Zarathustra vs Louis Armstrong

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – First Part – Chapter 20: ‘On Children and Marriage’
vs “What a Wonderful World”, Louis Armstrong (What a Wonderful World, 1967)

Zarathustra taps one of his young disciples on the shoulder, pulling him to one side. There is a sense here of the teacher following up – after some thought – on an earlier hesitant inquiry or stilted conversation initiated by the student. Maybe, even, it’s the same student who had previously caught Zarathustra in the night-time streets? On his way to a secret lover, the teacher had shared ribald jokes with the young man, but there was an undercurrent of unease to the whole affair (see Z I.18). Here, the discussion is of love: focused upon marriage, and upon children. ‘I cast this question like a sounding-lead into your soul,’ says Zarathustra, ‘that I may know how deep it is’. ‘You are young and wish for a child and marriage’ – why? The teacher explores a number of reasons for ‘your love of woman, and woman’s love of man’ – to adhere to social convention, to satiate animal drives, to assuage the terror of loneliness. However, all of these reasons are suspect and will necessarily corrupt both the woman and the man, ressentiment will permeate the family, and all these unhappy families will result in a discordant community riven with lying, cheating and abuse. Rather indulge in ‘brief follies’ – for while ‘your marriage puts an end to many brief follies’, it does so only through ‘one long stupidity’.

Nonetheless – Zarathustra is not against love, marriage and raising children. We can approach the teacher’s affirmation of such things through Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’.

Armstrong was the first to cut the song, co-written by the music industry titans Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, and it is this version – despite numerous beautiful and brilliant covers – that remains the classic. A studio jazz orchestra lays down the soundscape – but it is Satchmo’s voice that dominates. Aged as oak and splintered by time, fallen, but rich and fathoms deep, the singer paints a picture in primary colours of a vital world. ‘I see trees of green,’ sings Armstrong, ‘red roses too / I see them bloom, for me and you’. Bright blue skies with pure white clouds cut through by the intensity of rainbows. This is what love is, what marriage should be – and as Satchmo takes us to the bridge we see how such relationships inspire the whole community: ‘I see friends shaking hands / Saying, “How do you do?” / They're really saying / “I love you”.’ Yet it is the final verse where we encounter the essential moment: ‘I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow / They'll learn much more / Than I'll ever know’.

Zarathustra is not against love, but it need result in the convention of marriage. Don’t ruin love with a shitty marriage. And indeed – marriage is not something that need be officiated or affirmed by a religion, priest or petty official. In the end, all that matters with true love and real marriage are the children. ‘Marriage: thus I call the will of two to create the one that is more than those who created it’. As Satchmo would conclude: ‘Oh yeah’.

First Part: Chapter 21 - Neil Young & Crazy Horse

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