Zarathustra’s Overman, or the Suggestive Power of Metaphor By Dirk R. Johnson

A corrective to the latter development has come primarily from the German-speaking world. Here the texts are read in the original language, where one can more fully appreciate questions of style and linguistic nuance. To name one example, Werner Stegmaier’s Nietzsches Befreiung der Philosophie (De Gruyter 2012)[4] analyzes the Fifth Book of Gay Science on the basis of its stylistic composition. Stegmaier reveals to what extent Nietzsche in this work conveys his “philosophy” through language, rhetorical devices such as ellipses, and even through his use of punctuation. He also shows how carefully Nietzsche crafts each passage and strategically places it within the text as a whole.

At this point, many scholars can agree that Nietzsche was a skilled literary craftsman, who was not only versed in the arsenal of ancient rhetoric—he was a highly learned and respected classicist, after all—but who meticulously composed his texts to achieve maximum effect—both in terms of personal experience and level of awareness. This holds true for both the pithy epigrams and for lengthier sustained passages. He conveys his meanings only in part through direct communication of a specific point; another major part is transmitted through subtle contrast, artful juxtaposition, rhythm and tempo and—perhaps more than anything else—through a sophisticated use of irony, which should prevent us from taking any discrete piece of text at face value.

Scholars are beginning to recognize these strategies in Nietzsche’s more systematically argued texts, i.e., those pre- and post-Zarathustra. But surprisingly, in the case of Zarathustra, the same level of literary discernment and critical awareness of textual strategies recedes in favor of an analysis of the metaphors, and the suggestive power of its central images seem to overwhelm many interpreters. In addition, the oracular tone of the text, combined with Nietzsche’s choice of an ancient prophet to be his central character, prejudges many readers.[5]

Even if there is a growing consensus that one should interpret Zarathustra with greater critical discernment—e.g., that one should read Nietzsche’s prophet against the grain and not merely as a naïve mouthpiece of its author—that awareness does not extend to its alleged “teachings.” Namely, scholars may now recognize that inherent to Zarathustra is his failure to disseminate his message, and this failure is built into the narrative structure. But this same critical awareness does not extend to the metaphors. The latter continue to be extracted from Zarathustra and used as a lens through which to view his other works. These metaphors, like giant balloons, have become unmoored from this one text, have taken on a life of their own, and inform interpretations of Nietzsche’s work as a whole.

 Zarathustra’s Introduction of the Overman

The overman makes his first appearance early on, in the Prologue to Zarathustra. It is the lengthiest and most sustained presentation of the metaphor both in the book and in his entire work. Therefore, it is crucial to look at how Zarathustra presents the metaphor here and what role it plays within the narrative progression of the Prologue.

An uncritical perspective, one that views Zarathustra’s prophetic mission to proclaim the overman to be the central premise of the text, would take his message to the marketplace at face value. That is, Zarathustra, descending from the mountaintop to spread his new-found wisdom to the people, comes to herald the insight of the text, one that will help mankind supersede what Zarathustra calls the “Last Man.” Indeed, it is the existence and prevalence of the Last Man, the conceptual foil to the overman, which makes the overman a metaphoric signpost toward which man should strive. The Last Man and the overman represent two sides of the same coin, the one necessitating the other.

Looking more closely at how Nietzsche presents the overman, it is clear that Zarathustra speaks in a language that echoes the evolutionary progressivism that late nineteenth European culture had assimilated in the twenty-five years since Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published (Origin in 1859, Zarathustra in 1883-85).[6] Nowhere in Europe was Darwin’s theory of evolution as widely, uncritically and wholeheartedly accepted as in Germany. Speaking to the marketplace, Zarathustra presents, with evolutionary cadences, the overman as a bridge to a higher human in the same way that the ape must now appear an embarrassing forbear to the modern human.

Thus Zarathustra conveys the sense of an overman that is a willed overcoming of the “human, all-too-human” Last Man, who revels in his mediocrity and who would represent a shameful precursor to a future overman. It is insignificant whether Nietzsche “gets Darwin wrong” here,[7] i.e., whether he adopts a form of teleological progressivism in his awareness of the overman that Darwin never espoused in his scientific notion of evolution. What is relevant is that Zarathustra himself chooses to present the overman in just such terms, because it is the only way that contemporary man, the man on the marketplace, can comprehend and register Zarathustra’s message. In a culture saturated by Darwin’s theories, Zarathustra’s words must be mediated through the prism of that paradigm or else it could not connect with the masses.

The nineteenth-century evolutionary paradigm, therefore, is one part of the cultural backdrop to the text, but it also a cultural awareness that Nietzsche both incorporates and subverts at the same time. The subtlety of the text is that Zarathustra himself is unaware of the fragility of his position at the outset and must be made aware of it through experiences on his subsequent journey.

Zarathustra cannot therefore just be the innocent mouthpiece of this new awareness, since he is an extension of Nietzsche’s larger narrative objective—to show how Zarathustra still carries in him the resentment that he wishes to overcome. The notion of the overman is still informed by the evolutionary idealism of the age, as is Zarathustra, who at this point does not mean to challenge the paradigm but to infuse it with his “higher” content. A culture that has absorbed the evolutionary paradigm can only conceive of an overman that is an idiosyncratic version of some “higher” human type.

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