The question of language is a major concern throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This book, of course, can be read in many ways. It may be seen as “the work of an utterly lonely man,” as a dramatic presentation of the notions of Übermensch and eternal recurrence, as an attempt at the transvaluation of all values in order to overcome nihilism, or even as a “vision of Jesus who is present in our time.”1
In my reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra is, among other things, an extended meditation on the relation between silence and saying, between vision and verbalization, between despair or disgust over the inadequacy of language and the exaltation of liberated poetic flight.
One may also read the problematic of Zarathustra as the question of meaning. How is one to speak in the face of the downfall of the “ultimate signified”? In what does language ground itself, given the absence of ultimates, of absolutes, of transcendent realities independent of the workings of human imagination? Clearly all such potential foundations for meaning are absent from Zarathustra’s vision. “The human being is a rope, tied between animal and Übermensch—a rope over an abyss.”2 When one is balanced on this rope, the paramount problem is how to speak, for in Zarathustra’s world, speaking is what moves one forward, toward the Übermensch of the future, or backward toward the animal, or the all-too-human.
That speaking, or creating the self in language, is Zarathustra’s task has yet to be shown. Nietzsche nowhere explicitly says as much in the book itself, but my reading will attempt to show that the puzzle of language and of human self-constitution in the linguistic matrix is at least one of the preoccupying concerns of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; further, this chapter will focus on the relevance of feminine imagery to this process, arguing that Zarathustra’s project of self-creation in language and progress toward the Übermensch are also an attempt to come to terms with the “feminine” aspects of language, that environment within which the self moves toward becoming what it is.3
A God Dances through Me
The chapter of Zarathustra entitled “Of Reading and Writing”4 promises at first sight to be the book’s first extended passage dealing explicitly with language. What does it signify that after only seven short aphoristic sentences or couplets (out of a total of twenty-six in the chapter) the focus shifts from the announced topic of writing and reading to a series of images and expressions which could almost serve as a summary of the major themes of the book as a whole?
Paragraphs one through seven are a meditation on the kind of writing which is worth reading: that which “one writes with his blood.” They are also a description of the kind of reading that such writing demands: active, strenuous, highly engaged reading. From saying that “aphorisms should be peaks, and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature,” the passage moves away from its initial emphasis on reading and writing to a discourse on life in the heights, as though the sheer activities of writing and reading worthy aphorisms propelled one into the mountains of the spirit.
Pure air, danger, and “joyful wickedness” characterize this best of all places, and the same courage that drives away ghosts creates goblins for itself, in order to be able to laugh at them. Looking down from these heights, and laughing at thunderclouds, at tragedies whether dramatic or serious, Zarathustra senses himself as erhoben, elevated or exalted, far above the tragedies which plague ordinary beings and ordinary lives.
At this point appears the only female figure in the chapter. “Mutig, unbekümmert, spöttisch, gewaltig—so will uns die Weisheit: sie ist ein Weib und liebt immer nur einen Kriegsmann.” “Brave, unconcerned, mocking, powerful—thus Wisdom wants us: she is a woman and always loves only a warrior.” So this climber of mountain peaks, who arrived at the heights by writing aphorisms “with blood” or by learning them by heart, is one who aspires to the love of Wisdom . . . or rather to being loved by Wisdom, for it is Wisdom herself who sets the criteria here. She wants the ones she loves to be courageous, untroubled, scornful, mighty—mountain climbers leaping lightly from peak to peak—yet not mere athletes but warriors; “Wisdom is a woman and always loves only a warrior.”
How does the writer of aphorisms become a “warrior”? By writing with blood, by braving the pure high air, the solitude, the heights from which daily struggles look like clouds far below, by refining one’s courage in face of phantoms and hobgoblins; that is to say, by “warring” with oneself, in the middle ground between the purity of mountain air and the all-too-human lowlands, in the space where the subject constitutes itself, in a war that is never done.
It must be remembered that for Zarathustra all this is accomplished by writing and reading, and that the kinds of writing and reading Zarathustra calls for require courage, scorn, power, and freedom from care; they qualify the language user for the love of Wisdom, the “woman” who loves only a warrior.
This figure of Wisdom is the first appearance in Zarathustra of the female personification of an abstract entity. By the end of the book, Wisdom, Solitude, Happiness, Eternity, and Life itself will all have been called “a woman,” and Nietzsche will have attributed inspiring, exalted, and challenging qualities to each of them without exception. In each case, also, Nietzsche will link the metaphor “Woman” with the mysterious power and richness of language itself.
In this case, the woman Wisdom loves the warrior (who is really a mountain climber . . . who is really a reader and writer!) for the qualities which make possible his or her self-forging, in the face of fears, pettiness, and difficulty. This theme is reinforced by a few reflections on life’s hardships and the values of pride and resignation: “We love life, not because we are used to living, but because we are used to loving.” Life is not easy, certainly, but we are made for it, made to bear it, Zarathustra seems to say.
Now appears an apparently offhand observation: “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” The saying, though trite in sentiment, serves to link the love of life (which is mad) with a kind of “reasonable” madness on which Zarathustra expands in subsequent sections.
Zarathustra next speculates that butterflies and soap bubbles and their human counterparts know most about happiness. (Perhaps they demonstrate reason in madness.) Zarathustra is “seduced” to “tears and songs” by the sight of these “light, foolish, delicate, mobile little souls fluttering.” This is a phrase that one can scarcely read in German without falling into a waltz rhythm: “Diese leichten torichten zierlichen beweglichen Seelchen flattern zu sehen . . . ” Seduced to tears and songs, and in fact into dance, by the fluttering of these mobile lighthearted souls (who appear rather stereotypically “feminine,” in spite of the emphasis on culturally “masculine” mountain-climbing virtues in the first half of the chapter), Zarathustra asserts, “I would believe only in a god who understood how to dance.” And so from the warrior ideal, Zarathustra’s focus has moved swiftly through the virtues of pride, resignation, toughness, love of life, love of love, and madness, all the way to apparently contradictory images of lightness, motility, ephemerality, and at last to the supreme image of a god who understands how to dance, the only kind of god worthy of belief.
The power of language and the associations of words themselves have brought Zarathustra to this point. Free association and the rhythms of language carry him time and again out of outmoded or dead-end symbolic traps into semiotic release, achieving in words what the self creating itself is seeking: a horror-transmuting relationship with “the Other,” the not-self that is not yet object; a way to understand and connect heights and depths, power and courage as well as mobility and vulnerability; a way to relate the contrarieties of the self in process of becoming a subject. This way of poetizing copes with the downfall of a symbolic system linking god, spirit, phantoms, and the all-too-human by breaking it open to semiotic association, where blood, mountains, exaltation, woman, love, madness, and a dancing god can appear together.
The passage continues: “And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: it was the spirit of gravity—through him all things fall.” The opposite of a dancing god, this devil of Zarathustra’s is everything that pulls down, that makes dancing, butterflies, soap bubbles impossible—that due to which all things fall. Yet, both of these are hypothetical entities: “I would believe only in a god . . . ” “When I saw my devil . . . ” (Emphases added.) They are momentary hypostases, imagined divinities who represent once again the forces between which Zarathustra is constantly torn, especially in his desire to speak; for up on the mountaintops where Wisdom lives, there is no one with whom to speak, but down in the valleys, all are oppressed by the Spirit of Gravity; down there, ears are closed, and language cannot dance as it can in the pure air. It is also on the heights that Zarathustra encounters the great feminine allegorical figures. In the depths live only actual women with all their shortcomings, along with men who all have the same faults! Zarathustra finally invites his readers to help kill the Spirit of Gravity, by laughing! The chapter draws to a close:
I have learned to walk: since then I let myself run. I have learned to fly: since then I don’t want to be pushed in order to move.
Now I am light, now I fly, now I see myself under myself, now a god dances through me.
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
The chapter on “Reading and Writing” ends with this explicit fantasy of flight. Riding on the crest of a wave of affect that began to build early in the section, the passage gains acceleration with the laughter and exaltation of the mountaintops, and gets its decisive push from the female figure of Wisdom with her promise of love. Having moved through suffering, love, and madness to tears and song, Zarathustra proposes a god and a devil who make sense of the desire for heights; and then he kills off this devil by laughing at it!
