Book Review: When Nietzsche Wept, by Irvin D. Yalom

Irvin Yalom’s 1992 novel, When Nietzsche Wept, was selected for Vienna’s Eine Stadt, Ein Buch campaign

TVR Books | James Kane | December 2009 / January 2010

Talking Through Despair

It’s 1882, and the specter of nihilism is stalking Europe. Despair runs rampant and unchecked through the population. Conventional medicine has precious little consolation to offer the suffering, and its alternative – religious mysticism – seems even less effective. Western civilization is in dire need of a new school of treatment for the depressive and hysterical.

Onto this dystopian historical setting, contemporary psychiatrist and fiction writer Dr. Irvin D. Yalom imposes his own rich imagination – and a bit of revisionist history – by introducing Friedrich Nietzsche to Vienna’s Dr. Josef Breuer, one of the earliest practitioners of psychotherapy, the new "talking cure."

"My stories are meant to be teaching stories for my students, for young psychotherapists," explained Yalom at a book reading at Fernwärme Wien on Nov. 11. The Stanford University Emeritus Professor was celebrating his novel’s selection for the 2009 "Eine Stadt, Ein Buch" (One City, One Book) campaign, the city-sponsored program distributing 100,000 free copies of the novel to bookstores and vendors throughout Vienna.

Yalom spoke to the packed conference room at the Fernwärme of his parents’ immigration to the United States from Russia, and his boyhood idolisation of the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

"Growing up, I thought the best thing to do in life was to write a great novel," he said. But having decided on a career in the medical field, Yalom asked himself "which part of medicine is most closely related to Tolstoy?"

Psychiatry became his answer. Yalom said that with When Nietzsche Wept, he intended to show "how psychotherapy might have been invented under different circumstances." In reality, Nietzsche and Breuer never met, but Yalom sees a connection between the nascent field of psychoanalysis in 1882, the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his metaphysical predecessors.

"The history of our field doesn’t start with Freud," Yalom said. "It starts with the ancient philosophers." Yalom said, intoning such names as Epicurus, Democritus and Plato. For this book, he wanted to distill what Nietzsche had to say about human despair and suffering through the prism one of the first recognised psychoanalysts, Josef Breuer.

1882 saw Nietzsche experiencing a severe case of clinical depression, as well as several debilitating physical ailments (as documented in his letters and writings from that time). That same year, Breuer completed his eminent case study of "Anna O." – a deranged patient whom the doctor treated with an avant-garde regimen focusing on early psychotherapeutic techniques of talk therapy and dream interpretation. At the reading, Yalom described a hypothetical "extra November" in that year, during which Nietzsche and Breuer’s meeting could have taken place.

And verily, Yalom’s Dr. Breuer serves as the ideal microscope through which to scrutinize the psyche and the early philosophical works of his contemporary, Nietzsche. Breuer’s methodical analysis encompasses both the man and the philosopher, observing this dichotomy with all due medical objectivity and discipline. Doubtless, Yalom’s own training as a psychoanalyst is reflected in Breuer and Nietzsche’s adept psychological probing.

Breuer painstakingly documents the symptoms of Nietzsche’s manifold physical and psychological illnesses – excruciating migraines, bouts of nausea, deteriorating vision, chronic indigestion, addiction to sleeping pills, and severe nervous sensitivity, to name but a few.

But perhaps chiefly, Nietzsche is burdened by melancholy: Though he is at first unwilling to disclose it, Nietzsche has fallen under the spell of the beautiful Lou Salomé – a femme fatale who was also a serious intellectual with links to many of the preeminent minds of the day.

Yet Breuer, like Nietzsche, also finds himself plagued by psychological troubles. Sexually and romantically obsessed with his former patient "Anna O." and struggling with feelings of guilt due to estrangement from his wife Mathilde, Breuer decides to strike a bargain with the reluctant Nietzsche: the good doctor would serve as physician to Nietzsche’s ailing body, while Nietzsche acted as physician to Breuer’s mind and spirit. The morose philosopher, who placed so much importance upon the concept of moral dissection in his writings, ultimately accepts.

The plot unfurls over a series of long-form discussions and consultations between the two men. Of course, the courtesies and decorum of late 19th century Viennese speech – even translated to English – must be observed by these two mannered professionals, requiring each to continually acknowledge and re-acknowledge all previous points before stating his own contentions.

In this way, the dialogue can at times drag a bit. The reader, perhaps necessarily, must grapple with one sprawling paragraph after another, which over 300-plus pages will strike some as stilted at times – though as the two men grow more comfortable with one another, certain formalities are thankfully dispensed with. Yalom also tries to mix up the monotony by inserting into the narrative a series of actual correspondence between Nietzsche and several of his social group, including his scheming sister Elisabeth, Richard Wagner and his friend from Basel University, Franz Overbeck.

Still, anything When Nietzsche Wept lacks in action, it more than makes up for in the scope of its historical precision and the quality of the thoughts explored. Through their discourse, Breuer takes on Nietzsche’s values and ideals, providing, for the uninitiated, a fine cursory overview of the tenets of Nietzsche’s early philosophical writing – his obsession with the struggle for power in individual relationships and the value of tragedy as an affirmation of life.

As their meetings progress, Nietzsche continues to extol the virtues of his "granite sentences" to Breuer, who is exhorted to question the origins and motivations of his moral fiber. Nietzsche constantly admonishes, "Become who you are!" Dr. Breuer is an enlightened man, but even his modern worldview begins to sway under the strain of Nietzsche’s psychological probing.

Throughout the book, fin-de-siècle Vienna and its inhabitants are depicted with well-researched clarity – Breuer’s Bäckerstrasse offices and domicile play host to many superlative Viennese minds of the day, such as Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and "the most improbable medical student," Arthur Schnitzler.

A youthful Sigmund Freud also plays a leading role in the drama, but Yalom’s portrayal is an uncommon one: In 1882, Freud was not yet the wizened godfather of modern psychoanalysis, but a naive medical student whose promising academic potential is weighed down by his Semitic heritage ("Pegasus yoked to the plow!" he gripes to Breuer). Affectionately known as "Sigi" in the Breuer household, Freud serves as confidant to the doctor and as a rational coefficient to Nietzsche’s bleaker worldview – the elder statesman of psychoanalysis once famously remarked, "I read Nietzsche, but it made me dizzy."

In his Afterword, Yalom quotes the French writer André Gide: "History is fiction that did happen. Fiction is history that might have happened." And this is exactly what Yalom has produced: More than a hypothetical meeting of historically significant minds, When Nietzsche Wept is an engaging, lucid account of the real life circumstances of its chief role players and an imaginative reinvention of their narrative arcs, had history shifted only incrementally from its ultimate course.


When Nietzsche Wept

by Irvin D. Yalom

Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.,

New York 2005

ISBN 0-06-074812-5

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 2

(01) 535 5053

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