Nihilism Now and Nietzsche's Zarathustra

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    This paper examines the current relevance of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in terms of its potential as a counter-movement to nihilism ‘now.’ Nietzsche’s idea of nihilism is an indispensable philosophical contribution, but one which needs to be considered critically in light of recent developments. Philosophers such as Gianni Vattimo have proposed heterodox readings of Nietzsche in order to “update” his work on nihilism, while others, such as Jean-François Lyotard, have turned away from him entirely in favour of other thinkers and writers believed to maintain more relevance for the contemporary context. What such philosophers reject as outmoded in Nietzsche’s thought is the apparent attempt to replace the position vacated by God with something thought still too closely to resemble God (whether a new myth, religion, or metaphysics). If any of Nietzsche’s works would seem to be so outmoded, surely it would be Zarathustra, with its evangelical style and its apparent ambition to create a new mythology.

    Against this tendency, this paper seeks to delineate how this great and mysterious work continues to have relevance for the problem of nihilism today. In order to explain why the apparently archaic symbolism of Zarathustra remains relevant, I draw on a speculative naturalist (as defined by Brian Leiter) interpretation of Jungian analytical psychology, according to which our drives to interpret the world as meaningful are deeply rooted, inherited traits disposed towards forms of life meaningful in hunter-gatherer societies. These drives are effectuated through symbols derived from the natural world. Nihilism on this view is not only the result of a breakdown of cultural structures of meaning with a roughly two-and-a-half-thousand year history, but of a radical disconnect between far more “primitive” drives for meaning and contemporary values and lifestyles. From this perspective, Zarathustra can be seen as engaging archetypes through the plethora of symbols it deploys, as studied by Jung in his Zarathustra seminars in the 1930s. Various recent interpreters (such as Patricia Dickson and Lucy Huskinson) have followed Jung in proposing that Nietzsche tried to overcome nihilism through a redeployment of archetypal symbols towards a holistic integration of opposites in the Self. Yet this interpretation seems to accent what remains a fundamentally religious experience, and thus what Lyotard, Vattimo and others have seen as outdated in Zarathustra. I propose an alternative inflection of the Jungian reading which follows the many interpreters who have emphasied the parodic nature of Zarathustra: while the text engages the reader at a deep, archetypal level, its parodic function works to subvert the well-worn paths of our drives to meaning towards sacred transcendence, and deflects them towards investing a Godless existence without meaning or goal.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)38-68
    Number of pages31
    JournalThe Agonist - A Nietzsche Circle Journal
    Issue number1/2
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • Nietzsche, Friedrich
    • Nihilism
    • Thus Spoke Zarathustra


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