Zarathustra has learned to walk, and since then he has run. He has learned to talk, and since then he has sung. Ever since he has learned to fly, he takes off at every possible opportunity. He is light, he flies, he sees himself under himself, a god dances through him. He achieves through semiotic pleasure the flight of ecstasy he seeks, a separation from himself, from the self he leaves below and behind, the one that is serious, solemn, profound, and earthbound, constrained by categories and dead language.
He says, “Now a god dances through me.” Here is a god who commands belief, an interior, intimate, mobile power, yet one with a force and rhythm all its own, dancing through him, as he dances within it. Here appears, and disappears, la mère qui jouit, a dancing, seductive “god” who moves Zarathustra to tears and songs, but one who also requires her lover’s utmost courage. For to reach her he has had to imagine the death of the Father God, who looks remarkably like Zarathustra’s devil: serious, grave, and solemn.
Speaking about and to Women
The chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra entitled “Of Little Old and Young Women,” located near the end of Part One of the book, is complex and requires careful reading.5 Many of its assertions about women are stereotypical; some are original but violently derogatory; some clearly contradict things said about women at other points in the book. An analysis of the discourse as discourse, however, rather than primarily as a set of doctrines or substantive ideas about women, puts the chapter in a new light.
An anonymous speaker asks Zarathustra why he is slinking or sneaking through the twilight, hiding something under his coat. What is he hiding? A treasure? A child born to him? Or something stolen?
Zarathustra answers his “brother” that it is indeed a treasure, a “little truth,” whose mouth has to be stopped lest it cry too loudly. He tells the story of how he came by this “little truth.” He has encountered a little old woman who has pointed out that though Zarathustra has spoken to women (zu uns Weibern), he has never spoken to them about woman (über das Weib). Zarathustra demurs, answering, “One should speak about woman only to men.” (This seems a sound principle indeed: avoid detection by speaking only to those ignorant of the topic at hand!)
But the old woman persists, noting that she is old enough soon to forget whatever he says. Thus, the conditions of Zarathustra’s discourse are preestablished. It is a discourse that has been acknowledge as inappropriate for women’s ears (perhaps because it will treat of them “metaphysically,” as a class about which generalizations can be made, as an entity or identity which exists independently apart from the interpretive will of the perceiver). It is admitted to be “out of place” since discourse about woman should be addressed only to men, for whom alone the category “woman” seems to refer to something. It is spoken in response to the promise that the hearer is “old” enough soon to forget it. Finally, the old woman is one of Nietzsche’s favorite images for the debunker, the unsurpassable skeptic who has seen and heard it all. In Section 69 of The Gay Science he says, “I am afraid that old women are more skeptical in their secret heart of hearts than any man.”6
The discussion which follows takes place, then, under a triple suspension: it is addressed to a woman’s ear, which already knows better; this is an old woman’s ear, expertly skeptical; the discourse is undertaken on the condition that what is heard will soon be forgotten. This is thus a speech heavily qualified from the outset, pre-erased because spoken to the very hearer least likely to believe it, the hearer who has also promised not even to remember it.
This suspension or disclaimer before the discourse begins is reminiscent of the one which Nietzsche provides in Beyond Good and Evil, Section 231, before he sets out his views on women there. He says:
Whenever a cardinal problem is at stake, there speaks an unchangeable “this is I”; about man and woman, for example, a thinker cannot relearn but only finish learning—only discover ultimately how this is “settled in him.” . . . [Our temporary solutions to these problems are only] steps to self-knowledge, sign-posts to the problem we are—rather, to the great stupidity we are, to our spiritual fatum, to what is “unteachable” very “deep down.”7
Nietzsche knows well that the problem of man and woman is a “cardinal” problem, one which is deeply and integrally, even “unteachably” related to the problem (or stupidity!) we are. He approaches it in Zarathustra, as in Beyond Good and Evil, with multiple acknowledgments that what he is about to say says much more about himself, about his “This is I,” than about the topic ostensibly addressed.
So Zarathustra accedes to the old woman’s wish and begins to speak to her of “woman.” A complete analysis of this section would be fascinating, but too lengthy. Let us look at only a few of the assertions in an attempt to understand them within the context of the problem of the subject’s self-creation in language.
The first statement Zarathustra makes about woman is this: “Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has one solution: it is called pregnancy.” At first reading, such a statement seems merely absurd or culture-bound. But almost immediately the multiple associations of the terms come to mind. The category of “riddle” is very important to Nietzsche, and is in fact the form in which many of his most cherished insights are presented. (See, for example, “Of the Vision and the Riddle,” discussed below, and the riddle of Ecce Homo, discussed in Chapter IV.) Human existence itself is a kind of riddle. To say that everything about woman is a riddle is then just to call her complicated, human, problematical. But this riddle of woman’s has one solution (emphasis Nietzsche’s), not multiple possibilities. That solution is pregnancy. Understood literally, again, the statement is unacceptable, and unexceptional as well, simply a typical misogynist statement, not uncommon in the nineteenth (or the twentieth) century. But in the context of Nietzsche’s explicit revaluation of values, “pregnancy” has taken on a new meaning.
Pregnancy is Nietzsche’s image for creation, for fertility, for the possibility of the new. He has only contempt for those to whom pregnancy is impossible or foreign. Sterile, unproductive, unfruitful people are the most despicable in his eyes. Images of pregnancy and birth recur repeatedly throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra and other works.
For example, in “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” Section 5, Zarathustra says, “One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star. . . . Alas! The time is coming when human beings will give birth to no more stars.”8
In “On the Blissful Islands,” he says:
For the creator himself to be the child new-born he must also be willing to be the mother and endure the mother’s pain.
Truly, I have gone my way through a hundred souls and through a hundred cradles and birth-pangs.9
In “Of Immaculate Perception,” he says:
When the moon rose yesterday I thought it was about to give birth to a sun, it lay on the horizon so broad and pregnant. But it was a liar with its pregnancy, and I will sooner believe in the man in the moon than in the woman. . . . Where is innocence? Where there is will to begetting. And for me, he who wants to create beyond himself has the purest will.10
Finally, in “Of Involuntary Bliss,” Zarathustra says, “One loves from the heart only one’s own child and one’s work; and where there is great love of oneself, then it is a sign of pregnancy.”11
Clearly, for Nietzsche pregnancy is a very positive condition; it is, in fact, a “solution,” perhaps even the one solution to the riddle that human existence itself is. This is not to say that the literal and sexist view of women is not present in the saying. It is only to note that other interpretations are also suggested by the particular choice of images, and by their resonances throughout Nietzsche’s writings.
We might say the same about many of the other terms which Zarathustra uses in discussing woman’s nature in this chapter, “Of Old and Young Women.” “The child,” “danger,” “play,” “recreation,” all are terms that are revalued in Zarathustra’s vision. Every child is an opportunity to step further along the tightrope toward the Übermensch, and every human being moving in that direction must discover or give birth to a child within. Thus to make the child one’s end, as Zarathustra says women do, may be praiseworthy or wise.
“Danger” and “play” are prerequisites for the evolution of the Übermensch, and therefore Zarathustra calls on women to be “the most dangerous plaything.” Again, it is not (only) that women are mere toys, or dangerous by nature, although Nietzsche may indeed have experienced them in these ways. What is equally at stake here is the way in which these characteristics themselves have been turned upside down: opposed to the Spirit of Gravity, play is the divine activity. Zarathustra calls on women to “discover the child in the man,” and to move him to play, as though she in herself knows more about danger and play than he does, and as though without this kind of education, man will stay at the grave, serious level where progress toward the Übermensch is impossible.
A third passage also calls out for interpretation. At the end of Zarathustra’s discourse to the old woman, he says:
And woman must obey and find a depth for her surface. Surface is woman’s disposition, a mobile, stormy film on shallow waters.
But man’s disposition is deep, his river roars in subterranean caves: woman surmises his strength but does not understand it.
Of course, we know that “dispositions” are more individual than this, and we no longer categorize them so easily into woman’s and man’s disposition or nature. But again, we miss half the message if we assume that we know what the terms “surface” and “depth” mean in Nietzsche’s revised symbolic universe. “Surface” is not a simple negative or derogatory term. In Nietzsche’s vision, surface is what there is; it is appearance, interpretation, mask, relationship, metaphor, error, dissimulation, art—it is that “mobile, stormy film” or interface between reality and interpretive consciousness; it is language in its broadest sense, as the birth of the world, the discernment of meaning and value in otherwise empty experience.
