When Nietzsche Wept – Irvin Yalom

May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve always been fascinated with philosophy. But for some reason, I’ve never read much of it. Maybe it just feels threatening, to have everything we know stripped down bare with questions that don’t seem to have answers.

At least, that’s the impression I get about philosophy. And yet, it doesn’t diminish in any way my attraction to it. There seems to be no rational explanation. And I also don’t really have an explanation for my particular interest in Nietzsche.

The novel When Nietzsche Wept carries the tagline “a novel of obsession”. And it is truly, a work about obsession, about obsessing about obsessions, and how we obsess about these obsessions for so much of our lives.

I love this book, in the way that it makes me think. When I’m reading, I’m not only just reading the conversations that carry on between Nietzsche and Breuer, I am also listening to them speak, as if I’m in the same room, eavesdropping into a different century. At the same time, I am also forced to think of the present, to think of myself and my own obsessions, and how my life would be so different without them.

The book challenges me to think the unthinkable. And, like Breuer, I want to argue against those arguments that I know to be true!

Imagine! To say that hope is the greatest evil! That God is dead! That truth is an error without which we cannot live! That the enemies of truth are not lies, but convictions! That the final reward of the dead is to die no more! That physicians have no right to deprive a man of his own death! Evil thoughts! He had debated Nietzsche on each. Yet it was a mock debate: deep in his heart, he knew Nietzsche was right.

And Nietzsche’s freedom! What would it be like to live as he lived? No house, no obligations, no salaries to pay, no children to raise, no schedule, no role, no place in society. There was something alluring about such freedom. Why did Friedrich Nietzsche have so much of it and Josef Breuer so litte? Nietzsche has simply seized his freedom. Why can’t I?

At the same time that Breuer is asking himself this question, I am also questioning myself, though perhaps a little differently. Like Nietzsche, I have no house, no salaries to pay, no children, etc. I may have a couple of obligations, some form of schedule to follow, a small place in society. But given the differences between the good doctor and myself, I found myself wondering, why do I have so much freedom and yet yearn for someone to pull the reins in on me? Why would someone with so much, want so little, and why would someone with so little, want so much?

Why are we never satisfied with our lot?

Nietzsche tells me, by way of Irvin Yalom’s novel, that I have to choose it. The way I live my life – what I have and don’t have – I have to choose it.

“Still, Josef, you avoid my question. Have you lived your life? Or been lived by it? Chosen it? Or did it choose you? Loved it? Or regretted it? That is what I mean when I ask whether you have consummated your life. Have you used it up?

“These questions – you know the answer! No, I’ve not chosen! No, I’ve not lived the life I’ve wanted! I’ve lived the life assigned to me. I – the real I – have been encased in my life!

Nietzsche tells me again:

Not to take possession of your life plan is to let your existence be an accident.

It became painful for me, at one point, to think about the events in my life that I’ve just allowed to happen, and told myself that I didn’t have a choice in it, that it was just how it was going to be. There weren’t many, but even just those couple of past events in which things seemed to unravel with such speed that I didn’t feel, at that time, powerful enough to make any choice of my own, are painful.

They have become today, what Nietzsche calls, accidents. And what sad accidents they were too!

It feels redeeming, however, the way Nietzsche and Breuer’s relationship grew. Both men in their late-30s and early-40s, and still given the opportunity to change, to see the world through a different set of glasses, from a different perspective, and come out better at the other end. And I tell myself, I am still young, I have the chance now, to do as I will myself.

Nietzsche writes in his notes on Breuer:

He was “the lad of infinite promise” – as are we all – but never understood the nature of his promise. He never understood that his duty was to perfect nature, to overcome himself, his culture, family, lust, his brutish animal nature, to become who he was, what he was. He never grew, he never shed his first skin: he mistook the promise to be the acquisition of material and professional objectives. And when he achieved those objectives without having ever quieted the voice that said, “Become yourself,” he lapsed into despair and railed at the trick played on him. Even now he does not get the point!

And I found myself thinking, how many times have I found myself thinking, so what is it that I’m doing here on this planet, in this society? I, too, have been told numerous times in my childhood that I was “intelligent”, “bright”, “smart”, and yet, what does all that account to today? How do I use these attributes? Or what are they supposed to mean? Is what I am today, any reflection at all of those praises that were so generously given to me in the past?

Nietzsche writes more:

I believe he needs to learn to curse before I can trust his generosity. He feels no anger! Is he so afraid someone will hurt him? Is this why he does not dare to be himself? Why he desires only small happinesses? And he calls this virtue. Its real name is cowardice!

He is civilised, polite, a man of manners. He has tamed his wild nature, turned his wolf into a spaniel. And he calls this moderation. Its real name is mediocrity.

How true it all seems! How many philosophers have been gentle with their critique so as not to offend the general public? How many great thinkers of the past have refrained from calling others idiots for fear of repercussion? None! They speak their minds, regardless of who they might offend. In fact, I’m convinced that they don’t even think they are offending anyone!

At the same time, there really is a thin line that is drawn here. What, for example, do we make of the bigots who “speak their minds” against other religions? How about those who also “speak their minds” against homosexuality and call such people “faggots” and other equally degrading names? How about those who commit “hate crimes”, because they believe so strongly otherwise?

Philosophy is an interesting subject, at least to me. And reading about philosophy and past philosophers by way of novels is starting to intrigue me much. Like Sophie’s World, this is yet another novel that I feel I should own, to have sitting on my own bookcase to be read, flipped through, at my dispense. I want to underline sentences, tag pages, even draw circles around whole paragraphs!

I wonder now, what other novels with philosophy as its central line are there?

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§ 2 Responses to When Nietzsche Wept – Irvin Yalom

  • sakura says:

    This sounds like an incredible book. And the way you try and understand your life as you read this book, maybe that is what reading philosophy is about, taking a long hard look at yourself (something that isn’t always easy). I feel that’s part of the reason why I read. In whatever genre, there always seems to be at least one small truth that makes you sit back and think about the choices you’ve made. Wonderful post, Michelle.

  • I’ve read this book a few times along with other works by Yalom. He’s a great doctor and novelist. I don’t think The New York Times would ever put him on their Top 10 Best Seller’s list. It wouldn’t play in Peoria. Lately I’ve been reading Dr. Eric Kandel’s “The Art of Insight”…

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