The Strangest Book of All

“The figs are falling from the trees; they are good and sweet; and, as they fall, their red skin bursts. I am a north wind to ripe figs.”

ImageFriedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is a bizarre book, valuable to me not so much for its strange, radical philosophy as for its blastingly creative writing and its profound, vivid imagery.

What is the book about? Not much, as it turns out, of anything. It’s a series of monologues, or “prose poems”, I might suggest, by Nietzsche’s passionately creative alter-ego Zarathustra. The imagery is incredible: Nietzsche navigates metaphors of “heaven above me, pure and deep, you abyss of light!” and “that early hour when the pail rattles at the well and the horses whinny warmly through gray lanes”…

The “message”, meanwhile, is strange. The book seems to advocate a (figurative) ascent into the mountains, “where the air is raw and strong”. Nietzsche demands the abandonment of human companionship altogether, in exchange for a mind which — like that of Nietzsche himself and his character Zarathustra — supports only coursing visions of the incredible and perfect. “One once said God when one looked upon distant seas; but now I have taught you to say: overman.”

“Together we have learned to ascend over ourselves to ourselves and to smile cloudlessly—to smile down cloudlessly from bright eyes and from a vast distance when constraint and contrivance and guilt steam beneath us like rain.”

Perhaps strangest of all is Zarathustra’s midnight climb on a mountain ridge, in which “the other sea lay spread out before him” and “the night was cold at this height, and clear and starry bright”… He encounters a gateway marking the meeting of two paths. “The name of the gateway is inscribed above: ‘Moment.’” “This long lane stretches back for an eternity. And the long lane out there, that is another eternity… And this moonlight itself, and I and you in the gateway, whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must not all of us have been here before? And return and walk in that other lane, out there, before us, in this long dreadful lane—must we not eternally return?”

Zarathustra illustrates that sometimes literature must be felt rather than understood. Literature is not (always) a quest for a solution. The goal — we must remind ourselves — is not to finish the book, triumphantly close that last page, stand up, and proclaim the “answer”! The goal is to absorb the scenes and feelings, the subtle nuances of the imagery – just as one might do facing an elaborately painted scene in an art museum.

Zarathustra must be felt rather than understood; it must be read more as a work of art than as a work of advice. I hope these quotes convey that.

Most broadly, the goal of literature itself is a non-trivial question. I hope this article conveys that.

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3 comments on “The Strangest Book of All

  1. Sam says:

    Neitzche is one of my favorite philosophers, he is also super hard to understand.I will have to add this to my reading list

  2. Richard says:

    Nietzsche is unusual. Whenever I think there is something to what he is saying, particularly about morality, I am usually a little terrified, or at least excited. Nietzsche himself probably intended a lot more by this work than merely a work of art designed to please the senses. Since reading this book you might have also read some more of Friedrich Nietzsche’s work. He believes that the ascent to the icy realm of truth is one which must involve a discarding of old conventional morality which allows those who successfully ascend to become Overmen, possessors of wisdom, insight and power; the only living things whose lives are important, at least in Nietzsche’s view. Connected with this is his notion of eternal return. Only the superior men will live the kinds of lives which would warrant living over and over again for all eternity. If you can endorse the eternal reliving of your life, then you are living the highest and best form of life according to Nietzsche. If the thought brings you horror, then you are living an inauthentic existence, of little value and should be entirely subject to the will of superior men.

    • Ben says:

      Good point that Nietzsche intended more than aesthetic interest. I’ve read more of his works since then, and now I better see how Zarathustra fits into this larger framework. I would suggest, though, that Zarathustra — as compared to, say, dryer philosophical works like Genealogy of Morals — does uniquely display aesthetic, “poetic” qualities, in addition to its philosophical ones. It can perhaps be appreciated for this.

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