Students of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life and thought know how, “6,000 feet beyond mankind and time,” by the shore of Lake Silvaplana, in the sunny summer of 1881, the enigmatic figure of Zarathustra first occurred to the philosopher.
Serene in the shade of a vast boulder, Nietzsche had a vision:
“Then quick, my friend, one splits in two/
Zarathustra strolls in view!”
- The Gay Science,
“Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”
Our author memorialized the stranger’s appearance and conduct in cartoonish inks, touched up with gay paint and set to song-like snatches of light, English verse. Pages are lost—a missing-piece puzzle! Tantalizing, incomplete tableau of home invasion! The deeper meaning we glean inferentially, bringing to bear understanding of this philosopher’s other writings, as well as our inner sense of how we might feel, were someone to smash our belongings with such intrusive air of release and gratuity!
As Nietzsche will reflect, years later, in his monumental Genealogy of Morals: the ‘ascetic’ philosopher finds indispensable entire freedom from, “compulsion, disturbance, noise, business.” Yet stillness is desired, not for itself, but on behalf of, “the dance, bounce and flight of ideas.” Is this not the contradiction we see made disturbing flesh in the attitude of Nietzsche’s stupefying guest? We perceive it as well in Nietzsche’s ambivalence towards the interloper, who has not awaited, positive response to a knock clearly never given?
Once the uncanny guest is inside, Nietzsche seems, by turns, timorous and ecstatic.
Do life's paths branch for him as never before, inside and out?
Evasion of destiny, then embrace?
Do we see Nietzsche’s heavy shoes kicking loose veritable clods of earth’s own gravity? He seems to rise above himself.
As he writes in The Gay Science:
"And just because we are in the end such heavy and serious people, and more weights than men, nothing does us more good than a fool’s cap: we need it before us—we need all high-spirited, floating, dancing, mocking, childish and overjoyed art in order not to lose that freedom regarding things that our ideal demands of us."
Obedient to some sublime, para-terpsichorean imperative, Nietzsche was seemingly fated to spend the rest of that cold, cold, wet year dreaming, drafting, crafting, thinking, and inking what would become—On Beyond Zarathustra!
It is an overwhelming, ambitious, utterly original, astoundingly prophetic epic he promptly forgot!
Indeed, it was lost—an estimated 1000 pages of poetry and pictures—until partly rediscovered by a small boy named Dave, in an IKEA in suburban Stroughton, Massachussets.
Substantial portions were in use as a prop book on a VITTSJÖ shelf unit (appropriately, as this unit promises ‘an open, airy feel.’)
Dave’s mother had been torn for many minutes between the GRUNDTAL and SKOGSTA wall shelf units.
The boy, precociously indifferent to maternal dilemma, became healthily absorbed in his discovery. He took the sheaf of pages home without asking permission of his mother or the sales staff.
What with one thing and another On Beyond Zarathustra is now to be published, serially! Belated, yet oh-so-timely! May these first pages be as the first, cloudburst-born spring trickles—O, merry, tinkling harbingers of fuller streams to flow down in seasonal time! (A laughing stream is but one storm from a raging flood!)
But a whole, lost Nietzsche work?
Can Clio nod so, while Calliope and Euterpe cavort? Can she ever!
But how is comprehensive forgetfulness possible, not just for Nietzsche but—more surprisingly—on the part of scholars?
This admittedly striking circumstance of mass amnesia is less remarkable in light of the fact that every great work of philosophy—and masterpiece of visual art—starts ‘as a Dr. Seuss book’, as we say today, although the phrase was unknown before the 20th Century.
[See here for further, graphical notes. Not only did Nietzsche's Zarathustra begin as 'comics', but most great comics begin as Zarathustra. It goes both ways!]
The divine Michelangelo wasted tedious months laboriously over-painting hundreds of humorous cats with which he initially festooned the whole Sistine Chapel ceiling—a design that did not fit with his eventual, more Biblical theme.
All of Western philosophy—just footnotes to the likes of Plato’s If I Ran The Polis and Socrates, Will You Please Go Now!
Ah, but who today reads these in the original English? We settle on a patch of Greek—and no pictures! Until recently, the authentic Ur-texts were passed over, too colorful to command respect.
True! childish! (Why not this rejoinder?)
What conclusions may we draw about values—and the values of values—in light of this this long overlooking? Effacing of origins may be pardonable, even commendable. As Nietzsche writes in “On the Uses and Abuses of History For Life” ...
"Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic."
And are there not references—sly nods, winking allusions?—to the graphical form of this bright ancestor in its better-known, picture-free descendant, Thus Spoke Zarathustra? Is this the solution to that riddle, avant la lettre?
It would be surprising were it otherwise. For:
The most powerful force of metaphor that has ever existed is poor and trivial compared with the return of language to the nature of imagery.
We read in a notebook scrap, written mere days before the whole production was forgotten: “Some are young posthumously! In one hundred years my On Beyond Zarathustra will be chewed over in every nursery and high chair in the land!”
Again, the question presses upon us: what can we learn by recalling what has been so long-and-deeply buried—concerning Nietzsche, ourselves, and the strange hurly-burly dream that is life after the (much heralded, until the cry itself is a snooze button we hit again and again) ‘Death of God’?
We can do no better than to quote from The Gay Science; specifically, its proleptically prophetic preface, heralding Thus Spoke Zarathustra (which we now recognize was itself born a sequel to a ‘graphically novelistic’ original.)
"Incipit tragoedia we read at the end of this awesomely aweless book. Beware! The coming of something downright wicked and malicious is heralded here: incipit parodia, undoubtedly."
And you can’t spell ‘minatory’ without the minotaur.
Recall a remark from Daybreak, concerning those old Greeks ...
"How greatly we surpass them in our knowledge of man! But how labyrinthine do our souls appear to us in comparison with theirs! If we desired and dared an architecture corresponding to the nature of our soul (we are too cowardly for it!)—our model would have to be the labyrinth!"
Consider how every great philosopher can only be, as it were, his own Daedalus. That scientific gentleman laid a trap too labyrinthine, too monstrously Rube Goldberg-like even for himself! Yet he was father to waxen-winged Icarus!
And so! (Not too high! Nor too low!) Just think! Had Icarus scudded low over the wave-tops, soaking his wings with spray, falling and perishing under wet weight, how differently might the moral of the old story have run!
Fly closer to the sun, Icarus! Oh, the green sea means, to you, scurf, then depth, then death! Live aloft!