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Friday, June 17, 2005

Singer: The Spinoza of Market Street


Blogger SMJ said...

In The Spinoza of Market Street, Dr. Nahum Fischelson is on a quest for truth. Not just any random truth, but the big Truth of all existence, which, according to Spinoza, is nothing less than the “amor dei intellectualis” (intellectual love of God), the “highest perfection of the mind.” He has been diligently following this path for thirty years and, though he has made some progress, he has not yet reached his destination. In fact, late in life, Dr. Fishcelson discovers that the more he studies Spinoza’s labyrinthine puzzle of axioms and postulates, the more unfathomable it all becomes. The commentary which he planned to write some day as his own magnum opus lies scattered in the room, a mere jumble of notes and torn scraps of paper . It’s as if the old Platonic quest to ascend the heights of reason now reveals itself to be nothing but a mirage.

To make matters worse, there is difficulty with his pension. The small subsidy which Dr. Fischelson depends on for his living has been interrupted by the outbreak of “a small war.” Although the war, as yet, has not reached Warsaw, its effects are already being felt in the market, in streets crowded with soldiers, wagons and fire engines, in the shouting and wailing of sirens, in the confusion and disorder of everyday life.

For Dr. Fischelson, the pandemonium of the market epitomizes the lowest condition of human existence, of a life obsessed with pleasure and profit. As he says of insects fluttering around a candle,

Away from there, fools and imbeciles…you won’t get warm here; you’ll only burn yourself…like men they desire nothing but the pleasure of the moment.

As a student of Spinoza, Dr. Fischelson long ago rejected the goals of ordinary men, the pursuits of an academic career, the companionship of friends or the bonds of matrimony. Gradually, through years of abstention, he loses all contact with the people he once knew. Having abandoned society for a life of contemplation, he lives out his days in an empty garret room overlooking Market Street. But now, with the loss of his pension, his meager funds are running out; he finds himself getting older and weaker, and barely able to feed himself. Finally, he goes out into Market Street looking for an old friend, but, there is no one around who remembers him. And so the philosopher returns to his room, climbs into bed, and disappears back into the quiet solitude of his room.

If Isaac Bashevis Singer had chosen to end his story here, then perhaps he would have called it “The Seduction of Truth.” For the attractions of philosophy can easily be confused with the pursuit of salvation. Both are concerned with a kind of immortality. In the words of Spinoza,

The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the human body but there is some part of it that remains eternal.

But salvation or truth comes at a price. To obtain it, you must climb Mount Sinai alone, leaving behind the concerns of the madding crowd. Confronting your Creator, you risk being burned or blinded by the intensity of a flame which illuminates the world. And having found the truth you are seeking, what then? Will you return to the world of ordinary men and enlighten them? For how can they accept you? Won’t they receive you as either a madman or a fool? And this, finally, is where Dr. Fishcelson’s quest takes him, to an empty room, lying on an iron cot, dreaming of corpses and a world on fire…

A free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.

What Spinoza proposes, and what Dr. Fischelson devotes his life to, is a kind of Stoic attitude of non-attachment and non-involvement with the daily flux of human affairs. But the physical world has a way of imposing itself on the tranquility of the mind. War, which is the very nature of strife, intrudes upon Dr. Fishcelson’s sense of order, driving him away from the sanctuary of reason.

At this point, you might be forgiven if you assume that Singer holds a dim view of martyrs. What, finally, is the difference between a philosopher living in an empty garret in Warsaw and a religious hermit living in an empty hut in the Egyptian desert? Wouldn’t this suggest that a man’s pursuit of perfection (or truth) is not conducive to his finding happiness? For a rationalist like Spinoza, happiness exists only as a form of intellectual clarity. Yet absolute clarity is just another name for idealism, a belief that nothing is real but the contents of one’s mind, which brings us back to the image of moths circling a candle. Does the flame of the candle stand for truth or the futility of human desire?

It is just now, at Dr. Fischelson’s bleakest hour, that salvation arrives in the person of Black Dobbe. She has come bringing a letter for him to read, which comes to her from her cousin in America. Black Dobbe is illiterate, but she is not stupid. She has grown up on the streets of Warsaw with little or no money. She knows how to survive. She finds Dr. Fischelson on the brink of death, nurses him back to health, and promptly suggests they get married. Even more surprisingly, Dr. Fischelson does not reject her offer.

