Rereading Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem

Some novels grow in rereading while others shrink,* and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, first discussed here, is among the former.** It’s wry and self-aware; after modestly painful cultural experiences at elite universities that perhaps consider themselves more elite than they actually are, Renee feels mentally inferior to peers and professors and responds with the body while still contemplating why, as a creature of thought, she is also so firmly a creature. This might sound as boring as the too-extensive academic philosophy papers on the subject. But instead of futile attempts at resolution, The Mind-Body Problem explores its general ridiculousness, both for the consciousness and the social structures in which the consciousness resides:

I had gotten used to thinking of myself as an intellectual. I had assumed that certain properties of mind and body were entailed by this description and had designed myself accordingly. It’s hard to discover you’ve constructed yourself on false premises.

She hasn’t, of course, and bad feedback from her environment (both scholastic and familial) combined with her own, Woody Allen-esque neuroticism that leads her to this conclusion. Besides, we know or would like to think we know that her conclusion is false because we are, after all, reading about her, and a smarter person is usually though not always more interesting to read about. That brings up the question of intellectuals and intelligence, which might not be fully overlapping categories.

One subtler observation: what distinguishes intellectuals from most people isn’t the size of their pomposity, but their ability to question assumptions (including their own) and perceive the world from different perspectives, while most people seem are stuck—frozen, really—in their own, unable to make impressive cognitive leaps into another’s imagination. They haven’t thawed sufficiently to mentally leap from person to person; this, I would argue, is the great cognitive change in Noam at the end of the novel, when he can or will no longer see the world from the perspective of math and instead tries to see it from the perspective of people. Renee, meanwhile, does so almost instinctively, and her assessments of herself and others are some of The Mind-Body Problem‘s funniest moments.

The Mind-Body Problem is like—or maybe just is—philosophy done really, really well in the sense that it can see the larger, abstract picture based on specific events and vice-versa, and it’s intelligible in seeing those events. Few novels or philosophy tracts have both sides, and most of those philosophy tracts have forgotten how to express themselves comprehensibly. (Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca has an excellent piece on this subject, which compares Orwell and Theodore Adorno.) The narrator’s skill is part of this effect, since Renee is aware of herself and aware of how ridiculous she is, much like the unnamed protagonist in Norman Rush’s Mating. Recursive self-awareness begets cerebral humor, especially dirty cerebral humor. What’s not to like? Renee is muddling through choices that aren’t appealing, and her compromises look less like betrayals of fundamental beliefs and more like adult compromises the closer she gets to them:

My first year [at the Princeton Philosophy department] had been disastrous, and my second, just beginning, gave every indication of being worse. In short, I was floundering, and thus quite prepared to follow the venerably old feminine tradition of being saved by marriage.

But she can still laugh about it. When Noam arrives at his epiphanies—though they feel contrived—we’re relieved, and he, like Renee, grows along with the novel. I could ask for little more.


* Robert Heinlein, I’m looking at you, and in particular Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel that, while still not bad, is too philosophically simplistic and, by the end, silly. Every person in the novel but Mike is completely flat, and Mike only avoids that fate by being a symbolic repository for the feelings of all the flat characters. Even then, he’s not fully developed. It is possible to a symbolic repository and developed—think of Ahab in Moby Dick—but Mike isn’t even close. Nonetheless, I still retain a great deal of fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s still enormously fun even when you’re rolling your eyes. 

** Much like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

Rereading Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem

Some novels grow in rereading while others shrink,* and Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, first discussed here, is among the former.** It’s wry and self-aware; after modestly painful cultural experiences at elite universities that perhaps consider themselves more elite than they actually are, Renee feels mentally inferior to peers and professors and responds with the body while still contemplating why, as a creature of thought, she is also so firmly a creature. This might sound as boring as the too-extensive academic philosophy papers on the subject. But instead of futile attempts at resolution, The Mind-Body Problem explores its general ridiculousness, both for the consciousness and the social structures in which the consciousness resides:

I had gotten used to thinking of myself as an intellectual. I had assumed that certain properties of mind and body were entailed by this description and had designed myself accordingly. It’s hard to discover you’ve constructed yourself on false premises.

She hasn’t, of course, and bad feedback from her environment (both scholastic and familial) combined with her own, Woody Allen-esque neuroticism that leads her to this conclusion. Besides, we know or would like to think we know that her conclusion is false because we are, after all, reading about her, and a smarter person is usually though not always more interesting to read about. That brings up the question of intellectuals and intelligence, which might not be fully overlapping categories.

