Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Philosopher's Tale

The Mind-Body ProblemThe Mind-Body Problem 
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

“Eliot gives us a picture of the inside of a marriage but without divulging any sexual details. Her Victorian readers were meant to infer the hidden reality from such facts as Dorothea’s pathetic pallor and the desolate loneliness of that wedding trip. But I am no George Eliot (my misfortune) and you are probably not content to infer (your misfortune). And so I must take you back with me, from the piazza to the apartment, into Signora Trotti’s oversize antique bed. 
I had had thoughts, early on, of educating Noam in the bedroom, of teaching him the detours and the backways off the main straight road. But he was an unwilling student, when not altogether truant. It was not even possible to speak with him on the subject. He showed such distaste – not for the act itself, but for all reference to it.” - Rebecca Goldstein

This was my introduction to the writing of Rebecca Goldstein. A very funny novel whose clever dialogue was appealing both to my intellect and my emotions. She asks what is the mind, and how does it relate to the physical body? This question has fascinated humans for ages, both before and after 17th-century philosopher René Descartes articulated mind-body dualism. In our time, our growing scientific understanding of the brain and its functions has only compounded the question. Philosopher, novelist, and MacArthur fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers these questions through the protagonist of her novel The Mind-Body Problem. Her protagonist, Renee Feuer, is an acute young philosophy grad-student, raised an Orthodox Jew but very much fallen away. She meets famous Noam Himmel, who has come to the Institute for Advanced Studies to bestow it with his genius. A mathematician of world renown, Noam developed a new category of numbers when only age twelve; as an adult person, he's abstracted, enthusiastic, cuddly. And after they marry, Renee is thrilled to discover, at various European conferences, what she's already intuited: "I had married intellectual royalty." But it doesn't bring all that much satisfaction; after all, compared to Noam, Renee considers herself dull--and she waits for him inevitably to discover it too. Furthermore, as if in escape from the comparative puniness of her mind, she turns to her body: constantly thinking about sex (which Noam can take or leave), about children at times, finally falling into a series of indiscreet affairs with other Princeton thinkers.
It is an intellectual and comic entertainment for those interested in academia or philosophy or both. A delight from beginning to end.

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