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Reviews for When Nietzsche Wept

Los Angeles Times Book Review, “Superman and His Shrink” by Ron Hansen

The facts behind this fascinating “novel of obsession” are these: Friedrich Wilhem Nietzsche was born in 1844, the grandson of Lutheran ministers. His father died of “softening of the brain” when Friedrich was 5, and he was forced into a company of grandmother, mother, sister and aunts that he finally found alienating. After studying first theology and then classical philology, Nietzsche turned to philosophy and was so impressive a student that he won both a doctorate and a professorship at the University of Basel without having completed a dissertation.

His first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was followed by The Gay Science and the highly aphoristic Human, All Too Human, but Nietzsche found neither readers not respect. Hating the imprisonment of his job, and hated by his faculty colleagues, the stern and imperious “philosopher of culture” left the university after a few years for a hard and simple life of furious writing, bleak isolation and sexual asceticism.

In 1882, however, his friend Paul Rée introduced him to 22-year-old Lou Andreas Salomé, a brilliant, beautiful and boldly unconventional feminist and future psychoanalyst. There developed a galling “Pythagorean relationship” in which both men were equally smitten by Lou and were so flirtatiously teased but chastely turned away that Nietzsche finally referred to her as “a predator clothed as a house pet” and left for Italy in such despair that his friends feared suicide.

Dr. Josef Breuer was then just 40, two years older than Nietzsche, but he was already the father of five children, an eminent physician and physiologist in Vienna, a foremost authority on equilibrium and respiration, a friend and mentor to a 26-year-old intern named Sigmund Freud and a forerunner in the field of psychoanalysis.

Earlier, Breuer had treated the hysteria of Bertha Pappenheim—the famous “Anna O.” of psychoanalytic history—by a kind of “talk therapy” in which he forced her to recall troubling experiences under hypnosis and found that her neurotic symptoms disappeared when unconscious processes were exposed to consciousness. While he treated no other patients by psychotherapy, Breuer fully discussed his technique and conclusions with Freud and finally collaborated with him on Studies in Hysteria in 1895.

The “what if?” and fictional premise of When Nietzsche Wept is that Lou Salomé heard of Anna O.’s cure, hunted down Breuer on his vacation in Venice, hinted at her menage a trois with Reé and Nietzsche, and hectored him into a consultation by saying she was afraid her friend would soon hill himself and that “the future of German philosophy hangs in the balance.”

She tells him that a host of clinical symptoms—headaches, nausea, blindness, insomnia, dizziness—accompany Nietzsche’s depression. Twenty-four of Europe’s best physicians have failed to offer him any relief, for he’s an unusually skeptical and difficult patient: “Nietzsche is extraordinarily sensitive to issues of power. He would refuse to engage in any process that he perceives as surrendering his power to another. He is attracted in his philosophy to the pre-Socratic Greeks, especially to their concept of Agonis—the belief that one develops one’s natural gifts only through contest—and he is deeply distrustful of the motives of anyone who forgoes contest and claims to be altruistic. His mentor in these matters is Schopenhauer. No one desires, he believes, to help another; instead, people wish only to dominate and increase their own power. The few times when he surrendered his power to another, he’s ended up feeling devastated and enraged. It happened with Richard Wagner. I believe it is now happening with me.”

Dr. Breuer’s ingenious solution is to hospitalize Nietzsche in the Lauzon Clinic under the name Eckhardt Müller, alleviate his migraine headaches with ergotamine, and intrigue him into frequent conversations in which the philosopher would try to heal the internist of his own despair, for, Breuer confesses, “I am invaded and assaulted by alien and sordid thoughts. Though I care for my wife and children, I don’t love them! In fact, I resent being imprisoned by them. I lack courage: the courage either to change my life or to continue living it. I have lost sight of why I live—the point of it all. I am preoccupied with aging. Though every day I grow closer to death, I am terrified of it. Even so, suicide sometimes enters my mind.”

