Zarathustra – Columnar Emersonian or Divine Hanswurst?

by John Holbo on April 14, 2021

So, I promised reflections on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Seuss, to complement my ongoing brilliant double-parody, with special reference to Seuss’ late ‘cancellation’ – the withdrawal of six books from publication. I did muse a bit on Twitter. The best metaphor for it is: Seuss is the Evergiven of kid’s lit. All right, I’ll resay it a bit.

Seuss: he’s so big, if he runs aground on something – like some racist drawings in If I Ran the Zoo – he’s tough to ‘refloat’. Seuss Inc. had a branding problem, therefore, with these old books. They are really old. It’s a testament to Seuss’ evergreen style that they still look graphically fresh enough that one is shocked that he let in the racist stuff.

So, as others have pointed out, it’s not exactly surprising that Seuss Inc. decided to spruce up the brand by clearing out old, off-brand stuff that isn’t spinning the dollars anyway.

Here is one point that has been missed in a lot of the discussions, back and forth. Namely, five out of the six books that have been ‘cancelled’ (except for The Cat’s Quizzer) follow the familiar Seuss ‘story within a story’ formula. It’s all happening in some lunatic kid’s head, after page 1 and before the last page. But this kid is adorably innocent, eager to grow and ‘go get ’em!’ so his dreams are harmless and no doubt he’ll grow up fine and strong, a pillar of his community! But when the kid is this sort of paradigm little white boy from the American suburbs, in the 50’s, the world from his point of view is obtrusively normed as the sort of place where HE is the center, rightfully. It’s all a show for him. It produces a sour Cecil Rhodes in shortpants mood when he’s off stripping the rest of the world of beasts and resources, to build whatever the hell he’s dreaming.

Obviously Seuss is, himself, poking fun at the kid, who has such stereotypical visions of ‘funny foreigners’ at his beck and call. But the fact that he’s poking fun doesn’t fix it.

A kid is small! A kid should be able to dream of conquest without being a threat to anyone.

But Seuss isn’t small. Seuss is huge.

So these white boy idle dreams of conquest run heavily aground in the canal of ‘National Reading Day’, also known as ‘Dr. Seuss Day’ (because it’s his birthday, March 2.) You can’t ask every kid in America, in 2021, to indulge a white reverie of conquering Africa or Asia or the Middle East, and having a bunch of natives as your servants. (In a sense, it’s just like Mr. Sneelock in If I Ran The Circus. In his dream, Morris McGurk imagines making Sneelock do all sorts of crazy stuff – ‘I’m sure he won’t mind.’ That’s funny. But it’s not funny if it gets crossed with ugly racial stereotypes. That’s just history, folks. The past isn’t the past.)

I think five of the six ‘cancelled’ Seuss books are harmless for kids of all sorts. Except for Zoo, which is way over the line, and it’s amazing it took this long to pull it. But once you are viewing Seuss that way, through an ‘is this iffy?’ lens, it’s not too surprising the other five got swept up, too, in the corporate image clean-up. It’s a shame. A lot of people have been like ‘who’s read these old minor Seuss titles?’ Well, I say Seuss was at the height of his graphical and inventive powers in the 50’s. These are his best books, in a lot of ways. McElligot’s Pool is the most beautifully done – the watercolors. On Beyond Zebra is super clever, and the Circus book is lonely without it’s racist friend, the Zoo book. What are you gonna do? (Reforming copyright law to let these old titles go would be good, but that ain’t gonna happen.)

Anyhoo, I’m going to talk about something else today. (But I really gotta write my magnum opus ‘Seuss cancelled?’ thumbsucker someday. Ideally, after everyone is so bored by the topic that only a few read it.)

So: today’s topic. I ran a twitter poll and 10 whole people voted, and so democracy rules and, by a narrow margin, I have been elected to explain a joke. The question is: why did I make the town so fancy in On Beyond Zarathustra?

I’m glad you asked me that! (I told myself.)

I put it in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche lightly complains that he is like a deep well little boys throw their toys down. He says it’s harmless – go ahead! So I have permission to Seussify him. But is it really a philosophically serious exercise?

In my parody, I’m following the original pretty closely. But the town is characterized only briefly. (I’m using the old Common translation here, because it’s “Thor” comics-worthy faux-King-James-y-ness tickles me.)

“When Zarathustra arrived at the nearest town which adjoineth the forest, he found many people assembled in the market-place; for it had been announced that a rope-dancer would give a performance. And Zarathustra spake thus unto the people:

I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?”

