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On the Road with Reason

The Swerve, by Stephen Goldblatt (Norton, 2011), Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Random House, 2006), The Coffee Trader, by David Liss (Random House, 2003) and Italian Shoes, by Henning Mankell (Vintage) –

The Enlightenment – that period in the middle of the last millennium when rational, scientific thinking stomped into the living room of Western religion with mud on its boots – has been much documented, debated, fictionalized and committed to film. Everyone has a favorite iconoclast, from the ever popular Pope-bashers Martin Luther and Henry VIII to such relatively obscure footsoldiers as Poggio Bracciolini, hero of last year’s exquisite The Swerve, by Stephen Goldblatt (Norton, 2011). Bracciolini, an out-of-work Papal secretary with an acute and restless mind, treks through northern Europe in the early 15th century, seeking ancient texts that lie forgotten in lonely monasteries and dusty libraries. “The Swerve” is subtitled, “How the World Became Modern”, Goldblatt’s assertion being that if the persistent Sr. Bracciolini hadn’t unearthed a particular pre-Christian epic poem, Western politics, culture and daily life might still be dominated by the mix of dogma and corruption that characterized the Catholic church of his day.

Lucretius was the long-buried 1st Century B.C. Roman poet; his epic, De Rerum Natura, echoed the teachings of an even earlier Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who held that there is nothing in the universe we should concern ourselves with that isn’t revealed by our senses. According to Epicurus-by-way-of-Lucretius, even if a god or gods exist, and even if they created us, they certainly don’t bother themselves about our comings and goings, the earnestness of our hopes or the quality of our deeds – nor do they require our praise to get them through their cosmic day. Therefore, our only responsibility to the barely knowable natural forces that brought us here is to make the most of life, to live as morally and as comfortably as possible.

Epicurus also postulated, writing three hundred years before Christ, that everything is made of tiny invisible things called “atoms” which are subject solely to the laws of Nature. He wasn’t the first Greek to think in these terms, but his logic was powerful and the Church was glad to have such dangerous notions disappear into the stacks. Fifteen hundred years after Lucretius gave voice to Epicurus’ lost texts, Poggio Bracciolini brought them back into the light, at which point history began to “swerve” in a new direction: logic and reason grew new muscles with which to free mankind from the bonds of superstition. At least that’s how Goldblatt sees it, and he makes an entertaining and informative case for his view. He isn’t a polemicist or a preacher; he tells a terrific detective story, steeped in fascinating historical detail, about a man of almost infinite skills and energy whose accomplishments were of inarguably historical consequence.

The Age of Reason had many fathers and many moving parts. Goldblatt’s brilliant chronicle is a tasty, page-turning mix of scholarship with historical adventure. Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Random House, 2006) is a more cerebral work that likewise gives all credit to its central character for having broken religion’s iron grip on Western culture. (Who can blame these hard-working writers for wanting their protagonist to be the Main Man?) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein – noted novelist and professor of philosophy – does an elegant job of plunking her reader down in 17th Century Amsterdam, the most liberal-minded and inclusive community of its day in Northern Europe. Also the wealthiest: savvy Lowlanders, bereft of natural resources, were all about making money through trade. (The Amsterdam bourse oversaw the first large-scale market in the sort of financial derivatives that have become notorious in recent times.) Dutch openness wasn’t so much principled as pragmatic: where was the profit in interfering with a vigorous traffic in foreign ships, goods and people?

Not that life in Amsterdam was all ducats, intermarriage and casual Fridays. There were rules, lots of them. Relations between Catholics and newly-minted Protestants were prickly at best, with the former forced to worship in secret. Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal were permitted to settle in the city as long as they provided for their own, wed their sons and daughters within the tribe, observed their religion quietly, did business profitably but without ostentation and in general gave Holland no reason to regret its hospitality. To preserve this comfortable arrangement, the Jewish community policed itself vigorously, even ruthlessly. When it realized that Spinoza, the brilliant young Jew, was taking his rationalist writings and teachings to an extreme that precluded the existence of an all-knowing, paternalistic God – an affront to Calvinist and Sephardim alike – Amsterdam’s Jewish community took the dire step of banishing him from their midst at the ripe old age of 23 (interestingly, the Hebrew word for “heretic” derives from the name Epicurus).  Undaunted, Spinoza continued writing his masterwork, Ethics, which was published after his early death at 45.

