Zarathustra vs Marina and the Diamonds

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Chapter 18: ‘On Old and Young Little Women’
vs “Sex Yeah”, Marina and the Diamonds (Electra Heart [Deluxe version], 2012/4)

‘Why do you slink so shyly through the twilight, Zarathustra?’ asks one of the teacher’s acolytes – discovering the man creeping through the night-time town, attempting to remain unperceived. ‘And what are you hiding so carefully under your cloak?’ The received wisdom is that Nietzsche is here simply echoing Plato’s Phaedrus (227a-8e). Phaedrus is on his way to friend’s house to deliver a speech on love (specifically, the art of gay seduction) when he encounters Socrates. The treatise was penned by a dude named Lysias, and Phaedrus tries to trick Socrates into hearing a recitation by heart, saying he has no notes, and needs the practice. But Socrates spies something tucked beneath Phaedrus’ robe. It is a copy of Lysias’ words, Phaedrus has been rumbled, but the friends laugh and sit down together to read the original.

Nietzsche – however – plays with and subverts this reference: conjuring up a far more ribald exchange. Zarathustra is on his way to a lover, most probably a prostitute. And hidden beneath Zarathustra’s cloak is an erection (only possibly metaphorical). The two men go on to swap some nasty allusions. Then – and here we get to the crux of the chapter – Zarathustra reports another encounter he had a little earlier, at dusk (seems everyone is catching him at it! – aint that always the way!). This chapter is thus very different from most in the book: reported dialogue presented within a conversation. This presentation must thus be considered significant. And this recurrence has at least three indeterminacies on three different levels. In the first place, it undermines the veracity of Zarathustra’s reportage – a conversation between him and an old woman. Did the teacher even meet this woman? Or is this some kind of false attribution, a lie to justify? Whatever the case, this conversation is infamous. For the old woman concludes their exchange with the words: ‘“You are going women? Then don’t forget the whip!”‘. As the chapter has progressed, the sexism has been ratcheted up, eventually achieving a level of explicit violent misogyny. The defence – of course – would be that these words are not spoken by Zarathustra, but by a woman. Zarathustra merely repeats. But – and here is the second indeterminacy and secondary level – such a defence intensifies the problem. For – of course – it is Nietzsche’s tactic to give these words to a female interlocutor. Is this cowardice? Nietzsche without the courage to allow the hallowed teacher to speak these words for himself? Instead, he gives them to an old woman – invoking a cliché of aged female jealousy for good measure!

As Ashley Woodward writes – ‘Nietzsche is widely regarded as an outrageous misogynist’ (Nietzscheanism: 135). Yet – we must ask – is it possible Nietzsche is presenting a critique of misogyny here? Through the indeterminacies of the reported speech, and Nietzsche conceiving this as reported speech, does this tactic force or allow critical reflection? Thus Spoke Zarathustra, after all, does not operate in the same way as most philosophical texts but rather functions by way of allusion, paradox, hyperbole, contradiction and ellipsis. The book is a series of aphorisms composing a narration engendering a narrative. There are no bare, raw concepts. Rather, philosophy is narrativised, dramatized, performed. The book is both problematic and problematizing. Is the misogyny in Zarathustra – in other words – hyperbolic? Is recursion and hyperbole a tactic to confront the reader, create a visceral encounter with a corrupt and corrupting worldview? Zarathustra becomes implicated in the text (and so does the reader of Zarathustra who has identified with the teacher). He is on his way to a prostitute, he may or may not be lying. Is Nietzsche undermining Zarathustra? Is Nietzsche revealing the teacher’s hypocrisy? After all his high-falutin’  philosophical talk in the market place, Zarathustra is seen as human, all too human and just like – as we say – any other man.

There is an analogous approach by Marina & the Diamonds during her Electra Heart period. The album contains tracks with titles such as ‘Bubblegum Bitch’, ‘Primadonna’, ‘Homewrecker’ and ‘Valley Of The Dolls’ – cuts ranging from electro-punk to pure pop to elegiac ballads. The album is conceptual, in the sense that all the songs form a narrative web around a nexus named Electra Heart. Diamandis articulates this to PopJustice: ‘people will think Electra Heart is an alter ego or something but she’s not, it’s kind of basically a vehicle’. In other words, Electra Heart is not a secondary, derivative and false persona to an original and core being; but rather a capturing of a fundamental existential cultural ideology that overwhelms and captures up a body in flux. ‘Like everything I’m not, that’s what I’m becoming’, continues Diamandis. Accordingly, the artist must subsume themselves, must sacrifice themselves – in order to expose the coordinates of such a worldview: ‘I’m so against it that I almost have to play the part’. Unfortunately, such a move is a little difficult for PopJustice – ‘Can you explain again, in a short sentence’; ‘Do you need to make this so complicated?’ Reviews of the album tend to adopt a similar anti-intellectual attitude: Pitchfork is exemplary. Electra Heart, they ironically muse, is ‘a kind of not-quite-alter-ego/character/affectation/cinematic simulacrum’ where ‘[t]he bombardment of archetypes and clichés is exhausting’. Finally, this approach is open to attack through feminism – with accusations of internalised misogyny (at worst), or (at the very least) failing to present a positive image of women. Such indeterminacy and ambiguity is very judiciously explored by PopMessiah.

