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The Spinoza Problem: A Novel Audio CD – Feb. 5 2019
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When sixteen-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster’s office for anti-Semitic remarks he made during a school speech, he is forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the Jewish seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Long after graduation, Rosenberg remains haunted by this “Spinoza problem”: how could the German genius Goethe have been inspired by a member of a race Rosenberg considers so inferior to his own, a race he was determined to destroy?
Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment during his lifetime. Because of his unorthodox religious views, he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656, at the age of twenty-four, and banished from the only world he had ever known. Though his life was short and he lived without means in great isolation, he nonetheless produced works that changed the course of history.
Over the years, Rosenberg rose through the ranks to become an outspoken Nazi ideologue, a faithful servant of Hitler, and the main author of racial policy for the Third Reich. Still, his Spinoza obsession lingered. By imagining the unexpected intersection of Spinoza’s life with Rosenberg’s, internationally bestselling novelist Irvin D. Yalom explores the mindsets of two men separated by 300 years. Using his skills as a psychiatrist, he explores the inner lives of Spinoza, the saintly secular philosopher, and of Rosenberg, the godless mass murderer.
About the Author
Irvin D. Yalom is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and the author of several highly acclaimed textbooks, including Existential Psychotherapy and The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. He is also the author of stories and novels related to psychotherapy, including Love’s Executioner, When Nietzsche Wept, Lying on the Couch, Momma and the Meaning of Life, and The Schopenhauer Cure. His recent nonfiction book is Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.
- Publisher : Blackstone Audio; Unabridged AUDIO edition (Feb. 5 2019)
- Language : English
- Audio CD : 1 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1982623861
- ISBN-13 : 978-1982623869
- Item weight : 250 g
- Dimensions : 14.22 x 2.79 x 14.73 cm
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Top reviews from Canada
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There are no parallels between their lives, Spinoza being excommunicated from his synagogue and going on to live a studious life and Rosenberg following the ebb and flow of Nazi power till his execution after being tried in Nuremberg. Thus, the novel is simply the author’s clumsy means of expressing his own views on various topics. One dimensional characters and artificial dialogues are used to stage discussions (that are not necessarily uninteresting) on religion and philosophy. This, however, by no means leads to a decent novel. Action is excruciating slow, what is justified in Spinoza’s case since little is known of life but not for Rosenberg’s whose vicissitudes in the Nazi régime could certainly have been more developed.
Overall, there appears no justification to recommend this work to anyone.
Yalom's novel skillfully juxtaposes two stories: a history of Spinoza and a history of the Nazi writer Alfred Rosenberg (1883 -- 1946), who was hanged for war crimes at Nurenberg. Rosenberg wrote a book called "The Myth of the Twentieth Century" and edited a major Nazi newspaper, among his other activities for the regime. When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Rosenberg pillaged the Spinoza House, including its collection of 151 books, which were replicas (not the original copies) of works the philosopher had in his library. The robbery of the Spinoza library is the only known connection between Rosenberg and Spinoza. Yalom makes it the basis of his dual historical story.
The book is a work of fiction and imagination. It is important to separate fact from artistic license, and Yalom endeavors to do so in a note at the end of the novel. The more interesting sections of the book involve the great philosoper. Yalom describes his early life, his training in Judaism, the circumstances leading to his excommunication from the Amsterdam Jewish community, and his subsequent life and writings with great insight, drama, and plausibility. Spinoza's thought is discussed both in the sections of the book set in the Netherlands and in the sections set in Nazi Germany. The exposition is simply presented for lay readers, with the explosive nature of his thinking retained. Yalom draws much of the discussion verbatim from Spinoza's two great books, the "Theological Political Treatise" and the "Ethics"; for the most part, the lengthy philosophical discussions are integrated well with the flow of the novel.
Yalom also offers a philosophical critique of Spinoza which, he recognizes is something of an anachronism. He draws on a study by the American philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) to critique Spinoza's rationalism at the expense of the emotional life. More surprisingly, Yalom introduces a character who critiques Spinoza from the standpoint of a much latter-day secular Reconstructionist Judaism and who is particularly harsh on Spinoza's clearly 17th century attitude towards women.
Yalom mostly imagines novelistically Rosenberg's relationship to Spinoza. He shows the young Rosenberg about to be expelled from his preparatory school for making anti-semitic comments in a class election. He is required to read Goethe's autobiography and write out the many laudatory references Goethe makes about Spinoza. Later in the book Rosenberg undergoes therapy with an old family friend (a fictitious character in his entirety) who probes into his depression, isolation, attitude towards Hitler, and increasingly strident anti-semitism. Spinoza becomes a figure to be used in understanding oneself and one's emotions, which Rosenberg is singularly unable to do. In addition, Spinoza with his critique of revealed religion becomes a figure with some resemblances to Rosenberg's own dislike of religion, both Judaism and Christianity. The therapist tries without success to use Spinoza to ease his subject's hatred of Jews. Hence the "Spinoza Problem" becomes the title of the book and of Rosenberg's activities in the Nazi Regime.
