“Life is an overcoming,” said Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I was sitting at one end of the sofa. My very crippled and messed up dad on the other. I was “dad” sitting. He was watching TV and occasionally suffering a leg spasm. I was in high school, going through my sophisticated phase and reading “forbidden” or questionable books. Nietzsche was questionable to my teacher, Miss Cohen for reasons that I think are now obvious. We talked about the book and in it, she explained, came Hitler’s idea of the ‘Übermensch’.
That isn’t what I found at all.
From the first chapter, it’s clear that he has a different view of things, a human centered view. One of the first things he says as he prepares to walk down to the village from the mountain is directed at the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?”
And down he comes.
Still no “Übermensch.” I found all kinds of ordinary, simple people and a half-mad oracle. I got the impression that the oracle was a little out of his mind, still, he brought a message of stoicism and hope to the village people (YMCA!) who were struggling with misery and darkness that was, in Zarathustra’s mind, mainly in their heads.
“You tell me your lives are hard to bear, but if it were otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?”
My dad had a more severe spasm and nearly slid off the sofa. I was there to catch him. He motioned to his urinal. I said, “No problem, dad.”
He said, “Errrrwwa errr eading?”
I said, “Thus Spake Zarthustra,” handing him his urinal.
“Werrr ooo ike it?”
My dad finished. I took the urinal to the bathroom, flushed the contents, rinsed it out in the tub. Back in the living room, “Listen to this, dad. It’s beautiful.”
I read the beginning, the prologue.
WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake
of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went be- fore the sun, and spoke to it thus:
You great star! What would your happiness be, had you not those for whom you shine?
For ten years have you climbed here to my cave: you would have wearied of your light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent.
But we waited for you every morning, took from you your overflow, and blessed you for it.
Behold. I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would rather give away and distribute, until the wise among men once more find joy in their folly, and the poor in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea, and give light also to the underworld, you ex- uberant star!
Like you I have to go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, you tranquil eye, that can look on even the greatest happiness without envy!
“Isn’t that beautiful, Dad?”
“That’s just the beginning!”
I loved Zarathustra. I knew nothing about who or what he was supposed to have been, but I liked the idea of his going off by himself to figure out his right relation to the universe. The message of life being “an overcoming” really struck home for me given the situation we — my family — were all living at the time.
As for Hitler, all I could guess was that he didn’t really understand it. I suggested this to my English teacher, Miss Cohen, and she nodded. “Possibly that’s true, Martha,” she said. “But what horror that misunderstanding unleashed.”
So this morning I revisited Zarathustra. It’s still beautiful.
You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?
Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine beasts of burden, male and female asses.
What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?
It is true we love life; not because we are used to life, but because we are used to loving.