I do not wish for life again. How have I borne it? By being creative. What makes me able to bear the sight of my life? The vision of the Übermensch who affirms life. I have tried to affirm it myself – ah!

– Nietzsche’s journal

Now I am facing my task all alone … I need a bulwark against the unendurable.

– Nietzsche in a letter to Franz Overbeck, December 1882

And how could I endure to be a man, if man were not also poet and reader of riddles and … a way to new dawns?

– Thus Spake Zarathustra

In the first discourse of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche relays, through a single protagonist, the story of three metamorphoses. The story describes how the spirit of life liberates itself from the tyranny of the collective to become authentic and creative. It is thus Nietzsche’s fable of self-realisation – his story of the self.

Zarathustra’s story has all the charm of a fairytale. In its first transformation the spirit emerges as a camel. It kneels down willing to bear the heavy burdens of other people. Carrying the weight of the world on its back, it slowly makes its way into the desert. But, there in the arid wasteland, a second transformation takes place. The camel turns into a lion. The noble beast roars at those who, in the holy name of morality, had only exploited the good will and reverence of the camel. The lion has the courage to spurn all edicts, to defy all tyrannies. It is ready to meet the imperious collective Thou shalt with a defiant I will. A master of assertion, the lion claims its right to freedom, and yet does not possess the energy to create a higher form of life. It confronts a huge void. It is free from, but not free to. At this point, the third metamorphosis takes place. The lion is transformed into a child with the power to play, to create, to experiment. This marks a new beginning: an efflorescence of creativity. Sundered from the tribal world, the spirit in its final incarnation uses the freedom gained by the lion to fashion its own life, to begin to release and realise its protean nature.

From the many Biblical allusions it is clear that in the allegory the camel represents the human soul under the domination of the Christian faith. Tellingly, the camel kneels to receive its burden. The animal constantly debases itself and loves those who despise it. It makes friends with the weak and disadvantaged and, subduing its pride and passion, renounces all forms of pleasure. The beast is explicitly connected to the Pauline ‘folly’ that opposes classical wisdom. The camel represents the abject self that has been shaped for nearly two thousand years by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as interpreted by the Christian church. The lion enters the drama as its raging antithesis. In contrast to the camel, it stands for a primordial courage to attack and destroy. It longs to be lord of the desert and is ready to fight the dragon of Christianity for possession.

Throughout his writing Nietzsche is mesmerised by animals of prey. In a late notebook dated from the autumn of 1885 he jotted down: I love the magnificent exuberance of a young beast of prey that plays gracefully and, as it plays, dismembers. Then, shortly after, he annotated the sentence ‘Eagles swoop straight down’ commenting: a soul’s nobility can be recognised not least by the magnificence and proud stupidity with which it attacks – ‘straight down’. In each case it is the fusion of grace and aggression which is extolled. These animals of prey are literal expressions of a natural will-to-power, but also act as encompassing metaphors for it.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra the lion is a symbol of defiant courage against tribal conformity, yet the climax of Nietzsche’s story does not end with the lion: it closes with the image of a radiant child. The evocation of the third metamorphosis is as distilled as it is beautiful: The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. But why does Nietzsche’s allegory culminate

Glad Day (c.1974) William Blake

in this unexpected image? And, placed at the very beginning of Zarathustra’s discourses, what does the figure of the child portend? Two earlier passages reverberate in Nietzsche’s evocation. As a classical philologist and a disciple of the Pre- Socratic philosophers, he would certainly have known Heraclitus’ gnomic utterance: Kingship belongs to the child. So, too, in his Lutheran childhood, would he have been aware of Christ’s utterance that only as a child can a person enter the Kingdom of Heaven. These two extraordinary and rather anomalous proclamations – coming from the two dialectical streams of western culture – conferred on the child a certain natural wisdom and liberating innocence. Much later during the Romantic Revolution, especially in the writing of Wordsworth and Coleridge and in the paintings of William Blake and Philipp Otto Runge, the image of the luminous child came into its own as a figure of the creative potentiality of the self: the promise of the full symbolic life, free from constriction and doctrine. The child was no longer linked to the fall of humankind into depravity and original sin, but to the vibrant ascent of life into visionary consciousness – an archetype of human creativity.

