Tag Archives: Zarathustra

On Being Sullen

Having been told that I often seem sullen, I decided to look up the word and find out a little more about it. It’s a derivative of the Latin solus, as are English words like “solitary,” “solitude,” “solo” and “sole.”

Sullen doesn’t always just mean morose, though that is the sense in which we most often use it these days; and I am pretty certain that was the sense in which the word was directed at me. It’s associated with mourning — “sullen black,” in the words of a remorseful Bolingbroke at the end of Richard II, just after he announces the gloomy fate of Exton: “With Cain go wander through shades of night,/ And never show thy head by day nor light.” The sullen mood takes us well to the east of sunlit Eden, and seems often to arise from a sense of having been wronged, or at least a sense that things have gone terribly wrong.

So in some twentieth-century English translations of the Book of Kings, Ahab retires in chapter 21 to his palace in Samaria and, “sullen and angry,” takes to his bed and refuses to eat: Ahab had tried to negotiate a land swap, but “Naboth the Jezreelite had said, ‘I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.’” (Ahab’s wife Jezebel will soon fix that.)

Wycliffe makes Ahab dyspeptic (“having indignation, and gnashing on the word which Naboth of Jezreel had spoken to him”), but if we are not going with “sullen” we should prefer the King James rendering of the Hebrew adjective (sr or sar) here as “heavy,” and remember that “sullen” can connote heaviness. The sullen person carries a weight, or is likely to sink or feel weighed down, like the bride in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. “The sullen passage of thy weary steps” is the apt phrase. (That’s Richard II again.) He or she can be obstinate, stubborn and unyielding as well. So can sullen animals. Daniel Defoe writes of a bull that is “sullen, untractable [sic], and outrageous,” and in the 17th century we find a horse described as “sullen” and in need of the spur.

But the story about “sullen” that interests me most begins in the 14th century. That’s when we first find “sullen” applied to those who deliberately keep to themselves – “a soleyn by hymself” (as a line in Piers Plowman has it) — because they are averse to society or disinclined to be social. This sullen character is a melancholic, the predecessor of the early modern misanthrope — and maybe a remote ancestor of Henry David Thoreau or a great-great-great uncle of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. I’m not going to try to put the whole family tree together here, but I think it’s fascinating to consider the emergence of this solitary figure and follow his adventures in the modern period.

It’s also worth noting that here we have the most radical use of the word “sullen,” in the sense that it connects us with the word’s roots in the condition of solitude or going solo.

This sullen one separates himself from the madding crowd, or withdraws far into himself. Even in a crowd, he can sink into his sulk. Of course, deliberately keeping to oneself and withdrawing into solitude can carry a cost. The 19th century critic George Bancroft wrote disapprovingly of Byron and other romantic poets who through “sullen misanthropy” had divorced themselves from “the haunts of man” and squandered their gifts; and in another post I’ve written about the pain that Zarathustra feels as he takes leave of his friends and returns to his mountain haunt at the behest of his mistress, The Stillest Hour. The recognition that a sullen disposition can be painful or damaging is hardly unique to the 19th century: even in the medieval poem Richard the Redeless we find logic splitters that are “so soleyne and sad of her wittis” that they can’t reach conclusions.

Sullen withdrawal and the solitude it can bring is not, however, just a way of absenting oneself, and it’s not always confounding. Maybe that’s obvious, but how often do we appreciate the illuminations that gloom can bring? A sullen turn of mind is a special kind of about-face, away from sociability and cheery outward show — to face oneself. The sullen figure (at least the one who interests me most) takes his solitary way, not just out of Eden or the haunts of men, but into himself and into the human interior.

To be sullen in this sense is not just to play solo, but to play with solitude itself. So Dr. Johnson thought the epithet “sullen” could not be applied to the trumpet, but he never heard Chet Baker. Ingmar Bergman writes in his autobiography that as a child he was “considered sullen and too sensitive”; but in his mature years, as Dorthe Nors notes in a recent essay, he became a master of disciplined solitude. “In my solitude,” Bergman writes, “I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity” — and for Nors that excess, that overflowing of humanity, is the wellspring of artistic creativity. It is not just self-imposed exile, but an encounter.

