What is beneath all of these metaphors? We readers do not live in a world where Zarathustra, the fictional character, is real, and if Nietzsche really thought he was Zarathustra then he was already insane when he wrote the book. I do not want to think that, and I really do think there is something to be gained from pondering these pages. We could read this book as nothing more than a entertaining and powerful story (something like a Greek tragedy), or even as wonderful. It is like that, and maybe any reading of it by a philosopher would be like the kind of reading Martha Nussbaum gives ancient Greek tragedies. But the book is not exactly the same in type as a Greek tragedy: it is also philosophy. It raises many philosophical issues and tries to resolve them, even though in an odd way.
So what about philosophy? Why did Nietzsche think that the doctrine of eternal recurrence was such a great idea? My short answer is that "eternal recurrence" came to symbolize, for Nietzsche, the entirety of his philosophy. It is "the will to power" in the sense that to accept eternal recurrence in the best way is to achieve the most authentic form of will to power. He does this a lot, i.e. organically connects his main concepts. For example, "the overman" is a metaphor that begins the book and I think it was a way of symbolizing a lot of strands of his philosophical theory tied together in one knot at this stage in his life. These big metaphors that sum up his philosophy come up one after another in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He thinks of them as progressively deeper understandings of the world, each building on the previous ones. Unfortunately, all of this is reminiscent of Rosicrucianism or Scientology: you reach one level and there is a deeper level of knowledge, all of it mysterious, secret, full of symbolism piled on symbolism. Is that what Nietzsche is up to? Is he just adding a lot of imagery to an insight that could be stated in more straightforward terms? Another way of looking at this is that each new metaphor is a new angle that sheds new light on the earlier metaphors. (Derrida does something similar.) One could say that "eternal recurrence" is a metaphor that sums up all of the strands of the book: the anti-Christian message, saying "yes" to the earth, announcing the coming of the overman, the doctrine of will-to-power, overcoming revenge, and even the critique of German educational institutions. More precisely, it is a synecdoche: a figure of speech, a type of metonym, in which a term or part of something refers to the whole, i.e. his whole philosophy.
So how does one make sense of the passage that begins with Zarathustra saying to his animals "chatter on like this and let me listen. It is so refreshing for me to hear you chattering..."? Zarathustra likes to hear his animals chatter, and "where there is chattering, there the world lies before me like a garden." It looks like the world is transformed into a garden by this thing called "chattering" which we might understand if we look back to what the animals were saying earlier. We find that they are calling on him to step out of his cave because "the world awaits you like a garden." So perhaps precisely this is "chattering" - talk about the world being a garden for the enlightened individual, or at least for the one who achieves Zarathustra's version of enlightenment.
What is this world like? The animals describe it: "The wind is playing with heavy fragrances that want to get to you, and all the brooks would run after you. All things have been longing for you..." (This all reminds me of Plato's Ion and his description of the inspiration of the poet who sees the world as a land of milk and honey.) So, this world is playful, fragrant, and otherwise wondrous for the enlightened one: and it does this for the enlightened one because it loves and desires him: this is true since the enlightened one is no longer separate from this (the) world.
Note that this world is aesthetic in the highest degree. The world as garden could be seen as aesthetic utopia. All of nature is transformed into something which has aura. When Zarathustra is awakened from his seven days "as one dead" he takes a rose apple, smells it and finds its fragrance lovely. The animals are responding to his finding the fragrance lovely. Moreover, these things, indeed all things now, will be his physicians: they will heal him and help him deal with a new knowledge he has gained, a knowledge that is "bitter and hard." So, there is also an Apollonian healing dimension to the aesthetic quality experienced by Zarathustra. Beauty, however, would not exist if there was not also ugliness to be overcome. The goal of aesthetic atheism is experience of this kind.
Zarathustra then says, "how lovely it is that there are words and sounds!" Of course not all words and sounds could be lovely, and the thought that the very existence of words and sounds is lovely is a bit odd. One could say that about anything in the right mood...."how lovely that there are snow peas and carrots!" The explanation is that words and sounds are "rainbows and illusive bridges between things which are eternally apart." But what can this mean? Well, the word "apple" is a bridge to actual existent apples. But that does not help since what we need is an illusive bridge between two things eternally apart. A hint could probably be found in Nietzsche "Truth and Lies in the Extramoral Sense." See my previous posts on that. There it is argued that the relationship between words and things is a kind of illusion, but a necessary one.
Perhaps the words of Zarathustra's animals are an illusion (as are the words of all redemptive poets). This may not be a bad thing for Nietzsche. He often argues that illusions can be valuable, and this illusion is one that may bridge, for example, people who are in radically different psychological places. We humans, in a sense, are eternally apart from each other, and words can sometimes bridge that gap.
