CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Atheist in the Attic
Part 2 of 3
Samuel R. Delany
Continued from Part I of Samuel R. Delany’s “The Atheist in the Attic,” published August 16, 2016.
Sunrise was just breaking when I got down at his door (this morning). I told the carriage driver to go away and come back toward the afternoon—then stepped back a moment—
Had my letter preceded me, or had it arrived so late last night it could do no work at all?
I went to the door, then returned to the driver to ask him to drive around till sunrise was real—
But I looked up to see a lamp in a second-floor window behind shutters; the shutters opened, and a bundled figure called, “Excuse me? Did you want anything, stopping here like this?”
“No, no, of course not. But yesterday I sent a letter—” Next I knew, over my protests that it was much too early to want anything at all, the woman was pulling back the front door.
“Hello, again. Now come in, please. Please …”
To repeat myself, the house was not grand. From the edge of the street, looking up into the end of night, I could make out three stories.
Again I was about to call back to my driver to take himself off for a few hours, only to see him, on the carriage bench, tugging up those blankets as heavy as canvas over his own greatcoat and big Dutch hat, to lean down on his side and, I’m sure, go momently to sleep.
Practically at the same moment, the woman from upstairs opened the white door with its knocker I probably wouldn’t have thought of using if I hadn’t seen her light, and we said through the now-vertical crack, “Good morning.” She went on, “I’m the landlord and owner here. Did you want to see someone …?” As I’ve already said: How Dutch. And with a few more commonplace phrases, she and I mimicked conversation accurately enough, so that possibly we even communicated some meaning.
In her baggy white nightcap (not a servant’s) and her woolly shoulders in their blue shawl, she ushered me into the hall. (How do you call that room and the one downstairs at Gunter’s both by the same word …? But if you didn’t how could you communicate about anything?) “No, we got your card last evening. The first thing he said was, ‘He’s coming at seven or eight? I don’t suppose there’s any chance he’ll be early—as five or six say, when I’m up and at my most alert. Well, it’s only another visitor …” (The Dutchman? The Jew? The philosopher …?) She brought me into a downstairs room with several severe, hard-backed chairs. “Let me go up and see what he says.”
While I sat and waited, undoing my muffler—no closet that I could see, no cabinets either, nor even a sideboard, and the house (or the hall and at least this room) chill enough so that it seemed reasonable not to have taken my coat—I found myself wondering why I could not remember the name of the first Jew I had visited—though, true, I hadn’t actually met him.
But, in Gunter’s open carriage, I’d sat in front of his door, looking up at his incised lintel. Finally, a servant had come out to tell me they would be a few minutes more. Would I want to wait inside? Oh, thank you—though it was more for curiosity than need. I wasn’t cold yet. We’d gone in, walking through to his back room—and heard him laughing with Gunter. And because the rather cluttered side room had its own back door ajar, I stepped out into a garden and waited under some surprisingly tall elms over a little table and spent my last three minutes staring up at a wooden lintel with no words on it at all.
Which only made me think more about the others out front.
Then the servant, Gunter, and Gunter’s merchant host each joined with the other to apologize to me, while I said, no, no, no, I was fine.
In the carriage, both before and after the visit, Gunter had mentioned his Jew’s name half a dozen times, and on the trip home even suggested I might be interested in his services and he would introduce me next time, but this time it had just seemed awkward. You know how that is …? It was as if this other—Spinoza, not yet present—had driven the earlier one, now gone, irrevocably from my thoughts.
Driving to his house, Gunter had repeated it enough. But it hadn’t been important …
I heard a creak, and looked up at the wall. It came from the stairs in the hall. Then, he in his dressing gown, the woman pushed open the door for him and walked him in. He leaned on her. (It was that time of year when, if there was no fire, you kept the doors of the rooms closed, at least in a house of such low station.) “You’re visiting our city?” he asked in Latin, as he came forward. “Will you stay long?” As I looked around that bare room, with some pitchers on the table, a basket in the corner, red tiles on the floor, and a crucifix (I could not imagine it his, but it might have been his landlord’s—unless it was to put people off), I felt—if only from the speed at which he moved to the topic of my leaving—he was actually to be a bit of a bore. (Momentarily I remembered Gunter.) Or, at any rate, he had a strange or low notion of politeness. (That was not how the refined Descartes had met one at an evening soiree, those old enough to know him said. Hello, there. Hope you like our city. When are you leaving it …? I mean, really. You can say that and make it sound funny. Or you can say it and make it sound ignorant. But it’s most disturbing when you hear it and can find no signs of what thoughts lie behind it, or what thoughts don’t.
Perhaps, twenty-five years ago, a much younger Spinoza had attended a few of Descartes’s talks in the city with a list of questions to ask (so I’d heard from Ollendorf); and during the thirties when the Frenchman had been a resident of Amsterdam, the Jew had written his book. Yes, years back, as a child I’d glimpsed Descartes in his last year in the Stockholm court. No, I could not call him a friend in the way the very young may sometimes be befriended by the old. But I did not have to call him stranger … at least in my circle.
