Sunday, April 1, 2012

Irvin D. Yalom, The Spinoza Problem (2012)

The Finkler Question explored the subject of cultural and individual identity, and in a previous post about that book I explored the history of how the 18th century's "Jewish question" evolved to become the 19th and 20th century's "Jewish problem," a problem, which for minds tainted with hate, sought a "solution." (See December 2, 2011 post). In The Spinoza Problem, Irvin Yalom cleverly reweaves each of these themes in a work of historical fiction, that pits the mind of Enlightenment philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who reasoned his way out of his cultural identity, abandoning all cultural identity in favor of substance monism, against the troubled mind of one of Nazidom's principal racial propagandists, Alfred Rosenberg, for whom cultural identity was nearly everything and his personal identity was in constant crisis and ultimately sublimated to the personal identity of Adolf Hitler.

Yalom suggests that Spinoza may have had his own personal identity crisis. In the Portugese community he is Bento Spinoza; his Hebrew name is Baruch Spinoza; and following his excommunication, he latinized his name (meaning blessed) to Benedict Spinoza. There is a parallel with another identity transformation here: Yeshua (Joshua in English) of Nazareth who was latinized a few hundred years later "Jesus." The difference is that Spinoza made himself out of something he was not; in the case of Yeshua, others made him into something he was not.

Spinoza came to know himself as part of a larger system that transcended cultural identity. Rosenberg, on the other hand, never did come to know himself except as anything but his cultural identity.

The Spinoza "problem" is an interesting twist on Nazidom's "jewish problem." Spinoza presented a challenge for the "jewish problem." How could a jew not be a jew? How could a jew be viewed as a philosophical pillar by the pillars of German philosophy such as Goethe? In the rush to assemble a master race, was there room for exceptions? The "problem" was explored in the posting on The Finkler Question (see December 2, 2011 post). For the Nazis, race was a matter of "blood" (consanguinity) --- once a Jew, always a Jew; as I explained in previous post, group acceptance (or rejection) and group identity for Jews has more to do with a set of shared values rather than blood, although "blood" is not entirely removed from Jewish identity (there is a reason why the Book of Genesis traces generations of ancestors). In the end, according to this fictional narrative, Rosenberg finds no room for Spinoza in Nazidom's master race.

Much is made in this work of fiction of Spinoza's solitary life. Toward the end of the novel, the fictional character, Franco, asks Spinoza: "But, Bento, explain to me: how can you, how do you, live in such solitude? You are not by nature a cold, distant person. I'm certain of that because, whenever we are together, I feel such a strong connection --- on your part as well as mine. I know there is a love between us." Spinoza later responds, "But I don't envision man as a creature of solitude. It's just that I have a different perspective on the idea of connection. I seek the joyous experience that issues not so much from connection as from the loss of separateness." Two comments on this exchange. As Matthew Stewart describes Spinoza in The Courtier and the Heretic, Spinoza was far more connected than Yalom makes him out to be. Spinoza communicated with the European intellectual community both within Holland and beyond the Dutch borders Yes, he had forsaken a family life; yes, he was separated and isolated from his Jewish and Portuguese community; but he was not separated and isolated from the intellectual community. He traveled to some extent, and he had friends. Yalom almost makes Spinoza out to be a hermit, which he was not. He left a valuable body of correspondence behind. Secondly, Spinoza's fictional response to Franco in this novel is fair: "I seek a joyous experience that issues . . . from the loss of separateness." This is Spinozism, if you want to put a label on it. Like the biological history of DNA and genetic material from its earliest origins to wherever we find it as part of living organisms today, everything across time is made of the same substance; modes of substance are not separate from other modes. Yes, we can find different attributes with different modes of this substance. But everything is part of the same substance and when we consider all substance, we can call it god, says Spinoza. Rosenberg, blinded by hate, could never envision a loss of separateness. But hate is not the only thing that causes us to fail to experience a loss of separateness. The tug of the community, the family, the group, and the nation does much the same. Spinoza was a unique individual. I say that not only because he was at peace with himself in a system he called god, but because excommunication from one's community can engender ill-feelings toward others and Spinoza overcame all that through a greater knowledge than most individuals ever care to pursue.

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