Zarathustra vs David Bowie

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Prologue 4
vs “Oh! You Pretty Things”, David Bowie (Hunky Dory, 1971)

David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” from Hunky Dory has something that captures up ‘Prologue 4’.  In ‘Prologue 3’ Zarathustra had portentously announced the overhuman in the wake of the death of God, gods and idols; and in the atmosphere of nascent evolutionary theories. The teaching was positioned in respect to the limitations and degradations of humankind – and received by the people with aggressive laughter. In ‘Prologue 4’ Zarathustra takes a different approach. Here we encounter a series of declarations of love – not for the overhuman – but for the human; or rather, for the human who accepts and welcomes the overhuman, at the same time accepting and encouraging their own demise. ‘The human is a rope, fastened between beast and Overhuman – a rope over an abyss… a dangerous shuddering… What is great in the human is that it is a bridge… what can be loved in the human is that it is a going-over and a going-under’. “Oh! You Pretty Things” – with its uneasy verses and jaunty chorus – captures this danger and jubilation.

The song begins with a banal and mundane scene, waking up, airing the bed, making some coffee – a morning like any other. Yet such a quotidian state is interrupted by something extraordinary: ‘Look out my window and what do I see / A crack in the sky / and a hand reaching down to me’. Bowie here has witnessed and will become, as Zarathustra before him, ‘a herald of the lightning’ and ‘this lightning is called Overhuman’. ‘All the nightmares came today,’ sings Bowie in a naked, cracked vocal, ‘And it looks as though they're / here to stay’. This nightmare is the realisation, articulated with venom in the final verse, that ‘The earth is a bitch / We've finished our news / Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use.’

Yet this overhuman – unimaginable – is figured by Bowie as children, the ‘pretty things’ of the title, ‘faces in golden rays’, ‘strangers’ driving their ‘Mamas and Papas insane’. Our children are not ‘our’ children: ‘Don't kid yourself they belong to you / They're the start of a coming race’. These children who we believe we own, these children are not of the past dragging out traditions with them; but of the future, breakers of values, and creators of new worlds. And as Bowie reiterates, this is a grounded metaphor, announced in the jubilant chorus – ‘Let me make it plain / You gotta make way / for the Homo Superior’. This echoes Nietzsche’s ‘I love all those who… herald the coming of the lightening, and as heralds they also perish’, sentiments spoken by Zarathustra in a number of ways, a number of times, and each time ending with a human ‘will to go under’, a human who ‘wills his own perishing’, a human where ‘all things become his going-under’. Are these words from the books Bowie describes as ‘Written in pain, written in awe / By a puzzled man who questioned / What we were here for’?

Übermensch – the superman, the overman, the overhuman – never has a concept been so troublesome. Is it even, or only, a concept? Is it rather, as many before have said, a teaching. It will take the whole of Zarathustra to play out, interweaving as it must with the correlates of eternal recurrence and will to power. ‘People,’ as Bowie himself said, and in saying did not excuse himself, ‘People aren't very bright, you know. They say they want freedom, but when they get the chance, they pass up Nietzsche and choose Hitler’. Which leads us into 'Prologue 5' and the last man…

First Part: Prologue 5 - Hazel O’Connor

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