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Zarathustra as Blues Singer

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
October 2008

Blues singer?  Are you making this up?

It's an arresting idea in Kathleen Higgins' book-length commentary, Nietzsche's  Zarathustra:

What do I mean by this image of Zarathustra as blues singer? Let us return to the distinction that Nietzsche makes between tragic and Christian perspectives on the horrible and tragic elements of life. The Christian worldview responds to these elements with the myth of eternal salvation, which provides so thorough a redemption that the worst atrocity can be given a good face. Nietzsche sees the longing for this kind of redemption as understandable, ... But ... Nietzsche sees the goal as unattainable and the addiction to this quest as psychologically disastrous. This is one of the central points about Nietzsche's thought ...
Kathleen Higgins
"Eternal Recurrence Versus the Doctrine of Sin"
Nietzsche's Zarathustra

Just playing ...

Let's go down past the philosophy and just listen a little to how Friedrich Nietzsche and some of his commentators play with the ideas and the deep emotions of Nietzsche's chapter "The Drunken Song" in Part IV of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This is only suggestive, not meant as a thesis. So we are not advocating here a philosophy of life, and I don't want to stumble into theological toils trying to define acceptance of life's slings and arrows in Zarathustra and the Bible. Perhaps we should simply approach this as musings about Nietzsche's "song", and whether in relaxed ears this song might carry some tones of the blues.

But first let's glance at the blues, travel just one little down-home track. When a young black dance-orchestra leader, W. C. Handy, "happened on the blues while waiting for a train in Tutwiler [Mississippi] in 1903, it struck him as 'the weirdest music I had ever heard.'" (Robert Palmer, Deep Blues.) Spoken clearly or roundabout, Zarathustra certainly is fascinatingly weird, however long and twitchy our ears may be.

The blues is a wide field to ramble over, but let's bend an ear to Robert Johnson (1911-1938): "King of the Delta Blues Singers", who "left behind a small legacy of recordings that are considered the emotional apex of the music itself." (Bogdanov - Woodstra - Erlewine, All Music Guide to the Blues.) Sometimes Johnson is searching, sometimes angry, sometimes running; and sometimes at the still center. If you don't know his haunting work, you might give a listen to ""Love in Vain":

And I followed her to the station
    with a suitcase in my hand
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell
    when all your love's in vain.



Sing me a new song

Walter Kaufmann introduces "The Drunken Song" thusly:

Nietzsche's great hymn to joy invites comparison with Schiller's — minus Beethoven's music. That they use different German words is the smallest difference. Schiller writes:

Suffer bravely, myriads!
Suffer for the better world!
Up above the firmament
A great God will give rewards.

Nietzsche wants the eternity of this life with all its agonies — and seeing that it flees, its eternal recurrence.

Walter Kaufmann
Editor's Note to "The Drunken Song"
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, IV.19
in The Portable Nietzsche
What does the deep midnight declare?

Now let's see how Nietzsche expresses this toward the end of "The Drunken Song"?

You higher men, what do you think? Am I a soothsayer? A dreamer? A drunkard? An interpreter of dreams? A midnight bell? A drop of dew? A haze and fragrance of eternity? Do you not hear it? Do you not smell it? Just now my world became perfect: midnight too is noon; pain too is a joy; curses too are a blessing; night too is a sun — go away or you will learn: a sage too is a fool.

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you 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.

Friedrich Nietzsche
"The Drunken Song"
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, IV.19.10  (1885)
translated by Walter Kaufmann
in The Portable Nietzsche
Slinging the blues

Let's circle back to Kathleen Higgins commenting on the above passage of Nietzsche's:

What does Nietzsche mean by making such a formulation a part of "The Drunken Song"? Does not this context suggest that Zarathustra is doing something other than sermonizing, something other than giving us propositional formulations of the truth? Does not the title ... call to mind the Dionysian, the tragic, the love of life despite the tragic?

Zarathustra here is not reminding his disciples "Don't you know that your ever having been ecstatically happy logically entails that you affirm all the dark aspects of life?" He is not lecturing that hurtful events are in themselves good.

Instead he is singing, and to our ears, the song he sings is not far from the blues.

Kathleen Higgins
"Eternal Recurrence Versus the Doctrine of Sin"
Nietzsche's  Zarathustra

Robert Johnson and many of the other great bluesmen likely would have understood about Dionysian intoxication and mortal renewal. For even the deeps of pessimism are not a dead end, as Laurence Lampert discusses:

Zarathustra gives in his song what Nietzsche gave just as enigmatically and cryptically in Beyond Good and Evil ...; a glimpse of the opposite ideal afforded the one who thinks world denial and pessimism to its depths.

The sober speech of the intoxicated poet Midnight, "Woe is deep," reflects its inquiry into life, but so too does its affirmation of the profounder depth of joy. But what grounds that affirmation? The severed grapevine is allowed to speak the Dionysian affirmation of mortal life ..., that death belongs to mortal life, not as its refutation but as a consequence of growth and ripeness.

Whereas woe speaks deeply and wants a form of life, it does not want its own life, but a life transferred outside itself into heirs or afterlives that are different. But joy speaks more profoundly, for it wants its own life most deeply, it therefore wants everything eternally the same.

Laurence Lampert
Appendix: Part IV
Nietzsche's Teaching
An Interpretation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Bizet's great opera Carmen (1875) surely has thematic affinities for the blues, and it was not casually that Nietzsche came to prefer it over Wagner's grand operatic Twilight of the Idols, as Nietzsche redefined the latter's work. But circling back to the blues: Robert Johnson sings "Love in Vain" from deep feeling at the still center of the blues, over-full. Experience overflowing, even; yet would we give up such a moment? Absorbed, it may keep recurring to you. Try listening again, one thing twice —

When the train rolled up to the station
    I looked her in the eye
All my love's in vain.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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