Nietzsche praised the Greeks for their attention to surface: “Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial—out of profundity.”12
Heidegger has commented on Nietzsche’s understanding of appearance:
[Nietzsche] says . . . “ ‘Semblance’ as I understand it is the actual and sole reality of things.” That should be understood to mean not that reality is something apparent, but that being-real is in itself perspectival, a bringing forward into appearance, a letting radiate; that it is in itself a shining. Reality is radiance.13
Neither is “depth” a univocally positive image. The “river” of man’s disposition, “roaring in subterranean caves,” seems at first reading to be a more powerful image than the changeable, stormy surface nature Zarathustra attributes to women. But closer attention to the diction suggests other possibilities. The word Strom, which literally means “river, stream, or current,” can also denote a “flow, flood, or torrent (of words, etc.).”14
This torrent or flood rauscht (“rustles, rushes, murmurs, roars, thunders”) through unterirdischen Höhlen, underground caves or caverns. Do we go too far if we hear in this characterization echoes of the frightening surf so effectively evoked in “Women and their effect into the distance” in The Gay Science? The torrent or flood of murmuring, roaring, thundering language pounding through the subterranean caves or caverns (or even “ventricles”) makes a pounding in the ears, a confusion of sound that calls out for the ordering interpretive activity of “surface”—of language that has form and meaning. Mobile and changeable though surface may be, it is still needed by this deep stream of man’s underground disposition.
The use of the word rauschen here is telling in yet another way. Nietzsche calls the indispensable physiological precondition for art der Rausch. This may be translated as “intoxication, frenzy, transport, ecstasy.” But David F. Krell translates it, in Heidegger’s Nietzsche, as “rapture.” He says: “ ‘Rapture,’ from the past participle of rapere, to seize, seems in some respects a better alternative. . . . Our word ‘rush’ is related to it: something ‘rushes over’ us and sweeps us away. . . . I have chosen the word ‘rapture’ because of its complex erotic and religious background.”15
Here again are constellated together the physiological forces and drives which lead to a rushing in the ears, and “erotic and religious” associations. The response to this rauschen or cacophony of sound is a Rausch, a seizure that carries one atop the flood, a jouissance propelled by a conjunction of excess of feeling and the ordering form of surface. Krell notes: “Rapture does not mean mere chaos that churns and foams, the drunken bravado of sheer riotousness and tumult. . . . For Nietzsche, rapture means the most glorious victory of form.”16 According to this interpretation, then, woman’s surface disposition would correspond to the victory of form over the chaos of man’s depth, a process giving rise to Rausch, to jouissance.
A close reading of passages such as this one should dispel the impression that Nietzsche only acceded to and reproduced worn-out stereotypical caricatures of male and female natures. Often at the level of overt content, he seems to have done just that, but nearly always a deeper reading uncovers a multiplicity of meaning, a crisis or unsettling of the conscious or symbolic-level message.
At this point the old woman answers Zarathustra, saying, “Zarathustra has said many nice things [Artige] and especially for those who are young enough for them!” His sayings have been artig, agreeable or pleasant, if one is young enough (foolish or inexperienced enough) to believe them.
The old woman continues, “It is strange, Zarathustra knows women little, and yet he is right about them. Is this because with woman nothing is impossible?” On the one hand, one needs to be young enough for Zarathustra’s sayings; on the other, he is right about women. How is this possible? Is it because “with woman nothing is impossible?”
Coming at this point, this suggestion can only be called hilarious, recalling as it does the gospel story of the rich young man. Jesus says to his disciples after the young man goes away sorrowful, unable to relinquish his possessions: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When his dismayed disciples ask him, “Who then can be saved?” he answers, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”17
The allusion posits a structural similarity between being rich and knowing little about women. Each condition is a terrible obstacle. It compares being right about women with entering the kingdom of God: both are very difficult, especially if you know women little or are rich. And finally, both are possible, the one because “with God all things are possible” (so God can through his grace save even a rich man), and the other because “with woman nothing is impossible.”
Here Nietzsche puts “woman” in the place of “God”; she is open to all interpretations; she forgives even the silliest pleasantries spoken about her; she will graciously overlook Zarathustra’s ignorance, and perhaps even allow him to be “right” about her . . . but only because, with her, “nothing is impossible.”
Zarathustra’s interrogator still hasn’t received an answer to his original question. What is it that Zarathustra is hiding under his coat? Zarathustra goes on to tell what the old woman said next:
And now take as thanks a small truth! I am surely old enough for it!
Wrap it up and keep its mouth shut: otherwise it cries too loudly, this little truth! . . .
You are going to women? Don’t forget the whip!
Here the chapter ends with the customary coda: “Thus spoke Zarathustra.”
Here is a little truth, one for which the old woman is old enough. It is not artig, nice, suitable for young ears; it must be held wrapped up, its mouth stopped, lest it cry too loudly, lest it be heard by too many, or by those who are not old enough for it.
And what is this little truth? “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiss die Peitsche nicht!” What can this saying mean? Often quoted to document Nietzsche’s contempt for women, it may indeed do that.18
But in this particular context, can it be read in any other way? The first, most obvious, and literal interpretation would be that the old woman is telling Zarathustra that women want or need to be dominated, ruled, disciplined, or punished. They are unruly and in need of control: if you are “going to” them, you must remember to bring your whip with you. This interpretation seems natural, until one realizes that in many ways it simply reaffirms or coincides with the main thrust of Zarathustra’s own discourse. The old woman seems merely to be saying, “Yes, women do need to obey, so just make sure that they do.”
But the old woman has in fact consistently mocked Zarathustra’s discourse on women, while reserving the possibility that women could make it true if they wished. Ostensibly she is now offering him a little “truth,” something that she implies is opposed to or at least very different from the statements he has made.
Does the difference reside only in the form of the advice, a direct admonition regarding behavior and attitude as opposed to a flighty, fanciful treatise on the innate, inherent distinctions between male and female “natures” or “dispositions”? Is it simply that “truth” is barer, balder, more shocking, more loudly crying than the polite formulations Zarathustra has proposed? Perhaps.
But maybe the difference is not restricted to levels of subtlety and social acceptability. Perhaps the old woman’s truth is more contradictory to Zarathustra’s speech than it at first appears. She has persuaded Zarathustra to speak by assuring him that she is old enough soon to forget what he says; she has criticized his discourse by calling it “nice,” especially for those who are young enough for it; now she offers him a truth for which she is old enough.
The question arises, “Is Zarathustra old enough for it?” Is he, in fact, old enough to go to women? As long as he thinks and talks the way he does about them, he had better arm himself before he goes, for they will not let his notions stand. They will surely teach him that he knows very little about them, while maybe at the same time letting him be right about them, since with woman nothing is impossible. But such a youngster as he is should not “forget the whip,” for without it he will be powerless in their domain.
This interpretation receives some support from a passage in a later chapter of Zarathustra, entitled “The Other Dance Song.” In this chapter “Life” is a seductive, mocking, wanton female figure, in pursuit of whom Zarathustra finally wearies; he cries out:
I am truly tired of being your sheepish shepherd [or doltish swain, schaftichter Schäfer]! You witch, if I have sung for you until now, now for me you shall—cry!
To the rhythm of my whip you shall dance and cry! I didn’t forget the whip, did I?—No!
In futile pursuit of an elusive “Life,” Zarathustra’s frustration prompts him to look for his whip; he imagines that he will be able to use it to tame and subdue the unruly savage seductress whose power over him is so obvious. It is in response, then, to the superior knowledge and control exerted by an allegorical female personage that Zarathustra seeks his whip.
What is the relation between the female figure “Life” and the “women” under discussion in the “Old and Young Women” chapter? They are not identical, of course; the split between the two images runs throughout Nietzsche’s works. He generally attributes opposite characteristics to human “women” and to metaphorical “woman”—but perhaps this passage is a link between the two forms. The experienced need for a “whip” both in the face of women to whom one might go and as a frustrated response to the great woman, Life, who shows no signs of wanting or needing to obey, links the two profoundly affecting existential situations. It links them by means of an image, a word, “the whip,” and the admonition not to forget the whip is echoed in the later question, “Ich vergass doch die Peitsche nicht?”
