Zarathustra’s Ape: How He Became What He Was

An illustration of ‘The Ugliest Human Being’ from the Folio Society edition of Thus Spake Zarathustra. At first I thought it was Zarathustra’s Ape.

That morning, Peter* woke up feeling down again. Dragging himself out of bed, Peter was nonetheless determined to head to the marketplace and see the tightrope walker who was due to be giving a performance that day. When he got to the marketplace, however, Peter was surprised to see everyone gathered around a bedraggled, bearded figure stood there making some kind of speech.

Several months earlier,** this figure had burst into the market place ranting that he was looking for God, and claiming that the townsfolk had murdered him! Everyone had just stood there in silence, not knowing what to make of this stranger, and eventually the figure had stormed off, muttering that he’d come too earlier. The townsfolk had christened him “The Madman,” but upon one of his rare visits to the town the saintly old hermit who lived in the woods* told the locals that this figure actually went by the name Zarathustra.

Well, it now appeared that Zarathustra had returned to the marketplace to sell his wares once more.

Peter tried to listen to Zarathustra over the crowd, to peer over their shoulders, but he could not really hear: “I teach you the Overman…God has died…the time of the last man is coming…”.

Once more the townsfolk mocked Zarathustra, he looked exhausted and crestfallen, and in any case their attention was soon drawn to the tightrope walker’s appearance high above the crowd. It was a strange performance, at one point a clown appeared on the rope behind him and jumped over the tightrope walker, causing him to lose his balance.

The tightrope walker fell directly towards the crowd beneath. The townsfolk fled from the impending impact in a swarm of arms and legs, shoulders and knees. Peter stumbled in the melee and fell to the floor, people ran over him, but he managed to get up and run to the shadows of a nearby side street as the tightrope walker landed with a sickening, splattering crunch.

Peering from the shadowy lane, Peter observed as Zarathustra sat tenderly with the dead tightrope walker until the evening grew dark and cold. He watched as Zarathustra hoisted the dead man onto his back and set off walking towards the town gates.

Turning away from the square where this unnerving incident had taken place, Peter thought to himself, “I know. I shall copy Zarathustra’s manner. Then people will listen to me and I shall be thought most wise.” Thus, Peter would come to be known by the towns people as Zarathustra’s Ape: the one who apes Zarathustra, but Peter had not understood Zarathustra, and so began his downfall.

At first, Peter tried to convert the townsfolk to his ideas, preaching and prancing in the town square in a style he imagined similar to Zarathustra’s, but nobody flattered him with their ear.* Old ladies walked past who knew his mother and knew him as a child: “Is that young Peter?”, said one. “He used to be such a quiet and well behaved boy.”

Upon hearing the old ladies’ words Peter felt dumbfounded. Indeed, he felt as a child once more, unable to speak for himself; he lacked the confidence to be who he was among the townsfolk.

Peter raised his sad eyes to the horizon and felt the vortex of absolute nothingness tearing within him. He felt himself to be the zero point of negative entropy, a black hole sunk deep into the earth’s surface. With a grunt*, Peter said to himself. “I must leave this place. I shall go to the city and make a name for myself there. I’ll be anonymous and can invent myself anew.” So off he went.

But Peter found life in the city hard. He tried his act but it fell flat. Every corner had its own manic street preacher.

After several months, Peter had taken to sitting around with the other lost souls outside the city gates. Such was Peter’s inner torment evident in his countenance and mannerisms that people dare not look at him.

Then, one day, through the dust and haze, Peter spotted a hooded figure walking into view; it was Zarathustra! Zarathustra had come to the city! Peter could not resist this opportunity to speak with his idol. He thought Zarathustra would be impressed with all the proselytising he had done on his behalf, and so as Zarathustra came nearer Peter jumped out in front of him with open arms to catch his attention.* Peter began spouting his latest treatise on the filthy and debased nature of the city.

But Zarathustra did not look pleased, he reeled back with a disgusted look on his face, and before Peter could say any more Zarathustra lunged forward, clasping his hand tight over Peter’s mouth,* glaring into his eyes. “Shut up, you foaming fool”, growled Zarathustra.

Releasing his hand from Peter’s mouth, Zarathustra tipped his head to one side and looked into Peter’s eyes before speaking, “So you’re the one they call Zarthustra’s Ape. You’ve been giving me a bad name.”

“B, but”, cried Peter, “I’ve only sought to spread your word, Zarathustra, and today I wanted to warn you of the city dwellers and their ways.”

“Look at them!”, Peter continued. “Out of their minds on brandy and frozen spirits.*”

“Moralist!”, glared Zarathustra. “Truth serves life. All the prohibitions of man and law cannot slake the thirst of these poor souls. Better to offer them medicine than the jail cell.”

“Your cynicism is yet still too naive. Your lip curls, yet it could not if there were not still a deep innocence within you against which to curl. You demand perfection; the world of the idealists. I teach you to love the dirt at your feet.”

“But they are hypocrites one and all”, cried Peter. “They say one thing and do another.”

“Have you not listened to a word I have said?”, glared Zarathustra. “Man is not a dialectic, he is a dissonance; and yet I love him still.” “See my familiars, the snake and the eagle, they remind me of man’s nature. Man crawls on his belly but the Overman shall soar above man as the eagle to the fly.”

“And what of God?”, said Peter. “Those hypocrites pray to the bones of a dead deity they themselves killed.”

“And what of it?”, replied Zarathustra. “In his heart many an atheist is afraid that God does not exist. In turn, many a believer is afraid that God does exist. The only true atheist is he who knows God exists but lives for himself still. If you must have faith, have faith in man; the most difficult faith of all.”

Exhaling slowly and letting his shoulders drop, Zarathustra again looked Peter in the eye with a certain tenderness. “My Ape”, sighed Zarathustra. “Despair has raised you to your knees and handed you the black flag of resentment. You have not yet learnt to pass by. Instead, this city has become your foil, your black mirror. You feed its dark energy and it feeds yours. So let this be my teaching to you: Where one can no longer love, there should one — pass by!*”

With that, Zarathustra turned on his heel and carried on with his lonely journey.

And, as he contemplated Zararthustra’s words, so, too, began Peter’s turning away. He turned around to look at the path which led back to his home town and began to put one foot in front of the other. Yes, upon his return he might be considered odd, an outsider even, yet everyone else in his hometown was an outsider in their own way, Peter reflected; each with their own particular idiosyncrasies. Now, the main difference was, Peter felt the confidence to be himself. He didn’t care about their looks and glances anymore, instead he would meet them with a hearty hello and ask about their day, before going about his.

*I named the character Peter in the light of Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy. In this story an ape is brought to Prague and within a short space of time learns to read and speak so well that he becomes the most articulate and sophisticated individual in the Czech Republic. By this point the ape cannot stand to be around humans: he finds them as disgusting as humans do apes. Named after a normal ape in the Prague zoo called Peter, Kafka’s ape is called Rotpeter (Red Peter) because he also has a red bullet wound scar on his chest where he was shot when he was captured. As my protagonist in this story will degenerate into Zarathustra’s Ape, I felt it fitting to name him after Rotpeter, who seemed to be heading in the direction of the Overman.

**The Gay Science, Parable of the Madman

*These are references to phrases in the passage On Passing By in Thus Spake Zarathustra, where Zarathustra meets his Ape.