The story moves — a little — along two distant tracks. In Amsterdam in 1656, we see a young Jew walking against the flow of his neighbors going to synagogue. Though once considered the rabbi’s most promising student, Spinoza has stopped attending services, stopped pestering his teachers with impertinent questions: Whom did Adam and Eve’s children marry? How could Moses have written about his own death? Are we guilty of idolizing the Scriptures? He’s the sort of eager kid who seems arrogant just because he’s the smartest person on Earth. Under the penetrating light of his intellect, the Torah sounds to him contradictory, mythological and — worse — imprisoning. He has decided to discover, through logic alone, essential truths that are not buttressed by political fears, social prejudices or theological conventions. Without any sense of the moment, this innocent young scholar has bravely opened the way for biblical criticism that will eventually remake Western civilization.
In alternating chapters, we switch to the early 20th century to follow the life of Alfred Rosenberg, a pompous student weaned on the crackpot histories of Houston Chamberlain (he was a British-born German who promoted the superiority of the Aryan race and married Wagner’s daughter). At school, Rosenberg is a loner, the butt of pranks, but after delivering an anti-Semitic speech that offends his Jewish headmaster, he’s hauled into the office and subjected to a sharp debate about the inanity of his racial theories. To no avail. “Excavate anywhere in his mind,” his history teacher sighs, “and we run into the bedrock of unfounded convictions.”
For any parent or teacher, this is a troubling scene: How do you enlighten a young bigot? When is it too late to change the trajectory of an evil person’s life? Rather creatively, the headmaster orders Rosenberg to memorize a long passage of Goethe’s memoir in which the German master speaks of being roused from despair by Spinoza’s “Ethics.” Alas, that assignment doesn’t change the boy — we know it won’t — but Yalom imagines that it plants an incurable irritant in Rosenberg’s conscience: How could Goethe, “the eternal German genius,” have worshiped the work of a Jew?
Spinoza’s life was the life of an intellect, but it offers one very dramatic moment: At 24, he was permanently expelled from Jewish society for heresy. David Ives has written an engaging play about this theological conflict called “New Jerusalem.” (It returns to Theatre J next week.) But Yalom’s talents in this book do not extend to drama or, frankly, to action of any kind. Instead, he presents Spinoza’s life as a series of carefully organized conversations — something you might hear at the Spinoza ride at Epcot. The artificiality of this presentation is jarring, and it never lessens throughout Yalom’s “teaching novel,” so if you need the verisimilitude of modern literary fiction, drop this class and take another. Exposition marches into these pages in jackboots, and characters speak to one another with a kind of formality that’s just one flat note away from a philosophical proposition: “I find what you say pleasing, even enticing. Let me answer you from both the inside and from the outside. First the inside.”