Looking Back to Move Forward
By Ryan Howes
In an era of 24-hour news cycles, instant downloads, and frequent news updates, "new and improved" clearly rules the day. It seems we're constantly alerted to the latest medical miracle, must-have iPad app, and groundbreaking psychotherapy innovation. All eyes look forward to the next big thing that'll energize us and help us make sense of the world around us.
Irvin Yalom takes another approach. The 81-year-old psychiatrist, novelist, and unofficial grandfather of modern psychotherapy chooses, instead, to look back at the pioneers of psychological theory and technique. Following decades of teaching at Stanford University, working in his private practice, and writing graduate-school staples like The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and Love's Executioner, he began to examine European philosophers through his novels When Nietzsche Wept, The Schopenhauer Cure, and his recently released The Spinoza Problem.
Why look back? What can a dead philosopher teach me that I couldn't learn from, say, a particularly clever app? Exploring these brilliant minds reveals that many of our "new improvements" are neither original nor better. Yalom took a break from channeling the philosophic tradition of the past to share his vast therapeutic wisdom about life, mentoring, and the future of psychotherapy.
RH: Why are you determined to teach us about European philosophers?
YALOM: It goes back to when I was a psychiatric resident. Whenever anyone talked to us about the history of psychotherapy, there was always the idea that it had somehow just begun a hundred years ago in Vienna with Freud. But in my own reading of ancient philosophy, I kept discovering that, for thousands of years, certain important thinkers had been pondering the same issues that preoccupy therapists. I've written novels about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, both of whom introduced concepts that are still central to therapeutic practice. In this latest novel, The Spinoza Problem, I focus on Spinoza, whose thinking that all our actions and thoughts are caused by previous experiences laid the groundwork for Freud's whole analytic enterprise.
RH: Spinoza would seem to be a challenging person to write a novel about. As fascinating as he was as a thinker, it seems very little happened in his life.