When Nietzsche Wept (cover) When Nietzsche Wept: an invention of truth1

a book review by
Mary Lynn Richardson

When Nietzsche Wept: a novel of obsession By Irvin D. Yalom. Published by Harper Collins, 1992.

maple_leaf.gif (537 bytes) Canadian source

In the fictional analysis of Freud's mentor, Josef Breuer, as a patient of philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, Nietzsche paces the floor, his back turned to Breuer:

"A deep man needs friends," he began, as if speaking more to himself than to Breuer.  "All else failing he still has his gods.  But I have neither friends nor gods.  I, like you, have lusts, and no greater lust than for the perfect friendship, a friendship inter pares -- among equals.  What intoxicating words, inter pares, words containing so much comfort and hope for one such as me, who has always been alone, who has always sought but never met one who belonged precisely to him."

"If you prize your memories, don't write memoir," advises Annie Dillard who, for one of her own vivid memoirs, won the Pulitzer Prize. As all of us who have written from within the remembered "facts" of our lives can attest, the very act of writing cannibalizes remembered truth and replaces it with a new one. New truth. This is the important point. Truth of past transformed and reintegrated into the present -- which is, as Nietzsche tells us, the only time in which the past can be experienced.

       If this is true of personal memories, it is also true of cultural memories and cultural memoir. Although many have written historical fiction, few have demonstrated the healing potential of "cultural memoir" as clearly as Irvin Yalom does in his novel When Nietzsche Wept. Taking the "facts" of our cultural memories of a half dozen real and highly influential people of late 19th Century Europe, Yalom has imaginally fit together -- like pieces of an intricately carved puzzle that form a perfect wooden ball -- the lives of Friederich Nietzsche, Josef and Mathilde Breuer, young Sigmund Freud, Lou Salomé, and Bertha Pappenheim. All that is required of us as readers is that final, easily inserted, pin of imagination and understanding which holds it together.

       And for those of us interested in Jungian analytical psychology, in the great mysteries of analysis and healing, I submit that When Nietzsche Wept is a place to discover insight into the truths of these mysteries. Here we catch glimpses of what is meant by the temenos, or sacred space, in which two people may be transformed and healed through dialogue; through the power of individual insight; through reflection upon the uncomfortable experiencing of primal emotions; and especially through the deep bonds of trust and caring which can evolve in such spaces.

       Only one intimately familiar with these processes, and one concerned with the deeper levels of personal integrity, could have created such a book. Irvin Yalom clearly is such a person. Now a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, he has written several books on psychotherapy, including the bestselling Therapy and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.

       In writing When Nietzsche Wept, Yalom also proves himself a competent biographer and historian of ideas, paying careful attention to available documentation, and to the ideological implications of the philosophies and scientific discoveries of his characters. Although Nietzsche and Breuer, the principal characters of When Nietzsche Wept, never met, Yalom has feasibly slotted their fictional, mutually therapeutic, encounter into the final months of 1882. Josef Breuer at this time is in the throes of a mid-life crisis due to the catastrophic ending of the relationship in which he discovered "talking cure" therapy with his voluptuous and intelligent patient Bertha Pappenheim (classically known as Anna O.). Friederich Nietzsche, distraught over a failed attempt to establish a ménage-à-trois with the young, but already indomitable, future analyst Lou Salomé and his philosopher friend Paul Rée, suffers seemingly suicidal depression on top of his chronic medical complications of migraines and severe intestinal disturbances. He has already resigned his short-lived professorship at the University of Basel. Two major books, Human, All Too Human and The Gay Science have been published but all but ignored; Thus Spake Zarathustra is gestating. Sigmund Freud, disappointed over the abortion of his dreamed-of career in research, is in the hardest crunch of medical internship; he is a regular at the Breuer household where Mathilde mothers him and Breuer mentors him.

       Mathilde Breuer, still jealous over Bertha and hurt by Josef's withdrawal of marital affection, is a force to be reckoned with. Josef takes her on vacation to Venice. Here Lou Salomé -- barely twenty, brilliant, passionate, unscrupulous, and irresistible -- strides into his life, pleading the case of Nietzsche about whom she is deeply concerned. Adroitly she manipulates the two men, convincing Breuer the future of European culture rests in his hands should Nietzsche die, and persuading Nietzsche to consult this Vienna doctor for his physical woes. Thus begin a series of inventions which all become realized as truths.

       Nietzsche does come to Vienna to consult with Breuer for his medical problems but would leave again without even touching upon his psychological ones. Indeed he has already said his farewells when he suffers a serious migraine attack and Breuer is called to care for him. Barely conscious, in a room stinking of vomit and sweat, Nietzsche cries out to Breuer for help. And Breuer responds to this "other Nietzsche," the one in whom he recognizes young Freud's homunculus of the unconscious. He promises to help. But now he is faced with a seemingly impossible task: to trick the conscious Nietzsche, who asks for and accepts no help at all, into entering a therapeutic relationship. At the eleventh hour a solution comes: Breuer will exchange his physical doctoring for Nietzsche's applied philosophy in trying to solve his own emotional and psychological problems. Nietzsche accepts, taking his role most seriously. Breuer soon finds the truth beneath his invention and wades deep into the waters of transference.

       The rest of the story, as well choreographed as a detective mystery, rests in the dialogue between these two passionate thinkers and practitioners of "living philosophy  . . . philosophy chiselled out of raw experience." Together, through deepening mutual respect, they free themselves and each other of their painful obsessions with the unattainable women in their lives. In the process they learn what it is to live their own lives, to love their fates, realizing Nietzsche's famous principle of Amor fati.

       What we witness through When Nietzsche Wept is a cycling back of the understanding so many individuals have now gained through the painful seminal lives of Nietzsche and Breuer to heal our memories of the men themselves. When, finally, Nietzsche weeps in Breuer's arms -- and in Yalom's and our imaginal realities -- it is easy to accept a true healing transformation, a truth invented through cultural memoir. This, on a cultural level, is an example of Amor fati.

1. First published in the Society News of the C.G. Jung Society of Calgary in Alberta 3(2):4, 1994. Return. 

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