Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I was convinced, based on absolutely no evidence, that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction would address the sublime (which I had designated the secret leitmotif of this issue). Making art is about capturing the ineffable and articulating the unspeakable—facing the whole of everything, and selecting just those elements that will, with some combining and shaping, become something new. Yet another element to marry into the whole of everything, to baffle, console, and fill us with hope. In this formulation, “everything” = God. “Hope” = the Sublime. By my logic, a novel by an atheist philosopher about the academic career and love life of a soulful psychologist (also an atheist) who wrote a bestseller proving God doesn’t exist would obviously take up the sublime. And it does, in fact—within the opening chapter. Glasses off, staring at the Charles River at four in the morning, the novel’s hero, Cass Seltzer, finds the frozen water catching on the arch of a bridge “an effect that could reasonably be called sublime.” Yes, of course he must begin with the sublime, the reasonable sublime—how else could he bear the terrible burden of having meticulously disproved God? 

MINNA PROCTOR: It strikes me—in a big loud clanging way—that yours is a novel of ideas in the most classic sense. Weirdly, I didn’t figure that out until the debate at the end of the book, where I realized that the dramatic climax of this novel was a full transcript of a debate about the existence of God. I do think that today’s novel of ideas tends to be wrapped up in a conceit. You’ve gone in a completely different direction. Even though your appendix is a conceit, I don’t think it drives the book.
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Oh, absolutely not. I actually thought of the appendix as being in tension with the rest of the novel. That’s why all of the chapters are named after crazy chaotic arguments—“The Argument from the Irrepressible Past,” “The Argument from the Longing on the Gate”—this is religion as it’s really lived in our lives pitted against the way we argue about it in philosophy, which happens in the appendix. The two are in tension and somehow truth comes out between them.

MP: Wait, are you talking about religion here as the rules through which we interpret our actions?
RG: No, I think that it’s religion more in the sense of where people go for their sense of identity, for community, for their existential dilemmas.

MP: If you were to describe an atheist bible, it could be this appendix.
RG: Yes.

MP: Taking that a step further, then, what does the appendix give the lived stories? If we think of the Bible as an ordering system for lived stories.
RG: That’s a good question. Secular reasoning has a narrative, though, a lived story. There are the rules of reasoning, the accepted arguments, but there are also the prophets—people like Spinoza and Hume and the trials—Spinoza’s excommunication—and the triumphs such as the Age of Enlightenment. This narrative of rationality is different from a religious narrative, but just as emotionally charged as any other, stirring with a notion of what it is that can save us.

MP: So, when you first conceptualized this novel, what was going on dramatically? What was at stake?
RG: It was going to be a story about the messiness of this debate about the existence of God, and how so much more is being argued. There is always so much more at stake in the middle of these intellectualized arguments. The idea grew out of my Spinoza book, which had drawn me into the debates around so-called New Atheism. Philosophically, I’m at one with atheism, but I also think there’s far more going on than just a discussion about God’s existence. There are the nuances and the messiness of it all, which just don’t come across.

MP: It is in fact a gloriously messy subject—and human.
RG: And ever so fraught. It brings up everything about our entire orientation toward knowledge, toward mystery. I think that there are philosophical personalities—I’ve always thought that, and that’s why I can’t write straight philosophy anymore; it’s always imbedded in the personal.

MP: Can you relate that to your protagonist, Cass, and his soul?
RG: Cass is someone who is very alive to the sense of mystery. He’s very often overtaken by a sort of ontological wonder, as he is at the end of the first chapter, standing there on the bridge over the frozen Charles River and getting carried outside of himself in a very expansive and grateful sort of way. That sort of experience can be described in religious language. In fact, it’s the sort of language that comes most naturally to us in trying to describe these extraordinary experiences. Religion has given us a vocabulary, which Cass resists. God is a powerful metaphor and nothing more.

MP: He’s an atheist but he’s sort of a fake one because of his tolerance for mystery.
RG: I don’t think he’s a fake one at all. He certainly doesn’t think that everything is answered—he’s not a mystery denier, but he thinks that nothing is answered by thinking you have an answer with God. For Cass, God is a way of not being able to tolerate the unknowingness. The spirit of Spinoza hovers over the book. Spinoza really tried to work out a spiritualized secularism. His thought certainly accommodates a sense of mystery and the limitations of our own understanding. You just can’t fill in any answers at all, and God is too much of an answer. If we really want to do justice to the profoundest of mysteries, then we can’t really fill in any answers at all. Also, Cass is a psychologist of religion, which means he tries to answer why we tend to merge our experiences of mystery and transcendence with beliefs about God.

