— Man Must Be Overcome —
Nietzsche, Shaw, Hesse
On the ‘Influence’ of Nietzsche
In several of his dramatic works — most famously Man and Superman and Major Barbara — Bernard Shaw made an overt use of Nietzschean imagery and ideals, and in particular their more popularised (and sensationalised) forms. When he was writing, Nietzsche had only recently appeared in Britain, and few of his works had as yet been translated; despite this, the impact of Nietzsche upon fin de siècle London was not unlike the booming artillery of the coming war — distant perhaps, but sufficiently loud already and a clear sign of impending disaster for Victorian morality.
The Nietzschean influence is no less pronounced in Hermann Hesse’s work, though it is often there interpreted in a more benign and spiritual manner. Where Shaw discusses the raw power play between individuals and society, as befitting his own socialist politics, Hesse concentrates on that which has the greater meaning for him: the quest to find peace within the self. Siddhartha’s search takes him through the range of human experience — suffering, pleasure, yearning, contentment — and attempts to answer Nietzsche’s challenge: “What does your conscience say? — ‘You shall become the person you are.’”1
But the surface differences in these two authors’ respective readings of Nietzschean thought are just that — a thin layer of apparent deviation disguising the same essential psychological observations that guided Nietzsche’s work. Further, in each author’s work, there is more than ample suggestion that what they wrote on was not at all Nietzschean thought as such; that what they had to say drew instead upon the very same influences and trends that Nietzsche had availed himself of.
Rather than dividing their readings between the personal & psychological in Hesse, and the social & political in Shaw, I propose to show that both authors are in fact using these Nietzschean concepts in much the same way. That is, I am going to suggest that both authors make use of a deeply personal transformation, and that these journeys have social and political implications only secondarily.
That the similarity of their interpretations has been little-recognised perhaps owes more to the prejudices of our own culture — we tend to distance our inner selves from the political, and consider the individual’s spiritual odyssey to have consequences mostly for the sojourner himself. That we cannot escape connexion with others unless we make of ourselves a hermit, however, means that each of our stages of personal transformation will impact the lives of those around us. It may seem more obvious that Barbara wants to save the souls of those she encounters, but this is merely a function of the story’s setting — Siddhartha longs just as deeply to share his life and its lessons. Working as a river boat man, Siddhartha will impress upon each of his receptive fares the peace that he has found, just as Barbara will appeal only to those who have ears to hear her.
Man and Superman: The End of Innocence
“I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”2 ~ Nietzsche
No single feature of Nietzsche’s thought has elicited more controversy and confusion than the twinned conceptions of overman and eternal recurrence. Nietzsche spoke of these together, as being two parts of a single message intended to free man from the dogmatism of universals, but they have most often been approached separately. The first is usually seen as some kind of apocalyptic prophecy — a way to imagine a world that has abandoned ethics and which takes and kills shamelessly — and the latter is just as often dismissed as an absurdity with no practical application. In truth neither of these renderings can withstand serious scrutiny, but it is not my intention to revisit them here. But these readings of Nietzsche are of import if we are to address Shaw’s overman, especially as his characterisation is closer and more elegant than some later critics would like to believe.
Before the ink had dried on Nietzsche’s proof sheets for Thus Spoke Zarathustra the misconceptions and misappropriations were under way. No sooner had Nietzsche unleashed his Zarathustra, a model so carefully and deliberately suggestive rather than descriptive, than the endless stream of interpretation began. In a vision that is seldom far from the minds of Nietzsche readers, Lee Spinks notes that the “’gift’ of the Overman was quickly transformed into the nightmare vision of a fascistic ‘Superman’ who foreshadowed an inhuman and totalitarian world of rapacity and violence.”3 Such readers missed the point, of course — the overman is not for man to contend with to-day, for if we could conceive of the overman, we would be the overman.
