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Spinoza's not a problem for Irvin Yalom

September 07, 2012|By Nick Owchar
  • In his latest novel, Irvin Yalom finds a way to connect a philosopher persecuted in the 17th century with Nazism's rise in the 20th century.
In his latest novel, Irvin Yalom finds a way to connect a philosopher persecuted… (Basic Books )

Is there room for a novel about Baruch Spinoza in a publishing market crowded with supernatural creatures and kinky romance? Irvin D. Yalom thinks so. In fact, there’s plenty of room to describe the life of the 17th century Jewish philosopher, which is the focus of his most recent novel, “The Spinoza Problem” (Basic Books: $25.99).

Yalom’s career contains many professions — professor of psychiatry (emeritus, Stanford University), psychiatrist in private practice, best-selling author — yet they’re all connected. He regards “The Spinoza Problem,” like many of his other books (including “Lying on the Couch,” “The Schopenhauer Cure”), as “teaching novels” exposing readers to philosophical issues as they’re carried along by a compelling tale. I caught up with him, via an email exchange, to discuss his writerly beginnings and his novel.

Jacket Copy: In your life, what desire came first – being a writer or a psychiatrist? For many people, there's a deep dividing line that separates writing from other parts of their lives. In your case, these two professions really don’t seem mutually exclusive.

Irvin Yalom: I have a dual identity whose roots go back as far as I can recall. I've always loved literature. As a teenager I developed the notion that the very best thing a person could do in life was to write a really fine novel. At the same time, I grew up in a very culturally restricted and isolated community. My parents were immigrants from Jewish Russia with very limited education and no one that I knew had ever conceived that one could earn a living from literature.

For me, and for all my peers, there seemed to be only one way of escaping the ghetto and becoming a member of mainstream America: become a physician. My peers and I used to joke that we had two occupational choices: We could become a doctor or a failure! I was very drawn to my studies and occupation as a doctor, and my identity as a healer was formed quite early. I became a professor of psychiatry and, gradually, over the years, my yen for literature began to express itself and I soon began using literature as a mode of teaching psychiatry to my students.

JC: Publishers today seem very interested in stories about: a) handsome teenage supernatural beings b) extremely wild sex lives in modern suburbia. How do you handle this overheated climate?

IY: There seems to be a shrinking market for serious novels of ideas but there are still many readers who respond to more intellectual works. All my novels have had substantial and respectable sales in the United States, but these sales have been dwarfed by sales in Europe. To take one example: the novel “When Nietzsche Wept” had only a lukewarm reception here but was selected as the book of the year in Austria — 100,000 copies were distributed free to the citizens of Vienna. So far “The Spinoza Problem” has been barely reviewed in the U.S., but it received thoughtful reviews by every major publication in countries like Germany and France.

JC: The structure of “The Spinoza Problem” — the way it alternates between Spinoza and the ominous Alfred Rosenberg — builds a great deal of suspense as the reader draws parallels between the worlds of the two characters. Did you make the decision to tell two stories early in the writing of the book, or did this structure occur to you gradually?

IY: This novel was inspired solely by my interest in Spinoza. For a number of reasons, as I discuss in the prologue, I had long wanted to write a novel about Spinoza but was stymied because of my inability to fashion an interesting narrative. He's a man who lived entirely in his mind. He was excommunicated by the Jewish community at the age of 23 and shunned entirely by this community for the rest of his life. He lived alone, never married, had no romantic interests, no feuds, no external drama whatsoever. How could one write a novel about such a person?

The novel in its present form had its roots in a visit to the Spinoza Museum in a small town in Holland. While there I learned that the only thing that actually remains of Spinoza — his personal library — was confiscated by the Nazis under the orders of Rosenberg, the major Nazi anti-Semitic ideologue. But the books weren't destroyed, survived the war and were returned to the library. Rosenberg considered himself a philosopher and slowly a story began to emerge about a possible ideological connection between the two. I had no pre-written outline. The story emerged in purely organic fashion.

JC: There’s so much rich detail in the sections about Spinoza that it feels like the book could have easily stood on Spinoza alone. But Rosenberg’s essential, isn’t he? He’s the other side of the coin to Spinoza’s belief in reason.

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