The Caressing Discourses of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra

I begin with a quote from that sublime and enigmatic final work by Nietzsche, Ecce Homo or ‘Behold, the Man’ in which he states that: ‘Whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed something out of me after his own image’ (Ecce Homo, Why I write such excellent books). This identifies one of the most fundamental aspects of Nietzsche, that is, the supremely mercurial and relative nature of his writing and ideas. It is perhaps this which also makes him such a lastingly prominent philosophical figure, and one who is so easily manipulated and reappropriated by agents both good and bad. If there were to be one work which epitomises this idea of mercureality, it would undoubtedly be the mythic pages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, wherein ‘all things come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you… [and] on every metaphor you ride to every truth’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). But in many ways you might consider the text as an affront to the very nature of truth, and Zarathustra himself as the spokesman for an era of post-truth: he is of course the ‘prophet’ who proclaims that God is dead. We must therefore begin at this so fundamental paradox. Nietzsche’s negative views on Christianity are well-known: late in his literary life he wrote of its being a ‘degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every kind… founded on a rancor against everything well-constituted and dominant’ (Will To Power #154), and considered it a repression of all the most natural drives in man which were newly interpreted as vices (WTP# 150). However his views on Christianity were fundamentally bound up with his most penetrating approaches to the nature of truth, and although outspoken in his criticism of Christianity, he certainly understood that religion was a powerful and evn essential means of pushing oneself to its greatest potential. This is also no doubt why Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which lies at the very nucleus of his thought and ideas, takes the overt form of a Biblical or sacred text, albeit with a hefty portion of mythology and satire. Nietzsche locates the origin of religion as the ‘product of doubt concerning the unity of a person’ (WTP #136): it is the inherent need for an agent who enforces the uncontrollable effects of one’s will. In the figure of the priest, says Nietzsche, ‘truth is transformed into the priestly lie, the striving for truth into study of the scriptures’ (WTP 141) and further argues that ‘the origin of the holy lie is the will to power… the lie as a supplement to power, a new concept of truth’ (WTP #142). The will to power, described by Nietzsche as the emotion of command, is a higher authority over self and will. It is, in a word, self-mastery. When Nietzsche describes here the ‘origin of the holy lie is the will to power’ he refers to the craving for self-mastery in those of true faith. He sees religion as a form of sustenance for this submissive need. With religion then, Nietzsche posits we find the inception of a ‘new concept of truth’, and maintaining the lie becomes a necessary means of achieving self-mastery. He appears to share the view of Percy Shelley, who once wrote that ‘all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and like Janus have a double face of false and true’ (On Poetry). The great paradox then is that by entering this new truth, one only ever achieves self-mastery within the tenets or confines of that religion; and so the will to power is inevitably lost and unrecoverable.

But Nietzsche’s own Zarathustra offers a very different kind of truth. To grossly condense Zarathustra’s principle pronouncement that God is Dead, you might say that, as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to fully submit to any religious doctrine, particularly in the scientific age, where there are simply too many contradictions and detractions in maintaining such beliefs. But Zarathustra instead offers a spirituality which centers around the death or absence of God, and focuses inward on the self, the unconscious, perhaps on some whispering Socratean inner God, which slumbers deep within us all. As Sue Prideaux explains, Zarathustra’s ‘freedom from belief enhances his life. His freedom from religious belief is equalled to his resistance to transferring that belief to science. The ubermensch does not need beliefs for a feeling of a stable world’ (I Am Dynamite). With Zarathustra then, Nietzsche asks what if there were a branch of thought which took the form of religiosity but did not require any great sacrifice of will to some unknowable and altogether far greater power? He ponders, if religion has such a power and hold over truth and the truth to one’s self that one would so willingly suffer or sacrifice by it, then what if this capacity for self-truth was instead redirected as a means to push oneself knowingly to its greatest potential heights? And so it is that we are given to the ‘caressing discourses’ of Zarathustra, immersed within these so fertile metaphors which percolate with meaning and significance to all. In that other most ‘fundamental conception’ as Nietzsche termed it (EH, p. 295), of the eternal recurrence, in which contradiction is, once again, a primary means of unveiling the true nature of the idea, Nietzsche similarly allows us to confront the ‘truth to self’. The demon of The Gay Science whispers surreptitiously in our ear to reveal that this life of ours shall be lived again and again, in all its trivialities, on and on into infinity. And in confronting this very prospect, we find either an extreme affirmation or condemnation of self. For in the eyes of a content man, to relive one’s life over and over is no toil, but to suffer endlessly, to be tormented by regret? This, surely, would be damnation.