But Shaw turns the overman to quite another, more subtle and appropriately Nietzschean purpose. For him, the overman is he who can live in the world without illusion, without purpose, without qualms. We may shudder in revulsion at the prospect of men making decisions without the guilt and guidance of a moral system, but the fact remains that such men exist, and have always existed. Instead of the more pleasing vision of common humanity, we are confronted with the brutal fact of man’s essential inhumanity to man. Such brutality may be repellent, but our displeasure hardly serves to alter reality, and both Shaw and Nietzsche call attention to this, as well as to the hypocrisy that is the stock in trade of any moral system. Here the naked self-interest of charities, and the immorality of the weapons trade, are laid bare as but two sides of the will to power.
Central to Shaw’s interpretation of the overman is the idea that man is more authentic and less dangerous when he does not delude himself. This is frequently done through clever juxtaposition of motives, as in the scene where Undershaft “buys” the Salvation Army in order to push Barbara away from its comforting walls. Barbara speaks of a common morality, decrying the use of a distiller’s money to support the Army’s campaign against the demon alcohol. Undershaft points out in his matter-of-fact way that alcohol “makes life bearable to millions of people who could not endure their existence if they were quite sober.”4 This appallingly cavalier attitude is perfectly foiled by Mrs Baines, who asks Barbara if there “will there be less drinking or more if all those poor souls we are saving come to-morrow and find the doors of our shelters shut in their faces?”5
Shaw may intend here to lampoon charitable organisations for their hypocrisy, but he does so in such a way that one is led to understand that this kind of hypocrisy is actually essential to their work. Social progress is most often found in the kind of Machiavellian compromises that would make a pure idealist blanch; the idealist must either learn to lie to himself about what he is doing, or he must face the reality that he serves the very thing he fights. This duality is classic Nietzsche: one is either a self-deluded member of the “herd”, or else forced to withstand the harsher truths of their lives, and often to confront their own self-loathing. (“Whoever despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.”6)
Shaw also taps into Nietzsche’s radical epistemology, and his thorough critique universals in human thought (a theme to which we shall return in our discussion of Siddhartha). In a blistering rebuttal to bourgeois notions of morality, so often thrown about as if their truths were entirely self-evident, Shaw allows Undershaft to answer Stephen’s self-assured pose: “I know the difference between right and wrong.”7
“Oh, that’s everybody’s birthright. Look at poor little Jenny Hill, the Salvation lassie! she would think you were laughing at her if you asked her to stand up in the street and teach grammar or geography or mathematics or even drawingroom dancing; but it never occurs to her to doubt that she can teach morals and religion. You are all alike, you respectable people. You cant tell me the bursting strain of a ten-inch gun, which is a very simple matter; but you all think you can tell me the bursting strain of a man under temptation. You darent handle high explosives; but youre all ready to handle honesty and truth and justice and the whole duty of man, and kill one another at that game.”8
In place of the idealistic believer — whether in politics, religion, or even science — Shaw depicts the expression of power without illusion, an ideal central to Nietzsche’s conception of the overman. We see a creature that not only bears a willingness to strike when necessary, but that can do so without fooling himself that what he does is “right” in the way that so many choose to rationalise prison, war, poverty. But this does not excuse the kind of behaviour such persons are capable of. On the contrary, it exposes the self-interest underlying common decisions; whilst not intended to provide a moralising explanation, it does help us to understand. Like Nietzsche himself, Shaw likes to engage in a bit of social psychology, as in the following dialogue:
Cusins: I dont think you quite know what the Army does for the poor… it makes them sober—
Undershaft: I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.
Undershaft: Honest workmen are the most economical.
Cusins: —attached to their homes—<
Undershaft: So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop.
Undershaft: An invaluable safeguard against revolution.
Undershaft: Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly.
Cusins: —with their thoughts on heavenly things—
Undershaft: And not on Trade Unionism nor Socialism. Excellent.
Cusins: You really are an infernal old rascal.9
Whether deliberate or no, one could hardly envision a more perfect expression of “slave ethics” as they relate to everyday life. By turning ourselves away from our lives — focussing our attentions on religion, or television, or drugs — we merely escape the mundane realities that others will happily manipulate in our absence. By refusing to take an active and passionate interest in the details, we are conceding power over our own lives to those willing to take that power from us.
