Thursday 13 March 2014

The Rest is Silence

It's already March and this is the first book from my TBR Pile Challenge : The Schopenhauer Cure by Irvin D. Yalom. So, this is a novel about group therapy and a mini biography of Schopenhauer, in alternating chapters. Julius, the therapist, find he has an invasive form of skin cancer and on a whim seeks out a former patient, in an effort to establish if his life's work has had any meaning. This patient, Philip, it turn asks Julius to supervise his own therapist training and so he joins the therapy group, with all sorts of complicated consequences. As you might imagine, there is no action in this story, it's all talk; it's all about the characters and the dynamics between them. I thought that the story was going to be about Julius, but he fades into the background whilst his patients talk, which I suppose is the way a good therapist works. While it was quite an interesting book, and taught me a great deal about Schopenhauer, I found I was more interested in those chapters than the ones focussing on the group therapy. There is also an element of the book being about death and the meaning of life, since the members of the group are all struggling to understand some aspect of their life, and Julius's newfound mortality is putting the rest of his life sharply in relief.

"It was code for potential melanoma, and now, in retrospect, Julius identified that phrase, that singular moment, as the point when carefree life ended and death, his heretofore invisible enemy, materialised in all its awful reality." (p.2-3)

I just love the word 'heretofore', it says something so neatly and yet sounds slightly old fashioned, like 'notwithstanding' and other such words that are obviously an agglomeration. It is funny how such small things will make me decide a book is worth reading, because the use of the right word is what marks out good writing.

"Julius nodded his head sadly. It was true he had never savoured the moment, never grasped the present, never said to himself, 'This is it, this time, this day - this is what I want! These are the good old days, right now. Let me remain in this moment, let me take root in this place for all time.' No, he had always coveted the future - the time of being older, smarter, bigger, richer. And then came the upheaval, the time of the great reversal, the sudden and cataclysmic deidealisation of the future, and the beginning of the aching yearning for what used to be." (p.92)

While I found many of the group members a bit difficult I persevered with the book because of the ideas. I get the impression that Yalom is to some extent using fiction as a way to teach about philosophy, putting the words and ideas of Schopenhauer into the mouth of Philip, and relating those ideas to the problems of modern life. It is hard to recommend the book as a good story but if you think of it more as introductory philosophy you would get more from it. It is quite a unique way of getting the ideas across and I am certainly going to put 'When Nietzche Wept' on my list.

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