“Apocrypha of Zarathustra” by Philip Eskenazi
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In the speculative metafiction “Apocrypha of Zarathustra,” Philip Eskenazi’s narrator, a “philosophical dilettante” and admirer of Nietzsche, muses on an idea for a Borgesian story set in the mountains of Argentina. This is Eskenazi’s fiction debut.
Apocrypha of Zarathustra
by Philip Eskenazi
Another short story idea revolves around Borges. It would start with a character like myself, a person with greater-than-average interest in Nietzsche, who perhaps fancies himself an interpreter of Nietzsche but who never moved beyond the stage of philosophical dilettante. I was thinking an opening line in the direction of: There was a time I dabbled in Nietzsche scholarship. He’s a dabbler, this character. And he has some thoughts to share with the reader—for example, maybe he wonders at the incredible fecundity, the wealth and overgrowth of interpretations spawned by Nietzsche’s works, often mutually exclusive, sometimes directly opposing and attacking each other. Marxists, fascists, anarchists, reactionaries, republicans, royalists, artists, preachers, thinkers, feelers: they all want to own a piece of Nietzsche; they all find inspiration in his words. The character thinks that’s curious. He speculates that Nietzsche is perhaps the literary cause with the greatest variety of effects.
The story takes off when the character comes to receive a manuscript, a mysterious volume written by a man called Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka, or Teodardo Serafín Lafinur, or perhaps not Teodardo at all but something else. The main thing is that it will be a name with a certain significance, and evocative of Argentina. This mysterious writer is from Argentina or at least lived in Argentina and wrote the manuscript in Argentina. How the first character—let’s call him the narrator—comes into possession of the manuscript is as yet unclear. It may be that he takes a backpacking trip through South America, like myself. Perhaps the trip takes place in his summer holiday, when it’s winter there, and he catches a cold on the Río Plata, from which he never quite recovers, like myself, and by the time he comes to Bariloche, it has developed into a throat infection. (In my case this culminated in a week of fever in Cartagena de Indias, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where I lived on a diet of fruit juice and pastries and read Borges. Perhaps it will be the same for the narrator, though I doubt he will visit Colombia.) In this scenario, the narrator would feel weakened when he arrives in Bariloche, a picturesque town in the Andes reminiscent of villages such as you find in the Swiss Alps, with wooden châlets whose pointed roofs are covered in snow, and he would stay there for a bit to recover, allowing himself the luxury of a private room. In that room he would find, perhaps in the false-bottomed drawer of a nightstand, the mysterious manuscript by Teodardo Lafinur.
It is clear straightaway that this manuscript has enormous significance. However, no information is available other than what is provided by Lafinur or Dempeus Piwonka in the manuscript itself. I don’t know exactly what the manuscript contains, but it’s handwritten in thick blue ink on faded yellow paper, in tempered lettering, and its title is Apocrypha of Zarathustra. There is a foreword or afterword by the author, in which he seems to imply that he is near-blind, possibly from a tumor behind the eyes, and expects to leave this life soon. It is likely that he used a pseudonym; none of the people the narrator might speak to in Bariloche has any notion of this man or his book.
