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Book Corner May 2012


The Spinoza Problem

by Irvin D. Yalom  New York:  Basic Books, 2012.


Reviewed by Susan Hedahl            

This is a work of historical fiction that places two actual people - separated in time and place - in figurative dialogue:  the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and a major Nazi journalist and hater of Jews, Alfred Rosenberg.

The problem, after which the book is titled, taunts Rosenberg as a school boy.  As part of a disciplinary task, he is asked to copy out passasges from the famous Goethe (a non-Jew) who greatly admired Spinoza.  Rosenberg is haunted by Goethe’s obsession with a Jew.  The problem follows him throughout his life, until the days when he is hung after his conviction at the Nuremberg Trials.

This work’s author is a practicing psychiatrist.  He uses his training to good advantage in untangling issues of love, hatred, fear and obsessions that mark this work.  The book’s chapters are arranged in dialogical fashion, alternating between events in Spinoza’s life and Rosenberg’s. Additionally it uses the character of Rosenberg to explore some of the nineteenth and early twentieth issues in the field of psychiatry,

Spinoza’s background is traced with much sadness and historical accuracy.  His effort to remain faithful to his own sense of what constitutes legitimate free thinking, biblical interpretation and what constitutes reality results in his permanent excommunication from his Jewish community.  

This works is highly informative on many levels and written with significant reliance on primary sources which are artistically woven into the work’s construction.  Above all, the work raises the two related issues of what it means to become less than human and what it means to claim one’s own humanity in its deepest sense, whatever the personal costs.

This work is thoroughly researched and presents many challenges to any reader with the willingness to engage them.