Zarathustra in Basel

by Sam Kriss

The clear streams sing no more in the mountains, and the lush pastures of the plains shudder as articulated lorries rumble along the Autobahn.

Zarathustra is silent in the communal sitting-room of the Pflegeheim. The chilly winds of eternal recurrence have blown the hair from his head, and now only a dank grey fringe hangs limply down the back of his neck. His crown is scabbed and speckled, the sharp blue of his eyes has faded to beige, his lips quiver arhythmically. Only his nose still juts forward accusingly: a faint shadow of the ferociousness with which his eyes once interrogated those he spoke to lingers on in its haughty bend.

Once he had walked in the hills and the deserts, and had loved every thing that he saw. He had exulted in the poetry of the brooks and the mournful whisperings of the swirling sands. He had drunk deeply the cold water of the mountains, he had strode boldly through the dappled forests. He had walked on tightropes and danced on embers, and everywhere he went he would spread his teaching. Zarathustra scorned all morality and weakness, Zarathustra would never look behind him, Zarathustra would always surge on forward, in Zarathustra’s voice could be heard the screech of the eagle that embraces its freedom and the roar of the bear that does not hide from its own power. Except now there are no more rocky landscapes to traverse, and in front of him there leers a void. Once he might have plunged himself gleefully into that chasm. Now, for the first time, Zarathustra is afraid.

Zarathustra stares out the window. Across the street, rows of identical suburban houses behind neatly trimmed lawns. Clustered round them are globular cars, wheelie-bins, milk-bottles, plastic toys. Behind, the grey shape of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical factory, and in the hazy distance, the outline of the Basler Messeturm. There are mountains out there, somewhere in the distance, high peaks and jagged cliffs, glistening with ice, soaring through cloudless skies, bold and terrifying, the precipitous haunts of hawks and wolves. He can’t see them.

There’s a nurse. Perhaps she has always been there.

– Would you like us to bring you your lunch, Herr Köhler?

– Herr Köhler? I am Zarathustra. I am the imp dancing in the heart of the flames, I am the triumphant roar of the gale, I am the thunder of hooves and the surging of the sea. I am life itself. I drink only the pure light of the heavens. I eat only in the joyful company of my companions.

Only he doesn’t speak. The words roar in Zarathustra’s head, but his throat seizes up, and from his lips only a broken mumbling emerges. Maybe it’s because he almost doesn’t believe it any more.

– I’ll just get that for you, shall I?

Zarathustra never used to look over his shoulder at what he had left behind. Even if he came to the same place twice he would always find it different. Zarathustra never used to be remotely concerned with being or with essence, because he knew that everything around him was always becoming, always reaching out to be something greater. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember who he is. He had been a Persian once, a wanderer, a lofty firebrand. And a Prussian, too, a solitary genius racked by frailties. But there are other faces and other images, his old class at Weiterbildungsschule, his commander during Militärdienst, the brown and avocado tiling of his bungalow – there’s no order to them, no sense. They are not Zarathustra’s memories.

– Here you go.

The nurse is holding a tray in front of him. In one little compartment, doughy-looking potatoes and semi-disintegrated beans. In another some shreds of stringy meat wallow in a puddle of gravy. A plastic cup half-filled with water, and three pills in red and purple capsules. It isn’t food: food must nourish the spirit as much as the body, it must leave a man feeling refreshed and vigorous. This is just matter, sustenance to stave off death for another day. It is smallness and mediocrity. He will not eat it. Zarathustra shakes his head.

– Am I going to have to feed you myself?

Balancing the tray in one hand, the nurse scoops up a forkful of meat and potatoes and brings it towards Zarathustra’s face.

– Open wide.

Zarathustra’s arm jerks out, he strikes the bottom of the tray with the last of his anger. Gravy splatters the nurse’s blouse, water drenches her face, potatoes slide down the front of her skirt. She storms out. Zarathustra isn’t proud of what he’s done, there’s no nobility in striking the small-minded, but he’s relieved that some dying glint of the Will still burns within him. He’s not been defeated, not yet.

The nurse returns, thin-lipped, cold-eyed. Kindness and humanity can only go so far. She tries so hard to help the old man, to keep him warm and safe and fed, but he seems incapable of gratitude. He doesn’t want to be helped. She knows that he’d appreciate the effort she puts in for him if he were in his right mind. She is a caring and selfless woman, even if hers is a thankless job. Two hundred milligrams of thioridazine for Zarathustra.