But why should a man of Shaw’s social convictions pick up on the aristocratic and transcendent élitism of an “infernal rascal” like Nietzsche? It is in their yearning for the transformative potential of living without illusion that Shaw and Nietzsche come closest together. Ernst Behler suggests that
“[t]he central motto for [the] reception of Nietzsche by a socialist individualist consists in the simple word Übermensch… Nietzsche had used the term mostly in the sense of self-transcending, self-overcoming, but also occasionally combined it in an ironical twist with the idea of breeding the Übermensch.”10
This more immediate, social and physical expression of the overman, is “dominant in Shaw’s usage”, but it is very “cleverly combined with his own social program.”11 There has been much speculation about Nietzsche’s politics, and certainly his “Great Politics” remain obscure for many readers, buried beneath often-contradictory aristocratic language. However, this need not prevent us from seeing Nietzsche as pointing the way to a politics of the future — one that would exist beyond the confines of what we currently understand as the political.
Writing on the implications of Nietzsche’s epistemology, Andrew Koch points out that although
“Nietzsche’s critique of existing morality and of politics is oriented to the present, …his understanding of political possibilities is oriented toward the future. Nietzsche claims that his politics is for an age not yet born. Politics, as it is presently conceived, must come to an end. Does this mean the Nietzsche is a utopian? He never claims that the age of the overman would end conflict, bring the reign of “truth”, or end suffering. He simply argues that it would function better than an age in which human beings are taught to despise themselves.”12
This self-hatred, which Nietzsche traces to the Christian emphasis on humility (or what he would consider self-degradation), erupts from Undershaft in a vicious attack on the social glorification of what should be considered criminal:
“Have you ever been in love with Poverty, like St Francis? Have you ever been in love with Dirt like St Simeon? Have you ever been in love with disease and suffering, like our nurses and philanthropists? Such passions are not virtues, but the most unnatural of all the vices… Leave it to the poor to pretend that poverty is a blessing: leave it to the coward to make a religion of his cowardice by preaching humility…”13
Poverty is a crime: the very idea seems scandalous, as though we could blame the poor for their condition! But this is exactly what each of these authors does in his own way.
For Shaw, poverty is a problem for everyone, and must be eliminated. His socialist politics are tempered by an individualistic streak more common in anarchist thinkers — he insists that the poor must be able to stand up and work toward their own “salvation”, rather than depend upon the hand-outs of charity and the crumbs thrown down from the rich man’s table. Nietzsche sees this play out as a part of the game of life — his total celebration of life demands of man the strength to pull himself up. In his criticism of pity, Nietzsche is suggesting that the man unwilling to struggle against the conditions of his life has already accepted them, and thus should be left to wallow in his self-wrought misery. It seems a cold, and almost “evil” position; but when you peek beneath the surface, it differs little from Shaw’s socialist activism. Poverty will cease to exist as soon as all men decide that it is no longer appropriate, and it will persist so long as the masses of humanity are willing to tolerate the predations of the wealthy.
In the meantime, how are we to fault those who are eager to abuse our naïveté and foolish forbearance? Shall we drag everyone down toward an idealised vision of suffering? Or would we not better be served in working to uplift our own lives? Should we not be willing to live our life “unashamed”14 of our decisions, cognizant of their context and consequence? And, as the improvement of the human condition as a whole serves our interests as well as anyone’s, we can address the question of altruism with a better understanding of our own motives.
