Thus Spoke Zarathustra through The New Dithyramb
Throughout history, the unraveling of a great mystery often led to a new and greater discovery, as when Newton solved the mystery of recurring comets and discovered gravity. It is not uncommon for some intellectual mysteries to endure for centuries, and sometimes even longer. Here, for the first time and exclusively to ExplainNietzsche readers, I hope to document the resolution of a mystery that has endured for more than two thousand years, though I was not the one who did the unraveling. I also hope to demonstrate the profound benefits its resolution will impart for generations to come and to show the numerous other discoveries that have ensued as a result of this particular milestone.
When a human being suffers, they lose their sense of Self and subsequently devolve into a chaotic maelstrom of thought and passion. It is the supreme task of philosophy to (1) uncover the process by which suffering man may rise up out of that chaos and redeem his suffering and (2) to legislate the values that support that ascension, like steps along the way. The ancient Greeks were the first and only people in all of history to succeed in this lofty task. As proof of their success, they produced a progeny of geniuses whose influence no subsequent culture has ever matched. Indeed, ancient Greek culture remains the only culture in all of history in which genius was common, not rare.
Curiously, there was something oxymoronic in this unique achievement because the ancient Greeks also took pleasure in the destruction of extraordinary individuals, as evidenced by their tragedies, which was another uniquely Greek invention. Yes, the ancient Greeks invented tragedy.
“Invented tragedy? That’s ridiculous,” you might say. “Tragedy wasn’t invented. Tragedy happens.”
Actually, the tragedy that the ancient Greeks invented was something else entirely. And it was not something with which we moderns have been familiar, until now. For them, tragedy was a celebration, whereby they reveled in the destruction of magnificent individuality. And there lay the mystery. Why did the ancient Greeks, a culture of Homo sapiens who produced a progeny of extraordinary individuals, take pleasure in the destruction of extraordinary individuality while at the same time creating it? Like a jewel atop the crown of ancient wisdom, this question, more than any other, required an answer. Like a gateway, beyond which the achievement of philosophy’s most lofty goals laid waiting, the mystery by which man derived pleasure in tragedy required resolution. Success finally came more than two thousand years later in the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who cracked the nut.
The Role of Tragedy in Life
In order to understand the role of tragedy in life, it is necessary to first understand how life, as a process of growth, manifests itself within the human spirit. People commonly think that the most difficult thing to ascertain about life is its meaning. They are wrong. The most difficult thing to ascertain about life is its process. How does the same process of growth that plainly and explicitly manifests itself in the plant also manifest itself in the human spirit? If that were known, its meaning, or what one becomes through the process, would easily be learned in the end. According to Nietzsche, life manifests itself within the human spirit as an ascension out of the chaotic maelstrom of thought and passion that results from suffering. But how?
This is how. Life begins with a desire to find oneself. And it proceeds upon an understanding that one’s Self is defined by one’s feelings and that it is not a purely cerebral construction that is attainable through pure thought, as Plato taught. It also requires learning how to recognize one’s true needs and hopes amidst the chaos of superfluous thought and wayward desires. And as one learns these lessons in life and begins to behold one’s true Self, that vision invigorates the passionate desire for Self, which drives the seeker to ever greater heights, and the ascension begins. But then, something extraordinary happens.
Having learned that his Self is defined by his emotions and having become newly driven to find his Self evermore, the seeker is brought to the brink of his subconscious, which is an un-chartered discovery. And as he struggles to incorporate more and more of the subconscious realm into his Self, he comes upon the subliminal torment in which his conscience has become mired the way a workhorse becomes mired in mud. Like a hero facing tremendous odds, he wrestles with these conflicts to free himself, and, as he succeeds, his spirit becomes exalted upon the steps of his victories. And then, wanting to rise even higher, he plumbs deeper still, whereupon he senses his Self in those depths, and it is at this point that the tragedy occurs. His Ego, which had previously protected him from his torment, collapses like a false flooring that is no longer useful. In the wake of that collapse, the seeker rejoices in a reunion with his more true Self. In such a way, the disintegration of the Ego gives way to the rise of the Self. This is the cataclysm that the Greeks celebrated in original tragedy. And the reunion with one’s innermost Self is the pleasure that the ancient Greeks took from tragedy. In short, original tragedy was not a performance that Sophocles and Shakespeare later put upon the stage. Proto-tragedy was a rite of passage in the long sojourn that proceeded from the dictum “Know thyself.”
