I just finished reading Irvin Yalom’s novel When Nietzsche Wept, a psychoanalytical - philosophical account of a fictional encounter between Josef Breuer (one of the founders of psychoanalysis) and Friedrich Nietzsche (the philosopher who famously declared God dead). This is highly nerdy stuff, I’m afraid, but in fact well written and worth the time even for people who aren’t too much into either psychology or philosophy.
The reason I’m writing about it is because of a disagreement (in the book) between Breuer and Nietzsche on the meaning of certain actions we all perform, a disagreement that goes at the heart of the human condition, and may therefore be worth pondering for a bit.
To set the stage, imagine that Breuer and Nietzsche are both affected by a psychological condition, an obsession for a young woman (not the same one!) that has befriended them in the past and is now beyond reach. Both men – as it is typical in the case of obsessions – dwell on memories of very personal things the two women have done to them, romanticizing the whole relationship and elevating it to almost super-human levels. I’m not talking about sex here, but about intimate phrases and gestures that made Breuer and Nietzsche feel special, indeed unique, when relating to their respective women.
Breuer is trying to cure his own as well as Nietzsche’s obsession, and eventually hits on the solution to their problem: he finds a way to experience what each woman does with another man, paying particular attention to those “unique” and very personal gestures and phrases that fuel the obsession. Of course, they found that both women use the very same gestures and phrases with other people, and this realization shocks both Breuer and Nietzsche out of their obsession. Their romantic illusion of uniqueness in another human being’s eyes is suddenly shuttered.
And here is where things become interesting. The philosopher reacts very differently from the psychologist (and since the author, Yalom, is a psychologist, I guess it’s not too surprising that it is the psychologist’s reaction that is the most sensible...): Nietzsche feels cheapened by the whole experience, and wows never again to waste time with women, as they are clearly simply robots, condemned to use the same limited tools to get what they want. Breuer, however, points out that – disappointing as their discovery may be – we all in fact do the same, men and women, philosophers and psychologists alike. For all our pride, we as human beings possess a limited range of emotions, and a limited way to express them. While some of us are more creative than others, in the end we are bound to engage in similar behaviors with different people, if we live long enough and have the opportunity to forge more than one important relationship (friendship or otherwise) in our lives.
The point is that we all wish to be unique and treated accordingly. But the reality is that our uniqueness is often established on trivial variations of the human repertoire, and accordingly others behave towards us in a way similar to how they behave with other people in similar circumstances. And yet, Breuer argues in the novel, this should be a source of compassion for our fellow human beings, not one of frustration for the lack of what we think is our due appreciation. A fundamental key to friendship and love is the humility of getting over oneself and enjoy the incredible fortune of actually having someone who loves us.