“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
Interesting. Do you think this construction of the Last Man might apply to to T.S. Elliot’s Prufrock or Hemingway’s Jake (of The Sun Also Rises)?
Certainly Prufrock. I’d be hesitant to describe Jake as such though, he doesn’t have quite the ‘comfortable’ elements of the Last Man.
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Reblogged this on markandres777.
I still do not think of Soares as an unhappy person. Extrovert people may think that introverts are unhappy but being more on the introvert side myself, I don’t think so. For introverts, dealing with people is stressful and being alone recharges the batteries, for extroverts its the other way arround. The introvert is not a shy person who suffers from being alone, he is a happy person with a rich inner life.
However, I have not had the time yet to read through the book, justed read a little bit into it (and I like it a lot).
Soares explicitly describes his unhappiness and anguish. I think it’s less of an introvert/extrovert problem (which seems to be all the rage these days) then a problem of how the person chooses to engage with reality. For Soares, he chooses to dream constantly, never engaging in his dreams, preferring his own reality to the reality he thinks others live in. He knows this brings him strife, and describes often the torture it brings him.
An example passage that perfectly states this:
“Today, suddenly, I reached an absurd but unerring conclusion. In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I’m nobody, absolutely nobody. When the lightning flashed, I saw that what I had thought to be a city was in fact a deserted plain and, in the same sinister light that revealed me to myself, there seemed to be no sky above it. I was robbed of any possibility of having existed before the world. If I was ever reincarnated, I must have done so without myself, without a self to reincarnate.
I am the outskirts of some non-existent town, the long-winded prologue to an unwritten book. I’m nobody, nobody. I don’t know how to feel or think or love. I’m a character in a novel as yet unwritten, hovering in the air and undone before I’ve even existed, amongst the dreams of someone who never quite managed to breathe life into me.
I’m always thinking, always feeling, but my thoughts lack all reason, my emotions all feeling. I’m falling through a trapdoor, through infinite, infinitous space, in a directionless, empty fall. My soul is a black maelstrom, a great madness spinning about a vacuum, the swirling of a vast ocean around a hole in the void, and in the waters, more like whirlwinds than waters, float images of all I ever saw or heard in the world: houses, faces, books, boxes, snatches of music and fragments of voices, all caught up in a sinister, bottomless whirlpool.
And I, I myself, am the centre that exists only because the geometry of the abyss demands it; I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin, I am a centre that exists only because every circle has one. I, I myself, am the well in which the walls have fallen away to leave only viscous slime. I am the centre of everything surrounded by the great nothing.
And it is as if hell itself were laughing within me but, instead of the human touch of diabolical laughter, there’s the mad croak of the dead universe, the circling cadaver of physical space, the end of all worlds drifting blackly in the wind, misshapen, anachronistic, without the God who created it, without God himself who spins in the dark of darks, impossible, unique, everything.
If only I could think! If only I could feel!”
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I know you are engaged here in comparing Pessoa’s Soares to Nietzsche’s Lezte Mensche. I am not familiar with Nietzsche’s character, but I am very familiar with Pessoa’s heteronym, Soares. I assume that the inhabitants of Zarathustra are “characters” in the usual literary sense. Is this true? I do know Pessoa’s Soares falls into quite a different category, but to the degree that Soares may be considered from the usual character sense, it seems to me this may have been a device for the diligent reader to discover an inner impulse toward a personal evolutionary growth, in essence a teaching story in the manner of the mystics.
Very interesting and thought out, thanks for this! Just one point I would like clarification on: I know it was a bit of an aside, but you said that the Ubermensch “transcended” Platonic idealism. I would say the complete opposite, that the Ubermensch is personalized Platonic Form. Just as the Forms of Beauty and Truth can be seen only in parts in the physical world, the Ubermensch can be strived for but never fully achieved.