Yalom has written a novel of ideas which works effectively as a novel. It is an excellent critical introduction to a great philosopher and to the sometimes difficult claims of the mind and the heart.
The reference to Berthold Auerbach is taken from a recent study examining how Jewish sources treat Spinoza by Daniel Schwartz, "The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image."
Top reviews from other countries
I have no problem with his chapters on Spinoza. They give a clear, if a somewhat repetitive account of his career, of his biblical criticism, and of his attacks on the superstitions and practices of Judaism, and of his own philosophical and religious ideas. I find Yalom’s imagined account of Spinoza’s inner life and inner conflicts credible. I am not unduly disturbed by the fact that he has created fictitious person, Franco Benitez, who agrees with Spinoza’s biblical criticisms and with his views on superstitious ritual, but who is nevertheless a rabbi, and who, in the dialogues between them, maintained that man cannot live by reason alone, and that there is a value in the Jewish religious traditions which he could follow even while accepting Spinoza’s criticisms of them. Franco is a relatively minor figure and does not distort the story of Spinoza.
I have many more problems with Yalom’s chapters on Rosenberg. We do get a factual account of his career in the Nazi Party, but he tells us that the account of his time as a sixteen-year old schoolboy is fictional. The boy was already a racist antisemite. He admired Goethe, and then found out that Goethe was the “most decided worshipper” of the Jew Spinoza. How could that be? This becomes a life-long problem for Rosenberg – yet there is only one single and unilluminating mention in the historical record linking Rosenberg with “the Spinoza problem”.
More seriously Yalom introduces a fictional psychoanalyst, Friedrich Pfister, who plays a far more crucial role in Rosenberg’s life than Franco does in Spinoza’s. Rosenberg was drawn to Pfister although he regarded psychoanalysis as tainted by its Jewish founder and Jewish followers, and his relationship with Pfister broke down twice (in 1918 and in 1922) times before being resumed in 1936.
Rosenberg had suffered all his life from being unpopular and a loner, and even though he was fanatically devoted to Hitler and Hitler had rewarded his loyalty by promoting him to influential positions in the Nazi party, he suffered dreadfully from the fact that Hitler never acknowledged that Rosenberg was the source of many of his ideas and actions (including, according to Yalom, the Munich Putsch of 1923); did not appreciate Rosenberg’s 1930 magnum opus, “The Myth of the 20th century”; never brought him into his inner circle; often belittled him, and kept a cold distance from him. In 1936 Rosenberg suffered from a nervous breakdown, was admitted to a clinic for top Nazis, and turned to Pfister again. Pfister hoped to liberate him from his dependence on Hitler’s esteem by showing him how reading Spinoza had calmed Goethe’s restlessness. Again they were getting nowhere - when Hitler turned up at the clinic, and, in an affable mood, told Rosenberg that he had nominated him to be the first recipient of the new National German Prize, the German equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Rosenberg’s depression lifted immediately, and he curtly dismissed Pfitzner for the last time.
In 1940 Rosenberg was put in charge of seizing Jewish art and books in occupied Europe, and so he came to confiscate the Spinoza Library in Rijnsburg. As none of the books were in German or in Russian, he could not read any of them.
When Germany collapsed in 1945, he was arrested, tried at Nuremberg and was executed as a war criminal. as a war criminal, and condemned to death.
Both the Spinoza and the Rosenberg chapters make excellent reading, but, as a historian, I am too troubled by the unhistoricity of the Rosenberg chapters to give the book five stars.
I found the book unputdownable. How Yalom managed to bring to life Spinoza's mind from the very little that we know about this reclusive philosopher is nothing short of miraculous. I found the Rosenberg chapters less interesting, but then Rosenberg was a despicable, hateful, small minded human being, so it's much more difficult to relate to him than to the large souled Spinoza.
The book works like a study into good and evil. I'll probably read it again, but this time I'll skip the Rosenberg chapters and enjoy the insights into Spinoza's mind. Of course, it is a novel and no one can really know what Spinoza was thinking or feeling, and that is how he would have loved it to be. But it feels like it could have been very much like it happens in this book.
I'm very curious regarding other books by Irvin Yalom, I anticipate a new author to love. But first I'm going back to Spinoza, to the Tractatus and to The Ethics. Thank you Mr Yalom!
