I’ve often been asked both by journalists and by my readers why my novel The Elixir of Immortality tells the story of the family of Baruch Spinoza. My usual reply is that it’s simply because of my lifelong interest in that Jewish philosopher who lived in seventeenth-century Holland.
I don’t really remember how I first became aware ofSpinoza. I do know that I ran across him at a fairly early age, probably because of my curiosity about philosophy in general and my teenage tendency to ponder existential issues.
No one who has read Bertrand Russell’s great work A History of Western Philosophy (1946) could fail to be impressed by the opening words of the Englishman’s chapter about him: “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him but ethically he is supreme.”
Russell’s work showed me that important philosophers tended to come into conflict with the theological or ecclesiastical establishments and, more often than not, with the political authorities as well. Spinoza was no exception. One might suppose that the very word ‘philosophy’ was tantamount to the struggle for independent thought as opposed to the passive acceptance of dogma. A true philosopher always takes risks that endanger his own life and security. Spinoza learned that lesson the hard way. The Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him, and even today Orthodox Jews regard him with suspicion. Continue reading
I was reading a book about Spinoza this evening and had a thought about my significant other and baking soda. You see, he stashes boxes of baking soda everywhere, in the refrigerator, in the cat’s kitty litter, in the bathroom cabinet, plus, stored in the ordinary place for baking soda, next to the baking powder on the shelf with the flour and sugar, waiting until they are called upon to replenish others.
Why, does he do this, I ask, not to be critical or to suggest some other methodology, only to be curious. Why does one household require so many identical boxes of baking soda?
He looks at me and says, “They are cheap enough. And I need them.”
We are long past any friction regarding wayward toothpaste caps or discussions about which way the toilet paper is supposed to roll. In no way, do I wish to cause a brou-ha-ha about baking soda. But maybe, if I were to be totally honest, maybe I had other motives.
I think the ghost of his mother lives here. I know that sounds very B movie-ish, but I don’t consider it a bad thing, I simply recognize her presence. We are living in his mother’s house, a lovely woman whom I met twice before she passed away. I have been given clearance to do what I will with rearranging and redecorating, but it takes time for me to settle into a place.
I see his mother in the curtains neatly piled on closet shelves for different times of the year, an array of colors to allow her and the house to change with the seasons. I recognize her practicality in the kitchen with the coffee and measuring cups within easy reach. I see her understated love of nature with pictures she has placed on her walls, scenes of flowers and birds. Mostly, I understand the choices of a woman who once she had the option to build her own house, decided on the best she could afford, thick rugs, lots of storage space, and a garden filled with the iris and zinnia.
The logical systems she organized during her lifetime are still in place, including her appreciation of baking soda that has been passed along to her son.
I also see a small gift that I gave her in the front of a display cabinet that contains her prized doll collection, and I thank her for everything she had put into place to help us to build our lives together.
We start now.