When Nietzsche Wept (review)

Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept: A novel of obsession (1992; repr. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1993).

It’s sometimes argued that Friedrich Nietzsche‘s philosophical work demonstrates an interest in psychology, introspection, and relations of power and desire, that in some way prefigures the development of psychoanalysis. As a Nietzsche fan who’s also read a moderate amount on psychoanalysis, I’m not sure that a real connection or affinity exists between the two bodies of ideas. Nevertheless, such an affinity is assumed as the basis of this novel, which imagines what might have happened had Josef Breuer tried to test his “talking cure,” developed in his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim, on Nietzsche in the Viennese winter of 1882.

In the novel, Breuer takes Nietzsche as a patient at the behest of Lou Salomé, who believes that Nietzsche’s obsession with her has driven him to the brink of suicide. Given Nietzsche’s extremely solitary and independent nature, she advises Breuer to keep the treatment a secret even from his patient. Breuer tries a variety of strategies to lure Nietzsche into treatment, eventually trying the subterfuge of exchanging treatments. Breuer will treat, at a private clinic, Nietzsche’s epic attacks of migraine, while Nietzsche tries to develop a philosophical treatment for Breuer’s despair.

Breuer soon finds that his despair, and his obsession with his hysterical patient Bertha, is far more serious than he imagined, and spends less and less time as Nietzsche’s doctor, and more as his patient. Nietzsche’s proto-psychoanalysis of Breuer takes occupies most of the novel, giving Yalom a chance to work much of Nietzsche’s early philosophy into the dialogue. While his evocation of Breuer’s life as a wealthy doctor in late-19th-century Vienna is interesting in itself, it’s Nietzsche’s words (often near-quotations from his books) that make the novel shine. It’s for this reason that while When Nietzsche Wept is an extremely compelling book at times, it’s hard to give Yalom all the credit. What he’s really doing, when not painting historical portraits of Vienna and of famous figures like Nietzsche, Breuer, Salomé and Sigmund Freud, is setting up a stage on which Nietzsche gets to speak.

So, for people who aren’t yet acquainted with Nietzsche’s philosophy, this is a good fictional introduction to the man and his thought. While a better book for finding out about Nietzsche is Thus Spoke Zarathustra, reading it requires stamina and dedication. That book, though, is among the few I have ever read that has truly changed the way I live my life. Nietzsche’s gift to anyone who reads his words is to hand them control over themselves and their destiny.

When Nietzsche Wept is a pleasant introduction to some powerful, possibly life-altering ideas. 6/10



Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.