Forty-six years ago I took a graduate course in existentialism taught by a man who had originally come from the subcontinent of India, specifically the westernized enclave of Goa, and who was a devout Catholic. He praised the Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel and execrated Jean Paul Sartre, even attacking him on an ad hominem basis by referring to his "immoral" way of life. Surprisingly, he spoke well of the atheist Nietzsche, saying that he was "very deep, very profound."
One of Nietzsche's detractors, Max Nordau, in his book Degeneration (1895) argues that Nietzsche calls his own works profound by referring in them to that which is deep (tief) and to the abyss (Abgrund) which he has overcome. This language is certainly apparent in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), which I read again six year ago, this time in both the English translation by Thomas Common and in the original German. During my second reading, I marked innumerable passages of interest. After all of that effort, though, I certainly am not ready to explain the profundity of Nietzsche, much less to deny it.
Everyone recognizes that the character Zarathustra in Nietzsche's work is not to be identified with the historical Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) who lived in Persia around 600 B.C. This becomes obvious in chapter 21, "Voluntary Death," wherein Zarathustra speaks of "the Hebrew Jesus," who was "too early" "seized with the longing for death." This anachronism alone would prove that Nietzsche's Zarathustra has little or nothing in common with the historical Zarathustra.
Another anachronism, one more evident, appears in chapters 11, "The New Idol," and 51, "On Passing-By," wherein the "newspapers" are the object of attack. (The word Zeitung appears in the original.) In "The New Idol," Zarathustra condemns "the superfluous ones" who "vomit their bile and call it a newspaper." In "On Passing-By," Zarathustra, on the long journey back to his cave in the mountains, encounters "a great city" from whence a "fool" rushes forth to greet him, a fool who "apes" his language and manner. The fool asks Zarathustra, "Seest thou not the souls hanging like limp dirty rags? -- And they make newspapers out of these rags."
Walter Kauffmann, a prominent interpreter of Nietzsche's works, believes that the "fool" in "On Passing-By" is Eugen Duehring, a popular philosopher whom Nietzsche thoroughly despised. (Duehring's ethic was based on the theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whom Nietzsche also despised, that morality first arose from human sympathy. Ironically, Duehring was seen by Karl Marx, the antipodes to Nietzsche, as a great threat to his leadership of the socialist movement.)
Leaving aside any interpretation of chapter 51, one is left with a peculiar vision of opposing worlds. One world, the world of Zarathustra, the world of the mountains wherein Zarathustra lives in a cave with only the company of his animals, the eagle and the serpent being the most favored among them, is here opposed to the world of "the great city" wherein is to be found the latest developments of technology. Here Nietzsche seems to revert to imagery popular in all accounts of prophets, the prophet inveighing from his place of refuge in some desert place against the iniquity of the great cities.
In Biblical accounts of the prophets, however, the prophet lives in the mountain wilderness, but he lives in a world in which the city is an ancient city. In Zarathustra, the prophet is almost a lunatic figure who has seceded altogether from modern civilization, who lives literally in a cave, not in a cabin by the pond as did Thoreau. The juxtaposition seems crazily anachronistic.Leo Strauss, in his famous essay "Persecution and the Art of Writing," suggests that the attentive reader should be alerted when an author commits a glaring "error," an error which must certainly be known to the author himself. It may be a signal to the discerning reader that the author seeks to communicate some message that he feels he cannot express directly. Can that be the case in Zarathustra? Nietzsche did not seem to be inhibited even by the statutes against blasphemy which were still enforced in the Germany of his time. Has this glaring anachronism in Zarathustra any meaning or is it simply a failure of authorial control?