Jul 23rd 2015

Revisiting Irvin Yalom’s seductive novels of ideas

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


It’s a rare medical man who can shift from his world of arcane jargon to a vigorous, earthy style suited to non-fiction novels. Once in a while, a Chekhov or a Somerset Maugham comes along to make an exception and prove the rule.

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom achieved this leap quite deliberately after realizing – as did the others before him -- that “frosty scientific language” fails to communicate the emotional dilemmas that afflict ordinary people. And Yalom knew he had good stories to tell.

Irvin Yalom by the author, Michael Johnson

“It was not long before I began experimenting with a frankly literary conveyance,” he writes in The Yalom Reader, a fascinating compendium of his more accessible prose. In the chapter entitled “The Journey from Psychotherapy to Fiction”, he recalls how he longed to express his creative impulses more fully with a looser hold on the language. 

Reading Yalom, I had the feeling that here was a Stanford University Medical School professor with a writer trapped inside him.

“Once I entered psychiatry,” Yalom recalls, “my love for storytelling gradually awoke from its slumber and insisted upon a voice.” In his Introduction to the Reader, he explains: “ … a powerful interest in narrative … has lurked behind all my professional writing, has inserted itself from time to time in my texts, and ultimately, in later years, has taken over altogether.” 

In his most recent book,The Spinoza Problem (2012), he seems to hit his stride as a writer. One particularly arresting scene depicts an early meeting of the German Workers’ Party, a precursor to the Nazi organization, in Munich in 1919.  An unknown Adolf Hitler takes over the meeting with a “blistering attack” on any policy that might weaken Germany. “It was a wild tantrum, and he looked like a madman on the brink of losing control,” Yalom writes. One passage has Party operative Anton Drexler recalling that Hitler mesmerized the small crowd. “After a few minutes, everyone, and I mean everyone, was transfixed, their attention riveted to his blazing blue eyes and to his every word. This man has a gift,” says Drexler. 

In a later speech, Hitler ended by screaming that the Jews “must be banished from our midst”. The entire audience, Yalom writes, “leapt to its feet, applauding wildly.” Hitler’s new friends in Munich had “finally found the man to lead their party into the future”.

In a social setting, Yalom describes the young Hitler at an intimate dinner party as a good companion and a talented sketching artist who was “polite, gracious … amiable, relaxed, courteous”.

This is Yalom at his most graphic as he fleshes out history, mixing his non-fiction style and research with novelistic skills. He is unrepentant about his sometimes fanciful literary inventions, quoting André Gide as stating, in Lafcadio’s Adventures, “History is fiction that did happen whereas fiction is history that might have happened.” 

He anticipates purist criticism by writing an addendum to the Spinoza book entitled “Fact or Fiction? Setting the Record Straight”. Referencing Gide, Yalom explains: “I’ve attempted to write a novel that could have happened. I’ve drawn on my professional background as a psychiatrist to imagine the inner worlds of my protagonists.” 

Hitler enters Yalom’s story because Nazi ideologues were grappling with the legacy of Benedict Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch thinker of Sephardic Portuguese origin. Today Spinoza is considered one of the great rationalists, defining the modern self in his major posthumous work, Ethics.  Scholars credit him with introducing the concept of the natural sciences and having the courage to denigrate all religious affiliation, rare for a European of his era. The Nazis were attracted to him as a thinker who might help legitimize their own dogma. 

But Spinoza’s Jewish origins created a conflict, a clash that became known as “The Spinoza problem”, one that the Nazi never were quite able to work through. Yalom built his novel around this incompatibility.

Yalom’s work is best read in groupings of his oeuvre. In three of his novels I have discovered recently, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, he tackles the philosophy of Nietzsche, Spinoza and Schopenhauer in literary terms, rendering their heaviest thoughts in finely honed prose in separate books.

Yalom performs his magic in a special variant of the non-fiction novel, perhaps better labeled the semi-fictional novel. It is a delicately balanced presentation of historical fact, embellished with his own literary touch and his training in the murk and muck of how the mind works. Ever the self-effacing auteur, in one interview he labeled his technique an “odd amalgam”. I found it an amalgam, yes, but far from odd.

