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Sunday, April 13th, 2008

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1:54p
You know the music ...
I suspect that this is one that I should have encountered in a classroom setting, as Friedrich Nietzsche's famous Thus Spake Zarathustra is quite an odd duck when approached on its own. As with all things philosophical and German, I'm willing to grant that there may be a substantial loss of coherence when translated into English (as I understand it, this is a frequent issue with Kant), but this book is a doozy.

I assume that were one to be coming to this book in the context of a philosophy course, a lot of "framing" would be served up, along with "things to look for". Some of this stuff is covered in an appendix (as always, in the Dover Thrift Editions, an interesting read as they typically come from an early edition of which the Dover book is a reprint, in this case a 1911 release) which notes that one character is supposed to represent Wagner, and that another is a representation of Schopenhauer, and positively refers readers to Nietzsche's sister's biography of him ... despite her being much reviled in later generations for having "perverted" Nietzsche's philosophy into the twisted version which became a cornerstone for the Nazis!

Nietzsche sub-titled this as "A Book for All and None" (which reminds me of Gurdjieff's "All and Everything", the over-title that he later used for his "trilogy composed of ten books") and perhaps by that is implying that this, while having certain common applications, is not actually a book that anyone could claim a special affinity. Zarathustra is itself in four parts, which are different in tone, and frequently in style. When I started reading this, I got the sense that Nietzsche was trying to create a "mock Bible", with structure that recalls various religious texts. I don't know how this lays out in German, but large chunks of the text fall into a pattern of very brief paragraphs, with only 15-25 words each, giving the flow a very choppy, monkish repetition, feel. This unfortunately also breaks up the logic of the words, lending a sense of these being vague aphorisms, rather than cogent approaches to individual subjects ... and also making it very hard to cherry pick "pithy statements" from the over-all morass!

By about half-way through, I was beginning to marvel that Nietzsche ran this out to as many pages as he did (236 in this edition), as it became more and more to sound like something started by a college student on a lark, but would have, in which case, doubtlessly been abandoned 50 or 60 pages into the project! As an example, let me grab a bit of this for your perusal:

        If ever my wrath hath burst graves, shifted landmarks, or rolled old shattered tables into precipitous depths:
        If ever my scorn hath scattered mouldered words to the winds, and if I have come like a besom to cross-spiders, and as a cleansing wind to old charnel-houses:
        If ever I have sat rejoicing where old Gods lie buried, world-blessing, world-loving, beside the monuments of old world-maligners: --
        -- For even churches and Gods'-graves do I love, if only heaven looketh through their ruined roofs with pure eyes; gladly do I sit like grass and red poppies on ruined churches --
        Oh, how could I not be ardent for Eternity, and for the marriage-ring of rings -- the ring of the return?
Am I being dense to respond to this with a certain degree of "Huh?"? Needless to say, this particular snippet rotates around Nietzsche's antipathy towards religion in general and Christianity ("cross-spiders") in particular, but the vast majority of the book operates on this level of willful obscurity.

I was also disappointed in the brief allusions to the concept of the Superman, which, while making infrequent appearances in passing, I rather expected that the "narrative" (which follows the "Zarathustra" character from an early point in his life through advanced age) might have some more to do with (and hence have some sort of a point). Again, I'm willing to allow that I might just "not get it" (not being much of a philosophy enthusiast), but there is a lot of florid verbiage here, but not much "meat" from my reading.

Of course, on the bright side, being a Dover Thrift Edition, this had a mere $3.50 cover price, so I was able to soak my brain in some more Nietzsche (as noted previously, I'm trying to fill in lacunae in my formal education, and Nietzsche was one of those things that I just never got to in college), without it creating any "buyer's remorse"! This should be available via your local brick-and-mortar store (but will probably require a special order since the stores tend to prefer pricier editions), and it's the sort of thing that's good for punching an Amazon order over $25 to get free shipping! Would I recommend this? Well, you need to ask yourself just how obsessive you are about the Western intellectual tradition ... it's one of those "important books" and you may find yourself feeling (like I did) that you just weren't "complete" without having run it through your eyeballs ... but, as always, "your mileage may vary"!


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