And we gazed at one another and looked out at the green meadow, over which the cool evening was spreading, and wept together. But then Life was dearer to me than all my Wisdom had ever been.
Nietzsche’s stylistic beauty does not conceal – it rather perversely highlights – that his project is one of destruction; reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra had an embarrassingly profound effect on my psyche, as if the nihilism had sunk into my own being, like gleeful little goblins creeping from the verses of the book and latching themselves with varying degrees of subtly to every thought I had in the last few days. The clear, sunny skies of Berlin seemed further away than just a few days before, and I felt, at moments, numb to existence.
What is it that Nietzsche destroys in Thus Spoke Zarathustra? He demolishes morality and spirituality, metaphysics dies with God; he points to the abyss and then to the Self and somehow finds meaning. Though we might be tempted to ask first for whom and why did Nietzsche write Thus Spoke Zarathustra, my instinctive first questions were what does Nietzsche hate? what is he reacting against? There is the very prevalent theme of loneliness, of the solitary individual, which one might consider the result of Nietzsche’s embarrassing affair with Salomé, immediately proceeding the beginning of his work on TSZ. Despite the melodrama of the post-colon title, I think we can credit this thinking as coming from more than just romantic angst – though perhaps there is little more painful and moving than the emotions that follow a lover’s rejection. I am not trying to do Nietzsche a favor by granting the philosophy of TSZ a source deeper than love’s anxiety; for if it did not come from that, it came from something more fundamental to Nietzsche himself; given the consistency of certain motifs in some of his other works (Birth of Tragedy aside), I don’t think myself completely mistaken in considering it so1. Thus spoke Zarathustra: Of all the writings I love only that which is written with blood. Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit.
Zarathustra is a Persian prophet, who through the work of Nietzsche is turned on his head: “…for what constitutes the tremendous uniqueness of that Persian in history is precisely the opposite of this. Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, end-in-itself, is his work” (Ecce Homo). TSZ, in its original German, is written in a style that gently mocks that of the Luther-Bible; it is an amalgam of imitations, from the New Testament to pre-Socratic rhetoric. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from his mountain to prophesize among mankind; he is disgusted and twice deserts his disciples. What does Nietzsche’s mouthpiece come to preach?
“But when Zarathustra was alone, he spoke thus to his heart: ‘Could it be possible! This old saint has not yet heard in his forest that God is dead!'” Zarathustra descends from his mountain to mankind, whom he despises to some extent, in part to spread the message that God is dead; that the new aim for humanity is the Übermensch. Thus spoke Zarathustra: ‘All gods are dead: now we want the Superman to live‘ – let this be our last will one day at the great noontide! In Part One, Nietzsche tells of Zarathustra’s descent mostly through parables. He visits wise men, meets wanderers on the road; he goes to the town center and witnesses a crowd waiting to see a tight-rope walker – a metaphor for the transitory state of man: “…man is a bridge and not a goal; counting himself happy for his noontides and evenings, as a way to new dawns… Do not spare your neighbor! Man is something that must be overcome.”
And if someone goes through fire for his teaching – what does that prove? Truly, it is more when one’s own teaching comes out of one’s own burning!
The men Zarathustra encounters during his descent are far from the state of the Übermensch. He does not hide his contempt: “See them clamber, these nimble apes! They clamber over one another and so scuffle into the mud and the abyss.” The men of the world have clung to the dead God, and the law-table, the morality that men of flesh and blood have currently imposed on each other under the guise of divine will. Sick men invented gods and the soul and the idea of morality through reward and punishment for themselves, out of their own weakness and fear. Thus spoke Zarathustra: But the awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside…
Zarathustra clearly does not believe that all men are capable of becoming Übermenschen. He does not preach about an egalitarian society, where all men have embraced their potential to become Supermen: “I do not want to be confused with these preachers of equality, nor taken for one of them. For justice speaks thus to me: ‘Men are not equal.'” Men are not all given to be wise and powerful2, and those of us with this potential ought not try to make the hopeless others so, indeed, “that everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too.” There will still be men who chose to live like animals, fearful and superstitious, living by the absurd binds of moral codes, shunning their own happiness. He proclaims the life of the Superman to be a life of joy, laughter, dancing – I will only believe in the god that knows how to dance! Thus spoke Zarathustra: As long as men have existed, man has enjoyed himself too little: that alone, my brothers, is our original sin!
The codes of morality we live by, a sense of good and evil, are only temporary and superficial; they changed throughout history, and developed as the minds of the people swayed – which isn’t to say they became better or more useful: “people believed: ‘Everything is fate: you shall, for you must!’ Then again people mistrusted all prophets and astrologers: and therefore people believed: ‘Everything is freedom: you can, for you will!’ … there has hitherto been only supposition, not knowledge, concerning good and evil!” To ascend, men must stop imposing the old law-table on themselves, law-tables formed by the weak, the lazy, and the sickly, law-tables that contradict and oppose life itself. The law-table of the Übermensch will be only what brings him joy, he will not obey but listen only to himself. The Übermensch is a master: “the best shall rule, the best wants to rule!” Thus spoke Zarathustra: And he who declares the Ego healthy and holy and selfishness glorious – truly, he, a prophet, declares too what he knows: ‘Behold, it comes, it is near, the great noontide!’
