What Kind of Text is Zarathustra? By Lawrence J. Hatab

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra II: “On the Poets,” Zarathustra identifies himself as a poet (Dichter) and yet claims that he has become weary of poets because they “lie too much” and are too superficial in not thinking deeply enough. Zarathustra is itself a poetic text that is saturated with philosophical concepts. The passage on poets seems to disturb the import of aesthetic elements in Zarathustra, which is surprising since the language of the text can be distinguished from its deeper artistic force, given Nietzsche’s remark that “the whole of Zarathustra can be considered music” (EH “Books: Z” 1). Why are poets (and poetry) superficial, and what is the meaning of lying too much? What bearing does this have on Nietzsche’s claim in the Genealogy that art runs counter to the ascetic ideal because it sanctifies lying (GM III: 25)? How are poetry and concepts or music and language related in Zarathustra? These questions touch on central issues in Nietzsche’s writings having to do with art and philosophy, language and thinking, truth and lies.

Poetry and Lying

In Z II: “On the Scholars,” Zarathustra says he has abandoned that mode of intellectual work. The next section is “On the Poets,” where Zarathustra claims that all thoughts of permanence are only a parable (Gleichnis), a term that appears often in Zarathustra and in this section is connected with poetry. Zarathustra declares that he is a poet but also that “poets lie too much,” and they lie because they “know (wissen) too little.”[1] Parables embody poetic lies and deception, in that they tell of “gods and Übermenschen.” Zarathustra declares that he is weary of all this; in Part III he will even say he is ashamed of being a poet (Z III: “Tablets” 2). The section “On the Poets” is striking because poetic language in Zarathustra and other texts is often praised as an alternative to traditional knowledge claims, and Gleichnis is frequently deployed in a positive manner in Zarathustra.[2] But here knowledge seems to be a corrective for poetry and parables (even of Übermenschen!)—more precisely for too much deception, which is not a rejection of poetry outright. Zarathustra goes on to say that poets old and new are superficial and shallow, that “they have not taken their thought deep enough” (Sie dachten nicht genug in die Tiefe). Their beautiful creations must pale before something ugly, which is spelled out in the next two sections of the text.

In “On Great Events,” something momentous looms ahead. The next section, “The Soothsayer,” foretells the nihilistic effects of eternal recurrence: that everything is in vain because of endless repetition. Zarathustra is stricken by this and has a terrible dream where he sinks into life-denial. But images of children and laughter presage the next section, “On Redemption,” where the eternal recurrence of life is affirmed, which redeems what has been by willing its return—a “vision” that composes (dichten) the past, present, and future into a unified necessity. This composition is contrasted with life-denying, vengeful “fable-songs (Fabelliedern) of madness.” The vision will become a direct experience of eternal recurrence in Part III (“On the Vision and the Riddle”); and the thought of eternal recurrence will be counter-posed to Zarathustra’s admission of shame at being a poet (Z III: “Tablets” 2).

What is evident in the span of texts I have sketched is an ambiguous set of juxtapositions—poetry, knowledge, experience, a confrontation with nihilism, and composition of the life-affirming thought of eternal recurrence—the upshot of which is not easy to fathom. In addition, the seeming critique of poetic deception does not sit well with an important moment in a later text, GM III: 25, where Nietzsche declares that the life-denying ascetic ideal is not countered by science (because of its belief in truth) but by art, because in art “lying sanctifies itself and the will to deception has good conscience on its side.” What are we to make of all this? We seem to face a tangled intersection of truth, lying, thought, and poetry, which I will attempt to sort out in what follows.

The Question of Truth

Nietzsche’s writings issue a complicated posture on the question of truth.[3] Contrary to some readings (and some of his own rhetoric), I believe that he accepts and employs certain motifs of truth, as long as they are purged of metaphysical foundationalism and restricted to a more modest, pluralized, and contingent perspectivism. Even if knowledge is variable, historical, and born out of human interests, that does not render it false, arbitrary, or uncritical (GS 2, 191, 209, 307). In a notebook entry, Nietzsche says that when the truth is put aside, particular truths can still be worth fighting for (KSA 7: 19 [106]). There are also provocative moments when Nietzsche hints at a pluralized “objectivity,” wherein the more perspectives one can adopt, the more adequate one’s view of the world will be: “The more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity’ be” (GM III: 12).[4] In a notebook passage, this kind of perspectival aggregation fits the task of “seeing things as they are” (KSA 9: 11 [65]).

I will organize the discussion of truth around the following distinctions, which I denote as T1, T2, and T3: (T1) Throughout his writings Nietzsche affirms a negative, tragic truth of becoming, in the sense that flux must be recognized as a primal force that renders all forms and structures ultimately groundless.[5] Various passages speak of a difficult, fearsome truth that must be faced to counter a myopic fixation on life-enhancing beliefs.[6] (T2) Because of Nietzsche’s commitment to the tragic truth of becoming, positive doctrines of truth that presuppose foundational conditions of “being” are denied and often designated as “appearances” or “errors.”[7] Although such structures are life-enhancing, they must still be unmasked as a “falsification” of experience (BGE 24). (T3) Despite the ammunition becoming provides for Nietzsche’s charge that traditional truth conditions are appearances or errors, he does notice the trap in sustaining the binary discourse of reality-appearance and truth-error. Falsification is the flip-side of verification. Undermining “truth” also destabilizes any designation of “error,” because error can only be measured by some governing truth standard: “The true world—we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent (scheinbare) one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one” (TI “True World” 6). What are we left with, then? I believe there is a positive sense of “apparent truth” (T3) in Nietzsche’s thought that strikes a balance between the negative truth of becoming (T1) and the error of being (T2), a balancing act that especially fits the perspective of art.

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