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The Schopenhauer Cure

jrlewis's picture

Julia Lewis    
Book Commentary

The Schopenhauer Cure by Irving D. Yalom, chronicles the extraordinary last year of a therapy group.  Descriptions of the therapy sessions form a significant portion of the novel, complete with copious amounts of dialogue between group members.  These interactions are reported to the reader by the therapist, Julius Hertzfeld.  It is fascinating as the reader to witness the thoughts of therapist and consider how his own conscious and unconscious are responding to the patient. 

Julius has had a highly successful and fulfilling career as a therapist, he prizes relationships with his patients and others.  After receiving diagnosis of a terminal illness, he attempts to evaluate his professional life.  This leads him to reconnect with a former patient, one he had failed to help.  The mixture of attraction and repulsion that Julius feels toward Philip shows the complexity of patient-therapist relationships.  Some elements of personality and charisma are at work.  To his surprise, the former patient, Philip, had found help in studying the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.  They come up with an arrangement, which calls for his participation in the therapy group in return for which Philip will tutor Julius in the works of Schopenhauer. 

Almost immediately, Julius begins to regret this agreement.  The two men embrace opposing philosophies of life, creating a competition for converting the various group members.  A sort of triumvirate emerges form the group consisting of Julius, Philip, and Pam a woman with who still has strong feelings about her past relationship with Philip.  Each of these characters plays a significant part in the novel and could be identified as the protagonist.  All three act as narrator and share intimate thoughts with the reader.  By the end of the novel, they have become more self-reflective and achieved a new perspective on life. 

It is interesting to me the vital role that Pam played in Philip’s therapeutic experience.  She was incredibly aggressive, in a way that other characters, including Julius attempted to tone down.  Her repeated attacks caused Philip a significant amount of discomfort bordering on anguish.  Everyone observing these scenes, characters and readers, wondered whether it is necessary.  Could Philip learn and change in the absence of that trauma?  Would it have been acceptable for anyone other than Pam to confront him in that manner?  What about their therapist?  I find the idea that some behaviors are appropriate for patients and not therapists is intriguing. 

Ultimately, the group therapy proves beneficial to everyone involved.  Such a conclusion that is not at all surprising considering the author is a leading psychiatrist in the field of group therapy.  He has written both traditional textbooks and other works on group therapy.  For a complete list please see his website  Yalom “intended [his books] as pedagogical works—books of teaching stories and a new genre—the teaching novel.” (2).  It certainly provided a useful introduction and exploration of group therapy for myself.  In The Schopenhauer Cure, he portrays a variety of opinions about life, philosophy, and therapy. 

The philosophy of life that Yalom is advocating, in his novel, is one that places interpersonal relationships first.  Initially, Philip appears opposed to this idea, however, as his story is revealed, the reader and character himself, come to see the exact opposite is true.  The antisocial philosophy appeals to Philip because Arthur Schopenhauer the person appeals to him.  For the first time in his life, Philip perceives a kindred spirit in Schopenhauer, someone he can relate to, by means of philosophy.  Yet, he is frustrated by the lack of reciprocity from either the dead philosopher or the people with whom he tries to share his theories. 

The structure of the novel reflects the rivalry between Schopenhauer and Yalom’s (or Julius’) philosophies.  Chapters treating Schopenhauer’s biography are injected into the story of the dying therapist and his therapy group.  This allows Yalom to highlight the parallels between Philip and Schopenhauer’s philosophies of life.  When Julius is narrating, the reader hears his (and Yalom’s) theories; Schopenhauer’s theories are discussed in the other chapters.  Philip’s complete acceptance of an alternative philosophy of life or therapist is juxtaposed to Schopenhauer’s death.  Such a structure allows the author to reinforce what is happening to the characters and their philosophical allegiances. 

This novel raises the questions about the significance of interpersonal relationships.  The Schopenhauer Cure aggressively argues that meaningful human relationships are essential to mental health.  Or as John Donne said, “No [one] is an island, entire of itself.” (3)  This theory can be expanded into a definition of mental health.  Mental health is the ability to make meaningful contributions to the lives of others and accept the same from them.  This definition, at least, collapses the subject-object and culture-individual dualities we discussed in class.  It also avoids mentioning the potentially normative or medical model related terms of health and illness.  This alternative definition is what I am intend to work from in future discussions about life and mental health.  

1.    Yalom, Irvin.  The Schopenhauer Cure. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2006.




Paul Grobstein's picture

Mental health and interpersonal relationships

"Mental health is the ability to make meaningful contributions to the lives of others and accept the same from them." Despite the threat/reality of "lack of reciprocity"? Yep, there are some advantages to this definition, but also some problems? Maybe even in Yalom's mind?