With more than a dozen books behind him – ranging from textbooks to fiction – he devoted several years of research to his three philosophical “teaching novels”, “When Nietzsche Wept”, “The Spinoza Problem”, and “The Schopenhauer Cure” published in an extended period of creativity between 1993 and 2012. 

He defines the teaching novel as “a new pedagogical device … to expose students to a fictionalized account of the conception and birth of existential therapy.” He explains in the Reader that he had no intention of becoming a popular writer. “… that the book (Love’s Executioner) became a bestseller surprised no one more than me”. And he went from there in 1989 to produce his three studies of intellectual giants. Perhaps because of the intimidating subject matter, many readers shied away. They missed a treat, for these books are genuine page-turners. 

Why focus on these three men? Because Yalom is convinced that their work is fundamental to Western thought and remains relevant to our understanding of the world around us. Spinoza, he believes, demonstrated some of the precepts we now take for granted -- that ideas and feelings are caused by previous experiences, that emotions must be studied dispassionately, and that, as Spinoza has written, “understanding leads to transcendence”. The thinking of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are equally well linked to modern times.

And why novelize? Professor Yalom, a born storyteller, felt limited by the clinical prose of his professorial monographs and textbooks, originally his main outlet for his writing urge. Coming out of his academic shell, he said in one interview published in his 2005 Schopenhauer book that his clinical work always helped stimulate his imagination.  “… (H)ardly an hour of therapy with a patient goes by without some ideas being generated that will find their way into my writing,” he said. 

Moreover, he was fed up with some of his colleagues who assert that “linguistic clarity is not essential” in academic writing -- that it is possible to communicate directly from the writer’s unconscious to the reader. “I have never believed a word of this,” he says in the Reader. “If an intelligent, diligent reader cannot understand the text, it is the author’s failing, not the reader’s.” 

In the end, he concluded that “writing a good novel (is) one of the very best things a person can do in life”.

The Nietzsche book was his first foray into semi-fictional prose. He focuses on the Vienna physician Dr. Josef Breuer, a contemporary and collaborator of Sigmund Freud, and speculates how modern psychiatry might have evolved if conceived by Nietzsche rather than Freud. Yalom’s modesty surfaces once again. He noted in a Publishers’ Weekly interview that he had been reading about Nietzsche for years but never trained as a philosopher. To fill the gaps, he undertook an extensive reading regime and even audited college courses on Hegel, Nietzsche, phenomenology and Heidigger. 

The novel is a reasonable construct, Yalom writes in his Reader essay on the teaching novel, of how Nietzsche could have invented psychotherapy. The underpinnings are all there in Nietzsche’s published writings and letters.  The events in the novel could have happened “if history had rotated only slightly on its axis,” Yalom says. As further justification, he asserts that “Nietzsche could well have used therapy; he lived much of his life in deep despair.” 

The fictional scenes of Breuer and Nietzsche debating the causes of Nietzsche’s gloom are so realistic as to seem factual, although the two men never met. Breuer’s infatuation with his attractive female patient Bertha Pappenheim (known in the clinical literature as Anna O.)  is particularly well presented, including an erotic account of a hypnosis session administered by Freud – a kind of double-bluff, a fictional dream within a fictional setting. Yalom the novelist controls this slippery passage with aplomb. 

His sympathy for Breuer is evident from the start, most markedly in a scene-setter foreshadowing events to come:

“Breuer took pride in his many attributes. He was loyal and generous. His diagnostic ingenuity was legend: in Vienna, he was the personal physician of great scientists, artists and philosophers like Brahms, Brücke and Brentano.  At forty, he was known throughout Europe, and distinguished citizens from all over the West traveled great distances to consult him. Yet more than anything, he took pride in his integrity – not once in his life had he committed a dishonorable act. Unless perhaps he could be held accountable for his carnal thoughts of Bertha, thoughts that rightfully should be directed to his wife, Mathilde.” 

