Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (or Thus spake Zarathustra according to the older, and more arcane sounding, title) is an ocean of deep thoughts and rare feelings. Pictorially, it is a high mountain, with a chilly, rarified atmosphere, as Nietzsche himself intimated: “the air of my writings knows that it is an air of the heights, a robust air.” Nietzsche wrote Zarathustra in Italy in a fit of frantic inspiration. In his autobiography, he relates that he wrote the insight-laden first part in only 10 days. Nobody in this day and age can experience inspiration like he does, he claims, an inspiration which takes control of him, ‘occurs’ to him, and to which any true artist must ultimately sacrifice their Self “like a sacrificial beast.”
At the end of his poignant, maniacal and self-aggrandizing autobiography, Nietzsche asks a pointed, and apparently as-yet-still-unanswered question: Have I been understood? Let me take the question personally and try to answer it earnestly. I will answer your question based on my reading of four of your books, Herr Nietzsche: Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, The Birth of Tragedy, and Ecce Homo.
In order to explain my understanding of Nietzsche, let me first explain its basis and prerequisite. The path of a correct comprehension of Nietzsche lies in affects: raw, direct, unmediated feeling. There is no question of trying to grasp a desperate book like Zarathustra with the brain, in a purely dry and intellectual matter. A fine attunement of sentiment is required, a discerning faculty that blends the physiological feeling in the solar plexus, combining it with fragments of images, colors and a salad of disparate impressions; or, à la Nietzsche, a refined sense of smell, for “my genius is in my nostrils”, as Nietzsche informs us.
In my case, the royal road to understanding Nietzsche is another member of the German cultural sphere: Carl Gustav Jung. Au fait, Jung’s life interacted with Nietzsche’s in at least one locality, Basel, where they attended the same university, although Nietzsche had already died by the time Jung was there. Jung, in his psychological work, emphasized an enhanced understanding of the unconscious, through dreams, visions and artistic work. Jung’s underscores feeling, the strengthening of feeling, and the ultimate feast of feeling, the archetypes. Without recognizing the most profound feelings, there is no understanding of the archetypes, and without grasping the archetypes, there is no understanding of the inner Self: in short, becoming conscious can be only be had through a direct colloquy with one’s feelings. Nietzsche, himself under the influence of a frightful archetype, can only be understood through feeling. His monstrous archetype manifested itself in Zarathustra. Nietzsche unleashed his overflowing unconscious in Zarathustra, and only an appreciation of such archetypal effects can open the door to an understanding, through the gut, of Zarathustra, and indeed, of Nietzsche’s other works.
Incidentally, Jung had a lot to say about Nietzsche, and his fascination with him came second only to his fascination with Goethe’s Faust. In fact, Jung dedicated a whole series of seminars to Zarathustra. In his autobiography, Jung relates, “There were some persons at the university who had known Nietzsche personally and were able to retail all sorts of unflattering tidbits about him.” He goes on,
“He had inner experiences, insights which he had unfortunately attempted to talk about, and had found that no one understood him. Obviously he was, or at least was considered to be, an eccentric, a sport of nature, which I did not want to be under any circumstances. I feared I might be forced to recognize that I too was another such strange bird. Of course, he was a professor, had written whole long books and so had attained unimaginable heights, but, like me, he was a clergyman’s son. He, however, had been born in the great land of Germany, which reached as far as the sea, while I was only a Swiss and sprang from a modest parsonage in a small border village. He could well afford to be something of an eccentric, but I must not let myself find out how far I might be like him.”
Jung further recounts how he was thrilled to discover that Nietzsche, like himself, had a “No. 2 personality,” an inner, deeper person that spoke and thought unlike the everyday, historical, conscious ego-personality. This No.2 was the “morbid” Zarathustra, whom Nietzsche naïvely had let loose on the world, “moved by the childish hope of finding people who could share his ecstasies and grasp his ‘transvaluation of all values.’”`
Nietzsche’s obsession with his inner person, Zarathustra, and his proclaiming of a Gospel of sorts based on the sayings of said personality, could only lead to one fate: inflation. Jung in his works repeatedly warns of inflation, a dangerous condition in which there is an excessive identification with the contents of the unconscious. Nietzsche’s inflation had, according to Jung, pushed him “into the abyss.” The suprapersonal contents of the unconscious had exerted their inexorable influenced on Nietzsche, which I suspect had a hand in ending his sanity. Shortly before he became insane, this slippery slope manifested itself in his autobiography Ecce Homo, wherein he states, “I am not a man. I am dynamite.” He makes clearly inflated claims: I am the first, I am the best, I am destiny. The books contains chapters like “Why I am clever,” “Why I write such good books.” In Ecce Homo, “overcomer” that he was, Nietzsche allowed himself a excessive degree of self-identification with Zarathustra, thus ironically succumbing to a dangerous case of “non-self-overcoming.” Zarathustra himself states that those who have found him have found nothing, and he will only return to them when they have found himself. Zarathustra, then, unsurprisingly, is Nietzsche’s supraordinate personality, his inner greater twin. To those who would think that Zarathustra is Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the conduit of his crazier ideas, Achtung! It is closer to the truth to say that it was Nietzsche who was Zarathustra’s mouthpiece.
