“A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to have been asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me; “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!” Thus it cried out of me — my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry.
The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; he bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake — and he jumped up. No longer shepherd. no longer human — one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now!”
Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This vision and riddle entails a shocking scene where Zarathustra comes upon a shepherd with a snake in his throat. The snake–“the heaviest and the blackest”–could symbolize the choking effects of the slave morality or perhaps as the students of N.F. Gier have suggested, the snake’s head, which Zarathustra exhorts the shepherd to bite off, could represent the Christian God himself. However, as a Catholic, I would like to engage in the 2000 year old Christian tradition of turning something pagan or even anti-christian into a symbol of Christianity!
So to begin:
In the story, at the passionate urging of Zarathustra, the shepherd does decapitate the snake and is immediately transformed: “No longer shepherd, no longer human–one changed, radiant, laughing . . . a laughter that was no human laughter.” After the death of self, the death of sin, there is only the eternal one, and this “cosmic” laughter
is the only proper emotional response to such a meaningless existence, that is the existence in which one used to live while in sin of any kind. As Graham Parkes says: “laughter [is] an often necessary concomitant of insight into the way things are.”
This is a cosmic laughter, and it is different from the laughter of the child who is the only being capable of loving him or herself and embracing every moment without any awareness of the terrors of sin and temptation. Cosmic laughter is just as well the “Laughter of the Lions” of the “deeply wounded,” those, like Christ, who have suffered greatly, who kn
ow all the sins and betrayals of man as an “abysmal thought,” but who still, despite their transgressions, recognizes that the men who commit these offenses must be embraced with a child’s acceptance.
We are the shepherd boy, and we swallow the lies of the snake, and in turn we choke on the death of sin itself. Christ is the passerby who shouts at the top of His lungs “Bite, Bite, Bite!” And when we bite, we bite down hard and sever our attachment from sin and evil. This is penance, this is confession. It is after we are freed from the snake in our mouth, it is after spit out the head of evil with which we have tried to feed ourselves that we can then breathe a sigh of relief. It after we spit out this head that we can join Christ in the Lion’s Laughter of Victory! (More on how we eat and try to feed ourselves spiritually should be coming in a later post).
Please for any discussion ideas that might possibly arise from this post, please go to the Dormitory Forum and post it there: