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Superman Meets The Last Man
Carl Murray puts two Nietzschean characters under the spotlight.
(A live television chat show. There are to be two guests – the Superman, probably Nietzsche’s best-known and most controversial creation, and his polar opposite, the Last Man, a typical end-product of industrialised, mass society – unheroic, uncreative, and totally mediocre.)
Presenter: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Please give a warm welcome to our main guest – the Superman!
(The Superman, looking very pleased with himself, enters to the accompaniment of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. The audience applauds politely.)
Presenter: Welcome to the show, Superman. It is now over a hundred years since the demise of your creator, Friedrich Nietzsche, and so it seems a good time to assess how you, as one of his most infamous creations, have fared during the past century. In view of your exalted status, perhaps we should begin by allowing you to make your own assessment of your standing in the world today.
Superman: That would be rather premature. The most appropriate moment for an assessment of my achievements will be just before the start of the Eternal Recurrence, when I shall happily say ‘Yes’ to Life, and gladly accede to the possibility of reliving my life in exactly the same way forever – “This life with every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh … one must live it once more and also countless times.” I absolutely love my Destiny. I am Amor Fati personified. I take it you have heard of Amor Fati – the love of Destiny? I of course shall welcome Eternal Recurrence.
Presenter: Yes, well… perhaps we can come back to this Eternal Recurrence business later. Now, Superman…
Superman: (interrupting) Before we proceed, I must protest in the strongest terms about being addressed as ‘Superman’. Worthy as I am of such a description, it carries all the wrong associations. It is vulgar and populist. I do not wish to be confused with someone who is at one moment a bespectacled mediocrity, and the next is clad in cloak and tights as a bizarre parody of… er… me, I suppose. ‘Übermensch’ is not easy to translate, perhaps; and although ‘Overman’ is rather meaningless in English, it does convey a pleasing sense of superiority, which in my case is entirely appropriate. I stand for greatness, creativity and individual genius, and for the power of the will. I also stand for aristocracy, nobility and, yes, elitism. “The goal of humanity lies in its highest specimens.” That’s me, of course. All this socialism, egalitarianism and democracy has been a total disaster.
Presenter: Perhaps… But Clark Kent’s alter ego, despite his bizarre outfit, does succeed in bringing evil-doers to justice and righting wrongs. Surely he does some good in the world?
Superman: Only by the standards of your purely conventional and rather naïve morality. The morality of the Übermensch – as you will see when I get around to creating it – will be beyond good and evil as currently understood in this hopelessly decadent society.
Presenter: Very well Mr… the name is a bit of a problem, now. How about ‘Mr Über’, if you will excuse the abbreviation? Or how about ‘Zarathustra’?
Superman: No, no, no! Zarathustra was a mere prototype. He falls far short of ME.
Presenter: Very well, then, Mr Über, what, in your opinion, are the qualities you possess that elevate you so far above ordinary humanity?
Superman: I am noble, driven, I affirm life, and I revere myself and the values I create. Unlike ordinary, bourgeois, petty people, I live dangerously. My life is itself a work of art. Remember Herr Nietzsche’s sayings of me: “The Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth”; “Remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes.”
Presenter: That sounds very impressive, but I’m not sure I entirely understand it.
Superman: (ignoring him) I am capable of facing up to the death of God and the consequent collapse of conventional beliefs, values and so-called certainties. Also, unlike the great herd of humanity, I enjoy pain and suffering – it exalts and ennobles me. “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” Rather than accepting ready-made values, I will take up the challenge of creating my own. Yes, there will be a revaluation. In a sense, Herr Nietzsche meant that I should replace God – this is a sure way of overthrowing the slave morality that cripples ordinary humanity.
All portraits of Übermensch © Ryan Dunlavey 2012 from the Action Philosophers comic series.
Presenter: Hmm… It’s not entirely clear to me how a set of values created by you and for you can work for other people as well. Isn’t some sort of consensus needed?
Superman: My ethical system will be created by me and for me, and not for the common herd! They must simply do as they are told – and they will do so! I know them. They are happy to conform. But this is the ethical system of the future. It is based on my will to power.
Presenter: Assuming that there are other Übermenschen, all creating their own value systems, isn’t there a strong possibility that yours and theirs will conflict?