The whip is in danger of being forgotten, whether in relation to real women or in the case of Life. But what is Life’s response to Zarathustra’s whip? As soon as Zarathustra has angrily decided to turn the tables on Life, to make her dance and cry, instead of singing for her, Life answers him, holding her dainty ears shut: “O Zarathustra! Don’t crack your whip so frightfully! [Or “Don’t gossip and chatter (klatschen) so terribly with your whip!”] You know well: noise murders thought; and now such tender thoughts are coming to me.”
Life effectively disarms the whip, not by showing fear or submission, but by shutting her delicate ears and complaining about the noise it makes, even using a locution which suggests that Zarathustra is merely yammering with his whip; in any case, the noise is just noise, nothing more meaningful; she asks him, as one might ask a little boy, not to make so much noise with his weapon, his last-ditch recourse in his attempt to escape her domination. Finally she even hints that his noise is interrupting the “tender thoughts” she is having.
Is the whip then an effective means of domination, or even of self-defense? At least in the realm of the metaphorical feminine it is not; yet if one is “going to women,” it should not be “forgotten.”
Let us consider one additional possible interpretation. Recall that it is at the end of a chapter called “Von Alten und Jungen Weiblein,” which is full of references to Weiblein and Weiber; that the old woman advises Zarathustra: “Du gehst zu Frauen? Vergiss die Peitsche nicht!”
The advice now seems remarkable for two reasons: the old woman chooses the word Frauen at this point, and she advises Zarathustra not to forget die Peitsche. Of what relevance is any talk about Weibern when one is planning to go to Frauen? Probably none; this is what the old woman has already told Zarathustra in other words; now she says it again. But what is the difference between Frauen and Weiber? In this chapter, at any rate, das Weib is the topic under discussion, the entity generalized and characterized, and even the person spoken to, the alte Weiblein. The only previous instance of the word Frauen in this chapter occurs when, in the midst of his discourse, Zarathustra directly addresses women, calling on them to fulfill in various ways the roles he envisions for them. In the context of this direct address, he calls them Frauen: “Auf, ihr Frauen, so entdeckt mir doch das Kind im Manne!”
Frauen are thus, at least in this chapter, Weiber to whom one is attempting directly to speak. Talk about das Weib will not be relevant when one is face to face with Frauen; and even Zarathustra knows this, and himself uses the word Frauen when he speaks directly to the very women about whom he thinks he has been speaking.
So, when one is faced with real women, to whom one must speak, notions and theories about women will not be of much use. Still, “Vergiss die Peitsche nicht!” But if the whip is useless either for control or for self-defense, why should one not forget it? It seems to me that this admonition is much more overdetermined than is usually assumed. Among its various valences is of course the obvious one, but might it not also be saying: “When you go to Frauen, to women you will address directly, don’t forget all you’ve said and thought about them, back here, safely out of their influence . . . because you are likely to forget it all there!” Or could it be that Zarathustra is in danger of forgetting his “whip,” his tongue, his ability to speak, at least so fluently and easily about things he knows so little about, when he is in women’s presence? Or again, might die Peitsche (not deine Peitsche) be not Zarathustra’s whip at all but women’s whip, women’s power and influence, for which Zarathustra should be prepared?
Does “the whip” carry phallic overtones? Does it suggest penitence as well as punishment? If it is Zarathustra’s in the first place, is it likely to be left behind, with the women, as a result of their influence? Is the fantasy of phallic mastery of language to be forgotten in the presence of the mother?
In spite of the indeterminacy of this advice, one thing seems clear: it is a friendly warning, proffered by a woman old enough for it, about the differences between speaking to women and about them. It doesn’t counsel politeness or circumspection; it warns against forgetting “the whip,” as though forgetting the whip, no matter whose it is or what its function, would be a dangerous thing to do. And it advises Zarathustra to keep this little truth quiet, not to let it yell and give itself away.19
An immensely complex chapter, “Of Old and Young Women” ties together in yet another way the issues of the feminine as spoken about, spoken to, and itself speaking, with the problem of language, its power, its multiplicity of forms, its both phallic and vulnerable characteristics, and its character as the context in which the other is encountered and coped with, dealt with, appropriated or abjected, not forgotten.
Mouth Have I Become
In “The Child with the Mirror,” the first chapter of Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra,20 Zarathustra has spent years of solitude in the mountains. He now dreams that a child with a mirror confronts him and forces him to see a devilish reflection of himself. He takes this to mean that it is time for him to return to the lowlands and rescue his teachings from distortion and perversion.
But there seems to be another motivation, another force behind his resolution to seek out hearers again. Even more than by his anxiety about misunderstanding of his doctrine, Zarathustra seems to be impelled by the pent-up pressure of language itself; his “Wisdom” longs to speak, and his love overflows itself, but always in the form of words. Zarathustra says:
My impatient love overflows in torrents [Strömen] down towards sunrise and sunset. Out of silent mountains and tempests of pain my soul roars [rauscht] into the valleys.
Too long have I yearned and looked into the distance. Too long have I belonged to solitude: thus have I forgotten silence.
Mouth have I become through and through, and the raging of a brook from high rocks: down into the valleys I want to plunge my speech.
And let my river of love plunge into the pathless places! How should a river not finally find the way to the sea!
Surely there is a lake in me, a secluded, self-sufficient lake; but my river of love carries it along with it—down to the sea!
The words Strömen and rauscht recall their use in “Of Old and Young Women,” where they described man’s disposition or nature as a torrent roaring in underground caves. Here it is Zarathustra’s “love” and “soul” which find expression in these words; they have been pent up like a mountain lake and now seek to flow into the valleys, to find hearers again.
Zarathustra says that through belonging to solitude, he has forgotten silence. One might expect solitude to teach one silence; after all, in solitude, there is no one else with whom to speak. But in Zarathustra’s case, speech always seems possible in solitude, or with his companion animals. It is only with other human beings that it becomes problematical. Yet he tries over and over to discover modes of language which will do justice both to the pure, essential character of language itself, as discovered in solitude or in dialogue with himself, and to the requirements of human communication and intercourse.
“Mund bin ich worden ganz und gar.” “Mouth have I become through and through.” Zarathustra is nothing but mouth now; all his existence is bound up in speech. “ . . . und Brausen eines Bachs aus hohen Felsen.” “ . . . and the raging of a brook from high rocks.” Brausen can also be used to refer to a ringing in the ears; here once again we hear the echo of the physical pressure of Zarathustra’s longing to speak. His own existence is completely “mouth” and “ringing in the ears.” Again the reader is reminded of the underground Höhlen, the caves or “ventricles,” through which man’s nature roars, in “Old and Young Women.”
Mouth, ears, heart. . . the reader is led insensibly to an experience of this pounding, rushing course of language in the body, as if it were life’s blood itself.
Zarathustra in his solitude, brimming with love, with language, says: “ . . . hinab will ich meine Rede stürzen in die Täler. Und mag mein Strom der Liebe in Unwegsames stürzen!” “ . . . down into the valleys I want to plunge my speech. And let my river of love plunge into the pathless places!” His speech and his river of love are one and the same; his great desire is to let them “plunge” into the valleys, into the places where no path is laid out for them, but through which they can find their way to the sea, to their fulfillment in some unspecified consummation or reunion with the source.
The erotic valences of these images are obvious. The sense of pent-up energy, the identification of speech with love, the wish to “hurl” or “plunge” his words down into the valleys, into the pathless places, until they find their way to the sea . . . all of these associations suggest the writer’s powerfully sensual relationship to language. Language fills him up, turns him around, impels him to seek relationship; yet it is itself the primary and primordial love, an unattainable, unutterable, forbidden love, whose taboo character as love object always puts the subject into question anew.
I go new ways, a new speech comes to me; I grow tired, like all creators, of the old tongues. My spirit no longer wants to walk on worn-out soles.
All speech runs too slowly for me—into your chariot I leap, storm! And I want to whip even you with my wickedness!
Like a cry and a shout of joy [Jauchzen] I want to pass away over wide seas, until I find the blissful islands where my friends wait:—
And my enemies among them! How I now love anyone to whom I can only speak! My enemies too belong to my bliss!