All of these rich historic deposits are astir in Nietzsche’s language. The self-propelling wheel and a first motion simultaneously point back to the Heraclitean sense of fire and flux and point forward to Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence, which will be disclosed in Thus Spake Zarathustra. At the same time the innocence and a sacred yes point more to the Hebraic notions of an encompassing trust and holiness, which are to become sublated in Zarathustra’s philosophy and, unapologetically, returned to their source in the imagination and the kingdom of this world.

In the fable the jump from the lion to the child is somewhat awkward. It breaks the expectation of the genre that animals are consistently employed to represent particular human values. Yet there is another kind of logic at work here. Although Nietzsche cantankerously disowned the influence of Darwin, it is known that at the time of writing Zarathustra he was studying a number of works about evolution, eugenics and biological development. Indeed, many of the formulations of his elected prophet are inconceivable without the Darwinian conception of biological advance. In the Prologue, Zarathustra declares: You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm and continues: Once you were apes, and even now man is more of ape than any ape.

Like all prophets, Zarathustra is no exception; however neglected and untimely his arrival, he mirrors his historical period, the prevailing zeitgeist. In his teaching he discloses an acute awareness of the naturalisation of the human mind and the consequent precariousness of all higher metaphysical interpretations. The human being has become a dubious creature, a beast in transition, a question mark over his perplexed head. Nietzsche’s book, however, is a positive response to the spiritual crisis that had so alarmed Matthew Arnold in Dover Beach. It is about a possible (if immensely difficult) further progress, a development from camel to lion to creative child, leading to a possible quantum leap in individual human lives, a further mutation, a further constellation of the self, though nothing is inevitable about the outcome. This is not an Hegelian or Marxist historical unfolding. It depends on the volition and struggle of engaged individuals.

The third metamorphosis captures a biological leap from creature to creator, from instinctive adaptation to symbolic transformation, from nature to history, from tribe to self. It is through the surplus of consciousness represented by the child that the further development of personal life might take place. What is great in man, says Zarathustra, is that he is a bridge and not a goal. Seen like this, the three metamorphoses are three mutations in a possible evolutionary development, the creative child opening the way to higher types of individual existence.

The allegory of the three metamorphoses is, furthermore, another experimental fragment of autobiography set within the wider frame of the auto-mythography. It is a veiled account of Nietzsche’s own life.

The Hülsenbeck Children (1805-6) Philip Otto Runge
Dionysus in a Ship, Sailing among Dolphins Exekias (signed) Attic, c.530 BC, black-figure kylix, from Vulci

The camel is, obviously, the pious Lutheran boy struggling to comply with the family expectation that he, too, must become a minister of the church. It is the camel in him that concludes his 1860 paper to the literary society, Germania, with the resigned thought that, whatever his actual thinking, he must remain loyal to the old beliefs of his childhood, must still carry on his back the inherited burdens, bear patiently the heavy luggage of the tribe. Later, around 1869, it is the camel in Nietzsche that, for a time, complies with the pedantic expectations attending his professorial chair in Classical Philology. It is the metamorphosis of the lion in him that empowers him to renounce first Christianity and, then, Academia, and, in his new-won freedom, to allow the birth of the radiant child, the spirit that, seeking ever greater expression of its own potentiality, creates generously and innocently out of its surplus. The child represents, also, a new stylistic freedom. The tone becomes more poetic, more aphoristic, more musical. The dancing kaleidoscopic pattern of The Gay Science, completed in the July of 1882, a year before the writing of Zarathustra, contrasts with the more austere, slow ‘camel’ steps of the earlier Untimely Meditations. Under the inspiration of the radiant child, the writer becomes a dancer composing new patterns, a musician inventing new cadences.

To say that Nietzsche’s life culminated in the exuberance of the self- propelling child is to suggest that his life reached its intellectual zenith in the notion of the Übermensch. For the radiant child is an image of the Übermensch that, around this time, became Nietzsche’s image of redemption – and Zarathustra’s mission to impart. The end of life is the enhancement of life. On arrival in the market square, where the tight- rope walker is about to appear, the very first words of Zarathustra to the assembled crowd are: I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that should be overcome.

