What Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own.
Hopefully by now, my format is becoming clear. First I present the philosophical idea and then I select a work of fiction, an artist, a piece of music, or even a film to help illustrate the philosophical points. Alternating between philosophy and cultural outputs is a natural fit for the type of ethics I’m interested in because themes conjured up by works of art – in the broad sense – can support and give example to ideas, especially when some of those ideas are, for a change, new. Of course, time will tell whether this is a sound and justified approach or not.
The cultural output that I want to explore now is from a psychotherapist in the form of a novel. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom had over forty years of practising existential and group psychotherapy behind him before he wrote The Schopenhauer Cure as an open narrative that tried to portray, realistically, the inner workings of group therapy.
Spoiler alert: if you consider reading The Schopenhauer Cure some elements of the plot will be given away in this post.
The novel presents its characters and lives with them whilst they attempt to grapple with personal issues, relationship problems and even the terminal diagnosis of the group therapist, Dr. Julius Hertzfeld. The path trodden by Yalom in turning to literature to shine a light into the academic and practicing world of psychotherapy is one that few people can successfully navigate. Whether he is successful or not at this enterprise is a moot point. More importantly is how he creates artistic expressions of his rigorous training and professional career (the translation of ideas into art), as well as how his characters work together to find mutual understanding. And, the latter one is where we can find the artistic representation of Gadamer’s “fusing our horizons,”1 as a shift in consciousness takes place in one or other of the characters and drives them onwards to a new vantage point beyond their existing horizon.
The plot turns upon Julius Hertzfeld attempting to come to terms with the news that he has “one good year”2 left, before cancer curtails his existence. In a good, solid, and authentic manner Julius begins the process of examining his life and its internal worth. His deceased wife and his children are considered briefly before Yalom pushes the plotline to Julius’ thoughts about his career, which naturally mirrors Yalom’s own, with decades of therapeutic work with individuals and groups.
Thumbing through his old case files, Julius finds confirmation of his ability to treat his clients effectively, with positive reinforcement coming from every file containing closure or follow-up notes. The follow-ups are sometimes written years after the therapy sessions had ended. There is one exception in his life’s work, though. The name Philip Slate surfaces through the files as an individual he worked with without success twenty years previously. According to the files, Philip was a confirmed sex-addict, with an impressive intelligence and striking handsomeness, working in an unsatisfying job. The sticking point for Julius, as he begins to recall this particular case, was Philip’s desire to overcome his addiction and consign himself to study. Fixating upon Philip, Julius realises within himself that he needs to know what happened to this symbolic fly in his ointment.
Seeking Philip out, Julius makes contact and discovers two things. The first is that Philip still appears as “cold, uncaring [and] oblivious of others”3 as he used to be. The second, rather disturbingly for Julius, is that Philip wants to become a therapist. A discovery, which in combination with his obvious inability to relate ‘normally’ to others, fascinates and horrifies Julius. Yalom, having crafted the creative tension and pull between the two main characters, then allows the plot to weave its way through their discussions and a series of group therapy sessions involving a cast of well developed but minor roles alongside Julius and Philip. In addition, Schopenhauer’s life is presented in alternating chapters with the main storyline, as a backdrop to Philip’s new obsession: the idea that he can be a philosophical counsellor with Schopenhauer as his guide.
Philip’s character, as hewn by Yalom, is a deeply self-involved misanthrope who believes that he can impart the wisdom of Schopenhauer to those he treats or works with in Julius’ group. The difficulty, that Julius sees all to clearly, is that Philip has no clue how to relate to other people. Philip avoids eye contact as much as possible and proclaims, when directly challenged, that he needs to focus on the words of Schopenhauer and that he prefers to keep his own council. Philip is also highly self-opinionated. When asked to provide feedback on Julius’ therapeutic work all those years ago he states, “Overall, I’d have to say that my therapy with you was a complete failure. A time-consuming [three years] and expensive failure. I think I did my job as a patient. As far as I can recall, I was fully cooperative, worked hard, came regularly, paid my bills, remembered dreams, followed leads offered.”4 When probed deeper by Julius, Philip continued in much the same vein, “eventually I realized you didn’t know how to help and I lost faith in our work together. I recall that you spent inordinate amounts of time exploring my relationships – with others and especially with you. This never made sense to me. It didn’t then. It still doesn’t.”5 Philip ends this particular volley by sharing with Julius the light at the end of his tunnel, “I decided to heal myself… I developed a relationship with a therapist, the perfect therapist, the therapist who offered me what no one else had been able to give… Yes, Arthur Schopenhauer, [is] my therapist.”6
Yalom gives Philip’s horizon concrete definition, in that it amounts to the writings of Schopenhauer, after also studying the Ancient Greeks and Germanic philosophers who followed Kant. Philip’s world is viewed through a Schopenhauerian lens that appears to give comfort and afford the understanding he needs. However, Julius, after everything that his career has been pinned on, cannot agree, especially when knowing that Philip wants to ‘preach’ the teachings of Schopenhauer in Julius’ world, the world of therapy. Julius is not against Schopenhauer per se, but just sees the limits that Philip has set himself.