At this point, I would like to involve the beautiful surroundings. The narrator is in the Río Negro district of Argentina, with the humbling peaks of the Andes around him. The Andes go up to seven thousand meters, much higher than any place in Europe, let alone the Netherlands, where the narrator is from, and the jagged rocks and silver lakes form an inspiring backdrop. Perhaps the narrator takes some trips, goes hiking or even skiing, as many people do in this area. Bariloche is a charming town, and the way the snow lies on the houses with perfect regularity, as though it is another layer of roof, is something the narrator observes with emotion. He’s a delicate man, the narrator. However, Bariloche gets cold in wintertime, and if the narrator has a throat infection, he should probably stay in bed. It could be that he does have that throat infection but goes out into the cold anyway, of course, either out of recklessness or after he recovers from the throat infection. At this stage, I like the recklessness angle better. The narrator is a mental person, a disdainer of the body, as Nietzsche called them (though the German works a lot better here: he called them the Verächtern des Leibes, and if I’m being exact it was Zarathustra, not Nietzsche). He disdains his body and its importance, treating it as though it’s only the bicycle on which his mind gets around. But I’m also thinking that it could be nice if the narrator is bedridden and locked in his room with nothing but the manuscript. I like the combination of a small room, a fever, and a manuscript. (This must have something to do with my own memorable experience, in that small private room in Colombia, of reading Borges with a fever. However, Cartagena has a tropical-fever vibe, and in this story I’m going for the cold-mountain-fever mood, which is different—not green abundance and pouring sweat so much as blue freeze and chattering teeth—though equally delirious.) Following this line of thought, the room is the main setting, as far as the narrator is concerned: a small room in a small hostel, run by the German who ran the hostel at which I stayed in Bariloche—a man who reminded me of Bernd Schuster, with blond, half-long hair, a mustache, and that facial quality I cannot describe in any other way than “Teutonic.” He had the arrogance of the Germans, which in a land filled with the children of Spaniards and Italians only becomes more pronounced, and though he was certainly not friendly, you felt that he was well up to the responsibility of providing shelter. The room has wooden floorboards and a wooden bed with a simple mattress and many blankets made of fleece and wool.
Of course the narrator is telling us the story after it happened, so he is not in Argentina as he speaks, or at least not in Bariloche and certainly not locked inside that private room, and perhaps that will give me the flexibility to work in both the background of natural grandeur and the wooden hostel with the German owner. But the main atmosphere I want to create is that of a small, simple room with an electric heater, where the air is dry and the throat hurts and the mind is full of fever. The throat infection makes it difficult to swallow, so the narrator eats a lot of soup, in particular potato soup brought to him by the German’s wife.
Thus the narrator reads the Apocrypha of Zarathustra, composed by Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka. I’ve been saying he wrote them, but I’m not sure that’s true. The document is handwritten by Teodardo, so in that literal sense he did, but the material is not originally his—or so, at least, he claims. The manuscript is supposed to have that biblical quality Nietzsche also put into his Zarathustra. Teodardo wrote the manuscript but presents it as though he only collected the material. Because it is a collection, just like the Bible and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. It’s a collection of stories, legends, parables, sermons, and so on. The idea is that Zarathustra, after recurring in Europe in the 1880s, did not die in the Swiss Alps at the age of seventy-seven years and forty days, as is commonly believed, but boarded a ship that took him to Buenos Aires. He journeyed across the pampas, on foot or on horseback or even in a horse-drawn carriage—although not that, not the carriage; that doesn’t sound like Zarathustra—until he settled in the mountains around the spot we now call Bariloche. This would have been around 1905. Zarathustra lived there for many years and received many visitors in his cave, and Teodardo collected the stories and speeches in his manuscript.
Here, I don’t really know how to proceed. I should probably go into the legends and speeches themselves, perhaps recount a few of them through the voice of the narrator or even in the words of Teodardo. But what kind of material is in there? This is crucial, of course, because if the manuscript turns out uninteresting, my story will collapse. I was thinking that most of the manuscript could be legends of people who visited Zarathustra in his cave, where he warmed them by his eternal fire, fed them honey-covered manna, and overflowed their cups with ripened wisdom. Some of them traveled far to meet him, attracted by his reputation; others were local caudillos, who often learned a lesson in humility. Zarathustra would be that archetype of the wise man on the mountain, spreading Nietzschean philosophy. But then I’ll have to relate at least one of these legends.
