Book Review – When Nietzsche Wept

“No, not sadness! On the contrary, when I talked to you a few minutes ago about dying alone, I felt a powerful surge of relief. Not so much what I said, but that I said it, that I finally, finally shared what I felt,” goes one of the lines in the book, ‘When Nietzsche Wept’ (1992) by Irvin Yalom.

Consider this book as the imaginative documentation of the beginning of counselling. While most of the characters of the story did exist, had almost the same personalities and experienced the same kind of troubles as is described in the novel, it is, at the end of the day, in the author’s own words, [fiction is] “history that might have happened if history had rotated only slightly on its axis.”

The protagonist Josef Breurer is a physician who is experimenting with an alternative form of healing which he calls ‘the talking cure’, where the patients are asked to ‘chimneysweep’ whatever comes to their mind. For anyone wondering what counselling does (to both the counsellor and the client) and the tricky journey that it is, this book is a very powerful read. It speaks to both kinds of clients that come into counselling; it speaks to the side of clients that simply refuses to bare oneself to another soul and, at the same time, it shows the reader the side of clients which is willing to try almost anything to make progress in life.

Irvin Yalom, in his masterful voice and narration makes fiction so enthralling that it is almost like going through the process of counselling yourself. Those of you who are familiar with the philosophy of existentialism, will know that a lot of it deals with the ideas of loneliness, death, and meaning of life (or the lack of it). Yalom, being an existential therapist himself, makes wonderful use of the voice of the protagonist to give us existentialism 101. Although it is Josef Breurer and Fredrich Nietzsche who explore the ideas of death and loneliness and the meaning of life, the reader will definitely put the book down at some point and reflect on it in his/her own life’s context. In an interview, Yalom claims that, like his other books, this book was aimed to be a teaching novel where he “wanted to introduce the reader to the fundamentals of an existential approach to psychotherapy.”

So, to all those who are curious about existentialism, about life, death, loneliness, meaning of life, we would recommend that you pick up this book and treat yourself to the skills of the wonderful therapist, teacher, and most importantly, storyteller Irvin Yalom.

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