Goldstein’s Spinoza is presented as a man of almost pure intellect, insisting that in this universe, where the laws of Nature and mathematics are demonstrably consistent, the assertion of God’s existence must stand the test of strict, logical proof. Spinoza knew how to crunch the numbers; crunch them he did, and God did not make the cut. At least not the vain, arbitrary, demanding, anthropomorphic God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Spinoza’s model, God is everything, everything is God and has been for Eternity, and knowing this is loving God.  What need, in that universe, is there for a deity who deals in beginnings and ends, gives us commandments, hears our complaints, metes out reward and punishment?

One can agree or disagree with Spinoza’s conclusions, but it’s hard not to enjoy the intellectual challenge they present. Goldstein’s deft hand as a writer and her grasp of philosophical discipline make her a perfect guide, but she’s more than a guide.  She brings her opulent professorial skills and a powerful personal Jewishness to the debate, engaging Spinoza, questioning, probing, explaining and expanding, occasionally crossing swords with the Prince of Philosophers (this, as near as can be discerned, explains the book’s main title). It’s an exhilarating ride that requires occasionally going back over some complicated bits. The reward, at least to this reader, is an arrival at the merest taste of the state of mind Spinoza seems to have achieved through his logical proofs: an all-of-Nature-encompassing “View from Nowhere,” whence the self becomes as unimportant as a raindrop, where our lives and our deaths are atoms combining and recombining according to immutable principles, to be enjoyed and accepted, but not grasped at or aggrandized by myths of redemption and immortality.

For those who might care to experience Amsterdam in the 17th Century without the ontological wrestling matches and hard-won insights, David Liss’ The Coffee Trader (Random House, 2003) is a novel, nothing more. Its story concerns a young Jew of Portuguese origins, Miguel Lienzo, who is caught up in the aforementioned marketplace of commercial paper and derivatives, desperate to make up for his losses and become rich, desperate to sidestep the rules that circumscribe his heritage and desperate to get laid as much as possible – short of bedding his brother’s wife. It’s a romance and a mystery with primal insights into today’s financial abstractions. Liss has done his homework: the characters are of their time, eschewing anachronistic asides to a modern audience; each is limited and challenged by his or her place in a set of complex customs and menacing laws – the same laws Spinoza lived under, that said, “We know the right way to live in this world – and you must.” Whether one reads “Betraying Spinoza” or “The Coffee Trader” first, there is benefit from reading both: one hard but satisfying work of the mind, the other a suspenseful romp in the flesh, both in a period whose history resonates today.

Unconnected by history to “Swerve”, “Trader” and “Spinoza” but not by theme, is Italian Shoes, (Vintage) Henning Mankell’s rewarding 2006 novel, expertly translated in 2009 by Laurie Thompson. Mankell is Sweden’s premier mystery writer, but “Italian Shoes” is not a who-done-it. Maybe more of a why-done-it. Not unlike “Spinoza”, though on a very different playing field, it’s a rumination on the nature of existence and the obligations it imposes. As in “Swerve” there is a search for information that may give new meaning to what constitutes a moral life.

Former physician Fredrick Welin, a passive and cowardly man, has much to regret about the way he has spent his 66 years. Which could be a recipe for tedium, except that Mankell captures some of the flavor of J.M. Coetzee’s work, where slatherings of human frailty and fatalistic gloom have a way of dishing up unexpectedly satisfying meals. Faced with an unexpected intrusion of past sins into his purposefully hermetic existence, realizing he has little time left in which to undo damage he has done to those he should have nurtured, Welin rises timidly, shakily, to the occasion.  As the Swedish seasons roll by, freezing, thawing, freezing and thawing again in Mankell’s economical prose, Welin bears witness to his own failings as we suspect he always has, but with a newfound urgency born of the realization that this life is all we get, that there will be no convenient Purgatory in which to pay down his accumulated debts. Surprisingly, though we resist identifying with a character as flawed as Welin, his struggle to be a better man holds up a mirror in which most of us will see at least something of ourselves.

