By Chet Yarbrough
When Nietzsche Wept
By: Irvin D. Yalom
Narrated by: Richard Powers
Irvin D. Yalom (Author, Doctor of Medicine, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.)
“When Nietzsche Wept” was published in 1992. The author Irvin Yalom is now 91 which implies his book was written in his late 50s.
To those who have struggled with understanding Fredrich Nietzsche, Yalom offers brilliant insight to Nietzschean philosophy in a novel set in the formative years of Freudian psychology.
As a psychiatrist by training, Yalom offers insight to the psychology of the male psyche while telling the story of a friendship between Nietzsche and a physician named Josef Breuer.
Interest in philosophy is not essential for appreciating Yalom’s creative mind in “When Nietzsche Wept”. Yalom intersperses historical fact in an imaginative story. Dr. Joseph Breuer is friends with a younger Austrian neurologist named Sigmund Freud. Freud is just beginning to develop his theory of psychological therapy through dialog. Freud’s therapeutic idea is to reveal causes for psychiatric abnormality by talking through the physical and emotional circumstances that lead to psychological imbalance.
Freud’s therapeutic idea is to reveal causes for psychiatric abnormality by talking through the physical and emotional circumstances that lead to psychological imbalance. To Breuer, Freud carries his concept too far by implying a homunculus inside the brain.
What makes Yalom’s story compelling is the opinion given by the author of “talking theory’s” value in psychotherapy. At the same time, Yalom exposes male chauvinism and its harmful societal consequence.
Joseph Breuer (1842-1925, a noted physician in neurophysiology, used the -talking cure- with “Anna O” that laid the foundation of psychoanalysis developed by his protege, Sigmund Freud.)
Josef Breuer is 40 years old. He is married to a beautiful woman. They have children together while Breuer becomes a well-established and renown physician. However, Yalum suggests Breuer is experiencing a mid-life crisis. In his practice, Breuer becomes emotionally attached to a young, beautiful patient who comes to him for treatment of physical discomfort and pain from an unknown cause. When an attack occurs, the patient exhibits pain that is only relieved by physical contact from her attending physician. That physical contact becomes inordinately intimate.
Breuer finds the contact sexually stimulating while clearly understanding it is professionally unacceptable. With his association with Freud, Breuer experiments with talking therapy to ameliorate the patient’s symptoms. He finds the therapy helps but it distorts his objective understanding of patient-doctor relationship.
Breuer begins to believe the patient is becoming emotionally attached to him when she is simply acting out psychologically. In defense against his falsely based infatuation, he assigns the patient to another physician.
In an acting-out psychological way, similar to Breuer’s mistaken perception with his former patient, he is approached by a beautiful 21-year-old woman, a stranger. She asks him to take on a new patient named Fredrich Nietzsche. She explains Nietzsche may commit suicide based on her acquaintance and subsequent rejection of his proposal of marriage. In a sense, Breuer is seduced by his imagination of the beautiful young woman’s approach to him. In fact, the young woman is only acting in accordance with her own agenda.
A listener begins to realize this is a Nietzschean view of the world of human relationship. Every human being has their own agenda. People act in their own self-interest, not in other’s interests. Human self-absorption distorts truth. God is not only dead, but He also never lived. All there is, is one’s will. To Nietzsche, one either becomes a superman or nothing.
Breuer takes Nietzsche as a patient but only on terms acceptable to Nietzsche. Breuer concocts an idea of offering Nietzsche the opportunity to treat Breuer for his mid-life crises. In return, Breuer offers his ministration as a physician. The sessions are based on the undisclosed self-interests of both, rather than the truth of each’s acceptance. What happens is Breuer’s mid-life crises is cured and Nietzsche’s weeping self-realization becomes the story.
This is an over-simplification of a well-crafted novel that has much to say about male egoism, psychotherapy, and inequality of the sexes; not to mention the terrifying implication of Nietzschean philosophy. There is much to unpack in Yalom’s spectacular story.