Superman: Of course! And conflict is a thoroughly good thing. Conflict within oneself can generate excellence. After all “One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Through conflict, the best will be the winners, and the weak will become the servants of the strong. The weak have had it their own way for far too long – two thousand years, in fact.
In fact, the more conflicts the better. Conflicts between ordinary humans are somewhat productive; but conflicts between Übermenschen will be titanic and cataclysmic. The world will thereby be cleansed.
Presenter: Yes, I think we already have a good idea of what these conflicts could be like. In the century following the death of your creator, there have been terrible wars, clearly caused by strong individuals exercising their ‘supreme will to power’, daring to ‘become what they are’ – and creating chaos in the process.
Superman: It is true that Mussolini read widely in the works of Herr Nietzsche, and fancied himself as an Übermensch. He postured and posed quite well; but he was a rather inferior specimen. If you are referring to Adolf Hitler, you cannot really blame my creator for him. You should be interviewing his appalling sister, Elisabeth, who tampered with Herr Nietzsche’s later writings, inserting anti-semitic comments into The Will to Power for example. Nietzsche himself was not at all an anti-semite or a racist: in fact, he had a pretty low opinion of his fellow Germans – bourgeois, conformist, and far too obedient to Bismarck. The idea of their being the Master Race would have struck him as laughable. Remember, “Let him come to Zarathustra who has unlearned the love of his people because he has learned to love many peoples.”
Presenter: A fair point, but nevertheless the lack of system and the looseness of Nietzsche’s main ideas seem to have paved the way for their misinterpretation, distortion and corruption by racists, fascists and many others, including left-wing liberals and intellectuals. The idea of Becoming Oneself, as formulated by you, with a bit of twisting could be used to justify anything; and as for the ‘will to power’, it seems to be a totally amoral concept, as demonstrated by Hitler and the Nazis.
Superman: Your ideas of what is and isn’t moral need radical readjustment. Superior intellects will understand exactly what I mean. That seems to exclude you.
Presenter: Yes, well then… Let me ask you now: in your view, what inspired Nietzsche to create a superior intellect like you?
Superman: I think that what inspired Herr Nietzsche was disgust with human beings rather than a desire for an ideal as such. Nevertheless, I am that ideal. Now that I have been created, humanity needs me as an ideal, otherwise they will become just like that hopeless Last Man – who will no doubt be making his anticlimactic appearance shortly.
Presenter: Coming back to my question, would I be right in thinking that initially the young Nietzsche was inspired by Richard Wagner, even obsessed with him? So did Wagner have a role in the creation of the Übermensch?
Superman: Ah yes, Wagner! For a while he did seem to be the Übermensch incarnate. A creative genius of the highest order, the complete artist! Only Wagner could persuade a king to bankrupt his country by building a theatre and holding a festival dedicated totally to his music. That’s what I call the will to power. Then one day the scales fell from Herr Nietzsche’s eyes, and he saw Wagner as someone who had somehow betrayed his genius. It was something to do with Parsifal, I think.
Presenter: Isn’t it true that after your famous debut in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche seemed to forget all about you? His description of you is rather thin, and has turned you into a travesty of what he intended. In his mature works Nietzsche seems more interested in ‘higher men’ such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon and the creative geniuses in art, literature, music and philosophy – Beethoven, Goethe, Leonardo, Pascal, Spinoza, and, of course, himself.
Superman: They may all be ‘higher men’, but I am Herr Nietzsche’s Übermensch, by far his most celebrated creation! They are not here tonight, whereas I am. In fact the great Goethe gave me a special mention in Faust. Look up Act 1, Scene 3.
Presenter: Er… I think you have forgotten that when Faust is referred to there as an ‘Übermensch’, the tone is utterly ironic and sarcastic. At that point Faust is in a state of existential crisis, and has in desperation turned to necromancy.
Superman: A piffling detail – of no consequence in the grander dramatic scheme.
Presenter: So what you are going to do when you have completed your own scheme, the revaluation of all values?
Superman: Creating new values will not be easy. Perhaps a return to the heroic age of Greece would be a start. Their heroes embodied the will to power, and there is no nonsense about pity and brotherly love with them. Rather, the select few must be allowed to become themselves at the expense of the mediocre majority. Creative genius cannot flourish when stifled by conventional morality. We can forget Kant and his legalistic hyper-rational formulas, and Mill’s pathetic appeal to the happiness of the masses. As for Judeo-Christian so-called ethics, don’t get me started. A revival of the cult of Dionysus is long overdue.
