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The Schopenhauer Cure
on 24 November 2014
I didn't mind it.
I had a number of problems. First off, Yalom is a psychiatrist. I don't like psychiatrists, especially ones who are bound by law and custom to force their patients to take some of the most harmful drugs in the entire pharmacopeia. I hope he's an autonomous practitioner, otherwise god knows what depths of depravity of this man has plumbed.
I also thought that the character of Julius was little more than a surrogate for the author, and a mouthpiece for his own worldview, through whom he could engage in a bit of narcissistic wish-fulfillment; the wise, optimistic psychiatrist, triumphing over the disciple of Schopenhauer, and thus Schopenhauer himself.
Which brings me onto another problem; to wit, his attitude towards Schopenhauer, which was sometimes a tad condescending, and at others a little hostile.
At the end of the book (and the ending was pretty bad, I thought), Philip, the disciple of Schopenhauer, is basically stumped when, on citing Schopenhauer's comment that basically none of the dead would choose to come back to life, everyone in the group says that they would choose life over death, as if this in anyway disproves Schopenhauer's view of life. Schopenhauer didn't deny that the average living person would choose life over death. As he points out in "The World as Will and Representation", man confuses his a priori will to live with an a posteriori love of life. The average man's love of life is not based on a weighing of the relative merits of being alive and being dead, but is simply a product of the will to live that constitutes the kernel of his being. Without the will to live, life would probably be little more than a suicidal orgy, at least for anyone other than a tiny minority of people upon whom life bestows it blessings, people who try to impose their vision of existence on the rest of us.
On top of this, because of the grim iconography associated with the subject of death, and because of man's fear of the unknown (under the force of which his love of life is largely extorted) and corresponding prepossession in favour of the familiar, it should occasion no surprise that man would choose life. Man, contrary to what we believe, is not a rational animal, and the line separating sanity from insanity runs not through human society, as psychiatrists and simple-minded naive realists would have us believe, but through the human mind, as so much research in social-psychology and cognitive-psychology has made abundantly clear.
It also must be borne in mind that minds in greater proximity to the animals from which we have descended, tend to be mercifully spared the intensity of suffering of men of more developed faculties, for whom the human mind is little more than an elaborate torture apparatus.
I disliked the character of Pam, as I dislike all her real-world referents. In the book she keeps on venting her poison on Schopenhauer and anyone who has the nerve to hate life. I believe Schopenhauer was right when he said that optimism is fundamentally wicked, a sinister mockery of the reality of human suffering. Such people occupy a similar moral status to apologists for torture, yet like all cheerleaders for evil and injustice, they think there is something about their position that confers moral distinction, partly because it allows them to revel in their hatred of the life-haters all the more. If life is cruel, absurd and unjust (as anyone other than those of a Panglossian cast of mind would surely agree), then it logically follows from this that it is worthy only of contempt.
People like Pam are the kind of people who, to borrow from Stuart Walton, upon seeing a woman being burnt at the stake, would simply comment on the aesthetically pleasing effect the lovely amber flames create against the night sky, people who always complain about works of art that are too morbid, even though it is such works of art that bring comfort to people undergoing severe distress. God she was annoying.
Another thing I didn't like was all the psychopathologizing of Schopenhauer's genius. One can locate this in a long and ignoble tradition in the mental health professions of treating genius as if it were some sort of symptom of a disease. Personally, I don't believe in mental diseases. Call me a denialist, but a mind can't be diseased in the same way that a bodily organ can, and there aren't mind-imaging studies capable of showing that someone's got mind-cancer or something (which of course, is not to say that the referent of the concept doesn't exist, but simply that something as airy as a mind can't be diseased).
Yalom, because he is for the most part in disagreement with Schopenhauer's conception of life, tries to dismiss his worldview as being the mere product of a diseased mindset. As any observer of the drama of human conflict can see, this is an expedient commonly resorted to in interpersonal scuffles. One of the fundamental differences between real diagnoses (that admit of ironclad proofs), and psychiatry's fake diagnoses (which rest on the authority and prestige of the diagnostician), is that, both in professional and common usage, the latter are used to denigrate the worldview of the person so diagnosed, which readers may want to keep in mind when reading the book.