Here the ecstatic anticipation of a new speech propels the prose into repeated ejaculations. Zarathustra overleaps “all speech” as too slow, and jumps into the storm’s chariot, whipping it on with his “wickedness.” He wants to move over the seas “wie ein Schrei und ein Jauchzen,” to islands where both his friends and his enemies wait, both beloved because he can speak to them. The anticipation of new speech and of hearers who can understand inspires Zarathustra to become “like a cry and a shout of joy.” The ecstasy, bliss, release, and erotic sensuous character of this entire imaginative flight alert us that we are in the region of an experience of la mère qui jouit (or perhaps in this case, die Mutter die jauchzet!).
Following a few sections comparing his own speaking with a thunderstorm, including “laughter-peals of lightning” and “hail showers,” Zarathustra warns his friends that they will be terrified by his wild Wisdom. He laments:
Ah, that my lioness Wisdom should learn to roar tenderly! . . .
My wild Wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; on rough stones she bore her young, her youngest.
Now she runs foolishly through the harsh wasteland and seeks and seeks soft grass—my old wild Wisdom!
On the soft grass of your hearts, my friends!—on your love she would like to bed her dearest one!—
The wild pregnant lioness, who gives birth to her youngest, most beloved offspring on the harsh stones of the mountains, seeks a resting place in the soft grass of the hearts of Zarathustra’s friends. The female figure, wild, pregnant, and then a mother, is again faced with the dilemma: how to communicate what is conceived and born in solitude to the world “below,” to the loving hearts that await such communication?
The figure of a lion has appeared before in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the chapter “The Three Metamorphoses.” In that chapter, the spirit takes on itself all that is heavy and burdensome, in the likeness of a camel. It then becomes a lion, “to create freedom for itself, and a sacred No even to duty.” But the lion must yet become a child, to create the “sacred Yes.” “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling by itself, a first motion, a sacred Yes-saying.”21
In “The Three Metamorphoses,” the lion becomes a child in order to make possible the play of creation; in “The Child with the Mirror,” the lioness Wisdom has given birth and seeks a resting place for her young in the hearts of Zarathustra’s friends. Is the lioness’s young the child in Zarathustra’s dream, the child with the mirror? Is the child in the dream reminding Zarathustra that as long as he stays removed and solitary with his Wisdom, the child has no chance to take its place in the hearts of people who need its spirit to create a new world?
Again, the problem is posed: how can the Yes-saying spirit of new creation leap out of the rarefied atmosphere of the highest mountains and onto the soft grass of hearts where it may grow? How may the erotic relationship with language itself, achieved in and with solitude, rich in semiotic power and drive, infuse the realm of communication, the symbolic realm? Never finally resolved in a definitive way, these questions continually take new forms throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Desire, Love, and Poetry
“The Night Song,” also from Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra,22 is a lyric lament over Zarathustra’s “giving” nature, his longing for desire itself, his wish to be in a position to receive as well as to give. What he wants to receive is speech, which he identifies with light, the feminine, and, unfortunately for his longing, with himself. The song begins:
It is night: now all leaping fountains speak louder. And my soul is a leaping fountain.
It is night: now for the first time do all songs of lovers awaken. And my soul too is the song of a lover.
Something unsilenced, unsilenceable is in me; it wants to grow loud. A desire for love is in me, that itself speaks the language of love.
In these opening lines are constellated the primary themes of the song. In the night, Zarathustra’s soul, identified with a leaping or gushing fountain, and with a lover’s song, awakens and seeks to speak. Something in him that is “unsilenced” and “unsilenceable” wants to grow loud, or find voice, or become known. His desire for love speaks the language of love. Zarathustra longs for speech, and here conflates love and language. He wants to find expression, and this desire he experiences as love.
But next a barrier is described:
I am light: ah, that I were night! But this is my solitude, that I am girded around with light.
Ah, that I were dark and night-like! How I would suck at the breasts of light!
The problem or frustration here consists in his own character as light, or as girded around with light. He wishes he were dark, so that he could benefit from light, or “suck at the breasts of light.” Light is thus characterized as feminine, nurturing, having breasts, giving; and Zarathustra wishes that he himself were not in this role, so that he too might benefit from light.
Next he laments his role as ceaseless giver. “I live in my own light, I drink back into myself the flames that break out of me.” He feels that, like the sun, he only gives, and never knows the joy of receiving:
. . . that is my envy, that I see waiting eyes and the illuminated nights of desire.
O unhappiness of all givers! O darkening of my sun! O desire for desire! O ravenous hunger in satiety!
A desperate lament this: Zarathustra always feels himself on the bestowing end; he never fully experiences the craving he wants so desperately to feel. It is an excruciating position, to want to want, to crave hunger itself, to have to wish for a darkening of one’s own sun, for a diminution of one’s own self-sufficiency and overabundance.
All of this imagery is related to the desire for speech. The giving that Zarathustra does, throughout the book, is always in the form of discourse, whether he gives to those who can understand or not; what he wishes for here is the gift of speech from others. Although this is not explicitly stated in the song, the various equivalences point in this direction. Zarathustra is a giver; he longs to receive, to take, even to steal! He is weary of his own abundance of light, and wishes he could experience the desire of those who feel the night, the dark. Later in the song he says:
O solitude of all givers! O silence of all light-givers!
Many suns circle in empty space: to all that is dark they speak with their light—to me they are silent.
Other “suns,” others who can give and speak, speak only to the benighted, to “you dark, you night-like ones, who make warmth for yourselves out of what shines. Oh, only you drink milk and comfort from the udders of light!”
Burdened by his own nature as a light-giver, a shining one, Zarathustra sees himself as bestowing “milk and comfort” on those who will drink from his “udders,” but as incapable of receiving from any other sun, because he is not dark enough.
“Ah, ice is around me, my hand is burned by what is icy! Ah, thirst is in me, that longs for your thirst!” Ice that burns, and locks in the sun; thirst not for liquid but for thirst itself; these are the conflicted conditions set out by Zarathustra in his “Night Song.” He sees himself as a feminine, giving, udder-bearing figure, capable only of speaking, but not of hearing. He ends his song with a repetition of the opening lines, preceded by a final statement of his desire: “It is night: now my longing breaks out of me like a spring—I desire speech.”
For the first time, Zarathustra understands his problem with speech as a problem of reciprocity. Not only does he muse on how to let his love tumble down from the mountains, how to find new paths for his words, how to make himself understood by those who wait to hear from him. Now he also discovers in himself a passionate craving to receive, to hear, perhaps to learn, from another sun, another source of light, from a giver who can let him receive “milk and comfort” from her breasts.
The chapter which immediately follows “The Night Song” is a species of response to Zarathustra’s desire. “The Dance Song” is a song to “Life,” the most mysterious of all the female personifications in the book, and in this song, Life speaks to Zarathustra, mocking his talk, making fun of his awe of her depths, laughing maliciously when he compares Wisdom to her, and altogether bewildering him. In this instance, at least, Zarathustra no longer feels superior, sunlike, condemned to the giving role. He is clearly at the mercy of the “changeable, wild” woman, Life, whom men love to call “the Deep,” “the Faithful,” “the Eternal,” “the Mysterious.”
Life points out that these are names that men give to Life; they are really only men’s own virtues, writ large and projected onto her. When Zarathustra calls her “unfathomable,” she laughs and says: “Thus goes the talk of all fish . . . what they don’t fathom is unfathomable.” The metaphor places men in the position of fish, unable to imagine the bottom or ground of the medium in which they are suspended, but talking about it nonetheless. Life does not seem to assert anything in particular about the bottom or ground, only that “men,” fishlike, seek it, and when they can’t find it, they assert it can’t be found.
Perhaps she is saying something about metaphysical inclinations, about the tendency to assert the existence of something, set out on a search for it, and then make assertions about its nature on the basis of not having found it! Life rejects the imputation of unfathomability, as she mocks the virtues men attribute to her. She asserts only her changeability, her wildness, her lack of “virtue” (at least in the sense of the virtues listed), and her “woman”-ness, as if to say that any attempt to fix her nature, to say definitively what she is or will or should be, is futile and absurd.
Near the end of the song, Life has asked about this other love of Zarathustra’s, Wisdom, who resembles Life so closely. He tells Life about Wisdom’s unattainability, her seductiveness (“the oldest carps are lured along with me”), her changeability and defiance, her wickedness and falsity, and her character as Frauenzimmer, “female, wench.”
