Composition of Thus Spake Zarathustra from Ecce Homo

I would now like to tell you the history of my Zarathustra. Its fundamental conception, the idea of Eternal Recurrance, the highest formula of affirmation that can be attained, belongs to August, 1881. I made a hasty note of it on a sheet of paper, with the postscript: Six thousand feet beyond man and time. That day I was walking through the woods beside Lake Silvaplana; I halted not far from Surlei, beside a huge, towering, pyramidal rock. It was there that the idea came to me. If I count back two months previous to this day, I can discover a warning sign in the form of an abrupt and profoundly decisive change in my tastes--more especially in music. Perhaps the whole of Zarathrustra may be classified as music--I am sure that one of the conditions of its production was a renaissance in me of the art of hearing. In Recoaro, a little mountain watering-place near Vicenza, where I spent the spring of 1881, I, together with my friend and maestro, Peter Gast (another who had been reborn), discovered that the phoenix bird of music hovered over us, decked in more beautiful and brilliant plumage than it had ever before exhibited. If, therefore, I reckon from that day to the sudden birth of the book , amid the most unlikely circumstances, in February, 1883,--its last part, from which I quoted a few lines in my preface, was finished exactly during the hallowed hour of Richard Wagner’s death in Venice,--it would appear that the period of gestation was eighteen months. This period of exactly eighteen months might suggest, at least to Buddhists, that I am in reality a female elephant. The interval was devoted to the Gaya Scienza, which has a hundred indications of the approach of something unparalleled; its conclusion shows the beginning of Zarathrustra, since it presents Zarathustra’s fundamental thought in the last aphorism but one of the fourth book. To this interval also belongs that Hymn to Life (for a mixed choir and orchestra), the score of which was published in Leipzig two years ago by E.W. Fritsch. Perhaps it is no small indication of my spiritual state during this year, when essentially the yea-saying pathos, which I call the tragic pathos, filled my soul to the brim.

. . . During the following winter, I was living not far from Genoa on that pleasant peaceful Gulf of Rapallo, which cuts inland between Chiavari and Cape Porto Fino. I was not in the best of health; the winter was cold and exceptionally rainy; and my small albergo was so close to shore that the noise of a rough sea rendered sleep impossible. These circumstances were the very reverse of favorable; and yet, despite them, and as if in proof of my theory that everything decisive arises as the result of opposition, it was during this very winter and amid these unfavorable circumstances that my Zarathustra was born. In the morning I used to start out in a southerly direction on the glorious road to Zoagli, which rises up through a forest of pines and gives one a view far out to sea. In the afternoon, whenever my health permitted, I would walk around the whole bay from Santa Margherita to beyond Porto Fino. This spot and the country around it is the more firmly enshrined in my affections because it was so dearly loved by the Emperor Frederick III. In the fall of 1886 I happened to be there again when he was revisiting this small forgotten world of happiness for the last time. It was on these two roads that all Zarathustra, and particularly Zarathustra himself as a type, came to me--perhaps I should rather say--invaded me....

Can any one at the end of this nineteenth century possibly have any distinct notion of what poets of a more vigorous period meant by inspiration? If not, I should like to describe it. Provided one has the slightest remnant of superstition left, one can hardly reject completely the idea that one is the mere incarnation , or mouthpiece, or medium of some almighty power. The notion of revelation describes the condition quite simply; by which I mean that something profoundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes visible and audible with indescribable definiteness and exactness. One hears--one does not seek; one takes--one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes out like lightning, inevitably without hesitation--I have never had any choice about it. There is an ecstasy whose terrific tension is sometimes released by a flood of tears, during which one’s progress varies from involuntary impetuosity to involuntary slowness. There is the feeling that one is utterly out of hand, with the most distinct consciousness of an infinitude of shuddering thrills that pass through one from head to foot;--there is a profound happiness in which the most painful and gloomy feelings are not discordant in effect, but are required as necessary colors in this overflow of light. There is an instinct for rhythmic relations which embraces an entire world of forms (length, the need for a widely extended rhythm, is almost a measure of the force of inspiration, a sort of counterpart of its pressure and tension). Everything occurs quite without volition, as if in an eruption of freedom, independance, power and divinity. The spontaneity of the images and similies is the most remarkable; one loses all perception of what is imagery and simile; everything offers itself as the most immediate, exact, and simple means of expression. If I may recall a phrase of Zarathustra’s, it actually seems as if the things themselves came to one, and offered themselves as similies. (“Here do all things come caressingly to thy discourse and flatter thee, for they would fain ride upon thy back. On every simile thou ridest here to every truth. Here fly open before thee all the speech and word shrines of existence, here all existence would become speech, here all Becoming would learn of thee how to speak.”) This is my experience of inspiration. I have no doubt that I should have to go back millenniums to find another who could say to me: “It is mine also!”

For a few weeks afterwards I lay ill in Genoa. Then followed a depressing spring in Rome, where I escaped with my life. It was not a pleasant experience. This city, which I did not choose myself and which is of all places the most unsuited to the author of Zarathustra, weighed heavily upon my spirit. . . .About this time I was continually obsessed by a melody of ineffable sadness, whose refrain I recognized in the words, “dead through immortality.”. . . In the summer, on my return to the sacred spot where the first thought of Zarathustra has flashed like lightning across my mind, I conceived the second part. Ten days sufficed. Neither for the second, the first, nor for the third part, have I required a day longer. The following winter, beneath the halcyon sky of Nice, which then for the time filled me with its brilliant light, I found the third Zarathustra--and so completed the work. The whole composition has taken scarcely a year. Many hidden corners and heights in the country around Nice are hallowed for me by unforgettable moments. That decisive section, “Old and New Tables,” was composed during the arduous ascent from the station to Eza, that wonderful Moorish eyrie. When my creative energy flowed most freely, my muscular activity was always greatest. The body is inspired: let us leave the “soul” out of consideration. I might often have been seen dancing; I used to walk through the hills for seven or eight hours on end without a hint of fatigue. I slept well, laughed a good deal--I was perfectly vigorous and patient.

Translated by Clifton P. Fadiman

from The Creative Process
Brewster Ghiselin, editor