Book Review: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Zarathustra is not Nietzsche’s greatest work, but it is one of his most interesting. In a departure from his other works, Nietzsche abandons his aphoristic style (with some exceptions) and instead embraces an approach that consists of more narrative and poetry. This is both its great strength and its great weakness.

It is a great strength in that it allows Nietzsche to explore his unique ideas (especially the eternal recurrence, the Higher Man, and the death of God) with more depth than in nearly any of his other works. Nietzsche adopts a negative approach to philosophy in most of his other works, gleefully smashing his way through the idols of the marketplace. Here, in Zarathustra, he comes his closest to formulating a positive philosophy.

This philosophy is one that presents a challenge to any perceptive reader. The Christian, for example, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s razor-sharp criticisms of Christian beliefs; Nietzsche’s critique is not to be lightly dismissed. The atheist, on the other hand, if he is an attentive and sympathetic reader, will be challenged by Nietzsche’s own exuberant, even mystical, atheism, a far cry from the dry scientism that predominates in atheist circles today.

The style and content of Zarathustra also represent a weakness of the work in that one must be familiar with other works of Nietzsche in order to understand and appreciate it as well as one should. To this end, I particularly recommend reading Beyond Good and Evil, Human, All Too Human, and The Gay Science before one plunges into Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So properly prepared, a mindful reader of any particular philosophical persuasion will inevitably benefit from the monumental genius that was Friedrich Nietzsche.

The passion to punish

But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

Meaninglessness of man’s moment

In some remote corner … of the universe there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and mendacious moment of ‘universal history’: but only a moment. Nature took but a few breaths and the star grew cold; and the clever animals had to die. — Someone might invent such a fable as this and yet still not have illustrated well enough how pitiful, how shadowy and fleeting, how aimless and capricious the human intellectual appears within nature. There were eternities in which it did not exist; when it has gone again nothing will have happened. For there exists for that intellect no mission extending beyond the life of man.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-Moral Sense” (unpublished), quoted in R.J. Hollingdale, “Theories and Innovations in Nietzsche,” in Peter R. Sedgwick, Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, p. 114

Review: Nietzsche: A Critical Reader

Nietzsche: A Critical Reader
Nietzsche: A Critical Reader by Peter R. Sedgwick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book exhibits the marked difference between philosophy as it properly should be (i.e. the sharing of wisdom based upon one’s reflections of one’s life experiences by one who has had a great depth and width of experience) and philosophy as it has become (i.e. the dry speculation of aloof academics raised within the pampered and sheltered bourgeois class). Nietzsche is a philosopher properly speaking, one whose suffering, pleasure, passion, pain, and confrontation of the cold, hard truths of reality were the kiln in which his philosophy was baked. Most of the philosophers who philosophize on Nietzsche in this book fall into the latter category and, as a result, present a watered down, neutered version of Nietzsche.

For example, several of the writers in this book take up, sometimes briefly and sometimes at length, Nietzsche’s treatment of women. All of them dismiss is casually as “misogynistic” and unworthy of their consideration, as if that were the one part of his philosophy in which he was merely a product of the prejudices and presuppositions of his time. This is hogwash. There is no idea too dangerous to take into consideration. In fact, the more dangerous it is the more it must be considered.

The “good” of the book is twofold:

1. It is relatively interesting to see Nietzsche considered from a variety of angles all in one place at one time, essentially. Nietzsche has become somewhat like a modern day Jesus Christ in that it is difficult not to fall in love with at least some aspect of his teachings and every side wants to claim him for themselves. Just as Christ has been claimed by every group from the feminists to the communists to the nationalist socialists and the fascists, so has Nietzsche. Just as each group constructs their own Christ in their image, borrowing here and there from the historical Christ and whitewashing away those aspects of his teaching that challenge their worldview, so they do with Nietzsche. And many of the essays in this book exhibit precisely that: a feminist approach to Nietzsche, a communist approach to Nietzsche, etc. Of course, all of these various perspectives on Nietzsche tell us remarkably little about Nietzsche himself, but are quite illuminating in regards to the philosophy attempting to claim him in that instance.

2. The other part of the book which prevents me from totally disliking it is the inclusion of several essays by important 20th century philosophers discussing how Nietzsche’s philosophy relates to their own. Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, for instance, are both featured. Those two essays alone make the book worth stealing, at least, or perhaps just reading it in the bookstore, if you don’t believe in thievery; either way, I wouldn’t pay the full price for it.

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