Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CORRECTED: Commentary on the chapter "On Old and New Tablets" from book 3 of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

CORRECTED: Commentary on the chapter "On Old and New Tablets" from book 3 of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

(I corrected the language on this commentary)


            Thus Spoke Zarathustra was regarded by Nietzsche not only as his greatest book, but also, in characteristically modest language, "The Greatest Gift Mankind has Yet Received." Though I've read Nietzsche repeatedly and carefully for about a decade now, I admit this particular book remains as a whole difficult to master. I find it difficult to get a whole sense of the book, though I can do as any reader could do, and pick out a sentence or passage here or there that sound interesting.

            As is characteristic of books that are "inspired" rather than consciously planned, the structure of this book is peculiar, and has important lessons to teach in and of itself. Being able to interrelate parts, and understand how they collude over one inherent message -- arriving at such a simple conclusion takes the most work. Nor can we be spared such work by a commentator or scholar. Were that even possible it would constitute a sort of soul-murder, as genius is known face to face and breath to breath, and must be grappled with, you to him, naked and vehement.

            As far as I can tell, the most important sections of the book include first its Introduction and subsequent introductory sermons, which give the piece an overture; second "the Seven Seals," which Nietzsche originally intended to  conclude the piece, and where he poetically takes us to the exalted mindset and unique perspective which seems to be the purpose of the whole book; and third, his chapter "On Old and New Tablets," which I sense is closest to laying bare his motives.

            This last piece, found in the third book, is worth careful study. I have broken its aphorisms into six major breaks. The first (1-3) situates Zarathustra as a man waiting for his moment, talking to himself (1), laughing at the old tablets (2), that is to say, at the old systems of law and mores, and finishes with a re-definition of Redemption (3) -- which is one that, like his eternal recurrence, wants his disciples to "redeem with their creations all that has been. To redeem what is past in man and to re-create all 'it was' until the will says, 'Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it' -- this I call the redemption and this alone I taught them to call redemption." An integration of all "into One" seems to be his vision of a thorough redemption, not a separation of this from that (as in Christianity), but a unification and affirmation of all, once it has been comprehended and re-created into a new whole. Zarathustra also continues his peculiar language about "going down," and "going under," regarding his relationship to the world.

            After his overture, the next ten sections regarding "this new tablet," (beginning at 4 with the words "Behold, here is a new tablet," and ending at 12 with "This new tablet I place over you") defines itself by playfully unstitching "the Sermon of the Mount" of Christianity, though since it seldom makes open references, but often teases with veiled illusions, that subtext might be entirely lost without a fresh reading of Matthew 5-7 before reading this. With 4 we begin with a section on self-obedience that answers "Love they neighbor" with "Do not spare your neighbor," and speaks of self-overcoming yourself in your neighbor; it counters "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" with "Behold, there is no retribution." Our goal is, this section reminds, to learn not only to command ourselves, but to obey ourselves. Section 5 responds to the Beatitudes, contrasting their promises to given high heaven to the poor and hungry and depressed against a characterization of the noble soul: "They do not want to have anything for nothing; least of all, life." Section 6 makes peculiar use of sacrifice language, claiming that as firstlings we are to be sacrificed to old idols, and by thus "going under" we "cross over,"--but again, specific mention is made to Jesus' command to "love god with all your strength, all your mind, all your heart," where Nietzsche says "Those who are going under I love with my whole love: for they cross over" -- thus presenting his love for those like him who suffer and triumph as he does. Section 7 answers the injunction "let your yes by yes and your no be no, anything beyond this is from evil" by noting how rare it is to be able to tell the truth, and specifically because the truth unites many of the things the good call evil: "the audacious daring, the long mistrust, the cruel No, the disgust, the cutting into the living" but he reveals that all this comes together to create ... science, a true yes yes which the religious are unable to perform. Section 8 tropes on the saying of the wise man who built his house on stone, which is used to conclude the "sermon on the mount," whereas here Nietzsche refers to Heraclitus whose doctrine taught that all is flux, even the firm bridge over the changing river, which will collapse by the "raging bull" of winter wind. With the flux of life, clinging to "good" and "evil" as if they were solids is the truly foolish thing to do. After a brief and suggestive section 9 denouncing both fatalism (as the stargazers do it) and utter freedom, he returns to his critique of the "sermon on the mount" with 10, when Jesus says that none of the laws will be annulled and not the least must be broken, and then going on to cite "Thou shalt not kill!" whereas Nietzsche claims that the laws "Thou shalt not rob! Thou shalt not kill!" themselves rob and kill, and that they ultimately preach death, and are thereby not holy. Finally, with two sections on the New Nobility, he attacks the mindset typical of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount ("I am the fulfillment of the law") but also characteristic of despots and rabble everywhere, that all of history is a bridge to this person or this time; Nietzsche replaces this self-ending view of the world with the "new nobility," which looks towards a future of new tablets, under the premise that "Precisely this is divine, that there are gods, but no God." Finally, the crucifixion is condemned as bad enough to curse the land of Israel -- "the promised land, I do not praise -- for where the worst of all trees grew, the cross, that place deserves no praise." He defines, instead, the new nobility as those that seek not their father land, but their children's land. The new tablets are not an end in themselves, but they are also forward facing, and the new orientation is on the future, for which the superman is symbol.