So how are we to understand Nietzsche’s conception of the Übermensch? First of all, we have no choice but to anglicise the word. All translations into English seem badly flawed. ‘Superman’ is banal and has been a literary disaster; ‘overman’ is too artificial and mannered, while both translations, compared to the German, are too gender specific. In the original, the word indicates a human being, not a particular gender. The nuances of the word ‘over’ as opposed to ‘under’ are also critical. The noun clearly relates to the verb überwindung: overcoming. The Übermensch is, simply, the one who overcomes. In fact, the text of Thus Spake Zarathustra plays continuously with the preposition, using or inventing compounds that defy felicitous translation: over-drinking, over fullness, over-hero. The book is an epiphany to the little word über. It is a celebration of being light, of being high, of dancing, of almost levitating. Übermensch marks the upward ascent of the free spirit out of the low labyrinth of mundane life. However, Nietzsche did not coin the word. It had been used before him by Herder, Jean Paul and Goethe. An original writer, he simply conferred upon it a new geography and resonance.

Nietzsche first used the word when he was seventeen in an essay on Byron’s play, Manfred. He named the hero – a Faustian figure who refuses to repent before his death – an Übermensch. As Nietzsche began to colonise the term, he brought to it spiritual and poetic reverberations from both Lucian’s hyperanthropos and Emerson’s over-soul (although Nietzsche would not have endorsed many of the Platonic and Plotinian tenets of Emerson, only the visionary apprehension of a cosmic abundance). There can be little doubt that Aristotle’s megalopsychia, his great-souled man, also cast its influence. In chapter three, book four of Ethics, Aristotle describes the magnanimous man as one who celebrates his power of autonomy, has a desire for large and glorious projects and who possesses the ingrained habit of removing himself from any kind of envy. The good man, wrote Aristotle, ought to be a lover of self, since he will then act nobly, and so both benefit himself and aid his fellows. But Nietzsche’s image, rooted in the urgencies of his own historical period, is generally less monumental than Aristotle’s, more dynamic, often more solitary, and more in tune with the task of sublimating the natural energies of the body.

It was in the early 1870s, writing Untimely Studies, that the idea of a higher individual existence began to quicken Nietzsche’s imagination. He was inspired by Schopenhauer’s trinity of great types: the philosopher, the artist and the saint. The goal of humanity could not be located in any collective destiny, but only in its highest and most developed specimens. Perhaps the task was to make case studies of these individuals as they appeared in the random course of history, so that one could study them and learn from their example:

Let the youthful soul look back on his life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, and what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self … For your true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be.

In this passage the rather abstract concept of the Übermensch gains a sharper outline and a spatial dynamic. The emphasis on what is immeasurably high, what is über, what is beyond, is original. It prefigures the rhetorical work of Zarathustra.

Of course, the idea of adopting exemplars was far from new. It was an essential part of the Stoic askesis, as advocated by Epictetus and Seneca. It was one of the paths to eudaimonia. But in Nietzsche the range of figures becomes infinitely greater and the psychology more acute. Scattered throughout his writing one can find innumerable references to those individuals who Nietzsche thought possessed, in various degrees, the power to create and to overcome: Heraclitus, Alciabides, Alexander, Epicurus, Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Claude Lorraine, Napoleon. It is as if out of the three thousand year-tradition of western culture he was mapping an alternative literary-philosophical canon: not Plato, but Heraclitus; not Augustine, but Epicurus; not Luther, but Montaigne; not Descartes, but Spinoza: not Rousseau, but Voltaire. The erratic zig-zag line pointed to a twilight non-dualistic tradition of the embodied self, neither idealist nor Christian, that Nietzsche laboured to bring into the main of light.

