Spoken Thusly

This review of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche is written by somebody (me, to be specific), who doesn't know a huge amount about Nietzsche or his other works. I'm going to be opportunistic about this, and interpret the book in the way it comes across to me. That is, as a piece of philosophic fiction. I do know a little of Nietzsche's other writings, and some of the commentary/beliefs associated with the philosopher, however I am far from being an expert in any regard. I have read Thus Spoke Zarathustra on its (and my) own terms, and I think this is a good, although challenging, way to find enlightening ideas in it, away from the stereotypes assigned to Nietzsche the man and his philosophy. I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra as less of a philosophy, and more as a piece of interesting fiction which investigates philosophical themes and propositions, less as prophesy or prescription, more as curiosity indulged in and caricatured. Describing it as a literary 'caricature' would be a helpful way to illustrate what the book is. In some respects it stands outside of most typical genres of academic endeavour.

But a caricature of who or what? Nietzsche? Zarathustra? The personification of a philosophy? Whose philosophy? Nietzsche's? An antithesis of a person, or philosophy, or future for humankind? Does Nietzsche agree/believe/subscribe to the representations of the main character, or any other character in his book? Do the prophesies belong to Nietzsche? Such questions may go unanswered even in a constructive interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in my view. The very title of the book itself says to me 'this is how a person could speak'.

Nietzsche is fairly commonly known to have gone clinically insane towards the end of his life. This eventuality does not serve to undo his works as a matter of course. They stand on their own in spite of the fate of the author. He could have been insane whilst he wrote an argument…it wouldn't affect whether it is ascertained as valid or not. Ludwig Wittgenstein, to use a complementary example, turned his back on the thrust of his own first philosophical publication later on in life, and rewrote his philosophical ideas. This does not undermine either Ludwig's former, or his latter works. They should be evaluated on their own terms.

Some of Nietzsche's work is known to have been (taken out of context first, and) adopted by the Second World War dictator Adolf Hitler. Once again I would strongly argue this does not necessarily reflect upon the author, however much it reflects upon the dictator. It could reflect upon Nietzsche if he had subscribed to Hitler's policies. It may be worth pointing out I found Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be extremely interesting whereas, on the other hand, I haven't read Mein Kampf (by Adolf Hitler) but I have heard it is fucking boring!Which is pre-judgemental and maybe callous of me, but perhaps a greater crime would be to pass up an opportunity to be dismissive of Hitler's authorial achievements(?)A prediction can be taken on by anyone regardless of the prophet's agreement with the 'hijacker''s philosophy. To use a trivial but equally valid example, if someone predicts rain, it is out of their hands as to how that prediction is employed subsequently by others. In addition, the book Thus Spoke Zarathustra attributes predictions to the fictional character Zarathustra. This could be seen as a way for Nietzsche to hide behind his pen, or it could be seen as a way for him to represent these prophesies without committing to them personally - and why not this? Perhaps Nietzsche does not see them as prophesies, but more as potential warnings. Just because some of them are seen to have come true, does not mean he intended them to, any more than he could have known for certain that they would.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra is written in a format which could perhaps be best understood as a series of parables. Told, as they are, through the mouths of fictional characters, this distances them in some respect from the direct philosophical purposes of the author. It seems highly probable there would be a reason for why Nietzsche invented mouthpieces for the stories. I am supposing it is because he wanted to put them forward as tales which he does not believe himself to be uniquely disposed towards telling. It is as though he is saying 'these ideas exist', rather than 'look at my ideas'. He puts ideas in the mouths of characters within particular contexts. It is roughly true to say the characters are consistent, but the abstractness of the stories, the method of their telling, and the vibrancy and liveliness of the descriptions more or less ensures they cannot be logically analysed and tested as such. Hence I mean consistency in the sense of a character whose behaviour 'rings true', rather than 'can be tested for validity'.

The high variety of characters employed, from the people through to the animals (who occasionally possess a fantastical degree of consciousness themselves), broadens the ideological dynamic throughout the different members of the cast, diffusing any message of the book insofar as it can be simply and formally apprehended. There is, clearly deliberately, many more than one single message to take away from it, and the reader has to put a lot of effort in to discern for his/herself wherein the value of the messages might consist. Many of the statements in the stories are put forward as though the speaker believes them implicitly, which, instead of seeming a more strict representation of Nietzsche's own beliefs, come across as more specifically attributive to the consciences of the characters, and so revealing the humanity, the possibility of extreme stances, and flaws of human nature as perceived by Nietzsche. And Zarathustra himself is not portrayed as infallible, however lofty and prestigious the literary platform he is given upon which to postulate; many of the statements are put across as though they are revelations of an extraordinary kind; there is very little of the mundane in Zarathustra's adventures, or sayings; however the character himself is on a journey, is taught, and learns, and grows as a person over the course of his experiences.

The ideas expressed by various individual characters in the book are frequently both controversial and forthright in the manner of their communication, put forward in opinions, advices and evaluations which are so critical/cynical as to seem almost nihilistic in their perspective as a whole. This is what makes the book so disagreeable to many, but also such a moreish text to embark upon. To challenge the opinions put forward is a constant test of ones sense of human (oneself' and others') weaknesses and strengths. As you empathise with Zarathustra, or another character, in one line, you are awkwardly disposed to retract in the next. This keeps the reader alert and in a state of polarity to the writings, more or less constantly. Which is healthy, since it is a message of, and also within, the stories that the author of the statements (whichever character it happens to be) is not right by virtue of the authority he has established for himself. To support this line of purpose, the book is written in what could be described as a poetic style, with highly abstract metaphors and figurative speech, thematically striking, enlightening and illustrational, they similarly keep you on your toes as regards their significance. Nietzsche dances along a tight-rope with this book, putting forward opinions which turn people into heroes, then into anti-heroes with doomed trajectories, into foes, demonised/forgiven, condemned/redeemed. As a hero Zarathustra is questionable, but as a devil's advocate he is an antidote to convictions as strong as his own. Nietzsche repeatedly strikes mediocrity in the heart, as regards literary style and philosophical dogma. He keeps you awake with intellectual moral adversity - which is to be contested; only insofar as you voluntarily subscribe to Zarathustra's teachings can you accuse him of prejudice.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I would argue, is not a veiled attempt by Nietzsche to expound his philosophies and beliefs without seeming to stoop so low (as to be an advocate of all or any views presented therein). It should be taken in the spirit in which it is literarily presented; as an entertaining, thought-provoking, radical, colourful, characterful, abstract, thought-provoking and at times positively antagonistic, work of fiction. It should be taken into ones psyche, perhaps, as a piece of profound science fiction might - with invention, views, cautions, dialogue, conjecture, and story lines drawn out in a dramatic form. Measured theories and, yes, even imperatives, but ones which belong in the scenarios he sets out in the world he has created. Zarathustra is aware of his own failings, and his own tendency to weaken as others do under particular natural, ordinary circumstances, as a cliche, as a fool. And Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an entertaining read. The book is appreciable for its literary style ahead of any formally constructed advices it contains. Indeed, any advices therein belong to the personality of the protagonist and are enveloped in the mode of the storytelling, and contextualised as such. And what is behind it, to those who question the values of the author, should be considered with due regard to the light thrown upon the work by this non-concrete presentational technique. Spoken thusly, the ideas are free to find their way around the reader's imagination, rather than being impelled to lodge themselves in a static place in the reader's understanding.

"'Why?' said Zarathustra. 'You ask why? I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why.
'Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions.
'Should I not have to be a barrel of memory, if I wanted to carry my reasons, too, about with me?'"

- Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche,Penguin Books, 1969, p. 149




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