Such is the danger and risk when you explore a problem not through critical distance, as if standing on the outside (as if standing outside of the problem were anything but an illusion), above and beyond the problem. But from within the very problem. When you express the problem as a problem which is impossible to escape because it surrounds you, because it is waiting for you around every corner. It is everywhere, everyday, in the world, our ideas and in dreams. Because it is our problem. Diamandis makes her approach explicit in ‘Sex Yeah’, which was included on the deluxe version of the album some two years after the initial release. ‘Sex Yeah’ is the Rosetta Stone.


A storming bass line drives a track of 21st century electro-rock. ‘Sex Yeah’ is not only a killer pop tune with an amazing vocal performance by Diamandis, bringing her falsetto to the fore,  but also has a fiercely intelligent lyric about the impossibility of standing outside of history. The history of sex: sexuality. ‘Question what the TV tells you / Question what a pop star sells you’ (the first hint of the mea culpa to come) – ‘Question mum and question dad / Question good and question bad’. Question the very moral coordinates of your culture and the authority figures who are necessarily embedded within that culture: ‘If women were religiously / Recognized sexually / We wouldn't have to feel the need /To show our ass/ets to feel free’. Then the full mea culpa: ‘Been there, done that’ – ‘Sold my soul’ – ‘And yeah the truth hurts’. This is the crux: ‘If history could set you free (from who you were supposed to be)’, but it cannot. History is the very problem. History is what must be overcome: ‘all my life I've tried to fight what history has given me’. It is history which will ‘tell a girl who she would be’ and ‘tell a guy who he should be’. This is what Electra Heart articulates: the problem of history and women. BornToLearnAndLead unfolds this in exemplary fashion.

Is this Nietzsche’s approach in Zarathustra? The immediate challenge to such an idea would be that misogyny also appears in his other books. For example, expositions in Ecce Homo (“Why I write such good books,” 5); and – at some length – in Beyond Good and Evil (232 onwards). Is this not then the real Nietzsche? Rather than his alter-ego Zarathustra? Yet we must learn from Diamandis. Zarathustra is no alter-ego; Zarathustra is a vehicle. Even though Zarathustra tends toward fiction, EH towards biography and bibliography, and BGE towards philosophy, this does not mean that Nietzsche’s method is different: allusion, paradox, hyperbole, contradiction and ellipsis. Thus, the third recurrence and indeterminacy occurs at a meta-textual level with respect to Zarathustra. And a section in BGE is essential, just like 'Sex Yeah' for Diamandis. Nietzsche presents a mea culpa by an appeal to historical conditions. There are no absolute values after the death of god, but that does not result in relativistic chaos because of the depth of deep history. In this way, Nietzsche exposes his own, very real prejudice. Yes – Nietzsche is a misogynist. Nietzsche does not hide his misogyny but exposes and expresses it – and he does not excuse himself. Nor should we:

‘Learning transforms us, it acts like all other forms of nourishment that do not just “preserve”–as physiologists know. But at our foundation, “at the very bottom,” there is clearly something that will not learn, a brick wall of spiritual fatum, of predetermined decisions and answers to selected, predetermined questions. In any cardinal problem, an immutable “that is me” speaks up. When it comes to men and women, for instance, a thinker cannot change his views but only reinforce them, only finish discovering what, to his mind, “is established.” In time, certain solutions are found to problems that inspire our strong beliefs in particular; perhaps they will start to be called “convictions.” Later – they come to be seen as only footsteps to self-knowledge, signposts to the problems that we are, – or, more accurately, to the great stupidity that we are, to our spiritual fatum, to that thing “at the very bottom” that will not learn. – On account of the abundant civility that I have just extended to myself, I will perhaps be more readily allowed to pronounce a few truths about the “woman an sich” [as such, in-itself] assuming that people now know from the outset the extent to which these are only – my truths. – ’ (BGE: 231).

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