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.
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