Zarathustra's Alchemy

Unlike Faust, Zarathustra is not considered an alchemical work. Nevertheless alchemy offers a useful analogy for understanding what Nietzsche is doing. There exist alchemical treatises that follow detailed instructions on the laborious procedures needed to produce gold and the elixir of life, with a casual remark that anyone who really takes any of it literally is wasting his time.

Nietzsche’s correspondent August Strindberg was later to practise alchemy in an unreconstructed form. His biographers tell us there were 50,000 practising alchemists in Paris in 1883. Later Strindberg came to feel that alchemy was a forbidden science, blaspheming God by trying to usurp his creative powers .

The exact nature of the Great Work, the true aim of the alchemist was something shrouded in mystery. Even in Ecce Homo Nietzsche is cryptic about the real meaning of Zarathustra. To spell it out explicitly would have defeated his purpose. In the background are always the gospels and Wagner's achievement. Zarathustra is a challenge to both.

Before he settled on the Persian prophet Zarathustra, as his mouthpiece Nietzsche gave some consideration to the alchemist Paracelsus, a fascinating character who was part charlatan as well as pioneer scientist.

The twin pillars of Zarathustra’s message are meant entirely seriously but not to be read entirely literally. The Ubermensch is a symbol open to various applications. In part it is a blasphemous parody of the sacredness that has long dominated the world of spirit. The same goes for the deadly seriousness of the eternal recurrence. Earnestly to treat the doctrine as a test to which his readers are called upon to submit themselves is an unfortunate mistake. These myths are exhilarating because of what they defy and overcome. Eighteenth century materialism had something of this defiant spirit, which tended to get lost in nineteenth century agnosticism.

Zarathustra was an anti-Wagner as well as an Antichrist. Wagner was the Sorcerer, whose aesthetically satisfying world was premised on an unacceptable philosophy. Wagner’s idiosyncratic development of Schopenhauer applies well beyond his own music. To overcome it fully Nietzsche needed to produce, in a different medium, something as compelling. He counters with an alternative to musical ideas of salvation, offering as intense but different emotion in a different medium.

Nietzsche’s need for spiritual independence raised disagreement to the level of metaphysics . Nietzsche could not demand followers if he was to sustain his objection. He had to produce a vision that included individual dissidence, not just for himself. In the triumph of his own personal overcoming is his message to the world.

Zarathustra challenges Christianity by capturing the genuine note of prophetic inspiration. Parody is not ridicule. Nietzsche is determined to show that religious inspiration is not something beyond him. Attacks on Zarathustra miss their target when Nietzsche is understood as the ultra-earnest preacher. Really Zarathustra is as playful as Ecce Homo. He shows how he can actually provoke emotion comparable to Wagner’s, and create myths to match those of Christianity. Having mastered the prophetic mode, he can discard it. He is not exactly seeking converts.

The Ubermensch is the source of Nietzsche’s morality, a reference point in replacement of the Christian God. When Jung criticises Nietzsche for setting up a fantasy of omnipotent ego in place of God, he sides for once with the Judaeo-Christian objection to pagan culture. In a recent article in the Spectator Rabbi Sacks described Nietzsche as the greatest of all atheists:-

Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality.

True enough, but he goes further:-

No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak.

Sacks means to defend morality as such, instead he just sticks up for a particular doctrine with its demand for belief. Likewise Jung is speaking for God, for the mediation of all desires and justified action though creed and doctrine.

So what can we say Nietzsche is doing? He has his own cause, the establishment of the theory of will to power, what we might consider his scientific discovery. But then if we follow his thinking we do not just admire his achievement. We have our own causes, and we are to feel about them as he indicates we can.

What Nietzsche presents as his message to the world is in the first place a solution to personal questions of his own. What we learn from him is not just to identify with his own creative achievement, but to respond creatively in our own way. Nietzsche’s own inspiration is something he aspires to give to others, so they can develop their own.

When we have decided what he is saying we have a framework for our own experience. We can move beyond defensive argument and develop our individual visions. Happily embracing conflict, we may give ourselves up to expressions of an urge to dominate. Accepting that our own values spring from our personal situations and predilections we may still lay claim to the truth. Nietzsche is clear that his own framework can best face and accommodate the truth.

The word truth is used constantly throughout Zarathustra.
Let us speak of this, you wisest men, even if it is a bad thing. To be silent is worse; all suppressed truths become poisonous.
And let everything that can break upon our truths - break! There is many a house still to build! (Of the Higher Men).
There is a distinction to be made between his universal message, which demands acceptance, and the application of it, which would be special to each person. Nietzsche upholds the conflict of all against all, which is what he means by his praise of war. We are not in the position of people fighting for secularism against theocracy, in which case we would have lots of comrades. For us God has been dead for some time.

There is Nietzsche’s cause and there is my cause. My cause might take many different forms. If I succeed in the integration of Nietzsche’s thought into my own life the result may be creative art. I extract what value there is in the measured scepticism about claims to truth. That helps to bring out the extent and degree of conflict.

