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Review of "The Schopenhauer Cure"

By Irvin Yalom
HarperCollins, 2004
Review by Fran Gillespie on Apr 28th 2005
The Schopenhauer Cure

Rich, broad ranging, skilful, imaginative, absorbing -- all these can be applied to Irvin Yalom's latest novel.  But they do not scratch the surface of the mechanisms, both of the mind that created the tale and the unique methods evolved to reach that end.  It seems to me that the author is, and always will be, a philosophical analyst, of the literature he chooses to read, of the conversations he has and of the behavior he observes in those around him.   His own life, then, is based firstly and firmly in his intellect.  It follows that his writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, has that intellect and not creative imagination central to it.

The overwhelmingly dilemma when reading this book is, then, can the personification of ideas as characters, and the animation of philosophies of life as a story-line grab the reader's attention and hold it?  The triumph of this book is that it does.  How it does is its fascination.

Firstly, there is the juxtaposition of the beliefs of the main two protagonists.  Introduced first is a life-affirming, sympathetic and engaging therapist who is dying.  He contacts an ex-patient who has overcome a crippling personality disorder by a 'Schopenhauer Cure' (his words).  This cure has left him emotionally cold, alone, unable and unwilling to engage with anyone else and thus only choosing to nourish his intellect.  The paradoxes here are that the therapist had been completely unable to help this patient, that that patient who is demonstrably unable to relate to anyone believes he will make a good 'philosophical therapist' and that the life-affirming therapist is dying while the life-negating ex-patient prepares to take over his role.  A compromise is reached: the patient will attend a series of group therapy sessions run by his ex therapist if the latter will discourse with him about Schopenauer.  Thus the stage is set: the other characters, members of the group, play their roles in animating perspectives around self awareness and denial, sexuality, betrayal and forgiveness, human insight and self-delusion and morality.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the writing is the skilful way in which the life and writings of Schopenauer are dexterously woven through the book as both a commentary on what is happening and as a contrasting light to the philosophy of life that is implied.  This thread is a dense and repeated leitmotif.  It heads every chapter with epigrams and fills chapters four, six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, twenty, twenty-two, twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty-one, thirty-three, thirty-three, thirty-five, thirty-nine and forty-one.  But, surprisingly, the writing remains balanced and interesting.  This is due, in part, to the shortness of these commentaries.  Demonstrably, too, they are completely relevant.  Phillip, the subject of the 'Schopenhauer Cure' says:

"First to know Schopenauer is to know me.  We are inseparable, twin-brained" (p.169)

The chapter headings, such as 'Pessimism as a Way of Life' -- No rose without a thorn, but many a thorn without a rose. (Ch.28, p.231), 'Suffering, Rage and Perseverance', (Ch.33, p.277) and 'Porcupines, Genius and the Misanthropists Guide to Human Nature' (Ch.25, p.207), all point to the illumination of ideas from a different direction.  However the question remains as to whether such philosophical reflection is appropriate to a work of fiction.

Setting aside the academic question of whether the structure of the book is correct or is uncomfortable in a work of fiction, it cannot be denied that this book is a tour de-force in the interplay between abstract ideas, (philosophy and a particular philosopher) and creative, fictional, plot and character.  There is no doubt which came first -- a seven year gestation period attests to this. 

But we are left with curiously one-dimensional characters.  There is Tony, who says to Phillip:

'Schopenauer has cured you but now you need to be saved from the Schopenauer cure' (p.330) 

He is too obviously an 'expert in emotional accessibility' (p.344).  This, in turn, contrasts with Phillip's (and Schopenhauer's) complete lack of such accessibility.  Rebecca's role is chief justice; Pam's the violated, vengeful woman.  It is the interplay of just such simplistic characters and the powerful emotions they represent that initially holds the attention, especially in contrast to the extremely complex thinking and character of Schopenauer and his disciple, Phillip.  However, in the end there is a sense of dissatisfaction.  Both the constraints of the book's structure and its firm basis in philosophy at the expense of creativity leave a sense of being shortchanged by the writer's imagination for the unexpected, the contradictory and the poetic in human nature.

The Schopenhauer Cure, then, is a unique, well-written, absorbing book that interweaves philosophy and fiction to create an absorbing tale of human existence and dialogue.  Its forte -- the examination of a philosophy personified by a character in such a way as to analyze both with clarity -- is also its disappointment as it prevents the three dimensional development of its supporting characters. Despite this, there is more than enough to engage and rivet any reader's attention.


© 2005 Fran Gillespie


Fran Gillespie writes about herself:

I am a mental health consumer of forty years standing. My family is steeped in this experience as we have traced it through four generations I therefore have also a personal understanding of caring in this difficult area. In the last five years I have moved from hiding under the blankets to giving evidence to an enquiry into the human rights of the mentally ill in Australia to spearheading an understanding of the mental health consumer as a resource in our community in Hobart, Tasmania. With the support of like-minded people a system of paid consumer consultants arose from this activism. I am at present on leave from studying for a research Masters in Medicine that centres on an analysis of the development of mental health consumerism in Tasmania. I believe that it is necessary to set aside anger generated from personal experience in this area in order to achieve lasting solutions. Thus I also work as a consumer advocate.