In comparison to his other texts, Zarathustra appears to stand alone—self-contained and timeless. At least Nietzsche seems to want us to think so. In Ecce Homo, he writes in hyperbolic terms:
This work stands entirely on its own. Leaving aside the poets: perhaps nothing has ever been done with such an excess of energy. Here, my concept of the “Dionysian” became the highest deed; all the rest of human activity looks poor and limited in comparison. […] Wisdom, investigations of the soul, the art of speaking—none of this existed before Zarathustra (EH, Za 6).
Nietzsche furthers this impression by choosing Zarathustra, an ancient Persian prophet, to be his messenger. According to Nietzsche, “Zarathustra created this fateful error of morality: this means he must be the first to recognize it” (EH, Destiny 3). One of the jarring features of the text, its very strangeness, is the bizarre incongruity of a little-known historical prophet being thrust into a contemporary European setting. In addition, Nietzsche’s work exhibits numerous archaizing features—Biblical cadences and oracular pronouncements—which suggest that he naively donned the garb of a prophet to proclaim new truths (the Overman, the Eternal Return) to a world disrupted by the “death of God.” However, these superficial features conceal and distract from narrative strategies that Nietzsche intentionally built into the work but that often get overlooked in critical response to it.
For one, despite the fact that Nietzsche modeled Zarathustra on a legendary figure, who embodies many archaic attributes, his Zarathustra represents a fully modern individual, one who wrestles with, and lives out, all the tensions, disruptions and mindsets of his time—late nineteenth-century European civilization. Nietzsche’s age is fully incorporated into the text. It is not only its backdrop and the target of many of Zarathustra’s barbs; it receives the brunt of his antipathy, wrath and frustration. It is what he must overcome in himself and, above all, what we as readers must overcome in ourselves if we are to discern and appreciate the depth of his critique.
One of the prime examples is the metaphor of the overman. Coming down from his secluded mountaintop, Zarathustra presents the overman at the beginning of the Prologue as a response to the nihilism of his age, as a guidepost for a future humanity that can redeem the present. Most readers have taken this to be a straightforward injunction: “The overman is the meaning of the earth” (Za, Prologue 3)! Yet, they forget that Zarathustra, before he is introduced, had left society and sought isolation out of his discontent with the present—the standard practice of prophets.
The solution that Zarathustra presents to the marketplace upon his return to society, the overman, originates from his despair with the present. And above all, Zarathustra couches the ideal in terms that still show the vestiges of his age: he introduces it as an idealized form of higher humanity. The spirit of Darwin and evolution, which had engulfed his age, similarly informs Zarathustra’s response to the present. As a child of his time, Zarathustra affirms a form of idealism that seeks a future ideal in order to escape disgust with his contemporaries.
But as Zarathustra comes to realize during his journey and encounters, above all, in his experience with the eternal return, is that his latent resentment, his anger with his past (see “The Grave Song”) and with the absurdity of the present (“The Convalescent”), had taken hold of him at a root level and had propelled him on his mission. The fantasy of an evolutionary progression to a higher being, to a humanity that could transcend the present, was just another facet of the accursed ideal, an escape from reality. That reality, Zarathustra discovers, is reflected in the eternal return. The absurdity and nihilism of the present, he now recognizes, cannot be transcended or overcome; on the contrary, their eternal return had to be recognized, accepted, and even affirmed.
An overman, therefore, could not represent an overcoming of the present in some future humanity; instead, a superhuman type needs to master the ever-present moment, by affirming itself, and life, in a continuous confrontation with the age—by self-overcoming. That challenge could not be met by fleeing from reality—as Zarathustra chose for himself, at first, by retreating to the solitude of the mountaintop. It could only be met by a full immersion into life and by exhibiting benevolence even towards those who continuously threaten to evoke his pity (see Zarathustra, Part IV). The figure of Zarathustra starts by evading reality and ends by embracing it.
Recognizing these narrative strategies, seeing how Nietzsche implicates Zarathustra in his critique of the age, will help cure us from falling for his suggestive metaphors. For generations of readers, the central metaphors in Zarathustra have been taken at face value and as core constituents of Nietzsche’s philosophy. It is now time to challenge that perspective and to suggest a reading that examines the function and role of those metaphors in the highly sophisticated narrative that is Zarathustra.