Zarathustra reconsidered

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Michael Hulse (trans.), Notting Hill Editions, 2022, pb., 312pps + xiv, £12.99

Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul S. Loeb, David F. Tinsley (eds., trans.), Stanford University Press, 2022, pb., 576pp + xii, US$30

Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

Keith Ansell-Pearson, Paul S. Loeb (eds.),Cambridge University Press, 2022, hb., 277pps + xiv, £75
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees new sides of Nietzsche

Apparently, at one stage of World War I, every German soldier deployed was given a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, apparently to fortify their will. It is in some ways an odd choice. Nietzsche subtitled it “A book for all and none”, realising that many readers would be baffled by the messages. Although few would have been perplexed at the presentation of moral-philosophical issues in the form of fables – for what are fables, if not moral-philosophical issues rendered in colourful narrative form? – many would wonder what exactly those messages were. Initially, that was not a problem because there were so few readers. A long, fabulous narrative, featuring a protagonist barely known in modern Europe, split over multiple volumes, written by a little-known retired professor of philology had few takers at the time. It is hard not to think that while it might have been undervalued on first appearance, it was equally overvalued soon afterwards.

No philosopher had greater influence on the development of modern history and Modernism in the arts than Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Of his writings, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-5) is unique in that it is written from the perspective of a fictionalised character, Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), founder of the Zoroastrian religion. It became the book Nietzsche was most pleased with, even though it has been criticised as verbose and overwritten. His later, aphoristic style, written in the manner of Heraclitus, is easier to follow and considered more effective as prose; as rhetoric, Zarathustra maybe carries more impact. A new translation of this, perhaps Nietzsche’s most popular book, has just been published. It joins two other related books, one a critical analysis of the text and another being a previously unseen fragment written at the same time as Zarathustra not included in other publications. This review will discuss all three.

A mid-nineteenth century Indian depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche presents his thoughts through the voice of Zarathustra, acting as religious-philosophical counter to the Gospel narrative of the teaching of Christ. He wanted to bypass scholars and reach readers directly, although he had no pretensions to populism or accessibility (remember – “A Book for All and None”). For those seeking the evidential arguments of The Birth of Tragedy or the late aphorisms written in Heraclitus’s style, Zarathustra will prove a trying book. Not that it is hard to read, but rather its indirectness and intrusive imagery prove an impediment to understanding Nietzsche’s reasoning, even if it is effective rhetoric.

A fifteenth-century Flemish depiction of Zoroaster/Zarathustra

Nietzsche’s book, originally published in four volumes, has been characterised as the resolution to a crisis reached in the preceding book The Gay Science, which included the dramatic passage in which a truth-saying madman declares that God is dead, killed by modern society, one in the throes of scientism and humanism. In Zarathustra Nietzsche explores a way out of this spiritual dead-end. He concluded that the Übermensch (German: superman), the man who embodies truth and will to power were the solution to the derangement of values and the death of trust in religion. The nihilism that consumes deracinated, scientific, rational man can only destroy and cannot produce – at least in the long-term, outside of art as “the sum of destructions” pace Picasso – and must be countered by a conscious transubstantiation of all (received) values. The Übermensch will master first himself and then the world, through the exertion of the will to power, which overcomes fear. Not every man will be capable of that; only the superior man will be capable. The normal man must be led by these self-actualised Übermenschen. This is clearly the part that was meant to stimulate German soldiers in the muddy trenches towards heroism.

Image: Talmoryair. Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche is scathing of many movements and grand figures of his time. The most striking fable is of socialists (“preachers of equality”) as tarantulas:

Revenge sits within your soul; a black scab grows wherever you bite; your venom makes the soul giddy with revenge! […] ‘What we call justice shall be precisely this: the world shall be filled with the storms of our revenge’ – that is how they talk among themselves. ‘We shall practise revenge and abuse against any who are not as we are’ – that is what the tarantula-hearts pledge to each other. […] Vengefulness sounds from every one of their complaints, and all of their praise is hurtful; and to be judges seems a blessed thing to them.[i]

This is related to Nietzsche’s thoughts on ressentiment, the system of behaviour springing from recognition and reaction against a person’s weakness and inferiority and reacting by projecting anger upon others as a way of evading self-knowledge and self-correction. Self-overcoming is one of the main themes of the book. The mass adoption of mindful self-overcoming will see the rise of the Übermenschen on a civilisational (epochal) level. 

The figures who appear in part 4 are often seen as disguised responses to individuals and types. These have been seen as follows: the soothsayer is Schopenhauer, the conscientious man is the scientist (Darwin?), the sorcerer is Wagner, the ugliest man is the atheist, the shadow is the freethinker, the voluntary beggar is Buddha or Tolstoy. This interpretation is omitted from the new translation. Likewise omitted are textual notes on features of the original text, which includes some untranslatable puns and wordplay. The translation of the new edition is by Michael Hulse, former academic at Warwick University and translator of W.G. Sebald, Rilke and Elfriede Jelinek. He is also an acclaimed poet and therefore in an ideal position to capture the sweep and precision of Nietzsche’s mannered style in English – not least the passages of verse. Hulse has chosen to strike a middle path between directness of speech and the language of the King James’s Bible, eschewing the archaic but retaining something of the stiff rhetoric of the ancients. This is effective and never attempts to conceal the deliberately florid style Nietzsche adopted for this book. 