“Why have you come to see me?” They were not his first words. Still, I wondered if they’d prove happier than a few exchanges of meaningless small talk. Are important questions rendered meaningless because we are not prepared—him, I; teacher, student—for an answer?
The woman moved a chair nearer to him, then stepped away. “I was going to bring you up to him. But he said, because it was you, he really wanted to come down …” And to the frail man in his robe: “Are you all right, now? Can you take care of yourself?” She looked at me. “If he gets tired, just call upstairs. I can hear pretty much everything.”
“Why have I come to see you?” I repeated in Hebrew (with such a man, with or without small talk, I assumed honesty was best). “Because with a small amount of work, you have created in me an extraordinary need to … to know you.”
“True”—he chuckled—“I never thought of myself as overly prolific,” he answered, still in Latin. Then: “I write letters, there’s my treatise on Descartes, which I’ve given some of my friends in manuscript, my Hebrew grammar—” Accepting my offer of respect, he now spoke to me in Hebrew. “I didn’t think I had written enough of anything to influence anyone very deeply.”
I reached into my wallet and took out the book—which I’d had my binder put between leather covers more than a year ago—and held it out. He reached forward and took it from me, opened it; then, seeing what it was, smiled.
He raised it a little, leaned down over it. “My Descartes study. My first attempt to write publishable Latin.”
“Principia Philosophiae Cartesianae.”
“Yes, my first book.” He looked up again, smiling. “At the time I was afraid it was going to be my last, too. I’m surprised you have it.” (I read his expression as one of having been pleased he’d made a right choice about the language in which we would hold our interview.) “I only wish my eyes were good enough to reread the text. Right now, I’m putting together two works. There’s the one that grows directly out of this one—the same method, the same rigor, that deals with my own poor ideas of how the world night work. Then I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do, and will perhaps finish once I’ve finished the other—”
“Is that your Hebrew grammar? Some of the friends to whom you’d sent copies have showed me one or another of the earlier chapters. I found it fascinating. I think that’s because if you read any textbook three times, even in a language you don’t know at all, at the end of the third time through, it’s surprising how much you will have picked up. Was that your experience as a child?”
He nodded. “Yes, it was.”
I went on. “Your Hebrew grammar will be a very good grammar book indeed. Much better than the one I used as a boy, aspiring to wisdom and tradition. It’s clarity and thoroughness are impressive.” I’d put my wallet on the floor against my high-heeled shoe.
“I’m still surprised you read it.”
“Why would I not? We are educated men, you and I. I know you know this as well as I do. You read a textbook to learn the topic. But you also read it to learn of the teacher. My tutors considered me a prize student in all three—Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I think it’s a talent that goes along with a love of philosophy. I expect it will for a long time—at least I hope so.”
“I studied Hebrew from the time I was three. And got my prizes, yes. But I didn’t take up Latin till I was sixteen—and on the other side of the city, too. The Gentile side.” He said it ambiguously, as if it were a meaningless distinction, an inaccurate designation. Then he looked sternly at the book he held (it had my name on the cover, since I was the one who’d had it bound). “Sometimes I wonder if my Latin is up to the tasks I’ve taken on with it.”
“Your Latin,” I told him, “is quite eloquent for the tasks you’ve taken on. It’s muscular, direct, with the virtues of the republican writers rather than the later decadents …” I smiled. “My Latin tutor, and my Greek tutor, and my Hebrew tutor, all three—all five, actually—said I seemed to have a knack for languages. For a few years, they were all the same man. Then they were all different men and several of them at that. Then one again—”
“At my Hebrew school, I had two for all the years I attended. But we could not study Greek or Latin. It was only when I was fourteen that I realized, from what I’d learned of the world, that I was on my way to being an idiot. So, two years later, I got up the nerve to travel halfway across the city and learn Latin from a generous Dutchman who wanted to bring the world of culture and thought to anyone and everyone who wanted it, poor, Jewish, foreign and unfortunate, energetic or lazy, who thought it might be good to brush up or simply had managed not to learn Latin at all. I remember that study well, now. The old Roman republican writers, once I began to acquire some vocabulary, were the easiest to read. The decadents and euphuists are hard. And I’ve been told more than once my style is rather crabbed.”
“Your style is easy,” I said, “for one who knows the language. Your thinking is exact and very much your own. But such thinking always has its difficulty—for anyone.”
“How much of my grammar have you seen?”
“Two chapters,” I said. “Oldendorf, our friend at the Royal Society across the channel, showed me a section.”
“To be honest, I’d rather know what you thought of my old study of Descartes than what you thought of my grammar book. You said you read it.”
“Twice. Parts of it many more times. Clearly Descartes was a man you admired, as do I. When I’d read your highly logical opening comments, I recognized what your final comments went on to confirm with even more rigor and richness than I’d been expecting. Your Descartes was my Descartes. We want to know intelligent people we agree with. We want to find out if we will agree with them about more things than we do already. In that sense, you gave me what I wanted, and even more of it than I felt I had any right to expect.”