Dithyrambs & Megalomania

Once again in order to grasp such Nietzschean ideas in their entirety we are forced headlong into a world of myth, metaphor and pseudo-spiritual obscurity. Clearly such a form is paramount to Nietzsche’s philosophic hermeneutic, and intimately entwined with the concept of the caressing discourse. In many ways then Zarathustra is a contemplation on how metaphor in religion can be used as a directive force, and his own caressing discourses and metaphors on which you ‘ride to truth’, are meditations on such. The ‘caress’ itself becomes a crucial metaphor in indicating the centrality of form itself; on how the inner world, the truth to self, is manipulated or rather directed by form. The true ‘caress’ then, you might say, lies in the metaphor within the metaphor; and it is perhaps this eternal recurrence of metaphoric potentiality which allows for the advent of revelation and truth to self. The ‘caressing discourse’ then, the metaphor within the metaphor, might be viewed as a core idea of Zarathustra. So if form itself can be harnessed as a means of manifesting some deep and infallible truth in the individual without the supplication to a god or higher power, then surely this is the most powerful form by which to put forward a new philosophy? The mythic, Biblical, sacred nature and form of Zarathustra, at once caricature and embodiment, is thus centrifugal to upholding the illusion of understanding and significance, and so enabling for subsequent self-empowerment. When we talk of the form of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, we cannot but think on the sublime dithyrambic discourses of Zarathustra himself, which are as bold and illustrious and ornate as Blake’s almighty Urizen. The dithyramb is inspired outburst, it is poetic grandiloquence, it is the epiphanic moment of revelation in the speaker, and it is the unification of the poetic voice and the will to power. But of course the dithyramb is also significant as the form adopted by the devotees of Dionysus; and moreover it denotes the very origin, or rather, the birth of tragedy (following Aristotle). In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first major work, he describes the Dionysian essence as intoxication: ‘stirrings which, as they grow in intensity, cause subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting’; a ‘mystical self-abandon’. Nietzsche proclaimed Zarathustra to be his ‘Dionysian Monster’, and whilst wandering in the Swiss Alpine mountains, lost in the swirling mists of the dithyramb, his and Zarathustra’s ideas became one. He described this experience wherein ‘everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity’ (Ecce Homo, Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Indeed, Nietzsche proclaimed himself master of the dithyramb, and in many ways the form is intrinsic to his central ideas. To grasp what incentivises the mind of the overman or ubermensch, at least in part requires one to similarly submit to and adopt this intoxicated state of mind, and embrace the conceit of megalomania. Carl Jung reads Nietzsche’s megalomania as a symptom of his mental decline, but this contradicts the crucial idea of a ‘willed’ path to the overman. Rather, such aggrandizement of self is an essential step towards self-mastery.


In many ways Nietzsche’s ideas, and particularly those related to the overman, reside very closely to the idea of suggestion. Zarathustra proposes the capacity to absolve oneself of the lower ‘herd’ instinct in which anxiety festers when set outside of a very neat and contained and explainable unity. The famed image of such a transition, from the herd animal to the higher being, is identified by Zarathustra by a rope which hangs over an infinite abyss: ‘man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring… what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going’ (Zarathustra’s Prologue). The abyss is that which lies outside of order, outside of the holy lie, it is the great abyssal dread of a self-imposed truth which one must first of all know in order to see the rope itself; in other words, one must first feel that great absence and dread and lack of meaning, the will to power must then manifest itself, but not lead one towards religion for deeper meaning, only then can one walk across to the other side. Thinking back on this idea of suggestion, and particularly of suggestion in relation to truth, it is clear that Nietzschean megalomania can be viewed as a self-induced state which serves a deeply philosophical purpose. Suggestion is crucially tied up with the caressing discourse, with the will to power; it is the means of ‘tapping’ the unconscious mind. It is acknowledged that Nietzsche’s ideas in many ways preempt Freud, and his central ideas often require a certain self-analytical capacity or rather the capacity for self mastery requires one to wield a great deal of control over one’s unconscious drives. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory originated with hypnosis: the idea of supplicating to some outside agent as a means of accessing some repressed trauma. But he did this in a way which argued for the supremacy of the unconscious mind, bolstering the idea of there being some greater, looming force beyond conscious will, beyond all egoic thought and drives. It was perhaps this dangerous idea, entirely presumed by Freud, which led an entire epoch to believe themselves helpless in the presence of this supreme unconscious mind. But Nietzsche went in quite the opposite direction, and focused instead on how suggestion could be used as a positive force for the individual, to push themselves to newer and greater heights. And metaphor is a crucial component in this idea of suggestion and the caress.


