Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: Part 1, The Speeches of Zarathustra: “On the Hinterworldly” and “On the Despisers of the Body”

Zarathustra’s next two speeches in Nietzsche’s book Thus Spake Zarathustra are related in terms of their assertion that the physical world trumps the Otherworld, or, rather, the “backworld” as Del Caro translates the German term Hinterweltlern. The term is very difficult to pin down in English. The footnote to the word in my edition says that it refers to “those who are of, or believe in, a world beyond, a hidden or a back-world, a secret world”; the note also says, rather curiously, that the word has similar connotations to the English word hinterland. I think what is happening is that Zarathustra is saying that those who believe in an Otherworld are being provincial and silly.

Strauss’s second movement of his “Thus Spake/Spoke Zarathustra” is titled “Of the Backworldsmen”; Strauss’s magnificent tone poem was said to be “freely” inspired by Nietzsche’s book, so it would probably be wrong to read the musical movement too literally, rather than as a springboard for musical interpretation.

In any case, this chapter sees Zarathustra admitting that he, too once “cast his delusion beyond humans”; when he did so, the world seemed to him the production of a suffering and tortured god who wished to “look away” from himself, and so created a dream of “coloured smoke”. I must say that I enjoyed the epistemological allusion to the idea that we might not actually be real, and to Descartes’s own countering thesis cogito ergo sum. Zarathustra “overcame” himself when he realized that all human accounts of the divine are merely human images projected by human minds and communicated by human mouths. Zarathustra asserts that sick people who “poetize” and are addicted to the body developed the ridiculous beliefs in another, spiritual world, a world whose words command people to mortify their flesh–or to kill each others’ children, as Christopher Hitchens quite rightly points out. Zarathustra would replace that message of the divine heavens, so cruel to the body and the earth, with “a voice of the healthy body,” a voice of the earth”. (In this context, it should be noted that a few sections earlier, Zarathustra had been delighted to see his companions, the eagle and snake, searching for him. For now, they are his only “disciples”.)

This is a useful transition to the next speech, “On the Despisers of the Body”. Some, Zarathustra notes, claim that the soul is the real thing, and the body that which is less real. On the contrary, though, it is the body which is real, and the spirit is simply a function of it. Zarathustra calls the spirit “the small reason” and the body he calls “the great reason”. For Zarathustra, Self is the body, and “there is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom”.

When I read this, I immediately realized how the presentation of Chance in the movie Being There drew on this idea. For my part, I have decided in favour of the body a long time ago, and it’s hard for me to see how so many people could believe in life after death as a certainty when it seems so obviously that one’s personality–one’s psyche–is a function of brain chemistry and the potential of the physical brain.

I must also say that I believe that the Christian churches have grown a good deal more friendly to the body than was the case when Nietzsche was alive, and I am certain that his critique, and others making the same critique, moved church theology to a much healthier kerygma of the human body. The faithful, Nietzsche’s objects of scorn and affection, might not want to admit it, but they are much better off today because of the nineteenth century homosexual atheist and animal lover.