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.