So, the Gadamerian task, for Julius in his final year is to work with Philip to get him to see beyond the world as portrayed by Schopenhauer and into eyes of the people he has around him. En route, Julius dangles in front of Philip the potential quid pro quo that he, Julius, might also learn something from Philip about Schopenhauer, although Julius is in his own denial as to any probable benefit coming forth from such a source.
Both parties, hence, set out from within two extreme horizon points in an attempt to enlighten the other through the process of dialogue and group therapy. The antagonism of Philip’s approach to life ruffles Julius in the group sessions and especially when his group seem to hang on Philip’s insights such when he first brought philosophy into their circle. “Nietzsche once wrote that a major difference between man and the cow was that the cow know how to exist, how to live without angst – that is, fear – in the blessed now, unburdened by the past and unaware of the terrors of the future… in this, as in so much else, he looted the works of Schopenhauer.”7 Julius response, as Yalom gives it, is to squirm in his chair thinking he must have been out his mind to bring Philip into his group, when there is a stunned but reflective silence from the others. In contra-poise Julius stated, in a one-on-one discussion with Philip, “It’s not ideas, nor vision, nor tools that truly matter in therapy. If you debrief patients at the end of therapy about the process, what do they remember? Never the ideas – it’s always the relationship. They rarely remember an important insight their therapist offered but generally fondly recall their personal relationship with the therapist.”8
In the second group session, with Philip in attendance, there is a direct clash of horizons as Philip attempts to enlighten the group as to Schopehauer’s views on personal attachments. “The more attachments one has, the more burdensome life becomes and the more suffering one experiences when one is separated from these attachments. Schopenhauer and Buddhism both hold that one must release oneself from attachments and…”9 At this point Julius interrupts. “I don’t think that is helpful to me… and I’m also not sure if this is where this meeting should be going.”10 Noting a pregnant glance between two of the other group members Julius continued, “I come in on that in the opposite way: attachments, and plenty of them, are indispensable ingredients of a full life, and to avoid attachments because of anticipated suffering is a sure recipe for being only partially alive.”11 The two viewpoints, quite clearly are at loggerheads, so much so that one of other group members calls Julius on it, because he is acting in a very unconventional manner.
In this strained manner, the group sessions, week by week, continue with Philip still avoiding eye contact and quoting Schopenhauer, whilst Julius tries to reign himself in from being pushed by Philip’s lack of, or resistance to, interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, Julius attempts to adopt the protective role of therapist for Philip when he can see things reaching a boiling point, such as when one of the group returns from a visit to India only to find the man she lost her virginity to, in a callous and unfeeling relationship, sitting opposite, in her beloved therapy group. When the truth of Philip’s behaviour fifteen years ago comes out, Julius is conflicted but wants to try and help both Philip and Pam, the unfortunate group returnee, to work through the pain of seeing each other once more. Philip attempts to detach himself from his previous life and behaviour by referring to himself in the third person when Pam confronts him as to what he did to her. Using this as an opener to work on the ‘here and now’ and the ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ of their obviously tortured discussion, Julius asks Philip why he used the third person, “I wonder, could you have been implying that you’re a different person now from the man you were then?”12 At this moment Philip opens his eyes and gazes into Julius’, in apparent gratitude for moving the dialogue into safer and more constructive territory. A connection, for Julius, has finally been made.
Julius builds on this breakthrough moment by reposting to one of Philip’s statements, that he feels happier when he does not have to deal with people, by saying, “but, if you’re going to be in a group or lead groups or try to help clients work on their relationships with others, you absolutely cannot avoid entering into relationships with them.”13 Philip, from now on edges towards Julius’ horizon and Julius seems to give the impression that he is trying to edge towards Philip’s by remarking that maybe he’ll reflect on Philip’s proffered Heideggerian statement regarding death being the “impossibility of further possibility.”14
Julius and Philip work through several key crisis moments over the months, ebbing and flowing into each other’s horizon, culminating in the final group meeting. There are unsettling instances and moments of real progress on the way which demonstrate the sure but uneasy shift in Philip’s centre of gravity, or vantage point. At the final session Julius summarises their situation or, in Gadamerian terms, their horizons, “I don’t believe we’re as far apart as you think. I don’t disagree with much that you and Schopenhauer have said about the tragedy of the human condition. Where you go east and I go west is when we turn to the question of what to do about it.”15 Later Philip breaks down looking directly into Julius’ eyes and passionately says with tears and self-loathing “no one who has known me has loved me. Ever. No one could love me.”16 At this moment Pam, the catalyst of his first shift in moving towards Julius’ way of viewing the world, steps in and says, “I could have loved you, Philip.”17 Julius’ work is done as Philip’s breakdown reveals to him that Philip can trust and respect other people and that he knows he will be better off for it.
Strictly speaking, the fusion of Gadamerian horizons between Julius and Philip never finds concrete realisation in terms of duration. Instead, what Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own. The fusion of horizons is after all the tantalising child’s blown bubble that mesmerises those whose attention it dazzles but then bursts as soon as it is touched. All the same, it makes life seem somehow richer for its passing existence.
- See Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
- Yalom, Irvin D. The Schopenhauer Cure, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 11.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 26.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid. 30.
- Ibid., 83.
- Ibid., 62-63.
- Ibid. 99.
- Ibid., 100.
- Ibid., 180.
- Ibid., 182.
- Ibid., 197.
- Ibid., 331.
- Ibid., 334.