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November 8, 2000:

Catching up with Rebecca Goldstein *77, the imp of metaphysics

by Heller McAlpin '77

Rebecca 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 of minds."

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 quantum physics."

"So, 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 well.

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 this."

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.