Before we delve into what the title suggests, let me preface the following analysis by saying this: I am but a simple man — a reader of books, and a thinker of things. That’s it. These are but the simple musings of a man with enough time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, and just how far he can connect the dots. My research tools include the higher being known as Google, the public vessel called Wikipedia, and some guys I know.
Some time ago, I picked up a book titled Odd John by Olaf Stapledon. I got the book not knowing anything about the author or the story.
A simple skim of the back cover and the fact that it had been paired with another of his books, Sirius, made me feel like I was getting a deal.
(I mean, come on, two books in one? One of which is about a dog with human intelligence? Who wouldn’t pick it up!)
As I began reading the book, I started to do a little research on the author and some of the themes within the story.
Little did I know that it would send me down a rabbit hole that is home to people like Friedrich Nietzsche and his Übermensch, some small German child from the 1700s that might or might not have really existed, and the big blue naked guy from The Watchmen.
To fully address the things I found, I feel that I need to split this delve up into multiple parts. In part one, I’ll pretend to know what Nietzsche is talking about in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, what an Übermensch is, and how all of this relates to Odd John.
In the second part, I’ll introduce you to a possibly fictional German child and other literary characters that are totally relevant to this story (I promise).
Then, in an attempt to make all of this worth your while, we’ll talk about that big blue naked guy and how he made it into this rabbit hole.
So, without further ado, let’s begin.
In short, Odd John is a story about a boy named John Wainwright who possesses a form of super-intelligence which he developed early in his childhood. Even though John’s mind is very developed, his physical development lags behind, giving him the appearance of a young boy even well into his adolescence.
John’s story is told through the eyes of the narrator, a man who was close to the boy, but still his intellectual inferior. However, the narrator recognizes and is at peace with this fact. At times, he even refers to himself as John’s slave or hound.
Without revealing too much of the story, John uses his intelligence to achieve a number of different things, some of which include invention, wealth, and seduction.
However, many of his actions might seem a little off, or “odd” to many people, especially narrator. Through his actions and beliefs, John seemed to have created his own idea of morality, beyond that of what the people around him believed.
It is no secret that Odd John explores the idea of the Übermensch, a concept coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, roughly translated to English as “superman” or “overman” (I will use the latter).
The idea comes from his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, written about 50 years prior to Odd John (1880s).
The Übermensch is the topic of many science fiction stories both new and old as is discussed later.
The idea of the “overman” is of a human that has transcended or risen above the normal state of overall human psychology and morality. In short the overman is very much an individual, almost to a fault. They make their own values and morality, and are willing to accept whatever consequences might come from that, be they good or bad.
In the story Odd John, the boy John Wainwright is no different. In fact, his actions and dialogue echo some of the exact same things found in Nietzsche’s book — the criticisms of religion and nationalism, the struggles of humanity to surpass their own limitations, and the view of humanity as “cattle.” Even the symbolism of climbing a mountain and of the eventual self-exile of the main character is something that is seen in both books. Both characters even end up seeking out others like them to form a community. In many ways, Odd John tells a very similar story to what is told in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Both books have the main character begin with high aspirations of beckoning humanity to join them through taking the next step to become “super-normal,” and end with them losing almost all hope in the species as a whole. Zarathustra and John Wainwright give some harsh criticisms of humanity, and is one of the main reasons that both characters can come off as … less than savory (at least in Odd John).
If you find yourself sympathetic to the idea of humanity being greater than it was yesterday and taking the next step in psychological evolution, then Odd John and Thus Spoke Zarathustra can be considered tragic stories of “what could have been”. In fact, many of the stories that we will look at in this series take on that tone. But because of its harsh criticisms of humanity and society as a whole, and the willingness to perform extreme actions without fear of consequence, an Übermensch can make just as good a villain as it can a tragic character. Just ask Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen.
Odd John isn’t the only book to explore the idea of the Übermensch. In the next posts, we’ll take a look at books like Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hampdenshire Wonder by J.D. Beresford, and the story of that young German child who might or might not have really existed. We’ll delve into some graphic novels and movies. We’ll also talk more about the Übermensch as both a tragic character and a villain. How do these all fit together?
I will see you next week with answers.
-The Book Keeper.