Zarathustra is both Nietzsche’s most famous and most allusive text. It appears almost without precedent in the philosopher’s corpus, and it has led to an interesting breakdown in his readership. Some scholars are drawn to it and attempt to unlock its riddles or propose sweeping interpretations of its hidden messages. Others are unsure of what do with it. These readers gravitate either toward the more systematically argued early works or to the later, post-Zarathustra writings.
No matter what one makes of Zarathustra, it is undeniable that its three central metaphors—the overman, the eternal return, the will to power—have exerted an inordinate influence on Nietzsche reception. In many ways, those metaphors shape the perception of Nietzsche in the popular imagination, and they cling to his philosophy, despite the fact that two of them, the overman and the eternal return, occur almost exclusively within this one text alone.
In the reception of this work, readers have been taken in by the suggestive power of the metaphors, and they see Zarathustra as the platform from which Nietzsche first presents a visionary future for humanity. This view is misguided and deserves to be challenged.
I will argue this from three different perspectives. First, I will examine the narrative strategies of the text. The latter often get neglected for a style of interpretation that accepts the prophetic tenor of the work. Second, I will look at Nietzsche’s increasingly critical understanding of “man” prior to this text, and in those that follow, to show that a higher humanity—that what the overman is meant to embody—is an awareness that Nietzsche rejects. Finally, I will disentangle the notion of the eternal return from the overman to show that instead of belonging together, as many scholars assume, the thought of the eternal return renders the overman superfluous.
The Suggestive Power of Metaphor
German soldiers in World War I, it is said, rushed into the trenches with copies of Zarathustra in their breast pockets. For a society disenchanted with traditional Christianity, Zarathustra became an ersatz Bible that filled the void left by the “death of God.” The ideas presented in Nietzsche’s other texts were meant to force a reckoning with the nihilism of the modern age, and many early readers believed that Zarathustra envisioned a future human type, or overman, who would redeem mankind from nihilism. For this wartime cohort, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra became synonymous with Nietzsche himself.
In the modern era, Heidegger’s ambitious and influential reading of Zarathustra artfully subsumed Nietzsche’s other works under his interpretation of Zarathustra, thereby privileging this particular text. Heidegger apotheosized its central metaphors and constructed a philosophy congenial to his project of subverting Western metaphysics. Heidegger’s “Nietzsche” came to be identified with the grand doctrines of the overman, the eternal return, and the will to power. Thus, Nietzsche continued to be seen in the suggestive light of metaphors that appeared almost exclusively in this one text.
Today, the text divides scholarship into two camps—those who are drawn to its allusiveness and those others who are uncomfortable with its singular style, content, and mode of presentation. In part, this divide is due to the wholly uncritical enthusiasm with which the first generation of readers had greeted Zarathustra, a response now regarded with skepticism.
But it also due to the sustained power of its central metaphors, which can overpower, unsettle or frighten with their limitless suggestiveness. Readers, who can align the Genealogy of Morals, for example, with their contemporary interest in moral psychology, biology, or epistemology, retreat in embarrassment from the “visionary” Zarathustra. And yet, undeniably, the same critical intelligence that composed the Gay Science or Beyond Good and Evil also produced Zarathustra. Indeed, the Nietzsche of Zarathustra is not a new or a different Nietzsche, but one who subtly and consciously played with his audience’s cultural expectations by both engaging and undermining them at the same time.
Zarathustra’s Narrative Strategies
In recent years, scholars have increasingly analyzed the middle-period and post-Zarathustra texts from the point of view of style and language. This mode of reading is a welcome departure, for it moves us away from seeing Nietzsche’s writings as mere carriers for specific ideas and principles, such as perspectivism or the question of value, which can be neatly parsed. Instead, readers have begun to appreciate that Nietzsche was a master stylist, who conveyed his meanings in strong part through language and style. This perspective challenges many of our pre-conceived notions of “philosophy.” In the Anglo-Saxon community, the analytic approach in the academy has shaped this perception, and it comes as no surprise, then, that interpreters sympathetic to the analytical tradition have most resisted Zarathustra.