Saturday, July 19, 2008

Zarathustra’s Whisper


Love forms the limit of a thinking that carries itself to the limit of philosophy.
-Jean-Luc Nancy


1. There are two “Dancing Songs” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. They are both presented as love songs, depicting an affair between Zarathustra, “the great hope,” and a woman named Life. Here is how the first song begins:

"Into your eyes I looked recently, O Life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable."

This, however, is not a simple love story. Soon it will be shattered, as we come to realize that Life is not the only woman in Zarathustra’s heart. There is also a second woman. Her name is Wisdom. Despite Zarathustra’s devotion to Life, he also has a secret, unexplainable attraction to Wisdom:

"For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life – and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed towards wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?"

Zarathustra offers here an explanation for his inability to remain loyal to Life. Wisdom’s allure, so he claims, is a consequence of her uncanny resemblance to Life. But this, I would like to claim, is more than a lame excuse. This point becomes evident in the next stanza, when Zarathustra gathers the courage to tell Life about the other woman, about Wisdom, which he first describes as “evil and false,” as a woman that “one thirsts after her and is never satisfied.” Surprisingly, instead of being outraged, Life only “laughed maliciously, and closed her eyes,” wondering aloud about Wisdom’s true identity:

"'Of whom are you speaking?' she asked; 'no doubt, of me. And even if you are right – should that be said to my face?'"

This strange reproach raises the following questions: First, why does Life say that when Zarathustra speaks about Wisdom, he really speaks about her, about Life? We can also wonder whether Zarathustra made a wise step in telling Life about the other woman. But more importantly, we need to ask ourselves whether telling Life that Wisdom, his lover, looks just like her, was a tactful move. Is it possible that Zarathustra, “the Godless,” will make such a beginners’ mistake in his relationship with this woman named Life? I think that he is presented here a bit as a fool, in opposition to Life, who seems here to be secure in her position. But I also do not think that we should rush to quick judgment. There is something peculiar about the resemblance between Life and Wisdom that is still unexplained. And there is something strange about the love between Zarathustra and Life. We need to bear in mind that Zarathustra’s devotion to Life knows no bounds. In the beginning of the “Other Dancing Song” he confesses:

"I fear you near, I love you far; your flight lures me, your seeking cures me: I suffer, but what would I not gladly suffer for you?"

But no matter. Wisdom’s seduction is sweet and strong, and Zarathustra’s love towards Life appears to be gradually fading away. As the second “Dancing Song” progresses, we reach the pleading words of Life, who now seems to be utterly devastated as her lover is planning his final departure:

“O Zarathustra, don’t crack your whip so frightfully! After all, you know that noise murders thought – and just now such tender thoughts are coming to me… And that I like you, often too well, that you know; and the reason is that I am jealous of your wisdom, Oh, this mad old fool of a wisdom! If your wisdom ever run away from you, then my love would quickly run away from you too.”

No doubt – there is definitely something very odd about this triangular love affair. Why does Life tell Zarathustra that in case Wisdom would one day abandon him, she, Life, would no longer love him as well? Even though she feels disdain towards Wisdom, “this mad old fool,” her relationship with Zarathustra is absolutely symmetrical to his relationship with Wisdom. The two women look the same, act the same, and love the same. So why does Zarathustra want to leave Life for another woman, exactly like her? The answer is to be found at the end of Nietzsche’s little soap opera. It begins when Zarathustra admits that he is indeed about to leave Life for good:

"Then life looked back and around thoughtfully and said softly: “O Zarathustra, you are not faithful enough to me. You do not love me nearly as much as you say; I know you are thinking of leaving me soon.”
“Yes,” I answered hesitantly, “but you also know –” and I whispered something into her ear, right through her tangled yellow foolish tresses.
“You know that, O Zarathustra? Nobody knows that.”
And we looked at each other and gazed on the green meadow over which the cool evening was running just then, and we wept together. But then life was dearer to me than all my wisdom ever was."

Remember that just a moment ago Zarathustra told Life that he is about to abandon her. But after he whispered the secret that “nobody knows,” the couple all of a sudden gazed at each other, then looked at the green meadow below, and shed tears of joy. In this grand finale, the love of Zarathustra towards Life triumphs, and the affair he had with Wisdom is miraculously forgotten.

