Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Schopenhauer Cure 2

The Schopenhauer Cure 2: Book Review Proper

Now let’s get straight to reviewing this book. As a novel with a plot or story does it work? Superbly. As a book which has something to teach us about psychotherapy does it work? Again superbly. Also that this book is in no way didactic in the moralistic sense of that word is gratifying. It is never preachy and never takes the high moral ground. Irvin Yalom has managed to inextricably weave knowledge, experience and the whole gamut of human emotions as illustrated in the characters of this novel into one extraordinarily complex and totally human tapestry which is this book. Indeed, he has managed to write a classic which will be read for years to come.

It is also insightful to learn that Yalom, when he was revising his two seminal university textbooks on group therapy and existential psychotherapy respectively, inserted references to his novels where the student might be able to access examples of the theory in practice.

What have we then in this novel? Well we have a beautifully wrought tale of the final year of a therapy group. This group has been going for some two years prior to this. For anyone who is not au fait with what happens in therapy groups this is a brilliant, enlightening and moving introduction. For those familiar with the workings of such groups, this little classic will only confirm them in their belief in their efficacy.

The central character is an eminent psychotherapist and psychiatrist called Julius Hertzfeld, of the Jewish nation, and he possesses much of the equilibrium and wisdom we find in Yalom, being himself also of the same racial background. This man has just learnt that he has inoperable and terminal cancer and has, at best, one good year left in his life. As the great Dr Johnston once remarked there is nothing more powerful than one’s imminent demise to focus one’s mind on what life is all about. Julius, therefore begins to re-examine what he has done in life, and in so doing map out the most personally beneficial and profitable course for his final year on earth. He begins to look back over old case notes and many old clients spring to his mind. However, he begins to obsess over one character whom he had failed to help even after three years of individual therapy. It was his only real failure. He decides to seek out this character, one Philip Slate, a sex-addict whom he had failed to help.

When he meets Philip the latter claims to be cured – miraculously transformed by the pessimistic teachings of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Philip is also a counsellor in training. To qualify as a counsellor he needs a supervisor, and he asks Dr Hertzfeld to take him on in this capacity and that in turn he will teach him all about Schopenhauer. The wise psychotherapist is not convinced by Philip’s claim of being cured, but agrees to be his supervisor on the condition that he join his intensive therapy group for this last year.

And so we are now introduced to the therapy group’s two main characters and thereafter to Pam, a learned English professor, to Rebecca, a successful lawyer, to Tony, a carpenter, to Bonnie, a librarian and to Stuart, a medical doctor. The interaction of these seven characters with one another is totally realistic, believable and, indeed moving, exasperating, illuminating, inspiring, depressing and uplifting by turns. The ambiance of the group is so well portrayed that we feel that we, too, are members of Julius’s wonderfully realistic and healing group. It is their realistic and totally uncontrived interactions and indeed the one or two little surprises that the group offers the reader that makes this a good novel.

Amazingly, this book works well as a novel despite its heavily philosophical take in the person of Philip Slate, and despite the alternating chapters on Schopenhauer’s life that thankfully are written in a light journalistic or novel-like style. Somehow, these chapters complement rather than interrupt an interesting narrative.

This novel is an accurate account of what goes on or down at a very good group therapy group session. It is also a marvellous insight into the search for meaning by all of the characters, and especially that search by the three central ones Julius, Philip and Pam.

And so, friends, if you read this novel you are going to be gripped by the neck, if you forgive the metaphor, and dragged into an existential world of real therapy which deals with the anxiety inherent in the raw facts of life, with what we existentialists call the human condition. These raw facts are that we are mortal, that we inevitably and inexorably face death, that we enter and leave existence alone. However, and this is a rich message from the text, we are to a greater extent than we realise, the authors of our own life design and of the shape of reality itself, and that we are by nature meaning-making creatures, who as Heidegger and other leading existentialists proclaim, are literally thrown against our will into a universe which possesses absolutely no meaning in or of itself. Therefore, our existentialist friends argue that we must set about making our constructing our own meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre called this our life’s project. Whatever meaning we construct for ourselves, it must surely be strong enough to carry us through our lives.

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