But this level of honesty is unlikely to win approval, and it is here that Shaw and Nietzsche both succeed in addressing the psychology of power in personal relations. Nietzsche knows that “[a]rrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.”15 His theory of ressentiment is a clever apprehension of historical motive, and perhaps one of the more subtle and enduring insights of the past century. For his part, Shaw knows that an individualist’s “best friend” is not his most charitable companion, but his “bravest enemy”, for only your enemy can challenge you to improve yourself and keep you “up to the mark”.16
Shaw does not politicise Nietzsche so much as show us how the personal and the political spheres are already intimately linked. Unlike Shaw, Nietzsche has no political philosophy; for him, the overman is merely an ideal–
“a concept devoid of any particular content, of any particular image. The overman comes after the anarchistic [i.e., Dionysian] nature of the world is understood, after a recognition that the world does not contain a single truth or teleologically destined way of life. The overman embodies creativity and is capable of self-sacrifice, and as such, love, but Nietzsche adds little that is specific.”17
Indeed, he could not do so, for such deterministic prognostication would run contrary to his philosophical purpose. Higgins thinks that
“Nietzsche intends this vagueness in his image of the overman. The overman is a kind of place-holder for the aim of human aspiration toward greatness. The particular form of such greatness varies from individual life to individual life. The overman’s lack of defining characteristics makes it possible for this image to accommodate the full range of great striving as it appears in all individual cases.”18
In short, Nietzsche tells us only what we have been, and that we can be something more — he does not presume to tell us what that something is.
Nietzsche may have been excessively critical of all extant political systems, but Shaw has a definite political objective in his storytelling. For him, the transformation of the personal is an inherently social and political revolution, with every part of our lives caught up in our connexions with other people. After sitting through the entirety of his play with Undershaft as the perfect embodiment of perspectivism and self-definition, and being in all things the utterly Nietzschean immoralist, in the end we can see that for Shaw the real overman …is Barbara.
It is her combination of socialist idealism and Nietzschean self-overcoming that points to Shaw’s real message: that social ills cannot be overcome until they can be looked in the face and understood for what they are. In this Shaw begins to cut his own path; where Nietzsche enjoins us to let our will say: “the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”19, Shaw asks that we direct all the earth to uplift. Here he takes Nietzsche a step beyond what Nietzsche will allow himself, hoping that the ideal of the overman could be within reach of us all. Never mind that Nietzsche had said that “even in the will of those who serve” can be “found the will to be master”20, he is in general much more sceptical about the capacity of the majority to overcome anything.
Rather than focus upon the rare and unique, as Nietzsche does, Shaw preaches equality and hopes to inspire a nobler and more profoundly “Christian” vision of society, by refusing to ignore the darker side of our affairs. It is no sense hiding from the evils of society — at the end of the day, as Barbara says, “[t]here is no wicked side: life is all one.”21 This is perfectly consistent with our understanding that the overman is not a social phenomenon at all, but a deeply and uniquely personal one.
The path to self-realisation will vary greatly, and the affects that such a person will have on the world around them will vary according to the circumstances of their lives, but it is important to emphasise that neither Undershaft nor Barbara are “social” manifestations of the overman — their views are personal, and it is only incidentally that they impinge upon the lives of others. To the extent that other men fail to assert themselves as strongly or as independently, we can see the loneliness of such a position: standing proudly but alone, beyond good and evil, but far from beyond reproach. For so long as Western civilisation survives in its current state, those who by their very nature command respect and demand hatred will remain misunderstood; and we will continue to blame them for our own inadequacies.
Time is a River: The Art of Transformative Living
“Time is a great long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you are standing in it.” ~Utah Phillips
A peerless work of psychological and spiritual development, Siddhartha takes us on a journey from the impetuosity of youth to the wisdom of old age. No less so than in Shaw’s play, Hermann Hesse leads his protagonist through a transformative odyssey that invites easy parallels to the overman. And just as in Shaw, that comparison is more than apt, for in the character of Siddhartha Nietzsche would surely have recognised the hallmarks of his own creation. However, it is not just the overman that jumps to the fore here — the book is positively replete with Nietzschean ideas, from the illusion of time and free will, to the mistrust of teachers, to the movement through Dionysian stages on the path to enlightenment. Rather than focussing upon the form of proto-overman herein encountered, we will attempt to touch upon some of the more salient and Nietzschean issues Hesse raises.
Driven from his home by the need to find his own path, far away from the studied knowledge of the brahmin, Siddhartha has from the start suspected that there are no proper teachers; this theme returns several times in the text, and each time it echoes one of Nietzsche’s fundamental maxims: that there are no educators in life.
