A Novel of Unbelief

To a believer in God, no matter what her religion, the title of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, may sound discouraging in its very abundance. A proposition that can be proven need only be proven once. To try to prove it 36 times smacks of protesting too much. And in fact, it doesn’t take long to discover that Goldstein’s book actually delivers the precise opposite of what its title promises. The novel’s hero, psychology professor Cass Seltzer, has written a book—The Varieties of Religious Illusion, the title an echo of both William James and Freud—whose appendix lists the 36 reasons to believe, and offers a devastating logical rebuttal of each one. This appendix, which has captured the popular imagination and turned mild-mannered Cass into a celebrity pundit—acclaimed by NPR and Time as “the atheist with a soul”—is reproduced in full at the end of the novel. From “The Cosmological Argument” to “The Argument from Survival After Death” to “The Argument from the Survival of the Jews,” Goldstein-as-Seltzer shows how impossible it is to argue an unwilling mind into faith.

But of course, that is not how most people find faith in the first place. Goldstein acknowledges as much in her last counter-proof, “The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments”: “Religions …do not justify themselves with a single logical argument, but minister to all of these spiritual needs and provide a space in our lives where the largest questions with which we grapple all come together…” The challenge Goldstein sets for herself in her latest novel is whether a writer capable of so fully inhabiting the mind of the atheist is also capable of mapping that faithful “space” in a sympathetic and convincing way. Goldstein is also known as a philosopher—her last book was a biography of Spinoza—but this is fundamentally a novelistic challenge, a matter not of analyzing a consciousness but of creating one.

In 36 Arguments, however, Goldstein seldom strives for that kind of deep characterization—the kind that allowed, say, George Eliot, a famous agnostic, to paint her loving scenes of clerical life. Despite its title, this is not so much a novel of ideas as a novel about intellectuals—which is to say, a comic novel. It opens with Seltzer, a professor at second-tier Frankfurter University, having a late-night epiphany on a footbridge across the Charles River. Yet the trigger for this oceanic experience—“the night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction”—is that he has just been offered a job at Harvard, which for the academic careerists who populate the novel is the equivalent of canonization.

Meanwhile, for Seltzer’s girlfriend Lucinda Mandelbaum—a brilliant game theorist, whose mathematical modeling of the human mind leaves the psychology of religion looking a little squishy—life on the faculty at Frankfurter is a constant humiliation. Even as Cass’s star is rising, Lucinda’s is falling. Her abrasive, arrogant manner got her fired from her job at Princeton, and she takes out her disappointment by ostentatiously attacking people at conferences and lectures—a tactic she calls “fanging.” The match between gentle Cass and sharp Lucinda is an unlikely one, but that only makes him more pathetically grateful. Like his sudden fame and his Harvard job, the love of Lucinda strikes Cass as an inexplicable reward.

Cass’s romantic and professional dilemmas give Goldstein the opportunity to satirize the celebrity-academic world she knows well. Anyone interested in that world, especially its Jewish precincts, will have fun reading 36 Arguments and tracing Goldstein’s jokes and barbs to their real-life originals. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Sy Auerbach, Cass’s brusque, high-powered literary agent (“a large and showily handsome man … looking like a milkweed that has burst its pod”), is based on John Brockman, the agent-cum-intellectual entrepreneur.

No points, however, will be awarded for figuring out that Frankfurter is really Brandeis, whose buildings Goldstein describes this way: “The campus went heavy on the concrete. This, Cass had been told, was the International Style of architecture, which had been considered boldly cutting-edge after the Second World War, when Frankfurter had been established … To Cass it looked like the style of architecture favored by the wealthy Reform temples and Jewish community centers of northern New Jersey, where he had grown up.” A running joke involves the university’s president, Shimmy Baumzer: An Israeli with a war-hero biography resembling Ariel Sharon’s, who is afraid only of his wife, Deedee, a Texas socialite whose pet project is bringing fraternities and sororities to Frankfurter. This provokes a campus rebellion by anti-Greek students, who half-seriously model themselves on the Maccabees.