But also, one could argue, we are eternally apart from nature, and we need some illusion to bridge the gap between ourselves and nature. Poetry (and art generally) may be what is being referred to here: poetry can bridge the gap between ourselves and nature by way of creating a virtual world, an illusion of oneness. When Z. then says "to every soul there belongs another world," and elaborates mysteriously that "for every soul, every other soul is an afterworld," perhaps he means that every soul faces other souls, each of which has its own world, and that the bridging of this gap is like the achievement of a heaven, an afterworld.
Then he says, "have not names and sounds been given to things that man might find things refreshing." On the face of it, the answer is "no." First, there is no god who gave names and sounds to things. And when men did, we have no idea whether this was to find things refreshing. But we do know that when poets gives names and sounds to things in ways that are counter-intuitive and non-literal they do, when successful, make the world seem refreshing, or rather, they refresh the world. So, when Zarathustra says "speaking is a beautiful folly: with that man dances over all things" he must be speaking about our poetic capacity to recreate things through poetic interpretation, an interpretation which perhaps is folly but makes like worth living, to refer back to The Birth of Tragedy.
I just saw the Bruce Conner show at the SFMOMA. Conner was a man of immense genius and one thing I came away from with that show was a Nietzschean sense of life.
The difficulty of "The Convalescent" is in the fact that the animals do most of the talking about eternal recurrence, and yet Zarathustra says that they are singing a "hurdy-gurdy" song. We can only presume that the animals are giving us an aspect of the truth, one that is not tragic enough, or at least not tragic/comic enough to capture what Zarathustra himself sees: and is a bit too upbeat, almost kitschy. Zarathustra's own talk focuses, more darkly, on the experience of dealing with the eternal recurrence of the smallest man and even of the smallness that is always present even in the greatest.
He tells us that he bit off the head of a monster and spewed it out. But what exactly does this symbolize? If the doctrine of eternal recurrence requires some sort of acceptance or affirmation then shouldn't the metaphor be one of biting off and consuming rather than spewing out? I think that he is spewing out not a condition or reality but a doctrine or perhaps a temptation based on a condition. He can reject the doctrine while not rejecting the condition. It is clear that in the seven days when he was "as dead" Zarathustra had gone through a transformative experience. Now he is convalescing from the sickness brought on by that experience. But what is the role of the sickness? Is that sickness also something he has to affirm?
It is odd that even though he calls his animals "buffoons and barrel organs" he also thinks that they "know well" what he has gone through in those seven days, even though they say nothing about anything so negative or disturbing as biting a monster's head off. In fact, what they say is that "all things themselves are dancing." Things are dancing as teasers, much Life does in "The Other Dancing Song" ... offering their hands, laughing, fleeing, coming back.
The eternity the animals see is a cycle of the "wheel of being," one in which things die and blossom again. Of course this is the cycle of the seasons where things do die in the winter and blossom again in the spring, and when the animals say "eternally runs the year of being" they could just mean that, for them, the seasons run eternally.
But the language here is more metaphysical than that. The animals go on to say: "Everything breaks, everything is joined anew; eternally the same house of being is built." In this phrase, there seems to be redemption for everything that breaks, and this is what is meant by building the same house of being. The reiteration of the idea in saying that "everything parts" and also that everything "greets every other thing again" makes us think not only of literal breaking but also of the breaking up of relationships and of friendships. Thus the idea that being "remains faithful to itself" in the sense that what is broken comes back again is asserted. Of course this is like Christianity's idea that loved ones will meet again in heaven. And perhaps that is why this is, for Zarathustra, a hurdy gurdy song.
More mysterious, and perhaps more helpful for a theory of Eternal Recurrence, is the next passage: "In every Now, being begins; round every Here rolls the sphere There." We know from previously that the Now is central to the entire doctrine. Is this explained when the animals then say "The center is everywhere. Bent is the path of eternity."? It seems that wherever and whenever you experience something this is the center of being. Eternity is bent in that it is bent back on itself. Could there be a relationship between this focus on the Here and Now and the Bent nature of Eternity. A simple solution is that the Here and Now is Eternity when understood properly. I think that the animals' story captures one side of eternal recurrence; it is true, but not complete.
This may just be a way for Zarathustra (or Nietzsche) to complain about how the small man, when perceiving the great man screaming in pain, gets an almost sensual pleasure, which he then ironically calls "pity." The point may be simply to introduce here the idea of the "small man," the person who feels this so-called pity.
That the concept of "tragedy" has been introduced may illuminate the passage. One thinks of Plato's critique of ancient Greek tragedy. This would explain why the next paragraph begins with the poet who is a small man...or ambiguously, tragic poets in general (although it would be unfair to call Sophocles a small man!)