“I’m going to sit here,” he said, got up, moved over, and lowered himself slowly to another hard-backed chair. On his knee, covered with his robe, he closed and opened, closed and opened his hand. “If one looks more comfortable to you, please, take it. Please.”
I was in a larger, softer chair. “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer this one?”
“No.” He sat straight, not letting himself lean back. (The same bore, I thought, who wanted to know when I was leaving.) “This one is easier both to sit down in and to rise up from. So you must suffer the curse of comfort. It goes with being a young guest.”
And I relaxed on the cushions and the padded arm under my elbow. “And your new book …?”
“—will use the same logical method. I hope it will allow me to cease to think about that book of crisis and the horrendous incidents that followed from it and which ignorant readers still want to believe somehow my book caused, rather than see it as an attempt to proffer an alternative before the world made horrifically manifest the hell my book was forged in.”
“I have read that one too,” I said. And, indeed, I’d entertained my own doubts as to whether it was a good book or a bad one. I had been foolish enough to bring along a copy and I put my hand on my wallet. But would it be foolish to show him that I had it? Had it been other than a barely disguised shout of ungodly obscenities as so many others had already accused it of being, or a violent hurling of fuel to burn down the world tree and the church and the castle as much as the hovel beside the plowed field, notions that would bring ruin to the village burgher as well as the country vagabond? “Your theological-political treatise.”
“If we could look at God differently,” I said, giving him the best of the most generous summaries I’d read of it, “give up our miracles, concentrate on what we do understand in the world and try to increase that understanding, rather than invest all our thinking in what we don’t or can’t or couldn’t understand, we could also start to think about politics differently.”
“You are so generous in summary,” he said, smiling, “I don’t know if I should even trust you.”
“I was in another country,” I said. “But I know some of what happened here. And I was here two years ago—”
“It was published a little bit before we had our rampjaar—not after. But the important part is that we had one.”
“We heard about that even in Germany.” I smiled. “It’s only ten days away.”
“That year when the people were redeloos, the government was radeloos, and the surrounding countryside was—”
“—reddeloos,” I finished.
“You have some Dutch, then? I’d forgotten you might.”
“None at all,” I said. “Other than good morning, good night, and where is the water closet, those three are the only ones I trust myself to use.” And calling a smart servant woman my age—I remembered now—old and silly.
“There are good Dutchmen today of whom you’d believe redeloos, radeloos, and reddeloos are the only words they need to know in the language. And I expect that will be the case for many, many years to come.”
“Redeloos, radeloos, reddeloos.” Then I translated the words into Hebrew. “They put a very different light on yeshalom ki ollam.”
He repeated them in Latin. “In the rampjaar, the year of the disaster, the people were deranged, the government was desperate, and the countryside totally insane.” He moved a slipper on the waxed and polished boards, moved his hand in the dark folds on his knee. “I think the surrounding countryside, which, bluntly, in this small nation has never been a bastion of sanity and was then, yes, under our growing hardships becoming more and more reddeloos—well, the countryside is where much of the tragedy, including the need for me to write my book and publish it, was forged—”
“It said it was published in Hamburg. Oldendorf said that was for your own protection.” I was thinking about the homily I had read over the doorway on the Jew’s house the previous morning. (Is lying for your own and others’ protection an act of peacefulness—or is it just a lie?) And, yes, I was thinking of it sadly, and even accusingly—though I had agreed with almost as much of it as I had the Principia cartesianae.
“I had written my Tractatus, published it—anonymously, yes. I wanted it to go out as pure, ungrounded idea, a message of truth with no context at all to distort it.”
“The way some talk about it suggests it has already broken the pillars and brought the Temple crashing down on our heads.” I paused. “I recall hearing the news, four or five years ago, while I was in Leipzig, at the University Library— two of your own supporters were torn apart in the street by the mob. That must have been hard for you.”
At that moment I couldn’t tell whether the man before me was here or many years away—and I wondered why, as he was only thirteen years older than I, and four years older than Gunter, right then he looked as if he were an old, old man at least a decade beyond his own years.
“There have never been many people I dined with, even intermittently, or, indeed, who received me the way I am receiving you. And six years ago, I did it no more frequently than I do now. Only with a slightly clearer head.” He pulled himself up in the chair. “I heard the shouts and I went outside to see what it was. I went as quickly as I could along the streets between me and the jail. I saw the bloody bodies of those two men—strung by their heels like animals outside a butcher shop, naked. In bits and pieces I got a tangled story from those around me. Jan had just come back to the country. His older brother Cornelius had already been imprisoned, and Jan had only been coming to comfort the man. You understand, these are the two people in the country who were working night and day for the betterment of the people, for the government, for the nation. And yes, for the countryside. They were striving for peace with the warring French so that we would not have to waste our youth in battles we could not win—and fighting those idiots who declared war a wondrous thing that, no matter how many men it slaughtered and how many fields it trampled underfoot, made them money nevertheless, and from which they would not spare a guilder for the orphaned families whose deaths had given it to them. But those were not the men tied to the rack and slaughtered.