Unlike the Stoics, Nietzsche became preoccupied by an aesthetic impulse to bring style to the act of existence. He exulted in form: the well-wrought urn, the melodic cadence, the dramatic moustache. The aesthetic imperative took over from the ethical. What mattered was taste, discrimination, finesse: the lapis lazuli that was cut skilfully, burnished well and elegantly framed. Constantly, he looked to art and artists to find metaphors for the fashioning and enhancing of mere life. In Book Four of The Gay Science, under the title What one should learn from artists, he elaborated on some of the methods the art-maker used to elevate appearances and concluded: All this we should learn from artists while being wiser than they are in other matters. For with them this subtle power usually comes to an end where art ends and life begins; but we want to be the poets of our life – first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters. In an earlier passage he had condensed the thought into one imperative: One thing is needful – To give style to one’s character – a great and rare art.

One of the most admired Übermensch figures in Nietzsche’s emerging pantheon was that of Goethe. He not only receives a passing salute of honour, he is given a miniature portrait. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche praises, above all, his psychological unity: what he aspired to was totality; he strove against the separation of reason, sensuality, feeling, will … he disciplined himself to a whole; he created himself. Nietzsche draws attention to his physical accomplishments, his acceptance of the limits of his horizons, his appreciation of science. He is viewed as the summation of the Renaissance struggle to develop, not the specialist, but the whole person – the individuated all-round being, the open-eyed European, not the blinkered Nationalist. Goethe is further lauded for his sense of belonging to the whole of nature, his power of affirmation, his joyful fatalism. He became for Nietzsche an iconic figure of integration.

Nietzsche himself suffered a deeply fractured personality. In the passage on Schopenhauer in which he recommended the study of exemplars, he confessed that he wandered most of the time in a state of bewilderment, as if staggering under a black cloud. He frequently described his inner self as a dark, complex labyrinth. In his notebook in 1888 he wrote: Once and for all to represent a character which hides the fact that one has five or six others. The formidable task was to sublimate the warring inner personalities into a single creative character. It is not surprising that Goethe became an ideal representation of a single polyphonic existence; a life in which many turbulent tributaries flowed sublimely into one broad, all-containing, river. At the end of his short encomium, Nietzsche placed Goethe definitively in his developing theory of the ideal self. He positioned him under the sign of Dionysus, who he claimed represented the highest of all possible faiths.

Dionysus was, of course, the Greek God of frenzy, of wine and tragedy.

He can be seen on ancient classical reliefs and vases holding a thyrsus, his head thrown back, his ruffled hair crowned with grape leaves or ivy; he is often covered in a panther’s skin, while his votaries swirl round him playing pipes and beating tambourines. A god of delirium and drunken union, he was worshipped by the Greeks as the divinity who was always destroyed and, yet, who always returned: a fertility God: a God of eternal chaos and, out of chaos, a deity of creativity. Contra Nietzsche, this God may not illuminate the final serenity and integration of Goethe, who seemed more in love with Apollonian light, but he throws a glaring beam on the psyche of Nietzsche. For in his rather orderly life, one can sense a wild god just below the surface waiting to erupt, not only in his frenetic bursts of inspiration as a writer, where his thought often flared like lightning, but in sudden explosions in the everyday world.

Dionysus manifests in Nietzsche’s impulse to dance, his desire to send his genius down to his feet. Looking through the keyhole of his room in Turin, the landlady saw Nietzsche (in the last days of his sanity) dancing naked. Some days later, out in the Piazza Carlo Alberto, Nietzsche spontaneously embraced a bleeding horse, as it was being whipped by its owner. A few days later, on the train journey back to Germany, accompanied by his friend, Franz Overbeck, and heavily sedated with chloral, Nietzsche kept breaking into ecstatic song: And my soul, a strained instrument/sang, touched by invisible hands,/to itself a secret gondola song,/trembling with all the colours of bliss. In these eruptions from the unconscious, fate, tragedy and a kind of mad joy fused. The two stark sentences closing his last piece of autobiography read simply: Have I been understood? – Dionysus against the Crucified?

