The most outstanding trope of [the post-World War I] culture of the body as the site of spontaneous naturalness and authenticity for the individual was the image of the Nietzschean superman.1 Nietzsche’s ideas had become extremely popular among young educated Europeans from the 1890s onward, when his critique of German Wilhelmine society and of Judeo-Christian morality gave impetus to and fused with a wide range of political positions from anarchism, sexual libertarianism, and feminism to right-wing nationalism and socialism.2 (By 1918 Thomas Man could write that one did not merely read Nietzsche, ‘one experienced him’.) Nietzsche’s work was itself the product of a late nineteenth century shift in intellectual and cultural attitudes; it was influenced by, even as it influenced, the fin de siècle disaffection with liberal pieties and the kind of polemics that read the social body through tropes of the strength of the physical body. As such, Nietzscheanism contributed to a series of antirationalist movements of social and cultural protest of the time. These included the generational rebellion of groups (like that around Rupert Brooke) that helped fuel a new ‘youth culture’ and the anticapitalist and neoromantic desire to return to the land, which in turn informed both the Volkisch ideology of the Ramblers in Germany and the versions of vitalism developed by modernists such as Forster and D. H. Lawrence.
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