In terms of fluency and potency – accuracy is something that I cannot aver – Hulse’s version is excellent. The awkwardness one encounters is deliberate and reflects Nietzsche’s deliberate stylistic choices. Hulse’s version reminds us that Zarathustra is written in a portentous, high-spirited manner, while never favouring fluency over exactness. This translation is slightly less of an easy read than others because it forces you to notice and does not slip into a manner. So, although it might seem paradoxical, the granularity of the Hulse translation directs one’s attention to the meaning rather than (more passively) imbibing the prose style or becoming attached to the atmosphere.

Editors Keith Ansell-Pearson and Paul S. Loeb assert in their introduction  to Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”: A Critical Guide:

…recent philosophical scholarship tends to marginalize TSZ and to downplay its significance in our engagement with Nietzsche’s thought. […] The aim of this volume is to remedy neglect of TSZ by highlighting its importance for a fuller understanding of Nietzsche’s contribution to philosophy…TSZ needs to assume a central role in any informed appreciation of his style of philosophical practice as well as of the fundamental content of his core ideas.[ii]  

Ansell-Pearson and Loeb observe that Nietzsche wished to detach himself from professionalised philosophy by taking up a persona and writing in fables:

Nietzsche knew that the philosophical texts he wrote in his own voice could be easily assimilated into this bloodless academic culture, so he deliberately designed a new kind of philosophical text that would resist any such assimilation. His fictional protagonist actually practices philosophy as a way of life and this is shown by the narrative of his transformative travels […][iii]

Nietzsche intended Zarathustra to be a return to the Greek model of lived philosophy.

Benedetta Zavatta discusses the controversy about the composition of the book. The first three parts were published in separate volumes and the author considered them complete. He then published a fourth part, which was part of an intended further three volumes. Whether this last part is a new book, or an extension, is an open question, made all the more pointed by the fact that the author later wanted volume IV retracted. Other essays by specialists consider Zarathustra as ecological warning, because of Nietzsche’s naturalism (contra Schopenhauer’s metaphysics), as well as the book’s treatment of moral philosophy, politics and transhumanism. Ansell-Pearson and Marta Faustino’s essay on the quest to embody philosophy in a text for living is particularly effective at unlocking Nietzsche’s intentions. Christopher Janaway refutes the common correlation between the soothsayer character in Zarathustra with Schopenhauer, going on to argue that Zarathustra’s teachings do indeed reject Schopenhauer’s urge to combat ubiquitous ceaseless will.

Zarathustra is sometimes partitioned from the main body of Nietzsche’s philosophy as fiction. Likewise, the Nachlass (German: estate) papers, currently being published in a critical edition (translations published by Stanford) are considered by some illegitimate, as working materials that were not deemed suitable for publication (or even preservation). As such, some writers will not consider them as part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

That is what makes so contentious the Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spake Zarathustra (Spring 1884-Winter 1884/5), the 15th volume in the series The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche published by Stanford University. Each volume comes with extensive notes and commentary. Summaries guide our general understanding of themes, while translators’ comments on the most important terms allow non-German-speakers to gauge Nietzsche’s text, making us aware of linguistic subtleties, as well as adding extra thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s sources, influences and intentions. An index is included. It comes as a surprise to encounter Nietzsche writing so much on fine art, especially painting, about which he never published. Nietzsche’s view of history is both linear and cyclical, with cycles unable to repeat exactly due to linear characteristics of historical development. He is a pessimist – “The dumbing-down and homogenization of Europe on the rise, / Ever-increasing enmity of the progeny of the nobility toward l’homme supérieur. / […] The lack of any moral practices: feelings instead of principles.”[iv]

In response to the deterioration of Europe following the French Revolution, Nietzsche toys with the idea of selective breeding to counter racial decline.[v] However, once work starts in earnest on Zarathustra, he returns to the nature of morality and moral exemplars. He is insistent on the destruction of Christianity, as an impediment to development.

Most of the fragments are aphorisms only a sentence or two long. The drafts for Zarathustra are the only sections longer than a page. There is a section of verse – verse forms a significant part of Zarathustra – which has more merit as a distillation of thought than as poetry. The lists of images in the notes reach the level of Surrealist poetry inadvertently and top the verse. “– thistle-heads, scrupulous saps – hasty, like jumping spider monkeys – between coffins and sawdust – dizzy dogs and sickly breeds all around me – a cold bath […]”[vi] The Fragments are a terrific read – pithy, cutting, stark, playful, grand. It is like being in the company of the philosopher at his most expansive and garrulous. It is, of course, not the same as a considered conclusion or articulated argument, which is why anyone seeking enlightenment and information about Nietzsche’s philosophy must be extra wary of these seductive writings.

[i] Pp. 89-90, Hulse

[ii] P. 1, Cambridge

[iii] P. 10, Cambridge

[iv] p. 20, Fragments

[v] p. 59, Fragments

[vi] P. 356, Fragments