Zarathustra vs XTC

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Second Part – Chapter 2: ‘Upon the Isles of the Blest’
vs “Dear God” XTC (Skylarking, 1987 reissue [original 1986])

‘The Father, Son and Holy Ghost / Is just somebody's unholy hoax’ cries Andy Partridge during the closing tirade of XTC’s unlikely folk-pop hit single of the mid-1980s. “Dear God” captures well Nietzsche’s grounding arguments of chapter two, book two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. ‘God’ writes Nietzsche, ‘is a supposition: but who could drink down all the anguish of this supposition without dying?’, ‘God is a thought that makes all that is straight crooked and all that stands twist and turn’, ‘Evil I call it and hostile to the human: all this teaching about the One and Plenum and Unmoved and Complete and Permanent!’. For Nietzsche and for Zarathustra, god is a supposition, a way of thinking, an ideology – and XTC echo such a critical philosophy.

The lyric of “Dear God” is a letter, a letter from a child to the very god they do not – and cannot – believe in. This conceit is beautifully realised by using a young girl to sing the introduction and coda, a naïve, fragile but compelling voice that bookends Partridge’s more acerbic and taunting vocal. ‘Dear God,’ sings the child, ‘hope you get the letter’… ‘all the people that you made in your image / See them starving on their feet / 'Cause they don't get enough to eat / from God’. In this way, “Dear God” presents the philosophical problem of evil to a religion that believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent god. ‘I can't’, sings the child, ‘believe in you’. When Partridge’s vocal kicks in, the song expands its argument to the problem of faith and belief, here people are ‘fighting in the street / 'Cause they can't make opinions meet / about God’. These horrors, for XTC, are of human origin: ‘Did you make mankind after we made you?’ asks Partridge wryly, before growling ‘And the Devil too!’ As with god, so with the Bible, Quran, Torah and so on: ‘Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book / And us crazy humans wrote it’, yet people are ‘Still believing that junk is true’. XTC create a visceral diatribe against religion carried upon the catchiest of tunes, the child’s voice luring you in and, in the final moments, allowing something approaching consolation. ‘If there's one thing I don't believe in’ concludes Partridge, allowing the child to complete the thought: ‘It's you / Dear God’.

Zarathustra similarly centres his speech in chapter two, book two, on the problems of evil and faith. Here, these arguments are exploited to reground his teaching as coming in the wake of the death of god. In this way, the chapter begins as is a kind of thematic recap, like a short montage sequence at the beginning of a new boxset season. We begin in media res, Zarathustra is now on the Isles of the Blest, an elliptic leap forward after his decision to leave his cave in the previous chapter. He is wandering around with his refound friends, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of this garden paradise. It is late summer, the trees are fecund with ripe fruits, and Zarathustra is likewise overflowing with new thoughts he wishes to share with those he has been away from for so long. First, however, he must re-establish the ground and consequence of his teaching. Turning his gaze from the beauty of the trees to the promises of the ocean he proclaims: ‘Once one said “God” when one looked upon distant seas; but now I have taught you to say: Overhuman’. Foregrounding the overhuman in the wake of the death of god was the central task of book one, the idea that humanity was ‘human, all too human’, and needed to reject the metaphysical junk of ages for new philosophies orientated toward the future, to new ideas, new possibilities, new vistas, new kinds of being in the world. Early in book one, Zarathustra had left his mountain home and encountered a mystic dude worshiping god in the forest, and Zarathustra seemed quite content to let the believer believe. In book two, however, we encounter a far more vehement Zarathustra. His attitude toward god and religion has evolved during the process of the first book, and is now one reflecting his transformation into a ‘lion’ roaring ‘wild wisdom’. Book two, while a narrative recurrence of book one, has a certain take on the nature of any repetition: difference.

And it is in this way we begin to see the emergence of Zarathustra’s new thoughts. Zarathustra’s teachings are still necessarily grounded in the death of god, and still propose the overhuman as the new way of being in the world. Yet the question is – how to become the overhuman? Responses, if not answers, to these questions, will emerge during book two and three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In this chapter we see the hints of these emergent teachings – as yet unnamed. ‘[M]uch bitter dying must there be in your lives, you creators’ – says Zarathustra. Life must embrace change, movement, transformation: rebirths – and multiple deaths of the self-that-was. This is embedded in the narrative structure with Zarathustra’s repeated return from the mountains (and will be named and explored as eternal recurrence in book three). However, it is the teaching of the will that emerges most strongly here, and will become the central investigation of book two (eventually zeroing in on the will to power). Zarathustra is still trying to figure this will, naming it ‘my creating will’; and saying ‘my willing always comes to me as my liberator and joy-bringer’. ‘Willing liberates’, and accordingly ‘that is the true teaching of will and freedom – thus does Zarathustra teach it to you’.

God – the creator – is dead. The overhuman is now the creator and created, the will to power creates the overhuman, and the continual rebirths of the overhuman powers the will that liberates the free spirit, the overhuman. This is the trefoil knot of teachings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, made possible by an encounter with the death of god. ‘For the creator to be himself the child that is newly born, he must also want to be the birth-giver and the pain of the birth-giver’, says Zarathustra; and thus is revealed the singular importance of using the young girl’s vocal to begin and end XTC’s “Dear God”.