Thursday, May 31, 2012

Transcendence In A New Key

Julian Young’s analysis of Thus Spoke Zarathustra provides several useful insights on what Nietzsche intended with his metaphorical work. Much of the book’s teaching is based on Nietzsche’s prior thinking about being a free spirit within common society. The town in which the tightrope walker has his encounter with the jester, for example, is called The Motley Cow.

“The Motley Cow ('motley' is the word Plato's Republic uses to describe and condemn the democratic state) is just Western modernity. 'Motley' signifies the semi-'barbarism' we have repeatedly seen ascribed to modernity by Nietzsche's cultural criticism. 'Cow', obviously, signifies that the town is inhabited by 'the herd'. That modernity is herd-like might seem inconsistent with motleyness, but I think that what Nietzsche has in mind is the capacity of politicians and the press to whip up mass hysteria...” (page 368)

“...the failure to produce creative free spirits will lead to the literal end of humanity - in the face, for example, of global warming. Free-spiritedness often ends in 'martyrdom' - which suggests that the jester may represent conventional opinion, surer of foot than the free spirit because it follows a path (a 'neutral pathway') it has trodden a thousand times before. The beginning of Zarathustra's ministry to the world thus begins in total disaster. But, it is, nonetheless, a learning experience for him.” (page 369)

Young stresses that much contained in the book is autobiographical, which – of course – is what makes it a philosophical work more than just a story.

'At one time Zarathustra too cast his delusion beyond the human, like all believers into a world behind (the veil of appearances). The work of a suffering and tortured god seemed to me then. A dream it seemed to me, and a fable of a god, colored smoke before the eyes of one divinely discontented.' But this other world is a 'heavenly nothing'. This accurate summary of The Birth of Tragedy makes clear how closely Zarathustra's spiritual development is modeled on Nietzsche's own. One major function of Zarathustra is, under the guise of fiction, to present Nietzsche's path of spiritual development as exemplary, to present his idealized self as an 'educator'. To be noted in this passage is the rejection of metaphysical idealism, showing, should there be any doubt, that Nietzsche still endorses the naturalistic presuppositions of the positivist period. 'Materialist' presuppositions indeed: 'soul', pronounces Zarathustra, 'is merely a word for something about the body'.” (pp. 370 - 371)

As autobiography, the work is marked by all of Nietzsche’s prejudices. There is no better example of this than the passages pertaining to women throughout the book. As I have said before, Nietzsche never understood women and this was a source of trouble for him all his life, even though he remained near women of higher education and quality, as we shall continue to see. While he was more “enlightened” and “progressive” than most Europeans during his lifetime, on the subject of women he remained impoverished and even spiteful.

Zarathustra addresses a 'little old woman'. Everything about women, he tells her, has pregnancy as a solution. A man should be brought up for war and the woman for the recreation of the warrior. The woman's task is to bring out the child in the man. The happiness of the man is 'I will', of a woman 'he wills'. Her world becomes 'perfect' when she obeys out of total love. The old woman replies with 'a little truth': 'You are going to woman? Then don't forget your whip'.

“This, of course, is the infamous 'whip' remark. There are two ways of interpreting the remark: one might take it that Nietzsche is encouraging sadistic behavior towards women or alternatively - particularly if one connects the remark with the 'whip' photograph taken in Basel - take it as a warning that, given half a chance, women will seek to gain the whip hand in any relationship, thereby upsetting the natural order of things. In either case, the message of the passage is a radical denial of the movement for female emancipation that was gathering force around him, a reactionary reaffirmation of the traditional repression of women.

“This is a very marked contrast between Nietzsche's empathetic stance towards the plight of women in nineteenth-century Europe in the pre-Lou period and this rising male chauvinism to the point, even by nineteenth-century standards, of caricature, this insulting slapping down of everything Lou (and Malwida) aspired to.

“Women attract Nietzsche because the erotic represents transcendence of the suffering individual (a la Tristan und Isolde), the 'intoxicated' absorption into a 'higher community' as described in The Birth of Tragedy.“ (page 373) 

“Part III, however, Nietzsche remains opposed to female emancipation: 'woman are becoming mannish,' he claims, because there is so little ‘manfulness’ in men - only a properly mannish man will 'redeem the woman in woman'. This still sounds pretty awful to modern ears. But it is embedded in an important and seriously philosophical thesis, the thesis we have already confronted that people are by nature different, so that the proper and most satisfying kind of life varies radically from one kind of individual to another, and possibly from one gender to the other.” (page 374)

Young correctly points out the subtle change in style between the first two parts of the work. This is an excellent example of how Nietzsche conceived of Zarathustra as being simultaneously philosophical prose and lyrical poetry.