Only the Doer Learns – A Little Context

A short while ago, I tracked down the source of a quotation that had been wrongly attributed to Kant and widely circulated online: “A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting.” I found the sentence a pretty long way from any work by Immanuel Kant, in Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, and after reading the passage in question I remarked offhand that Castaneda seemed to channeling not Kant, but some mix of Erasmus’ Praise of Folly and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Now my pursuit of another widely-circulated quotation — this one attributed correctly, it turns out, to Nietzsche — has brought me back to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Reading my old beat up paperback edition of Zarathustra again today only strengthened my conviction that Castaneda drew freely on Nietzsche as he created Don Juan; and it’s also brought me back to some consideration of how much gets lost when we allow philosophical quotations to stand for philosophy. That, as I noted in a previous post, is a growing tendency, driven by the boom in career, motivational and leadership literature and by social media.

“Only the doer learns” is how R.J. Hollingdale neatly renders Nietzche’s nur der Thäter lernt. The translation I’ve seen most widely circulated lately has a deliberately antiquated flavor: “the doer alone learneth.” Maybe that looks better as a tattoo, or a gamer’s motto. [Update 22 Feb 2015: since writing this post I have discovered that the brutal death metal band Emeth has a 2008 song called ‘The Doer Alone Learneth.’] I cannot even begin to imagine the various uses to which Nietzsche might be put nowadays. I can imagine, based on other forays I have made into the world of popular quotations, that “only the doer learns” is being traded as advice that one ought to learn by doing, jump right in, be a self-starter, take some measured risks. That, regrettably, is what the literature of success reduces philosophy to — formulas for jumpstarting your career and getting ahead. Let’s see if in the present case we can arrive at something a little more intelligent and nuanced than that.

Context helps. The line in question is from the chapter on “The Ugliest Man” in Book 3 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s been yanked completely out of context — as most of these popular and familiar quotations are — and I wonder how and why it ended up getting yanked.

Here, Zarathustra is passing through the valley the shepherds call Serpent’s Death, where he comes upon “something sitting on the pathway, shaped like a man and yet hardly like a man, something unutterable” and he is overcome by “the great shame of having beheld such a thing.” He blushes and turns away, but just as he attempts to leave a human voice rises up and puts a riddle to him: “What is the revenge on the witness?” And a few minutes later: “who am I”? At first so overcome by pity that he sinks to the ground, Zarathustra raises himself up and, standing again, replies: you are the murderer of God.

So here we have Zarathustra, face to face with the ugliest man, who could not tolerate God’s witness: God pitied him. “His pity knew no shame: he crept into my dirtiest corners. This most curious, most over-importunate, over-compassionate god had to die….Man could not endure that such a witness should live.” Zarathustra replies:

“You unutterable creature,” he said, “you warned me against your road. As thanks for that, I recommend you mine. Behold, up yonder lies Zarathustra’s cave.”
“My cave is big and deep and possesses many corners; there the best hidden man can find his hiding place. And close by it are a hundred secret and slippery ways for creeping, fluttering, and jumping beasts.”
“You outcast who cast yourself out, do you not wish to live among men and the pity of men? Very well, do as I do. Thus you also learn from me; only the doer learns.
And first of all and above all speak with my animals! The proudest animal and the wisest animal — they may well be the proper counsellors for both of us!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra, and went on his way, even more thoughtfully and slowly than before: for he asked himself many things and did not easily know what to answer.
How poor is man! (he thought in his heart) how ugly, how croaking, how full of secret shame!
They tell me that man loves himself: ah, how great must this self-love be! How much contempt is opposed to it!
Even this man has loved himself as he has despised himself — he seems to me a great lover and a great despiser.
I have yet found no one who has despised himself more deeply: even that is height. Alas, was he perhaps the Higher Man whose cry I heard?
I love the great despisers. Man, however, is something that must be overcome.

To learn from Zarathustra, the Ugliest Man will do as he has done: he will live in his cave, far from the sight of men, beyond pity and morality, and beyond human language itself. He will live among the beasts and speak with the animals. That is the where Zarathustra’s steep mountain road leads.

I suspect that we are to hear some mockery in the maxim “only the doer learns.” So lernst du auch von mir; nur der Thäter lernt might be Nietzche’s aphoristic and bitterly ironic rendering of a passage in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1103A) on the habit of virtue: “the virtues,” runs this famous passage from Book II of the Ethics, “we acquire by first having put them into action, and the same is also true of the arts. For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing” [emphasis mine]. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Nietzsche roasting this old chestnut of moral philosophy even as Zarathustra turns morality and philosophy itself on its head.