Review of “When Nietzsche Wept”

Very few authors could capture in fiction the character of Nietzsche as well as Yalom has. Nietzsche means so many different things to so many people that it would be easy to misrepresent him in one’s own image. But Yalom sticks close to the texts of Nietzsche in constructing his fictional character and the interesting dialogues between Nietzsche and Breuer. A fascinating exploration of psychotherapy and of the philosophy. Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is biography. Here Yalom gives us a glimpse into how Nietzshce’s philosophy influenced his psychology and vice-versa.

I have only three qualms with the work. First, the female characters — all of them — are terribly one-dimensional. The first couple of chapters dealing with Lou Salome may put some readers off. Keep going, it’s worth it. However, from Salome, to Breuer’s wife, to Breuer’s fascination with patient Anna O., the female characters lack depth of feeling and psychological complexity. This is most apparent when Breurer attempts to reconcile with his long estranged wife and she accepts him immediately, despite the difficult past that they have shared.

Second, when the big reveal is presented to Nietzsche, one gets the sense that he would have reacted in a much more explosive way than he does in the book. Both his fictional character and what we know of Nietzsche as a man lead us to expect a greater reaction on the part of Nietzsche.

Third, Yalom portrays Nietzsche as having a great fear — the fear of dying alone. I, personally, perhaps due to my own prejudices, find this hard to believe. Nietzsche didn’t fear dying alone. He feared that he would go insane as did his father. He feared that he had very little time left during which to write. Yalom touches upon this, but to make the fear of dying alone the “great” fear of Nietzsche’s is not believable. If anything, his greatest fear was that his enormous predictions about his being a posthumous philosopher would not come to pass. Yalom touches on this as well, but doesn’t push it to its logical and psychological conclusion: That Nietzsche ultimately needed someone — a reader, to be understood, to be as highly esteemed by another as he was by himself.

Other than these criticisms, which, given the incredible ambition of this work and its great success in what it achieves, are really minor nit-picking of a persnickety critique, the book is a wonderful read and also insightful for both the philosopher and the psychologist.

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