“The most profound book of mankind”, this is how, in all modesty, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of probably his most popular work, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. At that time, the wild child generated buzz among European intellectuals. What is the book actually about? Not an easy question...
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 2000
“The most profound book of mankind”, this is how, in all modesty, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) spoke of probably his most popular work, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. At that time, the wild child generated buzz among European intellectuals. True to his self-appraisal “I am not a man, I am dynamite”, the subtitle of “Zarathustra” also postulates: “For All and None”. Everybody should read it, but nobody will understand it.
Since the publication of his work in 1883-1885, literary theorists and philosophers have wondered at what holds the most personal book of Nietzsche together, at its common theme. There seems to be no storyline. The thinker Zarathustra is mocked by listeners; he decides to reveal his ideas only to a chosen few. The end of the book culminates in Zarathustra realizing the “eternal recurrence of the same events” – everything keeps repeating itself in perpetuity, punishment for the lazy ones (lolling around on the sofa never stops), reward for the active ones (an unlimited number of projects can be realized). So much for the plot. Stylistically, “Zarathustra” has much to offer: narrative passages, dialogues, poems, and parodies on the great religious texts. Why should you read this?
You can enjoy Nietzsche’s superb handling of language, you can also find his examination of biblical passages witty, discover expressions that have found their way into general vocabulary (“You go to women? Don’t forget the whip!”), and clever aphorisms – you can enjoy all this in Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra”. But you don’t have to. This writing stick of dynamite has always divided, into disciples and scorners. Concepts such as the overcoming of the all-despising nihilism by the uebermensch, a man of action who establishes his own morals (and is thus above the old values), leave a stale after-taste in the light of recent history. The Nazis deduced a social Darwinist legitimization of their master race. This did not prevent Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, from enthusiastically recommending this book as a good read to his future wife.
Among other things, Nietzsche polemicizes against Buddha’s allegedly inward-looking mindfulness meditations. He calls his own style “halkyonic”, meaning emotionally balanced and calm. Being in a mentally calm state when raging against man as a lethargic member of the flock, and at the same time demanding to take action – Nietzsche teaches you how to accomplish this.
And if you do not understand his “Zarathustra” at all, you can take comfort. In his later work “Ecce homo” Nietzsche recounts an encounter with a Dr. Heinrich von Stein, who complained that he did not understand a word of the “Zarathustra”. Nietzsche said: “That’s just as it should be: To have understood six sentences in that book – that is to say experienced them – raises a man to a higher level among mortals than “modern” men can attain.” Nietzsche already suspected that one day there would also be “entire chairs for interpreting the Zarathustra”. We are not quite there, but we are all still far from being an uebermensch.