Anyway, you could see how this might fit the idea of "how eagerly he accuses life with words!" Certainly the tragic poet and the tragic figure within the tragic poem will do this. (But Nietzsche is not really thinking of Sophocles: he is thinking of Christians.)
The rest of that paragraph however has a nice twist in that first, the accuser experiences delight in the accusation, and life herself responds with a wink and an impudent question "Do you love me?" with the remark that she ha "no time" for such as you. Of course, life is only going to respond positively to those who do not accuse her. Then it turns out that the cruelty is not only only directed by the small against the great but also by man "against himself" insofar as he might, following Christianity, call himself a sinner, or somewhat more positively, a cross-bearer or a penitent (a sinner reformed). That too is cause for "voluptuous delight." Zarathustra then refuses to join this chorus and does not want to accuse man of sin (although perhaps he has accused man of being cruel!). He has learned that "man needs what is most evil in him for what is best in him" and that the most evil in him is "his best power" and most the most the important stone for him to break as a creator. So to be better man must be "more evil." So what is it to be more evil. One possibility is that it is to not be the sort of person who calls oneself a sinner, cross-bearer or penitent. Another is that one should actually sin. He says that his great torture in the seven days, the monster in fact, is that man's greatest evil "is so very small" which is also to say that his best is "so very small." So his disgust with man, and it is his disgust with the smallness of man that choked him, is what crawled into his throat.
I am not finished yet with my commentary but would like here to place a marker, a thought that will guide me. The affirmation of eternal recurrence is going to be something more like aggressive assimilation of one's own past, including the smallest aspects of oneself and of one's neighbors, than mere acceptance. I think, although I am not sure, that this is going to require appropriation and exploitation of one's own past: a re-interpretation that is itself radical. Saying "yes" to life is taking that which is "evil" in one's past, whatever one feels guilty about or whatever one resents or feels bad about, and reworking it, bringing it alive so that the Now becomes vibrant again, and the future becomes possible.
Nietzsche goes back to the soothsayer at this point and what he said: "All is the same, nothing is worth while, knowledge chokes." This is, on one level, an approach to eternal recurrence that is quite negative. If all is the same then all is equal to the smallest and hence nothing is worthwhile, and knowledge of this chokes. But perhaps this "knowledge" or rather belief is what chokes, and biting off this, biting off nihilism, and spitting it out, is what allows one to go almost the opposite direction: everything is worthwhile, or perhaps can be aggressively interpreted for it to have worth.
It is natural, if one follows the Soothsayer's approach to eternal recurrence one will see a "long twilight" limping before, and this can be associated with death: one become "weary with death, drunken with death." One becomes depressed and suicidal thinking that smallness cannot be escaped. This is a nihilist phase in which all that is living become "human mold and bones and musty past to me." To be redeemed one needs to be able to not just accept the small man but appropriate that aspect of humanity. And don't think that this smallness is unique just to the smallest man, since even the greatest are "all-too-small." Zarathustra's sickness consisted in wallowing in this thought: but now he is recovering.
His animals again say: "the world awaits you like a garden" and encourage him to learn singing from the song birds since singing is more appropriate for the convalescent than the healthy. The convalescent is still recovering, and needs his own sorts of songs. Again Zarathustra recognizes the animals for being not only buffoons but also having an intuition, in this case an intuition into this own discovery of song, although not a hurdy-gurdy song. The animals repeat: you should not be talking but singing, and now with a "new lyre" or your "new songs." The new songs will allow him to bear his great and unique destiny, your destiny as "teacher of the eternal recurrence." There is an identity between his convalescence and his teaching, although this destiny is also a danger and sickness. This is the first time that the animals repeat the version of eternal recurrence found earlier in the book, that "we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things with us" and that rather than talking about the seasons of the year we are really talking about the "great year" of the universe which repeats over and over again like an hourglass that has been turned, all with an emphasis on repetition of "what is greatest and what is smallest."
Since sickness and danger are still an issue for Zarathustra so too is death. The animals beg Zarathustra not to die yet, but rather to speak "breathing deeply with happiness" since a great weight has been taken from him. They then say what he would say it he chose not to die, to say yes to life: it is their doctrine that, as with Christianity, he achieves a kind of immortality, not of the soul, however, since it is "moral as the body" but rather through the "knot of causes in which [he] is entangled" which recurs and creates him again. A remarkable sentence follows: he would say, if he chose not to die: "I myself belong to the causes of the eternal recurrence." Unlike the resurrected Christian he does not come again to "a new life or a better life" but rather to the same life, again both with the greatest and the smallest, and, of course, to teacher eternal recurrence again. And then, mysteriously, he would say "Thus ends Zarathustra's going under." This is the point of the fulfillment of his prophecy.
Zarathustra does not speak but converses with his soul, and his animals steal away.