The Spin­oza Problem

Irvin D. Yalom
  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

Nazi pro­pa­gan­dist and self-pro­claimed philoso­pher Alfred Rosen­berg, a high-rank­ing par­ty offi­cial dri­ven by an obses­sive need for Hitler’s approval, had a Spin­oza Prob­lem.” How could a Ger­man cul­tur­al giant like Goethe pay homage to the mind and writ­ings of a Jew? Dr. Yolam estab­lish­es this intel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al quag­mire as a key to Rosenberg’s essen­tial nature. A vir­u­lent anti-Semi­te who pro­mot­ed the con­cept of the essen­tial deprav­i­ty of Jew­ish blood,” Rosenberg’s con­fi­dence in Aryan suprema­cy was threat­ened by Spinoza’s stature. One time­line of Yalom’s dar­ing nov­el is a fic­tion­al biog­ra­phy of Rosen­berg up through the fall of the Third Reich.

The oth­er time­line is a fic­tion­al biog­ra­phy of Baruch Spin­oza, the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Dutch apos­tate Jew whose writ­ings pre­fig­ured much in mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary phi­los­o­phy. Spinoza’s argu­ment with the fables of tra­di­tion­al orga­nized reli­gion and his pur­suit of a rea­son-based way of liv­ing and respond­ing to Nature are dra­ma­tized through chap­ters of intense con­ver­sa­tion and stren­u­ous, dis­ci­plined think­ing. Yalom explores the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­se­quences of Spin­oza being cut off from par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Shunned and iso­lat­ed, his exile and lone­li­ness seem, even­tu­al­ly, to ben­e­fit his cere­bral mis­sion.

The time­lines are devel­oped in alter­nat­ing chap­ters, mag­i­cal­ly inter­weav­ing the char­ac­ters’ des­tinies. For both Rosen­berg and Spin­oza, Yalom invents plau­si­ble con­fi­dantes to allow access to their most inti­mate fears and feel­ings. Dr. Yalom’s own pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence as a prac­tic­ing psy­chi­a­trist fuels his pen­e­tra­tion of these half-real, half invent­ed char­ac­ters.

Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, remark­ably ambi­tious, filled with vivid descrip­tions of place, and burst­ing with bril­liant insights, The Spin­oza Prob­lem care­ful­ly devel­ops its per­son­al­i­ties and issues so that they come alive in a high­ly orig­i­nal and absorb­ing way. Epi­logue, foreword.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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