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02.02.10

Atheism's Soulful Philosopher

Rebecca Goldstein’s new novel aims to bridge the divide between believers and non-believers. She spoke to John Douglas Marshall about wrestling with God in fiction and her romance with Steven Pinker.

The novel’s title is too long, too lofty, and could result in mistaken placement in the religion sections of bookstores. But Rebecca Goldstein is undaunted by any such obstacles for her 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. Nearing her 60th birthday, the philosopher/novelist from Boston remains a relentless pursuer of literary life on the precipice. “Some editors who wanted to take a look at my next book were taken aback when it turned out to be a novel of ideas. . .” Goldstein acknowledges in Seattle. “It is risky.”

Goldstein has ventured down treacherous literary pathways before. Her 1983 debut novel ( The Mind-Body Problem) was sometimes consigned to health shelves in bookstores because of its title. A subsequent novel ( Properties of Light) explored the intimidating world of quantum physics and drove away Goldstein’s past readers in droves. “The reception of that novel was so discouraging,” she concedes. “It scared away even literary readers. I felt hopeless writing novels.”

“My sense of humor is always present. It’s a strange thing—I take my work very seriously, but I find absurdity cropping up everywhere.”

Receiving a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1996—to Goldstein’s “utter shock and disbelief”—had provided the gumption to write her quantum physics novel, as well as “gleefully” retire from university teaching. The MacArthur also made her philosophical about difficult books prompting difficult receptions. She settled into believing: “If my readership is small, that’s OK.”

Goldstein still had her pride, however wounded, and vowed to never write another novel. Biographical works on philosophers followed— Kurt Godel, then Baruch Spinoza, her favorite philosopher. She would never have attempted another novel without the urgings of her second husband, Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist whose bestselling books ( The Language Instinct) and TV appearances on Jon Stewart and elsewhere have turned him into an intellectual celebrity. Goldstein has watched awestruck students approach Pinker and ask him to autograph their body parts during public events. Those experiences provided crucial elements in the life of Cass Seltzer, main character in 36 Arguments.

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36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. By Rebecca Goldstein. 416 pages. Pantheon. $27.95. ()

Cass Seltzer, also possessing “boyish looks,” had been an anonymous toiler in the obscure field of psychology of religion when his The Varieties of Religion had soared into bestsellerdom around the globe. That resulted in magazine cover stories (“the atheist with soul”) and also convinced Harvard to attempt to lure him away from Frankfurther University (a fictional college that is Goldstein’s comic riff off Brandeis). Seltzer’s sudden good fortune amazes him, as does his live-in relationship with Lucinda Mandelbaum (“the goddess of game theory”), although he is hardly free from his acolyte’s ambivalence about his messianic graduate professor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, or his past infatuation with an older Amazonian anthropologist, Roz Margolis, who suddenly re-enters his life.

Goldstein zig-zags these over-the-top characters through assorted misadventures, both past and present, their convoluted routes often a transparent excuse for her to zing any pomposity, fuzzy thinking, cultist behavior or relationship hijinks. The novel is, at various times, witty, obscure, dead-on, precious, deep, scattered, dense, profound. But 36 Arguments remains a tour de farce showcasing Goldstein’s intent intellect and vast knowledge.

Goldstein is likely the only Princeton doctor of philosophy to refer in a novel to Gump Worsley, the immortal ice hockey goalie who never donned a protective mask. Her novel includes an appendix of “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and their refutations, supposedly the heart-and-soul of Seltzer’s own book but mainly a “fun” exercise for Goldstein, who rejected her orthodox Jewish upbringing and became an atheist in high school. Her turn away from faith back then was prompted by “the excessive suffering I saw in the world versus what people were saying about God’s plan.”

The plotting and characterization in 36 Arguments prove problematic—an assessment that would not shock Goldstein, an engaging conversationalist who is forthright about her own work.

“My novels start with philosophical concerns and I have to be careful not to let the ideas drown out, or even kill the characters,” Goldstein relates. “My sense of humor is always present. It’s a strange thing—I take my work very seriously, but I find absurdity cropping up everywhere. That’s my strong suit.”

This novel marks Goldstein’s first effort written with editorial consult of the closest sort. Pinker not only convinced Goldstein to scrap her pledge to never write another novel, he previewed her workdays over morning coffee, then returned at night for first looks at what she had written.

Goldstein and Pinker possess distinctive good looks that make them seem as though they were meant to be a couple. Hair is the common denominator with his familiar mop-top and Goldstein’s flowing tresses. Both are “proud atheists.” But they were only admirers from afar at the outset. Pinker was locked in an intense debate in the New York Review of Books with Stephen Jay Gould, tussles that Goldstein had relished. So when she came upon Pinker’s newest book, she turned to the index in hope of finding another Pinker parry against his Harvard compatriot. But on her way to “Gould, Stephen,” Goldstein came upon “Goldstein, Rebecca.”

As she recalls, “I was sure it was some other Rebecca Goldstein, some brilliant one who was being referenced by Steven Pinker.” Pinker offered praise for Goldstein’s use of “stridden,” the correct, but obscure past tense of “stride.” That first connection over a love of words convinced Goldstein to have her editor ask Pinker to blurb her next book. Pinker did. That led to initial emails between the two writers. Prospects for something more personal seemed dim. Pinker had been married twice and Goldstein had decided to devote herself to the life of the mind in the wake of her separation and impending divorce.

She and Pinker finally did meet for a joint interview in New York’s fabled literary haunt, the Algonquin Hotel. The conversation for Seed magazine roamed over four hours and many subjects, but the writer’s tape recorder malfunctioned, capturing none of the duo’s high-wire verbal exchanges. The joint interview had to be repeated the next day, leaving the interviewees with little option but to have dinner together that evening.

An infamous tape gap contributed to Richard Nixon’s undoing, but another tape gap spurred doings for Goldstein and Pinker. “Who knows what would have happened with us,” Goldstein jokes two years after marrying Pinker, “without that malfunctioning tape recorder?”

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John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.