But the most comic figure in the book—the biggest character in several senses—is Jonas Elijah Klapper, Frankfurter’s Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature, and Values (the “extreme” is an excellent touch). As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Klapper is Goldstein’s gleeful parody of Harold Bloom—his bulk, erudition, flamboyance, and grandiosity. Here is Klapper holding forth to a retinue of awed graduate students, in a seminar titled “The Sublime, the Subliminal and the Self”: “Poetry is in the business of psychopoesis at least as much as is philosophy. And if I might be permitted, humbly, to stand between Plato and Aristotle and offer my emendation, you will hear me fervently whispering ‘oh more, far more!’”

Klapper’s gravitational pull means that the novel is increasingly deflected from its original course. The Cass and Lucinda plot takes place in the present, but Klapper is a figure from Cass’s grad-school days, and it is in the flashbacks to this remembered past that the novel’s characters and ideas are most vital. There is a familiar kind of campus comedy in the hapless figure of Gideon Raven, Klapper’s acolyte, now entering his twelfth year of work on his doctorate: “Medical school! God, what I wouldn’t give for the chance to go to medical school!” he sighs to the still-enthusiastic young Cass. Not by coincidence is Gideon’s favorite hangout a bar called “The View from Nowhere.” (It is a characteristically Goldsteinian joke that this is also the name of a celebrated book by the philosopher Thomas Nagel.)

The novel’s most serious reflections on faith, however, also pivot around the figure of Klapper. The professor is delighted to learn that Cass is related, on his mother’s side, to the Valdener Rebbe, the leader of a Hasidic sect in upstate New York. Together, these secular Jews—along with Roz Margolis, Cass’s new, still more aggressively skeptical girlfriend—make a pilgrimage to New Walden, the sect’s self-contained village (here, too, the parallel with New Square or Kiryas Joel is hard to miss). To Roz, an anthropologist who does fieldwork in the Amazon jungle, the Valdeners are a hardly less exotic tribe, and Goldstein gingerly documents their folkways: men and women walk on opposite sides of the street, there is a taboo on counting the members of a family, and the whole community competes to share the scraps from the Rebbe’s table.

In this way, Goldstein stages an emblematic confrontation between two Jewish communities—modern, rationalistic Frankfurter versus anti-modern, pietistic New Walden. Of course, the discomfort of Americanized Jews with their traditional brethren is not a new theme in Jewish-American fiction—Philip Roth gave it classic treatment in his story “Eli, the Fanatic.” Goldstein’s distinctive contribution lies in her philosophical knowledge and vocabulary, her ability to restate the dilemmas of faith using technical concepts like “rigid designators” (“a term that designates the same object in all possible worlds”).

Yet this very expertise is also what restricts Goldstein’s sympathies, despite her best efforts, to the secular, skeptical side of the question. It is not just that almost all of her characters are outspoken rationalists—this is probably an accurate reflection of the academic milieu she is writing about. The deeper problem is that, even at New Walden, the experience of religious faith is not allowed to speak for itself.

This emerges in dramatic fashion in the figure of Azarya, the Rebbe’s firstborn son, whom Cass and Roz discover to be a mathematical prodigy. At the age of six, without any real education, he has figured out advanced concepts like prime numbers and factorials, which he discusses in terms borrowed from Hasidic mysticism. The major suspense in the narrative, and the reason for its dual time-scheme, is the question of whether Azarya will escape the Valdeners and fulfill his genius, or remain at home to become the next Rebbe. Without spoiling Goldstein’s carefully constructed ending, it is fair to say that the way in which the choice is framed makes clear that only the first option is respectable on the novel’s own terms. Perhaps that is because literary fiction is itself an essentially secular genre. Goldstein seems to tell us as much in the figure of Klapper, who disappears from Frankfurter and the novel when he decides to move to Safed, in order to stop writing about Jewish mysticism and start living it.


Suggested Reading

If This Is a Man

Alvin H. Rosenfeld

Primo Levi often claimed that he was first and foremost a chemist and not a professional writer, but anyone who reads him with care will be moved by the sober lucidity, subtlety, concision, and analytical power of his prose.