What he does not immediately admit is that there is a further parallel with Nietzsche’s condition: He is tortured by a hopeless passion for his voluptuous former patient, Bertha Pappenheim, whose first name was his mother’s, who’d so often held him for balance, fallen asleep with her head in his lap, called him “my dear little father” and otherwise inspired a hundred fantasies of heightened life and sexual fulfillment.

At first, Nietzsche treats the Austrian with variations on his own favorite sentences: “Become he who you are” and “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” And then he tries more unorthodox, and wryly comic, measures. “Nietzsche instructed him to compose a list of ten insults and to imagine hurling them at Bertha. Next, Nietzsche encouraged him to imagine living with Bertha and then to visualize a series of scenes: sitting across the breakfast table and watching her with legs and arms in spasm, cross-eyed, mute, wry-necked, hallucinating, stuttering. Nietzsche then suggested even more unpleasant images: Bertha vomiting, sitting on the toilet, Bertha with the labor pains of pseudocyesis. But none of these experiments succeeded in bleaching the magic out of Bertha’s image.

“Nietzsche calculated that [Breuer] spent approximately one hundred minutes a day on his obsession, over five hundred hours a year. This meant, he said, that in the next twenty years, Breuer would devote over six hundred precious waking days to the same boring, unimaginative fantasies. Breuer groaned at the prospect. And kept on obsessing.”

The friendship that gradually develops between Breuer and Nietzsche finally leads both men into healing and redemption as they learn how to become fully who they are, to differentiate the pursuit of the desired one from the pursuit of desire itself, and to first “will that which is necessary and then to love that which is willed.”

When Nietzsche Wept is the first novel from Irvin D. Yalom, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School and the author of the first important text in group psychotherapy, as well as Existential PsychotherapyEvery Day Gets A Little Closer (with Ginny Elkin) and Love’s Executioner, a book of factual narratives about Yalom’s patients and himself. Like this last book, When Nietzsche Wept is fascinating for its friendly portrait of the chess match that is psychoanalysis at work, but there is further attraction in its harvest of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas on the four great dilemmas of human existence: death, freedom, loneliness and the problem of finding meaning in life.

While Nietzsche is here just as “arrogant, abrasive, and exasperating,” as he was in biography, he is also, in Yalom’s hands, sympathetic, compelling, and peculiarly charming. Even Yalom’s sketches of Sigmund Freud and Mathilde Breuer and European domestic life have the feel of historical reality, but he makes it clear that his greatest interest lies in page after page of often forced but fiercely original argument.

At one point, Yalom has Nietzsche say, “You have looked at my books. You understand that my writing succeeds not because I am intelligent or scholarly. No, it’s because I have the daring, the willingness, to detach myself from the comfort of the herd and to face strong and evil inclinations...Do you know what the real question for a thinker is?” He did not pause for an answer. “The real question is: How much truth can I stand?”

Yalom’s own shrewd intellectual thriller succeeds because of his informed insights into existential thought and the birth of psychoanalysis, and because he had the good novelist’s instinct to let his brilliant characters be who they are, and talk.

Washington Post Book Review, “Philosopher on the Couch” by D.M. Thomas

A fain air of the name-dropping associated with Hollywood costume drama (“What will you play for us tonight, Mr. Liszt?”) lurks about the opening of this first novel by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, author of the best-selling Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. Within a few pages we are introduced to its cast—a good part of the intellectual elite of central Europe a century ago. Josef Breuer, notable in history as the co-founder of psychoanalysis, is vacationing in Venice in the fall of 1882.

The middle aged, highly successful doctor is visited by a beautiful and imperious young woman, Lou Salomé. She will become a distinguished analyst herself, close friend of Freud, mistress of Rilke; but on this Venetian morning, meeting with Breuer in a cafe, she is concerned only with a current friend, a sick and suicidally unhappy philosopher. With her beauty, authority, and liberated attitudes, Lou enchants Breuer, who is in a marital crisis; she persuades him to persuade this unknown genius, Friedrich Nietzsche, to consult him in Vienna. In Breuer’s honorable Jewish mind, the phantom of Fraulien Salomé joins that of his powerful obsession, “Anna O.” his recent patient Bertha Pappenhiem. Using mesmerism, he has “talked” Bertha into a partial and temporary cure of her hysterical symptoms by invoking their original cause. The intense therapeutic liaison has ended badly, with Bertha undergoing a false childbirth and Breuer’s admirable wife, Mathilde throwing her own hysterical fit.

Fantasies of taking Bertha off to America assail him as, back in his Viennese routine he stops his fiacre to offer a lift to a young and much liked medical colleague—“Sig.” He takes Freud home, where Mathilde heats a bath for him, then offers him fresh linen and an appetizing meal. Declining her husband’s half-hearted invitation to eat with them Mathilde withdraws to kitchen or nursery. She suspects his romantic obsession, and she knows her place. The domestic scene—probably not far from the reality of Breuer’s warmly paternal relationship with Freud, until the latter rejected him—carries conviction. The cameo portrayal of the young Freud, ambitious, idealistic, easily curious, is strong and authentic seeming. So, too, is the detail of the bourgeois home, with its “massive white tub, miraculously supported by dainty-brass cat claws” and its fragrance of carrot and celery barley soup.

Yalom is excellent on period detail. But the next chapter introduces Nietzsche, and the sensuous world is abandoned for a world of ideas. Breuer finds the philosopher a tough nut to crack. His physical symptoms stem fairly obviously from migraine. But how to get to the root of his Angst? In seeking an answer, the novel becomes virtually a dialogue between the two men. Eventually Breuer has to pretend to be Angst-ridden himself, reliant on the philosopher for a cure. It is not, of course actually a pretense; and Breuer finds himself dependent on his visits to the clinic where Nietzsche is staying. Together they plunge into the talking cure. Into unconscious desires and fears. For a novel supposedly of obsession, this is a highly cerebral book. For 300 pages, Breuer and Nietzsche debate ideas. One is torn between admiring the authors discipline, his refusal to go for sensational “based on life” scenes, and irritation that he has not indulged the poor reader with a touch more drama and color. On the whole I feel we could so with fewer ideas and more life; or that the ideas ought to be more startling.

I am unconvinced by this Nietzsche. It is very difficult, of course to bring a genius to life; with a philosopher it could presumably only be done through the quality of his expressed thoughts. The admirably fictionalized Breuer is bowled over by Nietzsche’s aphorisms. “We are more in love with desire than with the desired” and “Living safely is dangerous” shock Breuer, we are told and he notes them down. If he was so shocked by these observations, one could but predict he’d have been electrocuted by the later Freud’s. And thank God he never met Oscar Wilde. Bereft of striking ides, the imagined Nietzsche seems merely a verbose, surly, vain, and rather uninteresting man. His prolonged colloquy with Breuer suffers also from the fact that their final self-discoveries are foreshadowed in the opening chapters, so if there is no real surprise. The element of surprise—and it is a magical jolting moment—occurs fictively in the manner of Breuer’s sloughing-off of his obsession with Bertha. He escapes from his family, but in a safe way—it would spoil the reader’s pleasure to reveal how. And his observation of Bertha with a new, younger doctor, and the hacking away of his beard by a Venetian barber are memorable episodes.

This late vitality does intimate that Yalom could have been more inventive, more daring. He has written a little too safely, and that indeed can be dangerous. In particular, the feminine is endlessly talked about but seldom encountered in the flesh; even the opulent flesh of Lou Salomé and Bertha Pappenhiem was readily available to Breuer. Bertha, as powerful in her own ways as Lou Salomé, overcame her mental illness eventually to become a distinguished social worker in Germany. It seems a pity that the author did not allow two such characters to take the stage as more than extras. They might have helped to turn an interesting intellectual novel into a work of passion.

The Chicago Tribune, “Placing Nietzsche at the Dawn of Psychoanalysis”
by Joseph Coates

Friedrich Nietzsche was a philosopher whose thought and life were so intertwined that it is impossible to separate the two, a man who lived his philosophy to the point of madness and death. To my knowledge, no one has dramatized in fiction the tragedy Nietzsche enacted, possibly because there is so much in his life and thought we don’t want to face. But now Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist who wrote the recent nonfiction best-seller Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy has undertaken to incarnate this in fiction.