The setting is 1882, a period in which Nietzsche suffered from what is now called depression, plus a range of physical ailments, including syphilis. Although their meeting is pure invention, Yalom believes it “could have taken place”. Breuer is then put to work by Yalom to examine, through the emerging technique of the “talking cure”, Nietzsche’s published writings. In a fascinating act of literary legerdemain, Breuer deconstructs the man and the philosopher, adhering to the historical record but building upon it where necessary. We learn of Nietzsche’s countless symptoms – migraine headaches, nausea, vision problems, indigestion, addiction to sleeping pills. 

The plot thickens as Yalom portrays Breuer as suffering from his own set of troubles, notably his melancholy and his unconsummated sexual obsession with Bertha. Inevitably, Breuer and Nietzsche end up healing each other. Subsequently, physical consequences of syphilis turned Nietzsche into a vegetable, a “vacant husk”, Yalom says, for his final eleven years until his death in 1900.

Yalom’s research into Old Vienna provides the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the location and offers a look at Freud’s early years as a physician and future “talk therapy” proponent. References to some of the great minds of the era -- Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and Arthur Schnitzler – add to the breadth of the story. It is this local color that breathes life into the stories of great thinkers and makes these accounts a joy to read. Yalom said in one interview that he filled in detail by telephoning sources who could describe buildings, apartments, and 19th century life in Vienna. He consulted writings of the era, including an old Baedeker guide of Vienna. One source led to another. Speaking as an old reporter, I can fully endorse these methods. 

But of Yalom’s three philosophical novels, I found The Spinoza Problem his greatest achievement, a tightly controlled account of a contemplative life in free-thinking Holland. The short chapters and the change of venue from between-wars Munich and 17th century Amsterdam work well for the modern reader. 

As Yalom writes in his Spinoza Problem Epilogue,“Spinoza lived his philosophy: he attained Amor dei intellectulis (intellectual love of God), freed himself from the bondage of disturbing passions, and faced the end of his life with serenity. Yet his quiet life and death left in its wake a great turbulence that roils even to the present day, as many reach out to revere and reclaim him while others expel and excoriate him.” 

Adding drama to the Spinoza story is Yalom’s exploration in alternate chapters of the Spinoza legacy as understood by Alfred Rosenberg (Aryan, despite his name), a nearly forgotten Nazi ideologue who is reinvented here as a bona fide Spinozist.  The shifting of pace and the changing scenery of 17th-century Amsterdam and 20th century Berlin made the dual threads a pleasure to pull together. 

Rosenberg gradually accepts that the Jewish question could not be brushed aside by the mere fact that Spinoza was excommunicated from Judasim for his heretical rejection of the Jewish Bible. Rosenberg, a true anti-Semite, believed that Jewish blood is tainted for life, regardless of official shunning by the Jewish community.

Indeed, in 1656 Spinoza was subjected to a cherem, or banishment, when the Amsterdam Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera and the community elders charged him with “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds”.  One of Spinoza’s dangerous ideas was that there was no act of God in the survival of the Jews as a people. “I see nothing miraculous in it,” Yalom’s Spinoza says in one passage of invented dialogue. “The Jews have survived since the Diaspora because they have always refused to blend in with other cultures.” He went further, asserting that their separateness has “drawn down upon them universal hatred.” 

As he reflected on his cherem, however, Spinoza saw a positive side. “Perhaps now,” Yalom imagines Spinoza’s though process, he could “think and write as he wished, and he would be able to hold exchanges of opinions with Gentiles.” 

For the Nazi Rosenberg, life was more complicated. “Once a Jew, always a Jew,” Yalom writes of Rosenberg’s basic belief. “Alfred needed to rethink his whole approach to the Spinoza problem.”

Time ran out as the Allies streamed into Germany, and Rosenberg was captured and imprisoned at Nuremberg. His final role in the party had been to plunder works of art and other items of value throughout occupied Europe. Among his booty was Spinoza’s library, discovered in a museum in Amsterdam. One of Rosenberg’s team wrote hopefully that those works might elucidate the “Spinoza problem”. But the Nazis in Berlin never got around to opening the wooden crates from Holland.

