Zarathustra vs Radiohead

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Chapter 2: ‘On the Professorial Chairs of Virtue’
vs “Go to Sleep (Little Man being Erased)”, Radiohead (Hail To The Thief, 2003)

‘“Blessèd are these sleepyheads, for they shall soon drop off.” – Thus spoke Zarathustra’: so ends Chapter 2 (Part 1). Without doubt, one of Nietzsche’s finest moments of comic mockery. Who are these sleepyheads? Zarathustra is recommended a celebrated ‘wise man’, so goes to see his dazzling performance on ‘sleep and virtue’. Seated before this academic, listening to his profound words, are a number of young men (young men, perhaps, Zarathustra himself has been approaching, to lure away from the mass. Imagine a busy market square in the Motley Cow – perhaps like that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), the one with the wonderful tracking shot of a series of crazy mystics. If, in Chapter 1, Zarathustra has been whispering into the ears of ‘brothers’; maybe he’s now taking a well-earned breather and checking out some talking heads). Zarathustra puts his feet up and tunes in.

‘It is no simple art to sleep…’ declares the wise man, concluding ‘one must possess all the virtues to sleep well’. So – all the usual qualities that should inspire humanity: do not covet the bodies of others, do not quarrel with a neighbour, do not lie, do not wish for honour, treasure and so on. If you follow such tenets your reward: peaceful sleep. Sound advice? What are all these prohibitions? – Zarathustra warned against such commands in Chapter 1 (second transformation). Submission. Conformity. Compliance. The wise man betrays himself: ‘Honour authority and obedience, and even crooked authority! Thus does sound sleep will it. How can I help it if power likes to walk on crooked legs?’ Here is revealed the political dimension of the wise man’s words: the words of a state philosopher secure in the tenure of a professorial chair. Such is the sense of Radiohead’s “Go to Sleep”.


Let us first push to one side the idea this song from Hail the Thief (indeed, all the songs) are an unambiguous commentary upon George Bush’s controversial US election win, and/or the terror-war of the war-on-terror, and/or Tony Blair’s devious foreign policy in the UK. No doubt these events from the early 2000s inspired Radiohead, but only the tone, the general co-ordinates. Thom Yorke rather adopted a cut and paste method, using phrases culled from the political atmosphere of the time, interweaving them with images from fairy-tales, images of horror, monstrous corruption and insane power that – as we know – haunt human imagination.

“Go to Sleep” epitomises this approach. Lyrically, it operates by using a call and response mechanism: ‘Something for the rag and bone man / “Over my dead body”.’ The hyperbolic rejoinder – this could never happen here, I’ll never allow it – always the same. The throw-away phrases of politicos? ‘Something big is gonna happen’, ‘Someone’s son and someone’s daughter’, ‘This is how you get sucked in’ – ‘“Over my dead body”.’  This response is a mantra for turning away, denial, sleep. As Zarathustra observes, the wise man’s formula is ‘to stay awake in order to sleep soundly’. Accordingly, if ‘I had to choose nonsense, this would be for me the most choiceworthy nonsense.’ Radiohead: ‘I’m gonna go to sleep / Let this wash all over me’. Go to sleep and ‘May pretty horses / Come to you’.

At the centre of the song – marking the transition from its acoustic English folk beginnings to the overlaid disjunctive digital manipulations that conclude the tune (hallmarks of this continuation of the Kid Amnesiac period) – such lyrical circularity is laid bare: ‘We don’t want monsters’ and ‘loonies taking over.’ The monstrous right and the loony left? And the same response from either side – back and forth – a Gulliveresque: ‘“Tiptoe round tie him down”’.

Sleep as a political weapon. Sleep as the prescription to such spirals of crooked power. Us, the little people, erased. There is nothing we can do, except rant ‘”over my dead body”’, then – job done, our virtues proclaimed – forty winks (in the wake of our ‘forty thoughts’). As Zarathustra wryly comments a little later: ‘Now I clearly understand what people were once seeking above all when they sought teachers of virtue. Sound sleep for themselves and opiate virtues to go with it!’

If the Prologue and Chapter 1 were concerned with setting the stage for Zarathustra’s speeches, the words of the wise man of Chapter 2 launches Zarathustra’s engagement with the nexus of politics, philosophy and religion that permeates the environment around him. His Nay-saying. Starting as it does with these words from a wise man and ending with Zarathustra’s commentary, the next few chapters (3-7) are a series of speeches by Zarathustra on the sources of such virtues (derived from the teachings of higher men ‘not always as honest’ as this academic). For sleep is also a figure of death – and the preaching of such virtues a false promise of salvation.

First Part: Chapter 3 - John Lennon

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