Friday, January 7, 2011

A Book for All and None...Zarathustra

Der Riese ~ Geyger (1895) Etching

Steve Middleton's Zarathustra (seen in post below)~ an armored, cybernetic being that propels itself above the city and the crowd via mechanical wings is literal translation of Ubermensch or Superman. Originally devised by Jerome Siegel and artist Joseph Shuster in 1938 and referred to in the comic as the Man of Tomorrow and the Man of Steel, Superman was a being from another planet that possessed great strength and the ability to fly.
Given the social, economic and political climate of the nineteen thirties, particularly the emphasis on eugenics in America and the fact that Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche, 1891) was given to German soldiers to inspire them towards greatness, it is more than likely that the character of Superman devised by Siegel and Shuster was influenced by a misinterpretation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. It is worth remembering here, ‘that Nietzsche invented that construct he called the overman in order to imagine a different kind of human attitude’ (James S. Hans, 1991:2:3). Indeed, a characteristic of Superman from his inception was his dual nature; he was simultaneously human and not human.
However, there are precedents. The German artist Ernst Moritz Geyger depicted in his Der Riese (1895) etching/illustration of Friedrich Nietzsche's poem The Giant, an athletic male body with wings, a human/angel hybrid, depicting the body/spirit as represented by the aura around his head and his otherworldliness. This Giant could be one of the erotes - winged gods of love, or Zeus, who in Greek mythology was born from the union of Saturn and Rhea who were Titans – a gigantic race who inhabited the earth before the creation of man. In Geyger’s etching the Giant is denoted by the word Grossen (grosse – large/to increase in size chiselled into the stone), it is depicted holding a sketchpad on which the planet Saturn has been drawn. In this context the Ubermensch represents humanity as designer of the universe and Nietzsche as protagonist. The figures at the bottom of the sculpture depict a monkey, birds, and foxes—all with human appendages suggesting that there is a relationship between humanity and the animal kingdom. The figure of the giant relates to the physical strength and beauty of the human body. Augmented with wings, the figure alludes to the spiritual body and flight. According to Mikhail Bakhtin ‘the giant in folklore symbolised in most cases physical strength…’ (1984:341) but also to the appetite (1984:342) and as such the giant is a symbol of that which devours.
Considered in light of the ways that Nietzsche’s writings have been appropriated to represent contemporary man and his desire to overcome disease and eventual decay, Geyger’s Giant stands as an interesting precursor for contemporary representations of the enhanced, pumped up body of the cyborg in science fiction and the ethereal virtual body. It also could be interpreted as anticipating the eugenic humanist agenda at the beginning of the nineteenth century for stronger, healthier bodies, the classical perfect complete body and the voracious appetite that humankind has for progress.
Especially relevant, given that Nietzsche admired Greek culture, is the mythological figure of Zeus, for Zeus represented an emphasis on the physical body within a spiritual framework. It was assumed from some of his writing that Nietzsche equated the Ubermensch with athletic Greek bodies.
This image is quite potent in contemporary terms because the human is represented as a creator, and as such embodies a trope of the human species’ ability to redesign the human race through cybernetic or biomedical technologies.
I argue in my book, The Paradox of the Posthuman: Science Fiction/Techno-Horror Films and Visual Media that contrary to the humanist interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch that focuses upon the Superman as a prescription for a stronger, healthier, more intelligent future race of humanity, one which stages the notion of the becoming of the man of tomorrow within an evolutionary schema, Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is about immanence and embodiment. Indeed, Nietzsche never explicitly describes the overman but his thoughts about this being, as a man of the future, are dispersed through a number of his texts, particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1892), in which Zarathustra said, ‘I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome’ (41). He qualifies this: ‘What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a going-down’ (44). It is important that Nietzsche affirms man’s potential through movement, ‘You should propagate yourself not only forward, but upward’ (95).
Nietzsche believed that ‘spiritual progress depends on those individuals who are less bound, much less certain, and morally weaker; they are men who try new things’ (1994:138). He gives an example of a ‘blind man’ who ‘will see deeper inwardly…’ and concludes by saying: ‘To this extent, the famous theory of the 'survival of the fittest' does not seem to me to be the only viewpoint from which to explain the progress of strengthening of a man or of a race’ (1994:139).
This spiritual evolution is revealed by Zarathustra who says, ‘and life itself told me this secret: “Behold,” it said, “I am that which must overcome itself again and again” (138) suggesting that there is a process of repetition or eternal return through moments in life. He captures fully one of these moments with Zarathustra’s sleep revelation when, with eyes still opened, he realizes that ‘...the gentlest, lightest, the rustling of a lizard, a breath, a moment, a twinkling of the eye—little makes up the quality of the best happiness’ (288). Nietzsche reveals in this text that mankind may only find true pleasure in the here and now, which offers us glimpses of death in the form of loss of ego or oneness with the universe. It is only in these moments, when we are no longer self aware, when we are fully absorbed in the other (being or thing), that we lose sight of ourselves and thus this ‘death’ or nothingness actually pulls us away from our consciousness of the fragility of self into a continuity with all existence.
Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, embodied in the character of Zarathustra, advocates an absorption in the moment of being totally at one with the world. This appears as a joyous, ecstatic blending of self and other. Thus, the Ubermensch is a state that may only be achieved in absorption. It remains an idea of attainment in an enclosed moment, amongst a multiplicitous array of like or disparate moments, in which there are no dichotomies of good/bad, master/slave, male or female. This dissolution of binaries may found in the metaphor of the cyborg, which exhibits no morality, class or difference. It is a resolution and yet simultaneously not one at all, for it describes an almost indescribable journey experienced in the ‘blink of an eye’ or in a ‘lightning flash’. So, the ‘going down’ is the sudden impulse to let go of human (self-consciousness) and to become other than man—animal or machine, in order to overcome. Either way, we become less than human and more than human!
The fact that Middleton represents this cyborg as ghastly armored human skeleton, which for all purposes looks very much alive with its smiling teeth and animated left hand, suggests the death of the human or Humanism in conjunction with cyborg culture. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) comes to mind here. The elongated, distorted human skull at the bottom of his painting appears strangely out of place in which there is order and symmetry, and in which the objects themselves point to a rational ordered universe. The skull is an uncanny reminder that no matter how much control humanity exerts over nature that death reigns supreme!