On metaphor

An important question for Nietzsche then is: what is the relation of metaphor to truth? And he presents us with the idea that truth is only accessible by way of obscurity, of metaphor. Whilst traditionally metaphor in philosophy remains cautionary and only for the use of conceptual clarity, in the realm of Zarathustra metaphor is the only means of realizing a concept. Thus the metaphorical fertility of Zarathustra’s ideas are crucially bound up not just with the idea of self-empowerment in the reader-cum-follower, but in establishing there being some underlying, latent truth. Freud provides a useful model for this structure, wherein the dreamwork provides a manifest illusion in order to shield but nevertheless confront us with the latent truth of our torment. In many ways then, this aforementioned abyss can be likened to the abyss of metaphor into which we are plunged. One of Zarathustra’s most sublime proclamations is ‘one must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star’, and this can be read as the abyss of meaning, the chaos of individual interpretation and the collision of opposition which leads to the birth of the sublime idea. As Nietzsche elucidates, the superman ‘promotes opposition within himself’ (WTP #966), the dionysian is ‘an urge to unity’ (WTP #1050) and Zarathustra serves as the embodiment of such non-binary ideas. Lucy Huskinson argues that Nietzsche’s aversion to Christianity lies in the simple fact that ‘it provided the metaphysical model of static opposites, so that good and evil never sought unification… the ubermensch is one who has identified with primary unity’ (Nietzsche and Jung). Here then we see that chaos equates the primary unity, the unity of opposites. And what is the metaphor if not such a union of opposites? Nietzsche sees that there is great power in chaos, in the irrational, and the metaphor has the power to transform it, to harness it, to ‘ride’ it. So as we ramble through these parables and chaotic visions and songs are we to bask in this metaphorical abyss? There is little doubt that Nietzsche himself basked and relished what he saw looking out through the eyes of Zarathustra, where his philosophical mind dances, prances and pirouettes. But perhaps above all else, as he proclaims through his prophet, ‘above all you must learn to laugh!’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The Higher Men’)


nb: featured image is Hans Olde’s 1899 drawing of Nietzsche


Nietzsche’s thoughts on Consciousness

“for man, consciousness is the smallest part of thought, the most superficial. Conscious thinking takes place in words, communication signs, and here the origin of consciousness reveals itself. In short, the evolution of language and the evolution of consciousness (not of reason but only of reason’s becoming conscious of itself) go hand in hand… our becoming conscious of our own sense-impressions, the power of fixing them and, as it were, setting them outside ourselves has increased in the measure that the constraint grew to transmit them to others by signs… The nature of animal consciousness brings it about that the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world made universal and common… with all becoming conscious there is united a great fundamental corruption, falsification, superficialising and generalisation”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (354)