A more unlikely union between a man and a woman it would be difficult to find. Dr. Fischelson, a lifelong scholar who speaks several languages but has abandoned society, agrees to marry Black Dobbe, a woman with no formal education, who has no interest in philosophy. But she is interested in being married, and she enjoys listening to Dr. Fischelson talk about places he has visited. Her discovery that he is not, as she once suspected, a convert (someone who has abandoned his Jewish faith), is reassuring. To Dr. Fischelson’s own surprise, he finds Black Dobbe’s company agreeable. She is frugal and practical, and knows how to maintain a proper household. He likes having her around. But most dramatically, on his wedding night, though he is now an old man, he finds a long dormant passion that Black Dobbe has reawakened. To him, it is a kind of miracle, and suggests that something vital has changed…

Divine Spinoza, forgive me. I have become a fool.

So, he has become attached to something at last. This confession is made as Dr. Fischelson looks out over an altered landscape…Market Street was asleep, breathing with a deep stillness. -- an observation in stark contrast to the view he held earlier when Market Street was noisy with the bedlam of drunken soldiers and howling tomcats, when… the behavior of this rabble was the very antithesis of reason.

So, the first question to consider is whether Dr. Fischelson, now that he is married, has become like the fools and imbeciles he scorned earlier. We note that when Black Dobbe enters his room on their wedding night, he drops the volume of Spinoza’s Ethics which he is reading. Whether or not he ever picks it up again is not revealed. But even if he does, surely it will not be with the same righteous zeal he once had.

Spinoza has said, every occurrence is in accordance with the laws of nature…every event has its cause. So how may we understand what happens to Dr. Fischelson when Black Dobbe enters his life? Their union must serve some rational purpose yet unknown to Dr. Fischelson. But if their marriage is rational and proper to the laws of nature, how has Dr. Fischelson become a fool? One answer is that according to Spinoza, human excellence entails freedom from the passions. To the extent that Dr. Fischelson has yielded to passion, he has abandoned the Spinozan principles he has always lived by. Thus, when the disciple rejects the teaching of the master, they must part company. In this case, Black Dobbe has supplanted Spinoza. The realm of passion and human frailty has overthrown the realm of truth; or, if you prefer, the truth of philosophy (which is the realm of pure reason) has now evolved into a different truth (the realm of human feeling).

The problem for Dr. Fischelson is that he cannot be a citizen of both worlds. Either he follows Spinoza and abandons the possibility of marriage and family, or he gives up the dream of rational perfection, of ascending the highest peak that reason can offer. In very crude terms, it represents a choice between eternal truth and personal happiness.

Spinoza has stated that morality and happiness are identical, and that the most moral deed a man could perform was to indulge in some pleasure which was not contrary to reason. So, the question must be answered, is marriage contrary to reason? For Spinoza, I think the answer is clearly yes. Spinoza, like Kierkegaard, felt he could not pursue his intellectual labors within the constraints of marriage and family. But is this true for everyone? It might be argued that by taking care of the household, Black Dobbe liberates Dr. Fischelson, allowing him to pursue his studies better than before. However, it can also be argued, that she might expect him to do a little work around the house, for there is no guarantee that marriage and philosophy will peacefully co-exist.

Finally, we must ask whether Dr. Fischelson, when he marries Black Dobbe, is better off than he was before. We recall that one of the many Socratic truths is that people often do not know their own interest, so we should not assume Dr. Fischelson is any different. Before marrying Dobbe, Dr. Fischelson suffered from hypochondria. He believed he was about to die, and dreamt of a world on fire, with violent Catholic images of corpses and crosses, and the odor of incense in the air. He awakens and declares that the brain is a receptacle for nonsense…this earth belongs to the mad.

On the morning after his wedding, he awakens from a different kind of dream, a vision of climbing mountains in Switzerland, of running and flying-- images of release and personal freedom, not terror. It does not require Freudian analysis to appreciate the difference in his state of mind. Essentially, he has moved from an existential feeling of dread, to a calm acceptance of the world.

In the higher sphere, apparently, little notice was taken of the fact that a certain Dr. Fischelson had in his declining days married someone called Black Dobbe. Seen from above, even the Great War was nothing but a temporary play of the modes. The myriads of fixed stars continued to travel their destined courses in unbounded space.

Yes, the world outside his door remains the same. But within himself he has reached a kind of spiritual grace between mind and body...

Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this.

The feeling is so new to him that he feels embarrassed. He apologizes to his mentor for becoming the very thing he once reviled: a man basking in the pleasures of the moment. He may feel ashamed that he has abandoned philosophy for love, but it is very hard to see how he is worse off than before. I, for one, am confident that Black Dobbe will provide everything he needs to finish what he started so long ago. But, now, instead of meeting God face to face, he will come face to face with something just as mysterious and beautiful…love for another human being.

6/17/2005 7:46 AM  

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