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984). Radelais and his world, Translated by Helen Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Clarke, Julie (2009). The Paradox of the Posthuman: Science Fiction/Techno-Horror Films and Visual Media, VDM Verlag, Dr Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG Germany (excerpt from Chapter Two: From Ubermensch to Cyborg).
Hans, James S. (1991). The Origins of the Gods, State University of New York Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1961.1969). Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Translated with an Introduction by R.J. Hollingdale, London, England: Penguin Books.
Nietzsche, F. (1994). Human, All Too Human, Translated by Marion Faber and Stephen Lehmann, Introduction and Notes by Marion Faber, London, England: Penguin Books.
Superman, Action Comics #1, 1938


  1. The skull in The Ambassadors is a Renaissance party trick based on anamorphosis. You have to stand in the right position relative to the painting for the image of the skull to resolve to a more familiar shape.

  2. Yes, I'm quite aware of that. In my thesis I compared the anamorphic skull in relation to the digital morphing/animation that occurs at the beginning of the film 'Alien: Resurrection'.
    Anamorphosis was made possible only by the use of mathematic and geometric equations in order to distort and disrupt usual representations. Although the ambassadors look out of the painting to an unseen, but presumed spectator, the presence of the anamorphic image requires that the spectator shift position to the side of the frame in order to see what the distorted image represents, thus emphasising the affect of technology on the perception of the viewer. Carroll maintains in relation to the skull in The Ambassadors that:

    …the volume of the anamorphic form reduces, when viewed indirectly and without distortion, to exactly the dimension of the ambassador’s own heads. Given that they are painted life-size, I find that I am looking at a portrait, to scale, of myselfafter death (2004:37).

    Carroll, John. 2004. The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, Melbourne, Australia: Scribe Publications.