THE SCHOPENHAUER CURE
By Irvin D. Yalom. HarperCollins. 358 pp. $24.95
Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom has explored, in previous books, the science and the art of psychotherapy, bringing together in illuminating conjunction his talents as a therapist and a storyteller. In Love's Executioner he offered 10 somewhat fictionalized tales drawn from his work with individual patients, all of whom in some way had to confront what Yalom called the givens of existence: the inevitability of death, the burden of freedom, the aloneness of every human being, and the search for meaning in what often seems to be a meaningless world. In his novel When Nietzsche Wept, he imagined a complex psychotherapeutic relationship between the despairing philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Josef Breuer, who was a mentor of Sigmund Freud and an early practitioner of the "talking cure." Re-reading these books, I again admired the grace of Yalom's writing, the courage with which he critiqued and laughed at himself, the elegance of his insights into obsession, guilt, anxiety and sorrow, and his ability to uncover the sometimes hard-to-find humanity in his characters.
In Yalom's new novel, The Schopenhauer Cure, he considers once more the value and limits of therapy while continuing to pursue those points at which philosophy and psychology converge. As he moves back and forth in time between the life story of Arthur Schopenhauer, the gloomy 19th-century German philosopher, and a circle of fictional therapy patients in modern San Francisco, Yalom's focus is not, as it was in those earlier books, on individual treatment but on the dramatic dynamics of group therapy.
And so we meet Julius Hertzfeld, the devoted leader of a therapy group, who has just been informed that he has a fatal disease. Reviewing his career -- has he really done any good? -- he contacts a former patient, Philip Slate, an arrogant sexual predator who compulsively pursued and discarded women and who, in the course of three years of one-on-one treatment with Hertzfeld, remained maddeningly and intractably unchanged.
Philip had ended his sessions 22 years ago, an undeniable therapeutic failure. But perhaps, Hertzfeld conjectures, his work with Philip helped him after he left treatment. Philip has indeed been cured of seeking sex -- or virtually any human relationships -- thanks not to his former therapist but to his ardent study of the "divine" Schopenhauer, whom he sees as his soulmate, and from whom he has learned (among many other cheerless notions) that "we are all sentenced to an existence filled with inescapable misery -- an existence which none of us would choose if we knew the facts ahead of time."
Philip also subscribes to Schopenhauer's misanthropic opinion that "a happy man is one who can avoid most of his fellow creatures," a view you would think might make him an extremely unlikely candidate for group therapy. But for complicated reasons he becomes a member of Hertzfeld's group, joining a circle of patients trying to help themselves and each other by engaging in a deeply intimate discourse. They speak of their marital conflicts, competitiveness, fear of aging, fear of closeness, their feelings of worthlessness, loneliness and rage -- all of that untidy stuff that is a part of the human condition and that Philip abjures. Contributing his pithy philosophical observations and calmly insisting that he needs nothing from anyone, the cold and still-arrogant Philip claims the role of untouched observer and even, it seems, alternative therapist.
As weeks go by, the men and women of the group reveal their deeper and sometimes shocking secrets, responding to the challenge to dig further, be more vulnerable, take risks. When Philip's secret is also revealed, he finds it harder to hide behind his philosophical armor. Within a group that applauds revelation and, for the most part, offers forgiveness for former sins, it seems possible to disclose everything. With everything out in the open, so the story seems to suggest, it's just a matter of time before the healing begins.
Yalom, who has had a long involvement with therapy groups and wrote a well-known book on the subject, is eager to show in this novel what occurs within a group and how healing happens. But in contrast to his earlier books, here his didactic intentions trump his art, leaving us with characters who never come alive on the printed page. Nor do the various stories of Hertzfeld and his patients comfortably coexist with the alternating chapters of Schopenhauer's biography. I may have learned a great deal about the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the process by which group therapy might "cure," but I miss the creative skills with which Irvin Yalom could so artfully attract me to his executed loves and weeping Nietzsche.
Judith Viorst is a graduate of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute and the author of many books for adults and children.