Finally Zarathustra says about this Wisdom: “But when she speaks ill of herself, precisely then is she most seductive.” This ill-speaking, this schlecht sprechen, is what makes Wisdom most enticing. When she says she has no virtue, even that is seen as a virtue. When she asserts her mutability, then is she most attractive. Here, it seems to me, poetry itself speaks.
Zarathustra is singing about “Life” and “Wisdom” but it is really the seductive, bottomless, unfathomable character of language itself to which he responds. When it claims the least for itself, when it shows its lack of “virtue,” its unattainability, its perpetual and inherent lack of perfection or satisfaction, then precisely is it most powerful. Speech speaking itself, language demonstrating its own inadequacy, experimenting with the limits of what can be said, is poetry. The poet is in the miserable yet jouissant position of being existentially and erotically mystified, obsessed, and fascinated by the tantalizing nature of language, which is the nature of “Wisdom,” which is the nature of “Life” . . . the palm at the end of the mind, the pheasant disappearing into the underbrush.23
When Zarathustra has finished speaking of Wisdom to Life,
. . . [Life] laughed wickedly and closed her eyes. “But of whom are you speaking?” she said, “surely of me?”
“And if you were right—should one say that to my face? But now talk also about your Wisdom!”
Life points out that what Zarathustra has said about Wisdom really applies to her, and in that case, surely it is not appropriate to say such things to her. She dares him to talk about his Wisdom, as though knowing he is incapable of it.
“Ah, and now you opened your eyes again, O beloved Life! And I seemed to sink again into the unfathomable,” says Zarathustra. Challenged to speak truly of Wisdom to Life herself, Zarathustra may have a chance as long as Life’s eyes are closed. But she opens them to be addressed, and Zarathustra is lost again; he sinks again into the unfathomable, the bottomless, groundless, inexplicable fascination and danger of poetic language.
The chapter entitled “The Night Song” and the central section of “The Dance Song” each end with a new variation on the ubiquitous “Thus spoke Zarathustra.” Each closes with “Thus sang Zarathustra,” as though acknowledging that any sort of mere speaking will be inadequate to the realities addressed; only song will do—or make do.
The Command That Cannot Be Obeyed
At the beginning of “The Stillest Hour,” the last chapter in Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra,24 Zarathustra tells his friends that he must leave them again; he has been ordered to do so by his “angry, terrible mistress,” his “Stillest Hour.” He tells the story as a dream:
Do you know the terror of one who is falling asleep?
He is frightened down to his toes because the ground gives way and the dream begins.
I tell you this as a parable. Yesterday, at the stillest hour, the ground gave way and the dream began.
This is a “parable,” a story that tells more than itself. It takes place within the terror of the ground giving way, and as a dream. Zarathustra is terrified and has never heard such stillness around him. Then, “Something said to me without voice, ‘You know it, Zarathustra?’ ”
“And I cried from terror at this whispering, and the blood left my face: but I kept silent.”
Out of the total silence comes a speech without voice, and Zarathustra’s response is simultaneously a cry of terror and a keeping silent! The mysterious voiceless presence continues to press Zarathustra about his knowledge, urging him to speak. She finally says, when he complains that he is not strong enough and asserts that he will not speak, “What do you matter, Zarathustra? Speak your word and shatter!”
The angry, terrifying mistress, the “Stillest Hour,” orders Zarathustra to speak what he has to say, regardless of the consequences to him, which she acknowledges are drastic: he will zerbrechen, break into pieces, or shatter.
To be sure, within the context of the book as a whole, this episode represents another stage in Zarathustra’s struggle to find a way to enunciate the particular thought of the eternal recurrence. This idea is probably what he knows but will not speak, the speaking of which he fears is beyond his strength. But in a more general sense, the scene provides yet another image for Nietzsche’s experience of the loaded or charged character of language, its autonomous, peremptory demands, and its disregard or contempt for the individual speaker, who matters not so much: “Speak your word and shatter!”
Zarathustra responds to the implication that he is not so important. This may be a way out for him; he may not need to be the one to enunciate the shattering idea. He says, “Ah, it is my word? Who am I? I wait for the worthier one; I am not worthy even of being shattered by it.” In this moment of terror, revelation, weeping, and trembling, the question, “Who am I?” is crucial; Zarathustra knows that this word, this teaching, is not his own, yet he is called on to speak it. He not only modestly asserts his unworthiness in this passage, but also shows that even though this word has not yet “shattered” him, it has thrown his identity into question.
The dialogue continues, as the Stillest Hour tries voicelessly to persuade Zarathustra to obey her command, and speak. The argument draws to a close when Zarathustra says, “I lack the lion’s voice for command.” The Stillest Hour responds “as a whisper”: “The stillest words are the ones which bring the storm.” Zarathustra says he is ashamed to announce what he has to say, whether in a lion’s voice or silently like a shadow. The Stillest Hour responds, “You must yet become a child and without shame.”
The Stillest Hour thus makes her second clear demand: she has already told Zarathustra to speak his word and shatter; now she tells him to overcome the pride of his youth and become a child, without shame.
Once again the metamorphoses of the spirit are recalled, although at this point Zarathustra has claimed he lacks even the lion’s voice, much more the innocence and shamelessness of the child, necessary indeed to the proclamation of the abysmal thought of the eternal recurrence, but also necessary for radical, fearless obedience to the commands of la mère qui jouit.
She demands a shattering of ego-consciousness through the speaking of the word, and an overcoming of youthful pride and shame in order to reach a state of childlike playful Yes-saying. To play with her and according to her wishes, to say what wants to be said, to move out of the Stillest Hour into speech, the self must undergo a transformation, a radical stripping of form and self-consciousness, beyond youth and social maturity, into smashed-up multiplicity and the sacred “Yes” of the playing child.
Confronted by these frightening and probably self-contradictory commands (which formally resemble the classic double-bind orders: “Be spontaneous!” “Play!” “Question authority!”), Zarathustra responds in what is very likely the only way possible. One does not choose to shatter or to become a child and without shame.
“And I considered long and trembled. But at last I said what I had said at first: ‘I do not want to.’ “
Here Zarathustra seriously considers what he has been told to do; he contemplates it, and trembles, or shivers in the face of it. Yet his answer is what it must be, “at last” just as “at first.” In spite of the authority of his “angry mistress,” in spite of his evident wish to obey her and come into a new relation to her, he cannot. As long as he is considering, reflecting, and trembling for himself, how can he speak the word that will shatter him, or become like a child without shame? The “I” is still considering these proposals and can come out only in one place. It cannot decide to accede to these commands. It can say only, “No.” And so it does: “Ich will nicht.” “I will not, I do not want to, I do not will to.” As long as Zarathustra is still in the position of choosing what to say, and calculating whether he can afford to say what he must, he will not.
What is the angry mistress’s response? Does she strike out to punish Zarathustra? “Then a laughing happened around me. Alas, how this laughing tore my bowels and slit open my heart.” We know that for Zarathustra laughter is the divine activity, and also a murderous weapon. In “Of Reading and Writing” he has said, “One does not kill by anger but by laughter. Come, let us kill the Spirit of Gravity.” This laughter thus tears and slits open Zarathustra, in the bowels and the heart, that is, where he lives.
The Stillest Hour then says, “O Zarathustra, your fruits are ripe, but you are not ripe for your fruits. So you must go back into solitude: for you still have to grow mellow.” She diagnoses the problem precisely. Zarathustra is not yet ripe. She sends him back to solitude, for he has yet to “grow mellow,” or, more colloquially, to “give in” (mürbe werden). When he is further ripened, softened, mellowed, he will let his fruit drop.
He will “give in” to her wishes, but only when he is ready for them, when “he” has become “not-he.” “And again it laughed and fled: then it became still around me as with a double stillness. But I lay on the ground, and the sweat poured from my limbs.”
Thus Zarathustra explains his impending departure and return to solitude. As a result of his unreadiness to speak what he has to tell, he has been remanded to ripen further. Zarathustra says, “You have heard this from me, who is still the most silent of all human beings—and wants to be!” (emphasis in original). Who is he? He is one who remains silent, or wants to, or intends to, and yet who has asked himself, “Who am I?” and prepares to obey his mistress’s order to return to solitude to ripen. Here again he asserts for a last time, however, the “who,” the clinging to identity, which keeps him silent, which will be shattered by his speaking, if and when he ripens to that point.