[Adjoineth the forest! Oh thtop! You want to read my version? Here’s the latest, getting us up to this point.]

Z’s gonna raise a ruckus! Threaten ’em with an Overman! Shake their pious complacency But I think it’s better to see the townsfolk as like the ironic-detached denizens of the ‘Land of Culture’.

Again, from Nietzsche’s original (long quote, but you kinda gotta get the flavor). Nietzsche imagines the future then flies back to the present. This mirrors how, in the town passage, he warns the townsfolk of the future. (This is long, from “The Land of Culture”. But you need to get the flavor, I think.)

Then did I fly backwards, homewards—and always faster. Thus did I come unto you, ye present-day men, and into the land of culture.

For the first time brought I an eye to see you, and good desire: verily, with longing in my heart did I come.

But how did it turn out with me? Although so alarmed—I had yet to laugh! Never did mine eye see anything so motley-coloured!

I laughed and laughed, while my foot still trembled, and my heart as well. “Here forsooth, is the home of all the paintpots,”—said I.

With fifty patches painted on faces and limbs—so sat ye there to mine astonishment, ye present-day men!

And with fifty mirrors around you, which flattered your play of colours, and repeated it!

Verily, ye could wear no better masks, ye present-day men, than your own faces! Who could—RECOGNISE you!

Written all over with the characters of the past, and these characters also pencilled over with new characters—thus have ye concealed yourselves well from all decipherers!

And though one be a trier of the reins, who still believeth that ye have reins! Out of colours ye seem to be baked, and out of glued scraps.

All times and peoples gaze divers-coloured out of your veils; all customs and beliefs speak divers-coloured out of your gestures.

He who would strip you of veils and wrappers, and paints and gestures, would just have enough left to scare the crows.

Verily, I myself am the scared crow that once saw you naked, and without paint; and I flew away when the skeleton ogled at me.

Rather would I be a day-labourer in the nether-world, and among the shades of the by-gone!—Fatter and fuller than ye, are forsooth the nether-worldlings!

This, yea this, is bitterness to my bowels, that I can neither endure you naked nor clothed, ye present-day men!

All that is unhomelike in the future, and whatever maketh strayed birds shiver, is verily more homelike and familiar than your “reality.”

For thus speak ye: “Real are we wholly, and without faith and superstition”: thus do ye plume yourselves—alas! even without plumes!

Indeed, how would ye be ABLE to believe, ye divers-coloured ones!—ye who are pictures of all that hath ever been believed!

Perambulating refutations are ye, of belief itself, and a dislocation of all thought. UNTRUSTWORTHY ONES: thus do I call you, ye real ones!


Z has just been hanging with the Saint in the Woods, and was amazed to find the old dude still believes in God. (I’m talking about N’s version, though mine is the same.) So, having left the Saint in peace barely one sentence earlier – not challenging his faith – clearly he’s looking for atheists to preach to, not pious folk. He leaves the saint in peace.

(In the original the transition is very abrupt, so the difference in tone between Z jollying along the old guy and insisting on sticking it to the townsfolk is notable: “When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: ‘Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!’ When Zarathustra arrived at the nearest town which adjoineth the forest … I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN”)

The “Land of Culture” chapter comes later in TSZ, so it’s transformative of N’s text to move all the perambulators and colorfulness into town. But I think it hits the right comedy note. It’s a very complex irony.

Z is coming to town to preach that (plotspoilers!) since God is dead, everyone should thrill to life as a tightrope between ape & Overman. But, kinda, Z’s late to that party. Everyone’s already sophisticated – the Holy Fool in the woods is the only old-fashioned believer left.

Everyone in town is already here to watch a Ropedancer do his thing. So what is Z really adding to the mix? Well, SERIOUSNESS! But, seriously, is this joker Z to be taken seriously?

This is a very basic point of Nietzsche scholarship. Is Z serious or … or what? Put it in terms of this passage from Beyond Good and Evil.

We are the first age to be knowing in point of “costume”, I mean as to morals, articles of faith, artistic tastes and religions, made ready as never before for carnival on a grand scale, for the most spiritual carnival laughter and high spirits, for the transcendental height of the loftiest nonsense and Aristophanic world-mockery. Perhaps that we are still discovering the realm of our invention here, that realm where we can still be original, for example as parodists in world history and God’s Hanswursts—maybe so that, even if nothing else today has a future, it is precisely our laughter that still does! (BGE, §223)

That’s Nietzsche talking about ‘Land of Culture’ stuff. Modern media culture in which everything is this ‘knowing’ churn of nostalgia and irony and not taking things quite seriously. ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ carnivalesque. The Ropedancer is – whatever’s on Netflix.

