Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Nietzsche's The Three Metamorphoses

I just finished reading The Three Metamorphoses. Do we see it as literature or philosophy? For in literature we grant the artist his vision, or, more prosaically, his premise, and then, if it’s a great work, we enter into its imaginative expanses and drink in and respond to the world coming from its artistic power. So an atheist can experience the full power of Paradise Lost or Donne’s devotional poems or even Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, regardless of how alien the themes and ideas of these or other works may be to us.

For philosophy, we respond with our reason as informed by our experience and don’t willingly suspend disbelief. One critic noted the difference between philosophy being “as is” and art being “as if.” This split goes to an interesting general question about Nietzsche: whether to consider him mainly as a philosopher or an artist or both with our vantage points possibly shifting accordingly.

I’d also remind all (and myself principally) that Nietzsche is a behemoth of a thinker and an intellectual presence, not at all encapsulable,  and that different parts of his work can support different overarching views of him. That being so, I’ll restrict my comments to the specific text before me and will make a stab at some textual analysis, looking at the poem as literature.

From the perspective of literature, the poem is all of what Zarathutra “spake” to his “brethren” in bringing them along so that they can absorb the lessons of the spiritual growth from, metaphorically, camel to lion to child. The poem is a dramatic re-enactment of the movement through the three transformations, allowing his “brethren” to transform themselves as Zarathustra speaks to them.

The images of the camel, the lion and the child are metaphors for likening the growth of the human spirit from being “load-bearing” and duty-bound to ultimately being light and alive, as a child, fully open to all possibilities of self creation, which is to say, in Nietzsche's terms, a “forgetfulness,” “a new beginning,” “a self rolling wheel.” In that spiritual passage, the spirit, like the camel, to get beyond its heavily laden, duty-bound self, must debase and mock itself and must immerse itself in isolation, annihilating negation and spiritual self deprivation—“suffer hunger of the soul,” “feed on the acorns and grass of knowledge.”
The interrogative mode dominates the first part of the poem, which essentially is a series of seemingly alternative questions pressed into service of possibly answering the more underlying questions: “What is heavy?” and “What is the heaviest thing?” And, it seems, the spirit asker is one completely married to his tasks and his beliefs: “...the strong load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth...”  

The spirit asker, it may be argued, is one different from the many, who wishes to fulfill, if not perfect, himself in his assumption of duty: “What is the heaviest thing...that I may take it upon me and rejoice in my strength.” Therefore, the argument will continue, the three stage spiritual growth is not a template for all to follow; it is, rather, a path along only which the spiritually gifted can follow. For in that willingness to rejoice in the redoubling of weighty burden a certain psychology is given: that of the ability to see one’s self; the ability to question one’s self, lower one’s self and expose one’s self, risking loss of the self-assurances one has and the pride those assurances may breed:
“...To humiliate oneself in order to mortify one’s pride? To exhibit one’s folly in order to mock at one’s wisdom? To desert our cause when it celebrateth its triumph? To ascend high mountains to tempt the tempter?”

This singular “load-bearing spirit in which reverence dwelleth” has it within itself, therefore, to forgo the world at the very heights of what the world may glory in—“celebrateth its triumph.”

The image of “tempting the tempter” seems the inversion of Satan and Christ in Milton's Paradise Regained standing on the tip of a spire with Satan tempting Christ to forgo heavenliness for worldliness, which Christ rejects, leaving Satan to fall away. Here the spirit ascends to heights and, I’d argue, beckons, “tempts,” the "last Lord,” ”Thou-Shalt,” the great dragon,” to struggle with  spirit in the great dragon's attempt to blanket it in divine readymade meanings and thereby keep spirit servile. That very ascension and bold beckoning is juxtaposed with, and complemented by, the immediately following and humbling feeding on “the acorns and the grass of knowledge”  and suffering the “hunger of soul.” 
The suffering is for the “sake of truth.” And the demands of truth compel forsaking society and those comforting who want to attend on, and mollify, spirit’s soul sickness. The demands, too, compel taking unto one’s self the indifference of others: “...make friends of the deaf, who never hear thy requests?” And truth demands immersing one’s self in "foul water of truth" and claiming for one’s self—“and not disclaim”— extremes of discomforting ugliness, “cold frogs and hot toads,” demands embracing what hates us (for what hates us shakes  the very ground of our self understanding, posing a radical threat to that self understanding) and demands taking on, befriending--“give one’s hand” to--the frightening unknown, “the phantom when it is going to frighten us.”

There is no one answer, so it seems, in these questions as potential answers to the underlying question of what is heaviest. They all signify an act of consciousness of a specifically powerful and courageous spirit ready to risk all in negating the readymade and the worldly and in setting the stage for the next step along the overarching path to spiritual enlightenment.

In asking the questions, in being willing to sacrifice an easier, because already well, well settled,  way of being in the world, the spirit takes on to itself the weight of unburdening itself of the ostensibly apriori , in a paradox of unloading the known and thereby taking on, being weighed down with, the heaviest load of the unknown.  And so the spirit as result of its questioning and willingness quickens into “its wilderness.” The reference to “its” marks the “wilderness”-- itself a "bewildering vastness, perilousness or unchecked profusion”-- as internal, a wildly unknowing state of mind.
Comes then by the agency of the initial questioning “the second metamorphosis,” which is to say, the second transformation in the form and nature of a thing so it’s completely different. But in noting that, we must not pass over too quickly, as sometimes we do, that the first metamorphosis has occurred by virtue of, and as comprised by, the load-bearing spirit wanting to take unto, and onto, itself the most it can.  It wants to so that it “could rejoice in my strength,” that being, I think, the unquenchable thirst in some for the spiritual most the world offers.