“There they were, one headless, one with his hands hacked off, hanging like two mutton carcasses from a gibbet on the raised octagon of stones in front of the jail. In such times, to draw any attention to yourselves at all, whether you are working for good or for ill, is to draw all the love a people can show or all the rage. And one can shift to the other like a breeze on an autumn day. They ate them, you know …” He nodded, as if he questioned whether I heard that.
I frowned. “Sir …?”
“They cut pieces of their bodies off, and gave them to the people, who took them and … ate them.”
Somehow in the three years since the rampjaar I had not learned this, No one at Gunter’s had mentioned anything to me, the last time I spent a spring month in the city two years back. “Assuming you speak the truth—”
“Why in the world would anyone—would anyone, I mean anyone in a civilized city—do that?” I could certainly see why no one in civilized circles outside the Dutch Republic had spoken of it … at least in the circles in which I moved.
His robe, I noticed, was worn. And though the floor was waxed, had the rugless room been at Gunter’s house, carpenters would have refinished the boards by hand.
“Why? Because they were poor men and women in the city who had poorer sisters and cousins and parents and grandparents, and their own children out in the country—the reddeloos countryside; and the tales had been coming back for months about how, because there was no food and the water was polluted and the rich were burning stores rather than sharing them with their own workers, those relatives in this outlying town and that one had been reduced to eating one another—”
My face had begun to crawl over the bones of my skull, pushed by one muscle and another.
“—and those men and women rioting around the jailhouse wanted, wanted before all else, wanted before humanity, or efficiency, or justice, or compassion to do something, anything that had some legible meaning! And before any criticism had occurred, their desire had become in that day, those hours, the only thing meaningful.” He sighed. “Why do we do anything, make any gesture, grunt or cry or scream, write our treatise on the imperceptible nightly movement of the stars or record the annual crops beside the flooding Necker or the Nile, the tides in the Thames or the movement and twists of a leaf bumping along beside a log at the edge of the Rhine or the Euphrates? Because it happened, and we were struck by it. Or we can think about its happening. And because we can say it or write it, it makes us feel as if we might have been there with someone else.” He chuckled. “Only then do we sit back, and figure out how, while we’re at it, we might use that urge to better the world—to do something else besides maniacally and in the most brutal and inflationary way resurrect Hammurabi.
“I had written my book of crisis already—and little good it had done, not for Jan or Cornelius. Even when they break my heart, usually injustices don’t incense me so. But I rushed back home—I was not sick to my stomach, I was not sick in my heart; that all came later—
“I was furious!
“I snatched out a piece of vellum and swiped up a burnt coal from the dead fire, and wrote a sign to tell the people what barbarians they were, what pigs they’d become. I was trying to take it out into the streets when the woman you met here, who brought me down, looked up from the washing, read what I’d written on it—well, she had to stop me bodily from going out! She grabbed the sign, threw it across the room, grabbed me. ‘You will be next, you idiot!’
“‘I don’t care, cow!’
“‘I don’t care if you call me a cow! I’m not letting you go out there waving your intentions to commit suicide on a sign above your shoulder.’ We fought in the house here while I raged that I didn’t care:
“‘You’re trying to stop me because you want my rent! You want my body! You want the pleasure of dominating something wiser and weaker than you! You’re as bad as they are! You are them! You are too selfish and greedy to let me do what I—’”
He sighed. “But she won.
“‘No,’ she said at last, breathing hard, when I was sitting on the floor and she was sitting on a table corner. ‘I want to stop you because you are a good old man—as good as I too thought those poor corpses strung up outside the jail yard. No, they did not have me to their house the way they had you. But I was here sometimes when they came to see you. They came here.’ Wasn’t that a kind thing to say—even if she was lying? Does it matter whether it was her truth? Or if she wanted me to think it was because it could make me or both of us, right then and there, feel a little better? But ten minutes of the cruelties of life had turned us from two good friends to an old man with a skinned knee and twisted shoulder, and a big woman with one braid hanging down by the arm of her dress I’d torn and a bruise under her right eye that it had certainly not been my intention to give her. My outrage and arrogance had made us go at it like a pimp and a whore tussling behind the lowest tavern. Some people think philosophers can’t know the passions. Ha! Might does not make right. Still, sometimes it even wins when on the side of compassion. And it gave me time to think: ‘One must speak the truth.’ Especially when there is nothing else one has to give. But she’d stopped me, nevertheless.
“I am alive, not dead.
“We are”—he shrugged, smiled—“still friends.”
And the door opened. We both looked up. With a tray and two bowls, she stood there.
“Now, you see,” he said, “I was just telling my visitor what a good woman you are, and what an even more exemplary landlord. Not every landlord will save the life of a tenant.”
