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The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin Yalom

Andrew Barley enters group therapy with Irvin Yalom.

Irvin Yalom is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford and is the author of one of his profession’s standard texts, The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy. But nestled beneath the title of Yalom’s new book The Schopenhauer Cure are the words, ‘A Novel’. The words seem miserly for a book filled with so much. For beside the novel’s story there’s an interlaced psychological biography of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Yalom’s hallmark therapeutic tips woven in and twelve pages of reference notes. It is a tremendous achievement and an absorbing read built on months of research and original translation work.

Julius Hertzfeld, a distinguished psychotherapist, discovers that he has only a year to live. He decides that the best way to spend his remaining time is to continue doing what he has loved most, his therapy work. Philip Slate is a remote scholar, and an ex-patient of Julius. He is a Schopenhauer enthusiast, and wants to become a philosophical counsellor. Curiously, they need each other. Julius needs Philip as a target for his ‘ripe’ therapeutic powers; the patient he was unable to help. Philip needs Julius to approve his step to philosophical counsellor. Philip joins Julius’ therapy group, but disrupts the group with his insistence that all they need is the philosophy of the notoriously pessimistic and grumpy Schopenhauer. So through Philip and Julius, the novel sets up an impossible, but believable, encounter as ‘Schopenhauer’ (Philip) comes to group therapy with ‘Yalom’ (Julius).

As the story progresses Yalom introduces his psychological biography of Arthur Schopenhauer. Developing the life behind ‘Philip’, these chapters enhance the novel and are interesting in their own right. Schopenhauer tends to be caricatured by his critics and curtained off by his fans so Yalom’s portrayal is refreshing in its sympathy and depth. Arthur Schopenhauer was born in 1788 into an austere and rigid household ruled by his dour father. His destiny was to take over the long-standing family mercantile business. Arthur craved scholarship but he was readied for business. An offer of a grand tour of Europe, something he could not refuse, sealed his fate. Then, on the family’s return to Germany, his father commits suicide. Sprung free you might think that Arthur would take off. Instead, he struggled to be free. Eventually he became the scholar he always wanted to be but he was never really free, least of all in relating to other people.

As you might expect with Yalom’s approach to group therapy, there is much about the ‘interpersonal focus’. But there is more. As Philip and Julius square up to each other Nietzche’s influence on Yalom comes out. Where Schopenhauer’s answer to life is an ascetic overcoming of desire, Nietzche’s is life affirming. Nietzsche challenges us to live “in such a manner that we”d say yes if we were offered the opportunity to live our life again and again in precisely the same manner.’ While clearly disagreeing with an ascetic answer to life Yalom values a great deal of what Schopenhauer has to say. He is widely quoted and praised. With Philip and Julius, Yalom has deliberately framed them as ‘fellow travellers’ – his conception of the therapist/patient relationship. This too resonates with Schopenhauer’s recognition of life, of being “in it together.” The Schopenhauer Cure feels like a very poignant and personal book. It is also a fine testament to the author’s belief that we should each aspire ‘to create beyond oneself’.

© Andrew Barley 2005

Andrew Barley is a student counsellor in Manchester and a UKCP-registered psychotherapist.

The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom. (HarperCollins 2005) pb $24.95/£14.30, ISBN 0066214416.

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