As much intellectual exploration as novel, Yalom’s latest (The Schopenhauer Cure, 2005, etc.) fictional foray into philosophy connects Baruch Spinoza and an agent of the Holocaust.
The Nazi is Alfred Rosenberg, historical figure, war criminal sent to Nuremberg’s gallows, and philosopher-manqué and self-styled intellectual catalyst of German fascism. As a schoolboy, Rosenberg latched onto Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s racist theories. Rosenberg also worshiped Goethe, though he couldn't understand Goethe’s appreciation of Spinoza. Thus, The Spinoza Problem. “Never able to cleanse his mind of the image of the great Goethe genuflecting before the Jew Spinoza,” Rosenberg migrates to Munich, writes for a propaganda sheet and befriends Hitler. In chapters shifting between Spinoza and Rosenberg, Yalom unfolds the dual narratives in clear, straightforward language, following Spinoza as he rejects religious superstition and embraces rationalism while simultaneously sketching the history and social milieu of Jews who fled the Hibernian peninsula for Holland. Spinoza’s conversations with the fictional Franco Benitez, a refugee from Portugal, bring the philosopher to life as he suffers excommunication (cherem), befriends scholars like Franciscus van den Enden and lives “an unencumbered life of contemplation.” Characterizing Spinoza as “the supreme rationalist,” one who “saw an endless stream of causality in the world," Yalom makes the philosopher accessible to a popular audience. He also does a credible job of imagining how the intellectual connection between Goethe and Spinoza would have befuddled the narcissistic Rosenberg, who was trapped in the belief that there are “higher things than reason—honor, blood, courage.” Yalom ends with Spinoza interacting with patrons and Rosenberg on the gallows, followed by an epilogue and an addendum explaining the novel’s impetus and construction.
Imaginative and erudite.