The writing of Zarathustra obsessively consumed his life and, with each successive part, Nietzsche thought he had a completed the whole work. But, he kept adding new material from numerous journal entries he kept beginning in 1883, at one time considering a total work of half a dozen sections, but he ended with four. Part III concludes climatically, however, indicating that ultimately Part IV was an afterthought. By March 1884 “…he had corrected the final page proofs of Zarathustra III and ended his ‘symphony’ with a finale linking it to the start of the trilogy – to form a circle…” (Cate, page 446)
“On January 25, 1884, he informed Overbeck of the work’s completion, adding that ‘the whole work has come into being in the course of precisely one year; strictly, in the course of 3 x 2 weeks: I have never sailed such a journey over such a sea’. The ‘3 x 2 weeks’ exhibits a persistent tendency on Nietzsche’s part to exaggerate the inspirational nature of Zarathustra, to represent it as a gift of the gods. In reality, a glance at the notebooks reveals literally hundreds of pages of preparatory work for sections of Zarathustra and plans for its overall structure.
“Nietzsche described Zarathustra as a great ‘bloodletting’ in which the stirrings of the blood by the torments of the Salomé affair found their ‘retrospective justification’. But he found it hard to decide what kind of book he had written. Sometimes the notebooks refer to its parts as ‘acts’, which suggest a kind of theatre piece, while at other times he calls it a ‘symphony’. Sometimes he insists it is ‘nothing literary’ but rather a ‘great synthesis’ of his philosophy to date. But at other times he calls it ‘poetry’, poetry which goes beyond everything he has written as a ‘philosopher’ and expressing for the first time his ‘most essential thoughts’.
“What he is clear about, and correct to insist upon, is that, above all, the book is conceived as a religious work. In the first place, the eponymous hero whose ‘speeches’ make up the great bulk of the work is a religious figure – Zarathustra is Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. Second, the style of his speech is overwhelmingly that of the Bible – he seems to have thought of its author as Luther leavened with elements of Goethe. Third, Nietzsche actually calls it a religious work, referring to it variously as ‘a fifth Gospel’ and a ‘new “holy book”’ which ‘challenges all existing religions’, especially, of course, Christianity. Zarathustra is, in a word, intended to be the central, sacred text of the new religion that is to replace the now-‘dead’ Christianity.
“Zarathustra is intended, then, to be the Bible of a new religion – a religion, Nietzsche would add, ‘of life’ rather than of ‘after-life’. As the New Testament narrates Jesus’s exemplary life and spiritual journey, so Nietzsche’s text narrates Zarathustra’s. Among other things, that is, it is a Bildungsroman, a story of its hero’s spiritual development, his progress towards the ultimate ‘greatness’ of soul that consists in embracing the eternal return, a story that is supposed to inspire us to follow in his footsteps. In Nietzsche’s earlier language, Zarathustra is the great ‘educator’.” (Young, pp. 366 – 367)
But, Walter Kaufmann reminds us that, for all its lofty intent in Nietzsche’s mind, Zarathustra is an intimate work of a man reeling from the effects of his failure to find a place in “the society of men” in 1882. For the most, the rest of his life he lived as a recluse. “…the most important single clue to Zarathustra is that it is the work of an utterly lonely man.” (page 103)
Kaufmann quotes an earlier Nietzsche scholar describing Fritz’s working habits and lifestyle during the many months the four-part work was conceived and written. “’Carefully the myopic man sits down to a table; carefully, the man with the sensitive stomach considers every item on the menu; whether the tea is not too strong, the food not spiced too much, for every mistake in his diet upsets his sensitive digestion, and every transgression in his nourishment wreaks havoc with his quivering nerves for days. No glass of wine, no glass of beer, no alcohol, no coffee at his place, no cigar or cigarette after his meal, nothing that stimulates, refreshes, or rests him: only the short meager meal and a little urbane, unprofound conversation in a soft voice with an occasional neighbor (as a man speaks who for years has been used to talking and is afraid of being asked too much).