There could be something to do with enmity. For example, a young man travels from afar to confront Zarathustra. Or perhaps he’s very old, even older than Zarathustra; he’s an old man with silver hair and a long silver beard, only his eyebrows are black, a deep, bushy black, and this old man boards a ship to cross the Atlantic. He travels all the way from Europe to the high mountains of Argentina because he has a bone to pick with Zarathustra. They met once before, a long time ago, in the Swiss Alps or on the plains of Central Germany or even in Holland, if we suppose Zarathustra passed through there on his journeys. (I’m also toying with the idea that he’s Hungarian, that they met on the Hungarian plains. In popular consciousness, Hungarians can have that mysterious aura that makes you feel it’s better not to anger them, as they have ways of getting back at you, certainly old Hungarian men with long silver beards and dark flickering eyes.) The man takes his meals alone and talks to no one on the ship. When they dock in Buenos Aires, an early evening in spring, he takes a simple room near the port and goes to sleep. These are the days in which the tango is born, when in seedy dance halls a new mating ritual forms, an exciting new culture, but we skip over that entirely. By dawn the next morning, the old man has left town. He hires a mule or perhaps even walks across the pampas. I would like it if he walked across the pampas, crossed the whole of Argentina on foot, but that might not be feasible—it’s a thousand miles to Bariloche, with many stretches of barren land, and he’s an old man. Perhaps he could do it in six months or a year if he hired a mule to carry his supplies. He would come across beautiful landscapes filled with exotic cactus plants, strange rock formations, and lunar hills, and the skies at night would be unlike anything he’d seen before. The old man pays no mind. No time for beauty—he’s on a mission. He needs to talk to Zarathustra.
Now that I’m thinking about it, the old man won’t know where to find Zarathustra. There should be an element of quest involved. Zarathustra does not advertise his whereabouts. The old man has heard that Zarathustra boarded a ship and went to Buenos Aires; he’s heard Zarathustra hired a horse and rode across the pampas; he’s heard Zarathustra disappeared into the Andes. The man walks in his trail, he comes to the foot of the Andes, and there he halts. He knows Zarathustra is out there somewhere, up in the mountains, but he’s old; he can’t just go roaming through the Andes at random—he’ll exhaust himself before he has any chance of finding Zarathustra. So he remains at the foot of the mountains, waiting, unsure what for. Days go by. Weeks go by. His gray hair grows white. The old man does not know what to do.
When old men sit alone at the feet of mountains without moving, birds begin to circle overhead. The old man curses Zarathustra. The reason he wants to confront him is that he feels tricked, betrayed, deceived. When they met, many years before on the Hungarian plains, Zarathustra stole something from him. It didn’t seem so at the time; at the time he thought Zarathustra had given him something—he thought Zarathustra had given him insight, opened his eyes to the truth about morality, moved him beyond good and evil. Zarathustra showed the man the phantasmal nature of moral beliefs and the contingency of values. The man was young then and thought Zarathustra was giving him freedom, freedom from the old morality and the old religion. Perhaps the man was religious once, perhaps even a monk or on his way to become a monk. What if they met on that Hungarian plain just as the man was on his way to the monastery? No, that’s too obvious. In any case, Zarathustra moved the man beyond good and evil. At the time, this insight gave the man great excitement, and he was supremely grateful to Zarathustra. He felt light, enlightened, floating over the Hungarian plains like a bubble of soap. But as time went by, he realized that the insight posed a problem rather than solving one. It destroyed an answer without supplying an alternative. Not only that; it destroyed any route to alternative answers. There are no facts about values, the man thought, yet my soul needs facts. I cannot live on fantasy values. Zarathustra stole my values away from me, Zarathustra destroyed my power to find purpose in the universe, Zarathustra corrupted me—these thoughts came to possess the man. In short, the man succumbed to nihilism. And now, at the end of his wasted life, when his hair has turned white, he wants to confront the one who destroyed him. But where can he find him?