“As a thinker one should speak only of self-education. The education of youth by others is either an experiment carried out on an as yet unknown and unknowable subject, or a levelling on principle with the object of making the new being, whatever it may be, conform to the customs and habits then prevailing.”22
When, after some time with the shramanas of the woodlands, Siddhartha turns to his friend Govinda and tell him, “I am beginning to believe that this knowing has no greater enemy than wanting to know, than learning”,23 he is already deep in the throes of an existential crisis. Siddhartha has begun to doubt the wisdom of his elders, to look beyond their answers; his true journey begins when he hears the cry of Nietzsche’s madman, running through the marketplace:
“Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving?…”24
What has been killed is not merely God, but all universals, all immutable truths. The sceptical modern age has opened us all to the absurdity, contingency, and ultimate meaninglessness of life. It is this emotional and psychological void that works like Siddhartha aim to address.
Once Siddhartha has come to suspect that everything he has learnt is false, he sets out to find himself, beyond the shadow of the gods and the comforting presence of history. Govinda’s question echoes in his ears, spurring him on, driving him: “…what would remain of everything that had once seemed sacred to us? What would be left? What would stand the test?”25 Nietzsche himself poses this same challenge: “In the horizon of the infinite— We have left the land and embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us — indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”26
When nothing is left to you but your seeking, all that remains is to embrace this destiny, and seek. For many, there are no hard questions or existential crises — for many, the truths of society are sufficient to carry them through their lives. For those rare others, however, the drive to question all is an unquenchable lust, satiated only by the realisation that this seeking is its own ends — that there is no final goal or simple answer beyond the self.
In his time with the shramanas, Siddhartha learnt to think; this is not so simple as matter as is seems, and in fact it is and has been a relatively rare attribute in human history. As another who had learnt to think, Nietzsche often decried the poverty of mind prevalent in the university system, which had by his time already given up its promise of encouraging the independent development of thinkers, turning instead to the task of indoctrinating young men into the dominant discourse. Siddhartha saw early on that acceptance of another’s teaching is no way to learn, and understood this very clearly in the end:
“No, a true seeker, one who truly wished to find, could not accept any doctrine. But he who had found realization could look with favor on any teaching, any path, any goal. Nothing any longer separated him from the thousand others who lived the eternal, who breathed the divine.”27
In the apparent exclusivity of this path, Hesse more directly invokes the spectre of the overman, for Nietzsche never thought his ideal to be within reach of the majority. Indeed, he believed that the “great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience”, and would thus be unable or unwilling to strive for it.
“I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward.”28
More than nearly any other modern thinker, Nietzsche enjoins the reader to find our own truths, and to ignore his ideas — and those of his predecessors — wherever they do not fit our needs or our world. Only when the reader has rejected all of Nietzsche’s theories and prejudices, and dispensed with the supposed authority of his writings, can we approach those writings in a manner befitting the author’s intent. Nietzsche is no teacher — he is merely a signpost standing on a wooded hillside, pointing toward a possible future.
It is in this way that Hesse’s characterisation so closely evokes the path followed by Nietzsche himself on his path to “enlightenment”. Abandoning Germany with the rise of the Reich, Nietzsche spent the rest of his life wandering through southern France, Switzerland, and Italy, seeking healthier climes for both his body and his mind. Nietzsche understood solitude in a way that few Western thinkers had before or have since. The Siddhartha who ends his days listening to the voice of the river would have understood perfectly the following sentiment:
“As a recompense for much ennui, ill-humour and boredom, such as a solitude without friends, books, duties or passions must entail, one harvests those quarters of an hour in the deepest immersion in oneself and in nature. He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the most potent refreshing draught from the deepest well of his own being.”29
Nietzsche is often dismissed as “crazy”, or as an eccentric crank who took himself too seriously. This judgement ignores his ironic wit and self-deprecating sense of humour, but we will grant that his humour is not exactly accessible. But in his isolation and wanderings, Nietzsche seemed to experience many of the same psychological torments that afflicted Siddhartha. His letters are filled with an inexpressible yearning — a desire for completion that he knew he would never find.