“’And up again into the small, narrow, modest, coldly furnished chamber garnie, where innumerable notes, pages, writings, and proofs are piled up on the table, but no flower, no decoration…Back in the corner, a heavy and graceless wooden trunk, his only possession, with the two shirts and the other worn suit. Otherwise, only books and manuscripts, and on a tray innumerable bottles and jars and potions: against the migraines, which often render him all but senseless four hours, against his stomach cramps, and above all the dreadful sedatives against his insomnia, chloral hydrate and Veronal. A frightful arsenal of poisons and drugs, yet the only helpers in the empty silence in this strange room in which he never rests except in brief and artificially conquered sleep. Wrapped in his overcoat and a woolen scarf (for the wretched stove smokes only and does not give warmth), his fingers freezing, his double glasses pressed close to the paper, his hurried hand writes for hours – words the dim eyes can hardly decipher. For hours he sits like this and writes until his eyes burn.’ (page 104)
Kaufmann continues with his own insights: “That is the framework, which changes little wherever he is. But his letters seem to reveal another dimension, for at times they are shrill and strange and remind us of his vitriolic remark about Jesus: it is regrettable that no Dostoevski lived near him. Who else could do justice to this weird, paradoxical personality? Yet the clue to these letters, as also to Zarathustra and some of the last books, is that they are the work of a thoroughly lonely man. Sometimes they are really less letters than fantastic fragments out of a soul’s dialogue with itself. Now pleasant and polite, now such that arrogance is far too mild a word – and yet his feeling of his own importance, painfully pronounced even in some very early letters, was of course not as insane as it must have appeared at times to those to whom he wrote. Resigned that those surrounding him had no idea who he was, and invariably kind to his social and intellectual inferiors, he sometimes felt doubly hurt that those who ought to have understood him really had less respect for him than his most casual acquaintances. Book after book – and either no response, or some kind words, which were far more unkind than any serious criticism, or even good advice, or pity, worst of all.
“In his letters these dramatic outbursts are relatively exceptional. But the histrionics of Zarathustra should be seen in the same light. For impulses that others vent upon their wives or friends, or at a party, perhaps over drinks, Nietzsche had no other outlet. In Nizza, where he wrote Part Three of Zarathustra, he met a young man, Dr. Paneth, who had read the published portion and was eager to talk with the author. On December 26, 1883, Paneth wrote home: ‘There is not a trace of false pathos or the prophet’s pose in him, as I had rather feared after his last work. Instead, his manner is completely unoffensive and natural. We began a very banal conversation about climate, living accommodations, and the like. The he told me, but without the least affectation or conceit, that he always felt himself to have a task and that now, as far as his eyes would permit it, he wanted to get out of himself and work up whatever might be in him.’
“We may wish he had taken out his histrionics on Paneth and spared us some of the melodrama in Zarathustra. In places, of course, the writing is superb and only a pedant could prefer a drabber style. But often painfully adolescent emotions distract our attention from ideas that cannot be dismissed as immature at all.
“After all has been said, Zarathustra still cries out to be blue-penciled; and if it were more compact, it would be more lucid too. Even so, there are few works to match its wealth of ideas, the abundance of profound suggestions, the epigrams, the wit. What distinguishes Zarathustra is the profusion of ‘sapphires of the mind.’ But what the book loses artistically and philosophically by never having been critically edited by its author, it gains as a uniquely personal record.” (pp. 105-107)
The work is as light-hearted and filled with clever play on words as it is serious in an attempt to lay out the groundwork of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy. But, as Kaufmann indicates in his introduction to the work, Nietzsche is so clever and often elegant with his use of the German language that much of his meaning in structuring of words together as he does in Zarathustra is lost in translation into English. So, in addition to the fact the work would have been better served with a more polished rewrite rather than each part being so “spontaneously” and hastily submitted, there is a deeper layer buried within his use of language itself which communicates much, but only if read and understood in German. Therefore, the Zarathustra I have always read, despite its renown and moments of brilliance, suffers from a definitive murkiness with which Nietzsche’s previous works were not so heavily saddled.
“Much of what is most untranslatable is an expression of that Übermut which Nietzsche associates with the Übermensch: a lightness of mind, a prankish exuberance – though the term can also designate that overbearing which the Greeks called hybris. In any case, such play on words must be kept in translation: how else is the reader to know which remarks are inspired primarily by the possibility of a pun or a daring rhyme? And robbed of its rapidly shifting style, clothed in archaic solemnity, Zarathustra would become a different work – like Faulkner done into the King’s English. Nietzsche’s writing, too, is occasionally downright bad, but at its best – superb.” (page 110)
Fritz had survived the Lou Salomé affair. He survived by what he termed in his book as “self-overcoming.” Self-overcoming was an early Nietzsche idea, but only in Zarathustra is it articulated fully, along with the Ubermensch, the Will to Power, and the Eternal Recurrence of the Same, the primary columns supporting Nietzsche’s mature philosophy. Somewhere between Young’s perspective of Nietzsche’s intent to found a “new religion” and Kaufmann’s “histrionics of a lonely man” lies the splendid height and the despairing depth – and, yes, the brave, error-prone brilliance – of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.