She said, “It’s his breakfast time. I thought I’d bring in a bowl of potato and onion soup for you—with dill. That’s the way he likes it …”
“Why, that’s kind of you,” I said.
“I’m going to be taking a bowl out to your driver—if that wouldn’t be amiss with you, sir?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m sure he will appreciate it as much as I will this one. Thank you.”
So she brought the tray around, and I took a plate with the deep Dutch bowl on it, with butter and dill, and placed it beside my chair on the table where such collations had probably been set down beside family and visitors for five years, five generations? Netherlanders, like Germans, are a frugal people. (Eating one another in the country …? Like a tale students might still tell in Altdorf of some woodsman’s family waylaying strangers in the Black Forest during the Thirty Years’ War.)
“You were angry,” I said. “But you were brave. Bravery makes us like our heroes, which is important to the people who prefer liking them to despising them. Truth is what’s important in the world. But is what’s important always the truth?”
He sighed. “All I am saying is if the Temple comes down as easily as all that on my head or on yours, it can’t be the true one. It’s too flimsy. It falls too easily.”
“Again, your understanding,” I told him, “swerves dangerously close to my own.” I always find myself thrown back to talk of virtue that tends to change into its opposite. Or at any rate is always putting us in a position from which that looks suspiciously to be the case.
“I suppose,” he said, “it appears dangerous to some when an ordinary lens grinder in The Hague seems to think too much like a German duke and courtier, with all the advantages the Landgraves of Saxony can confer.”
In last night’s letter, I had mentioned Duke John Freidrich.
“Lens grinders in The Hague are not whom I think of when I think of ordinary people—Van Leeuwenhoek is also in The Hague. I’m planning to see him as well, while I’m here.”
“But you are seeing him as a scientist, I assume.” He nodded. “I’ve ground lenses for him, too. I think of him as an admirable pursuer of truth.”
“As there are some who say what he has discovered are not little plants and animals, but rather little microscopic demons and devils.”
The Dutch Jew (who will always remain a Jew to the rest of us, if not to himself, even when we forget or he does; and who will remain so as long as we can say gentile) slid his robe over his knee. “Did Oldendorf tell you I am at the end of my work on another treatise—or nearing it? One never finishes. I’d sent him some pages of one of the earlier sections I feel is finished.” He smiled. “At least till I want to revise it.”
“He is your friend,” I told him. “Not your enemy. He told me the title and the topic. Nothing more. And even if he had, I would not have bandied it about to get to the ears of your enemies who would immediately begin to drown it in premature misunderstandings.”
His black hair touched only at temples and neck with gray, this Jew without a beard gave me a questioning look.
I sighed seriously. “He said it was about God. He said you’ve called it Ethica. And I must say, given your last book, as titles go that seems a radical one, if not openly dangerous: we come to it prepared to learn about God, and are handed a title that suggests it’s about the way men treat men.”
“More than half will be just that—at least by implication.”
“There are some who say that you are laughing at us. And the more serious, the more measured, the less passionate your tone, the more clearly they hear your laughter and the more painful to them is your derision.”
His face grew serious. “I hope it is more radical than that—and that it’s not too much more dangerous. When, in its later parts, it speaks about how men behave, it speaks about how they delude themselves into thinking they are doing things beneficial or harmless when they are not—”
“And if,” I said, “that self-delusion takes place without the help of any demons or devils …?”
He nodded. “It’s all a set of rational errors. It suggests that rationality can fix them.”
“You, sir,” I said, “are a dangerous man. That’s a dangerous idea and a great responsibility.”
“So they are always telling me.” He gave the most modest of shrugs. “Thank you, I suppose.”
It’s always surprised me how quickly we find ourselves considering social distinctions, especially in philosophy. I mean, if you’d spent as much of the last month reading and rereading Plato, Heraclitus, and Descartes as I have since I began this leg of what has sometimes seemed endless traveling with endless obligations, you too would sometimes find it hard to hold your thoughts in check: Plato and Heraclitus were, after all, princes. And Descartes worked (as do I) for princes. For small talk I went back to something less accusatory:
“Truly to get away from the notion of philosophy as a princely calling you have to go—not to Socrates (he worked for Plato, after all, or perhaps Plato worked for him; on that metaphorical level sometimes it’s hard to tell) but all the way to Diogenes of Synope, the old slave with his master too lax to keep him in check: the vagabond sleeping with the street dogs in a broken bathtub at the edge of the old slave market (because they wouldn’t let him in the Agora where Plato walked and taught through some of the same years, though, with their different markets, they were really ‘sparring’ friends, if you read the testaments). Diogenes—pleasuring himself without shame where passersby could watch, while he, not even in rags, but unconcerned and presumably grinning, shouted his barbs about old Plato. ‘Plato winces when I track dust across his rugs: he knows that I am walking on his vanity! If only I could free myself from hunger as easily as from desire! I’ve seen Plato’s cups and tables, but not his cupness and his tableness!’” To yell about freedom from desire with your cock in your fist, is that enough to start a revolution? Perhaps not. But he’s always been a character in every account I’ve known.”