But soon, the magical wisdom that tragedy imparts — that all life requires some measure of death and disintegration — was lost. And tragedy devolved into the purely theatrical spectacle that we have known since the days of Sophocles.
Nietzsche’s discovery of the role of proto-tragedy in the life process was a gateway beyond which he made numerous other discoveries, most notably — delineation of the life process, the meaning and value of human suffering in that precious process, and the meaning of that process. Friedrich Nietzsche’s work constitutes a milestone in the history of Occidental philosophy. He was the first philosopher to achieve philosophy’s most supreme task, and the achievement was singularly his. But, as if that wasn’t enough, he went a step further and found a way to teach everything that Nature had given up to him, which, as you are about to see, was his best achievement.
The New Dithyramb
In 1883, at the end of his life, Nietzsche sat down to write his masterpiece, which he named Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His primary concern was twofold: (1) how to pass on everything that Nature had given up to him as an experience, not an explanation, and (2) how to preserve his teaching through the generations in such a way as to protect its meaning from being distorted. The solution was to invent a new art form, which he called dithyrambic drama.
A dithyrambic drama is unlike any form of drama with which we are familiar. It does not play out upon a stage, and there is only one actor, which is the reader himself. The only action is the action of the reader’s will upon himself, and the only dialogue is provided by the numerous thought processes that accompany that action. In short, a dithyrambic drama is a drama that plays out within oneself as a struggle between will and conscience.
Earlier, I said that life manifests itself within the human spirit as a process of growth by which one learns to recognize one’s true Self and then to nurture and grow that sense of Self all the way to the point of incorporating the subconscious realm into it. I explained that a fundamental turning point in that long sojourn was the collapse of the Ego, insofar as that collapse led directly to a reunion with one’s long lost Self, one’s innermost and deepest sense of Self. And I said that this rite of passage was original tragedy. Nietzsche’s masterpiece, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is a road map of this journey. The drama is comprised of eighty one dithyrambs, and each dithyramb teaches a step along the way of this journey.
Each dithyramb is composed entirely in metaphor, and it is the reader’s job to render those metaphors. In the course of doing that, the reader then becomes transported within himself to the particular passion that is depicted by the dithyramb. However, without rendering the metaphors, the text reads like a story — but a story that makes no sense. Here is a good example, from the dithyramb entitled “The Homecoming.”
“O Solitude! Solitude, my home! I have lived too long wildly in wild strange lands to come home to you without tears!
“Now shake your finger at me as mothers do, now smile at me as mothers smile, now say merely: ‘And who was it that once stormed away from me like a storm wind? —
“‘who departing cried: I have sat too long with Solitude, I have unlearned how to be silent! You have surely learned that — now?
“‘O Zarathustra, I know all: and that you were lonelier among the crowd, you solitary, than you ever were with me!
“‘Loneliness is one thing, solitude another: you have learned that — now! And that among men you will always be wild and strange:
“‘wild and strange even when they love you: for above all they want to be indulged!
“‘But here you are at your own hearth and home; here you can utter everything and pour out every reason, nothing is here ashamed of hidden, hardened feelings.
“‘Here all things come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you: for they want to ride upon your back.
“O Solitude! Solitude, my home! How blissfully and tenderly does your voice speak to me!
“We do not question one another, we do not complain to one another, we go openly together through open doors.
“For with you all is open and clear; and here even the hours run on lighter feet. For time weighs down more heavily in the dark than in the light.
“Here, the words and word chests of all existence spring open to me: all existence here wants to become words, all becoming here wants to learn speech from me.
“Down there, however, — all speech is in vain! There, the best wisdom is to forget and pass by: I have learned that — now!
“O blissful stillness around me! O pure odors around me! Oh, how this stillness draws pure breath from a deep breast! Oh, how it listens, this blissful stillness!”
At face value, this entire discourse makes little sense, if any. “O Solitude! Solitude, my home! I have lived too long wildly in wild strange lands to come home to you without tears!”
And it gets worse. “Here, the words and word chests of all existence spring open to me: all existence here wants to become words, all becoming here wants to learn speech from me.” Again, this makes no sense.