Nietzsche is clear about Christian morality in Twilight of the Idols:-

Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all
criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth it
stands and falls with faith in God.

So Nietzschean morality is not an outside command, for there is no one to give one. We should not conclude that Nietzsche is fighting morality as such. Insofar as moral judgements are something we wish to make there is no reason why we cannot make them. He is fighting the efforts of other people to dominate him with their thoughts, notably their ideas about what morality has to be.

Zarathustra tells us that:-

Some say morals are necessary when they mean only that the police are necessary.

Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” involves the derivation of morality from egoism. This was a task that had some progress in the eighteenth century, but as raw Christianity returned with Wesley, so an aggressive form of Christian morality came back with Kant. Nietzsche has in mind something more vigorous than eighteenth century calculations of self interest. An image of unrestrained desire, the Ubermensch resembles the unjust man in Plato’s Republic. We may take him as a mythological figure. In human form he is Cesare Borgia. He represents something in the self. Yet the Ubermensch is to perform a task once reserved for God. He is the unrestrained force of human desire from which arise our values.

So how are we to understand his antithesis, this God who no longer lives? God was an idea that once stood for something. Whatever we take it to have meant, the symbol has outworn its usefulness. It is something that is no longer part of out intellectual furniture. Accordingly morality needs to be justified on a different basis. Meanwhile we have to combat the demoralising pressure to think what we do not want to think, and this turns the ghost of God into something oppressive and hateful. God becomes Ialdabaoth. To adapt Sartre’s definition of Hell, God is other people.

This pressure to accept alien values extends over all spheres of life, which is why transvaluation is necessary. It pervades the most intimate personal matters. Conflict of values operates even in love and sex. And there are threats to our own morality promoted by a huge part of the human race.

For Nietzsche woman is identified with weakness.

“What is womanish, what stems from slavishness and especially from the mob hotchpotch: that now wants to become master of mankind's entire destiny …”(Of the Higher Men).

This is not quite the same as matriarchy as it is sometimes understood.

We are walking down a long white hall. Benway's voice drifts into my
consciousness from no particular place… a disembodied
voice that is sometimes loud and clear, sometimes barely audible like
music down a windy street.

"Isolated groups like natives of the Bismarck Archipelago. No overt
homosexuality among them. God damned matriarchy. All
matriarchies anti-homosexual, conformist and prosaic. Find yourself in
a matriarchy walk don't run to the nearest frontier. If you
run, some frustrate latent queer cop will likely shoot you. So
somebody wants to establish a beach head of homogeneity in a
shambles of potentials like West Europe and U.S.A.? Another fucking
matriarchy, Margaret Mead notwithstanding… (From William Burroughs- The Naked Lunch)

The idea of woman’s power as a threat is part of a strong literary tradition. Compare the moral ideas in Spenser’s Faerie Queen or Samson’s protest against female usurpation in Milton’s poetic drama. Spenser, with his mediaeval understanding of human life, made much of the evil that woman can represent. Wagner’s Venus, as critics pointed out was not the Aphrodite of the ancients but something more like the mediaeval Luxuria as she appeared in Christian allegory, an evil temptress.

For Nietzsche the agon, the struggle between men with their separate visions, is the source of true values. The inspiration is the desire for dominance, for the power to affect, to get your vision accepted. Against such conflict we are constantly asked to submit to a consensual standard of health and virtue, values which tend to become identified with established power.

Matriarchy can be understood as an order of power that makes transvaluation impossible. It is for Ialdabaoth against the Ubermensch. There is a tendency for a society to turn into a matriarchy. This happens when some moral system becomes absolute and so petrifies into a despotism. In an alliance between weakness and orthodoxy people can appeal against the individual to the power of the despot. Where an unquestioned code of morality reigns supreme there can be no agon. Basic values are exempted from struggle because the truth is declared and assumed to be known. Moral despotism offers rewards as bestowed by the hierarchy.

It seems that moral change is all in the same direction. A form of entropy operates in history. The movement always towards a sharing out of power. What options are open to us if we want to resist it? In the modern world a dominant force is American culture in which the equal rights ideology and its, pervades everything. All history is comprehensively interpreted in line with democratic morality.
Some have held that only barbarian conquest could reverse the process. This was a strain in fascism. Rarely does civilisation move willingly as it did at the time of Charlemagne, in the creation of greater hierarchy.

To resist entropy some will cling to older values. Opposing the movement towards universal equality one may be led to defend simple prejudice, by which judgements about what is right and what is wrong are determined by custom. Reactionary ideas become attractive.

I reject any standard by which I am made to feel inferior. This is how Nietzsche came to feel when confronted with Wagner and with the gospels. As works of art and more than that he felt that both expressed values and ideas antithetical to his own. He had to emulate them and with Zarathustra he considered he had succeeded. Zarathustra expresses a philosophy as Wagner’s work does. Nietzsche takes and reverses a lot of Wagner’s ideas and values. What he has produced is not literally music but it is poetry, and poetic prose as well as myth and drama. With the gospels it does the same. To Paul’s promise of the resurrection of the body Zarathustra opposes the eternal recurrence of all things.

