Zarathustra vs The Cure

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Chapter 8: ‘On the Tree on the Mountainside’
vs “Why Can’t I Be You?”, The Cure (Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, 1987)

Perhaps when not teaching in the market place of The Motley Cow, Zarathustra was to be spied walking in the hills surrounding the town, gathering his thoughts and creating his philosophy. If so, it may not have been pure chance that – one day – he was to stumble upon a young man sat beneath a lone tree overlooking the valley. This young man was known to Zarathustra by sight, the teacher having noticed him at the market place during his teachings. At the periphery of the group who had become Zarathustra’s disciples, this youth would hold back, set himself apart. Now it seems apparent the young man wants to talk to Zarathustra in secret, and so has engineered this this meeting. Zarathustra, understanding this, opens up the conversation, and does so by observing he believes the youth to be troubled.

‘You have spoken the truth, Zarathustra,’ replies the young man, ‘I no longer trust myself since aspiring to the heights, and [furthermore] no one else trusts me.’ It seems that in his attempt to become a free spirit, the young man has distanced himself from the day-to-day lives and activities of his fellow humans, and is feeling the loneliness of the exile. This is making him question his whole project: ‘What do I want then in the heights?’ Zarathustra uses the tree beneath which the young man shelters in various analogies: ‘[t]he more it aspires to the height and light, the more strongly its roots strive earthward, downward, into the dark’. ‘How is it,’ replies the young man ‘you have uncovered my soul?’ Such vacillation has led to the youth despising himself: ‘How ashamed I am of my climbing and stumbling! How I mock at my violent panting! How I hate the one who can fly!’

Zarathustra is exemplary of the free spirit the young man aspires to, and so can answer: ‘Some souls one will never uncover unless one first invents them’. Accordingly, the yearning and despising of the youth is not only a reflection upon his own situation, but has another dimension. He yearns to be like Zarathustra, but he also despises him. Such is the problem Robert Smith of The Cure explores in the funked up groove that is ‘Why Can’t I be You?’

On the one hand, the lyrics praise the beauty and accomplishments of another: ‘You're so gorgeous I'll do anything / I'll kiss you from your feet to where your head begins / You're so perfect you're so right as rain / You make me, make me, make me, make me hungry again.’ On the other hand, there is a dark and disturbing undercurrent to the song: ‘I'll run around in circles ‘til I run out of breath / I'll eat you all up / Or I'll just hug you to death.’ Smith – in his usual (and wonderfully) divisive manner – has given a number of origin myths about the song. One theme, however, echoes the situation of the young scholar on the mountainside. ‘The song’ says Smith ‘came from a question asked by a fan. Even if I understood the sense of his question, I tried to explain to him that it was impossible… This idea of being someone else can create a terrible feeling of alienation.’ Accordingly, Smith discovers this feeling in himself: ‘Me bemoaning my inelegance? Or being jealous of someone else's poise?’ The feel-good brass stabs of the effervescent music act to suppress, efface and deny the envy, hate and scorn permeating the song: ’Why can't I be you?’

The young man admits ‘you are the lightning for which I was waiting! Behold, what am I now that you have appeared among us? It is envy of you that has destroyed me!’ It is in response to this, that Zarathustra approaches the youth, embraces him and says ‘You aspire to the free height… But your wicked drives, too, thirst for freedom… Your wild dogs want their freedom.’ Thus: ‘You are not yet free, you are still seeking freedom.’

The young man sees his problems in relation to others. The resentment of the good townsfolk to his own seeking is mirrored in the resentment he feels toward Zarathustra. The youth needs to free himself from these reciprocal snares, and to become noble, like a noble metal, with low reactivity. For reacting to the resentment of others, and becoming caught up in resentment, is ‘the danger of the noble man, that he might become insolent, scornful, an annihilator.’ This chapter is all about becoming a hero for yourself, becoming noble, free, aspiring to the heights and the real problem in such a quest. Zarathustra’s lesson – and it may be the teacher has invented or is reporting this encounter to his disciples – is that the young man’s resistance is hidden both deep within and from himself.

First Part: Chapter 9 - First Aid Kit

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