Finally, he concludes: “Ah, my friends! I could have something more to say to you, I could have something more to give you! Why don’t I give it! Am I then stingy?” He knows the value and power of what he has to say; yet he fears saying it, and asserts that he will not. The demands of the Stillest Hour here seem diametrically opposed to the ordinary or usual forms of “the sacred.” Piety before the sacred commands silence; it teaches that to attempt to say the unsayable is to trespass. Speaking of what is deepest and most real is a transgression, punishable by personal disintegration, madness, or damnation. Yet the scene also echoes the calls of the prophets, who were commanded to speak God’s word, and who always said, “Who, me?”
Here the motives of piety and transgression are reversed. To be obedient to the numinous mother and her wishes, Zarathustra must speak. His “transgression,” his refusal to speak, is punished by laughter that rips his bowels and heart, and by his being sent away to mellow, until he will be ready to speak the unspeakable. No wonder an excess of feeling overcomes him at this point. He is overwhelmed “by the force of his pain and the nearness of his departure . . . so that he wept aloud, and no one knew how to comfort him.”
Comfortless, alone, weeping, and in pain, Zarathustra returns to solitude, where he must yet learn to let his words drop without shame or fear of shattering.
Biting into the Abject
The chapter called “Of the Vision and the Riddle,” in Part Three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra,25 tells of a discourse that Zarathustra delivers to his fellow passengers on the ship taking him back toward the solitude prescribed by his angry mistress. The introductory passage tells of a major change:
Zarathustra was silent for two days and was cold and deaf from sadness. . . . But on the evening of the second day he opened his ears again . . . : for there were many strange and dangerous things to be heard on this ship. . . . And behold! finally in listening his own tongue was loosened, and the ice of his heart broke. . . .
It is on his way back to solitude that Zarathustra at last breaks through his silence. Sent back to ripen, he begins finally to hear again, to hear “strange and dangerous” things from others on the ship, and in response his “tongue was loosened, and the ice of his heart broke.” The very task he could not undertake when he wanted to, the revelation of his abysmal thought, now begins as if involuntarily.
But before Zarathustra tells about his vision and the riddle, he sets the scene for his audience. He tells of climbing “with compressed lips” a “wicked, solitary path” which “crunches” underfoot; he is “striding mute over the mocking clatter of pebbles.” He pursues his defiantly silent course through a world filled with mocking sound. On his shoulder suddenly appears a dwarf, who also taunts him, and tries to discourage him.
But there is something in me that I call courage . . . This courage finally ordered me to stand still and speak: “Dwarf! You or I!”
For courage is the best killer—courage that attacks: for in every attack is ringing play.
This last phrase, in jedem Angriffe ist klingendes Spiel, is variously translated. Hollingdale puts it: “in every attack there is a triumphant shout.” Kaufmann says: “in every attack there is playing and brass.” The idiom mit klingendem Spiele means “drums beating, with full band, triumphantly.”26
In the context of Zarathustra’s problem with silence and speaking, his “courage that attacks” is the courage he needs to speak, “ringingly” and as Spiel, as game or sport or play. This courage which he summons up is a courage that overcomes pain, dizziness at the edge of abysses, and pity. It even, says Zarathustra, kills death itself, for it says: “Was that life? Well then! Once more!” Thus this courage which attacks, attacks by speaking, by ringing, by playing. It overcomes even death, by saying “Once more!”
The introductory section of “Of the Vision and the Riddle” ends with the saying “In solchem Spruchen aber ist viel klingendes Spiel. Wer Ohren hat, der höre.” “But in such a saying there is much ringing play. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Zarathustra’s courage, courage that can overcome even death by way of a “ringing play,” a verbal attack, a saying “Once more!” is a courage to speak, and the courage required to hear what he has to say is implied by the final sentence: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Zarathustra’s courage enables him to stop passively carrying his burdensome dwarf, and to tell the dwarf his vision.
In Part Two of this chapter, Zarathustra tells first about his discussion with the dwarf about a gateway that appears before them, and then about a solitary vision he has experienced. The gateway has appeared as if in response to Zarathustra’s challenge to the dwarf. Zarathustra knows that he is the stronger of the two because he has been able to endure his own “abysmal thought.” He reveals this thought, the notion and imagery of the eternal recurrence, to the dwarf, perhaps knowing that it will drive him away: “Thus I spoke, and ever more softly: for I was afraid of my own thoughts and the thoughts behind my thoughts [Hintergedanken]. Then, suddenly, I heard a dog nearby howling.”
At this point begins one of the most striking and powerful episodes of the book. Zarathustra first is reminded of an incident in his childhood, when he had heard and seen a dog howling in this way. But in the present, the dwarf and gateway and “all the whispering” have disappeared, and he is left “between wild cliffs . . . alone, desolate, in the most desolate moonlight.” “ But there lay a human being! And there! The dog, leaping, bristling, whining—now he saw me coming—then he howled again, then he cried—had I ever heard a dog cry so for help?”
The vision Zarathustra is about to recount is brought to his attention by a howling, crying, whining dog, inarticulate, yet pointing to what is to be seen. Zarathustra himself often seems to be an inarticulate barker, hovering and leaping at the scene of his terrible vision, yelping and whining but unable to make himself understood. And what is the content of this vision?
. . . I saw a young shepherd, writhing, choking, convulsing, his face distorted, out of whose mouth hung a black, heavy snake.
Did I ever see so much disgust and pale horror on one face? Had he fallen asleep? Then the snake crawled into his throat—then it bit itself fast.
My hand tore at the snake and tore—but in vain! It didn’t tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite! Bite!
“Its head off! Bite!”—thus it cried out of me, my horror, my hate, my disgust, my pity, all my good and bad cried out of me with one cry.—
Variously interpreted as this scene may be, in terms of the images of dog, shepherd, and snake, their conjunction in this remarkable configuration seems especially revealing for our investigation of the discourses on and of language within Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
The dog howls and yelps inhumanly, incomprehensibly, at a level below speech. The shepherd lies fallen, writhing and horrified, unable to free himself of what has bitten itself fast into his throat, unable even to cry out for help. The snake which simultaneously poisons and suffocates him has so many resonances in the Western symbol system out of which this vision emerges that it seems radically overdetermined. Phallic and yet associated with the earth, the mother-goddess; disguise of the devil, yet also (with the eagle) one of Zarathustra’s pet animals and favorite companions; the snake may also point to the ouroboros, the image of the serpent swallowing its own tail, an archetypal counterpart to the idea of the eternal recurrence.
In his vision, Zarathustra tries bodily to tear the snake from the shepherd’s throat, but in vain. Finally, “da schrie es aus mir: ‘Beiss zu! Beiss zu!’ ” “It cried [or something cried, or crying happened] out of me: ‘Bite! Bite!’ ” Zarathustra himself doesn’t tell the shepherd to bite; an impersonal voice cries out of him. What is it that makes this cry? “Mein Grauen, mein Hass, mein Ekel, mein Erbarmen, all mein Gutes und Schlimmes schrie mit einem Schrei aus mir.” “My horror, my hate, my disgust, my pity, all my good and bad cried with one cry out of me.” This is a cry that unites all the human reactions to such a sight, yet goes beyond what Zarathustra himself is capable of willfully uttering. This is an involuntary cry, a spontaneously unified command of all the forces at work in him at this critical moment, including the “good” and “bad” together; at this point they speak one word, cry with one cry, and utter a command unavailable to Zarathustra himself unless he is at the mercy and command of all the contradictory and powerful forces which together move him.
They cry out together, in one cry, “Bite its head off!” This is a humanly impossible command, but it is also the only way out for the fallen shepherd, about to be choked by the tenacious snake.
Zarathustra has asked his hearers, “What did I see in allegory? . . . Who is the human being into whose throat everything heaviest and blackest will thus crawl?” Of course, at some level, it is Zarathustra himself, even Nietzsche himself, or perhaps the person on the way to transformation into the Übermensch. But what is it that is happening when the impersonal forces of disgust, horror, and even good and bad unite to counsel a biting?
