Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interlude - Review - When Nietzsche Wept

The Significance of the Title

Author in Rocella Ionica, August 2011
This novel When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession (1992, 2003) is a tour de force as it seeks to explore the origins of psychoanalysis from a creative point of view, rather than from a straight historical one as is the rightful province of fiction. This makes for a lovely combination of historical fact and sheer imagination. It concentrates on the happenings of one specific year, viz., 1882. Josef Breuer (1842 - 1925)  and his younger disciple, colleague and friend Sigmund Freud, (1856 – 1939) both Viennese doctors along with Friedrich Nietzsche (philosopher) (1844 – 1900) and Lou(ise) Salomé (legendary beauty and femme fatale and later an accomplished novelist and psychoanalyst)(1861 – 1937) comprise the central characters of this novelIndeed, this Josef Breuer can be reckoned as one of the founders of psychoanalysis with Freud, even though his name is not that much associated with Freud these days because Breuer was quite an original medical researcher interested in such a variety of general medical questions, not just mental ones.  Although Sigmund Freud has been associated with (and is indeed responsible for) much of the notoriety surrounding psychoanalysis and its rise to acceptance in Europe as well as the United States, Freud himself credits the birth of psychoanalysis to Josef Breuer and his work with Bertha Pappenheim. (The famous case of Anna O. as she is called in their book) Unfortunately, Breuer died before it received full acclaim.  It was their joint study Studies on Hysteria (1895) that launched the psychoanalytical revolution. 

Now the subtitle of the novel is also significant as the author, Irvin Yalom calls it "a novel of obsession."  The dictionary definition of the word "obsession" is the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire.  In this novel Breuer is obsessed with Bertha Pappenheim while Friedrich Nietzsche is obsessed with Lou Salomé.  The plot of the novel gravitates around their mutual psychoanalysis.  In the novel Breuer (who never met Nietzsche in actuality) persuades the philosopher to engage on healing the doctor's "despair" in return for the latter's medical treatment of Nietzsche's physical condition of chronic migraine.  The person who schemed their supposed meeting was none other that the femme fatale Lou Salomé.

The two manage to heal each other through their mutual analysis.  Breuer, in this novel, checks his opinions and considerations by using his young friend Sigmund Freud as a sounding board.  Now both Breuer and Freud were interested in philosophy and would have read the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Their mutual cure comes in a very classical way, viz., namely helping each other to make their unconscious desires, instincts and fears conscious. Yalom has his Nietzsche say the following about the nature of the mind, which is essentially a discourse on its unconscious dimension:

The psyche does not function as a single entity.  Parts of the mind may operate independently of others.  Perhaps "I" and my body formed a conspiracy behind the back of my own mind.  The mind, is, you know, fond of back alleys and trapdoors. (Ibid., p. 97)
Somewhat later in the novel Yalom also relates a fictional encounter between Breuer and his protegé Freud in a Viennese restaurant where they discuss the possible goals of a new way of helping patients - obviously psychoanalysis.  Breuer suggests that his goal in working with Nietzsche (he tells Freud that his patient's name is Herr Muller to protect his identity) is to liberate the "unconscious consciousness" of his patient, but Freud corrects him with the suggestion that "liberation" might not be the correct term, but rather "integration of the unconscious." (See ibid., pp 152-153 and following)  Obviously, while all of this is true, it is patently a later formulation written back into history.  But as Yalom has suggested with his quotation from André Gide, quoted below, that such could plausibly have occurred. Generally, in this novel, though, I hasten to add, there is more indeed than classical psychoanalysis going on - there is, in fact, a deep existential psychotherapy taking place.  To this extent, there is an anachronistic modern therapy superimposed upon or written back into history.  However, this is a very small complaint, indeed it really isn't one as one could certainly imagine it happening.  It is certainly believable and not at all improbable.  

It is also interesting to note that Yalom discovered in 2003, years after the first publication of his novel (1992) that actually friends of Nietzsche had attempted to get the philosopher to consult Breuer.  He quotes what I consider to be a perspicacious comment from the French author André Gide: "History is fiction that did happen.  Whereas fiction is history that might have happened."  Indeed, Yalom's highly imaginative work could therefore have happened.  This shows us, to my mind, the great truth of the imagination embodied in a true creative act.

Obviously, Yalom knows his Nietzsche, as we have shown in these posts in this blog before ( See here and previous posts), and he has certainly mined his works for insights into his thoughts, and especially for views upon which an existentialist therapy can be built.

