When Nietzsche Wept

April 20, 2011

Obsession is never about the thing you're obsessed with.

The principal reason why I love Nietzsche is the wild disparity between the shy, sickly, almost pathetic man he was in real life, and the self-assured, balls-out authority he is in his books.1 Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you a slew of sad stories about Nietzsche, but the man also left an indelible mark on western philosophy with his foundational thoughts on power, truth, and the unconscious. Curious fella.

When Nietzsche Wept is a work of historical fiction that answers the question, what if Nietzsche were psychoanalyzed? Toward this end, Yalom has Nietzsche meet Josef Breuer, the latter a real and indeed eminent physician in Vienna during Nietzsche’s lifetime. Breuer was a confidante of the young Sigmund Freud, and the novel has Nietzsche co-invent psychotherapy with Breuer, a baton that Breuer would pass on to his young friend. I chuckled when Breuer writes in his diary,

“In the future–who knows when, maybe fifty years hence?–this talking treatment could become commonplace. “Angst doctors” will become a standard specialty. And medical schools–or perhaps philosophy departments–will train them.” (230)

Of course, psychoanalysis hadn’t been invented yet, so Nietzsche and Breuer make it up as they go along, with Nietzsche quickly taking the lead. It’s not so far-fetched that philosophy departments might train “angst doctors,” as the books makes a compelling case for the kinship of philosophy and therapeutic psychology. Both seek to unravel complicated problems, to apply logic where it is lacking, and to arrive at a kind of truth. I struggle with how to relate philosophy to real life, so I found it thrilling when Nietzsche gets down to business using his philosophy to unravel Breuer’s myriad neuroses.

The Psychology of Obsession

The story’s turning point comes when Nietzsche gets Breuer to stop thinking like a doctor and start thinking like a psychotherapist:

“Perhaps you’ve been using the wrong word. Perhaps what matters is not the origin–that is, the first appearance of symptoms–but the meaning of a symptom! Perhaps you were mistaken. Perhaps you cured Bertha by discovering not the origin, but the meaning of each symptom! Perhaps symptoms are messengers of meaning and will vanish only when their message is comprehended. If so, our next step is obvious: if we are to conquer the symptoms, we must determine what the Bertha obsession means to you!” (232)

In other words, obsession is never about the thing you’re obsessed with. Or as Nietzsche hints earlier in the book, when you’re obsessed, “you love desire, not the desired” (108). Breuer and Nietzsche each seem obsessed with a woman in their lives, but each is really projecting onto the poor woman in question his preoccupation with something else (some guilt or fear). And this is a heinously unfair thing to do to a person. Obsession may seem like a quirky kind of love, but it’s the opposite, because whatever you think you’re obsessed with, that’s not it. The kicker is that once you realize this, the obsession vanishes. Breuer and Nietzsche are cured when each realizes what he’s really obsessed with and that the woman he idolizes is not a goddess but just a “frightened, naked human, all too human, that she and he and all of us really are” (234). In other words, we’re all just people trying to get by, and you get to love someone for what they are, or not at all.

Echoes of Nietzsche

Yalom does an admirable job bringing the historical Nietzsche to life, imbuing his speech with quotes from his books and letters. Some core ideas that play a part:

Oh, and the movie is terrible: the script hasty and contrived, the acting forced. Stick with the book.

  1. See some of the chapter titles in Ecce Homo, e.g. “Why I Am So Clever” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.”