We must step back to consider and understand what was it in spirit that metamorphosed into what Nietzsche sets out as the first metamorphosis. What it was was the reverent, renouncing, duty-laden "beast of burden”prior to its initial metamorphosis occasioned by its relentless questioning of what is heavy and what is heaviest.
Consistent with the very idea of metamorphosis, the questions now diminish in their unrelenting frequency. And now, too, the narration becomes more detached from the subjectivity of the first metamorphosis as interrogative consciousness now changes into the great contentious action of will's struggle in fulfillment of where the questioning has led spirit.

Now, like a lion, the load-bearing spirit has become master of its solitary and wilderness domain, free in its unvanquishable power as manifest in its absolute assertion of will. In a nutshell, “Thou-Shalt, with its resonance of divine imposition and commandment, becomes this lion-spirit’s naked and singular “I will.” And so the metamorphosed spirit likened to a lion defeats the readymade of the divine, itself inverted imagistically  as the great dragon.

The movement through the first two metamorphoses may be cast as willessness to willingness to willfulness.
Here in further inversion of the worldliness of the power and kingdoms and riches Satan offers Christ to tempt him to forsake Christ’s Father, the spirit as a vanquishing lion rejects, and asserts its solitary self against, "’Thou-shalt,’" which "lieth in its path, sparkling with gold-a scale-covered beast; and on very scale glittereth golden ‘Thou shalt’!”

The gold imagery is felicitous in what it suggests. Gold’s value is an arbitrary human construction. So are the value and weight of readymade meanings, ranging up to the seeming apriori, an arbitrary human construction. As well, the comfort and succour readymade meanings provide have the glittering attractiveness of gold in their easing the way for the conduct of life according to their laid out strictures. Therefore, “The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales...All the values of things glitter on me. All values have already been created, and all values I represent.”
Now the interrogation revives. But it is not the questioning of the metamorphosed load-bearing spirit, whose self-examining questioning is done; it is, rather, the overarching rhetorical questioning –he knows the answers he will give—of Zarathustra, setting the ground for the final metamorphosis and dealing the final blows to the great dragon at the very heights of its own assertive power:

“My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit. Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?” 

Structurally, Zarathustra’s questions follow from the great dragon’s boldest assertions of its own order of things to the spirit as lion concluding with “Verily, there shall be no ‘I will’ any more.”  
Who is addressed by Zarathustra in his “My brethern”? Is it the townsfolk of “the town which is called The Pied Cow”? As originally set out, I’m thinking not. The very name of the town, “Pied Cow,” suggesting motley and diversely incongruous cow- like lumpishness, does not inspire the idea that the three metamorphoses are universally available. I’m inclined to think Zarathustra in “My brethren” addresses those alike in spirit, those willing and able to overcome and ascend.

In his questioning, Zarathustra meets the great dragon on its strongest ground. As noted, standing, it thinks securely, on that ground, the great dragon asks: what need do we have of the negation of all the order I give, of all that has meaning and value; what need is there of the spirit as lion; why isn't simply the reverent, renouncing beast of burden sufficient?
And the answer is given, flowing from what load-bearing spirit now transformed into spirit as lion has wrought first from its own self examination and then from its confrontation with the world as given, or as seeming apriori meaning: “to create new values.” In relation to that, spirit as lion has reached its limit. It can create freedom, the conditions necessary and sufficient for that creation to take place, by its assertion of will (“I will”) against the readymade.

But now more spiritually is needed.  Zarathustra rehearses the stages of the journey to the point where things stand. In fact, says Zarathustra, the heaviest load for the beast of burden is the assumption of the right to new values, and that is the work of spirit as lion, “the work of a beast of prey.” The beast has moved from its love of “Thou-shalt,” spirit at its “holiest,” then, as forced by the force of its own interrogative self examination, to spirit as lion finding “... the illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things,” and capturing freedom from devotion to the divine readymade it once loved.
Zarathustra comes to his final rhetorical question, to which he knows the answer, and for which his “brethren” are now prepared: “...what can the child do...why hath the preying lion still to become a child?”

The answer is that spirit as warrior- lion must be left behind in being transformed anew into, as originally noted, a “forgetfulness,” an “Innocence,” a self-creating beginning making fresh meanings for itself in a new holiness, in a new unburdened affirmation, “a holy Yea unto life,” a self contained will, a pure spirit of will, making a world of itself in being outcast from the readymade, a perpetual rolling movement to meaning stemming from itself—the final fulfilment of the desire “to rejoice in my strength,” the comparative and paradoxical strength of spirit as child.
“Innocence is the child, and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea.

Aye for the game of creating, my brethren, there is needed a holy Yea unto life: IT’S OWN will, willeth now the spirit; HIS OWN WORLD winneth the world’s outcast.”

Now, finally, the originally beloved "Thou-shalt," spirit at its "holiest," has been, in Nietzsche's terms, transvalued into the child like innocence of "a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a holy Yea"--which is to say, the transvaluation of holiness.

However powerful as literature, looked at philosophically, these themes as they resolve themselves at poem's end, I’d argue, collapse in on themselves into sheer incoherence.

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