T. K. Seung, Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul: Thus Spake Zarathustra
(Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005). ISBN 0-7391-1129-9. $83.00 ISBN 0-7391-1130-2. $27.95
Reviewed by Robin Small
As commentaries on Thus Spake Zarathustra have become common, their standard has become steadily higher. The influence of the major works of Stanley Rosen, Laurence Lampert, Robert Gooding-Williams, and other writers will be felt in Nietzsche scholarship for many years to come. One consequence is that a tour guide is no longer enough: readers will look for an interpretation that sets out to throw new light on Nietzsche's text, providing a basis for further debate over its meaning. T. K. Seung's book satisfies this requirement. Its title signals the author's approach to Z: the book has a single literary form and a religious, or at least spiritual, theme as its content. Seung makes his case with some panache, backing it up with a reading of the work that displays an intensive engagement with Nietzsche's text.
The main philosophical theme of Z, Seung believes, is the conflict between two concepts: the sovereign individual and the deterministic universe. In fact, he regards the course of modern European culture as defined by the tension between these ideas, which amount to complete worldviews, designated as 'Faustian' and 'Spinozan'. Nietzsche's protagonist Zarathustra re-enacts this struggle in his own journey. Seung believes that in order to find overall coherence in Z, we need to assign the work to a literary genre. He nominates the epic as the most appropriate genre. It follows from this premise that Zarathustra's development in the work must lead to a victorious conclusion. This event, appearing as the triumph not only of Zarathustra as epic hero but also of Nietzsche as author, is in due course described and celebrated by Seung. Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul is thus able to end with the satisfying sense of a 'mission accomplished'.
Yet Zarathustra's career is not as straightforward as this suggests. His repeated attempts to become a Faustian hero all end in failure, because the autonomous will cannot withstand the terrifying power of causal necessity. Seung frequently claims that determinism annihilates all meaning and value in life, making the point through forceful assertion rather than argument. Anyone who does not find determinism deeply threatening in this personal sense may learn from Seung's textual analyses, but will probably find much of his main argument unpersuasive, given its dependence on this central theme. However, Spinoza's cosmic naturalism presents a different model of life and the world, bringing the two together in a union that enables us to identify ourselves with nature and its absolute necessity. This is precisely the end of Zarathustra's journey. A failure as a Faustian superman, he is eventually reborn as a Spinozan superman, abandoning his individual self in favour of a divine "cosmic self." (xviii) The work ends with Zarathustra's initiation into a mystery religion, a Dionysian pantheism involving ecstatic experiences and ritual worship of 'Mother Nature'. Philosophically, this nature-religion is a blend of Spinozan naturalism and "Buddhism naturalized" (273), to which Seung adds some of the more obscure ideas of C. G. Jung, including the positively Lovecraftian "chthonic force."
The successive stages of Zarathustra's epic journey are presented by Seung as corresponding to the four parts of Z. In Part One the Faustian self is advanced as master of reality: Zarathustra wants humanity to transcend the banal satisfactions of secular culture and attain the higher ideal represented by the superman. His "spiritual campaign" (49) aims at a development of the spirit through the three stages symbolized by the camel, lion, and child, and by the final chapter he seems to have completed his mission. The mood of Part Two, however, is far darker. A wounded and disillusioned Zarathustra now wants to defeat his enemies rather than to benefit humanity. He attributes his suffering to the imprisonment of the creative will by the immovable past, over which we have no control and yet which determines all that is to come. What Seung calls the forward-looking autonomous will is overpowered by the backward-looking heteronomous will, and this part ends on a note of gloom and self-doubt. Part Three renews the conflict and begins a process of redemption unrealized until Part Four. This redemption consists in a shift from the temporal self, which is inevitably defeated by the world that it strives to dominate, to the eternal cosmic self, which stands in no such danger since it encompasses whatever has any claim to reality.
