“Zarathustra has changed, Zarathustra has become a child, Zarathustra is an awakened one; what do you now want among the sleepers?”
– Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, emerging from the mountains apparently intent on bamboozling philosophers for decades, laid for a series of proclamations that were equal part observation and prediction. Perhaps the most infamous of these is the Übermensch (often translated as Super Man). Set up to be the ultimate goal for humanity, the Übermensch is a being that has transcended the master/slave dialectic and antiquated Platonist idealism into a figure that can embrace a reality devoid of metaphor. This is a well discussed ideology, [contentiously] utilized by the Nazis to justify their master race.
The figure of the Übermensch does not often appear explicitly in literature. Perhaps the very nature of a man who has transcended what Nietzsche would describe as our traditional metaphorical relationship with reality makes him (or her) impossible to characterize. The ‘transcending’ nature of the Übermensch is often reflected in the typical progression of a typical heroes journey, but rarely does a character progress entirely beyond metaphor. However, the antithesis of the Übermensch is surprisingly rarely discussed. Nietzsche describes the coming of the Übermensch as the hailing of a new era of humanity, but one that cannot come to fruition if held back by der Letze Mensche (the Last Man). This Last Man is a pitiable creature who lives only for comfort. He embraces the nihilism of the post-God (more accurately post-Objectivity) era and sees no reason to suffer. This is a creature that has more echoes in literature than the Super Man.
As I was reading through Fernando Pessoa’s heartbreaking work “The Book of Disquiet”, the figure of the Last Man repeatedly came to mind. The book follows the musings and dreamings of a clerk, Bernardo Soares, in a bookstore. His life is simple, marked by the imagination and trials of the soul. Through the small vignettes (some no more than a sentence long) the reader gets the impression of a solitary man more lost in dreams than planted in reality. His life is full of symbolic meaning, only grounded through brief encounters with other humans and the repeated analysis of the weather. He almost resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter; he spends his days waiting to return to his imagined dreamscapes.
Outwardly, this person would cut an uninspiring figure. He is quiet, permanently lost in thought, with no apparent capitalist goals. He enjoys the brief solitude he gets in an empty office, and sometimes sits with ‘unshed tears in his eyes’. The men and women working and living around him gain an almost stoic simplicity, as Bernardo Soares cannot possibly imagine them living the rich internal life that he lives. In fact, he would appear to be the perfect Last Man, living a small, unassuming life with no aspirations. He is firmly entrenched in his dream nature, seeking nothing but to escape his perfectly constructed false reality. False reality is one of the key components of the Last Man, as Zarathustra describes them as seeking worlds beyond the immediate reality which they occupy.
These figures of unhappy people quietly living are not uncommon in literature or in real life. Oblomov (or any of the Russian superfluous man archetype), Bartleby the Scrivener, the previously mentioned Randolph Carter, perhaps even William Stoner. The question becomes “At what point does living in an imaginary reality become a negative action?”. Of course, answering this question with any degree of accuracy would require a number of philosophical assertions and value judgements, the very nature of which would leave the argument wide-open to criticism.
However, there seems to be a common theme among literary figures who possess traits of the Last Man; they are not happy. One could hardly read The Book of Disquiet and come away with the impression that Bernardo Soares was living a life full of joy.
“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”
– The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Nietzsche would have fiercely twirled his mustache at such a mentality if indeed he modeled his life on Zarathustra’s philosophy.
This sort of reflection puts the reader of Pessoa in an interesting position. Am I meant to judge Soares as successful? Is his life of quiet contemplation and anxiety enviable for the emotional depths which he has plumbed?
By Connor Shirley