At first glance, it would seem absurd to link in any way, shape or form the life of the renowned 17th-century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) with that of the major anti-Semitic ideologue of the Nazi Party, Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946). Yet this is precisely what author and psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom manages to do in his brilliant work of historical fiction, “The Spinoza Problem” (Basic Books, 2012).
As he discloses in his prologue, Yalom had long wished to write a novel focusing on the inner life of Baruch Spinoza – whose Portuguese name was Bento (Benedictus de Spinoza became the name by which he has come to be known as one of the seminal thinkers of the early Enlightenment).
But Yalom had long struggled to find a story, a plot line that could serve as a spine for his novel. Then, when visiting the Spinoza Museum, in Rijnsburg, a 45-minute drive from Amsterdam, he learned that Alfred Rosenberg’s task force, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, had stolen all the books in Spinoza’s library and wound up hiding them in a German salt mine.
During this visit, Yalom learned that the “ERR had some mysterious interest in Spinoza” and that the task force’s official report indicates that Spinoza’s library books “contain valuable early works of great importance to the exploration of the Spinoza problem.”
“The Spinoza Problem” is the title of Yalom’s book, as well as the core of the story he tells about solving the problem that the famous philosopher of the 17th century presented to the infamous Nazi propagandist of the 20th century.
In every other chapter, Yalom tells the story of Spinoza’s life from the year 1656, when at the age of 23, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, to the end of the year 1666, when he was living a quiet, mostly reclusive life in Voorburg, in the Netherlands – reading, writing and grinding lenses to earn enough to meet his modest needs.
In his historical epilogue, the author sketches out Spinoza’s final years in The Hague, where he died at the age of 44 of some form of lung disease.
In the chapters alternating with the story of Spinoza, Yalom tells of the life of Rosenberg, from his troubled teenage years through his slow but steady rise in the Nazi Party, to his unceremonious hanging in Nuremberg on Oct. 16, 1946, for his well-documented war crimes.
During the course of the book, the reader comes to understand that Rosenberg’s “Spinoza problem” stems from the conflict between his rabid anti-Semitism and the high esteem in which giants of German culture, including Goethe, Lessing and Hegel, held Spinoza, who was born and died a Jew. At one point, Yalom imagines Rosenberg trying to rationalize to himself that Spinoza was “a mutation, this extraordinary blossom emerging from [Jewish] slime.”
Yalom combines his skills as a psychiatrist and novelist to probe the inner dimensions of both Spinoza and Rosenberg, to make educated and believable – but by no means provable – guesses as to what each of the two men thought and felt.
At the conclusion of the novel, he explains to his readers that “I’ve invented two characters, Franco Benitez and Friedrich Pfister, to serve as gateways to the psyche of my protagonists.”
Through Spinoza’s imagined conversations with Benitez, Yalom portrays the world-class thinker as a man who lives almost entirely in his mind, a person whose passion is for ideas rather than for people. The author also finds a way to explicate a number of Spinoza’s difficult, abstract and often abstruse philosophical notions, including Amor Dei Intellectualis, an intellectual love of God; God understood as Deus sive Natura, deity or nature; a radical universalism that “would eradicate all religions and would institute a universal religion in which all men seek to attain blessedness through the full understanding of Nature.” The author goes so far as to insert into the invented dialogue fragments from Spinoza’s two most influential books, “Theological-Political Treatise” and “Ethics.”
In a similar manner, Yalom develops Rosenberg’s imagined conversations with the psychoanalyst Pfister into a vehicle for exploring this Nazi ideologue’s pathological anti-Semitism and his obsession with racial purity, which was sparked by Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s racist screed, “Foundations of the Nineteenth Century” (1899).
Yalom envisions Rosenberg confiding to his analyst, “It’s different with the Jews …. They corrupt, they monopolize, they suck every field dry.” Later on, Rosenberg confesses, “My raison d’etre is race purification.”
At one point, Rosenberg storms out of his analyst’s office, saying, “I’ll make sure these Jew thoughts will leave Europe along with the Jews.”
In the concluding pages of “The Spinoza Problem,” in a brief section titled “Fact or Fiction? Setting the Record Straight,” Yalom admits that “every passage linking Spinoza and Rosenberg is fictional.” Nevertheless, Yalom insists that his story of Rosenberg’s obsession with Spinoza could have happened.
In this same afterword, Yalom quotes famed French author André Gide: “History is fiction that did happen. Fiction is history that might have happened.”
In exploring what might have unfolded in the very different minds and hearts of Bento Spinoza and Alfred Rosenberg, Irvin D. Yalom is a convincing witness to what could have been.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.