The bird circling over him has black wings with white spots. The man realizes he can see these details with his old and tired eyes, even though the bird is flying very high. It must be a huge bird. And indeed, as it comes closer in a slowly descending spiral, the man sees that it’s a condor. The old man follows the bird with his eyes as it floats down in a helix. While his gaze is on the sky, a sound comes from below. Among the small rocks on the soil is a hiss, coming from the tongue of a slithering gray snake with a black zigzag pattern on its back. It looks to the old man like an adder, but then he’s not familiar with the snakes of the New World. The snake comes close to him and seems to look up, as if to ask a question or make an offer. The old man does not know what the question is, and then he thinks it’s the temptation of death. The snake has come to tempt him, and it knows that for the old nihilist, death is the only temptation left. The old man weeps. The snake is at his feet, its upper body reared in the shape of a question mark, and the old man nods and offers his throat. With eyes closed, he waits for the sting. He feels a hand on his shoulder, or two hands, rough strong hands, one on each shoulder, and they’re not hands, they’re talons. He’s lifted off the ground, and the dry air glides over his face. The man opens his eyes and is soaring through the sky under the enormous wings of the black condor.
The condor has a collar of white feathers around its neck and a small, bald head, flushing red. On top of its head, leading into its crooked beak, a red comb stands as a fleshy crown. The condor is hideous and beautiful. The old man puts his hands around its legs as the two of them climb higher. Below them, the feet of the Andes become small. Gray rocks that had resembled giants become dwarfs and playthings. The enormous cactus on the ground becomes something out of a doll house, a puppet show, a comedy. They soar higher, deeper into the Andes, where the slopes are coarse and grand. The old man weeps as he flies through the Argentine sky. Beneath him are frozen silver lakes and gritty gray rocks. He smells smoke, and underneath him burns a fire. The condor circles down and deposits him in front of Zarathustra.
Zarathustra is just hanging laundry on a wire outside his cave. “My condor, what did you steal today from the brink of death?”
“It is me, O Zarathustra,” says the old man, “the young man from the plains of Hungary. I traveled great lengths by ship and foot to find Zarathustra and confront him.”
Zarathustra looks at him in wonder. “The plains of Hungary are grafted deep in the memory of my spirit, stomach, and loins. But of this white-haired silver-bearded man, my mind is blank.”
“I am the young man who was destroyed by Zarathustra. And I came to confront you. This time you will remember me!”
“Oh, the day is young; there is time for confrontations yet. Curious I am to know who this peculiar, heavy-browed man might be. However, you are now a guest of Zarathustra, who welcomes his enemies more warmly than his friends. Old man, your face shows the tooth marks of the desert, which gnawed at you with a thousand teeth. A bath in the silver lake will refresh you.”
“O, Zarathustra, sage of sages, don’t you hear? I came to confront you!”
“Take this towel; it’s clean. The cold water washes ten years off you. Follow my snake, and he will guide you there.”
The old man shakes his head. “Yes, Zarathustra,” he mumbles, “but remember this, I am here to confront you.” He leaves the mouth of Zarathustra’s cave, following the hiss of the gray snake with the black zigzag pattern on its back.
Zarathustra walks up the narrow mountain path he has carved for himself and plucks a handful of sage and tarragon. Then he takes a lamb and cuts its throat with his machete. He skins it and spices it well, and when the Hungarian comes back, refreshed and ten years younger, the meat is roasting on a spit.
“What is this smell that coaxes my nose?”
“It is the tender meat of a young lamb, spiced with sage and tarragon, roasting in my fire.”
“It smells amazing. But hear me, Zarathustra, I came to confront you, who ruined my life. However tender and well-spiced, no lamb can appease me.”
“Oh, there is time for that yet, old man. Don’t fear: Zarathustra shuns no conflict. But first you must eat. One cannot go to war on an empty stomach.”
“That is true,” says the old man, and he sits by Zarathustra, tending the spit, staring into the flames. “Do you have wine to drink?”
“Old man,” says Zarathutra, “up here we drink water. The purest, cleanest mineral water, springing straight from the earth. Do not weaken yourself with wine or other poisons. One cannot go to war on wine.”
The old man sulks, for wine has been his refuge all his life. He drinks the clear water straight from the spring. It tastes of iron. “But what about bread? Do you not have bread to eat?”
“Old man,” says Zarathustra, “up here we don’t eat bread. Let the lamb chew grass and turn it into tender meat. Then we turn their tender meat into our living bodies. Each according to duty.”
