The other day, I purchased another volume of Coleman Barks' translation of Rumi's poetry, The Essential Rumi. I devoured all 365 pages in one sitting, and am now reading it once again. It was in the course of reading the book that I came to realise that Nietzsche had borrowed heavily from Rumi for some of the main themes of his Zarathustra. A quick check of the indexes of some main commentaries on Nietzsche in my library make no mention of any connection with Rumi (although it is known that Nietzsche was familiar with the poetry of another Sufi, Hafiz). Even a quick scan of the section headings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra displays a pattern of themes that mirrors the main themes of Rumi's poetry. One passage in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra even comes close to a direct plagiarism of Rumi. It occurs in the last half of the section entitled "On the Vision and the Riddle" which some people believe to contain the key to unlock the meaning of the entire book. Here, Zarathustra comes upon a young shepherd struggling with a huge black snake that, while he was sleeping, has crawled into his mouth and has affixed itself in his throat. Now, compare this section from Zarathustra with Rumi's poem "Jesus on a Lean Donkey".
Jesus on a Lean Donkey
Jesus on a lean donkey, this is an emblem of how the rational intellect should control the animal-soul.
Let your spirit be strong like Jesus. If that part becomes weak, then the worn-out donkey grows to a dragon. Be grateful when what seems unkind comes from a wise person.
Once, a Holy Man, riding his donkey, saw a snake crawling into a sleeping man's mouth! He hurried, but he couldn't prevent it. He hit the man several blows with his club. The man woke terrified and ran beneath an apple tree with many rotten apples on the ground.
"Eat! You miserable wretch! Eat!"
"Why are you doing this to me?"
"Eat more you fool!"
"I've never seen you before! Who are you? Do you have some inner quarrel with my soul?"
The wise man kept forcing him to eat, and then he ran him. For hours he whipped the poor man and made him run. Finally, at nightfall, full of apples, fatigued, bleeding, he fell and vomited everything, the good and the bad, the apples and the snake.
When he saw that ugly snake come out of himself, he fell onto his knees before his assailant. "Are you Gabriel? Are you God? I bless the moment you first noticed me. I was dead and I didn't know it. You've given me a new life. Everything I've said to you was stupid! I didn't know."
The Holy Man replied, "If I had explained what I was doing, you might have panicked and died of fear. Muhammad said, 'If I described the enemy that lives inside men, even the most courageous would be paralyzed. No one would go out, or do any work. No one would pray or fast, and all power to change would fade from human beings,'
So I kept quiet while I was beating you, that like David I might shape iron, so that, impossibly, I might put feathers back into a bird's wing. God's silence is necessary, because of humankind's faintheartedness. If I had told you about the snake, you wouldn't have been able to eat, and if you hadn't eaten, you wouldn't have vomited. I saw your condition and drove my donkey hard into the middle of it, saying always under my breath, 'Lord, make it easy on him.' I wasn't permitted to tell you, and I wasn't permitted to stop beating you!"
The healed man, still kneeling, said "I have no way to thank you for the quickness of your wisdom and the strength of your guidance. God will thank you."
