Friday, January 29, 2010
It is the story of Cass Seltzer, who is drifting in the academic still waters of his specialty, the psychology of religion, when he is struck by zeitgeist lightning. He writes a book, “The Varieties of Religious Illusion,” that makes a case for reason over faith. With religion on everyone’s mind, in art as in life, the book becomes a bestseller, bringing its author fame, fortune, a teaching offer from Harvard, and a challenge to debate the existence of God.
Around Cass revolve a constellation of academic types, including his unbearably beautiful, unbearably brilliant lover; his mentor who is just plain unbearable; a vibrant earth-mother character; and a remarkable child caught in an impossible situation. The book is filled with theological philosophy and send-ups of same. It is a delicious read, veering between thesis-friendly dialogue and chick-lit pacing, existential ponderings and egomaniacal panderings. It is curious, original, and ultimately makes a strong case for our complicated, flawed, and endlessly interesting species.
The book’s abundant Jewish references, coupled with Goldstein’s odd tendency to mention the upper lip of nearly every character, reminded me of an old Jewish legend about the philtrum, that little cleft below the nose. According to the story, in the months before a child is born the angel Gabriel visits the child and teaches him or her everything about the world. But just before birth, Gabriel touches the child on the upper lip and all the knowledge is instantly forgotten. The cleft remains as a sign of everything we spend our lives relearning. This probably has nothing to do with the book, but I love the legend. And the book is, at its heart, about what we believe, what we know, and how we make sense of the world. And maybe about how we try to relearn those lessons from the angel.
In the book’s final scene (this is not a spoiler) people are joyously greeting each other with cries of “Mazel tov!” Although, in Hebrew and Yiddish, this translates into “good luck,” it is actually used, as Goldstein notes, to congratulate someone on whom fortune has already smiled. And so “mazel tov” to me and to those among you who have already had the pleasure of reading this book. To those who have not, “mazel tov” to you for getting this recommendation!