The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin D. Yalom. Basic Books. 352 pages, $25.95.
Nazi propagandist and self-proclaimed philosopher Alfred Rosenberg – a high-ranking party official driven by an obsessive need for Hitler’s approval, had a “Spinoza Problem.” How could a German cultural giant like Goethe pay homage to the mind and writings of a Jew? Dr. Yalom establishes this intellectual and emotional quagmire as a key to Rosenberg’s essential nature. A virulent anti-Semite who promoted the concept of the essential depravity of “Jewish blood,” Rosenberg’s confidence in Arian supremacy was threatened by Spinoza’s stature. One time line of Yalom’s daring novel is a fictional biography of Rosenberg up through the fall of the Third Reich.
The other time line is a fictional biography of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch apostate Jew whose writings prefigured much in modern and contemporary philosophy. Spinoza’s argument with the fables of traditional organized religion and his pursuit of a reason-based way of living and responding to Nature are dramatized through chapters of intense conversation and strenuous, disciplined thinking. Yalom explores the psychological consequences of Spinoza being cut off from participation in the Jewish community. Shunned and isolated, his exile and loneliness seem, eventually, to benefit his cerebral mission.
The timelines are developed in alternating chapters, magically interweaving the characters’ destinies. For both Rosenberg and Spinoza, Yalom invents plausible confidantes to allow access to their most intimate fears and feelings. Dr. Yalom’s own professional experience as a practicing psychiatrist fuels his penetration of these half-real, half invented characters.
Beautifully written, remarkably ambitious, filled with vivid descriptions of place, and bursting with brilliant insights, The Spinoza Problem carefully develops its personalities and issues so that they come alive in a highly original and absorbing way.
foreword, epilogue. PKJ
This review appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Book World. To see it on the Jewish Book Council’s spiffy web site, click here: The Spinoza Problem. Click on my name to see my other Jewish Book World reviews.