Of Nausea Spoke Zarathustra
As Walter Kaufmann explains in his preface to Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche was a very ill man when he wrote his most popular work. Plagued by poor eyesight, an unsettled stomach, and insomnia helped only by severe medication, he relentlessly strove to be a happy man. Zarathustra, the proponent of his new philosophy, is a prophet of overcoming. He preaches of the overman, a new kind of being, a being who will overcome – overcome nausea. The overman will not overcome not the physical nausea which afflicted the writer, but his psychological nausea.
Zarathustra's nausea is intimately connected with the idea of the eternal return (discussed in greater detail below) – but Nietzsche's idea of a circular existence so permeates the book that it is impossible to tell when Zarathustra's journey actually begins. It is impossible to tell where the psychological nausea with life begins, and this is as it should be. Nausea with life is a part of life. Part of Nietzsche's total rejection of Christianity is his rejection of a point of creation. There is no fall from grace for Zarathustra, there is no exile from the garden – grace was never there, and no idyllic garden can shield us from the terror of existence. But one must begin somewhere, and the first time the reader is introduced to Zarathustra's nausea is in the second part of the book, when he must drink with the rabble:
Life is a well of joy; but where the rabble drinks too, all wells are poisoned. […] Are poisoned wells required, and stinking fires and soiled dreams and maggots in the bread of life? Not my hatred but my nausea gnawed hungrily at my life. Alas, I often grew weary of the spirit when I found that even the rabble had esprit. (Z II:6)
The lover of life
blanched upon realizing that he must share this precious life with those people
. Zarathustra is an odd prophet
– he seeks to escape from those to whom he would preach. Does he perhaps reject them because it is they who have first rejected him and his gifts of honey? One can imagine Nietzsche, the frustrated writer, dismayed that his books do not sell well, lashing out at an unhearing audience. Nietzsche is famous for popularizing the French notion of ressentiment
– perhaps his own nausea with the rabble was caused by the same sort of psychological rejection.
To rid himself of his nausea, Zarathustra must flee the cause, the stinking rabble. He must retreat into elitism, to metaphorically climb the mountain (again), to fight the spirit of gravity (itself a cause of nausea). The path to a clean well is hard going, but Zarathustra manages it:
How did I redeem myself from nausea? Who rejuvenated my sight? How did I fly to the height where no more rabble sits by the well? Was it my nausea itself which created wings for me and water diving powers? Verily, I had to fly to the highest spheres that I might find the fount of pleasure again. (Z II:6)
It is tempting to draw a parallel to another German Philosopher, and claim that nausea contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction
. Or perhaps an anglophone
might more naturally draw a parallel to Newton: every psychological state produces an equal and opposite psychological state. Both of these concepts may be applied to our psychology, but this relationship between nausea and its cure illustrate the first turn in Zarathustra's journey of eternal return. The relationship between nausea and the impetus for flight that propels Zarathustra exists
because it must.
Later in Zarathustra's journey of overcoming he is again climbing the mountain, and he is besieged again by the spirit of gravity, preventing his approaching ever higher heights. It speaks to him thus:
Yesterday, toward evening, there spoke to me my stillest hour: […] “What do you matter, Zarathustra? […] It is the stillest words that bring on the storm. Thoughts that come on doves' feet guide the world. […] You must yet become as a child and without shame. The pride of youth is still upon you; you have become young late; but whoever would become as a child must overcome his youth too.” (Z II:22)
Zarathustra has overcome the nausea of the rabble, only to become afflicted with a different sort of nausea – how own pride, caused by the elitism required to overcome the nausea of the rabble. Every challenge of Zarathustra's journey provides its own solution. And every solution provides its own challenge
. Part II ends with Zarathustra returning to solitude, vowing to face honestly his own spirit of gravity which prevents him from acknowledging his eternal return.
Part III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra begins with the wanderer hardening himself, and continuing up the mountain. He is beset by the spirit of gravity again, in the guise of a dwarf/mole, which represents his failure to become hard, his failure to be able to overcome himself. And as he is tested, his challenge again compels its own solution:
I was like one sick whom his wicked torture makes weary, and who as he falls asleep is awakened by a still more wicked dream. But there is something in me that I call courage; that has so far slain my every discouragement. This courage finally bade me stand still and speak: “Dwarf! It is you or I!” For courage is the best slayer, courage which attacks; for in every attack there is playing and brass. (Z III:2)
Zarathustra's courage to face his truth has overcome his pride
. But what is this new revelation?
