In the dark days of my youth, I trained to be a lawyer. As far as I’m concerned my brain is naturally inclined to be, and then was further pummelled into being linear, logical and only marginally creative. For these reasons, when I have to contemplate the universe (by, for instance, trying to understand the relative size of the earth compared to the observable universe or the gravitational force of black holes) or when I have to ponder existential and philosophical conundrums, my brain really hurts. Give me the legal complexities of a snail at the bottom of a ginger beer bottle any day*.
So it was with some anxiety that I began reading When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom, M.D. In addition to the intellectual title and the sombre bookcover, the author photo on the back of the book suggests a man not to be meddled with. He is clearly VERY SMART. Look at this:
Positioned alongside this imposing photo, the blurb tells us that Irvin D. Yalom M.D. is no less than a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University.
Consequently, as I turned to chapter one I was fearful for my lawyerly brain. How much existential grappling would this book demand? Would I survive the plunge into the (for me) unchartered realms of philosophy? Who was Nietzsche anyway?
Happily I can report that my brain and I survived When Nietzsche Wept. Although I didn’t necessarily enjoy this book I am glad I read it.
The premise of the book is this: Dr Josef Breuer is a renowned physician at the turn of the nineteenth century in Vienna. He is summoned by a young woman, Lou Salome to discuss her close friend Friedrich Nietzsche. She wants Breuer to cure Nietzsche of his ‘despair’ and his corresponding suicidal tendencies. But the catch is, the great Viennese doctor must do it without the soon-to-be great philosopher knowing that he is being treated because Nietzsche ‘has strong opinions about weakness and power’. The book then unfolds as a series of conversations between Breuer and Nietzsche about life, death, despair as well as lust, marriage and suicide. There is torment, there is obsession. Through these conversations we learn about Nietzsche’s philosophical tenets and Breuer’s real life discoveries around ‘talk therapy’.
A lot of the philosophical and psychotherapy musings offered throughout the novel fell on the fallow soil of my logical and inflexible brain. However, there was one concept that stuck a chord – the notion of eternal recurrence. As Nietzsche explains:
Eternal recurrence means that every time you chose an action you must be willing to choose it for all eternity. And it is the same for every action not made, every stillborn thought, every choice avoided. And all unlived life will remain bulging inside you, unlived through all eternity.
As a consequence of this ‘external hourglass of existence turning upside down, again and again’, Nietzsche urges Breuer to ‘live in such a way that you love the idea’. In other words, Nietzsche urges us to live our life in such a way that we’d be happy to live it over and over. I found this genuinely inspiring. There are many parts of my life that I’d really rather not have to endure again and many parts that I could right now exert control to change. I took this concept as a kind of high-brow version of Dead Poet’s Society‘s ‘carpe diem’, and have resolved to further analyse my life through this lens. Not many books have made me do that.
Without a doubt, this book is pompous. It’s also quite dense. I felt obliged to finish it, rather than being excited about the fate of the characters or the unravelling of the plot. But, that doesn’t mean the book is without merit. Irvin D. Yalom does an excellent job of evoking nineteenth century Vienna. He constructs an obviously well-researched stage upon which famous historical figures can expound their theories for our digestion, including Sigmund Freud who makes an historically unlikely, but welcome appearance as a secondary character in the novel.
Importantly, though admittedly coming from a pretty low base, I now know immeasurably more about Friedrich Nietzsche. I also now know that he’s been significantly misrepresented by both the Nazis and Hollywood (quite an accomplishment!), as you can see here:
At the end of the book there are countless pages about its historical foundations, the inspiration for the plot, and a lot of (unnecessary) detail about Irvin D. Yalom’s professional and personal life. Without a doubt, this man takes himself and his books very seriously. Yet he’s explicit about his intentions. Right from the outset Irvin D. Yalom intended this to be a ‘reaching novel’, with his target audience being the ‘professional psychotherapy community’.
For this reason, I’d recommend this book to people who either (a) have a foundation in philosophy or psychotherapy and want to read a fictionalised account of the ‘great men’ of this era, or (b) those people who’ve little grounding in these schools of thought, but are prepared to take this book very slowly, to mull it over, consult Wikipedia occasionally and maybe even see the film of the book to help them through it.
This is not a book to which I would naturally gravitate. It’s not fun, or exciting, particularly well written or even all that engaging. However I don’t regret reading it. I’m still figuring out which aspects of my life I’d like to eternally recur (Saturday’s walk on the beach, watching season 2 of Better Call Saul) and those I’d gleefully banish (the crush of peak hour trains in Melbourne, being served luke-warm tea). Surprisingly, I would chose to read When Nietzche Wept again and again (and again). Not sure I can say the same thing about my law degree.
*This is a lawyer’s in-joke about a famous torts case.