Superman with a hammer

Nietzsche, it has been said, has meant all things to all people. The Left and the Right have conscripted him with equal vigor. There have been Nietzschean socialists and National Socialists, feminists, even Christians. This farrago of interpretations is not so much proof of the failure to uncover the «real Nietzsche» as it is a reflection of Nietzsche’s protean thought. Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher. He thought that the will to create a system reflects a lack of integrity. His texts are not unified, and hence subvert attempts at a unified interpretation – this being perhaps, as a Nietzsche scholar puts it, the inevitable fruition of a self-fulfilling prophecy («Zarathustra» being «a book for everyone and no one,» as the philosopher himself says). Unlike most of the literature about the German philosopher, Zisis Sarikas’s book on «Thus Spoke Zarathustra» is neither an analysis of Nietzsche’s philosophical legacy, nor a (political) reworking of his insightful concepts – a pet habit among many postmodern liberal thinkers. Sarikas’s more humble, albeit no less laborious, goal is to explore and decipher the original text without forcing his own agenda on the reader. As he says in the introduction, his aim is to provide a reader’s guide to «Zarathustra,» as it were, in the light of Nietzsche’s other works. «Zarathustra» is Nietzsche’s only book in fictional format. It tells the story of Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s alter ego, who, breaking his 10-year solitude, descends upon mankind to announce the death of God and preach God’s successor, the superman (or overman) – a new, higher type of human being that rejects existing morality and calls for the re-evaluation of all values: «I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome,» Zarathustra says. Nietzsche indulged in what he called «philosophizing with a hammer» – using the instrument to smash the old values. In «Zarathustra,» Nietzsche hammers away at the inherent Platonism of Western philosophy and Christianity – what he elsewhere denounces as «Platonism for the masses.» The death of God means that there is no objective moral reality, no external rules about how we should live which lie beyond our earthly life. Many have at this point made a nihilist out of Nietzsche. But for the great iconoclast, the absence of otherworldly authority does not mean that we have to turn our back on this world. In contrast to Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Nietzsche sees this absurdity, the apparent emptiness of the world, as a step toward the affirmation of ourselves as artists, as the only creators of value (this is the aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy on which postmodern liberal theorists like Richard Rorty and William Connolly have eclectically built) – it is in this sense that he thought that «nihilism could be a divine way of thinking.» In a world still suffering a hangover from metaphysics, a world where all values have broken down, Nietzsche preaches his philosophy as an antidote to nihilism. The superman does not personify a higher race but man, once he has become the author of his own life, man free from any non-human authority. Human triumph means coming to terms with and overcoming the contingency of one’s existence, «recreating all ‘it was’ into a ‘thus I willed it’.» Textual minefield In interpreting «Zarathustra,» Sarikas, an author and translator of many of Nietzsche’s works into Greek, faces a daunting task. Nietzsche makes his language dance, in an eruption of metaphors, symbols, aphorisms, paradoxes, puns and irony (to his credit, Nietzsche has a sense of humor, a rarity among his profession) – a textual minefield for any prospective reader. Undaunted, Sarikas provides a thoughtful and revealing textual analysis, putting Nietzsche’s innuendoes, allegories, or enemies into context. In doing so, Sarikas examines Nietzsche’s other works, the philosopher’s «dialogue» with his contemporaries and with the dominant intellectual currents of his time – Darwinism, idealism, irrationalism, socialism. When in doubt, the author lists the varying interpretations offered by the most outstanding Nietzsche scholars. «Zarathustra» is a book that does not easily yield its meaning, or meanings, and this volume will be of great help to readers – not just first-time ones – who seek an explication of the key concepts contained in Nietzsche’s most controversial book. To be sure, in some cases Sarikas veers away from strict textual analysis to defend Nietzsche on controversial points – always trying to paint a pacifist portrait or play down Nietzsche’s bent for hierarchical perfectionism. Nevertheless, his arguments remain debatable for, as mentioned above, Nietzsche’s vast edifice of thought and enigmatic style cannot be captured in a single reading. In his autobiography, «Ecce Homo,» Nietzsche paused to ask, «Have I been understood?» The distortion of his ideas after his death by his sister Elizabeth, an anti-Semite, in the service of Nazi ideology, shows Nietzsche had good reason to worry. For a man who rebuffed anti-Semitism and German nationalism, this was an ill-starred legacy – though one that would hardly surprise Nietzsche: «I know my fate. One day, there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful – of a crisis like no other on earth.» Zisis Sarikas’s «The Vision of the Superman. An Interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’» is published by Nisides (2003), 186 pages.