2. So what did Zarathustra whisper into the ear of Life? This pressing question is the cipher to Nietzsche’s dancing songs, and perhaps, even, to something more. Quite a few scholars attempted to solve this mystery in recent years. Daniel Conway’s answer is that Zarathustra’s secret must remain a secret, and it can never be explicated as a positive proposition. Michael Platt’s preliminary attempt to explicitly answer this question is rejected by Platt himself, like the explanation that Zarathustra tells Life that he wants to leave her because she is barren, or that he wants to leave her because he knows that she is planning to leave him first. This leads Platt to a solution that is shared by many scholars, such as Walter Kaufmann, Laurence Lampert, David Goicoechea, Alan White, Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, and Frances Nesbitt Oppel. They believe that Zarathustra’s secret is the eternal recurrence – that even though he is about to leave Life, he tells her that he will eventually return. However, other scholars rightly point out that the eternal return is far from being a secret. At this stage of the book, the reader is already familiar with it quite well, and therefore there is no reason to hide it, or present it as the secret that “nobody knows.” Besides, it is highly dubitable that any woman, and Life in particular, would find the following reply satisfactory: “I am going to be with the other woman now, but eventually I will return and love you once again.” And so an alternative answer is suggested, namely, that Zarathustra whispers that he is about to die, and so, by leaving Life, he executes his death wish. This answer is shared by Hans-Georg Gadamer, Maudemarie Clark, Robert Gooding-Williams, and T.K. Tsung. But could such a fatalistic answer by Zarathustra – the one who is supposed to say Yes to life, to affirm life, to be truly in love with life – make the couple to look into each other eyes and then gaze onto the green meadow? Should we equate Zarathustra and Life to Romeo and Juliet? Must we treat Nietzsche’s dancing songs as suicide songs? In any event, the consequence of all the above readings lead one to conclude, together with Stanley Rosen, that this episode should be understood “as a sign that life is fundamentally tragic, but that this tragedy is, as Zarathustra says next of life, dearer to him than all his wisdom.”

There is, however, a completely different way to understand what Zarathustra whispered into Life’s ear through her golden tresses. I would like to suggest “a new way of thinking” about this secret which is, in opposition to all the above interpretations, “an affirmative thought, a thought that affirms life and the will to life, a thought which finally expels the whole of the negative,” as Gilles Deleuze puts it. Life’s initial admittance in the first dancing song that she is “changeable and wild” gives us a first indication. All the various clues concerning the striking similarity between the two women point to a single conclusion. The turn of heart at the end of the song after the secret has been divulged proves it. There is one answer that could completely ease Life’s mind so easily, and transform this couple on the verge of separation into eternal lovers. After Life said that she knows that Zarathustra is about to leave her for Wisdom, he whispered into her ear something along these lines: “But you also know that Wisdom is not another woman, but simply you, O Life, in disguise.” The two women only seem to be different. Life and Wisdom, who are portrayed as women in various places in Nietzsche’s writings, are revealed in the Dancing Songs to be one and the same person. It was therefore not Zarathustra who played with Life’s heart, but vice versa: It was Life who fooled Zarathustra all along, disguising herself as another woman, seducing her own man. Zarathustra only thought that he was a cheater, hiding his secret behind Life’s back. In reality, he never left her. But maybe Zarathustra actually knew about this sham all along, and this was nothing but a complicated role-playing: Life pretended to be Wisdom, and Zarathustra pretended not to know. Whatever the case may be, Zarathustra’s heart, which seemed to be split in half, is now whole once again, and his bond with Life is no longer put into question.

This, however, is not to say that from now on Zarathustra and Life would live happily ever after, that the intimacy between the two would transform this enigmatic woman called “Life” into an open book, that Life is now irrevocably moving from concealment to unconcealment. This is a basic misunderstanding of the concept of love. As Giorgio Agamben explains, love is in fact

"to live in intimacy with a stranger, not in order to draw him closer, or to make him known, but rather to keep him strange, remote: unapparent – so unapparent that his name contains him entirely. And, even in discomfort, to be nothing else, day after day, than the ever open place, the unwaning light in which that one being, that thing, remains forever exposed and sealed off."

As much as you feel close to life, life will always remain closed from you.

3. What, then, is the implication of this exegesis? Here is one plausible suggestion. The love of wisdom – this is the meaning of philosophy according to its Greek etymology. But this love, Nietzsche intimates, is not the end of the story. The truth is that there is only one woman that we, the philosophers, love dearly, and the name of this woman is not Wisdom, but Life. At best, Wisdom is simply Life in disguise. Even though we may want to betray life, and even though we may wish to leave life, she is the one we truly cherish, in sickness and in health, until Death do us part. Which is not to say that Life is an obedient woman, always waiting for us to return home from our escapades. Life is no Penelope. Remember: it is not us who play with Life’s emotions, but Life who plays her tricks on us, those who are so madly in love with her, to the extent that we constantly make fools of ourselves in front of our object of desire. As Nietzsche explains elsewhere,

"perhaps this is the most powerful magic of life: it is covered by a veil interwoven with gold, a veil of beautiful possibilities, sparkling with promise, resistance, bashfulness, mockery, pity, and seduction. Yes, life is a woman."

What “nobody knows” is that the philosophical love of wisdom is, at the end of the day, nothing more, but nothing less, than a love of life. Which is the reason why, according to Heidegger, “philosophy of life” is an expression that “says about as much as the ‘botany of plants.’" These are redundant expressions. As every botany is evidently the botany of plants, every philosophy is a philosophy of life. Philosophy is, properly speaking, the love of life. This is still only a whisper. But today, in the midst of “the great spectacle in a hundred acts…the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles” – which unravels before our eyes as Nietzsche predicted – Zarathustra’s whisper is beginning to be heard.

3 comments:

Brian said...
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Anonymous said...

To whomever wrote this -- thank you.

Anonymous said...

To whomever wrote this -- Thank you.