Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra

This is one of my top 3 favorite books of all time. It’s a story, it’s a sermon, it’s poetry, it’s philosophy. It seems heavy reading at first, but it grows progressively easier once you get used to his language and ideas. Zarathustra’s style is Biblical, almost like one of the Old Testament prophets lamenting society’s turning away from the truth, and he preaches and raves like a prophet too. His message is a bit different, enjoining his listeners to turn away from a traditional notion of God and values written in stone; but his call to a pure heart and pure mind, and his appeal to return to an innate sense of right and wrong with an emphasis on caring for others and striving to live according to the highest ideal for humanity moves essentially in the same vein.

When I first picked up this book I knew next to nothing about Nietszche or this specific work except I heard it referred to by a person professor in a negative light. I’m pretty sure we were supposed to feel sorry for Nietzsche’s unfortunate beliefs. His works were cited as the voice of opposition. Somebody must’ve heard that Nietzsche was the Spirit of postmodernism, a veritable boogieman for theologians; but it didn’t dawn on me until years after grad school that most people who spoke about him had never actually read his stuff, only excerpts that their peers had already excoriated. Well, the real irony here is that somewhere along the line I was desperate for something that made sense beyond the conformist theology and terrified Christian apologetic that was supposed to keep us so warm and snug; and one night I heard a prof quoting him again and thought, “Maybe this guy we’re supposed to be afraid of might actually have some answers I’m looking for.” Years later I would find confirmation to these feelings in the words of Joseph Campbell, “Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” I had started reading Thus Spake Zarathustra at night after the night sort at UPS, and it was like huge gulps of fresh air smuggled between the iron bars of fundamentalism. And so began my journey with the abomination that is called Nietzsche.

Everybody knows about Nietzsche, very few know him. Ubermensch is fun to say, I guess because it makes you sound intelligent or something; but few are aware, or even care, about what Nietzsche’s Superman really is all about. It’s not easy being Nietzsche: Christians love to hate him, philosophers smirk to think they’ve outgrown him, political zealots throw him out as the hapless father of Nazism, but there’s so much misunderstanding. So many wiki-dabblers, so little reading of his actual work. I won’t deny that, not unlike other authors that I love to read, some misunderstandings may be Nietzsche’s own fault, but like his prophet Zarathustra, he has offended many with the truth he has gleaned, and has learned to hide himself “like one who hath swallowed gold—lest my soul should be ripped up.” Well, many have gutted him, and made a spectacle of selections from his works, but few have found the wealthy current of hard-won truth that flows out of his carcass like honey.

It might help to think of Nietzsche less like a novel parlor discussion than a prison-break, and his works are best understood when read in the dimly lit cell of fetid customs, on a starvation-diet of water-thin traditions, and stretched on a rack of heartless religious doctrines on which one’s joints are already popping loose preventing vital living. Nietzsche would spit in the face of his executioner, and give a final word of hope and courage to those of us who are next. He would dig you out to freedom, and once in the free air, help you escape the searchlights of Mother church and state, furious with its escaped worshipers.  He’d be a great guy to be around when people are wrong. However, because he’s a nihilist (not in the sense of believing in no values, but in the sense of believing we choose our own values) we may have to be satisfied with abandoning him as we begin a new life. He has no promise of a map to buried treasure once outside prison walls, but he has the confidence that we can figure the rest out on our own.

Nietzsche is, in general, a tonic against conformity. Zarathustra teaches that each individual ought to be able to eventually privatize their sense of self worth, “Greatness is achieved away from the marketplace.” But Zarathustra isn’t anti-community, rather he’s anti-celebrity, and he opposes any type of self-loathing that is evinced in the desire to be loved by the masses to make up for one’s lack of self-acceptance. He speaks up for the individual, and he is loud, even brash. Whereas Buddha’s comfort to his disciples disarmed and prevented them from engaging in any evangelistic conflict (“He who proclaims the truth, ye monks, fights with no man”), Zarathustra warns the truth-bearer of the avoirdupois of his calling: “Beware the doom of the incendiary.”  Of course, there are times, when one’s community freezes in the cold on the side of a mountain, that the progressive man often needs to pretend to freeze with them, lest they discover that he has found a warm grotto on the other side that shames their contented shivering. “How could they endure my happiness, if I did not put around it accidents, and winter-privations, and bear-skin caps, and enmantling snowflakes! –if I did not myself commiserate their pity, the pity of those enviers and injurers! – if I did not myself sigh before them, and chatter with cold, and patiently let myself be swathed in their pity!” One must often conceal his happiness so that others’ may not feel the shame and waste of their voluntary ease and accompanying suffering and boredom, and turn and attack him for waking their conscience and jealosy. Jesus cautioned against the same imprudent revelation of one’s internal treasure that might be trampled by pigs that have no value for riches beyond the troughs. Zarathustra’s desire to proclaim the truth while avoiding premature martyrdom becomes an art he celebrates in himself and others. “My silence hath learned not to betray itself by silence…the clear, the honest, the transparent [people]—these are for me the wisest silent ones: in them, so profound is the depth that even the clearest water doth not—betray it.”