“It is not the truth that is holy, but the search for one’s own truth! Can there be a more sacred act than self-enquiry? My philosophical work, some say, is built on sand: my views change continually. But one of my granite sentences is: “Become who you are.” And how can one discover who and what one is without the truth?” (Op. cit., p. 68)
Breuer's obsession with Bertha Pappenheim and Nietzsche's with Lou Salomé are both merely screens that mask the failure of the human soul to face head on the facts of its mortality, namely the above mentioned existential concerns.  In fact, one of the turning points in the novel happens where Breuer and Nietzsche take a walk through the city of Vienna Central Cemetery, where, while viewing his parents' grave the learned Doctor opines that he had long believed that "life is a spark between two identical voids." (ibid., p. 238) This is pure existentialism and the action of speaking these thoughts and other related ones in a graveyard, with one of the founders of existentialism, is nothing short of potent therapy.  Here, our two obsessed individuals are learning to look into the real issues of life as they constellate around the centrality of our mortality and in so doing learn to begin to go beyond their obsessions which were a way of avoiding facing those issues.

There is also a discussion between Breuer and Freud on the significance and interpretation of dreams where the latter opines:  " Perhaps dreams can express either wishes or fears.  Or maybe both.  But tell me, Josef, when did you first have this dream?" (Ibid., p. 39)  Later in the novel, Yalom has Nietzsche opine: "I wonder whether our dreams are closer to who we are than either rationality or feelings." (Ibid., p. 242)

Now, there is nothing extremely comforting in this novel which is dedicating to exposing one's own individual soul or real Self or true identity.  As Nietzsche says, on his first encounter with Dr Breuer:
"You, Doctor... dedicate yourself to making life easy.  I, on the other hand, am dedicated to making things difficult for my invisible body of students."  (Ibid., p. 67)  Even hope, for Nietzsche, is a form of denial, indeed it is "the worst of evils because it protracts torment." (Ibid., p. 69)  Then we get the second of Nietzsche's granite sentences, that is, "Whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger." (Ibid., p. 97).  He then asks Breuer how much truth he can stand.  In other words, the task of self-analysis or any type of psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is having the courage to face the real Self, the real me and facing that requires courage and acceptance.  Can I live with myself, with my own faults and failings, with my very own shame?  Again, these thoughts from the writings and thoughts of Nietzsche are at the heart of existential psychotherapy.  They both agree that we must take risks in this matter if we are to find out who we truly and really are. 

There is also much discussion on motivation in this novel, as indeed there is in any form of psychotherapy.  Our motivations are often unconscious, so, therefore, when we question our motivations we are getting at unconscious aspects of our personality.  There are also discussions of power and will, and indeed the will to power, which was never meant to be interpreted in the way Nazis would later.  For Nietzsche the will to power is essentially being able to garner one's own power to face the self, not to wield power over others.

A young Friedrich Nietzsche
Breuer pleads with Nietzsche to help him cure his despair: "I have killed God.  I have no supernatural beliefs. I don't know why to live!  I don't know how to live!" (Ibid.,140)  Nietzsche teaches him to look his own mortality squarely in the eye, to go beyond his obsessions as does Breuer Nietzsche.  It is this facing of one's own truth in all its nakedness that is part of the cure, represented symbolically in the visit to the cemetery.  In getting to know the self, to unravel one's own personal truth one begins to accept the self in all its dimensions, good and bad, and indeed to accept and love one's own fate, that is, in Nietzsche's own Latin expression, "amor fati," that is, to accept that this is my life and I willingly accept and indeed will it to be such.   First I must learn that the key to living well is to will that which is necessary and then to love that which is  willed.  In other words I will have learnt to have chosen my path in life, have chosen well, and to love that choice with all my heart. (See ibid., pp. 282-3)

We also encounter other of Nietzsche's famous arguments in this novel, like that of eternal return or eternal recurrenceThe basic premise proceeds from the assumption that the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is finite. If either time or space are infinite then mathematics tells us that our existence will recur an infinite number of times.though Nietzsche resurrected it as a thought experiment to argue for his concept of amor fati outlined in the previous paragraph.

All in all for Nietzsche the best truths were bloody truths, figuratively ripped out of one's own life experienece.  At one statge our philosopher says to Breuer that his method of self-analysis is to "drive the blade in deeper." (ibid., p. 207)  In the end our only goal is to get to know ourselves authentically, " to become who we are.  Become strong: otherwise you will forever use others for your own enlargement." (Ibid., p. 269). 

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