Irvin D. Yalom. “When Nietzsche Wept”, a Teaching Novel

Yalom1yalomcoverFntYalom’s virtuosity has resided in a particular capacity to meld philosophy, literature and psychiatry into a corpus of work that illuminates life-as-lived for all” wrote his colleague and biographer Dr. Ruthellen Josselson. Yalom’s books on psychotherapy are widely read around the world and one of his most well know theoretical books on mental health practice, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy has been translated into seventeen languages and together with Existential Psychotherapy is considered a classic in its field, making Yalom a highly acclaimed scholar.

Yalom has also been internationally recognized as a fiction writer for his novels, particularly When Nietzsche Wept, a best seller translated into more than 20 languages. In this novel Yalom’s experience as a therapist is manifested together with his knowledge of philosophy, a field that he has cultivated since his early years as a student at the university.

Yalom’s novels could be considered historical fiction, a literary genre that has been popular since ancient times. The Iliad by Homer about the Trojan War and Shakespeare’s tragedies are some examples of old classic texts. In modern times, Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann, based on the Book of Genesis, The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder about the last days of Julius Caesar and more recently The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, a well-acclaimed novel about a manuscript of a monk describing convent life in the Middle Ages and the struggle between different church orders, as well as The Medici Boy, a novel by John L’Heureux published a short time ago, about the life of Donatello, the famous Italian artist in the 15th century, provide other relevant examples.

In this type of novel, the characters are historic figures appearing with their real names and the plot is built around well documented historic facts, including descriptions of epoch, location, situation, background, physical appearance of the characters and, in some cases, complete texts from published books or letters. This genre is so demanding that its writers not only have to be good at fiction, but also need to equipped with research skills to create a sense of historical reality.

Regarding When Nietzsche Wept, its principal characters include Nietzsche, the famous philosopher, and Dr. Joseph Breuer, the prominent Viennese therapist who has been considered as one of the founders of modern psychoanalysis, together with Lou Andreas Salome, a controversial Russian writer with whom Nietzsche was obsessively in love. Sigmund Freud also appears in the novel as a close young disciple of Breuer’s at the time. The roles and conversations of the characters, although mostly based on actual events mentioned in their biographies, published letters and writings, mainly Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, are partly fictionalized.

The novel begins with a meeting in October 1882 at a cafe in Venice where Lou Andreas Salome, then a young good looking and sophisticated Intellectual woman, asked Dr. Breuer to help her friend Nietzsche as he was deeply depressed and would probably kill himself. “It would be a great loss for me, and a great personal tragedy because I would bear some responsibility,” she pleaded. Andreas explained that Nietzsche was madly in love with her and after living together in a “chaste” ménage à trois which also included Paul Rée, another philosopher and Nietzsche’s disciple many years before. The “intellectual honeymoon of our unholy Trinity was also brief. Fissures appeared”, Andreas explained that Nietzsche was deeply hurt when she refused his marriage proposal. This affair briefly mentioned in the novel happened in real life and is well documented, including a famous photograph taken in Lucerne showing Nietzsche and Rée pretending to pull a cart with Lou Andreas inside brandishing a small whip —- many attributed this moment, regarding the problem with Lou Andreas to a famous quote from Thus Spake Zarathustra, First part XVIII. Old and Young Women: “Thou goest to women? Do not forget thy whip!”

PhotoLASDr. Breuer seemed reluctant to take the case but became interested in the story and offered to recommend other doctors. Salomé insisted. “Nietzsche has exhausted the medical resources of Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. No physician has been able to comprehend his malady or relieve his symptoms” and she added, “you are a doctor for despair”. Breuer replied, “Despair is not a medical symptom, Fraulein.” Already hinting to a future therapy for mental illness, Salome, undeterred by the answer, reminded Breuer that her brother had attended Breuer’s classes, in which he, as a practitioner described how “uncovering of the origin of each symptom somehow dissolved it. ”

To make the case more complicated and at the same time appealing to Breuer, Lou Salome told him that Nietzsche “doesn’t know that I’m speaking to you. He is an intensely private person and a proud man”, therefore Breuer had to conceal any previous knowledge of the situation of his future patient and his relationship with her.

At the end of a long intriguing conversation, Lou Andreas’ description of Nietzsche’s ideas and work together with exceptional circumstances made Breuer accept the challenge. “my dear lady…, I will see your friend. That goes without saying. After all, I am a physician”.

The framework of the story is now set and the plot centers around the meetings, conversations, notes and internal dialogues between the two brilliant minds of Nietzsche and Breuer, both suffering from the despair born from impossible obsessive love with younger attractive women.

The story shows how the roles of the therapist and patient blur when the fictional Nietzsche starts to take notes about Dr. Breuer’s obsessions and how he can best help him, turning the philosopher into a healer or a therapist. We can assume that the same kind of experience happened to Yalom in his own professional practice since he regularly refers to his passion for stories about old healers particularly to Hermann Hesse’s novel Magister Ludi, which tells a tale about two renowned healers and indirectly touches on the nature of the patient-therapist relationship. In his own words, “.. the echoes of these tales ring throughout the pages of the novel.”

By choosing a psychotherapist and a philosopher with historical relevance as the main characters of When Nietzsche Wept makes it possible to uncover other elements in Yalom’s biography. In her book Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition, Ruthellen Josselson reveals how Yalom “was intrigued by the links between philosophical reflection and the healing that takes place in psychotherapy, implying that, like in the story “the philosophers were covert therapists.”

Making Nietzsche a therapist was one of the ideas that inspired Yalom to write the fiction novel, a possibility which, he thought, “could have happened”, quoting Andre Gide: ‘history is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.”

When Nietzsche Wept clearly shows Yalom’s talent as a fiction writer, a philosopher and one of the most admired psychotherapists of our time, particularly displaying his knowledge and imagination to vividly portray Nietzsche’s broken relationship with Lou Andreas Salome, the torments that followed and the path to recovery.

At the end of the story, Yalom included a special section titled “On Writing a Teaching Novel”, where he describes in some detail the sources that inspired his book together with some of the ideas underlying the novel, written in a style that allows the readers to become acquainted with some important moments of the history of psychotherapy: the terminology and the healing process for despair and depression, ailments that afflicted Frederich Nietzsche. Clearly Yalom has achieved his goal by making up a story of a complex relationships, an exciting thriller full of interesting insights into philosophy, psychology, and the fragility of the human being.

Excerpts From:

Irvin D. Yalom. When Nietzsche Wept. Basic Books 1991 & HarperCollins Publishers 2011

Ruthellen Josselson. Irvin D. Yalom: On Psychotherapy and the Human Condition. Jorge Pinto Books, Inc. 2007 Available in iTunes iBook

2 Comments on “Irvin D. Yalom. “When Nietzsche Wept”, a Teaching Novel”

  1. Elise Marie says:

    According to Dr. Breuer, what must Nietzsche do in order to become mentally healthy?

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