Not much of a novelist, Yalom has a firm grasp of Nietzsche’s thought and the skills of a master dramatist. Indeed, When Nietzsche Wept is the best dramatization of a great thinker’s thought since Sartre’s “The Freud Scenario”.

Yalom proceeds by taking one brief but momentous liberty by imagining the last weeks of 1882, when Nietzsche was in torment over the failure of his “Pythagorean” menage a trois with the writer Paul Rée and the relentless and beautiful intellectual groupie Lou Andreas Salomé. She is Yalom’s most successful character, along with Nietzsche himself, but Yalom, in an afterword, admits giving to her an uncharacteristic touch of human concern in order to generate his entirely plausible sequence of events.

The real Salomé dumped Nietzsche with scarcely a backwards look, but in October of 1882, Yalom’s fictional Salomé consults the renowned Viennese physician Dr. Josef Breuer in fear that Nietzsche might commit suicide over the failure of their relationship, and thus endanger “the future of German philosophy.”

Nietzsche at this time is almost unknown, despite having written four of his disturbing books, the first of which, the Birth of Tragedy, virtually ended his career as the youngest professor at the University of Basel. Since then he has been searching for a climactic clemency that will ease his several physical ailments while writing DawnHuman, all too Human, and The Gay Science, whose sales have been so few he claims to know his readers by name.

Salomé has given Breuer copies of his last two books and they sheer charm burdened him with the tricky task of curing Nietzsche’s despair without letting the patient know the aim of the treatment, which is ostensibly concerned only with the philosopher’s physical ailments—shattering migraines, failing eyesight, digestive complaints among them. She is confident he can manage this because she has heard of Breuer’s success in treating the hysteria of the “Anna O.” who would become the founding patient of psychoanalysis.

Breuer enlists the aid of another medical student, a confused and directionless young man named Sigmund Freud who has shown great talent for intuitive diagnosis, in planning a strategy to hospitalize Nietzsche and find the root of his troubles, which are complicated during their first few consultations by the philosopher’s insistence that pain and emotional anguish are the generating principle of his thought.

His two “granite sentences” imparted to Breuer are, “Become who you are” and “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger”.

Another complication is Breuer’s own emotional anguish, for the treatment of “Anna O.” has ended catastrophically with a hysterical pregnancy and a total nervous collapse caused by fantasies of Breuer being her lover.

Breuer hurdles the obstacle of getting his patient into the hospital by offering Nietzsche the chance to help him, through schooling in existential philosophy (“Tell me how to change my life”), while treating Nietzsche’s migraine, which has come to a nearly fatal crisis after his initial dismissal of Breuer’s attempts at a deeper “cure.”

Yalom does a fine job of showing the twinging of duplicity, high-mindedness, anguish, denial, and power plays in the motives of both “patients,” each of whom thinks or pretends he’s treating the other.

Breuer realizes that his most effective tactic is sincere submission to Nietzsche’s “thought experiments,” and we watch the progress of this spiritual duel by witnessing each consultation and reading the case notes each “doctor” makes on the other’s behavior and thought.

Yalom thus weaves together a novel of ideas and a thriller by making Nietzsche’s “ideas” a life and death emotional matter to Breuer, in the process the two of them extend into the realm of permanent effectiveness the talking cure that Freud will refine as the psychoanalytic process. Because we know the callow but alert Freud will eventually revolutionize Western thought from this germ, his future genius casts a huge, dramatically ironic shadow over his tangential role here, though it is his hypnosis of Breuer—using the cure on its inventor—that climaxes the book. At the same time we see Nietzsche honing through therapy the ideas that eventuate in his “son,” Zarathustra, whose thought fully coheres for the first time in the philosopher’s mind, he notes, just nine months after he met Salomé.

Along the way the reader has to put with quite a bit of clunky B-movie dialogue (“A major insight, Sig!”), but that he will stay the course is guaranteed, whatever his previous state of knowledge about philosophy. He realizes that Nietzsche’s thought is what all of us live, whether we want to or not.