The premise of WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT is at once simple and provocative. What if Dr. Josef Breuer, fresh from his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim, the famous “Anna O.” of Breuer’s and Freud’s STUDIES ON HYSTERIA, and himself in the midst of a complex mid-life crisis, should be asked by the beautiful, intelligent, and imperious Lou Salome to treat the brilliant but despondent Friedrich Nietzsche, suffering from migraines, professional neglect, and betrayal. The originator of the talking cure meets the future of Western philosophy in a novel that freely and often brilliantly mixes fact and fiction, detective work, and diagnosis. In order to gain an unwilling Nietzsche’s cooperation, Breuer proposes that Nietzsche stay at a local clinic under Breuer’s care while Nietzsche does for Breuer what the philosopher claims in his books he wants to do for all, “to save mankind from both nihilism and illusion.”
The game turns real, however, as Breuer’s necessary deception turns into a “mighty psychological campaign, one of the most creative—and one of the most bizarre—in Viennese medical history.” Their sessions, indeed their relationship, involve questions of power and control, betrayal and resentment, on both the emotional and intellectual levels. Much of the novel’s own power derives from Yalom’s genius for treating Nietzsche and Breuer as individual beings as well as historical figures, with the clash of the modern age’s two most important ideas subordinated as it were to the clash of two persons and personalities, each different yet each attracted to another he strangely and strongly resembles. Admittedly, Yalom at times pushes these parallels and their allegorical significances too insistently and writes throughout in a style that many readers will find at best unconvincing and at worst wooden. Overall, however, WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT compels the reader’s attention, most especially in its depiction of the psychotherapeutic relationship (a not surprising fact, given that Yalom is himself a respected psychotherapist) and, relatedly, in its handling of the complexity of motivating factors behind the characters’ actions and personalities.