“Imaginative and erudite” sums up The Spinoza Problem.

A therapist and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford’s School of Medicine, Irvin D. Yalom is the author of several professional works and a novelist who has introduced three different philosophers into his fiction—first Nietzsche, then Schopenhauer and now Spinoza.

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Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a rationalist philosopher whose genius wasn’t recognized until after his death. Spinoza was Dutch and Jewish, a man whose concept of “God as Nature,” his rationalist deconstruction of the Torah, led to cherem, excommunication. Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi ideologue brought to justice on the Nuremberg gallows, plays a role as a second protagonist in the book.

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Here Yalom talked to us about writing and research, philosophy and psychiatry, and his latest spellbinding novel.

Why Spinoza? Did you have any help in research?

This is the most difficult writing project that I've undertaken, from start to finish approximately four years. When formulating the plot, it did not dawn on me that a novel, taking place in two time periods, would double research time. Most of my research was done from reading and with the help of colleagues in the philosophy department at Stanford and colleagues elsewhere in the United States, Holland and Germany.

Why Spinoza? I've long been interested in Spinoza and felt many of his ideas have importance to the field of psychotherapy. For example, the idea that all events, including mental events, have causes and that, if we could research deeply enough, we would be able to understand human thoughts and feelings with great precision, that understanding resulting in transcendence.

Spinoza spent a great deal of time examining how we can escape from the bondage of passions and clearly that theme overlaps heavily with the endeavor of therapy. At one point he stated that reason is no match for passion and, thus, we must try to transform reason into passion. I find that idea quite useful in my therapy work and endeavor to incite the patient’s curiosity about him/herself.

Why Rosenberg, a relatively unknown Nazi? 

The idea of using Rosenberg was entirely the result of a visit to the Spinoza Museum in Holland. I had the desire to write about Spinoza, but I had no story. It’s most difficult to write a novel about a thinker who lives only in his thoughts.

It was only when I heard my guides mention that the Nazis had confiscated Spinoza's library in the beginning of World War II, and that the Nazi officer who confiscated the library stated that this library would help them with the “Spinoza problem,” that I began to formulate the plot of the book. The officer was a member of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a task force headed by Alfred Rosenberg with the mission to plunder Europe. I immediately began to research this man and then build him into my novel.

In my prologue, I cited Gide’s statement that “fiction is history that could have happened whereas history is fiction that did happen.” In my view, the fiction in this novel could have happened. Rosenberg considered himself a philosopher and was well read in the European tradition and could well have been troubled by the fact that the greatest German thinkers all revered the Jew, Spinoza.

Have you studied philosophy?

I took a straight premedical, science-based curriculum and had no philosophical background. However, I was familiar with the great philosophical novelists—e.g. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus. Fairly early in my career, I felt strongly that the history of psychotherapy did not begin with Freud or Jung, or psychophysiological work in the 19th century but instead began with the great writers and thinkers going back to the earliest written record.

During the first year of my psychiatric residency, I was growing dissatisfied with the two major current orientations: psychoanalysis and biological psychology. At that time an extremely important book, Existence by Rollo May, was published that introduced the relevance of European existential thought to psychiatry, and I understood that there was a third, philosophical path available to me. I decided to pursue a philosophical education and during my residency enrolled in undergraduate courses in philosophy at Johns Hopkins. I’ve audited many courses at Stanford and continue this education until this day.

Spinoza’s work is well described for a popular audience. Were you comfortable writing the Spinoza narrative?

I enjoyed trying to explicate Spinoza’s thought—all my novels are meant to be teaching novels. And yes, it is true I also greatly enjoyed writing the narrative. From early adolescence, I've always wanted to be a writer of fiction and for the past three decades have felt I've had a double identity as psychiatrist and writer. 

The fictional Franco Benitez was a wonderful tool for sketching Spinoza. Franco serves almost as a psychoanalyst, something you worked into the Rosenberg narrative with the fictional psychiatrist Friedrich Pfister.

I'm most comfortable in my fiction when I stay close to my field of psychotherapy. My goal was to examine and portray the inner life of Spinoza and Rosenberg.  Spinoza is widely regarded as a saintly figure whose work changed history and helped to usher in the Enlightenment, while Rosenberg is universally despised as a malignant figure whose life catalyzed many of the cataclysmic events of the Nazi regime. But how to go about exploring the inner world of these men? I needed to smuggle a therapist into each of the two plots.

In the Spinoza part, Franco, a thoughtful, insightful individual, the son of a wise Rabbi, serves that role and was able to help Spinoza examine his own blind spots, areas that interfere with his ability to employ pure reason.

In the Rosenberg part, the task was far easier. Psychotherapy already existed, and I introduced a psychiatrist who was trained in the early German psychoanalytic movement. Furthermore, we know that Rosenberg, in fact, had at least two psychiatric hospitalizations.

Do you have another philosopher-into-fiction planned?

At 80, I believe a novel is too ambitious, and I’ll stick to shorter works. But if I were to undertake such a project my man would be Epicurus.

Gary Presley's memoir, Seven Wheelchairs, is a publication of the University of Iowa Press. He writes at garypresley.com.