Part Four of Z has always had a mixed reception. As Seung notes, many commentators regard the end of Part Three as the work's real conclusion, with Part Four added as a sort of afterthought on Nietzsche's part, or perhaps in line with an ancient Greek custom of following a tragedy with a contrasting satyr play. (Richard Wagner had made a similar claim for the status of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.) Paul Loeb's proposal to interpolate Part Four into Part Three is, as Seung astutely remarks, another way to maintain the “tripartite reading” (340). He objects that if the work is seen as ending with Part Three, then the existential crisis that overtakes Zarathustra when he confronts his 'abysmal thought' must remain unresolved. This claim implies a particular interpretation of Part Three's final chapter, "The Seven Seals," for which Seung makes a strong case in another impressive piece of careful reading. Another possibility is that Z does not have an ending that ties up its loose ends. Seung would object that in that case, it lacks an essential feature of the epic genre and, what is more, fails to provide the closure readers are entitled to expect from what is essentially a "great psychological drama" (337).
In accordance with Seung's claim that Part Four contains the answers to the work's riddles, a detailed analysis concludes the commentary. Even those who do not locate the 'higher men' among Nietzsche's most compelling creations will learn something here. Seung's case depends above all on presenting the culminating Ass Festival as a revelatory spiritual experience. He builds on Kathleen Higgins' commentary in her book Nietzsche's Zarathustra (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), which explored parallels with The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius, a broad comedic work with an unexpectedly spiritual turn at its conclusion. As in Gustav Naumann's Zarathustra-Commentar (Leipzig: Verlag von H. Haeffel, 1899–1901) and Julian Young's recent Nietzsche's Philosophy of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) attention is also given to the Ass Festival's similarity to medieval Feasts of Fools that represented a survival of the Dionysian cult as a subversive influence within Christian culture. Seung is quite serious about the religious aspect of this passage, envisaging a cultic worship of 'Mother Nature' as the proposal intended by Nietzsche, marking the difference between his pantheism and Spinoza's (304).
It is evident from the start that Seung intends to locate Z within an ambitious account of Western philosophy as a whole. So did Martin Heidegger, of course, but Seung's philosophical agenda, focusing on the problem of freedom, is more obtrusive. The distinction between figure and ground is often blurred as Seung invokes other philosophers in an immediate fashion, so that Nietzsche is not just integrated but almost submerged in a broader current of Western thinking. Writers he barely knew of, such as the Young Hegelians, are claimed to be closely related: for example, we are told that various ideas in Z are "derived from," "an adaptation of," and even "right out of" Ludwig Feuerbach (11, 24, and 86). In fact, Nietzsche mentions Feuerbach in his works only as an early influence on Wagner, hardly a direct relationship. The claims made by Seung need more support than an appeal to the working of a Zeitgeist on the next generation, but this is never really provided.
The genre approach to the work has its own problems. Seung presents himself not just as an interpreter but as a champion of Z and, in consequence, of its heroic protagonist. He defends Zarathustra against any imputation of untoward conduct: "It is inconceivable for him to express his passionate longing for a marriage to a total stranger" (227). Zarathustra's flirtations (however inconclusive) with a succession of female figures are of some concern, but doubts about his fidelity are eased by deciding that Life and Eternity are the same person. One objection would be that this partiality rules out any perception of Zarathustra's role as a "Don Juan of knowledge" (D 327), made evident in "The Convalescent" by the appearance of his "abysmal thought," in response to an ill-advised invitation on his part, as a menacing and hand-gripping "stone guest." Seung's determination to type-cast Zarathustra as an epic (not tragic) hero locks him into a framework that tends to limit and bias his readings. At worst, Zarathustra can meet with some obstacles and temporary setbacks on his path toward final triumph. This does not altogether eliminate the work's dramatic tensions, but it does reduce their force.
Seung appears to best advantage when engaged in a close reading of Z. He draws attention to things that others have overlooked, and makes points that throw new light on the ideas and themes. He also engages in lively debate and disagreement with other American commentators, often coming out ahead. For an observer these encounters are rather entertaining, quite apart from what may be learned from them. The reader is given the privilege of overhearing a conversation between well-read and imaginative scholars whose varied readings of Nietzsche's text are set in mutual competition. Even when one does not agree with Seung's decisions, his accounts of these debates are informative and worthwhile.
Further, some of Seung's interpretative comments show sharp insight. For example, commenting on the repeated use of 'If…' in "The Seven Seals" (a passage starting with Wenn ich ein Wahrsager bin…) he suggests that the German word wenn could be translated not as 'if' but as 'even if' or 'even when' (232). One should note that the passage parallels Martin Luther's German translation of 1 Cor. 13, starting: Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete… Given this fact, Seung is surely right in his reading of the text and in his helpful suggestion for its translation. One could readily go through the book and find other cases in point.
Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul is at its least convincing, I think, when the author introduces, without any elaboration, what look like his personal evaluations of well-known philosophical positions. An example will show what is meant. Seung writes: "Scientific reduction is to reduce the phenomena (for example, consciousness) of a higher level to those (for example, the brain state) of a lower level. Hence it is a descent from a higher to a lower level" (90). This is bad enough, but it soon appears that scientific reductionism has an even more malign consequence:
On the other hand, reductionism reduces all living things to dead matter. The living things are only the epiphenomena of dead matter. Life is only an illusion and a surface phenomenon. Scientific reduction kills not only God, but all living things. The whole world becomes a dungeon of death, which encounters Zarathustra in his nightmare. (91)
As a commentary on "The Soothsayer," this is so arbitrary that it undermines the many passages where Seung offers worthwhile analyses of Nietzsche's text. In any case, it is hard to take seriously as philosophical reflection. Dramatic talk of 'higher' and 'lower,' or 'living and dead,' serves to express personal feelings and preferences but throws no real light on the theoretical issues surrounding reductionism.
The irony of this particular polemic is that Seung's own interpretive strategy is nothing if not reductive. The systematic unity that he wants to find in Z requires drawing together the various chapters, despite their sharp contrasts in style and content. Seung explains this as a search for "sequential meaning" (63). It is carried out, in part, by numerous assimilations of ideas between and within chapters. Thus, for instance, he holds that the dwarf in "On the Vision and Riddle" is the same as the black snake, the philosopher's stone, the rock at Surlei, the heteronomous will, the abysmal thought of eternal return, and a part of Zarathustra, his "earthly animal self." (126–32). Similarly, Life is also Mother Nature, Eternity, Dionysus, Pan, the cosmic self, and probably all of the above as well (229, 205, 277, 216, and 209). In the end, the book's many images and figures seem to come down to a few, or perhaps only one, the cosmic totality. Many readers, it seems to me, will end by finding this more confusing than enlightening.
It is disconcerting to find oneself with such mixed feelings over a book that appears to have received favorable comments from leading American scholars. One wonders whether its approach has an appeal to them that it lacks for audiences elsewhere. Yet Seung presents himself as writing for a general audience. Hence, his interpretation needs to be assessed in terms of its main claims: that the central theme of Z is the conflict between freedom and determinism, which is a dominating problem for modern Western culture as well, and that its direction is towards a cosmic naturalism or pantheism that in turn lends itself to innovative religious observances, promoting a mystical union with Mother Nature.
One aspect of his account seems especially out of keeping with Nietzsche's thought, as found in Z and elsewhere. This is the privileging of what Seung calls the "eternal perspective" (219 and 315). It is not very surprising that the intensely temporal notion of recurrence is discounted by Seung as "naïve" and "ludicrous" if taken at face value. Rather, he argues, the thought is merely a "poetic device" for conveying the full impact of determinism (187). Like several other writers, he identifies eternal recurrence with circular time. Hence, he believes that the dwarf in "On the Vision and Riddle" gives a correct description of time, which Zarathustra then adopts and passes off as his own. Seung emphasizes that the 'eternal ring' is not a separate reality but a different perspective on the same world. Nevertheless, it is a timeless realm within which "nothing happens or becomes" and "all things are eternally present" (326).
This metaphysical doctrine is certainly one solution to the vexatious problem of what Zarathustra calls "time and its 'It was'" (which is not just a consequence of causal determinism, since even indeterminists allow that nobody can act on the past). The issue is simply dissolved, for there is no past or future in the divine reality, but only eternal presence. It is a startling doctrine to find attributed to Nietzsche of all people, the professed champion of an uncompromising Heracliteanism, for whom "It is of time and becoming that the best parables should speak." ("Upon the Blessed Isles") Yet the combination of "Spinoza's naturalism and Buddhism naturalized" (273) that Seung sees as the solution to the problem he takes as central to Z provides only this outcome. For this and other reasons, one comes away from Nietzsche's Epic of the Soul having encountered a different Nietzsche, interesting in various ways but not always easy to identify with the important thinker of that name.
The University of Auckland