So, moved by feeling, buffeted by affect, let us move on to an attempt at a preliminary understanding of Nietzsche’s main concepts. Firstly, his concept of the Übermensch (variously translated as Superman or Overman). To my mind, the Übermensch is the ultimately, supremely, thoroughly self-conscious man, who constantly “self-overcomes”: overcomes his weaknesses, motives, inner and secret feelings and thoughts, his archetypes, exposes them, brings up to the surface, makes them completely conscious and amenable to manipulation, and then, one by one, consequentially, tames and corrals all these hidden impulses, thereby emerging as a new man, a greater man. The Overman conquers himself and then conquers the world. He overcomes his instincts, and thereby owns himself completely. “As yet, there has been no Overman,” states Zarathustra.
The antithesis to the Overman is the Modern man. Ironically, while Jung’s Modern Man seems to correspond in some measure to Nietzsche’s Overman, modern man in the mouth of Nietzsche has an overly negative meaning: a despicable intellectual, wallowing in the ease of modern life, immediately acceptable values, facile assumptions, one who is unable to “wage war”, one who is not possessed of exceptional spiritual health. Nietzsche’s Modern Man goes with flow, as a comfortable member of the Herd of Man. (On the other hand, Jung described his conception of the modern man as follows:”he is the man who stands upon a peak, or at the very edge of the world, the abyss of the future before him, above him the heavens, and below him the whole of mankind with a history that disappears in the primeval mists.”)
Is it understood what Nietzsche meant by preacher’s of death? We have a supremely modern and telling example: suicide bombings. How else could we understand that utter contempt for the body? Suicide bombings are promoted by preachers of death, despisers of the body in Nietzsche’s parlance. There is no greater body-contempt than voluntarily losing one’s head and shattering one’s own limbs and the limbs of many others, all in hope of bliss in the hereafter. The suicides’ spirit is weary and ready to throw the body in the inferno of the Nothing. They are also afterworldsmen: people who bury heads in heavenly sands, people whose whole motivation consists of a vision beyond and outside this world, of heavenly delights and rewards, or brute punishment meted out as justice. According to Nietzsche, the giddy poison of the Beyond, Afterworlds, fear of punishment and seeking after rewards, all these motives should be banished and cast off, relegated to the trash bin of values. Thus new values are set in their place. And this, precisely, is the transvaluation of all values. For Nietzsche, values should flow from the basic, true, instincts of man: a joy in conquering, in dominating, perhaps even cruelty, a healthy yearning towards life. The sex drive, and the acquiring of property, and women and children, should be the Trieb (instinct, drive) driving marriage, not mere love. Ultimately, tragedy is what redeems life. Tragedy is itself the illusion of the illusion, the “colored vapors” that redeems us from the pain of this life, which, ultimately, can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. Tragedy is the overcoming of life, a delight in the horrors of life through an affirmation of life, an inexorable desire of life, a robust health and hunger for life, an indomitable Yes to life. The Dionysian principle, according to Nietzsche, the irrational, crazy bits of life, battle with and ultimately integrate with the Apolline principle, which is all order, normalcy, and clean dreaming.
Despite his fascination, Jung distanced himself from Nietzsche, fearing the latter’s terrible fate, insanity and a years of languishing in a sanatorium, eventually to be cared for by the anti-Semitic sister he despised, who moreover tried to twist his ideas and adulterate his philosophy (she even forged letters to be addressed to her by Nietzsche.) But would Nietzsche have minded his insanity, seeing as he wrote of affirmation of life through amor fati¸ love of one’s fate? “Eternal return” was an important part of Nietzsche’s concepts, his idea that history ultimately repeats itself. The greatest affirmation, according to him, is to accept one’s life as it is, to the point of having absolutely no regrets, of wishing an exact rerun of one’s drama. For the past is redeemed by converting “I wish it had been thus” to “I wanted it thus.” Truly, nobody would be capable of such an unimaginably mammoth psychological undertaking but the Übermensch himself.
At the end of Ecce Homo, we read this sentence: Have I been understood? Dionysos against the Crucified. At least in part, yes, you have been understood.