“Plato’s fool, some think—without whom Plato cannot truly be understood.” He nodded.
We talked on. I spoke more with him in Hebrew, because I prided myself on my conversational command of all the classical languages. I’d heard enough gentiles speak Hebrew with Jews to know that was no guarantee they’d get on, any more than if both spoke Estonian or Norwegian to one another. But we did. Why? Some of it I can guess at. (She owned the building, it seemed. Herr Spinoza was her—and her husband’s, who was not there that day—favorite and, now, only tenant. Had been for years. What was theirs was his. And I was ready to admit the mug of Dutch beer she eventually brought was really more flavorful than the German brew Gunter had laid in for my visit to the great Venice of the North.) Still other elements were as indecipherable as the fact that he was green eyed and I was missing a right rear molar that had shattered when, as a child, I’d bitten down on a clamshell for the fun of it—the kind of fact that makes you wonder from time to time: Does that have anything to do with his or my becoming a philosopher?
Of the diplomatic visits I expected to carry out for my lordship during my visit to Amsterdam, this is the one that I’d wanted to make the most—the one that was entirely for me. I had set it up by and for myself. I remember sitting, thinking, while he was going on and momentarily my mind drifted:
Sixteen, seventeen is old to learn Latin. Or Greek.
My new acquaintance, Spinoza, was the opposite of the sort of prodigy I had aspired to be since my childhood; I started tutoring in all three languages probably younger than this one had started his Hebrew alone.
But allow me once more to appeal to Diogenes who said Plato’s philosophy was an endless conversation. I think the truth he points to there is something that pretty much any bright youngster who actually reads the greatest of our philosophers can quickly intuit. Yes, it’s an endless conversation, and what’s more, it’s an endless conversation in which the parts of the various participants can only be played by aspects of a single consciousness. Plato’s discussants and querents are not polite as students and teachers are polite. They are polite the way only fantasy discussants can be civil inside a fantasy. Were they real, they’d be at each other’s throats before eight or nine pages were done.
But we talked—in Hebrew. Then Latin. And now and again our language so enfolded us that our minds appeared to do the same. I had felt as much when I’d read his Tractatus. And there is nothing to make someone feel that a writer or a thinker is important like the belief—not now and again, but again and again—that his argument is right first; and only more or less clearly put, second; or believable, third.
We talked. Together.
And somehow all dialectical incongruences were filled in by the language that seemed proper—by words, gestures, facial expressions, which is to say: yes, here and there, on a surprisingly deep level, we found ourselves agreeing.
I’ve talked to him. I’ve read what he’s written. Certainly he seems as skeptical of miracles as I am: this alone prompts me to read and even reread his argument, even if different from mine. And I do think, at this point, now that I have, we are equally rigorous against the miraculous.
How many specificities I recall about that room on that morning, details that will last the length of time this journal entry endures and that will vanish as soon the last copy crumbles or the last citizen forgets the language, details that might compel many to decide that either there is or there isn’t (it doesn’t matter) a specific order of roomness for that room, or two specific orders of roomness for that room (modest, not in the best repair, unassuming) as opposed to this room (generally more likely to last but with secret flaws entailed in the kinds of people who come to confer in it, spend a few days in it, grow up in it; as well as true architectural instabilities that will not give way till long after the other building is pulled down, and some inner mystery—or external plot—causes this one to go up in flames or crumble into the crevice of an earthquake the size of Lisbon’s, or to fall to a marauding army)—as I said before, we talked.
And in that talk, he chose to tell me this tale, as if it followed from what he’d been saying. I hadn’t been listening all that carefully, but because it did follow so clearly from what I’d been thinking, I knew I must have understood him anyway.
“You know, sir, when I was a boy, and still lived in the city, I remember it was an early spring, but which spring I’m rather unsure at this point. But with my father I’d gone to visit the house of a merchant friend. I was in the back, waiting for my father to come out. Over his front door were carved the Hebrew words that dramatize so much of the best in mankind—”
I recited in Hebrew, “‘Peace and truth form the foundation of the world …’”
“You’ve seen it?”
“Yesterday morning, I saw it over the door of a merchant in the city.”
