Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

God travels incognito

I've just finished reading an excellent novel, with an unusual title: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.

The author, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is a philosopher who's working at present as a research associate in the department of psychology at Harvard.

[Click the portrait to visit her website.]

The novel's hero, Cass Seltzer, is an academic at Frankfurter University in Weedham (Massachusetts)… which is possibly inspired by Brandeis in Waltham. His unusual field is the psychology of religion, where Cass has become a celebrity through his book entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion. Readers of Goldstein's novel are offered a close look at this treatise on "illusion", in that the novel contains a lengthy appendix summarizing succinctly the 36 arguments that are said to have been presented and analyzed by Cass in his book.

Up to that point, everything appears to be rather ordinary. So, what is it that makes Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God such an extraordinary novel? Well, the first thing that strikes a reader who turns to the appendix is that every one of Cass's 36 arguments has been enunciated scrupulously and then promptly demolished! In other words, the Seltzer treatise is hardly likely to substantiate any kind of belief in the existence of God. Indeed, Cass Seltzer has become a celebrated atheist. But, as TIME magazine put it in their cover story, Cass is an "atheist with a soul". What does this mean? Well, as a reader of the Goldstein novel, I would say that Cass Seltzer appears to be a profoundly religious individual, but with a slightly unconventional bend: He simply doesn't feel it necessary to believe in God!

To come to grips with this unusual but exciting notion of godless religion, one needs to set aside Cass Seltzer's treatise and return to Rebecca Goldstein's novel. For she too offers us 36 arguments for the existence of God. Why shouldn't she? After all, that's the title of her novel, which is composed of exactly 36 chapters, each of which is presented as an "argument"… often of an unexpected kind, such as "the argument from prime numbers", or "the argument from tidings of destruction", or even "the argument from the New York Times". So, the next logical question is: What is the exact nature of the goods that this novelist is trying to market by means of this curious mixture of an appendix of 36 unsuccessful arguments concerning the existence of God, juxtaposed alongside 36 narrative chapters that don't really appear to be striving to argue in favor of anything of a specifically religious nature? Well, I would say that Rebecca Goldstein is simply marketing a new vision of God, who doesn't need to exist concretely (like a tree or a giraffe) in order to enable us to adopt a profoundly religious attitude towards life. And Cass Seltzer, in that case, is Rebecca's extraordinary salesman.

Why does the number 36 appear, first in the title of the novel, then in the number of items (Cass's arguments) in the appendix, and above all in the number of chapters in the novel? For a while, I delved into my books on Judaism, the Kabbalah and the Hebrew language in the hope of finding an answer to that question, but I was unsuccessful. Then it dawned on me that 36 is the product of the squares of the first three primes. 36 = (1 x 1) x (2 x 2) x (3 x 3). I wouldn't swear to the validity of this interpretation, but I have the impression that the novelist's preoccupations are systematically closer to numbers and science than to the tenets of Judaism and the Kabbalah. I tried, too, to find Jewish explanations for the choice of the hero's name: Cass Seltzer. Here again, I found nothing capable of adding Biblical weight to the diminutive of the Latin Cassius combined with a wrongly-spelled reference to a town in Germany that gave its name to carbonated water. So, I conclude that this name highlights the fact that our hero is not a conventional Jew, not an ordinary believer… in fact, an unbeliever.

I have the impression that the goods that Deborah Goldstein and Cass Seltzer are proposing correspond to a vast system of mathematical truths and human values in which there's a bit of God in almost everything. I would call it scientific pantheism. Since God is everywhere, then He is nowhere. We don't need to search for God, as if He were a hidden diamond, because there is in fact no place in the cosmos where He would not be present… if only He existed, which He doesn't! Cass is sensitive to this ubiquitous religiosity, but he is often obliged to clean up his home and his haunts by sweeping trivial avatars of God under the carpet.

Some of the characters in the novel are admirable, indeed lovable. Besides Cass himself, and his longtime sweetheart Roz Margolis, I'm thinking of the young Azarya Sheiner, a master of numbers, destined to become the future spiritual chief of the Valdener sect. Certain characters are exasperating. They can be stupidly exasperating, like the ultra-Orthodox professor Jonas Elijah Klapper: "one of the most prominent, if not the pre-eminent, propounders of poppycock of our day". Others are brilliantly exasperating, such as Cass's former partners Pascale Puissant, absurdly Cartesian in her affections, and Lucinda Mandelbaum, "the Goddess of Game Theory", incapable of retaining the visual memory of human faces.

The novelist Rebecca Goldstein writes superbly, and she skips effortlessly from poetic songs of awe to hilarious laughter. In the 36th and final chapter of the novel, Cass is attending a joyous assembly of Jewish Hasidim of the Valdener sect in a fictitious village in New Jersey misnamed New Walden (nothing to do with Thoreau).

Although Cass is in fact related to the Valdener rabbinic dynasty, through his mother, the main reason for his attending this assembly is his affection for Azarya Sheiner, the new Rebbe. Normally, Azarya's intellectual prowess would have enabled him to become a great mathematician at MIT. Instead of that, he has decided to make himself constantly available as a guide for his Hasidic brethren. There are no limits to Cass's respect for the traditional culture of his tribe. The assembled Hasidim imagine that they will be able to watch their Rebbe enacting an ancient costume, which consists of dancing with his week-old firstborn son. Normally, all this is so silly, because there could be so many greater things on the mind of Azarya Sheiner than prancing around in front of the ecstatic crowd with a baby in his arms. Was it simply the force of the novelistic art of Rebecca Goldstein, or might I too be some kind of emotional adept of atheism with a soul? Whatever the explanation, I devoured the vision in the final line of the novel:

And the Valdener Rebbe holds his son and dances.

And I, William, an atheist goy, burst into tears.