up with Rebecca Goldstein *77, the imp of metaphysics
by Heller McAlpin '77
Goldstein, who received her PhD. in philosophy from Princeton in
1977, writes fiction with a brainy audacity. Her hallmark is to
combine challenging philosophical, mathematical, and scientific
concepts with emotionally engaging stories. These are often love
stories of gothic intensity about brilliant, eccentric characters
torn between their heads and their hearts and between science and
poetry. She demonstrated her unique blend of brains and brawn in
her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), a witty, sexy
woman's take on that most basic philosophical issue, the play between
the "outer public place of bodies and the inner private one
Now, with her sixth book
of fiction, Properties of Light: a Novel of Love, Betrayal, and
Quantum Physics, Goldstein is still grappling with tough concepts.
This time, she's taken on the rub not just between mind and body
but between science and soul - or, put differently, between objectivity
and subjectivity. Her ghostly narrator and the father-daughter team
of physicists he falls in with - at a university that Goldstein
admits is very much like Princeton - join together to try to create
a unified field theory. This requires nothing less than integrating
quantum physics and Einstein's theory of relativity. Quantum physics
happens to be Goldstein's husband's field. "He's in the math
department at Rutgers," she says, "but he's really a physicist.
He's very much responsible for me knowing the things I know about
philosophy wasn't challenging enough for you?" I ask during
a wide-ranging phone conversation with the friendly author. I reach
her in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she moved with her high school-aged
younger daughter last year. (Her husband, whom she married when
she was 19, is still living in Highland Park, New Jersey. Her older
daughter just graduated from Harvard with a major in philosophy
and is currently bartending while writing her first novel.)
She laughs. "Exactly.
And not only is this physics, and really tough physics, it's guaranteed
to raise the ire of physicists." She explains that one of her
main characters was partly inspired by the former Princeton physicist,
David Bohm, whose model for quantum physics was dismissed back in
the 1950s for what Goldstein considers no good reason. "The
Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg hodgepodge of questionable metaphysics
and epistemology was absolutely dominant," Goldstein says,
"and still is - and excluded Bohm's getting a fair hearing.
And a measure of its continuing dominance is the ire of physicists
in disputing the physics in my book."
Although Goldstein says
she loathes conflict, she agrees that her philosophy training no
doubt has something to do with her willingness to go out on a limb
time and again to express a particular point of view. She speculates
that "perhaps I often don't realize quite how provocative I'm
being in my ideas and my work because I don't expect people to pay
all that much attention to what I'm saying or writing. My Orthodox
Jewish upbringing as a girl is contributing here. Then I'm taken
aback when not only are some people paying attention but - sometimes
- they're angry as hell!"
Goldstein points out
happily, however, that after all the flap over her first novel's
sendup of the Princeton philosophy department as "a kind of
quality day-care center," she has apparently been forgiven
and has "actually reconnected with some Princeton philosophers."
She hopes the brouhaha among physicists will eventually abate as
The move away from the
New York metropolitan area and from her Orthodox Jewish roots -
her father was a cantor - are just two of the many differences that
winning a MacArthur Foundation five-year "genius" grant
in 1996 have made in Goldstein's life. Another is her ambitious
new novel. When she got the award, Goldstein explains, she had recently
published Mazel, a generational novel about luck, "the
imp of metaphysics."
The book received mixed
reviews, and she was at a low ebb. "I had decided to give up
writing. I was very demoralized by the reaction of some critics.
To me they just felt malicious and cruel. I felt so exposed to ill-wil,
which is something I avoid like the plague in my life."
She says she figured
she'd already had one career teaching philosophy - at her alma mater,
Barnard - and a second as a writer, and that it was perhaps time
for a third, "probably something with troubled children, since
whatever I'm doing I like it to be really hard" and her love
of children ranks right up there with philosophy and fiction. She
had just confided this to a reporter during an interview when she
came home to a telephone message from the MacArthur Foundation.
She thought, "How nice, they are asking me for a recommendation,"
and was delighted and flattered.
The award, she said,
changed her personal finances - a subject she revealed in a New
York Times business section interview she later came to regret.
Her husband, who was abroad at the time, was horrified at her candor
- which, however, did show how deeply ambivalent she is about money.
But a more important
effect of the MacArthur award is that it "gave me my confidence
back. Writing a novel is incredibly risky. It's the riskiest thing
you can do." The award made her realize that if the MacArthur
Foundation committee felt she was a risk worth supporting, then
she would take risks herself - such as tackling physics. "As
I tell my students, you just write the book that nobody else could
write." She laughs and comments that she is definitely the
only person who could have written Properties of Light.
Goldstein doesn't yet
have her next project in mind, feeling instead that she has "to
recharge for a while. This book was such an obsessive voice, and
such an excessive voice to maintain. It was draining and difficult."
She wrote it in spurts,
collapsing in between for weeks and even months at a time. She is
considering writing philosophy again, but "in a much more personal
way. What I was actually thinking of was gathering together the
philosophers who mean the most to me: Abraham, Plato, Descartes,
Hume, Kant, William James and Simone Weil, and writing a mixture
of both fiction and memoirist nonfiction about them. My take on
many of these people is highly personal and pretty idiosyncratic
- my Orthodox Jewish background certainly enters the mess. They're
all of them prominent presences in my inner life - they give me
pleasure, they give me grief - and I'd want the pieces to exploit
In the meantime, she
is busy promoting her book, rereading Proust - prompted by the movie
Time Regained, which she loved - and considering a move back
to New York, "which I miss terribly." This is the last
year of her MacArthur grant, and her future is wide open.