The quality that unites much good writing, whether in lofty philosophy or the maunderings of a soul battling selfishness and vanity, is the extent to which the reader gets to address the question: “Why are we here? And dammit, since we find ourselves here whether we like it or not, what are we supposed to do about it??” Epicurus said, “Have a good time without hurting others.” Guessing from the way he lived, Bracciolini might say, “Strive to resist corruption, to seek out the truth.” Spinoza would profess something logically profound and impossible to understand. Miguel Lienzo might advise, loosely translated, “Make money, stay out of trouble, and don’t let the babes run you ragged.” Fredrick Welin would probably just look uncomfortable and ask you to get off his island. Most of us, busy with worldly distractions and consumed by our emotions, get no further than a promise to think about it some more, tomorrow. A good book, while it won’t likely send the reader on a life quest, at least gets a little mud on your boots.


Inasmuch as Betraying Spinoza was a first exposure to Goldstein, this writer saw “novelist” in her bio and thought, “An academic philosopher of this depth, this complexity, this sheer braininess who can create a novel with living, breathing characters and a compelling story? Don’t think so.”

He comes before you now, chastened by the experience of Goldstein’s latest novel, 36 Arguments For the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010). Though cerebral in tone and academic in setting, this book is populated with complex characters of flesh and blood. Yes, they are freighted with remarkable intelligence, exotic vocabularies and explicit views on matters of religion and ontology but, in Goldstein’s capable hands, none is denied a distinct and lively personality, powerful appetites and relatable “issues”. And mirabile dictu! there’s a story, too. A damn good one that builds, by twist and turn, to a climactic public debate as riveting as an Elmore Leonard shoot-out.

Much of the heat and light of “36 Arguments” is generated in the context of intense Judaism; this is Goldman’s background and, one hazards the guess, an irritant at the source of her humanistic approach to the Big Questions. Had the book been written by a Methodist, Catholic or Muslim philosopher of Goldman’s depth and analytic skill, however, the result would quite likely have been the same: the issue for these characters is whether a singular deity exists, not which team he would play on if he did. Their drama is a search for meaning in life; their Jewishness is more exquisite set dressing than an essential component of the quest.

Most disputes about the existence of God devolve quickly into, “Faith transcends logic. End of discussion.” Atheists, agnostics and other humanists fortunate enough to find themselves in a deeper debate, one with less knee-jerk dogmatism and more honest inquiry on the table, will come well-armed for having read “36 Arguments.” Believers who make it through “36 Arguments” with their faith fully intact will have survived a genuine trial by fire.

To anyone who cares to go along, these characters’ extravagantly smart voyage through doubt and conflict reveal that there is more logic in religious belief than meets the eye – and a good deal more to Rebecca Goldstein than “philosophy professor.”

And Futhermore!

Anyone who took the hint about “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace” (Jurisprudence, posted at TQ on May 13), and enjoyed Roya Hakakian’s revelations about German justice, might want to scope out two non-fiction thrillers that provide a similar opportunity. “The Fatal Gift of Beauty; the Trials of Amanda Knox” (Crown, 2011) is a title one could easily pass over; the sensational Italian murder trial of a pretty young American was intermittently in the media for years.

But Nina Burleigh has written a very fine, detailed and revealing book. It holds us frighteningly close to a criminal justice system as prone to emotion and superstition as…well, Italians. The story of a horrific crime, an investigation of questionable integrity and a trial tainted with every sort of populist, tabloid-driven hysteria would almost be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. Burleigh’s book shows how basic principles of justice and the search for truth are strained through the more neurotic aspects of a national character; in this case, they emerge rather the worse for wear.

Another great read whose title doesn’t do it justice is “People Who Eat Darkness” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012). Richard Lloyd Parry’s precise and gripping book appears to have had two subtitles at various times. One, “The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo—and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up,” echoes the doom-tinged tone of the standard serial-killer paperback. The other subtitle, “Murder, Grief and a Journey Into Japan’s Shadows,” is shorter but only slightly less murky. The fact is, title be hanged, “People” is a stellar job of writing in which – at least for this reader – the details of who did what to whom and the effects of tragedy on various individuals are overshadowed by its insights into the way Japanese justice, operating within strong cultural boundaries, attempts to deal with crime and criminals.

Both books run a little on the exhaustive side of “detailed,” but whether or not the reader is fascinated by exotic legal customs, practices and structures, they are full of living characters, high emotion, startling incident and polished, entertaining prose.



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