If there ever was an unlikely protagonist for a bestselling novel, it would be Cass Seltzer, the good-natured atheistic academic who stars in Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. But then again, Goldstein herself – a philosophy professor and biographer of Spinoza – is an unlikely candidate for popular novelist.
Yet last year critics and readers alike rained praise on "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," her fifth novel. ("[D]azzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance," said The New York Times. "Thoughtful, witty, and – I cannot stress enough – really entertaining," proclaimed the Monitor's review.) This year, with the book newly released in paperback, Goldstein took a moment to talk with me about "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," how it came to be, why questions of faith never really go out of style, and whether or not she'll be willing to jump into fiction again.
What drew you to the notion of an academic satire with a sweet, earnest atheist as its protagonist?
My last book was a nonfiction about Spinoza. It was [subtitled] “The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity." Through that book I got drawn, in a peripheral kind of way, into the debate between the so-called "new atheists" and others. I started being invited to speak at various of the conferences of the new atheists, and I was just struck by the lack of communication between [atheists and believers]. I was struck by the lack of charity and the failure – on both sides – to understand what the other was getting at. And the amount of emotion that was involved.
And that’s when I started thinking about fiction. Because that’s where I think fiction can play a role. Fiction can always help us to understand the other side, to inhabit the other point of view. So even though I had sworn off ever writing another novel, this character, Cass Seltzer – someone who really sympathized with religion even though he had his arguments with it – just came to me.
Did you model Cass Seltzer on any real person or was he just a character who came to you from within?
People have asked me, “Who’s the atheist with the soul?” But he just appeared to me. There’s a lot of me in him, I would have to say. He’s not really based on anyone.
Do you have any literary heroes who have done what you have done – combine questions of faith with literary satire?
One of my literary heroes is George Eliot. I think she was a great ethicist with a great philosophical mind. I have always so much admired what she does because she thinks you can do ethical work through fiction, that you can really move people to sympathize with points of view that they wouldn’t otherwise have any use for, by working on the emotions. She’s always been my great hero.
When I first read "Middlemarch" when I was in my early 20s, the character of Mr. Cassabon – a dry pedant who’s forgotten what thinking is all about – resonated very deeply with me .
Iris Murdoch is also a very important writer to me.
There's so much debate about religion today. Are today’s readers hungry for fresh ways of presenting questions of faith?
Of course they are. And they always have been. But it’s interesting that this debate [between atheists and people of faith] has become so clamorous in the last decade. There is something going on. For me, as an ex-philosophy professor, I feel like not since the Enlightenment has there been such a public discussion.
I used to teach the Enlightenment in the 1970s and '80s and my students were not as galvanized by this question. It just seemed often very passé to them. Not true! So I think it’s terribly important to people to translate these perennial questions into terms that are starkly contemporary. Because they just keep reasserting themselves in different ways. And it’s just amazing. Every day when I look at The New York Times or some other paper, there it is. It’s part of human nature, these deep questions, emotionally fraught questions.
That was part of my original reason for turning to fiction. When you are a trained philosopher you’re trained to talk only to other philosophers. This has become part of the professionalization of the field and it is inaccessible to people outside the field. Everybody cares about philosophical questions, and so it seems to me that philosophers ought to be able to translate their expertise into terms that everybody can relate to.
You come from an Orthodox Jewish background. What does your family think of your novel?
I do come from an Orthodox background. I grew up in an Orthodox household and I am certainly the only one in my extended family who isn’t Orthodox. But I do understand religion from the inside very well. And what is so wonderful about being a novelist is that, even though I write about Orthodox Judaism – and even there, a very exotic branch of Orthodox Judaism, Hasidism, the more mystical branch – I’m now in very intense dialogue with a Jesuit priest who read the book and responds very emotionally to it. There’s the kind of universality. That’s the thing about fiction – if you’re true to the particular, the universality will come out of it.
I’m in very close contact with my sister who is Orthodox and my nephews and nieces all of whom are very Orthodox. I don't think my family is so terribly horrified by my belief system.
What comes next for you?
I am under contract to write a nonfiction book that is ostensibly about Plato. It looks like it’s going to be a book of dialogues, in homage to Plato, dialogues between Plato and thinkers through the ages including Father Abraham. And George Eliot. Plato banished the writers from his utopia and really thought that literature had nothing to add to philosophy. In fact he thought that literature was pernicious. George Eliot is going to give him what for!
Would you try another novel? The success of this one must be encouraging.
It is. Maybe. But, you know, they use you up these novels, in writing them. You want to feel that there is a good payoff. But even when I swear novels off I can’t stay away from them. I really do love novels. I keep reading them and sooner or later I start writing one.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.