Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Also Sprach der Drei Grazien

Flee, my friend, into thy solitude—and thither, where a rough strong breeze bloweth. It is not thy lot to be a fly-flap.—
Thus spake Zarathustra.
                                                                      Also sprach Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche, 1883 

It was a breezy afternoon in Lotusland, and I was lollygagging on the patio. A curious Pacific-slope flycatcher, olive brown with buffed yellow breast, flitted from garden wall to rose bushes, keeping a watchful eye on me. From a tabletop Bose in the kitchen boomed the strains of Also sprach Zarathustra, the 1896 Richard Strauss orchestral tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's eponymous philosophical treatise and later featured in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It got me thinking about the German philosopher.

And also about Zarathustra. His name has a certain augustness like, say, Ozymandias and for me creates – as perhaps it did for Strauss – a strong impression.

Who was Zarathustra, and why was he so taken with solitude – so taken he'd advise you to "flee" into it?

The story begins in the distant past. Hailing from around 500-700 BC, Zarathustra or Zoroaster as he is also known, was a Persian prophet – the founder of Zoroastrianism. In post-Classical Western culture, his name was associated with lost ancient wisdom, although precious little else is know about him. The Roman author Pliny attributed "two million lines" of writing to him, yet no one really knows what he said. Thus, shrouded in myth, Zoroaster came to be seen as a sage, magician, and even miracle-worker.

Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it was a form of rational Deism, preferable to Christianity.

But German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche went even further. He co-opted Zarathustra outright, putting words in his mouth such as the quote above, typically appended with “Thus spake…” so as to leave no doubt about who was doing the talking.

If you’re trying to gussy up ideas of your own, why not attribute them to an esteemed mythical figure from the impossibly distant past about whom little is known except that he’s, well, esteemed? Nietzsche might have been nuts but he was also inventively devious, getting Zarathustra to front for him like this on all sorts of notions.

Yet Nietzsche is still worth considering. He’s like one of those  gene knock-out experiments where you can potentially learn about the conventional by studying the aberrant.

Fountain of the Three Graces
By now the afternoon sun had begun to slant over the patio wall. As I relaxed beside the Fountain of the Three Graces (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, the daughters of Zeus) listening to Strauss and sipping a long-stemmed glass of Cakebread Chardonnay, these notions resonated in my head like the sound of the ocean in a conch shell.

Or perhaps it was the ocean. The Pacific was but a few blocks away, and if you listened carefully you could hear the surf between motorcycles, especially as a strong breeze was blowing up the canyon from the shore.

 A sudden gust sent sycamore leaves scuttling over the flagstones.  Could my idyllic abode by the sea be something like the “thither” of  Nietzsche, I wondered.  Could the Three Graces fountain with its carved stone deities and mesmeric tumbling water be ein Nietzschian brunnen of solitude?

By now the Cakebread was kicking in, and it was getting hard to tell sagacity from soused. My mind wondered from the sublime to the...

“Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail!,” I thought suddenly, leering at the voluptuous, carved, adamantine yet somehow compliant figures of the fountain’s three stone goddesses.  Were the Three Graces like neoclassical Playboy bunnies, Las Vegas show girls? What did you do if you were a daughter of Zeus, anyway? Run a temple? Sacrifice oxen? Join the Junior League ‘til you turned forty?

No, more likely you were a lady per dolce far niente, a woman of louche classical sensibilities, a woman who…

“Well, honestly..!” exclaimed Euphrosyne, as though out of nowhere but sounding disgusted. “What a chuff! I wonder if you’d know Pandora from Pangloss or an oracle from an oriole. Playboy bunnies, indeed!”

Fontaine des Trois Grâces, Place de la Bourse, 

Speechless, I started violently in my chair. Had the sisters of stone taken umbrage at my brash ruminations? As I stared incredulous, the very travertine appeared to come alive, the three goddesses drawing the fountain’s sculpted communal drapery more snuggly about them.

The aspect of water cascading over lavish feminine forms, together with the Chardonnay, had taken such a mesmerizing toll that only with considerable difficulty did I dismiss Euphrosyne’s indignant remonstrance as merely the Cakebread talking and turn once again to Zarathustra.

I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody's cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.

                                Nietzsche cum Zarathustra

Well, sure, we all need “me” time but is the self really that fragile, that susceptible to dispossession?  This side of saneness, don’t we all pretty much drink from one cistern? Does not society, our associations one with another, restore the soul to the self, rather than rob it blind?

Ironically it was Nietzsche who regarded his friendship with composer Richard Wagner as his “greatest achievement” (die größte Errungenschaft). Where did that leave his solitude?

Luckily for me, the Graces weren’t out for revenge that afternoon – by changing me into a creosote bush, say, or a "born, sworn, jealous friend of solitude" à la  F. Nietzsche – despite having caught me in flagrante delicto, juiced up on Cakebread and woozy over a waterfall.

The Three Graces by Antonio Canova
Fortunate, indeed, for now Thalia, eldest of the Three Graces, spoke -- more with equanimity than outrage.

“Didn't Friedrich Nietzsche write the following?” she asked rhetorically:

‘Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!—
Thus spake Zarathustra’

"Zarathustra does the talking but its Nietzsche doing the coaching, right?" she continued. "Some über-dominatrix makes him bring the whip, so he takes it to heart – naïvely, too, I'd say – then exhorts everyone else to follow suite.  But shouldn't an Übermensch like Nietzsche naturally expect – yea, deserve – complete service that includes the whip? And shouldn't he have the cojones to just say so?"

“Well, I…I.. suppose…maybe!” I stammered, casting a baleful glance at my wine glass. “I’m open to discussion here. But I don’t, don’t actually own a whip!”

Thalia merely looked askance – I sensed she wasn't taking me seriously.

 Finally it was the youngest's, Aglaea’s, turn.

“Don’t go with Friedrich or that Zorro guy,” she purred seductively, "You'd be better off with us…with me."

By now I’d recovered a modicum of composure, a little presence of mind.  “See here!” I admonished her, trying to sound stern. “Don’t push your luck or I might pay you a visit as a shower of rhetoric – just ask your old man! Anyway,  you’ve convinced me – I’m staying with the Classics and you hedonist Greeks.”

So saying I gulped down what was left of the Cakebread. Then I fled the patio with its talking fountain and fake solitude for a flagon of Starbucks and the latest issue of Macworld. Sometimes you’re better off with the purely technical – Edith Hamilton could wait.

I for one don’t actually mind being a fly flap and figure I’ve caught more with honey than vinegar. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy party lights? And what a shame Nietzsche never had Google Hangout or Facebook.

Or would he have found only solitude on the internet, too?

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