As unsettling as the Übermensch may appear, he will at least lead a life of joy: “All days shall be holy to me – thus the wisdom of my youth once spoke: truly, the speech of a joyful wisdom.” In the inspired and ecstatic Part Three, Zarathustra describes coming across a young shepherd writhing on the ground, a black snake hanging out of his mouth. The shepherd pulls frantically but cannot remove the snake, and Zarathustra cries to him “Bite! Bite!” So the shepherd bites down, and spits out the head of the snake: “No longer a shepherd, no longer a man – a transformed being, surrounded with light, laughing! Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed! … My longing for this laughter consumes me: oh how do I endure still to live! And how could I endure to die now!” The life of the Superman is beautiful, superior, joyful. He has overcome man, he is his own master; he has bitten off the head of the snake. And for the future you ought to sacrifice yourself, Zarathustra preaches; if we cannot attain the state of the Übermensch then we might take steps that others, the capable, shall. Thus spoke Zarathustra: For me, the dearest thing would be to love the earth as the moon loves it, and to touch its beauty with the eyes alone – thus the seduced one seduces himself. And let this be called by me immaculate perception of all things: that I desire nothing of things, except that I may lie down before them like a mirror with a hundred eyes.
Though TSZ is far from a concise and rigorous exposition of a philosophical position, the only point where I became skeptical of the coherence of Nietzsche’s thought was his introduction of the concept of the eternal recurrence. It is one of the crucial teachings of Zarathustra when he descends, and one that is focused on for the passionate climax of Part Three. His eagle and snake say to him: “Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and we ourselves with them, and that we have already existed an infinite number of times before and all things with us.” Everything has existed an infinite number of times, and will continue to exist, to recur, eternally; the Übermensch defines his life and lives happily knowing that it is a life that will recur endlessly. The Übermensch laughs at everything, he dances; his only master is himself and because of this his life, and its eternal recurrence, is infinitely joyful. In an important way, the Übermensch depends on the eternal recurrence. But I do not find this concept fundamentally problematic3, for what is the substantial difference between a fate that is only once, in our own, single eternity, or a fate that, defined once, repeats itself endlessly? If one is at peace with one’s fate for his single life, for his solitary eternity, then one is at peace with the endless recurrence of that fate; and if one is not at peace, he shall never be.
Zarathustra passionately exclaims in a repeated chorus the bliss he has uncovered: Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings – the Ring of Recurrence! Never yet did I find the woman by whom I wanted children, unless it be this woman, whom I love: for I love you, O Eternity! For I love you, O Eternity!4
I take some comfort from the anecdote that Nietzsche’s breakdown, on January 3rd, 1889, occurred when, standing in a plaza in Turin, he witnessed a horse being brutally whipped by a coachman. Throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, he crumpled, and never fully recovered his sanity. Such a man could not have been so untouchable as his writing has made him seem.
I am a vegetarian and I have eaten a rare, bloody steak that many others would have enjoyed with relish. At each bite my stomach churned and my mind and my mouth revolted, begged my hand to stop the process of ingestion. At the end, and for some time afterwards, I felt full – the grotesque, overwhelming fullness that only meat can bring – and I felt nauseous, disgusted by myself and by the world. I sought and found a mint to follow my cursed meal, a burst of freshness to cleanse my pallet, which pulled me from the gorged, nihilistic daze:
“No man is an Island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” (Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)
1However, even a brief biography of Nietzsche makes it clear that much of his work is written at least partly as a reaction, a testament to his current state of mind, and he often not-so-subtly refers to figures of his time in his writing (e.g. the ‘artist’ – Wagner – in Human, All Too Human). I think it is fair to say in some ways he does this more, or at least more obviously, than many other philosophers.
2Zarathustra considers women even more hopeless than men: “Women are not capable of friendship: women are still cats and birds. Or, at best, cows.” … “Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has one solution: it is called pregnancy… even the sweetest woman is still bitter.” … “Let woman be a plaything, pure and fine like a precious stone illumined by the virtues of a world that does not yet exist.” … “The man’s happiness is: I will. The woman’s happiness is: He will.”
3If the eternal recurrence is crucial to the Superman, then it is crucial to the core of this work; ergo if I find this incoherent then there is little foundation for the rest of the claims in the book. However, I don’t find the rest of TSZ incoherent – undesirable, tasteless, perhaps – and so I am tempted to say that perhaps the eternal recurrence is not meant to be taken literally. It is possible that it is meant to provoke us into thinking about being at peace with our fate.
4He is the child he will have by Eternity, this is the eternal recurrence.
I read RJ Hollingdale’s English translation, and referenced specific passages in German when I felt a tension in the text; I did not read this entire work in German, though I am aware how grave a sin this is.