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Confessions of a Wayward Philosopher

I have a confession to make: I love fiction.I have a confession to make: I love fiction.

No, it's far worse than that: I don't only love fiction, but I take it seriously as a way of discovering and expressing some of the deepest truths that we can get at.

Big deal, you're probably saying, who doesn't know that? (Actually, I hope that that's exactly what you're saying.)

Well, I'm going to let you in on another secret: in the area of the academic world from which I hail, which is philosophy, confessions of the sort that I just made can compromise your stature.

I remember an afternoon in early October more than 20 years ago. I was then a very young assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University, and I had just published my first novel, The Mind-Body Problem. It had received a surprising amount of attention, by which I mean that the attention had surprised me, as it had most certainly surprised my publisher.

I hadn't planned on writing a novel.I hadn't planned on writing a novel. After all, I wasn't stupid. I had planned on parceling my Ph.D. dissertation into many little articles, to be published in academic journals, which was what my department wanted from me. But the recent death of my father had churned me up in ways that left me desperately seeking some other means to think out life's confusions, a form that could mix it all up — abstract thinking, with its valiant struggle after clarity, and the mess of life. The novel presented itself to my mind as the perfect vessel to do my mixing. I think I also wanted a way of writing that would churn up readers' emotions, perhaps so that I wouldn't feel quite so alone in the world. I wanted some company.

Anyway, I wrote a novel, and there I was, in the late afternoon of a drizzly autumn day, sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the corner of 110th Street and Columbus Avenue, not far from my office, being interviewed by a reporter. I had chosen to meet the reporter there, rather than in the philosophy department, because my colleagues had already made it clear to me that they didn't appreciate my extra-philosophical shenanigans. They considered my literary excursion inexcusably extra-philosophical, no matter how much philosophy I had tucked into the novel (a little too much, according to some of the reviewers).

So I was sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop with a reporter, and a philosophy graduate student I knew spotted me and sauntered over to chat, and I explained that I couldn't really talk just then. I'm being interviewed, I mumbled. The reporter, who wasn't clued into my abashment, produced a copy of my book with a flourish, its title emblazoned over a nubile nude by Balthus.

"You wrote a book on the mind-body problem?" The graduate student's admiration was self-evident.

The mind-body problem is a standard problem in philosophy, and my giving that name to that particular novel was a witticism of sorts. Philosophy disposes one to a peculiar sense of humor. Or perhaps it's the other way round.Philosophy disposes one to a peculiar sense of humor. Or perhaps it's the other way round.

"It's a novel," I said quickly, before the graduate student's esteem for me got out of hand.

"Oh, a novel." His smirk was so self-explanatory that even the reporter got the idea and, amused, wrote the incident into the newspaper account.

I was less amused, and, with the passing of time and many more smirks, I distanced myself more and more from the profession. Sometimes I distanced myself from fiction, too, but never for long.

Because I love fiction. There, I've said it again. I love to read it and I love to write it. I love the way it lifts us out of ourselves and lets us see the world all anew, from points of view that aren't naturally our own. And, by zooming in and out of points of view, there are truths that can be found and expressed that can't easily be found or expressed in any other way.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction has as its theme the matter of religion. This, of course, is a serious theme, but that peculiar sense of humor I spoke of must be in evidence since most of the reviews have stressed the novel's comic side, going so far as to call it a romp and a caper. It's teeming with believers and doubters, messianists and atheists, seekers and scorners. In real life, where we're trapped into our own view of the world, it's difficult to get a feel for what the world is like, what it feels like, for those who see things radically differently from usit's difficult to get a feel for what the world is like, what it feels like, for those who see things radically differently from us. This difficulty has made problems for folks all through history, and it's making serious problems for us now. Believers don't understand non-believers, to the point of not being able to imagine what the world feels like for the faithless. Non-believers don't understand believers, to the point of not being able to imagine what the world feels like for the faithful.

Impoverished imagination is a sad thing in itself. But when it comes to such fraught questions as those that swirl around religion, failures of imagination can become troublesome to the point of tragic. Fiction, as capacious as imagination itself, gives us another world whenever it gives us a character. Beneath all its pleasures and wonders, fiction whispers to us of our common humanity, and it guides us into an expanded form of experience that encompasses us all.

Sure, fiction is make-believe, but it's important and it's true. Take that, my old friend from the Hungarian Pastry Shop, wherever you are.

÷ ÷ ÷

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and Mazel, and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and Guggenheim and Radcliffe fellowships, and she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. She lives in Massachusetts.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Mind-Body Problem (Contemporary...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  2. Properties of Light
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  3. Mazel Used Trade Paper $1.00
  4. 36 Arguments for the Existence of...
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

4 Responses to "Confessions of a Wayward Philosopher"

    Moshe Klugnman January 26th, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Just back from your reading and discussion at JCCSF. I asked you "What may be the reason for the success of the old religious narratives". Your answer touched on a few benefits religions provides to followers. I have a theory that explains god and religious sentiment relevant to the mind of a new born baby. Among the very first cognitions every one has, following a cry expressing discomfort and fear, is the experience of a big, warm and loving hand, reaching from above to comfort us. Such a magical experience, registers so early in our mental life, can not be forgotten. Our desperate cry for help evolves to prayer, and mom to ‘God, the Savior’. Unfortunately, too many people ignore the gender transformation, however, this imprint will always stay there, like an empty file that can not be erased, (it was created even prior to birth). It will forever be vulnerable for certain vocabulary and for manipulation. It is my opinion that when people have a strong conviction about god, it is the success of clergy and other beneficiaries of such belief: they figured out how to penetrate and indoctrinate this tender zone in our mind. For 10% of earning, I can see why they worked so hard to do that.
    ( Also why they hate Spinoza ).

    I hope that your 36... book will be very very popular, and that thinking will no longer be a marginalized hobby. Moshe.

    Michael Lustig January 28th, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    One slight correction in geography:
    Rebecca Newberger Goldstein mentions that she was "sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the corner of 110th Street and Columbus Avenue" for her off-campus interview. As any Columbia student worth their salt knows, the actual location of that landmark is 111th & Amsterdam (diagonally across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine). A subtle distinction, but important for placing it in the context of the neighborhood, down the block from the reknowned V&T's Pizzeria. Had Professor Goldstein opted for savory instead of sweet, she might have avoided the slightly off-putting graduate student interaction that she describes (in addition to enjoying a heartier meal!) . . .

    Renaldo Hegel January 28th, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    As I finished reading Rebecca's essay here Rushdie's Satanic Verses came to mind. A healthy culture that embraces fiction presupposes a certain realm, a public realm, in which ideas can be shared via fiction without the threat of a (non-fiction) reality intruding. The reaction of the Islamic world to the Satanic Verses shows clearly why such a public realm is necessary for fiction to prosper, indeed to exist.

    In reference to Moshe's reference to the clergy "penetrating... this tender zone of our mind": this tender zone is well known (cf K. Marx), but your characterization is nicely stated. This is why education and the development of one's reason is so critical to a healthy society, for reason is the most important building block in that fortress which protects our "tender zone".

    Tony DuShane February 1st, 2010 at 5:08 am

    great essay...and i believe there's more truth in fiction as well, it tackles the human condition like no other form of art.

    i was just cruisin' through the powell's website. i'm guest blogger this week w/ my novel recently released.

    btw, i think we're on topic, my novel is 'confessions of a teenage jesus jerk', loosely based on spending my formative years growing up a jehovah's witness and i'm purchasing your '36 arguments...' right now.

    tour to san francisco or los angeles? would love to have you on my radio show.


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