MP: Psychology is certainly interested in the mystery of human belief systems. Mystery gets transposed onto feelings and behaviors—why do we keep doing this thing we do? Why do we act this way? Why do we have these feelings?
RG: But the real switch came with Hobbes. He was the first one to ask the question, not, does God exist, but rather, why do we keep constructing these notions of God? He was in the middle of the horror of those religious wars (or right after). The philosophers who created modern philosophy were extremely impressed with those horrors, the bloodletting between the various Christian denominations that just went on and on, people thinking they know answers they can’t possibly know . . . Modern philosophy came out of that. Cass is very sympathetic to the religious impulse—as was William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience is a kind of model for Cass’s own book. James was funny, though, because he reveled in mystery and clearly wanted to believe. He did full justice to the psychosis of extraordinary religious experiences, but it’s clear he wanted to have one. Cass has a bit of that dividedness about him. Cass is in some sense the inversion of James because he’s had that large experience—but doesn’t altogether want it. He resists. He’s suspicious.

MP: Cass projects less joy, then?
RG: Yes, he’s resisting. It’s hard for him to let go. There’s a kind of shame in it almost.

MP: So, back to his women?
RG: Many, many impulses go into religiosity. Romantic love, for example, is the complete reconfiguration of reality around a chosen one. If that one loves you back then you’re saved. If he or she doesn’t then you are damned. It’s a conversion. Then when you fall back out of love, it’s like, how could I have attributed so much to that person? Cass falls for this quite a lot. He’s a tender fellow.

MP: Is he repeating mistakes? Is he looking for something in the romantic love? Or do the women represent different kinds of objective ideals to you?
RG: No, they were really just characters who came to me. They were mystifying enough so that a man like Cass could interpret them in the light of his adoration and get them entirely wrong. Though Lucinda did represent something—she’s that extreme of—.

MP: —the road not taken?
RG: Talk about not having a tolerance for mystery! She doesn’t have a clue.

MP: No self-awareness?
RG: Anything that can’t be explained by game-theoretic modeling just doesn’t exist for her. She can so misinterpret the man who loves her and who she cares about enough to at least move in with him as an experiment blah blah blah. It’s sort of hateful, but also pathetic.

MP: That experience releases something in Cass.
RG: Romantic love is always releasing something in Cass, probably too much, whereas not enough is released in Lucinda. I’m sympathetic toward her, even though I think she’s pathetic. There are so many models for her, so many—particularly women—who almost sold their soul to rise in academia.

MP: By giving Cass the kind of softer science, in a way, were you giving him a little bit of that female trouble?
RG: Well, yes sure. And he’s a loving person—and a loving person often misplaces his feelings—there’s so much creativity that goes into love. You’re always creating a love object—that’s Proust’s great lesson. He gets enthralled. It’s as he says at the very end, “You know, romance can be a kind of religious illusion, too.”

MP: His ex-girlfriend, Roz, is almost a Brontë archetype, the one right under his nose who loves him best—and he just has to not be distracted by all these other prospects in order to appreciate her. It’s hard not to adore Roz, especially when she turns him down—it’s so clearly an act of compassion!
RG: But it’s an act of self-love too. She sees a man who still has a lot of development to go through.

MP: Does she have illusions? It doesn’t seem like she’s necessarily inventing her own love object?
RG: Yeah, I’d like to believe there are some of us who love with eyes wide open. That would be Roz.

MP: What about her quest for immortality? Can you talk about that?
RG: The denial of death is one of those primitive human emotions that gets expressed religiously. Religion offers, in the idea of an afterlife, the most emotionally satisfying expression of the denial. But of course, it being the most emotionally satisfying doesn’t make it true, though it does explain why it’s so often accepted as true. Anyway, Roz, a fellow traveling atheist, is trying to solve the problem of death through biochemistry.