Nietzsche identifies that consciousness emerges as a result of language, but he does not specify written language, which is a key differentiator. He does however, like Julian Jaynes, talk of consciousness as the ‘smallest and most superficial part’ of thought (Jaynes says something similar when he uses the metaphor of a man with a torch) and even touches on the idea of a varying degree of consciousness which comes with severity of need. Nietzsche here talks of this crucial ‘fixing’ of sense-impressions and ‘setting them outside ourselves’ in consciousness, which is similarly expounded by Jaynes by way of the metaphor and ‘the illusion of continuity’. This ‘fixing’ is best thought of however in terms of Lacan’s Symbolic order, established following the mirror stage during which the child affixes words or rather submerges the surrounding Real, unknowable, objective world with a reality encompassing veneer of language (Jaynes was working on emergence of consciousness in childhood before he died but did not get so far in his formative writing on this), providing  surface order in reality. A crucial missing piece here then is in the distinction between literacy and orality, as later identified by Marshall McLuhan (with astounding exactness to Jaynes, considering their vastly different theoretical approaches). Historically speaking, introspective consciousness came about at the exact same time as recorded, written language – and this was simply because this was the historic point at which humanity was able to bury enough of the surrounding Real beneath words. This ‘weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing’ (Jaynes, p. 221), that is, of orality by literacy, thus also led to, in Jaynes’s view, the ‘silencing’ of the inner voice, which was no longer necessary except for in times of greatly increased levels of stress, which is exclusively the result of a weakening on the Symbolic (i.e. the crucial stepping stone to consciousness and the entry into the ‘silent’ world of literate man). The same process of becoming conscious now occurs in all children from literate societies (i.e. you do not have the capacity for introspection pre-mirror stage which is around 18 months) and this is so fundamentally embedded into society that we know no other way (McLuhan cites somewhere a case of a boy in a tribe who learns to read and becomes literate, and experiences a seismic change in terms of his perception of reality – Carothers in Gutenberg Galaxy?). It is likely that pre-literate, ‘verge-of-consciousness’ societies underwent a seminal change in brain chemistry, which was the direct result of writing taking over the crucial function of storing memory: knowledge became externalised and able to be passed along, and so too did an extensive cache of words and so means of logically comprehending the surrounding world by subsequent generations. The key differentiator between bicameral and conscious man is the eradication of ‘trial and error’ modes of thinking.

Notably, Nietzsche also expands on this idea that consciousness is intrinsically interwoven with the herd mentality. A parallel can here be drawn between the conscious herd, which are contained by their Symbolic order, and the unconscious Ubermenschian mind, who are cast off into that abyssal unknown, and so capable of breaching Symbolic bounds, such as the psychotic who inadvertently stands outside of the Symbolic order of language in Lacanian thought (but by Oediapal structuration or Symbolic Constitution?). Nietzsche argues that consciousness evolved ‘only with regard to usefulness for community and herd.. and even those with the best will to understand himself, to know himself, will nonetheless bring into his consciousness only what is not individual in him, his ‘average’.. thought is continually outvoted by the character of consciousness’. A link is to be drawn here with Nietzsche’s discussion of evolution, which he saw not as the archetypal ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather as the prolongation of the ‘average-est’.

Nietzsche lay down and wine spilled from the seems of his mouth as he grinned. Around him were his friends, many fellow philosophers, all whom were admired and revered, but who were as mere shadows on a cave wall in Nietzsche’s almighty presence. He was the greatest among them. They rejoice and recite poetry and reflect deep into the dark night, reclining on cushions under sprawling aphoristic stars and truth shines down on their conversations which run unbridled and free as wild horses streaming over grassy hills. Close by a young man, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writes frantically anything that the prophet utters. What seems a mere jocularity to Nietzsche seems of greatest importance to the young man. He must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the swill of wine, his mind dances at its Dionysian zenith. Nietzsche looks up to the stars, and silence adorned those around him. A comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: perhaps it is only in this faithful world of myth, in all its gleeful artistry, that we can find any truth… gaze out into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, where all potentials of the imagination are spread out before us.. it is time to relinquish this mind-shackling obsession with the definite, and instead, all hail the infinite!


NB: featured image is Brion Gysin’s ‘Calligraphie’ (1960)

“above all, you must learn to laugh!”

“Raise up your hearts my brothers, higher, higher! Raise up your legs too, good dancers, and still better, stand on your heads! This crown of laughter, the rose-wreath crown, with it I crown myself, and pronounce my laughter holy. I am yet to find anyone else today strong enough for that. Zarathustra the dancer, the light-footed, who beckons with his wings – prepare for flight!… Zarathustra, the sooth-sayer; the sooth-laugher; not impatient; not unconditional; who loves leaps and side-leaps… To you, my brothers, I now throw this crown! And your laughter I now pronounce holy: if you aspire to be higher men, then, above all, you must learn to laugh!”

