Time cannot be broken; that is our greatest burden. And our greatest challenge is to live in spite of that burden.”
Last night I read past my bedtime to finish a remarkable book. For some reason When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession by Irvin D. Yalom was never on my radar before a few months ago. Twenty pages before the end, I, too, wept at the choices one character makes. Such a strong, emotional connection to a book is more and more rare these days, at least for me. When you learn about how reading helps build empathy, this is what it means.
Sometimes I hesitate to recommend books because I like really weird books. I used to think I don’t care about story as long as the book teaches me something, but the fact that a book can teach through story is its greatest strength. This is one of those books I would hesitate to recommend. My relationship with Nietzsche is different from most people I know. In high school, all I knew is that he said God is dead. So obviously, he was the devil, or the anti-christ, as is more often pronounced.
Nothing is ever so simple.
It wasn’t until the second semester of my freshmen year that I read him with my own eyes.
The first essay we read in English Composition was Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense.” We read it again and again and again during the first three weeks of class. I looked up every word and name I didn’t know. I still remember where I was sitting in class, what paragraphs I read out loud, and the illustrations my professor used to explain what Nietzsche had written. I still have my copy and it’s highlighted in a rainbow of different colors. It was while reading that essay in that class with that professor that I decided to major in English.
Choosing a major for me wasn’t just a choice that had consequences for four years in college. I’ve devoted my life to the study of language, literature, and philosophy. It was Nietzsche who helped me realize the world was more complex than what convention taught. That essay broke my mind and inspired me to break others.
This might have begun with Nietzsche, but I went on to spend more time studying psychoanalytic literary theory than anything else in college and grad school. This novel brings those two worlds together in a historical moment I adore. If I could go back to any moment in time, I’d visit all of my literary friends and philosophers from the 19th century who have influenced everything I read and write today. This novel made that possible.
Many people, Christians especially, are scared of the truths Nietzsche’s philosophies force readers to face. There is no need to fear him if you intellectually understand your faith. He actually has a great deal to teach us. One of the themes that emerges again and again in the book is the idea of mental strength, and I would argue that weighing his ideas and examining them from all angles will indeed make you stronger in your faith– if your faith is real.
If you’re even superficially familiar with Nietzsche’s main philosophical concepts and interested in how psychoanalysis began, you’ll find this novel worth reading. It’s all fiction, though, so even though you will learn what these thinkers wanted to teach you back then, it’s an entirely different experience from reading their works. In the afterword, the author does describe the few nuggets of truth that you find in the novel. These nuggets include most of the characters, some of the letters, and the proper timing of the historical figures and their experiences.
A little Google search taught me that there is also a movie made of the novel in 2007. Amazon has it available to rent and I plan to watch it this weekend. Stay tuned for my thoughts on that and let me know if you end up reading When Nietzsche Wept — I’d love to chat with you about it.