The old man sighs, for bread has been his sustenance all his life. When the lamb is roasted and ready to eat, Zarathustra carves it into big chunks with his machete. The old man, Zarathustra, the condor, and the snake eat of the tender meat. The old man eats a lot. Then they finish.
“Now,” says Zarathustra, “I have fed you and lent you my towel. It is time for me to ask some questions. What is your name?”
“Never mind my name.”
“I will call you Laszlo,” says Zarathustra. “Up here in the high Andes, names don’t matter anyway.”
“That’s right,” says the old man, and he pulls from his girdle a small switchblade. Zarathustra gives him a mocking look and turns his back to him. The old man stares at Zarathustra’s broad back and strong shoulders and feels, deeper than ever before, his own worthlessness. He throws the knife away and sinks to his knees, covering his eyes with his hands and weeping. Then he feels a burning sting on his face. Surprised, he takes his hands away and sees Zarathustra towering over him. Zarathustra has slapped his cheek. The old man is furious.
“On your feet, Laszlo,” says Zarathustra.
The old man gets up and takes a swing at Zarathustra. He hits him in the gut. Zarathustra does not budge and lands a fist on his ear. The men fight, and as they fight, Zarathustra speaks.
“What is Zarathustra to you? A fisherman and teacher, who dropped into Lake Balaton his honey-covered bait. Verily, it’s long ago I learned my tricks: to move a sweet-water fish to leave its lake, one must sugar the bait and coat it with caramel. Keep your chin up. Come on, old man! Yes, you got hooked on my cheerfulness, and I pulled you skyward. In order to rise, you had to leave behind the warm sweet-water lake. You want to blame Zarathustra for that? Watch those feet. In the lake you are carried by the water, but at Zarathustra’s heights you must carry yourself. Keep moving, old man! Your indignation means nothing to Zarathustra, who lives six thousand feet above blame and praise. I offered you my bait. Will you take the challenge and learn to breathe outside the water? Those who cannot grow may drop dead in the lake.”
Panting, the men now take some distance, and with their fists still up they circle around each other in a slow dance. The old man wants to speak but says nothing. The fight has knocked his grief loose, and now it whirls around inside him, refusing to be verbalized.
“Foolish Laszlo!” Zarathustra shouts. “You spent your years in hate of Zarathustra, believing you hated him because he oppressed you, but you got it all backward. Zarathustra can only oppress you because of your hatred. Love your enemy and you liberate yourself from him.”
The old man falls to his knees and holds out his hands, clasped together in supplication. “Show me! Show me how to love my enemy! Teach me to forgive!”
Zarathustra looks down on him and shakes his head in disbelief. What a funny old man! he thinks. Truly, here’s a manic Magyar if I’ve ever seen one!
Then Zarathustra speaks. He speaks of the skinny preachers, the barefoot men who once walked the earth to preach of gnawing worms and gnashing teeth and sulfur and flaming lakes and furnaces and dragon fire. “So they preached, these skinny preachers, scribes and scribblers, rufflers and rousers, warning the people to prepare all day for the endless night.”
Zarathustra describes how the skinny preachers cooked up a holy doctrine and fed it to the starving people, who swallowed it with hair, skin, and bones. It was a holy doctrine that served the skinny preachers well, giving wings to their will to power, which had gone around barefoot until then and suddenly reached the four corners of the earth. But did they preach the truth?
Feet planted on the hardened soil, Zarathustra laments the skinny preachers’ foolishness, the swollen pride that made them think this was a work for their hands, a sermon for their tongues. He rues their ridiculous thought, their absurd belief, their farcical idea that on the Day of Judgment each soul will have its turn, to be placed, one by one, in the scales of Heaven and Hell. What jury would have time for that? Not a Year of Judgment would suffice.