More importantly, Nietzsche’s self-imposed isolation gave his grandiose and lofty pronouncements far greater weight than they would have had in the hands of, say, a Schopenhauer (Nietzsche was deeply critical of any thinker who did not live his thought, and Schopenhauer — the philosopher of pessimism — is the example par excellence). In the same way that Nietzsche looked down upon European culture from some distant vantage point, Siddhartha looked down upon the residents of the city as “child people”. He could sense the passivity of the majority, and the respect naturally afforded to the self-consciously independent. “They are all grateful, although they themselves are due the gratitude,” he thought to himself. “All of them treat me with deference; they would all be happy to be my friend, they would be glad to obey me without having to think too much. People are children.”30
In his years of near-solitude and the enforced hardship of life as a shramana, Siddhartha had tasted of what Nietzsche calls his own conception of freedom:
“That one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself. That one maintains the distance which separates us. That one becomes more indifferent to difficulties, hardships, privation, even to life itself. That one is prepared to sacrifice human beings for one’s cause, not excluding oneself. Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of “pleasure.””31
It is this last that, for a time, Siddhartha loses sight of, as a necessary phase in his becoming.
Once possessed by this superiority of spirit, Siddhartha felt confident forsaking his life of penury and moving in amongst the “children”. As Nietzsche asserted, the path of “[a]sceticism is the right discipline for those who have to exterminate their sensual drives because the latter are raging beasts of prey. But only for those!”32 Believing himself above the ravenous hungers of lesser spirits, he entered their world in order to learn what he could from it.
And learn he did! His apprenticeship with Kamala brought him knowledge of the sensual, and at first he revelled in what Nietzsche would call the Apolline and Dionysiac duality. The Apollonian ideal represents the capacity for order, beauty, harmony, and measure — wherever there is the human imposition of structure and will, there is the spirit of Apollo. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the embodiment of chaos, excess, destruction, creation — in short, the raw stuff of life itself. In the combination of these ideals, Nietzsche sees the finest achievements of Western culture. But this balance is difficult to achieve or sustain; and as the Dionysian is the more fundamental, natural impulse, the danger for those surrendering themselves to its vicissitudes is great. One can for a time experience the raw energies of creation, or he can succumb to self-destructive hedonism and lose everything.
This is, of course, just what Siddhartha did — he pursued the wealth, status, and power of a city merchant, at first with an ironic sense of pleasure, but later with the insatiable desire and narcissism of those he had first dismissed as children. As Nietzsche had said, the “passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag down their victim with the weight of stupidity — and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they ‘spiritualize’ themselves.”33 Siddhartha had experienced this, but almost in reverse — for as long as he had lived in the city, “he had continued to feel different from the others and superior to them. He had always looked at them with a touch of disdainful contempt, with just that contempt that a shramana always feels toward worldly people.”34 Siddhartha entered the city an experienced shramana and the master of his passions, but within a few short years those passions had mastered him.