I do not believe that this can be coincidence. The recurrence of other themes, metaphors, allegories familiar from Rumi in Zarathustra leads me to believe that not Zoroaster, but Rumi is the pattern and model for the plan of Nietzsche's book. I won't attempt to highlight all these by way of argument and demonstration except for one further example -- the section in Zarathustra called "Of The Three Metamorphoses", which begins with the sentence
"I name you three metamorphoses of the spirit: how the spirit shall become a camel, and the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child". Now, it strikes me in retrospect that it's rather odd for a Northern European to use animal imagery that is more common in Middle Eastern prose and poetry, and in fact the symbolism of the camel and the lion are recurring images in Rumi's poetry too. (William Blake, for example, uses the imagery of the ox and the lion for the same). And there is, once again here, the homage Nietzsche pays to Jesus (which his translator, R.J. Hollingdale, overlooked in this case despite noting others): "unless ye become as little children...." But the broader plan of Zarathustra seems to track rather closely to the poetry of Rumi, even in its tempo. I mentioned this to a friend this morning. "Does it matter?" he responded. Perhaps and perhaps not. Except that if Nietzsche actually stood on Rumi's shoulders for some of the principal themes of his work, and actually lived off the capital of Rumi's inspiration and vision, this should be acknowledged. Nietzsche has been charged with plagiarism by others in other instances. In other respects, take for example the theme of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. There are precedents even for this in Rumi, which I've drawn attention to earlier,
"Out beyond the ideas of wrong-doing & right-doing
There is a field
I'll meet you there
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase, 'each other'
doesn't make any sense." Yet, at the same time, if we compare the allegory of the black snake in Nietzsche and in Rumi, there are significant differences, and those variations may provide the key to unlocking other, more puzzling aspects of Nietzsche's (and Rumi's) vision (but which may also belong to what Rudolf Steiner also called Nietzsche's more "pathological" or morbid character, the "decadent" side that Nietzsche freely confessed to in Ecce Homo). In Nietzsche's version, there is a significant switch in emphasis or accent away from the saviour and onto the man saved -- the one who actually undergoes the dreadful struggle with the black snake and triumphs, and who then stands revealed or transformed as Zarathustra's overman -- the transhuman ideal. In Rumi, on the other hand, the saved man falls down and grovels at his saviour's feet. Nietzsche tended to find such gestures distasteful. There are other differences in the allegory and the riddle that invite reflection and that beg to be meditated upon. Does it matter? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But just as some people hold "On the Vision and the Riddle" to be the key section to understanding the whole of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, others hold "Jesus on a Lean Donkey" to be the key to Rumi, and particularly to that dark unspeakable secret of existence that Rumi sometimes alluded to in his poems. For just one example, in the poem "Enough Words?" -- and not just in this poem -- a verse reflects back on the poem,
"I can explain this, but it would break
the glass cover on your heart,
and there's no fixing that". No healing and consolation apparently for those who know the dark secret. But apparently Nietzsche's "overman" is one who is strong enough for the knowledge of the dark secret of existence. This terrible secret is already alluded to in the very earliest epic to come down to us from Iraq's antiquity, The Epic of Gilgamesh, where the shade Gilgamesh's great friend, Enkidu appears to Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh pleads with the shade: "Speak, my friend, speak! Tell me the law of the earth which you have seen!" The reply from the dead Enkidu: "My friend, I cannot tell you, for if I proclaimed to you the law of the earth which I have seen, you would sit and weep." (And, in some ways, the friendship of Rumi and the mysterious, wild Shams is a parallel to that between Gilgamesh and Enkidu). Did Rumi know this "law of the earth" which he was loathe to reveal? Apparently, the "black snake" is this same "law of the earth", and even Mohammad shrinked from revealing it, as Rumi's poem recounts,
"If I described the enemy that lives
inside men, even the most courageous would be paralyzed. No one
would go out or do any work. No one
would pray or fast,
and all power to change would fade
from human beings". Rumi adds in agreement,
"God's silence is necessary, because of humankind's
faintheartedness. If I had told you about the snake,
you wouldn't have been able to eat, and if
you hadn't eaten, you wouldn't have vomited." In Nietzsche's "On the Vision and the Riddle", the value of "courage" is unfolded at length and probably precisely with Rumi's poem and the image of the black snake in mind. But this courage is required for what Nietzsche himself interprets or gives as the dark secret of existence -- the eternal recurrence of same, which also makes its first appearance in this section. For Nietzsche, the eternal recurrence is the most terrible thought imaginable, one which only the very strongest natures could endure and bear without losing heart and the will to live. But I do not think this is Rumi's secret knowledge nor Muhammad's "enemy". Castaneda's don Juan also speaks of "the enemy" as Rumi does. But I will not speak of that here. Whether these are the same as "the law of the earth" I do not know. The enemy is only addressed by don Juan apparently late in Castaneda's apprenticeship, is directly demonstrated to him (which he calls "the flyer"), but then is dropped completely from his narrative without further ado. There's no doubt, though, that the very darkest of the secrets of existence, emblemised by the black snake, is alluded to in Rumi's poem. The secret is alluded to obliquely in other poems. Apparently Muhammad also knew the terrible secret that, if it were known, would apparently cause men to abandon themselves to nihilism -- to abandon hope, prayer, and even life itself. Would anyone truly want to know this secret then if even "God" won't speak of it?