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.”
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?