“Several houses have taken it for their motto. But not mine.” He smiled, nodded. “I was sitting in the back, in their garden—in summer—waiting for my father to finish, when I looked down at a table beside me, I saw a leaf—it was an all but windless day, not like today with its early winter airs—and I began to think, the way we do at that age: ‘Why can’t I move that leaf with my mind—the way the mind of God is supposed to move the world?’ So I looked at the leaf, there on the planks, and narrowed my eyes. And I thought as intensely as I could without making a sound: Leaf, move! And it didn’t. It just lay there. So once again, I thought: Leaf, move! And still it was still. So for a third time I gathered all my inner strength and prepared myself once more and—” He let out a breath. “But suddenly I knew, I saw, I experienced why I could not move the leaf with my thoughts. It was because the leaf on the table and my thought, I now knew, I now sensed, were two separate orders of ontological existence. The leaf was material and so was the wind that moved it. But thoughts were of the same ontological order as images, artworks, ideas. My thought could not move the leaf for the same reason that if I pulled a print of a winter storm from the pile of prints the merchant kept among his stores, and brought it into the garden, and set it up on the table so that its images of storm and rough weather faced the tree directly, not a leaf or a branch nor a gnat or wisp of dust would move because of that storm. That’s because thoughts modeled by material and material that provokes thoughts don’t interact. They could no more affect one another directly, without the mode of a body between, than could a drawing of a cannon just having fired fell a real and clopping cavalryman. The mind of God can’t be exempt from such restrictions, because it obtains to what mind, thoughts, and material are. Three minutes later, with hardly a move, I had figured out why there could be no miracles. Miracles entail the thoughts of God directly and without material intervention controlling matter itself. God’s thoughts couldn’t control the world—not because my mind or my thoughts weren’t strong enough, but rather because that’s not how thoughts work in the world. Any thoughts. If they could, they’d belong to another ontological order and, by definition, would be something other than thoughts. They’d have to be something that could interact with material directly, and the only thing we know of that can do that is other material. If God wants to move materials in an unusual way, He will have to set up still other material situations and events—possibly visible, possible hidden—to bring it about. But that’s why there aren’t any miracles, because thought and material work the way they do.” He shrugged. “It’s all over the book I’ve already been so rash as to publish—though I haven’t come out and said it in so many words. I am working on the other now, where I’m planning on putting it clearly and succinctly among the first set of definitions on which all else will depend, possibly even as the very first definition. Or the second …”
Finally I said I must go. He said he would like to see me again. Surprising myself, I asked him what about tomorrow. Surprising me equally, he said that he would be delighted. He had little to do but grind lenses—and think.
At any rate because I had been thinking along the preparatory lines for this argument just as he had, I had no trouble understanding it.
He concluded: “And it felt very good to have such thoughts in a garden behind a house bearing that legend on its door, but that was just an extra, a little stutter to the event, the reward of pleasure added to the event, given us by God or nature.”
And this lack of confusion, right then and there, seemed the most natural thing in God’s world, enough to make me think, in this most particular of possible worlds, that it might be taken for a truth rather than a miracle that nature and God might be not only one, but be the kind of one, the order of one, that he thought they were.
He repeated, “… Deus sive Natura.” He had said it once before, but now I could understand what it meant: God or in other words nature … “I am really looking forward to continuing our conversation tomorrow, even if we go on from what we talked about today, or simply go back over what we’ve already talked about, perhaps deepening our understanding of it, enriching it with more examples, more details.”
Was it a different Jew? Was it the same? Was it unimportant …?
“I expect,” he said, “there will be some of both—going on and going over. I am sure you have learned by now that that is the only way any real learning worth the word can proceed.” We stood, ready to leave each other now that we had set a time for the two of us to meet again. I felt his book in the pocket of my greatcoat—and at the same time, he sighed and said, “I wish my eyes were good enough for me to read my old texts—just to enjoy the clarity of my own thinking. I mean other than when I sit down for a real work session, with a lens for reading, a lens for writing, the sunlight or a lamp. I am not a practical inventor, as I have heard rumors that you are. Rumors of your calculating machines have preceded you.”
I thought of the one in my trunk I’d been planning to give Gunter. “When I come tomorrow, I can bring one to show you. They are cunning. I’ve given away a few to really important men of the world. But they’re very costly to have made, so that one—”
“—hesitates to give one to a half-blind old man of forty, who will clearly not be able to return the favor with anything of equal worth?”
I did not frown. But I was thrown back to the not very propitious start to our still—in my mind—pleasant encounter, and wondered if the beginning (and the end) were doomed not to be its strong points. (There are reasons civilized people don’t talk of money. But, of course, I was the one who’d brought it up.)
“Please,” he said. “You mustn’t worry. Keep it. I’m sure others would appreciate it more. And I’m not wanting for one, sir.”
“Philosophers have been famous,” I said, “for saying the obvious and giving us a laugh by it—Diogenes—or getting killed for it, as when Archimedes told the soldier to stand away from his sunlight.”
We both laughed.
And the landlord knocked, entered, and, shrugging up her shawl, told us that my carriage was ready. My driver had awakened. She had brought him a roll and a bowl. He was now finished. “And our friend here, once noon’s past, does get tired …”
“Of course,” I said. And rose.
“You mustn’t worry about me,” he said. “If they try to arrest me for atheism because God, if it’s anything, must be a being separate from the world who controls it from without, rather than a system of forces controlling it from within, I will simply have our friend here tell them I am hiding in the attic, when in fact I have gone out into the world to walk among the winter drifts by the canals, among the summer leaves of the garden that sigh and sag under the rains.” At least—I will admit it to this journal—that’s the best job I could do reconstructing it.