So is Z bringing serious seriousness? On the one hand, it seems like Nietzsche really wants us to take Zarathustra very seriously. Many readers see Thus Spoke as this (dare I say) ridiculously self-serious book. Here’s a passage from Emerson. In the margins of his copy, Nietzsche wrote ‘that’s it!’

“We require that a man should be so large and columnar in the landscape, that it should deserve to be recorded that he arose and girded up his loins, and departed to such a place. The pictures most credible to us are those of majestic men who prevailed at their entrance and convinced the senses; as happened to the eastern magian who was sent to test the merits of Zertusht or Zoroaster [Zarathustra]. When a Yunani sage arrived at Balkh, the Persians tell us, Gushtasp appointed a day on which the Mobeds of every country should assemble, and a golden chair was placed for the Yunani sage. Then the beloved of Yezdam, the prophet Zertusht, advanced into the midst of the assembly. The Yunani sage, on seeing that chief, said, ‘This form and this gait cannot lie, and nothing but truth can proceed from them.’”

That’s from Emerson’s “Character”.

So you can imagine Z as this awesome, Emersonian columnar Cool Dude! To know him is to believe every word he says! Whataguy!

On the other hand, in that BGE passage Nietzsche says that this age of ‘costume’ requires, as counterpoint, not an awesome, ancient prophet but a ‘Hanwurst’?

Who’s that?

But hold that question. Nietzsche is so nuts-seeming on this point, describing how we are to take his character, Zarathustra.

“No “prophet” speaks here, none of those gruesome hybrids of illness and the will to power that are called founders of religions. Above all, one must correctly hear the tone that comes from this mouth, this halcyon tone, in order not to do pitiful injustice to the meaning of his wisdom. ‘Stillest are the words that bring the storm, thoughts that flutter on winged feet guide the world—'”

So he doesn’t want Zarathustra to be some off-the-shelf prophet. On the other hand, it’s funny to think of Z yelling at you for an hour about the Overman then confidentially whispering: ‘I know you know I’m the strong, silent type, but …’

And sometimes it’s so crazily … megalomaniacal. Nietzsche, that is.

“[Zarathustra] stands alone. Set the poets aside: perhaps nothing has ever been produced before out of such overflowing strength. My thought “Dionysian” here becomes highest deed; compared to it everything other men have done seems poor and limited. The fact that not for an instant would a Goethe or Shakespeare have known how to draw a breath at such astounding heights of passion; that, measured up to Zarathustra, Dante is a mere believer, not one who is first to create the truth—that is, not a world-ruling spirit, a Fate; that the poets of the Veda were priests unworthy so much as to loosen Zarathustra’s sandal—all this is the least of things, and gives no notion of the distance, of the azure solitude, in which this work abides. Zarathustra has an eternal right to say: “I draw around me circles and holy boundaries. Few shall ever mount with me to ever loftier heights. I build myself a mountain range of ever holier peaks  … The ladder he climbs up and down is enormous … Zarathustra feels himself the highest of all beings within these bounds of space and in this coming together of opposites; and when you hear how he defines this highest, you will give up seeking his equal. [EC, “Zarathustra”, §6]”

And sometimes he is talking about being a Hanswurst.

I am dynamite …. Maybe I am a Hanswurst. (EH, “Why I Am a Destiny”, §1)

Hanwurst’s a comic figure from the German popular stage. When you see ‘buffoon’ in Nietzsche, the German is probably (not always) Hanswurst. It’s a name, like Pulcinella. Hanswurst—yes, sausage—is earthy, appetitive, sexual, scatological, alimentary. (Everybody poops.)

Hanswurst dresses like a German peasant, but colorful. This clown has the distinction that a real life professor of logic, metaphysics and poetics, one Johann Christoph Gottshed, banished him in 1737, outside the gates of Leipzig, the idea being to elevate the quality of the German comic stage. (No poop jokes!) No lesser a light than Lessing makes light of this so-called ‘Hanswurststreit’ as “the biggest harlequinade of all.’ ‘Hanswurst’ flung as insult is older. Luther publishes an invective-laden pamphlet, “Wider Hans Worst”. After 1708 ‘Hanswurst’ names a puppet, then a human actor in the role, after the puppet. The puppet-master, the role’s first human inhabitant, seems to have been one Joseph Anton Stranitzky. In sum, it may be significant to Nietzsche that ‘Hanswurst’ has particular theatrical associations.