– Nietzsche, Zarathustra part IV

“the abyss will gaze back into thee”

“And if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Julian Jaynes and the paranoiac infinity. The paranoiac infinity is instinct incarnate. It is the ‘trial and error’ loop which is pre-programmed into all animals including humans. But only conscious beings such as humans (‘conscious’ here used in the same sense as Julian Jaynes – generally as the capacity for introspection) are able to operate outside of instinct. Instinct is the infinitely looping continuation of inherent knowledge in all beings: the information which is stored and carried forward from generation to generation. But when humanity broke free of its reliance upon instinct around 3000 years ago, around the advent of print technology for most built-up, non-isolated societies, these instincts were buried (why store information genetically when it can be stored in the external world? In books?). These instincts are by no means extinguished, just subdued, and have  come to be known as ‘the unconscious’. So what form did these instincts take in earlier mankind before the advent of the printed word? Speech came before written language, this we know for certain. We also know that the complexity of humans meant that it was not so simple as storing simple, useful information such as the urge to bury food, or to avoid certain coloured or patterned predators. And so, according to Julian Jaynes, before the advent of the written word and its capacity to preserve knowledge, and so replace the function that instinct once served, we had the spoken word in the form of an inner voice. This voice was nothing like that which we know now, which we so easily and unthinkingly manipulate at will as we read and think routinely, but rather an autonomous, perhaps ‘superegoic’, even Godly voice which would tell us what to do, and would in a sense act as a predecessor to modern memory. Memory as we know it is only a few thousand years old, and there are those who still dwell in this preconscious, ‘outspoken’ form of memory. These are regarded as oral peoples; societies without any historic presence of literacy within their culture, and so peoples without any fully formed Symbolic order (this following Lacan, who identified the cruciality of a language-smothered surrounding world), who live in a simultaneous, instantaneous world. Marshall McLuhan in his Gutenberg Galaxy and Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy have come to the same conclusion from their own vastly different approaches. The paranoiac infinity of instinct is still there, lurking, and only reappears when such a so-called ‘madness’ is necessary as a rehabilitative process (Lacan labelled madness as innately restorative, recuperative, as did R. D. Laing). The return of the paranoiac infinity, dormant and yet present in all of us, can still be provoked and awakened in times of enormous stress: either when an Oedipal system is not properly organised during infancy and so does not allow for a totalising Symbolic network, or when the Symbolic universe is decimated by some seismic upheaval capable of reconstituting the Symbolic veneer placed atop reality (as in a psychotic breakdown). The paranoiac infinity is the primary source and fuel of all religion, of all human mythology. The many repetitions and echoes in myth which transcend cultures, are quite simply incarnations of this buried instinct. An echolalia of those that came before. But there are those who can gaze into the paranoiac infinity, into that deep well of instinct, and return unscathed. Nietzsche was such a man.

[nb. featured image is John Martin’s ‘day of his wrath’ (1853)]

“nitimur in vetitum: we strive for what is forbidden”

“Philosophy, as I have hitherto understood and lived it, is a voluntary living in ice and high mountains… from the lengthy experience afforded by such a wandering in the forbidden I learned to view the origins of morilizing and idealizing very differently from what might be desirable: the hidden history of the philosophers, the psychology of their great names came to light for me. How much truth can a spirit bear? How much truth can a spirit dare? Error, a belief in the ideal, is not blindness, but cowardice… Every acquisition and step forward in knowledge is the result of courage, of severity towards oneself… Nitimur in vetitum: in this sign my philosophy will one day conquer, for fundamentally what has hitherto been forbidden has never been anything but the truth”

Nietzsche – Ecce Homo

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“such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide”

Gerardo Dottori – Burning City (1926)

“Here is the great city: where you have nothing to seek and everything to lose… Here is the Hell for hermits’ thoughts: here great thoughts are boiled alive and cooked small. Here all great emotions decay… Do you not smell already the slaughterhouses and cook-shops of the spirit? Does this city not reek of the fumes of slaughtered spirit?… Woe to this great city! I wish I could see already the pillar of fire in which it will be consumed! For such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide… I offer you in farewell this precept: where one can no longer love, one should pass by…”

– Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra