To: Rebecca Goldstein From: Michael Weiss Subject: Spinoza and Life of Quiet Seclusion
I’m sure my editors will be thrilled that I managed to coax a little fiction out of you for nothing – certainly not my intention but now everyone’s reward. I will admit that I did have your beau Pinker in mind when I gave that Spinozist spin on evolutionary psychology. I’m gratified it provoked such a Vidal Sassonish response. A linguist ex-girlfriend once made me read The Language Instinct, the value of which long outlasted the relationship. (I’m still not ready to concede that Spinoza was right about putting logos before ladies, however.) But if I may say so, it’s nice to see another great meeting of the minds take place in the 21st century, even if who does the dishes tonight is what they have to meet over.
However, I have a quibble with your play. I can’t see Spinoza being so high on his own supply before even a wilting and obnoxious intruder like Leibniz. Wasn’t he the consummate gentleman even to those he disdained or wished would let him get back to his lens crafting and mind expanding? He had plenty of friends and admirers, even in purdah. Granted, guests, like fish, begin to stink on the third day, but we are talking about one of the most impressive stoics of all time here… (Also, I’d change “dickens” to “devil” in your clincher. Stewart at one point has Leibniz facing his own “Waterloo” a full century before Napoleon set sail from Corsica.)
I quite enjoyed your shadow-bathed collapse of the fourth wall, and as for your preferred playwright, I’m inclined to agree that Stoppard beats Frayn for these purposes. I’m dying to see The Coast of Utopia and I really don’t understand the critics who say being wheedled into picking up Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers in order to “get” the references is somehow the fault of the playwright. Good art, like good philosophy, ought to be challenging.
And Stoppard has a knack for making the esoteric if not quite accessible, then very enjoyable. He did this with The Invention of Love, with Greek and Latin philology. One scene that now reminds me of our Baruch is set in the Underworld and features Oscar Wilde – prior to this a whispered rumor on the quadrangles of Victorian Cambridge – confronting the repressed poet A.E. Housman. Wilde bangs on in the spirit of, I did this and I did that, I suffered for my genius, and where the hell were you? “In my room,” comes the reply.
My attraction to books like yours, Rebecca, have to do with recognizing that rebellions that happen behind closed doors can be just as costly, in human terms, as the ones that happen at the barricades. For Spinoza, the choice between being a man of ideas and a man of action was no choice at all, really. This offers posterity a number of interesting what-ifs.
Consider: Spinoza’s landlord physically restrains him from running out the door to protest the brutal murders of the liberal de Witt brothers by a Dutch mob. His famous Caute, then, is preserved, if involuntarily. Does that make Spinoza more or less heroic as a case study?
Two luckless victims of a hysterical medievalism had the power to stunt the progress of civilization, by causing one of civilization’s brightest lights to be extinguished; that they didn’t is almost enough to lend credence to the idea of providence. Certainly the centrality of the individual in history can’t be ignored. If there’s one failing in Spinoza’s philosophy, it’s that it scants on the importance of people like Spinoza. Arthur Koestler called the death of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon the “shrug of eternity.” Our philosopher would have liked that, but nuts to poor Rubashov!
Mention of this anti-Communist classic brings up another topic you touched on in your last letter. The insistence that all facts have reasons for being facts has wreaked havoc on the recently departed century. Not least among the tragedies has been the transformation of Spinoza into a forerunner of such havoc – his rationalism transformed into a license to kill by those who sapped the humanity right out of his worldview.
It was all there in black and white, in The Ethics, the guide on how to be good that made Bertrand Russell see its author as the primus inter pares of deep-thinking mensches. Yet Marxism-Leninism glorified Spinoza, just as Nazism did Nietzsche. (Old Communist way of beginning a sentence: “It is no accident that…” Talk about making a hash of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.)
Now, you spilled a great deal of ink in your last bio rescuing G?del from the postmodernists, who had co-opted his theorem as a vindication of there being not just an infinity of possible realities, but no “best” of the bunch. What can be done about keeping Spinoza away from future line cooks who read Deus sive nature as a recipe for omelets requiring so many broken eggs?
Obviously, you’ve got a vested interest in this operation since you’re head over heels for Baruch. Love remains a strong ingredient in your biography writing, indeed, in all of your writing. (Your novel The Mind-Body Problem cleverly nourishes this motif across two genres.)
