Book review: “The Spinoza Problem” by Irvin Yalom

In his introduction, the author mentions he visited places where Spinoza lived and worked. There is not much left. Spinoza’s portrait is fictional. The stone in a former graveyard, does not mark the exact place of his grave.

All this gives Irvin Yalom plenty room to weave his fictional accounts. He specialises in historical novels, but is a psychotherapist. So this book is not just a histrocial novel, but might be read as two contrasting case histories as well.

Spinoza Problem “The Spinoza Problem” is an account of two lives, based on historical facts. One story describes Baruch Spinoza’s life. The other one deals with the life of a Nazi. The stories are not only linked to each other, but told by first a chapter from one life, followed by a chapter from the other life. As the book is so well-written, this continual change from one life to the other one, does not destroy the hold this book has over its reader.

In one of the first chapters, Alfred Rosenberg is discussed by a few of his teachers. They are worried. He is under the influence of a book and to counter the effect the doctrines have upon young Rosenberg, his teachers order him to research and write an essay on the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Rosenberg memorizes parts of Spinoza”s “Ethica”, but totally does not understand Spinoza, his life, his theories. Yet Alfred Rosenberg becomes obsessed with his “Spinoza Problem”.

Next, the reader is introduced to Bento Spinoza himself. He is still living in Amsterdam and running his father’s business with his younger brother. The business is faltering and Bento already has problems with the Jewish community and his family. Then a new client visits the shop and Bento becomes fascinated by the man. He becomes his student and soon moves in with him.

Bento’s life takes one bad turn after another. He falls in love with his tutor’s daughter, but she marries someone else. His intelligence and free thinking cause him to be excommunicated by the Jewish community. Worse: he has to leave Amsterdam.

The outcast finds refuge in the small village of Rijnsburg but has to move again when his opinions and views cause more problems. He moves into a small room above a shop in The Hague. He makes a living grinding lenses – which does not help when lung-illnesses run in the family. He falls ill and dies. Being an outcast, the Jewish community can not bury him. Being no Christian, he is buried – but outside the parish church.

Where Spinoza becomes a poor, excommunicated, banished outcast by thinking and applying reason and using logic, Rosenberg is totally captivated by fictional race theories and Nazi ideology. He joins the Nazi party, has a brilliant career, befriends Hitler.

Rosenberg remains obsessed with Spinoza and becomes powerful enough, to have the content of the small Rijnsburg museum confiscated and carted off to Germany. When the Nazi empire is destroyed, Rosenberg is captured, convicted and put to death during the Nuremberg trials.

Irvin Yalom makes both fictional accounts totally plausible and absorbing reads. It is fascinating to read how the different lives in different eras unfold. Both main characters are obsessed with something, but in different manners. Of course, Rosenberg never manages to solve his “Spinoza Problem”. Mr Yalom offers his readers a book, dealing with two different lives in an absorbing way, while fanning an interest in Spinoza’s works like “Ethica”.

The small Spinoza Museum, which Irvin Yalom visited during his research for this book, can still be visited in the small village of Rijnsburg – close to Leiden. As mr Yalom describes, the museum managed to collect replacements of most of the books Rosenberg confiscated and carted off to Germany – after the war.

Youtube 2012 interview with Irvin Yalom on “The Spinoza Problem”.
For a less positive review: The Washington Post

“The Spinoza Problem”, Irvin Yalom, 321 pp, 2012, is available through Amazon.
The Spinoza Museum, Rijnsburg


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