Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

Just finished reading this weird hybrid of philosophy, biography, myth and poetry. The cross-breeding (or -bleeding) of genres makes the book sound like a monstrous plant from a hothouse or an alchemical tome from a monastery. It is not. It is a book conceived while striding on mountains. It is best read in the open air, as I did, much of it, in Central Park, American elms arching above the Literary Walk to form the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.

From one perspective (and Nietzsche is very much--essentially?--about perspectives), the book can be seen as a parody--a competitor--of the gospels. So Part 1 begins with Zarathustra "going under" from the mountain to the marketplace to preach to the people. Much of the book is made up of these "sermons," often in the form of parables. (Part 4 is different in that it is a continuous narrative.) And like Jesus, Zarathustra gathers round him disciples, is tested by various trials, provides a last supper, and receives a final revelation. The radical difference in Z's gospel is that God is dead, and man must find his ultimate value in himself, in overcoming himself, or, in Nietzschean terms, in becoming an overman. Z. is a prophet of the overman, and in his noblest moments is also a type of the overman.

Although so much of the book is noble and inspiring, parts of it are marred by a limited view of women. The book is the work of a very lonely man, whose hasty marriage proposals were all turned down. It is also the work of a man who suffered from bad health--bad headaches, bad eyes, sleeplessness--and so spoke of suffering with an obsessive vehemence. The miracle is the high praise the book accords to the body and to laughter. The book is thus a triumph of Nietzsche's will to power, the will to overcome oneself. Joy, not anguish, longs for eternity. The ultimate sign of acceptance and overcoming is a desire for eternal recurrence, not just of bliss, but also of agony. The book itself demands to be read over and over again.

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On doing "I":

"I," you say, and are proud of the word. But greater is that in which you do not wish to have faith--your body and its great reason: that does not say "I," but does "I."

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On being a good student:

One repay a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. And why do you not want to pluck at my wreath?

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On forgiving a friend:

And if a friend does you evil, then say: "I forgive you what you did to me; but that you have done it to yourself--how could I forgive that?" Thus speaks all great love; it overcomes even forgiveness and pity.

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On human spirit:

Spirit is the life that itself cuts into life: with its own agony it increases its own knowledge. Did you know that?

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On the relationship between power and beauty, power and goodness:

When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible--such descent I call beauty.

And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest.

Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you.

Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.

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On the aim of creating:

"I walk among men as among the fragments of the future--that future which I envisage. And this is all my creating and striving, that I create and carry together into One what is fragment and riddle and dreadful accident. And how could I bear to be a man if man were not also a creator and guesser of riddles and redeemer of accidents?. . ."

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On muddiness and clarity:

Many I found who were clever: they veiled their faces and muddied their waters that nobody might see through them, deep down. But precisely to them came the cleverer mistrusters and nutcrackers: precisely their most hidden fish were fished out. It is the bright, the bold, the transparent who are cleverest among those who are silent: their ground is down so deep that even the brightest water does not betray it.

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On real nobility:

O my brothers, your nobility should not look backwards but ahead! Exiles shall you be from all father- and forefather-lands! Your children's land shall you love: this love shall be your new nobility--the undiscovered land in the most distant sea. For that I bid your sails search and search.

In your children you shall make up for being the children of your fathers: thus shall you redeem all that is past. This new tablet I place over you.

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