Is it more natural, do you suppose, that a woman be guided by these strong emotional attachments, which she freely confesses to having, to the figures she profiles? That you stifle your own instincts to “cozy up” too much to your subjects – my first reaction to this was that it was self-conscious check on appearing too girly.
I say this not out of sexism but for a very specific reason. We just got into the office The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. As there was simply no way I’d be letting that volume slip unnoticed into the dust pile, I opened it to find a touching and funny essay by you entitled, “Philosophers With Wombs.” It’s all about the delicate balancing act of living the life of the mind while being a young bride and getting pregnant.
You had to put up with the obvious Jewish pressures, from your mother and mother-in-law to go domestic, but more intriguing (to me) was how your female department chair gave you the kind of feminist guilt-trip that gets Caitlin Flanagan knocking down her nanny to get the keyboard each morning. In light of our correspondence, I was struck by the following:
“I’d always been able to place myself at a rational distance from life, viewing it from the outside, as it were, abstracting from the identities of the various agents in the situation, even if I were one of them. This sort of extreme objectivity is what the philosophers call the view sub specie aeternitatis – under the guide, or the form, of eternity. The view has much to recommend it, but not if you want to be a mother. Just try keeping your baby alive and contentedly gurgling while living sub specie aeternitatis.”
Who but the author of Betraying Spinoza could have written that? Somewhere I think Mrs. Schoenfeld, your old yeshiva teacher, is smiling.
This was a real delight, Rebecca.
To: Michael Weiss From: Rebecca Goldstein Subject: The Insistently Rational are Dunces at Life
Well, I did take note of, and distinct pleasure in, your allusion to evolutionary psychology in your last go-round. You’re quite right that there's a sort of parallelism in the fallacious accusations hurled against both Pinkerism and Spinozism; to wit that they both recklessly throw open the window to let in the poisoned fumes of fatalism, not to speak of putting out the welcome mat for that stinking rotter, relativism. And it's interesting, too, how both points of view rile people up by insisting that the facts, being facts, must be faced, not to be shouted down by "moral" objections. What kind of morality would that be that has to insist on a false view of the facts? A priori moralizing does not make for much of a research program. Spinoza was insistent that the facts of the world and moral facts form one seamless whole.
You bring up The Invention of Love. Do you remember Daniel Mendelsohn's argument with Tom Stoppard in the pages of (where else?) The New York Review of Books? It was an amusing back-and-forth, as I remember it, which means, of course, that it got personal and downright nasty. Mendelsohn had accused Stoppard, in his review of The Invention of Love, of being, at heart– despite his razzle-dazzle display of familiarity with the language of philosophers, classicists, and such—a lowdown philistine, siding with the "the-heart-has-its-reasons-of-which- reason-is-ignorant" crowd, which is, of course, an enormously large crowd, containing almost everyone except you and me—and I'm not so sure about you. This explains, Mendelsohn intimated, Stoppard's staggering popularity, despite his grand allusions.
I don't agree with Mendelsohn in his damning verdict of Stoppard's ouevre, though he did make a valid point, which is that Stoppard (I would say like so many artists—like even myself in certain [early] novels) sometimes sets up a false dichotomy between sterile reason, on the one hand, and the ardent emotions, on the other, with, quite predictably, the ardent emotions triumphing by story's end as the true wisdom.
The insistently rational are dunces at life. All of that exercise at splitting hairs pumps up the brain and shrivels the, um, heart. If you're going to trot sesquipedalian intellectuals out on the stage then you'd better make sure they end up looking like losers and/or see the folly of their incessant cerebration before the curtain goes down if you want to win favor with the matinee crowd.
Mendelsohn, I remember, got off a wonderful line to the effect that Stoppard, intellectual playwright though he's perceived—and self-perceived—to be, seems to have no clue that the mind can be a passionate organ, too. This reminds me of one of my own better lines from one of those early novels that could be tarred with the same Mendelsohnian brush: "The problem with you, Renee, is that you seem to think that the male sexual organ is the brain."
