The Mind Body Problem

“But I discovered early that I liked ideas much better than people and that was the end of my loneliness.” Rebecca Goldstein

Some weeks ago in my search for a novel of intellectual debate with a good story thrown in, as well, I recalled The Mind Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein that I had read many years ago, so long ago, it predated my commonplace book. Goldstein majored in philosophy at college, earned her doctorate in the discipline and subsequently returned to her alma mater to teach several philosophy courses. She wrote The Mind Body Problem during a summer vacation break.

I had just come through a very emotional time….Suddenly, I was asking the most unprofessional’ sorts of questions (I would have snickered at them as a graduate student), such as how does all this philosophy I’ve studied help me to deal with the brute contingencies of life? How does it relate to life as it’s really lived? I wanted to confront such questions in my writing, and I wanted to confront them in a way that would insert `real life’ intimately into the intellectual struggle. In short I wanted to write a philosophically motivated novel.

This is exactly what she accomplished in this novel and why I both recalled it, which isn’t always the case for one I read a long time ago, to say nothing of those I read last month. The novel begins with a question. At once you know a philosopher is a work here. “I’m often asked what it’s like to be married to a genius.”

Thereafter, Goldstein proceeds to unravel what it was like for Renee Feuer who enrolls as a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton where she meets the legendary mathematical genius, Noam Himmel, who she marries. They squabble, battle over intellectual puzzles, he treats her distainfully, she has affairs, and along the way delves deeper into the mind-body problem. Renee describes it this way: how is it possible to reconcile the “outer place of bodies and the inner private one of minds.” Sex versus cerebration as one person aptly put it.

In a recent interview Goldstein was asked, “What is love?” She answers rather elliptically but thoroughly true to life. “What is love? … we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. … “

The novel ends with an expression of her answer. Within a few years, Noah loses his mathematical prowess. “I don’t have it anymore. I never knew what it was when I had it, and now I don’t have it anymore.” Noah breaks down with his confession. He no longer has the power to create but the desire as well and for a mathematical genius you need both.

A few years ago, Goldstein was awarded a MacArthur “genius” award. The Foundation announced: “Rebecca Goldstein is a writer whose novels and short stories dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling. … Goldstein’s writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence."

You may find more of Goldstein’s numerous literary and philosophical works here.