05 March 2012

The Problem with The Spinoza Problem


Well, in fact, I found something to read: Irvin Yalom’s new novel, The Spinoza Problem. For years now I have been interested in Baruch Spinoza—have read considerably in and about him, and have called upon him in my own thinking and writings. I call myself a Spinozist, though I am only partially certain what is meant by that description. And there was once a novel Conversations with Spinoza by Goce Smilevski  that attempted to explore the psyche of the this very private philosopher.
I once started and almost finished another novel by Irvin Yalom: When Nietszche Wept, an imagined relationship between two great philosophers, Frederick Nietszche and Sigmund Freud. In that novel the former suffers from severe depression and becomes a patient of the latter. Thus, the novel becomes a forum for the presentation of the ideas of Freud and Nietzsche. Yalom’s novelistic motive is to present the ideas of these two men and the plot derives from that purpose. Yalom means to tell us everything he has learned about Nietzsche and Freud, and the characters become puppets. So it is in The Spinoza Problem. But these are historical novels without the history.
I am not averse to this artistic device of bringing historical figures into fiction: Tom Stoppard introduced it to me many years ago in Travesties, when he brought Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce and Tristam Tzara together in Zurich. This plot device is an interesting way to introduce ideas in dynamic and dramatic conflict. In Stoppard’s drama the characters enact their ideas, present them in conversation that is not meant solely to present ideas but to further plot and reveal character. They talk about something besides their ideas and their ideas flow out of their conversation and are not all that the conversation is about. That is, the characters are not empty vessels to be filled with ideas (even if the ideas are their own), but are fully realized personalities whose speech comes naturally out of situations that derive from activity that seems organic to their character and the play’s development. Bruce Duffy’s novel The World as I Found It explores the world in which Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore lived, and portrayed vividly that world about which each man gave serious thought.  The novel is not a philosophical polemic but a fully realized world in which fully realized people act and react.
But Yalom’s novel is a platform for a specific philosophic agenda, and his characters, even the historical Spinoza, Franciscus Van Enden and Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologue who was executed for his war activities that included “crimes against humanity,” are mere expositors of ideology. Their presence is only necessary to allow them to reveal their philosophy. There is no character development: as the characters begin, so will they end. The characters in the novel speak from only that element of their character that interests Yalom’s didactic purpose. The plot of the novel depends on that trajectory.
Yalom’s plot in The Spinoza Problem concerns the surprising survival during the Nazi era of Spinoza’s books and possessions despite the Nazi program to destroy the work of Jewish thinkers.  This is the nature of the Spinoza Problem. As the prologue suggests, “[Rosenberg} had some mysterious interest in Spinoza.” It is Yalom’s project to theorize about that interest. Not an uninteresting question, I suspect. Why did the Nazis save the work of Baruch Spinoza when they might have raided the Rijksmuseum and stolen valuable Rembrandts? But the answer is offered at the novel’s beginning: Rosenberg has been punished by his Jewish headmaster for reading and espousing the anti-Semitic, pro-Aryan work of one Houston Stewart Chamberlain Foundations of the Nineteenth Century by having to read Goethe’s comments on Spinoza and memorize them. Goethe, Rosenberg’s favorite author, adored the Jew, Spinoza. And then Epstein gets a promise from Rosenberg that he will carry with him a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics and read it when he is able. The plot of the entire novel is written to portray the result of that punishment and that promise. The relationship Rosenberg eventually establishes with Spinoza will lead to his saving Spinoza’s work when the Nazis occupy Holland. The only question that remains is how Yalom is going to get to the revelation. The characters are puppets for Yalom’s script and not real people; they speak only their ideology and nothing more. They are not people but ciphers.
This is an historical novel, but I think I would do better to read a history. Other than the names and ideologies of the characters there is little detail of the period, and that offered is stated only to display something the author learned: it is not related to anything. Certainly nothing is ever subject to analysis. Every Nazi says exactly what every Nazi has always said and says nothing more. Every plotted act furthers the progress of the Nazi program as if the plot were moving on inviolable train tracks.
Of course, the other Spinoza problem concerns Spinoza himself: the philosopher was perceived as a threat to the Jewish community in 17th century Holland and the excommunication of Spinoza was an attempt of that community to solve this problem. But Spinoza, too, speaks only doctrine and dogma. I read not to follow character or to discover what might occur—the style is polemical and I do not read to wrap myself in the sentences nor to get lost in plot. Rather, I read to see only how Yalom elaborates the philosophy: whatever impetus there is to read derives from a curiosity concerning Spinoza’s philosophy. Spinoza does nothing but espouse his philosophy. I might as well read Spinoiza himself. And I have.
This book, too, I will not finish. Or rather, I’ve already finished it and I have hardly begun. But it is a pleasure to remember what a skillful novel might accomplish, as when Philip Roth portrays a period and something about the human condition through the characters living it.
I'm still looking.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you found something to read - BK

05 March, 2012 20:03  
Blogger Michael Brager said...

FYI, When Nietzsche Wept is not about Freud and Nietzsche but Freud's mentor, Joseph Breur, whose theories on hypnosis and the psyche preceded Freud's own work.

27 August, 2012 18:53  
Blogger Alan A. Block said...

Right you are; I stand rightly corrected.

27 August, 2012 20:37  

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