Whether Stoppard is really guilty as Mendelsohn charges, I'm not prepared to say. Arcadia seemed to me to rouse the romance of reason quite wonderfully. But certainly there is a tradition in fiction of presenting thinking—when taken too far—as leading to a life devoid of feeling and passion. And this of course is a terrible lie, since thinking— especially when taken too far—is itself a passion. Mendelsohn described Stoppard as a romantic, meaning it unkindly, but this language itself undercuts what I think is Mendelsohn's very good point, which is that a thinker's relationship to reason can be utterly romantic.
Plato, of course, is very good on this subject, and so, for that matter, is Spinoza, though, since he reserves the word "passion" for our irrational emotions, he wouldn't put it in quite the same way. But Spinoza's Amor Dei Intellectualis, the Intellectual Love of God, is a swooningly passionate attitude. It's love, The Real Thing, to use one of Stoppard's titles. Spinoza's theory of the emotions denies the split between thinking and feeling. Thinking is always emotional and emotions are always making cognitive claims (which is why we can correct our emotions, circle them in red like errors in arithmetic).
A story like I.B. Singer's "The Spinoza of Market Street," which is one of my favorites, nevertheless has that anti-intellectual itch that Mendelsohn scratches at in Stoppard. That insufferably Spinozistic loftiness that's snuffing the life out of poor Dr. Fischelsohn is shown up for the pathetic hollow thing that it is by a sweet night of loving with Black Dobbe.
“Dr. Fishelsohn lay down on the freshly made bed in his room and began reading The Ethics. Dobbe had gone back to her own room. The doctor had explained to her that he was an old man, that he was sick and without strength. He had promised her nothing. Nevertheless she returned wearing a silk nightgown, slippers with pompoms, and with her hair hanging down over her shoulders. There was a smile on her face, and she was bashful and hesitant. Dr. Fischelsohn trembled and The Ethics dropped from his hands. The candle went out. Dobbe groped for Dr. Fischelsohn in the dark and kissed his mouth. ‘My dear husband,’ she whispered to him, ‘Mazel tov.’”
Mazel tov, indeed, as Singer goes on to slyly tell us. Dr. Fischelsohn wins that windfall of a mighty fine mazel by yielding to his trembling and dropping The Ethics. That's what he gets that mazel tov for.
It's a great story, one of Singer's best, but the upshot is that there's reason, on the one hand, and there's life-affirming energy, on the other, and art is in alliance with the good stuff.
It's tempting for artists, in a certain sense it's even natural for artists, who after all are supposed to be masters and celebrants of passion and feeling, to fashion stories that demonstrate the superiority of feeling over reason. I think I once read Singer as actually saying that all stories are, at heart, about this. I think that comment might have been quoted in his Forward obituary. Anyway, what this dichotomy overlooks is that the devotion to reason, well, it's a passion, and it can be as destructive or as redemptive as the more literarily favored sort, as a night, say, with blushing Black Dobbe, and therefore it shouldn't be treated simplistically in fiction, and thanks for remarking that I don't.
But if the insistence on reason is itself a passion and can go as berserk as any other passion, then how can we protect Spinoza from perversion?
You ask me this, Michael, and damn if I know how to answer. Every means we have for trying to get at the truth can run afoul. Insistence on strict logical consistency, if it starts out in the wrong direction, will take us much deeper into the quagmire than carefree contradiction. How wonderfully you put it, and modestly depositing it in a parenthesis, no less: "Old Communist way of beginning a sentence: 'It is no accident that…' Talk about making a hash of the Principle of Sufficient Reason."
The one quite practical piece of advice to be abstracted from Spinoza is to mistrust your reasoning if it leads you to a personally flattering cosmic view, one that grants you a privileged position in the narrative of the world's unfolding, in the way that, say, certain religions tend to. Suspect that's just your conatus going cross-eyed with delusions of grandeur.
Spinoza, in merging thinking and feeling, and deriving our feelings from our conatus—our desire to persist in our own being, to flourish and expand ourselves into the world—also derives that our thinking tends to swerve dangerously toward self-aggrandizement. We've got that tendency. All of us. Keeping it in check would go a long way toward ridding us of some of the more dangerous perversions in reasoning.
Humor, too, always helps. Spinoza's humor, which I'm glad you appreciate as much as I, is a serious ploy. Eternity shrugs at us? Humor is our shrugging back at eternity.
The pleasure truly has been mine, Michael.
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