Having recently stumbled across the film When Nietzsche Wept (I enjoyed it) and encountered the idea—again—that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is his most popular book—some say his best—I felt like leaving this note here about why I think it is not his best and maybe even his least impressive book.
Zarathustra makes too many pronouncements that lack context, leaving them open to interpretation as open as there are readers. This is because they come from Zarathustra’s inner emotional world (that we imagine is Nietzsche’s), a world we never get a glance at, leaving us to guess what kind of “guy” Zarathustra really is.
The oddest thing about the book is that Zarathustra doesn’t come off as a “guy” at all. He barely even registers as a human being. Not only is he not presented as such, but the possibility is further removed by the Biblical, Epic-Poem language. This is significant since Nietzsche’s whole philosophy is based on addressing misperceptions due to a Cartesian disconnect about what humanity is. We are not attuned to our bodies/the earth. Nietzsche addresses this time after time. His philosophy is always asking, what is a man? It is only when we begin to get past our misperceptions that we can glimpse the “overman”. But Zarathustra doesn’t even come off as a man. And no, he is not the overman, come too soon. Not even Nietzsche could see around his own corner.
What then is Zarathustra? He is a creation, a phantasm, a disembodied voice, an expression of yearning for the overman and as a “bridge” he is too long to support the single human life known as “Nietzsche”. This makes Zarathustra Nietzsche’s weakest book, because the writer gets furthest away from the “all too human” that is at the heart of his philosophy.
That’s what I like about the film, it was a good attempt at showing Nietzsche in his humanity: a guy, a man like others.
We got to the beach under a great big gray swirling cloud and a waterspout out in the Gulf. Evidence of furious winds having just passed were strewn over the streets. Later when we got out of the water, finally chilled, and rinsed in the foot wash I saw, just at the base of the post holding the faucet, four newborn squirrels. Three were dead but the fourth, besieged by large strong ants, was moving.
My partner’s turn at the foot wash and I implored, ‘don’t look, don’t look!’ But of course she looked, and I looked again. As we backed away from this scene of horror I thought of this as a snapshot of the Nietzschean phrase, “beyond good and evil”. I shared this thought with my partner and as we walked down the beach taking in, as we always do, the overwhelming beauty surrounding us, we found ourselves speaking with admiration for—the ants!
The ants, biting into the hairless nose of that most innocent of creatures, just-born and blind, and only alive to a world of pain. The ants, we noticed, were going after the still-living one and we wondered what the newborns looked like from the ants’ perspective. I recalled having heard or read somewhere someone imagining insect consciousness is like: is this creature before me something I can eat or something that will eat me?
No doubt, just before our arrival, a fast-moving storm with furious winds, too local and fleeting to be noted on the nightly weather report, had indeed passed through. It had blown a nest of newborns out of a tree and, apparently, far enough away that the mother could not find them or, if she did, saw that they were a lost cause, abandoning even the still moving one to the ants, beyond morality, to do just what ants do and thankfully, because if they were not here the beauty we love so much would be coated with slime.
And why now should I feel ashamed of my love of beauty, like Adam his nakedness? Surely it is because I am human, all too human. What we call “nature” is absolutely outside the bounds of human morality. It offers what we call “beauty” and “horror” altogether, all as one, without judgement. My groping is a crude version of Zarathustra’s. Yes, I admire the ants, as I love the beauty of the beach and shrink in horror at the sight of a dying animal. But these categories: admiration, beauty, horror, draw borders around me and define me in my humanness. I do not believe in the overman. What is a man? As far as I’m concerned, he is a nerve, beyond microscopic, quivering between beauty and horror in the vastness of the cosmos.