Dionysus thus became the archetype underlying Nietzsche’s evolving figure of the Übermensch. Nietzsche’s other name for him was Zarathustra. This character makes his entry into Nietzsche’s work at the end of book three of The Gay Science. There the story of Zarathustra begins, to be picked up more fully in the book after his name. His designation is important. Zarathustra is an alternative name for the historic figure of Zoroaster, the Persian prophet and founding father of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche perceived Zarathustra as one of the first in world-history to commit what he saw as the error of dualism: the division of the world into independent domains, Darkness and Light, Evil and Good, body and soul. This error became the cardinal blunder of Western culture, both in Greek philosophy after Heraclitus (especially under the spell of Plato) and in the whole of the Hebraic tradition, reaching its zenith in the binary theology of Paul. As the historical Zarathustra could be seen to be the origin of the misconception, so Nietzsche’s mythical Zarathustra had to be the first to disown the doctrine and embrace the living principle of monism. In a rhapsody of repentance, the reformed prophet had to dance on the ground of a single, indivisible universe: darkness with light, evil with good, body with soul: one world. He espouses the faith of a monist, a votary of one continuous universe, introcosm and macrocosm together. The celebration of the body in the Discourses is an epiphany to this fundamental kinship between psyche and soma, between spirit and matter.

Thus Spake Zarathustra became, then, Nietzsche’s own ideal autobiography, his heightened auto-mythography, his counter testament of faith. In February 1883 he wrote to Overbeck: it contains an image of myself in the sharpest focus, as I am, once I have thrown off my whole burden. Nietzsche-Zarathustra. If it is a dilated self-portrait, it is also a further manifestation of the god Dionysus, a book of excess, dangerously drunk with superlatives.

The work has to be placed in the context of Nietzsche’s thinking. As we have seen, Nietzsche was convinced of the death of God in his own time. More dramatically, he felt he himself was one of the murderers. This catastrophic assassination changed the nature of history. The philosopher now had to launch critiques of the old theological and philosophical thinking to locate the fallacies and misconceptions, to unmask the hidden motives and false sublimations. The philosopher had, then, to confront the sense of dread and emptiness that attended such acts of deconstruction. He had to face the existential nihilism that, inevitably, followed the collapse of all traditional categories and sanctions. Characteristically, in the prologue Zarathustra says of the present moment: Uncanny is human existence and still without meaning. Finally, the philosopher had to find a way through the smoke and rubble of past civilisation; to locate an upward path which led, in an uncertain and chaotic world, to a new life of personal meaning and inner affirmation. Thus Spake Zarathustra is a mythical mapping of this three-fold task. The dominant concern, however, is with the last stage: to show the way out of the calamity. In its own words, it aimed to fashion the rainbow and the bridges to the Übermensch.

Two further characteristics of Nietzsche’s Übermensch become dramatically clear in Zarathustra. It is the essence of the Übermensch to squander his energies without calculation or expectation. He is the supreme master of noblesse oblige. In particular, he never allows himself to be eaten up by envy. There is to be no ressentiment. In this, once again, he resembles Aristotle’s magnanimous man who blithely overlooks all malice against him. He also has to face one further test. He must embrace the theory of eternal recurrence. The idea was based on a vision which Nietzsche had experienced in the August of 1881. It was originally jotted down on a piece of paper inscribed with the grand heading, six thousand feet beyond man and time. The conception was, not dissimilar from that held by Heraclitus and many later Stoics, that time moved endlessly in a cyclical pattern. It is difficult to know to what extent it was a descriptive theory. Often in Nietzsche it seems to be heuristic in design: it is there to spur the daunting art of absolute affirmation.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra the prophet relays his philosophical vision to the dwarf: Must not all things that can happen, have already happened, been done, run past … And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that this moment draws after it all future things? The description of cyclical time is somewhat rudimentary, but it would seem that Nietzsche valued it as the final challenge to the Übermensch. The highest being should be able to accept that every single action in life will happen to him, again and again, in the great rotating wheel of time. As he says in Ecce Homo: My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati. Every moment has to be embraced with absolute love as a part of the endless cycle of time, of time moving into a kind of eternity.