But Siddhartha could not have gone so far already if he did not have the strength to pull himself away from this living death; and one day he discovered in the depths of his self-loathing its source, and resolved to leave everything behind. He returned to the river, there to face himself and contemplate his end. Siddhartha had reached the apex of nihilism — only one step remained to complete his fall into the water’s final embrace. Here, leaning over the river at the moment of his destruction, he was reborn. The best way to place this into Nietzschean terms is via an extended quote from Gilles Deleuze:
“Active destruction means: the point, the moment of transmutation in the will to nothingness. Destruction becomes active at the moment when, the alliance between reactive forces and the will to nothingness is broken. The will to nothingness is converted and crosses over to the side of affirmation, it is related to a power of affirming which destroys the reactive forces themselves. Destruction becomes active to the extent that the negative is transmuted and converted into affirmative power: the “eternal joy of becoming” which is avowed in an instant, the “joy of annihilation”, the “affirmation of annihilation and destruction.” This is the “decisive point” of Dionysian philosophy: the point at which negation expresses an affirmation of life, destroys reactive forces and restores the rights of activity. The negative becomes the thunderbolt and lightning of a power of affirmation. Midnight, the supreme focal or transcendent point which is not defined by Nietzsche in terms of an equilibrium or a reconciliation of opposites, but in terms of conversion.”35
This experience, which Siddhartha interprets as the river speaking to him, brings him back to the ferryman and to a gradual awakening to himself. He learns to listen to the river — and to listen in general — as Vasudeva had learnt. And it is this message that he will pass on to other travellers; neither teacher, nor sage, nor leader, Siddhartha nonetheless exerts, through his work on the river, a tangible influence on the world around himself. Many who came in search of the “holy man” turned away, unable to see that which they could not understand — but others would learn from Siddhartha, from his eyes, from his smile, from his reverence for the eternally-flowing river.
Long years before, when Siddhartha had met the Buddha Gotama, he had in the pride of his youth assured the Perfect One that “nobody attains enlightenment through a teaching”.36 The Buddha had enquired of him, “Have you seen the host of my shramanas, my many brothers who have taken refuge in the teaching? And do you believe… that it would be better for all of them to abandon the teaching and return to the life of the world and its pleasures?” Siddhartha assured the Buddha that he thought nothing of the sort — “May they all remain with the teaching, may they all reach their goal! It is not for me to judge the life of another! It is only for myself that I must judge, that I must choose and refuse.”37
This perspectivist view of truth, knowledge, and the divergent paths we must each take in life is yet another idea Hesse shares with Nietzsche; in fact, Nietzsche would have agreed wholeheartedly with the older Siddhartha, when he tried to explain to Govinda that: “Wisdom is not expressible. Wisdom, when a wise man tries to express it, always sounds like foolishness.”38 With his many failures, Zarathustra could surely have related to this conversation, and, like Siddhartha, Zarathustra knew that the best course was to laugh off the failure and try again. “The higher the type, the more rarely a thing succeeds. You higher men here, have you not all failed? Be of good cheer, what does it matter? How much is still possible! Learn to laugh at yourself as one must laugh!”39
In the years that followed his return to the river and apprenticeship with Vasudeva, Siddhartha learnt to hear the river’s laughter, and many other things besides. On that first day, as he pulled himself back from the edge of despair, he had been struck by something that must have occurred to Nietzsche as well, for it comes down to us in the West from Heraclitus: “Everything flows; nothing stands still.” As he gazed into the river, Siddhartha “saw that the river flowed and flowed, flowed ever onward, and yet was always there, was always the same yet every moment new!”40 Echoed here by the Indian Siddhartha is the genesis of the classicist Nietzsche’s greatest — and strangest — idea: the eternal recurrence.
Nietzsche refers to this innovation as “the greatest weight”41, but recurrence is not intended to be a lodestone around our necks. On the contrary, it is quite plain that Nietzsche saw recurrence as ultimately life-affirming, and hoped that it might set man loose of the illusions of free will, idealism, and metaphysics:
“Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored — oh, then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants — eternity.”42
The most common error made in interpretations of the eternal recurrence is seeing it as a physical theory, when in fact it has nothing to do with this universe — it is the universe itself which will recur, not individual beings within it. Here Nietzsche breaks completely with the Western tradition, looking more to the East and its cyclical conceptions of time; as does Hesse in Siddhartha, which challenges our sense of continuity and progression when Siddhartha asks: “Have you also learned from the river the secret that there is no time?”43 In a philosophy that embraces the infinite to the extent that Nietzsche and Hesse appear to, where is there room for resentment or regret? What purpose can disappointment serve, when there is only the eternal now — this instant, this experience? The river of life does not flow from one point to another, carrying us along with it as the dialectical thinkers would suggest; the river is always and everywhere all at once — infinite.
