Sunday, June 18, 2006

Defending Spinoza, Part 2

Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza remains compulsively readable, and not only because Spinoza’s life and thought are so timely and intriguing. Her strategy in crafting the book involves risks that in the hands of a less intellectually and stylistically confident writer might have turned it into self-involved mush. By chronicling her own involvement with Spinoza, starting at an all-girls yeshiva high school in Manhattan in the late 1960s, she dramatizes the degree to which Spinoza remains so threatening an apostate in certain quarters, despite having died in 1677:

“I first heard the name Baruch Spinoza uttered as an admonition, a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom.”

The warning comes from one of her teachers, Mrs. Schoenfeld. In her mind, Spinoza’s very brilliance, his cerebral audacity, made him “the first modern Jew. Spinoza headed the long line of yeshiva boys who were not as pious as they might have been. He was one of the so-called enlightened Jews, a so-called maskil, long before the term had been introduced.”

Mrs. Schoenfeld’s warning had the opposite of its intended effect, at least on Goldstein, for her synopsis of Spinoza’s philosophy “intrigued me, by reason of its very incomprehensibility, so that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” And she still can’t. This is why Goldstein’s idiosyncratic approach to Spinoza, guided by her own sustained involvement, works so successfully. Now a professor of philosophy who has been teaching Spinoza and the other 17th-century rationalists for years, she is in a sense still arguing with Mrs. Schoenfeld. It works because she’s not, in fact, writing autobiography but applied Spinozist philosophy – embodied thought. Much of the second chapter is an imaginary dialogue between Mrs. Schoenfeld and a bright secular Jewish girl – Rebecca Goldstein.

Fortunately for us, Goldstein is one of those rare writers who give serious, thoughtful, articulate interviews. When the interviewer at Next Book asks, “You've written five novels. How did that affect your approach to Betraying Spinoza?” she replies: ”I was trained to write philosophy in this voiceless, storyless, centerless, impersonal way. Once I started writing novels, that way of writing didn't interest me anymore. To find a way to write about philosophy that could bring to bear what I've learned as a novelist—a way that wouldn't falsify the philosophy but would somehow allow me to inhabit character and voice and mood and utilize all the tricks of a novelist—that's taken me a long time to find.”

Referring to the book’s title, the interviewer asks, “How are you betraying Spinoza?”: ”Let me count the ways. First of all, to try to understand his philosophy by looking at the man: Why would he have come to such a point of view? On philosophical grounds, that sort of approach is really forbidden, and especially on Spinozistic grounds. His is the most impersonal of all approaches to the truth, and to bring in the person seems to betray the very spirit of that point of view. The second betrayal is to look at him as a Jew—that kind of contingency is irrelevant on his terms. But I argue that we can better get at the full philosophical content of Spinoza if we actually look at him in the context of his history, which happens also to be Jewish history.”

Goldstein’s book is a forceful refutation of the biographical fallacy. To know something about Spinoza and the world that helped create him, then rejected him, I find is an aid to understanding his thought. Besides, the story of the Marranos (originally, “pigs” in Spanish, itself a borrowing from the Arabic muharram, “ritually forbidden,” like tref), who were driven from Spain and Portugal and sought refuge in Northern Europe, is an extraordinary story. Goldstein is not writing for scholars but for intelligent common readers interested in Spinoza, in Western philosophy, in Judaism, in Jewish and European history, and perhaps in all of these subjects. Goldstein herself aptly refers to Steven Nadler’s “magisterial biography of the philosopher,” Spinoza: A Life, and I would suggest it as the next stop for a reader newly interested in Spinoza. After that, the literature is vast, much of it forbidding to the nonspecialist. Like Goldstein, I would recommend Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Spinoza of Market Street,” probably the single short story I have most often read.

Let me quote Goldstein one last time, to give you a sense of how pertinent her book and Spinoza are to our human situation:

“Mrs. Schoenfeld had accused Spinoza of arrogance – the arrogance of thinking that the human mind exceeds all forms of intelligence. She happened to have been wrong about this. Spinoza believes [note the present tense] that our finite minds are limited because of their necessary finitude. Reality is infinite and we are finite and so there is a necessary mismatch between our knowledge of the world and the world itself. We know the truth only to the extent that our ideas approach asymptotically closer to congruence with God’s infinite mind, which divine mind we should think of as the world’s being aware of its own explanation. As this infinite explanation exceeds any that we can arrive at by orders of magnitude, so, too, God’s mind exceeds ours by orders of magnitude.”

No comments: