In one of many misbegotten attempts at writing fiction, I drafted the story of a man who knew almost no Latin but was trying nevertheless to translate The Ethics of Spinoza. Today, I see the premise as a metaphor for trying to write fiction without the proper gifts and temperament. Back then, it had something to do with ripping off plot ideas from Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Gaddis, and making that part of the plot. All that remains of that 35-year-old project, mercifully abandoned after a few weeks, is a sustained interest in Benedictus de Spinoza.
His thought seems inhumanly subtle and demanding, yet Spinoza is among the most humanly compelling, even loveable of great philosophers, excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of 23. You might understand why a would-be fiction writer, himself only 18 or 19, could find Spinoza’s life and thought irresistible. Fortunately, Rebecca Goldstein is both a professor of philosophy and a novelist, with all the requisite scholarly and narrative gifts, and her new book, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, is pure pleasure. As of Friday evening, I had read only about 50 pages but her book has the what-comes-next? pull of a thriller, which it is in an intellectual and historical sense. In an interview with the California Literary Review, Goldstein said:
“Though he hadn’t published anything yet, he had managed to indicate to [the Jews of Amsterdam] that their project of refashioning themselves into fully observant Jews--obviously a project fraught with significance for former Marranos--was not one he deemed important. He was as obsessed as they were with how it is that we ought to remake ourselves in order to effect our personal salvation, but he would go on to think himself outside of all sectarian frames of reference, to think himself into the idea of secular salvation that could only be attained through the exercise of pure reason. Spinoza's `religion of reason’ is more arduous than any of the laws of Deuteronomy or Leviticus, since it asks each of us to cultivate and sustain a trait we find pretty difficult, namely to be reasonable.”
Imagine a brilliant young man forcefully, angrily exiled from a community that was itself already exiled from the larger Dutch, European and Christian communities of the time. The irony is, Spinoza was not by nature a firebrand. By nature he was an intellectual contemplative. As Goldstein writes in her prologue:
“The holy furor aroused by the name Spinoza is in contrast to the man’s predilection for peace and quiet. He confessed himself to have a horror of controversy. `I absolutely dread quarrels,’ he wrote an acquaintance, explaining why he had declined to publish a work that contains some of the main themes of The Ethics, titled Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being. The signet ring he wore throughout his life was inscribed with the word caute, Latin for `cautiously,’ and it was engraved with the image of a thorny rose, so that he signed his name sub rosa. One might argue that the very form of The Ethics, written in the highly formalized `geometrical style’ inspired by Euclid’s Elements, is partially designed for the practical purpose of keeping out any but the most gifted of readers, rigorously cerebral and patiently rational.”
The first of two sonnets Borges wrote about the philosopher is titled simply “Spinoza”:
“Here in the twilight the translucent hands
Of the Jew polishing the crystal glass.
The dying afternoon is cold with bands
Of fear. Each day the afternoons all pass
The same. The hands and space of hyacinth
Paling in the confines of the ghetto walls
Barely exists for the quiet man who stalls
There, dreaming up a brilliant labyrinth.
Fame doesn’t trouble him (that reflection of
Dreams in the dream of another mirror), nor love,
The timid love women. Gone the bars,
He’s free, from metaphor and myth, to sit
Polishing a stubborn lens: the infinite
Map of the One who now is all His Stars.”
The other, also translated by Willis Barnstone, is “Baruch Spinoza”:
“A haze of gold, the Occident lights up
The window. Now, the assiduous manuscript
Is waiting, weighed down with the infinite.
Someone is building God in a dark cup.
A man engenders God. He is a Jew
With saddened eyes and lemon-colored skin;
Time carries him the way a leaf, dropped in
A river, is borne off by waters to
Its end. No matter. The magician moved
Carves out his God with fine geometry;
From his disease, from nothing, he’s begun
To construct God, using the word. No one
Is granted such prodigious love as he:
The love that has no hope of being loved.”
The second poem is especially touching, personalizing Spinoza’s notion of amor intellectus Dei, and reminding us how alone he was. Goldstein reminds us of the story, probably apocryphal, of the young Spinoza proposing to a non-Jewish girl, the daughter of one of his teachers, and offering her a pearl necklace. She refused. The story's reliability is uncertain, but we know he never married and probably never again proposed.