Is Zarathustra a Hanswurst? Nietzsche, by association, pulling strings, wearing him as a costume? Nietzsche calls himself ‘divine Hanswurst’; says he has ‘private Hanswurst fantasies’ Here’s what Hanswurst looked like.

Is this how we are to imagine Zarathustra?

So anyway: trying to imagine the town means also trying to imagine a clown – Zarathustra – or maybe a prophet, high up on some commanding column?

Or kind of a cross between? A holy fool who has trouble getting his simple point across? Eternal return! ‘You know – for kids!’ Zarathustra says he’s sailing for Kinderland.

But let me finish on a Seuss note.

Re-imagine a classic like If I Ran the Circus or (cancelled or not!) If I Ran the Zoo.

Instead of starting with a big vacant lot behind Sneelock’s store it starts with … a big, fancy circus! You might think young Morris McGurk will be content. He’s got his Circus! But, of course, it won’t be his—the Circus McGurkus. He demands stuff on which to work his youthful Will to Power.

So I guess Morris McGurk, born in a circus town, would turn ascetic: Tear down the Big Tents—see what is behind, or ahead. ‘I teach you the meaning of the big vacant lot!’

Now see Z, come to town. He’s kind of like a Seuss kid who wants to build the circus – but there’s already a circus, so he wants to tear down the circus. It’s kind of messed up. Subtractive Seuss – a Seuss boy who is obsessively, ascetically emptying the world, rather than filling it up, up. But he doesn’t want to think of himself like that – like he’s some nihilist.

I think Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a very complicated character. I didn’t see him that way when I first read Zarathustra. I thought it was just weirdly ridiculous and bad. Now I think it’s crazily brilliant in its ironies. Or maybe turning it Seusswards has just made me see it weird.


I didn’t make one.

There’s good scholarship about a lot of this stuff – Hanswurst and all. I don’t mean to blog as if there’s no such thing as scholarship. But here I’m sort of thinking out loud. Sorting my thoughts. I’ll mention a few names.

Kathleen Marie Higgins, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Comic Relief: Nietzsche’s Gay Science.

Look ’em up! I got a lot out of those two.

Then there’s one I like a lot that doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. Francesca Cauchi, Zarathustra Contra Zarathustra: The Tragic Buffoon. I think her way of seeing it is closest to mine (although she is weirdly hostile to Higgins, who doesn’t seem to me so far off from Cauchi herself.)

Nietzsche’s Last Laugh, by Nicholas More is interesting, about Ecce Homo and how it’s supposed to be comic – which it is.



oldster 04.15.21 at 12:31 am

“McElligot’s Pool is the most beautifully done – the watercolors.”

I am no artist, but I concur with this judgement.
It’s a bit sad, actually, that the drawing gets less and less detailed as the decades go by. Late period — eg Lorax stuff — is quite uninteresting.
But then, the text gets preachy, too, and less fresh for that reason.


J-D 04.15.21 at 1:21 am

‘We will pray with Zarathustra
‘We will pray just like we used ta
‘I’m a Zarathustra booster
‘And that’s good enough for me

‘Give me that old time religion
‘Give me that old time religion
‘Give me that old time religion
‘It’s good enough for me’


Frank Wilhoit 04.15.21 at 12:24 pm

Standards come and go. They are in force where and while they are in force: neither before, nor after, nor in any other context. Sumner (Folkways) knew that much, even if he spent all the rest of his time grinding axes — which, alone, is his discredit; the fact that they were the wrong axes doesn’t even matter.

Perhaps the death of postmodernism is signposted by the re-emergence of overthinking.


Adam Roberts 04.15.21 at 12:56 pm

‘Seuss cancelled’ … Dude, “Doctored Seuss” is right there.

I like your Nietzseussia very much: it’s a neat idea, cleverly worked, and your drawings are top drawer. I draw/doodle myself, but my drawing and doodling is operating at about 15% of your ability.

I have one thought, about the larger question of ‘fit’. Seuss’s texts are playful (verbally, visually) because that’s what kids like, because that’s what kids do, play (‘you know—for kids!’ indeed). Nietzsche is ‘playful’ in a different way, isn’t he? He’s playful because bowed-down sheep live their dreary valley slavelives by ‘rules’ and ‘conventions’ and play is the way he chooses to break those things, mess about with those boundaries. But these are different things, aren’t they? I mean, I’d say so, but perhaps I’m wrong. Children play to discover where the boundaries are, to try stuff out, to explore. Nietzsche knows all about boundaries, and has fully explored his little world: he plays because he wants to break our preconceptions about stuffy professors (and many other things), because he wants to signal that valley rules don’t apply to him. He is playful to mock, isn’t he? I don’t think kids play to mock. Or if ‘mock’ is the wrong word, he’s playful to disdain, to rise above.

Why do children play anyway?


Priest 04.15.21 at 7:48 pm

“On Beyond Zebra” was a favorite, when I was the age for such things. I think all the Seuss books we had were handed down, though I did see the Babar books last time I was poking around in my mom’s attic, so perhaps not, should go check during my next visit. I didn’t like “Green Eggs and Ham” because, as a notoriously picky eater, I did not approve the implications of the outcome.


oldster 04.15.21 at 9:47 pm

I am dynamite …. Maybe I am a Hanswurst. (EH, “Why I Am a Destiny”, §1)

It’s funny to think that when he wrote this (1885 or so?) dynamite was only 15-20 years old — as recent a technological miracle as, I don’t know, the smart-phone.

I’m reminded of the story told of Sam Goldwyn, that soon after Hiroshima he said to some colleagues, “this new atom bomb — this thing is dynamite!”


John Holbo 04.16.21 at 12:27 am

Hi Adam, thanks, yeah why do they?

But more specifically: the short answer would be that I think Nietzsche really does want TSZ to be more ‘childish’ in the way Seuss is, but he’s just terrible at it! Think of those little ‘doggerel’ poems he stuff in here and there, starting “Gay Science” and such. They really don’t fit, by our lights. But I think he really wants to be writing philosophy into which do DO fit. (Takes some showing!)


William Berry 04.16.21 at 2:52 am

@JH: Clearly you aren’t of the Brandes(sp?)/ Kaufmann school of Nietzschean scholarship! Those folks read and studied N in the German, and thought he was one of the great German writers and poets of all time. Any “doggerel” involved would be an artifact of the attempt to translate the untranslatable.

@Adam Roberts: Maybe children play because human infants are born altricial, lacking much in the way of instinctual intelligence beyond urges to action, or “drives”. The apparently instinctual urge to play results in interaction with other humans and the environment. They “learn” intelligence from the world.

Or something.


John Holbo 04.16.21 at 5:11 am

William, I don’t agree that any appearance of ‘doggerel’ is an artifact of English translation. His short poems are often silly by any standards. I think TSZ is often Seussier-sounding in the original – I think to German ears as well. Christian Morgensten was very influenced by Nietzsche’s style.


J-D 04.16.21 at 6:29 am

Why do children play anyway?

‘I know we’ve come a long way,
‘We’re changing day to day,
‘But tell me, where do the children play?’


Ray Vinmad 04.16.21 at 1:07 pm

This gives me joy. Even the website layout gives me joy. The whole thing is wonderful.

I’m also very envious that you can draw this way.

I love this turn of phrase–‘para-terpsichorean imperative.’

I need to give it further study but my internet is very slow so everything takes a while to load…OR you could publish it and sell it (though the start up costs might be high).

I would love to go to a theme park based on this–Nietzscheland! There could be costumed characters, we could eat Zarathustra burgers.


John Holbo 04.17.21 at 1:27 am

Thank you, Ray!

I am planning on selling Z in paper some way, but I’m sort of hoping to find a publisher to help me. If it comes to it, I’ll do the POD thing.


John Holbo 04.17.21 at 1:29 am

A Zarathustra themepark would be great! Indeed!


Tony 04.18.21 at 3:21 am

I was deep into Nietzsche at age 14, and previous to that, into Buddhism at age 12 (but only the Theravada sort), but my sense of Zarathustra (which I heavily scribbled in, and much preferred Hollingdale to Kaufmann) was he never meant to be a prophet, and part 4 narrates a failed experiment which needed to be attempted with an open mind, and then accepted as disproof of a hypothesis about education from above. Conclusion: if God is dead, a prophet will no longer be heard. Spinoza, tolerance, heresy and caution is all we have left. Truth will never be fully revealed again, and its pursuit will be mostly a Gnostic endeavor, albeit not a cult. On the other hand, in a world noisy with babble, one may in many cases have to go on a Zarathustran journey to arrive at a well-founded temperance. A well-lived life is a self-curated one, and good curation is a mountain climb.

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