The thinker and the stinker

Irvin Yalom's novel of ideas speculates on the intellectual conundrum posed by a Nazi theorist's interest in a Jewish philosopher

By Hannah Rosefield, July 27, 2012

The Spinoza Problem/ By Irvin D. Yalom/ Perseus, £17.99

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza

What is the link between 17th-century, Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and Estonian Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg?

In 1942, Rosenberg’s task-force, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, confiscated a collection of books from the Spinoza Museum in the Netherlands that they believed had been owned by Spinoza himself. A report written by Rosenberg’s chief officer declared that the books might be “of great importance for the exploration of the Spinoza problem”.

Could Rosenberg have had some personal interest in Spinoza? And if so, what? Irvin D Yalom imagines an answer to these questions in The Spinoza Problem, a novel that presents, in alternating chapters, fictional accounts of the lives of both Rosenberg and Spinoza.

It begins with a teenage Rosenberg, already an antisemite, appalled to discover that his idol, Goethe, admired the Jewish Spinoza above all philosophers. A few years later, Rosenberg reads Spinoza’s writings for himself, and is taken aback by their wisdom and power.This, in essence, is Yalom’s conception of Rosenberg’s Spinoza problem: how can a Jew, even one who distanced himself from Judaism, have written such great philosophy?

Yalom, who has previously written novels about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, is clearly unafraid of using fiction to explore major ideas in Western philosophy. He is also a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, and philosophy and psychiatry determine The Spinoza Problem’s two aims: to provide an introduction to Spinoza’s theories, and to put Rosenberg on the couch to try and uncover what might cause a man to hold beliefs that led to the incomprehensible atrocities of the Holocaust.

Along the way, there is some investigation of Spinoza’s inner world and Rosenberg’s racial theories, but the philosophy of the former and the psyche of the latter dominate the novel.

Spinoza and Rosenberg were both private men. Spinoza requested that his friends remove all personal information from his letters before their posthumous publication and, of the nine Nazi war criminals hanged at Nuremberg, Rosenberg was the only one who kept silent when asked for his last words. In order to overcome this reticence, Yalom provides each man with a fictional confidant who encourages him to unburden himself. This is effective enough though hardly subtle and makes for laborious and sometimes unbearably stagey dialogue (“I believe the issue of home is deep and urgent for you. I can stay a bit longer if you’d like to explore that more.”).

The Spinoza Problem is not much concerned with plot or style and its premise — Rosenberg’s interest in Spinoza — is flimsy. However, it compensates by skilful use of Spinoza’s philosophy to illuminate Rosenberg’s character.
Yalom sees Spinoza as anticipating modern psychiatry, and the best parts of the novel are those in which he translates Spinoza’s ideas into clear, accessible language. As a novel, The Spinoza Problem is awkward; as an introduction to a notoriously difficult philosopher, it is very good indeed.

Hannah Rosefield is a freelance writer

Last updated: 3:48pm, July 27 2012