In closing, I should like to make a few observations about the interpretation and influence of Nietzsche, as this has already caused some small disagreement in class. The confusion this may have created, however, should in fact be a blessing, for if nothing else it may have highlighted just how much the twentieth century has been defined by ambiguity and interpretation. As for Nietzsche and his work, Robert Wistrich puts this very well when he opines that
“there was something elusive in Nietzsche’s fragmented, diffuse, and lyrical oeuvre — experimental in method, aphoristic in style, and anti-systematic in nature — that [lays] itself open to… uses and abuses, to multiple opposed interpretations, not to say misappropriations; so much so that it often seems difficult to ascertain who the “real” Nietzsche was or if such a person actually existed. His life and work appears in retrospect like a battlefield of contending polarities — suspended between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, between and beyond good and evil, or the “master” and “slave” moralities — those antitheses he harbored within his soul until the twilight of madness descended upon him in 1889, leaving the final verdict to the care of posterity.”44
Thus far I feel that posterity has mostly done Nietzsche proud — the proliferation of interpretations, the variety of opinions, and the diverse applications to which his initial threads have been put could not fail to surprise and delight, as well as infuriate him. In this, as in so many other areas, I expect that his reaction would have seemed a total contradiction.
However, despite the enduring influence and the bits of his legacy that one can see all around, I cannot entirely view Nietzsche as a “shaman” or “prophet” for the twentieth century, any more than I can see him as “crazy”. Indeed, he may well be the first sane philosopher of the modern era, for he saw most clearly the kind of problems with which our century would grapple, and pointed the way toward a serious and lasting critique of Western civilisation as a whole.
The course material has thus far suggested that Nietzsche was “too radical” in his writings — that he went too far and consequently later generations have simply picked up the pieces that most suited them. This latter observation is undoubtedly correct, though the end result is little changed, as this is what Nietzsche himself would have expected — he had already set the proper, sceptical approach the reader should take to his writings:
“The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building: posterity discovers it in the bricks with which he built and which are then often used again for better building: in fact, that is to say, that the building can be destroyed and nonetheless possess value as material.”45
As to the former position, however, I feel that in many respects Nietzsche does not go far enough; and moreover, that his critique could not hope to make genuine sense or find a receptive audience, in his time or any other. The threads laid out by Nietzsche have been taken and advanced by later thinkers able to draw upon continuing cultural evolution, but they remain at core Nietzschean ideas; the past century has been entirely Nietzschean in character. He may have lacked the tools with which to build the critique he sought, and certainly he lacked the holistic understanding that such a thoroughgoing transvaluation could not possibly succeed or have value in itself, but he went as far as he could and left the rest to us. He was certainly perceptive enough to realise that he had been “born posthumously” — that his project would not readily find acceptance or understanding.
But it is my contention that this lack of understanding is very much the whole point — that Nietzsche in truth has nothing whatever to tell us about our world, only about his own, and that he hoped to be read as a prompt, not as a prophet. For Nietzsche, there is only the personal, and never does the reader discover in him a sense of the universal or immutable. Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins have observed that “[o]ne of Nietzsche’s most prominent innovations, providing a bridge to the twentieth century, is his insistence that there is no absolute knowledge that transcends all possible perspectives: knowledge is always constrained by one’s perspective.”46 Any proper appreciation of Nietzsche much begin with this contingent, metaphorical, and almost relativistic framework in mind — he simply cannot be read literally, as he himself makes clear repeatedly in his work.
Instead, Nietzsche sought radically to transform the nature of our questioning — to shift the emphasis from the metaphysical to the human. As Zarathustra said,
“God is a conjecture; but I desire that your conjectures should be limited by what is thinkable. Could you think a god? But this is what the will to truth should mean to you; that everything be changed into what is thinkable for man, visible for man, feelable by man. You should think through your own senses to their consequences.”
“And what you have called world, that shall be created only by you: your reason, your image, your will, your love shall thus be realised…”47
And in the final reckoning, it is here that the success enjoyed by both Shaw and Hesse in their respective uses of Nietzsche is made plain, and shown to be at once equally Nietzschean, equally personal, and equally human.