Again, the possibility of reading this vision in terms of the erotically and emotionally freighted quality of language is very tempting. Read the snake as tongue, as the black and heavy tongue which itself chokes utterance, as emblem of the “mother,” into whose body the “shepherd” must bite, risking loss of self, risking the penalties for this ultimate breach of taboo, consummating the incestuous drive toward the mother.
In this chapter, explicit female imagery is absent, but the emotions of abjection are overwhelmingly apparent; the archetypal associations of shepherd, snake, and the bite lead me again to understand the “Vision and the Riddle” of the suffocating shepherd as a vision of the situation of the poet, the writer, the reader, the one who stands as witness to the fall of God, that exhilarating, terrifying, guilt-producing event. In this Oedipal situation, what can rescue the poet from choking on the heavy, black snake that has felled the shepherd? Only the advice to “bite its head off,” coming from a place where the emotions of abjection share a single voice, can prevent paralysis, suffocation, death.
The shepherd bites:
. . . he bit with a good bite! He spat far away the snake’s head—and sprang up.
No longer a shepherd, no longer a human being—one transformed, illuminated, who laughed! Never yet on earth laughed any human being as he laughed!
As a result of overcoming his disgust and biting into the snake, the shepherd is able to free himself from its stranglehold, and to leap up, “one transformed, illuminated, who laughed!” Here is Nietzsche’s image of the poet, who only by biting into his abjection can achieve jouissance, an ecstasy of language which sounds like laughter, which passes over the boundaries of language into laughter.
O my brothers, I heard the laughter that was no human laughter,—and now a thirst eats at me, a longing that never grows still.
My longing for this laughter eats at me; O how do I still bear to live! And how could I bear to die now!—
This laughter that results from biting the snake’s head off has turned Zarathustra into a being composed entirely of desire, of longing, of a thirst that eats or gnaws at him; he is so consumed by the sound of this superhuman laughter that he wants both to live and to die, but the one is too painful, while the other cuts him off from the possibility of fulfillment. The eternally frustrated lover, thirsty for a jouissance of language that sounds like laughter, Zarathustra the poet has had a vision of erotic fulfillment achieved only by overcoming disgust long enough to bite.
Jung comments on this vision, but emphasizes Zarathustra’s spitting out of the snake’s head. Since for Jung “the snake represents the unconscious psyche,” ideally the shepherd should establish some kind of relationship with it, rather than biting its head off and spitting it out. But Jung goes on to say, “It must be admitted, however, that the problem as it presented itself to Nietzsche was insoluble, for nobody could expect the shepherd to swallow down a snake under such circumstances.”
And what are these circumstances, which make an accommodation with the snake impossible? “The snake . . . crawls into the mouth of the celebrant, i.e. Nietzsche himself as the ποιμήν or ποιμάνδρης, the shepherd of souls and preacher, firstly to stop him from talking too much, and secondly to make him ένθϵος—‘enthused,’ ‘filled with God.’ ”27
Enthused, filled with God, in intimate contact with the sacred, yet prevented from speaking, not only from “talking too much” but from forming any words at all, the shepherd writhes, chokes, and twitches, filled with loathing and horror, but is completely cut off from uttering a human word. This is a particular variety of encounter with the “unconscious psyche,” indeed with the archaic mother of the unconscious, who stuffs the shepherd’s gorge with her numinous presence and effectively blocks him from speech.
To bite into the snake and spit out its head is to risk swallowing this god, and perhaps being rendered permanently incapable of speech—a vision of hell, as far as Nietzsche was concerned.
R. J. Hollingdale appends an intriguing and very curious note to his translation of this vision. When the vision was about to begin, when Zarathustra first heard the yelping dog, he asked himself, “Had I ever heard a dog cry so for help?” He answered himself by saying, “Yes! When I was a child, in my most distant childhood.” He remembered a dog howling at the full moon.
The second time Zarathustra asks the question about the dog, it remains unanswered. But Hollingdale refers the reader to a note:
This scene is a memory from Nietzsche’s childhood. Nietzsche’s father died following a fall, and it seems that Nietzsche was attracted to the scene by the frightened barking of a dog: he found his father lying unconscious. It is not entirely clear why the scene should have been evoked at this point. The most likely suggestion is that Nietzsche at one time thought that events recurred within historical time and was troubled by the idea that he might meet the same death as his father. (The idea seems to have assumed the nature of an obsession: its origin probably lay in Nietzsche’s fear of madness, which was strengthened by the fact that his father died insane. The insanity was caused by the fall, but Nietzsche was probably doubtful whether the fall did not merely bring to the surface an inherited weakness.) This old idea may have come into the author’s mind at this point, and have been included in the text as a cryptic “history” of the theory of the eternal recurrence. What follows is, of course, symbolic and not actual.28
Hollingdale does not give his source for this “memory from Nietzsche’s childhood.” In his critical biography, Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965), he makes no mention of such an incident, although he devotes several pages to the death of Nietzsche’s father, and to the question of its cause. He quotes Nietzsche’s youthful autobiography, Aus Meinem Leben, written in 1858, thus: “now black clouds towered up, lightning flashed and bolts from heaven came crashing down. In September 1848 my beloved father suddenly became mentally ill [gemütskrank]. . . . [The doctor] diagnosed a softening of the brain.”29
Hollingdale says that Franziska (Nietzsche’s mother) “maintained much later (in a statement to the clinic at Basel) that he had died from ‘softening of the brain caused by a fall from a flight of steps,’ ” while Elisabeth, Nietzsche’s sister, in one of her numerous and fortunately obvious falsifications, misquotes Nietzsche’s own words thus: “my beloved father suddenly became seriously ill as the result of a fall.”30
Thus the fall seems to be remembered at least by both mother and sister; I have been unable to locate any mention of it in Nietzsche’s memoirs. But if we assume that Hollingdale is correct in referring to this “memory from Nietzsche’s childhood,” and that Nietzsche did somewhere record this memory, it would seem to be an extraordinarily powerful childhood experience: to be the first to discover one’s father lying unconscious after a fall; to have been attracted to the scene by a barking dog; subsequently to see one’s father decline and eventually die, “mentally ill.”
At age four to discover one’s father “fallen,” even “dead,” is like discovering the death or even the murder of God, for to discover is, at least psychologically, to invent or create. Nietzsche’s guilt on this discovery must have been profound. Later, he merely announces rather than advocates the death of God, the death of the Father, especially of the all-good and all-powerful Father. Perhaps to discover one’s own father “fallen,” unconscious, impotent, and abandoned by God, watched over by only a barking dog (Höllenhund?), is to discover the absence or abdication of the power and goodness represented by that pastor-father.
This is not to reduce the meaning of the death of God to the literal death of Nietzsche’s father; it is rather to speculate about the impact of such a memory (if it is indeed authentic) on the subsequent struggle with central symbols of a whole cultural tradition.
We have been arguing that the struggle for speech which communicates in a new way is a major theme of Zarathustra, and that it all takes place under the shadow of the terrifying, exhilarating, guilt-producing fall of the father, imaged here as the fall of the “shepherd,” the “pastor.”
When the father (whether literal or symbolic) lies fallen, unconscious, impotent, the relation to the mother is in question. When the symbolic structure is in collapse, the question of language appears. How is one to speak meaningfully when the ultimate signified, the basis of the whole system of meaning, has crumbled? Either new symbols arise, or a new understanding of meaning emerges, one no longer “based” on a “ground,” on an ultimate or absolute reality whose being creates and guarantees all other beings. This new understanding of meaning, one which attempts to work through the inheritance of nihilism left by the now-defunct metaphysical symbolic universe, is found in relation to the mother.
Nietzsche’s effort in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to attain to various forms of speech and discourse which demonstrate the jouissance of language itself, forms which allow meaning to arise “innocently,” as a “Yes-saying,” in relation with the body and the earth; that is, creating “words and honors for the body and the earth.”31
The great feminine figures reappear throughout the book, to undermine and unsettle any pretense Zarathustra makes of coming up with a program, a plan, a new symbolic structure which would only issue again in nihilism. They throw him into confusion, and remind him of the silence underlying his wordplay, and of the laughter surrounding it.
We shall see in Chapter IV how this confusion manifested itself in Nietzsche’s attempt to write about his mother’s contribution to his sense of his own fate.