Monday, October 01, 2012

Obsession and Longing

When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession

When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession 

by Irvin D. Yalom

"He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche

Irvin Yalom is a psychiatrist whose non-fiction books include Existential Psychotherapy and the best-selling Love's Executioner. When Nietzsche Wept is his foray into historical fiction. In it he explores the questions of love, meaning, obsession and longing, fate, relationship, and mortality. It is based on an imaginary encounter between Josef Breuer and Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. The powerful and interesting Lou Andreas-Salome also has an important role in the story. This is a well written novel that in parts reads like a good mystery. However, I found it sometimes seemed like a textbook on psychoanalysis while the comments by Nietzsche sounded like they were strategically placed present the ideas he had proclaimed in his books (or was about to in the case of references to Zarathustra).  The ideas are presented throughout the book as when, as they are walking through the environs of Vienna, they discuss Nietzsche's theory of eternal recurrence.  When Breuer asks if this theory promised "a form of immortality" Nietzsche responded with this rejoinder:
"'No!' Nietzsche was vehement.  'I teach that life should never be modified, or squelched, because of the promise of some other kind of life in the future.  What is immortal is this life, this moment.  There is no afterlife, no goal toward which this life points, no apocalyptic tribunal or judgement.  This moment exists forever, and you, alone, are your only audience.'"(p 251)
The novel probes philosophic issues like this and the question of what constitutes healing, while providing an important example of the complex dynamic between patient and doctor, when both are healed by the fact of their encounter. It is an accurate representation of Nietzsche's thought and presumably Breuer's as well. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the ideas of these thinkers.

When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom. Harper Perennial, 1992

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