Rosenberg was hanged on October 16, 1946. The chief American prosecutor Robert Jackson called him “The intellectual high priest of the ‘master race’ who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave impetus to the annihilation of Jewry … His wooly philosophy also added boredom to the long list of Nazi atrocities.”

One wonders what Spinoza would have made of his deranged follower as elaborated by Yalom.

Yalom has recalled in an essay “Writing The Schopenhauer Cure”, that his third and final “odd amalgam” novel was taking shape in his mind while he researched the Nietzsche book. Yalom says Schopenhauer’s work contains more interesting ideas than the work of any others except Plato. “And yet there is no doubt that he was a deeply troubled and most peculiar man.”

Schopenhauer was confident of his intellectual prowess. The unfortunate side effect of being a genius, however, was that there is a “direct relationship between anxiety and intelligence”, resulting in an unhappy existence.  Yalom calls him “seriously misanthropic – pessimistic, secretive, manipulative and disdainful of others”. 

Schopenhauer is best remembered for The World as Will and Representation in which he advanced the idea that we are driven to seek satisfaction from a perpetually dissatisfied will. This and other works proved pivotal, Yalom notes, in the work of later thinkers including Freud, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Erwin Schrödinger. He was one of the most respected philosophers in academic circles during Freud’s education and his writings influenced concepts that came along decades later – the id, the unconscious, repression, sexuality and self-realization without supernatural illusions. 

Yalom stretches his technique in this volume to link group therapy with Schopenhauer’s life and thought. As in other Yalom works, he hops around in alternate chapters from biography to what seemed to me to be an overly talky group therapy scenario, primarily of interest to therapists of students. This seems a weakness to the general reader but is a key component of the teaching novel. The biographical half is however brilliantly rendered.

Traveling Europe at age fifteen, Schopenhauer recorded his experiences, prefiguring his pessimistic worldview. Yalom writes:

“A powerful subtext in the journals is his fascination with the horrors of humanity …  starving beggars in Westphalia, the masses running in panic from the impending Napoleonic war, thieves, pickpockets and drunken crowds in London, six thousand galley slaves on view in a zoo in Toulon doomed to be chained together for life in landlocked naval hulks too decrepit to be put out to sea ever again …” 

At age eighteen Schopenhauer wrote, “This world is supposed to have been made by God? No, much better by a devil.”

Schopenhauer never married but was sexually active for much of his adult life. He eventually came to blame sex drive as the root of much of man’s weakness. Yalom quotes him as writing, “Sex is really the invisible point of all action and conduct, and peeps up everywhere in spite of all the veils thrown over it.”

Yalom challenges these generalizations, wondering to what degree his thinking was influenced by of own personal preoccupation with sex.  Or was it simply hyperbole to hold the reader’s attention? 

Schopenhauer’s fortunes finally reversed. After a lifetime of writing about his bitterness over the lack of success, his life turned around upon publication of Parerga and Paralimpomena (Appendices and Omission), a two-volume set of essays and reflections on a wide spectrum of ideas. One essay is titled “Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life”. In his Omissions tome he memorably described the “hedgehog’s dilemma”, a metaphor for human isolation and lack of intimacy. (Hedgehogs tend to poke each other with their quills.) Freud later borrowed the image in his own works. 

Schopenhauer’s views softened demonstrably in his later years, leading to this passage in Paralimpomena as cited by Yalom: 

“We should treat with indulgence every human folly, failing and vice, bearing in mind that what we have before us are simply our own failings, follies and vices, for they are just the filings of mankind …”

Yalom’s three amalgams, originally conceived as classroom tools, attracted a wider audience upon each publication, and are all still in print. His careful research provides details on the settings and events – often bolstered with his personal embroidering -- that he folds into his narratives.  The result is a literary visit to Old Europe and a refresher course on three intellectual giants who continue to influence us today. 


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