173). No one portrays these elements better than Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead (1943), “probably the single most important American Nietzschean in popular culture” (73), according to Landa, for at least three reasons. Firstly, her very success proves transcendence of the contradiction between Nietzschean elitism and popular culture. Secondly, the protagonist, Howard Roark, found a solution to capitalism’s dependence on the masses for consumption by creating exclusive and expensive products for the intelligent elite. Thirdly, Roark is a prime example of Nietzsche’s views on natural aristocracy because he is an “instinctive nobleman” (70) who naturally achieves domination over the working class through his “immanent charisma” (59).

Tarzan, Landa suggests, is also a salient example of Nietzsche’s natural aristocracy because he is the epitome of health, vitality, will to power and survival of the fittest. However, Tarzan is not completely true to Nietzscheanism: while Nietzsche sanctioned sadism, Tarzan condemns it as foreign to the animal world and the source of modern civilization’s sickness (168). Moreover, at the end of the book, Tarzan betrays Nietzschean aristocratic values by denouncing his proper title and inheritance (171).

Although Ian Fleming does not explicitly reference Nietzsche, Landa reveals that James Bond is indeed a “secret agent in the service of Nietzscheanism” (194). His natural aristocracy is revealed in his distinctions and demands, particularly his “exquisite gastronomic sensibilities” (185) such as martinis that must be shaken, not stirred and the meticulous detail of his breakfast habits (174). His embrace of trouble, danger, risk and competition is wholly Nietzschean, as is his “vitalist affirmation of war as essential to heroic life” (185). Yet Bond’s enemies sometimes reveal more Nietzschean qualities, particularly living beyond good and evil, while Bond still fights for what he thinks is good.

Landa’s final chapter traces Nietzschean roots back to the Marquis de Sade and Max Stirner to explore the individual as criminal. Landa makes a valuable connection between Max Stirner and Nietzsche (albeit controversial owing to a lack of incontrovertible evidence). It was particularly Stirner’s egoism, anarchism, importance of property to one’s self-definition, and rejection of morality and ties to others that would have appealed to Nietzsche. Landa does not mention that before Nietzsche, Stirner also proclaimed the death of God and exalted what Landa calls Nietzsche’s “sacred ideological Trinity” of exploitation, possession and accumulation (29). Stirner was particularly important in the development of Nietzschean thought because he reframed the idea of an individual that rejects authority, law and societal norms not as a criminal, but as an “individual pure and simple” (218). This existential rebel is one to be honored because for both Stirner and Nietzsche, the “act of violence represented not ‘evil’ but the natural drive for expansion and self-assertion” (219, indirectly quoting Nietzsche). A crime of this kind is superior and Dionysian because being motivated by one’s will to power represents transcendence of society’s influence, as opposed to a common crime that is materially motivated and “externally and socially triggered” (221).

Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter embodies Nietzscheanism particularly because he rejects conventional morality (239) and the “leveling down of mass society” (237); like Bond, he strives for self-mastery and omnipotence and has superior tastes not only in the unusual food he enjoys, but in his penchant for classical music; and most importantly, his crimes are Dionysian because they are not materially motivated but rather represent self-assertion (237).

Many Nietzsche scholars would raise an eyebrow at some of Landa’s assumptions, including: Nietzschean essentialism; the all-too-quick dismissal of the comic book hero Superman as not Nietzschean enough; whether survival of the fittest individual is indeed a Nietzschean conclusion as he advocates excellence of the human race as a group; and whether twentieth-century popular culture heroes are synonymous with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. In Zarathustra, the Übermensch is associated less with great ancient Greek warrior-style heroism and more with the idea of self-overcoming. Furthermore, all the examples Landa provides are male; yet in Nietzsche’s formulation of the Übermensch, there is nothing to exclude women from such aspirations. Surely there are elements of Nietzschean heroism in, for example, the computer game and film heroine Lara Croft. Applying Landa’s own understanding of the overman, Lara Croft shows many affinities with his other examples in terms of her courage, strength, power, intelligence, independence, competitiveness and at times, bloodthirstiness. She represents the epitome of health and vitality; she is of noble lineage and a connoisseur of rare archaeological artifacts. Moreover, Lara Croft places herself beyond good and evil in her constant fighting and killing of humans, whether they are adversaries, security guards or military police.

Landa’s aim was to reveal the latent Nietzscheanism in Western popular culture in order to help understand it better. Landa sees that Nietzsche lends himself to this sort of analysis because of the highly suggestive nature of his writing. Popular culture, in turn, lends itself to integrating Nietzschean themes because “Popular heroes can vividly bear out the fundamental, if schizophrenic, Nietzschean condition of our culture” (267). While Landa is at risk of overstating Nietzsche’s influence as “certainly one of the most important ideological forces of the last century” (268), Nietzsche’s Übermensch is a useful metaphor for exploring some of our most popular heroic characters. Landa draws some insightful parallels between the two and in doing so, provides a debatable but entertaining romp through a number of Western culture’s most beloved movies and books.