Presenter: Perhaps we can return now to the idea of Eternal Recurrence – an idea Nietzsche seems to have borrowed from the Stoics. It strikes me as being not much more than an exhortation to live life to the full.
Superman: No, no! It is the “formula for the greatness of a human being”: if we say ‘yes’ to one aspect of our lives, we must say ‘yes’ to all of it, and be prepared to live with the endless repetition of that life. That’s a tough challenge even for me, let alone for ordinary mortals. But yes-saying is the only way they can become Übermenschen.
Presenter: The idea seems like a poetic fancy to me, and too devoid of content to be real philosophy. Everything just happens again and again. Nothing means anything anymore.
Superman: You have totally failed to grasp this, and much else besides.
Presenter: Well okay, Mr Über, now it’s time to welcome our other guest. It has taken some time to track him down, but we eventually found him in Springfield. Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to the Last Man in person – Mr Homer Simpson!
(Homer enters to cheers and loud applause, looking rather bemused. He blinks at the audience and the studio lights.)
Presenter: Now Mr Simpson, you’ve been listening to what Mr Über had to say. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share with us about that?
Superman: (interrupting) If this pathetic, inferior specimen has any thoughts at all, they will be utterly unoriginal, bland, boring, banal and typical of the ignorant masses of late industrialised society, with its egalitarian, socialist slave mentality…
Presenter: No more interruptions please, Mr Über. As you were about to say, Mr Simpson?
Homer: I guess I’m a very ordinary sort of guy. I like being part of the herd. Don’t forget, without people like me, Mr Über over there would have nobody to look down on, nobody to boss around, nobody to do the dirty work for him. (Pauses for thought.) If he’s the Übermensch, maybe I’m the Untermensch. (Loud applause.) Doh!
Presenter: Interesting. I like that idea of the mutual interdependence implicit in the Master/Slave relationship, it’s very much as Hegel outlined it.
Homer: Hegel, schmegel!
Presenter: What are your main goals in life, Mr Simpson?
Homer: Most of all I want a nice quiet life for me and my family. But with a family like mine, that’s not so simple, especially with a son like Bart (more cheers). I don’t mind working – but not too hard. I don’t mind not being a famous celebrity. I’ll just try to be a good Mensch, you know, to be a good neighbour and all that, and I like being happy. I don’t like this idea that suffering and disease somehow make you more noble. I try to avoid suffering –
Superman: (Interrupting again) Happy! How typical! You certainly are the Last Man – and you are pathetic!
Presenter: Quiet, please! Mr Simpson, would you like to answer that? What is your general opinion of our other guest?
Homer: I suppose that compared with him I’m unambitious, unadventurous, uncreative, and a safety-first kind of guy. Maybe all real people are somewhere in the middle between Über and me. But I know a few people who have taken his advice to ‘become what they are’. They think they are überpeople, and that they can make their own laws and rules and things, and that the normal rules don’t apply to them. A lot of these folks are now in jail. (Aside) Doesn’t he realise that we’re both fictional characters?
Superman: I heard that! I may be fictional, but I am a potent symbol of what mankind can be at its best. Now that I have been created and let loose into the world, like a genie – or should that be a genius? – from a bottle, I cannot be put back in – whereas you, Last Man, whoever you are…
Presenter: Please sit down, sir. Any final points, Mr Simpson?
Homer: I don’t like the sound of this eternally recurring thing. It reminds me of Groundhog Day, only not so entertaining. You know, there’s this guy Connors trapped in a loop, and every day is February 2nd. He lives the same day over and over again. Eventually he escapes the loop by trying to help other people. D’you think there’s a moral there somewhere? Oh yes, and he finally gets the girl, Rita, just like I got Marge.
Presenter: What about you, Mr Über? Is there a Mrs Über? Could there be a female Übermensch? If not, how do you –?
Superman: (interrupting) Sheer impertinence! In these matters as in all else, I transcend conventional boundaries.
Homer: That sounds like a ‘No’ to me! And another thing, what’s all this about God being dead? Maybe where you come from God may be dead, Mr Über, but back in Springfield our church is pretty full every Sunday.
(He throws a punch at Homer, who punches him back. The presenter tries to separate them as the studio lights dim.)
© Carl Murray 2012
Carl Murray is a classicist, a singer, and an adult education lecturer in Philosophy and also in Opera.