It was not enough for Nietzsche simply to argue his dissent, however convincingly. He felt challenged to produce something as beautiful, persuasive and satisfying in its own way. The aesthetic quality in itself a form of argument.

Some standards are expressed as health. Of the last men it is emphasised that :-

They value health…

For Nietzsche the will to prevail takes precedence over the value of health. This will is frustrated by the impossibility of dominating in a despotism where subordination to others is a source of depression. In pursuit of one’s own power one might affirm even cowardice, weakness, sin. There is a Nietzschean quality to a counterculture artist like Robert Crumb. Refusing to submit to a standard, sex is not a matter of health but power.

To summarise, a moral code when fixed becomes a despotic order to whom the weak appeal. When a culture loses the dynamic of its dialectic it bids to turn into a matriarchy. This is a state where there is no agon, where all the rules are set. Yet to turn his own values into some such permanent order is apparently the objective to which everyone aspires. If I identify with Nietzsche my cause is associated with the idea of will to power. This is his framework. But there are all sorts of lesser causes in which I fight for the dominance of my own tastes. And that will be against the hierarchy.

And this is my ground:-

“And ye tell me, friends, that there is to be no dispute about taste and tasting? But all life is a dispute about taste and tasting!” (The Sublime Ones)

There is much to learn from women and from weakness, as indirectly from the mediaeval monk’s view of the female as a quick route to the heart of Hell.

For the alchemist the mystic marriage of sulphur and mercury was the precursor to the achievement of the great work, symbolised as the manufacture of gold.

As morality defines itself as against evil, evil becomes the creative principle. Evil is cool. Women’s virtue is the norm and yet as Eve she tempts us to overthrow it all, and this brings confusion. Always having thought of oneself as evil, and never wanting to respect or acknowledge any superior, one is upstaged. One cannot uphold any standard of mere health. One will respond with the affirmation of inadequacy, of deviance. For there is truth and I am it.

In my weakness I create, submitting to no one. As sugar and spice and all things nice, it is normal for the female to represent the opposite of the principle of evil. But when inflamed by desire she is everything disruptive. This lasts until she has sublated and reverted to the archetype of the mother. Man learns from woman, from the evil woman who has learnt from the men he despises.

Understanding woman as evil is disturbing. As the little old woman says to Zarathustra.

Man at the bottom of his soul is only evil, but woman is base.

Yet it is the aim of alchemy to turn base metal into gold. Like Beatrice for Dante, woman for Zarathustra is the chosen symbol for wisdom itself:-

Brave, unconcerned, mocking, violent—thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman and always loves only a warrior. (On Reading And Writing)

Though a comparable object of desire the Beatrice idea certainly requires transmutation. Behind Dante as well as behind the whole alchemical project, and also much of the thought of Spenser and Kant stands the figure of Aristotle. Nietzsche is with Hobbes, who was against Aristotle. For Hobbes’ luminous intelligence the original principle is not the good in any ethical sense but the urge to dominate.

The feeling of having understood Nietzsche brings the sense of being on the edge of a breakthrough. The integration of his thought into the life of the reader comes often with a sense of what could still be done to get it accepted. There is a feeling that if we could actually succeed in explaining transvaluation this could be the driving force behind the defeat of the shallow ochlocracy. Creative achievement would follow as a matter of course.

In Human all too Human, his most liberal and democratic book, Nietzsche wrote that the Greek war of all against all no longer applied. He hailed the “oligarchs of the spirit”:-

.. Despite all spatial and political separation, they form a coherent society, whose members recognise and acknowledge one another …. The spiritual superiority which formerly caused division and enmity now tends to bind: How could individuals assert themselves and swim through life along their own way, against all currents, if they did not see their like living here and there under the same circumstances and grasp their hands in the struggle as much against the ochlocratic nature of superficial minds and superficial culture as against the occasional attempts to set up a tyranny with help of mass manipulation?

We might say such collaboration was one of the dreams of modernism. It is questionable for how long he stuck with this thought. As it turned out he didn’t really find any fellows whose hands he could grasp in a common project. Fellow feeling and fraternity can sometimes be attractive and appealing. Think of Turks and Arabs now fighting for secularism. When there is a clear cut enemy men and women can fight as one, and feel warm towards each other. While liberty is being fought for the noble virtues may be in some evidence.

Zarathustra says:-

whoever fisheth where there are no
fish, I do not even call him superficial! (Of the Apostates)

Yet in Ecce Homo Nietzsche wrote that, after finishing Zarathustra:-

Now I had to look about me slowly for my peers, for those who, out of strength, would assist me in the work of destruction. Thenceforth all my writings are so much bait: perhaps I understand angling as well as any one? If nothing was caught, I was not to blame. There were simply no fish.


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