And yet for all its grandeur of conception, Thus Spake Zarathustra has to be judged as something of a failure. It remains too ambiguous in meaning, too strained in tone and, at points, quite unreadable. The hectoring style

Chair (1888) Vincent Van Gogh

constrains and, even, contaminates. Part of the problem is that the manner of Zarathustra does not marry Nietzsche’s perspectival philosophy, nor does it allow space for his deconstructive intelligence, his dialectical habit of mind, that disturbing ability of his to squint up from the abyss. The repetitive formulations are often couched in an outworn Biblical mode: He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In Zarathustra, Nietzsche put his beloved father back in the pulpit and gave him another thundering sermon to deliver, as fierce as any preached by Luther – and often in the same tired cadences. And only the preacher’s voice is heard. There are no Socratic exchanges, no disputations, no calls for evidence, no thinking beyond the thinking. It is tediously monologic.

When the language is not hectoring, it is velvety purple, ‘Wagnerian’, badly magniloquent: My impatient love overflows in torrents down towards morning and evening. My soul streams into the valleys out of silent mountains and storms of grief. This is not the language of good poetry but of Romantic hyperbole bordering on bathos. Nietzsche’s visionary work needed a modern, perspectival voice to house the modern, perspectival perceptions. Over three decades later, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who greatly admired Nietzsche and wrote in the margins of one of Nietzsche’s books: Artists become nothing less than the executors of God’s unfinished creation) achieved the poetic affirmation of immanence that Nietzsche could not manage. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus affirmed, in a modern German voice free from archaisms, the beauty of this world and salvaged the numinous for a new psychological age. Van Gogh (also the ardent son of a Protestant minister) did the same in his late paintings, turning his burning perceptions of ordinary things – a single chair, a flowering tree, a pair of boots, a green billiard table, a solitary bed, a starry night – into extraordinary epiphanies that magnified life.

The failure of Nietzsche’s style is not just a literary matter, however. It impinges on crucial questions of ethical interpretation, for it is often unclear what the prophet means. In his thoughts on voluntary death, Zarathustra declaims: too many live and they hang on their branches much too long. I wish a storm would come and shake all this rottenness and worm- eatenness from the tree! I wish preachers of speedy death would come! Does this imply some form of mass euthanasia? When he talks vaguely about breeding upwards does Zarathustra mean that a minority of chosen people should apply a system of eugenics to refine the human race? Does Zarathustra advocate the extermination of degenerates? Does he want a vast, subjugated slave-class serving the interests of a few Übermenschen? In some of Nietzsche’s late writings these ideas are certainly put forward – though Nietzsche, unlike Wagner, was never anti-Semitic and was constantly critical of the state of German culture. In his notes for the Will to Power he wrote that future greatness could be achieved by means of breeding and also by destroying millions of failures. Elsewhere he wrote: the weak and ill-constituted shall perish. First principle of our philanthropy. And one shall let them do so. Later these pitiless notions of applied eugenics and mass exterminations will be read into (or taken from?) the vague rhetorical flourishes of Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Reading Zarathustra one cannot but be haunted by a stark kaleidoscope of images: of dead German soldiers lying in trenches with Nietzsche’s Bible tucked in their side- pockets, of demented leaders driven by the will to power visiting Nietzsche’s Archive in Weimar, of concentration camps built to exterminate millions of Jews and ‘degenerates’, of the preachers of speedy death operating the gas chambers. As we read, these images prick our conscience. The inflated, obfuscating, vagueness of the book remains deeply disturbing.

In fact, there seemed to reside in Nietzsche’s mind almost two separate images of the Übermensch. The first was poetic and acted as metaphor. It celebrated a child-like creativity, a Mozartian delight in the innocence of becoming. This Übermensch is drawn to symbolic play and is in love with exuberance. Like Goethe, he spirals upwards towards higher and higher levels of psychic integration. In contrast, the second image of the Übermensch was more literal, more pragmatic, more shaped around the systematic (and dubious) doctrine of the will to power. This figure was often linked to political and military world-shakers, such as Alexander, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. In the later writing, Nietzsche often associated this Übermensch with immorality and crime. In The Will to Power he wrote: In great men, the specific characteristics of life – injustice, lies and exploitation – are at their greatest. Nietzsche was delighted to invite an amoral monster like Cesare Borgia to his high banquet, and ready to have any holy man expelled, even locked up. Sadly, towards the end of his conscious life the second image of the Übermensch was in the ascendant. It connected only too well with the emerging megalomania, before the final breakdown.

