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Superman and His Shrink : WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT: A Novel of Obsession, By Irvin D. Yalom (Basic Books: $20; 306 pp.)

August 23, 1992|Ron Hansen | Hansen's most recent novel is "Mariette in Ecstasy" (HarperPerennial)

The facts behind this fascinating "novel of obsession" are these: Friedrich Wilhelm 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 nor 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 Ree introduced him to 22-year-old Lou Andreas Salome, 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 Salome heard of Anna O.'s cure, hunted down Breuer on his vacation in Venice, hinted at her menage a trois with Ree and Nietzsche, and hectored him into a consultation by saying she was afraid her friend would soon kill 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 happening now with me."

Dr. Breuer's ingenious solution is to hospitalize Nietzsche in the Lauzon Clinic under the name Eckhardt Muller, 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. As a result, I feel self-contempt, and I doubt my integrity. 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.

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