“The most salient aspect of the 'new speech' which is said to distinguish Part II from Part I is the introduction of the 'songs' Zarathustra 'sings' as distinct from the speeches which he 'speaks'. These, it seems to me (remembering that Nietzsche sometimes thinks of Zarathustra as a musical work) can be taken as 'arias' which, rather than advancing the narrative or the matter of discussion, express Zarathustra's feelings as he proceeds along his path of spiritual development.” (page 378)

Once again, Nietzsche drives home the point that all the world’s religions, and particularly Christianity, serve to direct the focus of the human being in the wrong direction, leading to an incorrect attitude toward life on this Earth. Life is for affirmation not for looking outside of oneself for answers to pointless questions of meaning and guilt.

“Christianity, as well as most other world religions, think of 'salvation', whether of the individual or the world, as a blissful state which brings history, in at least the ordinary sense, to an end. But suppose that we can find salvation in life. Suppose we can 'redeem', turn to 'gold', everything painful and problematic that has happened? Then our world is already 'perfect', 'salvation' has been achieved, and we have no need for any other kind of salvation. The kingdom of heaven is here and now, so that we have no need of a kingdom somewhere else and in the future.” (page 380 - 381)

“Zarathustra offers us, as it were, transcendence in a new key. Lou Salomé described this as Nietzsche's 'unequivocal plunge into the eternal riddle of mysticism'. But though on the right lines, the implication that Dionysian transcendence takes us beyond, or even against, reason is, I think, mistaken. For Nietzsche's soberly rational philosophizing, too, tells us that, from an ultimate point of view, individuality is an illusion. If, as we have seen on numerous occasions, the everyday 'self' thinks that it acts and is 'responsible' for those actions, then it is deluded. What is really responsible for 'my' actions, in a world completely 'knotted together' by cause and effect, is the total casual history of the world, and from this it follows that the enlightenment use of the 'I' is to apply it to that total history.” (page 381 - 382)

“If I am the passionate life-affirmer Nietzsche wants me to be then the last thing I want to do is die. (No one wants to abandon a terrific party that is still in full swing.) For the healthy life-affirmer, one's own death can never turnout 'for the best'. For the unhappy life-denier, of course, death may well be the best, but for him there are a myriad of other obstacles to affirming the circle. Death, then, is the fly in the ointment: because of the omnipresent 'shadow' of death the circle cannot be affirmed from the ordinary perspective but demands the extra-ordinary: transcendence to identification with the totality. From that point of view the situation is transformed: the death of that individual I once thought I was appears, now, as a triviality. And a necessity, too, since I see that the death of the old is a prerequisite for the birth of the new.” (page 382)

As I have previously posted, Nietzsche conceived Part Four as an afterthought. But, more than that, he was hesitant about even publishing it with the rest of the work.

“By 1886, however, his letters make clear that he genuinely did not want to publish Part IV: on account of its extremely blasphemous nature, he feared 'the police' and the possible loss of his pension. As well as gratuitously offending people like his mother, Part IV, he feared, might result in banning the whole of Zarathustra.” (page 383)

Nevertheless, Young argues that Part Four truly rounds out and properly completes the overall work. Once again, this is a metaphorical expression of Nietzsche’s personal spiritual and philosophical development.

“There is a pleasing symmetry to the work. Wandering around in the vicinity of his cave the by now white-haired Zarathustra meets eight 'higher men' – presumably candidates for the status of being the 'the free spirits' for whom Nietzsche's books have been written - and invites all of them to a feast in his cave. Though they turn out to fall short of his high expectations, they are, nonetheless, all genuinely 'higher' than the flea-sized rabble of modernity's 'last men'.

“Fairly clearly, these are all aspects of Nietzsche's own personality and history. To the extent Zarathustra finds the higher man 'not high enough', they represent aspects of his life and personality Nietzsche now regards himself as having 'overcome': he was Schopenhauerian, he ranted and raved against modernity, he was a scholar of meaningless philological minutia, he was a Wagnerian, he was forced to give up God by Christian truthfulness. He lived a life of voluntary poverty, he has many 'ugly' parts to his soul, manifested especially in the Salomé affair, and he was, in his positivist period, a Wanderer and a shadow of his former self.” (page 384)