When Schopenhauer wept

When Schopenhauer died, Nietzsche was only 16. The two men never met, but their life philosophies have often clashed. They do again in Irvin Yalom’s latest book, «The Schopenhauer Cure» (Agra, 2005), as the two main characters wrestle with the same conundrum that perplexed the two intellectual giants: man’s search for meaning in a meaningless universe. If god is dead, how can one come to terms with the absurdity of one’s human condition? The answers of Yalom’s protagonists, like those of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, are radically different. When Julius Hertzfeld, a 65-year-old San Francisco psychiatrist, finds out he is suffering from terminal cancer he is, naturally, shocked but soon summons the courage to experience his life, or what is left of it, the Nietzsche way: «Live your life in such a way that you would be willing to repeat it eternally.» Instead of lamenting his fate, Julius decides to continue his psychotherapy work. Digging through his record as a therapist, he comes across an «old-time major-league failure,» Philip Slate, an idiosyncratic patient suffering from sexual addiction. Indeed, three years of one-on-one treatment with Philip were completely fruitless, and the two lost contact. Julius rings up his former patient only to find out he has been cured of his predatory instincts by immersion in the teachings of Schopenhauer. In fact, Philip has modeled every aspect of his life on the teachings of the so-called «philosopher of pessimism.» «First to know Schopenhauer is to know me. We are inseparable, twin-brained,» the former sex maniac boasts. It’s not long before Julius realizes that though «liberated,» Philip nevertheless remains very much the same icy, asocial and basically unpleasant person. Only now he has a habit of rehashing Schopenhauer sound bites, most often life-denying and misanthropic ones like: «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.» Much to Julius’s surprise – and, indeed, dismay – Philip has himself become what he calls a philosophical therapist and actually sees some patients. But in order to get a license, Philip must first be supervised by a practicing therapist, so the two men strike a deal. Julius agrees to supervise his academic internship under the condition that Philip joins his therapy group – in the hope that this will help Philip break down his own walls to the outside world. Things become even more complicated when Pam, a member of the group, turns out to be one of the many women Philip seduced and then unceremoniously ditched. The tense interplay between the two is the trigger that transforms the dynamics of the group and throws the sessions into whole new directions. The meetings become a stage where all-too-human sentiments come into play: desire, anger, guilt, regret, compassion and, eventually, catharsis. Subjected to ever-building pressure, Philip is gradually squeezed against the boundaries of the Schopenhauer cure – before finally cracking. «Schopenhauer has cured you but now you must be saved from the Schopenhauer cure,» Julius tells him. True to form, Yalom sends Nietzsche out to the rescue. Yalom’s deft hand blends fact and fiction. The San Francisco story alternates with a biography of Schopenhauer, but despite the parallels between the philosopher and his contemporary disciple, the two narratives do not always interchange smoothly. Nevertheless, the book remains a real page-turner up to the rather abrupt ending. Wake-up call «The Schopenhauer Cure» is about the end of life. Yalom pits Nietzsche against Schopenhauer. But he can hardly keep his preference secret. Book after book, the psychiatrist-turned-author, who was catapulted to fame in Greece with the best seller «When Nietzsche Wept,» has set himself the task of spreading Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy: Amor fati! Love your fate. Don’t let existential angst become an unbearable burden. To live life fully, Yalom often claims, one must accept that it ends. People would be happier if they were more conscious of their own finiteness and, in that sense, confronting death can be a wake-up call. Near the end, he is content who has managed to materialize Nietzsche’s life-celebratory urge: treat yourself as a work of art, become a creator of value, transforming «all it was» into a «thus I willed it.» Thus for Julius, a happy exit.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.