One subtler observation: what distinguishes intellectuals from most people isn’t the size of their pomposity, but their ability to question assumptions (including their own) and perceive the world from different perspectives, while most people seem are stuck—frozen, really—in their own, unable to make impressive cognitive leaps into another’s imagination. They haven’t thawed sufficiently to mentally leap from person to person; this, I would argue, is the great cognitive change in Noam at the end of the novel, when he can or will no longer see the world from the perspective of math and instead tries to see it from the perspective of people. Renee, meanwhile, does so almost instinctively, and her assessments of herself and others are some of The Mind-Body Problem‘s funniest moments.

The Mind-Body Problem is like—or maybe just is—philosophy done really, really well in the sense that it can see the larger, abstract picture based on specific events and vice-versa, and it’s intelligible in seeing those events. Few novels or philosophy tracts have both sides, and most of those philosophy tracts have forgotten how to express themselves comprehensibly. (Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca has an excellent piece on this subject, which compares Orwell and Theodore Adorno.) The narrator’s skill is part of this effect, since Renee is aware of herself and aware of how ridiculous she is, much like the unnamed protagonist in Norman Rush’s Mating. Recursive self-awareness begets cerebral humor, especially dirty cerebral humor. What’s not to like? Renee is muddling through choices that aren’t appealing, and her compromises look less like betrayals of fundamental beliefs and more like adult compromises the closer she gets to them:

My first year [at the Princeton Philosophy department] had been disastrous, and my second, just beginning, gave every indication of being worse. In short, I was floundering, and thus quite prepared to follow the venerably old feminine tradition of being saved by marriage.

But she can still laugh about it. When Noam arrives at his epiphanies—though they feel contrived—we’re relieved, and he, like Renee, grows along with the novel. I could ask for little more.


* Robert Heinlein, I’m looking at you, and in particular Stranger in a Strange Land, a novel that, while still not bad, is too philosophically simplistic and, by the end, silly. Every person in the novel but Mike is completely flat, and Mike only avoids that fate by being a symbolic repository for the feelings of all the flat characters. Even then, he’s not fully developed. It is possible to a symbolic repository and developed—think of Ahab in Moby Dick—but Mike isn’t even close. Nonetheless, I still retain a great deal of fondness for Stranger in a Strange Land, and it’s still enormously fun even when you’re rolling your eyes. 

** Much like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

Life—my own—briefly noted

To those who have written and those who have thought about writing and not: yes, more posts are on the way, though most of them remain in my head at the moment, and the stack of books on my desk will eventually be converted to post form. Thanksgiving break starts tomorrow, when I hope to employ some of that lovely, non-allocated free time to writing about The Mind-Body Problem (again), The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, and perhaps a few others.

The short version: both are recommended, although the former more than the latter unless you have a particular interest in the subject of social forces like to continue shaping the world, especially among the young.

With that teaser, if you’re impatient for more, check out some of the lovely websites linked to on the right.

A Confederacy of Dunces

One good link deserves another: I mentioned a Cynthia Crossen column in my post on The Red Leather Diary. A few weeks ago, however, she wrote about the binary views John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces inspires:

I managed to get through 100 pages before I let myself off for time served. My sides didn’t split, my belly didn’t ache, my eyes didn’t water. With its wooden dialogue, one-ply characters and a plot as twisty as a clothesline, “A Confederacy of Dunces” left me wondering who were the dunces on the Pulitzer jury in 1981.

Some readers had predicted I might not appreciate Mr. Toole’s humor. James Mosrie of West Palm Beach, Fla., wrote, “In my experience, people either love or hate this book. I can never quite gauge what reaction they will have because I’ve known people of so many varying types and tastes be so extreme with their views on the book.”

Another reader wrote, “This may be the most polarizing book of all time. I know approximately 15 people (counting you) who have read it. Without exception, the book has either (a) immediately entered the reader’s “top-five all-time” list or (b) so turned off the reader that they couldn’t finish it. For whatever reason, there is no middle ground with this book.”

I’m in category (b): I tried to read A Confederacy of Dunces, saw nothing redeeming, and couldn’t finish it. Like Crossen and Terry Teachout, however, I wish funny books got more literary respect, especially because some of my favorite novels include Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, and Kingley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Only one of those makes it on Crossen’s list of recommended funny books, which appears at the bottom of her column.

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