Suffering and Soul


The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1628

From Harper’s:

I’m a Christian and may be a Nietzschean. Not the whole overwrought overman stuff, and not the conflation of pity and weakness. But I feel in my bones (literally, alas) the truth of Nietzsche’s insistence upon confronting reality as it is, the iron law of cause and effect that in some instances, as even the most faithful must admit, God either cannot or will not break. Nietzsche believed one could fit oneself to, and thereby conquer, necessity by saying, “Thus I willed it,” as if the only thing not subject to necessity were the will of the one who recognized it. This seems a step too far. But the burn of being I feel in my bones, which makes life seem so joyful, and the burn of unbeing that rages right alongside, which makes that joy so tragic, seem, ultimately, one thing. As does the need to align my will with it.

Perhaps the question, with regard to suffering and what it will mean in your life, comes down to this: What will be the object of your faith, and what will your act of faith look like? Nietzsche placed great faith both in existence and in himself. For forty-four years and thirteen books this worked well enough (though the loneliness of his soul is obvious). Then, as legend goes, one morning he saw a horse being beaten and all his Übermensch armor disintegrated into madness. He became the thing he’d warned against: pitying, and thus pitiful.

There’s no obvious allegory here. Nietzsche changed modern thought because of the way his mind was made. He went mad for the same reason. Being and unbeing shared the same vital, fatal fuse. His life might have been different had he been more focused on fully inhabiting his first faith (life) rather than shoring up his second one (self), but his death, which lasted eleven long years, was a matter of molecules clicking into place like an elegant proof.

It’s that first faith that remains potent, a prod and tonic for the tendency to see human existence and existence itself as at war with each other. In Albert Camus’s The Plague, the main character, Dr. Rieux, tries to explain why he continues battling the disease that has destroyed his city when his efforts have made no difference. He is, he admits, simply “fighting against creation as he found it.” Rieux’s struggle is both heroic and quixotic—heroic because quixotic, I think Camus would say—but it leaves him lonely and somewhat dead at the heart. Rieux is beyond Christianity but still breathing its metaphysical fumes (his use of the word “creation” is a tell), one of the most persistent of which is the idea that we are fundamentally at odds with the world we inhabit. In this he differs from Nietzsche. What they share (along with Camus himself) is the ancient intuition that suffering and soul are mysterious cognates.

“The Cancer Chair”, Christian Wiman, Harper’s