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*Disclaimer* The following review may incite disgust or excitability of a higher nature, such as holy laughter, depending on one’s understanding of God. You may be offended if your nature is of the more serious persuasion, but I believe in the joy and freedom that laughter brings. Besides, life is a journey and this book is nothing if not a story of a journey.
*Second Disclaimer* I am not a student of philosophy and have never read this German’s translated work before, so please realize that my complete understanding of the manuscript, with only one reading of it, will be limited. Fortunately there are extensive translator’s notes!
*Third…Oh, sorry, I got carried away for a minute. Yes, well, I’ve finally come to the end of Friedrich Nietzsche’s best-received novel, Thus Spake Zarathustra or Also Sprach Zarathustra. I read over the last page several times and think I understand the whole thing enough to give you a satisfactory report, but, of course, I could be wrong. If you are already incensed with mirth, I do understand. Some of you could probably teach rings around me when it comes to Nietzsche. For those of you who, like me, have been deprived of this philosopher writer’s profundity, I think you’ll appreciate this review.
As briefly and painlessly as possible…
Zarathustra is thirty years old when he leaves home for the mountains to enjoy solitude for ten years. Now his fortieth birthday really strikes a nerve. Suddenly he’s not happy with the way life is going and he soliloquizes (had to look up the spelling!) about how God has died and man must be better than his human nature. He sets out for the forest below, searching among men for the “higher” man or “overman” rather than a superman. Preaching to a saint and then townspeople of how they should put their hopes on earth instead of the supernatural, he finally senses that they are not getting it. His ideas are very strange to say the least.
Someone jeers at him that everyone hates him, so he’d better skidaddle. After burying a dead man he had counseled to not fear death, being no devil or hell, by sticking him in a hollow tree when gravediggers scorned him, he continues his journey. His companions throughout are an eagle and serpent twined about its neck representing pride and wisdom, but he longs for human companionship. (So did Nietzsche.) Zarathustra believes that by treating men as friends instead of people to instruct he would solve his communication problem.
Then his speeches begin, always ending with “Thus spoke Zarathustra.” For two parts of the four in this novel, we hear his teaching on things such as “On the Three Metamorphoses,” “On War and Warriors (he believed in it),” “On the Way of the Creator,” “On Priests (they did not know how to love God except by crucifying man, pp. 92),” “On Self-Overcoming,” and “On Human Prudence (I guess you would call my overman—devil, pp. 144).” He speaks to a soothsayer, animals like sheep and a firehound (translated it means stupid creature), Cupid and girls, friends, enemies, disciples even, but in utter frustration he has had enough and retreats to the mountains again.
In the third section, he is so miserable up there in the cold that he descends again to the sea where he slips aboard a ship. At the end of the last section he hears in his head the command to become like a child and not be ashamed. Now he is confronted by a half-dwarf, half-mole creature who, like the devil, mocks him and his dreams. Before he leaves the ship undiscovered, he has a fight with his human desire for happiness, which is represented by the sun. He offers himself to all unhappiness, but the night remains lit up as if laughing at him.
Finally on land again he wanders through towns, meeting a madman that people called “Zarathustra’s ape.” After being “nauseated” by the great city and the madman, he goes back to his cave on the mountain via The Motley Cow, the town he loves.
Man is hard to discover—hardest of all for himself; often the spirit lies about the soul (human nature lies about our reason, I think). Thus the spirit of gravity (love of earth?) orders it. He (Zarathustra), however, has discovered himself who says, “This is my good and evil’; with that he has reduced to silence the mole and dwarf who say, “Good for all, evil for all.” Pp 194
The fourth section is my favorite. All through the novel, Nietzsche has made fun of things of the Bible like getting rid of old tablets with writing on them for new and an ass that talks. It is this ass that gets his goat in the end, too. After meeting a couple of kings, a man with a conscience, a magician, the last pope, a sermonizer of the mount preaching to a herd of cows (hilarious) and the ugliest man who murdered God, he makes his way back to his cave at the end of the day where they all wait for him. They admire him and wish to hear more of his wisdom, but when he tells them to laugh and be merry, then escapes for fresh air, suddenly their laughter ceases.
(Skip to Final Comments if you don't want spoilers.)
Zarathustra sticks his head in and is horrified to see them all worshiping the talking ass. All except the sermonizer who didn’t want to participate in their, um, last supper. When asked why they had resurrected God in the ass, the pope replied, “…forgive me, but in what pertains to God I am even more enlightened than you. And that is proper. Better to adore God in this form than in no form at all!…”
The man with the conscience notes, “…Think about yourself, Zarathustra! You yourself—verily, overabundance and wisdom could easily turn you into an ass…You are the evidence.”
Was Zarathustra angry? Heck, he was delighted to see them in such a good mood for once. He enjoyed their “ass festival” and asked that next time they celebrate it they do it in his name. That’s not quite the ending, which includes a lion and a flock of doves, but the meaning of it is that he doesn’t care for pity, which is what killed God who pitied man so much.
I think you can guess pretty much what I thought of this 327-page novel. I only go into great detail when I really like something and want to share with readers why I loved it. Yes, heehaw, I got a kick out of it, especially the last part. If I didn’t mention Nietzsche’s major theme of the eternal recurrence of man, I am now. He did not follow Darwin’s theory of evolution, but believed that man would stay the same forever doing the same things (like worshipping God). He found it hardest to accept that the little man, common man, would keep being petty and paltry.
Walter Kaufmann translated this and did a wonderfully evocative job, I think. His notes were very helpful in pointing out things I wouldn’t have noticed or understood. I’m glad I read this, but I think I’d get more out of it with a second or third reading. What I’ll remember is probably Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence and the mockery of Christian beliefs. Sorry, if that offends you, but it is extremely well-done!
I do recommend this novel to anyone with a philosophical state of mind. If you can relate to Nietzsche’s loneliness shown so hauntingly by his godless prophet, you should enjoy this very much. Maybe it’ll teach you how to be like a child again!
Good review on a seriously difficult subject!! I read it years and years ago and really should take another look, although wrestling with some of the thornier issues in Nietzche can be hard work. Kirstyxx