Strength in the guise of weakness is one thing that often must be endured, but weakness masquerading as strength is anathema in the scheme of planning for the ‘superman’, or the next step in anthropo-historical progress. The ‘last man’ is the one who has ceased to strive to become a higher life form, or to give birth to a being that can advance beyond its parents’ limitations, but only evinces a soul-weariness. Life’s meaning for this ‘superfluous one’ is lost in waking, dressing, eating and sleeping. Living is sacrificed to mere existence. The last man is the tired end of a race, the end of a people’s history. And Lord knows we all know people that, if the fate of the human race were left in their hands, we would be done for. We’re not talking about genetic imperfection here, but a refusal to live up to one’s full physical, mental, and spiritual potential; and of course in Nietzsche’s thought, there are many religious people that are infected with the ‘last man’ disease, and bloated religious teachers are referred to as “despisers of the body”, those who see in all the present material world an evil that must be endured for the reward of an easy, sleepy afterlife. In contrast to these despisers of the body is the Ubermensches, the beyond-men and women, the despisers of conventional living.  And these despisers are ‘great adorers’ because they sacrifice what mankind is to achieve what mankind can become.

Nietzsche passion was truly religious in essence. He buffeted religion with religion, though I’m sure he would turn in his grave to hear someone suggest it. What has been dubbed the ‘prophetic imagination’ is most prominent in him, and he preaches as vehemently as any late revivalist against the error of prejudice and bigotry. His precepts are much more negative than positive in that they are a foghorn away from the shoals, not as much a beacon guiding ships to harbor. But being a negative voice in no wise implies that he is a pessimist. Pessimism ends in hopelessness, but Nietzsche’s hope in the meaning and purpose of life is clear. Contrary to what many pseudo-Nietzscheans bruit, Nietzsche, particularly in the persona of Zarathustra, believed life to be beautiful because it is full of potential and meaning—“We love life, not because we are wont to live, but because we are wont to love.” In his paradigm, joy is deeper than woe, so deep in fact that it “thirsts for woe” to enrich joy all the more. He believed in some mystical permanence of human existence, and embraced what feels like an Eastern idea of recurrence and reincarnation. “Joys all want eternity”, and that’s what each individual can expect—an eternity to discover and rediscover the meaning of their existence and the union of beings in love.

So, as I have now developed a profound appreciation for some of his writings, does this mean I have become a blind fanatic of Nietzsche? Course not. He writes in Zarathustra, “Companions the creator seeks, not corpses, and not herds or believers either. Fellow-creators the creator seeks, those who grave new values on new tables.” Zarathustra at one point leaves his followers and says he will come to them again as friends when they have learned to live without him, “Ye venerate me; but what if your veneration should someday collapse? Take heed lest a statue crush you!...Now do I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when ye have all denied me, will I return unto you.” And so it goes with my dedication to Nietzsche. Christopher Hitchens, in a posthumous publication of his final essays called Mortality, recollects that he once answered an interviewer’s question regarding his feelings on Nietzsche by saying he “agreed with some arguments put forward by the great man but didn’t owe any large insight to him, and found his contempt for democracy to be somewhat off-putting.” Apparently the writings of Nietzsche were much more pivotal in my life than they were in Hitchens’ life, but I would echo with him that there are things I like about Nietzsche, and things I don’t like about him. I choose to focus on what I appreciate from his works, but that does not vindicate him in all ways in my mind. Sad I have to state that, but it’s what people want to hear. I suppose they think there’s something in his ideas that will make you want to go crazy, hug horses, and arguably die of syphilis. We’ll see.

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