Irvin Yalom is a much revered humanistic psychotherapist. He is also a marvellous writer/communicator about these matters, and his non-fiction writings are rich, meaningful and informative, to practitioners and to those interested in our very human nature, and all the ethical and philosophical ideas which might arise from consciousness, and self-consciousness. He has written other novels, using a semi fictional framework to explore ideas.
In ‘The Spinoza Problem’ there are two parallel journeys happening, separated by nearly 300 years, and both stories, of real people with a strange, cross-time connection, are explored using a similar device, that of presenting the central character in each time, with a kind of analyst figure, a wise, self-reflective listener who can be trusted to explore how who we are and our formative experiences, often determines how we think
Baruch, later Bento Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew of extraordinary intellect and a rigorously independent, questioning nature. The Netherlands, where he lived and died was, in the 1660’s, a markedly tolerant society, where religious freedom, and different religions, were able to live side by side. Great things were expected of Spinoza within his community, where his understanding of religious texts and analytical mind seemed to indicate he would become a highly influential rabbi. This was not to be, however, as he began to question religion itself, and dismissed the forms as created by man, not God. Extraordinary thinking in those times, and brave to voice those thoughts : religious intolerance and fundamental beliefs were rather more the bedrock of the times, and dissent, in some cases, led to death. He had an extraordinary certainty in his own belief system, but also a tolerance towards others of different beliefs. He was, however, uncompromising in his insistence that he could not live untruthful to those beliefs. The result was that he was cursed, excommunicated by his community, for the rest of his life. This was a man who hugely valued his community, but valued adherence to his own understanding of ‘truth’ Where I found his uncompromising adherence to that to be even more laudable, is that he did not feel the need to force others into his thinking. A rather unusual combination of uncompromising adherence and toleration. Often, those who hold most fiercely to their own ‘right’ seek to deny others theirs – where we are talking the systems of beliefs
The shadow side of belief lies in the second figure, the one who searches for the solution to ‘The Spinoza Problem’ : Nazi Alfred Rosenberg, who was chief ‘theorist’ of the Party. Rosenberg, committed Anti-Semite, had a major problem with Spinoza – that he was a Jew, and was admired, hugely by the ‘good German’ Goethe, whom Rosenberg venerated. Here is a clear mark between mature and immature thinking, feeling, being – the inability to hold any kind of nuance or conflict between ‘this’ and ‘that’
Where the book particularly fascinated me is through Yalom’s own background as a psychotherapist, and one with a view which is both ‘narrow focus’ – this person, this story of theirs, and ‘broad focus’ – the overview, the wider issues. So, our own beliefs, which we generally believe are rationally driven, whilst the beliefs of others, with different opinions, we are more likely to believe spring from ‘personality and individual psychology’ that fact, are always driven more by ‘who we are’ than by rationality.
Yalom teases out, in the ‘invented’ encounters, giving Spinoza and Rosenberg people whom they can trust to have meaningful dialogue with, of the kind that happens in the best-run psychotherapeutic encounters, known history and personality traits. Obviously, more is known of the man Rosenberg through his writings, sayings, deeds as his is a more recent history – Rosenberg was one of those brought to trial, at Nuremberg, and executed as for his war crimes, and his crimes against humanity. Yalom traces this aberrant personality and psychology, which the wider events of the times fitted so horribly well – when external political/economic systems hurt ‘the common man’ the easiest, and most terrible solution is to make some massed ‘other’ the cause.
This is what we are of course seeing, nascent, in the rise of what is being improperly named – ‘the alt right’ Let us name it – certainly there is proto Fascism as a driver : leaders are using the terrible, dangerous language, and the terrible, dangerous, ‘feeling thought’ is gaining credence.
To return (and how we need to) to Spinoza. There is a wealth of quite complex writing – which Yalom has clearly studied at depth – which can be used, with historical background about his life, and what has been said about him by others, whether at the time, or later students/researchers into his life an writing – to create an idea of who this man might have been. Certainly there is an enormous intellectual and emotional intelligence at work here, a visionary, positively inspirational individual. He may not have been an easy man to be around in some ways – those who are ‘greater’ in a kind of moral, ethical way than most of us, those who serve as ‘inspirers’ to our feebler selves to orientate towards, can easily inspire our fear and our dislike – through no fault of their own, but because they make us uncomfortable and uneasy with our own shortcomings. ‘Dead heroes’ of history may be easier to read about and be with, than the person better, more humane, more morally fine, who lives next door!
So, not quite fully satisfying as ‘novel’ Yalom, as ever, invites the reader to engage with themselves, and with ethical ideas, educating without standing dryly outside what is being explained