Zarathustra denounces the peasant arrogance, the self-importance, the terrible conceit and pomposity that spoke through these vainglorious preachers, the snooty, smug, and shameless nerve of their idea. Since the dawn of humankind, a hundred billion bodies have walked the earth, a hundred billion souls have lived their lives and died their deaths. What god would mind the doings and occurrences of a hundred billion little lives? Zarathustra speaks of the lies and knavery in the doctrine of Judgment Day, the sulfuric scent about these sermons, this holy doctrine that made immortals of the skinny preachers but upset the stomach of history.
“Now pay attention,” Zarathustra says, “and hear these next words well, old man. They reveal the secret doctrine of Judgment Day. For this day shall surely come. And give heed: What will be weighed in the gods’ scale that day is not a hundred billion atoms one by one—ridiculous thought, farcical idea—but one humankind in whole. Verily, either all of us will enter the land of caramelized milk and everlasting honey, or none of us will. Either all of us will be cast in the overheating furnace below, or none of us will. As one we will be judged; as one we will rise or fall; as one we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven or burn forever in Hell below. And mind these words, for the day shall surely come. In one scale will be the task of humankind, the burden, the duty, the holy assignment. In the other scale will be the deeds of humankind, the actions and effects, the footprint, the fatherhood and motherhood, the creations of the genus. Will our creations weigh up? Will our legacy fulfill the promise? Will our species have made the world a better place? As a whole, we must be judged. As a whole we must go up or down. As a whole we will assume our fate.”
Zarathustra stops speaking now and pierces the old man with his silent eyes. A minute passes. He warns him to chew on these words, if his mind has teeth left yet. He warns him to chew and rechew on this lesson, to let it pass through the seven stomachs of his mind until the last nutritious mineral is drawn out. “Thus,” speaks Zarathustra, “will you learn to love your enemy.”
In the narrator’s story, this is where Teodardo Dempeus Piwonka ends his report. We don’t find out what happens to the old man—whether he understands the lesson, forgives his old enemy, learns to love him—and we shouldn’t care. The point, after all, is the speech of Zarathustra. Teodardo is right about that, the narrator thinks.
Still, he’s unsure what to make of the story. He finds this alternative view on the final judgment curious enough, and he can see how it might lead to a very different set of values, or even a wholly different culture, than the single-soul approach of Christianity, where the feelings for one’s enemy are sweetened by the prospect of watching them burn forever. But he wonders if Teodardo’s source really could have been Zarathustra. He questions whether Zarathustra fled to Argentina at all, and he doubts that Zarathustra would ever believe in a religious concept like Judgment Day.
Some scholars argue that Zarathustra’s ideas should be taken as thought experiments rather than metaphysical doctrines. Under an extreme version of this view, the speeches are merely psychological tools, instruments designed to bring about a mental change. Even more than Jesus’ parables, which, if they are not meant to be literally true, still seem to refer metaphorically to truth, Zarathustra’s speeches are purely performative. As long as it brings about the desired effects in the listener, the idea that humankind will be judged as one could perfectly well be espoused by Zarathustra, such scholars might argue, the narrator thinks. I guess that could work.
But then there’s the ending. I’m not sure how it should end. Anything like the narrator publishing the manuscript he discovered and finding fame and fortune as a Nietzsche scholar seems cheesy. Perhaps he hides Teodardo’s manuscript from the world and tries to pass off the insights it contains as his own, writing a series of papers on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that come to distinguish him as a highly original thinker. That seems better. But I don’t really want to go beyond the little room with wooden floors in the Bariloche hostel. The story should end there. Perhaps, then, the narrator forms this plan and spends the night fantasizing about it until he succumbs to his fever, the German owner’s wife finding him dead in the little room the next morning. However, unless he told the story from the afterlife, which I definitely don’t want him to, that would make it impossible for him to be the narrator. The only solution would be to tell the story in third person instead.
Oh, I wish Borges had come up with this. It could be a good story if I knew how to write it.
Philip Eskenazi is a writer of fiction. He holds a PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam, where he teaches philosophy of science. In addition, he teaches executives about decision-making, drawing on his vast personal experience of bad decisions. He lives in Delft, the Netherlands, and is working on his first novel. This is is first published fiction.