Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The problem with Spinoza

For the Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, the problem in Irvin D. Yalom's imaginative novel, 'The Spinoza Problem', it was being a Jew and being admired by such luminaries of the Aryan race as Goethe. How could such a racial pure and supreme being as this spend a whole year with Spinoza's 'Ethics' in his pocket - a book that transformed his life, brought calm and cemented his religious scepticism? Either Spinoza had stolen his ideas from pure sources or, horror, Goethe was the victim of an insidious intellectual swindle.

If this way of putting it sounds frankly bizarre, it is one of the many virtues of Yalom's book to make this clear - the ideology of Nazism was an extraordinary act of self enclosed fantasy with iron logics of its own, resistant to fact or reason.

The novel moves back and forth between an imaginative recreation of Spinoza's life (about which, in fact, little inward is known) and that of Rosenberg as he wrestles with his Spinoza problem (a foil with which Yalom exposes both his ideological presumptions and his personal state). This later was a compelling fixation on Hitler who used him mercilessly and yet kept him at arm's length (and Rosenberg was generally despised by the other Nazi leaders).

Meanwhile, Spinoza is seen responding to his excommunication from the Jewish community, his retirement into the life of a contemplative scholar earning his living by grinding lenses.

Yalom creates an imaginary companion for both Rosenberg in the form of a childhood friend turned psychoanalyst and for Spinoza in the form of a fellow traveller, a rabbi who wishes to reform Judaism from within, making it more humanistic and rational. The debates that flow between these two pairs form the basis of the book and Yalom uses his great skill as a long practicing psychotherapist to bring them to vivid life.

At the heart of the book is the dialogue between reason and passion. How does the former shape or overcome the latter? And the realisation that to shift passion requires a combination of being seen from another level of attention and a push from a deeper, more encompassing 'passion'. Spinoza is seen as the prophet of the former but what constitutes the latter remains an open question. For Yalom as a good existentialist, there is an element of willed choice here, of making oneself in freedom. However it leaves the question of freedom for (as opposed to freedom from) unanswered.

At one point, Spinoza is seen rejecting the Genesis view that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and one cannot help feeling such an ontological end point is, in fact, part of the solution to Yalom's dilemma - a discovery of a true personhood that is at once unique and enfolded in a deeper unity.

In freeing us from certain religious bindings, the Enlightenment freed us from encompassing teleological ends, this has not necessarily had the happy consequences that it was designed to. Like any reality that is repressed, it tends to return as diseases, to quote Jung, of which Nazism is a too compelling reminder as may be the Islamic State.

A fulfilling vision of what it means to be human that can be both intellectual sound, passionately compelling and compassionately lived is what we need (or even a plurality of such visions) - otherwise into the empty space does not step freedom but a darker bondage.

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