Zarathustra vs Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Second Part – Chapter 1: ‘The Child With the Mirror’
vs “Almost Cut My Hair” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Déjà Vu, 1970)

Zarathustra awakes ‘shaken’ after a nightmare. During his sleep he dreamt of a child visiting him with a mirror, inviting him to look upon himself. Gazing into the mirror – however – he sees not himself but ‘a Devil’s grimace and mocking laughter’. Zarathustra immediately interprets the dream as an ‘omen and admonition’. Thus ‘my teaching is in danger’ and ‘enemies… have distorted the image of my teaching. Such that my dearest ones must be ashamed’.

We find Zarathustra – at the beginning of book two – once again living in his cave in the mountains. In book one, Zarathustra had left his precipitous home for the vales and valleys of the countryside below, ultimately settling in a town and becoming a teacher, collecting around him a select circle of disciples to explore the meaning of the death of god and the possibilities of the overhuman. However, in the end, Zarathustra knew he must allow his students to go their own way, to grow in their own time, and so had left them to their own travels while he returned to the mountains and to his solitary life. And so the years did pass…

Yet Zarathustra becomes restless. He has new thoughts, and wants to share them with his friends. Over the years he has felt the desire to return to the world many times, but has resisted. On the one hand, he felt he should wait for his teaching to flourish; on the other, he felt lost without teaching. Zarathustra is conflicted. Things come to a head after a dark night of the soul, with the teacher waking from his nightmare to contemplate the meaning of the vision he had experienced while asleep. But then something odd happens. Zarathustra – Nietzsche tells us – ‘sprang up, but not like one who is anxious and gasps for air, but rather like a seer and singer who is overtaken by the spirit’. This change in aspect surprises not only the eagle and the serpent, but also Zarathustra, who asks ‘What has happened to me, my animals?... Am I not transformed!’

It is this moment of transformation that is the central puzzle of chapter one of book two: why does Zarathustra’s mood suddenly transform from anxiety to affirmation? We see something comparable in the laidback hippy anthem ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Written by David Crosby, who takes on solo lead vocals, the track is an electric guitar driven jam with a fierce lyric exploring giving up and selling out. ‘Almost cut my hair’, sings Crosby in the first verse, ‘It happened just the other day / It was gettin' kind of long / Coulda said it was in my way’. Yet immediately, as we enter the pre-chorus (to a song which effectively has no chorus), Crosby tells us ‘But I didn't and I wonder why’. Here we encounter a moment of transformation analogous to that of Zarathustra’s, a moment of doubt that is overcome…

How does such an overcoming come about? In ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ Crosby’s cracked and angry voice explains: ‘I feel like letting my freak flag fly’ and – a little later – ‘I'm not giving in an inch to fear’. Clara Bingham, in Witness to the Revolution, writes ‘The song describes a real-life dilemma faced by many hippies: whether to cut one's hair to a more practical length, or leave it long as a symbol of rebellion’ (p. 108). Accordingly, what may appear at first to be a light-hearted reverie becomes a countercultural hymn of resistance – resistance to doubt, to uncertainty, to ‘paranoia’ – ‘like’, sings Crosby ‘looking in my mirror and seeing a police car’.

And so ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ – just like chapter one book two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra – uses the symbol of a mirror to confront the dreamer with anxiety and disquiet. The image of the mirror and the mirror-image recurs many times throughout the latter half of Book Two of Zarathustra. We see the spirit become a mirror, and a ‘hundredfold mirror’ used capture the multiplicity of life (chapter 12); we see the mirror used in a mediation on the sublime (chapter 13); we see ‘fifty mirrors’ surrounding those that need flattery (chapter 14); we see impotent scholars become ‘mirror[s] with a hundred eyes’ (chapter 15). There are other mentions of mirrors in Books One, Three and Four, but what is clear is that the image of the mirror is contextual. Here we cannot ignore that it is held by a child; which at the beginning of Book One was seen as the final moment in a chain of transformations. Camel can become lion, and lion can become child, from bearing the weight of the world, to raging at the world, to seeing the world as a site of play and rebirth (Book One, chapter 1). And in this chapter, the transformation that occurs seems to be that of becoming the lion.

Nietzsche tells us how Zarathustra decides once again to leave his mountain home, to head out into the world, to share his teachings and new insights: saying ‘you… will be terrified, my friends, by my Wild Wisdom; and perhaps you will flee from her along with my enemies… my lioness Wisdom’. And so Zarathustra leaves his cave for warmer climes, seeking his friends on the Isles of the Blest’, just like Crosby: ‘I'm gonna get down in that sunny southern weather’.

Second Part: Chapter 2 - XTC