It would seem, in his unbearable isolation, Nietzsche became an abject victim of his own extreme formulations. Even his humour is too earnest, forged in the Prussian military school, not the Commedia dell’Arte. At times he was aware of it. Even as a child he observed in one of his autobiographical sketches that he was highly serious and easily drawn to extremes. In a late notebook a deleted passage reads: the spell that fights on our behalf, the eye of Venus that charms and blinds even our opponents is the magic of the extreme, the seduction that everything extreme exercises… The spell that ‘charms and blinds’. The judgement is made by the author himself, and then excised. But the pattern of thinking is never consistent. Dark ambivalences are always in play. Terrible contradictions pull in opposing directions. Human, all too human; complex, dark, tortured: in extremis. The rhythm and pitch of his sensibility, ironically, resembled many of those he claimed to despise: Calvin, Luther, Augustine and Paul of Tarsus.

On 2 July 1885, the year in which he completed the last book of Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote to his friend, Overbeck: My life is now governed by the wish that things are not as I see them, and that someone will refute my ‘truths’. This marks an extraordinary volte-face. But earlier, after finishing the second volume, he had written to another friend confessing that he was experiencing the most awful antagonism to the whole Zarathustra configuration. After all the euphoric rhetoric, after the high mountain peaks, the soaring eagles and ecstatic dancing, these are perplexing expressions of a huge inner ambivalence. And, then, how is one to understand the embracing of the horse, only four years later, in the Piazza Carlo Alberto? Could that mad and moving encounter be interpreted as the unconscious triumph of his vigorously repressed compassion? Was that act a painful existential atonement for extreme positions against all pity, for his own constantly self-cultivated hardness of feeling?

These are speculative questions, impossible to answer with certainty. What cannot be denied is the genius of the writer, the pathos of the life and the dark shadow cast by some of the later work, especially as it came (after his madness) under the editorial hands of his unscrupulous, Fascist sister. In the story of the self Nietzsche remains a pivotal figure, drawing together the long narrative of the Western self and pushing it forward into what will quickly become, in the twentieth century, essentially an age of psychology and therapy. He added to the discriminating language of consciousness a lexicon of perspicacious terms, including ‘Dionysian and Apollonian’, ‘eternal recurrence’, ‘perspectivalism’, ‘ressentiment’, ‘amor fati’ and ‘Übermensch. He brought the subtle and emerging art of psychology to the world of hermeneutics and made it dominant. It was a quantum leap in understanding, prefiguring theories about repressed sexuality and the unconscious that were to link Rousseau and Darwin to Freud and Jung. (It is telling that in 1899 Sigmund Freud published his monumental The Interpretation of Dreams, while in 1900 – the year of Nietzsche’s death – Carl Jung began his work at the Burghölzli, the psychiatric hospital in Zurich.) The bleak and ominous side of some of Nietzsche’s late writings cannot be expunged. But, at its most poetic, the metaphoric notion of the Übermensch offers an inspiring image of living in a world shorn of its traditional metaphysical foundations. It affirms the person as a symbolic animal, capable of transcendence through the power of art and through continuous acts of self-overcoming: the person as an autonomous agent, a creator of meaning, a composer of narrative.

The German novelist, Thomas Mann, robustly rejected the immorality of the will to power. Blessing the humanist side of Nietzsche, however, he described him as: a figure full of delicate and venerable tragedy … enveloped by the flashing summer lightning that heralds the dawn of a new time. Not exactly an Übermensch; more a brilliant and uncanny philosopher, a lonely prophet illuminating much of the maelstrom that was to follow; a man who, more than anyone else, held the hermeneutic keys to the next chapter in the drama of the self.

In his next essay Peter Abbs will examine changing conceptions of the self in relationship to psycho-analysis. For further details of the story of the self see: www.peterabbs.org

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