‘The Spinoza Problem,’ by Irvin Yalom

February 21, 2012

Among the innumerable treasures the Nazis stole from Europe during World War II was a collection of books displayed at the Spinoza Museum in Rijns­burg, Holland. Compared with the Rembrandts and Vermeers nearby, these antique volumes weren’t particularly valuable, but the Nazi officer assigned to carry out this little act of plunder said the books were of “great importance for the exploration of the Spinoza problem.”

The Spinoza problem? Was that a subset of the Jewish Question? Or was it some other species of insanity Hitler’s minions were pursuing?

No one knows, but that almost incidental cultural crime inspired this curious novel by Washington native Irvin D. Yalom. A retired professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, Yalom, 80, has spent decades writing and teaching about existential psychotherapy. He has also published several works of fiction, what he calls “teaching novels,” such as “When Nietzsche Wept” and “Lying on the Couch.” His latest, “The Spinoza Problem,” attempts nothing less than an accessible introduction to Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century rationalist who laid the foundations of the Enlightenment, and a convincing analysis of Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue who articulated Hitler’s theories of racial superiority. Whether or not Yalom succeeds depends a lot on what you want from a novel.

The story moves — a little — along two distant tracks. In Amsterdam in 1656, we see a young Jew walking against the flow of his neighbors going to synagogue. Though once considered the rabbi’s most promising student, Spinoza has stopped attending services, stopped pestering his teachers with impertinent questions: Whom did Adam and Eve’s children marry? How could Moses have written about his own death? Are we guilty of idolizing the Scriptures? He’s the sort of eager kid who seems arrogant just because he’s the smartest person on Earth. Under the penetrating light of his intellect, the Torah sounds to him contradictory, mythological and — worse — imprisoning. He has decided to discover, through logic alone, essential truths that are not buttressed by political fears, social prejudices or theological conventions. Without any sense of the moment, this innocent young scholar has bravely opened the way for biblical criticism that will eventually remake Western civilization.

In alternating chapters, we switch to the early 20th century to follow the life of Alfred Rosenberg, a pompous student weaned on the crackpot histories of Houston Chamberlain (he was a British-born German who promoted the superiority of the Aryan race and married Wagner’s daughter). At school, Rosenberg is a loner, the butt of pranks, but after delivering an anti-Semitic speech that offends his Jewish headmaster, he’s hauled into the office and subjected to a sharp debate about the inanity of his racial theories. To no avail. “Excavate anywhere in his mind,” his history teacher sighs, “and we run into the bedrock of unfounded convictions.”


”The Spinoza Problem: A Novel” by Irvin D. Yalom. (Basic Books)

For any parent or teacher, this is a troubling scene: How do you enlighten a young bigot? When is it too late to change the trajectory of an evil person’s life? Rather creatively, the headmaster orders Rosenberg to memorize a long passage of Goethe’s memoir in which the German master speaks of being roused from despair by Spinoza’s “Ethics.” Alas, that assignment doesn’t change the boy — we know it won’t — but Yalom imagines that it plants an incurable irritant in Rosenberg’s conscience: How could Goethe, “the eternal German genius,” have worshiped the work of a Jew?

Spinoza’s life was the life of an intellect, but it offers one very dramatic moment: At 24, he was permanently expelled from Jewish society for heresy. David Ives has written an engaging play about this theological conflict called “New Jerusalem.” (It returns to Theatre J next week.) But Yalom’s talents in this book do not extend to drama or, frankly, to action of any kind. Instead, he presents Spinoza’s life as a series of carefully organized conversations — something you might hear at the Spinoza ride at Epcot. The artificiality of this presentation is jarring, and it never lessens throughout Yalom’s “teaching novel,” so if you need the verisimilitude of modern literary fiction, drop this class and take another. Exposition marches into these pages in jackboots, and characters speak to one another with a kind of formality that’s just one flat note away from a philosophical proposition: “I find what you say pleasing, even enticing. Let me answer you from both the inside and from the outside. First the inside.”

Indeed, many of these phrases are drawn from Spinoza’s “Theological-Political Treatise,” which accounts for the novel’s stilted tone. I think something more, though, is at play here. Spinoza objected to people’s tendency to anthropomorphize God. He famously joked, “If a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular.” In a similar manner, as a psychotherapist, Yalom tends to imagine all encounters as therapeutic dialogues; everyone in this novel is either an analyst or an analysand.

But as an accessible introduction to Spinoza’s complex philosophy, Yalom’s method has much to recommend it. Like a good teacher, he presents only a few ideas at a time and moves carefully from one to the next with frequent recapitulation. He demonstrates how Spinoza’s logical examination of his own emotions, anxieties and desires prefigured the development of “talking cures” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The conversations he creates give a lovely sense of the philosopher’s character and provide a lucid explanation of the man’s major ideas about nature, free will and reason. It’s enlightening to see the lines of modern secularism and scientific rationalism laid down almost 400 years ago. (Interested readers may want to start here before moving on to Steven M. Nadler’s 1999 biography and Rebecca Goldstein’s “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.”)

The alternating chapters involving Rosenberg’s rise to power incite a different kind of fascination. With his “gerrymandered sense of self,” he’s an odious man, frightened and needy, so pompous and pseudo-intellectual that even ghouls such as Goebbels make fun of him. But Yalom wants to reach into the man’s mind and see how it works — and, yes, how it might have been healed. The novel imagines that Rosenberg befriends a Freudian psychoanalyst and engages in a series of secret ad hoc sessions with him over the years as he becomes the party’s ideological standard bearer. (His authorized textbook, “The Myth of the Twentieth Century,” sold more than 1 million copies, although Hitler, along with everyone else, found it gibberish.) “We all love to hate the Jews,” this friendly therapist tells him, “but you do it with such . . . such intensity.” The psychological roots of Rosenberg’s “particularly powerful Jew-hatred” become the great mystery of the novel.

As an investigation into what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” “The Spinoza Problem” offers a strange body of evidence. Yalom suggests that he has projected himself back into history as Rosenberg’s therapist. Given the unfathomable suffering that flowed from Nazism, Yalom’s fantasy of the psychotherapist-savior is at once grandiose and fatalistic. What if someone had managed to help Rosenberg resolve his inferiority complex? For that matter, what if an art teacher had been more encouraging to Hitler?

Yalom isn’t interested in creating an alt-history of the 20th century, but he does want to demonstrate the power of Spinoza’s philosophical insights to unsettle even the mind of a pathetic little monster such as Rosenberg. Fortunately, we’re all descendants of the Jewish philosopher, and nobody studies “The Myth of the Twentieth Century.” The right mind won, but what a bloody path to victory.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE SPINOZA PROBLEM

By Irvin D. Yalom

Basic. 321 pp. $25.99

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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