From this gateway, Moment, a long, eternal lane leads backward: behind us lies an eternity. Must not whatever can walk have walked on this lane before? Must not whatever can happen have happened, have been done, have passed by before? And if everything has been there before—what do you think, dwarf, of this moment? Must not this gateway too have been there before? And are not all things knotted together so firmly that this moment draws after it all that is to come? Therefore—itself too? For whatever can walk—in this long lane out there too, it must walk once more. (Z III:2.2)
Although Nietzsche would undoubtedly despise logical proofs, the argument is simple to articulate:
P1. The world/universe is a finite object.
P2. In a finite space, the set of all possible events is finite.
P3. Time is infinite.
C. All possible events will happen an infinite number of times.
Everything that has happened, will happen again and again in an endless cycle of eternal returning. Overcoming his pride has presented Zarathustra with a new, terrifying realization. It will take him the better parts of Parts III and IV to overcome the nausea and disgust that this idea brings, but it will finally reveal to him the true nature of the overman
. After he has recognized the eternal return, he has a vision of how to overcome this nausea too:
A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to have been asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not 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 dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry. (Z III:2.2)
In this one passage one can see in brief all that Nietzsche strove for: only the individual, by bold action, can free him/herself from the pain of life. The shepherd is both Zarathustra's students on the ship (where he recounts this story) and Zarathustra himself, as his happiness at recognizing his truth is overcome by the recognition of what it really means – and the ensuing nausea. In fact, by the time of The Convalescent
(near the end of Part III), Zarathustra again cannot bear to face the thought of eternal return.
“The great disgust with man—this choked me and had crawled into my throat […] 'Eternally recurs the man of whom you are weary, the small man' […] And the eternal recurrence even of the smallest—that was my disgust with all existence. Alas! Nausea! Nausea! Nausea!” (Z III:13)
The struggle, the overcoming, the new realization, the new nausea – all form a cycle of eternal return to the idea of eternal return, and of overcoming.
Finally, it seems, the cycle breaks – as Zarathustra has resigned himself to the larger cycle's continuance. In Part IV, a soothsayer (probably a representation of the influence Schopenhauer had over Nietzsche) re-appears (having first visited Zarathustra in Part II) and forces him to recognize another danger:
“You proclaimer of ill tidings,” Zarathustra said finally, “this is a cry of distress and the cry of a man; it might well come out of a black sea? My final sin, which has been saved up for me—do you know what it is?”
“Pity!” answered the soothsayer from an overflowing heart, and he raised both hands. “O Zarathustra, I have come to seduce you to your final sin.” (Z IV: 2)
As soon as Zarathustra has achieved the overcoming of nausea that he wanted, he is faced with another challenge: the desire to share his knowledge with others. Pity, the final error, motivates him to come down from the mountaintop, to deliver his understanding – his new honey, to people. He must teach overcoming, as he has overcome his nausea. He begins his ministry anew, encountering various characters and preaching his doctrine of overcoming. Finally, at the end of Part IV, Zarathustra seems to overcome his pity:
Suddenly he jumped up. “Pity Pity for the higher man!” he cried out, and his face changed to bronze. “Well then, that has had its time! My suffering and my pity for suffering—what does it matter? Am I concerned with happiness? I am concerned with my work.” (Z IV:20)
Some might interpret this as a final end to Zarathustra's struggle. But Zarathustra started out in Part I concerned with his work – and it was this concern that led him to preach to the rabble in the first place. He leaves his cave to morning, but we know that his work will soon draw him down again to the people, to preach to the masses. And the masses have not changed, and Zarathustra's doctrine of overcoming will still
not affect them. And the cycle will thus begin anew, with new nausea, with new overcoming. The same nausea, the same overcoming. It is Zarathustra's cycle of understanding and lament that will show him the truth of eternal recurrence, once again. Every moment of understanding is just a gateway
, a point leading both forwards and backwards to the same story, again and again.