            The remaining sections concern The World (14-20); and Interpersonal Relationships (21-24); before explicating the Thesis of the Chapter (25-28), that the Creator is the new goal who breaks old tables and makes new ones; concluding (29-30) with a final metaphor and a personal hope.

            The section on the world takes on the Judeo-Christio-Islamo notion that "the world" is an opprobrium. Beginning with regarding Ecclesiastes as most unwise literature --"Why live? All is vanity" he characterizes the book as saying -- he calls it "blasphemy"; he then says that the world can indeed be filthy (14), but that this must be understood in the right way, and not in the way of the world-slanderers (15) who think we should let the world go to hell because it's not worth saving anyway. Such an attitude, especially characteristic of monk and ascetics, leads into the interesting section 16 which tells us to smash the new tablet which bases itself on the Buddhistic claim that "whoever learns much will unlearn all violent desire," and that "wisdom makes weary; worth while is--nothing; thou shalt not desire." He calls this a form of world-weariness as well, deriving from poor spiritual digestion of the world. Finally, the world-weary are invited to pass on (17) rather than ruining it for the rest of us, before he makes a distinction between heroic weariness and "rotten sloth" (18).

            Coming out of that dark topic of world-weariness, he starts back up on a section about sex and violence, and the goodness of both, advising us to have noble enemies and to not waste our energy on those we despise (21), noting the rapaciousness of the best men (22), praising the "dance with head and limbs" between men fit for war and women fit for birth, giving a picture of healthy sexuality and leading naturally into a section about some goals of marriage (24) such as "Not merely to reproduce, but to produce something higher."

            Finally, we come to the namesake of the chapter, the explanation of the meaning of the old and new tablets (25-28), before the conclusion. 25 envisions "earthquakes" that upset culture, opening up "new wells" and new powers which lead the people into "long trials" to determine who will command and who will obey. The idea is that chances and shocks of history and war upset the tables of values, leading to trials to determine who will rule. The tension inherent in these trials are explained in the most pivotal section of the entire chapter, 26, where "The Good and the Just" who are liars, "imprisoned in their good conscience" who are "pharisees," who "crucify him who invents his own virtue," and who "sacrifice the future to themselves," are contrasted with creators, the very people this chapter, this book, the whole four books of Zarathustra aimed to call forth, teach, and inspire. The good and just cannot create and hate the creator. 27 serves as a brief postscript to ask if he has actually been heard on this matter, that we are to break the good and the just, before opening in a new metaphor describing what these creators will look like, namely, as adventurers, "seafarers" who might get nauseated but who have to learn to stand tall on an uneven keel and steer the ship towards "our children's land."

            Nietzsche concludes with a parable of a conversation between a piece of kitchen coal and a diamond where the diamond admonishes the coal (his readers, really) to be hard. "And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut and cut through, how can you one day create with me? For creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand on millennia as on wax." The summary, the symbol for the new tablet--indeed, he invokes the "new tablet" a final time here, summarizing it in the injunction to "become hard." The chapter finishes up with Nietzsche 's address to his own will to preserve him for a great destiny, a final victory, in which he wants to "annihilate in victory." But before coming to that hard final sentiment, spanning a strange amalgam of metaphors for himself: "That I may one day be ready and ripe in the great noon: as ready and ripe as glowing bronze, clouds pregnant with lightening, and swelling milk udders--ready for myself, and my most hidden will: a bow lusting for its arrow, an arrow lusting for its star -- a star ready and ripe in its noon, glowing, pierced, enraptured by annihilating sun arrows -- a sun itself and an inexorable solar will, ready to annihilate in victory." With such a culmination, such an outburst of images, it seems we are revealed that Nietzsche's "hard" diamond has many facets, including a pregnant cloud and a swelling udder -- not ultra masculine metaphors by any stretch.

            The dizzying amount of images in this section, which is, properly, poetry, is intending to create a whole new language for Nietzsche's Creators. Not just some things, but everything will be given a new meaning. And so the sun is evoked, the stars, the ocean, the mountains the wind, each symbolize an aspect of the Overman, and of the children who create -- indeed, the contrast between the child who creates and the rapacious overman who rules is blatant tension in all Nietzsche's visions.


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