The Schopenhauer Cure
Irvin D. Yalom
New York: Harper Perennial, January 2006
384 pp.; $13.95 (paper)

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“Nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” his perfectly constructed sentence, from the 1954 Kingsley Amis novel Lucky Jim, wittily expresses one of the more important sentiments in twentieth-century English literature. But it is perhaps a sentence in both senses of the word; and The Schopenhauer Cure, Irvin Yalom’s latest novel, is an extended meditation on the problems it presents, providing both a challenge to our dharmic slumbers and an excellent introduction to the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who embraced Hindu and Buddhist ideas long before Nietzsche and Heidegger hinted at a similar rapprochement.

Why is Schopenhauer important? I can put it no more succinctly than does Stephen Batchelor, in his book The Awakening of the West: “Schopenhauer believed that by completing the revolutionary work of Kant, his system was the culmination of the Western philosophical tradition that began with Descartes. He was convinced that critical thinking had led him to the same conclusions that centuries before, Indian and Buddhist teachers had intuited through allegory and mystical insight.” Schopenhauer believed that Western philosophy could prove to us that our senses give us access only to a dreamlike world of illusion and that the filters that we use to interpret this dream (time, space, causality) are not “out there” in the world but in our minds. No one will pretend that his work is easy to understand, for he assumes that we have not only read and digested Kant, but that we are also willing to grapple with crucial differences between the first and second editions of the Critique of Pure Reason. And Schopenhauer is reader-hostile in other ways, too: his superiority complex was legendary, and he delighted in referring to his fellow human beings as “bipeds.”

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