MP: Immortality really is the ultimate scientific pursuit. In terms of your novel, it brings up the conflict (that’s also between Cass and Lucinda) between the psychology of the talking cure and the psychology of neuroscience—things that chemically affect the brain versus those silly little thought things that happen at some other level. It’s the idea of changing the brain with neural patterns or science. What’s attractive is the hope that you can solve any of these things—even death. It’s just a matter of figuring out which two wires to cross.
RG: Ever since Francis Bacon—there were these two very different views of what motivates science. One is: We’re in this world, let’s discover what it is for the sake simply of knowledge itself. It’s wonderful to know the laws of nature because they’re the laws of nature and very beautiful to boot. The other view is more pragmatic: Bacon’s notion that it’s conducive to the wellbeing of mankind to understand this world and use the laws of nature to our benefit. These two ideas can come together, but they’re very distinct impulses. In one, you lose yourself in the wonders of the laws of nature and don’t care about transforming, bending them, while Bacon is all about making nature submit to our will, and it’s interesting he always uses the female pronoun for nature. He feels it’s an outrage that we have to submit to nature rather than the other way around. So there is a part of that notion that science is here to make our lives better, longer, more flourishing. That seemed to fit perfectly in Roz’s character, particularly the view that it’s axiomatic that we should make our lives better and that suffering is evil. She’s so expansive and so life-embracing, so full of joys that she wants more and more. Why not?

MP: Everyone in the novel seems to be working on trying to figure out the meaning of evil and especially suffering, but there’s very little actual contact with suffering. It’s a philosophical problem throughout the novel.
RG: Well, there’s Azarya. I don’t think that he truly suffers, I mean the sort of extreme suffering that’s the focus of the philosophical problem of evil—but he does suffer conflict as an adolescent, and probably, to some extent, for the rest of his life. He’s clearly someone who won’t be able to live the life he wants. He sacrifices himself for the community even though his loneliness in that community is profound. That’s perhaps not suffering in the way that the problem of evil considers it. But I’ve had readers tell me they find Azarya tragic, the waste of his genius, his loneliness. In a liberal value system, Azarya can, I think, be said to be tragic.

MP: It’s sort of anti-American that he can’t fulfill himself. The very idea that he should be able to escape the designation of his birthright because he’s got his incredible gift is antiquated. But it’s also American. It’s related to Puritan fatalism. His character embodies the central conflict of America. It’s somehow related to the liberal-conservative conflict. I’m sure there’s a way to extrapolate this into the health care debate!
RG: It is there. You’re absolutely right. All of these issues arouse so much passion. When you’re on one side you think, “How the hell can people think that way?” Of course, when you’re in philosophy there are so many issues where people don’t share your intuition. “How can they not see what I’m seeing so clearly”—you become used to it. You become used to speaking with people who you know are smart but seem to be saying the stupidest things because intuitions aren’t shared. Their sense of the world is just totally at odds with yours. It’s one of the most common things you have to deal with as a professional philosopher.

MP: As a philosopher, do you have to proceed with faith in the notion that if you explain it right then the other person will understand? Is that the operative ethos?
RG: Yes, I think it is the ethos, but it’s not true. It’s not true, and what’s interesting is when it falls in the area of questions that can’t be resolved. They’re irresolvable empirically. So you’re working with—really, intuitions as to what the right answer should be.

MP: And that leads you to your argument?
RG: Exactly. I think something like that is always going on where there are these questions that are completely irresolvable. Coming back to the appendix—in some sense, the appendix was doing the work of saying, “Well, look, these arguments don’t work. Just stop believing. Now. End of story.” But that’s not the end of the story. That’s why something more intuitive, that core philosophical outlook, is swelling up—to take up the space the argument can’t take up. All of that stuff in the story could only exist because the arguments don’t work.

MP: You said “I can’t write straight philosophy anymore.” Is writing fiction a way of approaching those arguments in a saner way?
RG: I’m just so convinced that there’s an aspect of personality functioning in these arguments, and that, for me, is the interesting story. Still, I don’t want to say that “I now renounce the ability of reason to make progress in an argument.”

MP: But through fiction you get deeper into the personalities that lead to the ideas.
RG: I do think the notion of disembodied ideas is a fine working hypothesis—we’ve gotten far on that in philosophy. But in fact ideas are always embodied. They’re embodied in our personalities—and that’s how you can link how a person thinks about one thing with how they’re probably going to think about another thing.

MP: You didn’t try to write it here, did you?
RG: No, no, no. It’s really blasphemy against philosophy. I got into enough trouble for my book on Spinoza. Well, parts of it. Most philosophers—the philosophers I respect—really liked that book. But, there are a few places where I gave talks and got the party line, which is that it’s the genetic fallacy to criticize an argument by talking about its psychological and historical sources. Of course, that’s not what I did. I wasn’t saying that Spinoza’s view is good or bad based on where it came from, but I did say there was a reason that this man, of all men, came to that view.

MP: It’s like a critical biography.
RG: Yes. But in a way it does dismiss the whole style of analytic philosophy—the dryness of it, the exaggerated respect for precision, the notion of disembodied truth— trying to have no voice in your writing. Objective truth is an impersonal truth and should have an impersonal voice. That’s all built into the discipline at this point.

MP: Which brings me back to something you said earlier when you were talking about not being able to write straight philosophy, that theology seems to take up that role with your work—it’s even a kind of homiletics, where you’re dealing with these impossible questions and you’re trying to contextualize them in terms of life and living and personal action, they’re telling stories about the abstract problems. Perhaps not with the same kind of rigor and certainly with a lot more permission for mystery, but there does seem to be a meeting here between coming out of philosophy and finding religious subject here in the novel.
RG: That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that.

MP: When you were talking before about telling stories within philosophy, my first thought was, “Oh, well, that’s what religion does.” But, that seems too simple to be true.
RG: In philosophy, a good philosophical question is one that you can see many different ways. It’s not a good philosophical question unless there are wonderfully compelling arguments that can be gotten up on various sides. If you want to dramatize philosophy, that’s what you have to dramatize. Religion is different; religion is not trying to get you to see all the different, compelling ways of viewing this problem, but rather trying to make you feel how uncompelling the other ways of seeing the problem are. That’s what religious stories are doing. I should say I was brought up on religious stories. Every Friday night my father would put me to bed and tell me homilies, really. He was a good storyteller. But his stories were always variations on the same themes. There was the beggar in the village, his feet wrapped in rags, someone who makes you feel queasy, who turns out to be the spiritually beautiful person. He had a keen sense of suffering in the world, and he always made you feel what it was like to be the downtrodden. But there was something he was trying to get across, which was that one’s moral and spiritual capacities are what will really carry the day. So, the ones that you think are so pathetic are really the ones who should be the models for human nature. He was always pushing that line and it was extraordinarily effective.

MP: Were the stories real, or did he made them up?
RG: I don’t know. He embellished them, but I think it was part of the homiletic tradition in Hasidic Judaism. My father broke with Hasidism but remained Orthodox. That’s how I grew up. My break with Judaism has been messy. I have a certain lingering love for much of it; I think you can see that in this book. It comes from knowing my father, the sort of religious life he represented. There weren’t too many of his sort who survived. He got out of Poland before the war—but he was the kind of Eastern European Jew who would not have survived. All the survivors I’ve met are people who did things at the right moment. They were gutsy people with an enormous will to survive who took crazy risks that paid off. My father was not like that. There were whole communities supporting people like him—this very impractical kind of man, spiritually pure. I always felt that through my father, I came into contact with a kind of Eastern European Jew that just got wiped out. I feel lucky to have had this intimate relationship with something that existed and flourished and is no more. Our notion of what a Jew is now is so very, very, very different. He lavished a lot of attention on his stories but wasn’t telling them simply for the sake of telling stories. In some sense, I’m like him. This is a great danger in my fiction—that stories come out of other goals, these extra-literary ideas. I can’t let those ideas overtake the fiction.

MP: Oh, why not? . . . Everyone has got something to bring to their novel. There are already plenty of fabulous pristine novels.
RG: That’s certainly true.

MP: You don’t need to be the person who does that.
RG: Only if it limits the aesthetic experience. If you get pulled out of the enchantment of what a novel’s supposed to do—and suddenly you’re not involved with the characters because you’re thinking of, oh, immortality, religion, the downtrodden, and that is going destroy the aesthetic experience.

MP: Of course.
RG: But—

MP: But, this is what’s before you to do. You wouldn’t want to not do it, God forbid.
RG: To use a metaphor!

###Cover of TLR's "How to Read Music" issue

“Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein” originally appeared in How to Read Music (TLR, Summer 2010).