However, apply two simple rules to the texts and the art of rendering a dithyramb becomes more apparent: (1) the dithyramb is composed entirely in metaphor, and (2) that which is represented by a metaphor is a plausible embodiment of some inner circumstance of passion and conscience. One other point to consider is that in the course of rendering these dithyrambs and embodying the passions they teach, the reader becomes an actor as he becomes driven by the will that these passions together comprise. Again, and this is a very important point, the reader becomes an actor, driven by a will! That means other passions, which are depicted in other dithyrambs, are a direct result of the will that engenders them, and it is impossible to render those other dithyrambs without first having already embodied the earlier ones. And what is the will that dithyrambic drama engenders within the actor? It is a will that carries the actor ever closer to a reunion with his true, deepest Self. And that is what is depicted in the above‑excerpted dithyramb, a reunion with Self. If we change a few words, that reunion becomes apparent, and what is revealed is beautiful poetry. Let me show you.
O my Self! My Self, my home! I have lived too long amongst the wild passions to come home to you without tears!
Now shake your finger at me as mothers do, now smile at me as mothers smile, now say merely: ‘And who was it that once stormed away from me like a storm-wind? —
‘who departing cried: I have been too long in communion with my Self, and prolonged discourse with my Self has caused me to unlearn how to be silent! You have surely learned that — now.
‘O Zarathustra, I know all: and that you were lonelier amongst chaotic thought and passion, you solitary, than you ever were with me!
‘Loneliness is one thing, solitude another: you have learned that — now! And that amongst the passions you will always be wild and strange:
‘wild and strange even when they love you: because, above all, passions want to be indulged!
‘But here you are within your realm; here you can utter everything and pour out every reason, nothing is here ashamed of hidden, hardened feelings.
‘Here all thought and feeling come caressingly to your discourse and flatter you: because through you they gain their freedom and come into existence. And everything that rises from the deep to create an image within your spirit then takes you to a new truth about your Self.
O my Self! My Self, my home! How blissfully and tenderly does your voice speak to me!
We do not question one another, we do not complain to one another, we go openly together through open doors.
For with you all is open and clear; and here even the hours run on lighter feet. For time weighs down more heavily outside the realm of my Self.
But here, in your realm, everything has a voice and a face that present themselves to me clearly, so that I hear and see all things clearly: here, all feelings and ideas want to become a dimension of my Self, everything deep and unfathomable here wants to learn speech from me.
This makes sense. Or it makes more sense than the literal text does. And if we render some other dithyrambs, it becomes even more apparent that Zarathustra’s dithyrambic drama is indeed an inner spiritual sojourn leading to a reunion with one’s Self. As I provide you the following renditions, please note that, without actually rendering these dithyrambs yourself, all you will see in them, hopefully, is the symbolism suggesting the renditions that I am going to show you.
Of Reading and Writing teaches the actor how to “read” or recognize his Self amid the chaos within him and how to “write” or remember and incorporate what he finds.
Of the Tree on the Mountainside teaches the actor that, as he discovers his true Self and begins to accumulate a lasting proximity, he will begin to ascend out of the chaos within him — but where to go from there will become a profound dilemma. This dithyramb teaches him that, in order to rise even higher, he must begin to learn how to approach his subconscious: “The more [this tree] wants to rise into the heights and the light, the more determinedly do its roots strive earthwards, downwards, into the darkness, into the depths — into evil.”
Of the Sublime Men teaches the actor that he must learn to stop repressing whatever demons lay dormant within his subconscious and instead learn to let them come to the fore: “Still is the bottom of my sea: who could guess that it hides sportive monsters! Today I saw a sublime man, a solemn man. With upraised breast and in the attitude of a man drawing in breath: thus he stood there, the sublime man. He returned home from the fight with wild beasts. He has tamed monsters: but he should also redeem his monsters. He must unlearn his heroic will. To stand with relaxed muscles and unharnessed wills: that is the most difficult thing for you.”
The dithyramb Of Great Events depicts the moment that the actor, after having already approached his subconscious, then finally acknowledges its existence and enters: “There is an island in the sea upon which a volcano continually smokes; many say that that it is placed like a block of stone before the gate of the underworld, but that the narrow downward path which leads to this gate of the underworld passes through the volcano itself. Towards the hour of noon, many people saw a man coming towards them through the air, and a voice said clearly: ‘It is time! It is high time!’ But as the figure was closest to them — it flew quickly past, however, like a shadow, in the direction of the volcano. ‘Just look!’ said one of them, ‘there is Zarathustra going to Hell!’
And the dithyramb Of the Vision and the Riddle depicts the moment when, after having already entered the subconscious, the actor finally encounters that part of his deepest Self that has died — and he resurrects it: “Thus I spoke, and I spoke more and more softly: for I was afraid of my own thoughts and reservations. Then, suddenly, I heard a dog howling nearby. Had I ever heard a dog howling in that way? My thoughts ran back. Yes! When I was a child, in my most distant childhood — then I heard a dog howling in that way. But there a man was lying! And there! The dog, leaping, bristling, whining; then it saw me coming — then it howled again, then it cried out — had I ever heard a dog cry so for help? And truly, I had never seen the like of what I then saw. I saw a young shepherd writhing, choking, convulsed, his face distorted; and a heavy, black snake was hanging out of his mouth. My hands tugged and tugged at the snake — in vain! They could not tug the snake out of the shepherd’s throat.”
The invention of a new art form that depicts snippets of the human will as plausible embodiments is an ingenious contribution to the history of art. And for Friedrich Nietzsche to use his new art form to teach the human will by which the reader becomes actor and enters into the most meaningful and most rewarding imbroglio between his own will and conscience that he may ever undertake is indeed worth learning how to read and practice. But Friedrich Nietzsche’s greatest achievement and the best reason for undertaking Thus Spoke Zarathustra is what he teaches the actor to do after having entered into his subconscious and faced his blackest, most unfathomable demons.
Returning to the above excerpted dithyramb in the previous paragraph, the word “dog” is a metaphor for pain. That symbolism is not easily discernible, but Nietzsche states in one of his other preceding books that pain is what he meant to signify with the word. The word “shepherd” is a metaphor for our deepest, most original Self. And the “black snake” is a metaphor for knowledge of or experience with evil. It is meant to signify suffering that has beset us and entrenched itself within us in such a way as to cause a lifetime of haunting, subliminal misery. Zarathustra says that he “tugged and tugged at the snake,” trying to bring the suffering into consciousness so as to expel it once and for all, and that he could not do this. “My hands could not tug the snake out of the shepherd’s throat.” In other words, no measure of might or patience could pull out the intractable demon.
What is depicted here — and what the reader turned actor will actually experience within himself, through his own rendition — is a true moment standing at the precipice of the blackest and most unfathomable black abyss that exists within every single human being. When that happens, another dithyramb will teach him that, while he is in the deepest throes of his fear and subliminal suffering, if he looks up, he will see another abyss, the Blue Abyss (my coinage), which is the exact opposite of the black abyss. The Blue Abyss is a place that exists within your heart and mind just as surely as the Black Abyss exists. But it is much less chartered, not because it is unattainable but because, up until now, it has been un‑teachable. It is a place beyond the limits of human individuation, just as unfathomable and limitless, but unlimited in a way that will consume and heal you. It is a place where darkness is replaced with light, pain with bliss, and fear with confidence. It is a place where resignation is replaced with a renewed vigor to live. It is a blessed place that comprises the whole of what Thus Spoke Zarathustra teaches and shows — like a map. And the metaphor used to denote this place within the heart and mind of man where all suffering is redeemed and made worthwhile, regardless of the depth or duration of that suffering, is called ‘the superman.”
In short, there is a place called heaven, but it is a heaven on earth. And the only way to get there is by plumbing the deepest and most intractable demons within your own subconscious. The human soul is like a bow made taut by suffering, and when that suffering is redeemed and made good, our will is released as if upon a far flung arrow beyond the limits of human nature and into the Blue Abyss. In other words, the road to heaven passes through hell.
But Nietzsche did not invent the Blue Abyss, or supra‑individuated human being, he only chartered it and then succeeded in showing others how to navigate their own way. It has always existed within us, as much a part of our inner nature as is the Black Abyss, or sub‑individuated human being. And if it has always existed within us, then surely it must have been achieved and would therefore be plainly evident to us. Where, then, is there evidence of the Blue Abyss become incarnate? In the genius! And with that, I believe I have come full circle.