For a moment I thought of the lace makers in the dim polishing room at Gunter’s, weaving thread and fabric as though thread were language and they were poets. I’d quipped then that they’d seemed to be weaving for their lives. Now, from what I’d learned of the rampjaar, I wondered if perhaps they were—as, indeed, I now knew this Jew was no poet of Latin, but spoke from as great a sense of crisis as any poet could.
At one point I’d told him a proof I’d worked out for the existence of God.
“That’s actually rather clever.” He looked quite pleased. “Do you think you could jot that down for me?”
“It’s not that clever,” I told him. “I wouldn’t stand by it today. I thought enough of it when I first did it, however.”
“Still, I’d like to think about it a bit and make sure arguments of that structure are addressed, at least indirectly, in the work I’m just finishing up.”
“Certainly,” I said. And did—twice. And took one with me so I’d remember its details as well.
Possibly because of that, I include one more tale he told. I put it here, paradoxically enough, at the end of the things I remember in order, though it was not the last thing he told me. The fact is, I can’t remember on which side of his revelation in the garden it fell. (Doesn’t every philosopher these days have one?) The man I hope to encounter in London had his in a garden, too, where an apple fell at his feet—or hit him on the head. He’s been telling that story to one Royal Society member or another since ’66. Wish he’d pin it down on paper so we’d all know what he’s talking about or if it makes sense! But in this journal, putting it at the end of the account of what I remember Spinoza telling me is a way, specifically, of marking that it is not the end, it is not the conclusion, it was not the moment I have understood most exactly or the best summary of what’s gone before, either of context or content. Rather, it’s the one most open to revision, rethinking, correction.
So at one point, he mentioned: “Because I started learning the languages in which basically I’ve lived—Latin and, soon, Greek—so late, I was particularly aware of the gifts they immediately began to give me, whereas someone who picks up an ancient language as a child of four or five is first aware of them the way one is aware of old, comfortable toys with their painted faces half worn away. Reassuring—but not exciting.” (Had he written this once in a journal to himself?) “Despite the fact that words, images, ideas, Vorstellen all share an ontology that is easiest to talk about metaphorically as images and art, one understand this most clearly when one explains language’s specific relation to a specific body, because a body is the material interface of matter and mind. I was led by those historical paths that Latin and Greek create for us among the living European languages my father and his business acquaintances had to speak for work to use philosophers from the past, not just Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria, not only the church fathers forbidden me by my own people, not just the endless conversation of Plato or the fragments of Heraclitus, the stories of Thales and Anaximenes, the fragment of Anaximander, Parmenides, the poets such as Xenophanes who could have been philosophers or theologians as well, or even Plato’s Diotima who believed love could heal real wounds dealt by the sword of God himself, or Hypatia of Alexandria who believed both in mathematics and magic. Whose brilliance was it, hers or Plato’s, to realize desire is the need to close a difference Deus sive Natura has struck into fundamental formations of the world as it has seemed to have so generously provided the many occasions for all these teachers’ different lessons?”
It was the last line that brought me most sharply back (from my own thoughts, whatever they were) because that’s when I realized that, like Plato, whose Republic upheld the education of women and their entrance into politics, our radical philosopher despite all appearances had not abandoned everything female. And could admit to having learned something, as it occurs to me now, from wrestling bodily with a woman.
But as well as admitting all this questioning and revision into the terminal place in my narrative, the place that in most discourses is reserved for terminal certainty, I have found that writing it down has made me remember something that I’d already written in an only partially remembered state. I’ve written it. If you’ve read this whole section, you’ve read it too.
(Who am I talking to other than myself here? Someone I hope who at least knows my languages.) But what I’ve already written several hours ago now and you’ve read whenever was actually what I felt he’d probably said (as much of it as I could remember), enhanced by what I thought he must have meant, as best I could make it out. But only minutes back, in a pause between sentences, it returned to me, with clarity and certainty.
This is what now came back to me verbatim:
“Trying to arrest me for atheism, given the specificity of my arguments, is like hunting for a man hiding in the attic of a building that has none, when in truth he is sitting in the back garden of another house, working diligently on his own concerns, in another neighborhood entirely.”
Does this mean that his atheist in the attic was finally different from mine? Or perhaps that mine can talk to his from now on? And since we are letting this rethinking move us more firmly back to truth, the thought about the lacemakers was, actually, not one I’d had in The Hague but rather one I’d had here when I was misremembering what he’d said and what I’d thought it might have been. A real thought of my own, but—I confess—my placement of it was a lie—a lie with which it is easier to dispense, having now arrived at the same truth.
CONTINUE TO PART III.
Samuel R. Delany’s recent novels include Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Dark Reflections. A pioneer of experimentalism in the science-fiction genre and beyond, as well as a critic and memoirist, Delany has received four Nebula awards, two Hugo awards, and the Stonewall Book Award from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association, among many other honors.