Around our house, Irvin D. Yalom is a familiar name, and for more than one reason.
I first heard about Yalom, author of “Love’s Executioner,” from my wife, Ann, who explained where he fits in the pantheon of theorists and practitioners in her field of psychotherapy. Then I began to encounter (and review) his rich and provocative historical novels, including “When Nietzsche Wept,” each one deeply rooted in his understanding of the human heart and mind.
Yalom’s latest novel, “The Spinoza Problem” (Basic Books, $25.99), is yet another example of how a psychiatrist’s stock in trade — the secrets spoken only in the therapist’s office — can be spun into gold by a gifted storyteller. And, like his previous work, “The Spinoza Problem” offers us a face-to-face encounter with a distant and lofty historical figure.
Actually, two famous men appear in “The Spinoza Problem.” One is the 17th century philosopher Baruch (or Bento) Spinoza, a descendant of Sephardic Jews who sought refuge from the Inquisition in Amsterdam. Spinoza was famously ex-communicated by his congregation when his bold rationalism prompted him to raise questions about the authorship of the Bible and the nature of God. Today, he is recognized as one of the commanding figures of Western philosophy, even if the cherem (censure) against him has never been revoked.
The other historical figure is Alfred Rosenberg, one of the crackpots who achieved a position of power in Nazi Germany, where he served as “the intellectual high priest of the ‘master race,’ ” according to his prosecutor at Nuremberg, “who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave the impetus for the annihilation of Jewry.” Rosenberg ended up on the gallows for his role as one of Hitler’s cronies and servitors. One of Rosenberg’s many obsessions, as Yalom discovered, was Spinoza, and the great philosopher’s library ended up in his possession during the war.
“The Spinoza Problem” consists of two compelling narratives, one set in 17th century Amsterdam that explores the workings of Spinoza’s brilliant if dangerously unconventional mind, and the other set in the early 20th century, when Rosenberg first placed himself in service to the Nazis. The two tales amount to a mystery novel, although it is a mystery of a very cerebral kind.
Spinoza, who has vowed to tell the truth at any cost, unwittingly incriminates himself by quoting from the Bible, which he knows by heart, and pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies. “Would that your piety were as great as your memory,” warns one of his fellow Jews. With each word, Spinoza provides his enemies, both Jewish and Christian, with the evidence that they seek in order to punish him for the crime of thinking for himself.
Rosenberg, by contrast, is shown to move away from rationalism in the direction of a crude and murderous anti-Semitism. “Alfred, we all love to hate the Jews,” says one of his acquaintances, who happens to be a psychiatrist, “but you do it with such ... such intensity.” Indeed, the young Rosenberg chooses action over thought: “Can you use a fighter against Jerusalem?” he asks when he joins the Nazi party. “I am dedicated, and I will fight until I drop.” His weapon? “My words are my arrows!”
“The Spinoza Problem,” as we soon discover, exists for both Spinoza himself and for Rosenberg. Spinoza is forced to deal with the consequences of his excommunication — “the ache of homelessness, of being lost, of knowing he would never again walk these memory-laden streets of his youth.” Rosenberg is vexed by the notion that the philosopher whose ideas he admires could have been Jewish at all: “What a paradox,” the Nazi muses. “A Jew both courageous and wise! Spinoza had soul wisdom — he must have non-Jewish blood in him.”
Ironically, according to the tale Yalom has invented, Rosenberg seeks to resolve the paradox in therapy, even though he denounces psychoanalysis as a Jewish invention. Clearly, Yalom sees a powerful affinity between philosophy and psychotherapy. “[A] philosophy unable to heal the soul has as little value as medicine unable to heal the body,” says one of Spinoza’s teachers in 17th century Amsterdam, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Something of the same idea is expressed by a German psychiatrist who befriends Rosenberg in the 20th century: “One of the things I love about psychiatry is that, unlike any other field of medicine, it veers close to philosophy.”
Now and then, Yalom steps into his own story, and the novelist offers a moment of observation and interpretation, again not unlike what happens in therapy. “The new wave of psychoanalytic thought,” he writes, “agreed with Spinoza that the future is determined by what has gone before, by our physical and psychological makeup — our passions, fears, goals; our temperament, our love of self, our stances toward others.” But a man like Rosenberg — “a pretentious, detached, unlovable philosopher-manqué who lacked curiosity about himself and ... walked the earth with a smug sense of superiority” — seems to defy the fate that his own sorry background would have predicted for him.
“There is another core and unpredictable ingredient,” Yalom concedes. “What shall we term it? Fortune? Chance? The sheer good luck of being in the right place at the right time?”
Exactly here Yalom captures the real mystery that is at work in “The Spinoza Problem.” We can plumb the depths of a person’s experience and emotions, we can examine his fears and longings, but we cannot really know why a failed philosopher like Rosenberg (or, for that matter, a failed artist like Hitler) ended up in a position of power that allowed him to write himself into history. We can only speculate on how and why it happened.
“History is fiction that did happen,” Yalom quotes André Gide in “The Spinoza Problem. “Fiction is history that might have happened.”
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