On Writing a Fictionalized Account of Baruch Spinoza’s Family

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.

Spinoza’s character and fate fascinated me, perhaps even more than his ideas did, since I was having trouble understanding much of what he wrote. I was fascinated by the community he lived in and its influence upon his life and ideas in that historical context. Studying these things became my point of entry to the Jewish world in that time of my life when I began seeking to understand Jewish heritage. That was how Spinoza helped me to understand myself and the background of my childhood in a family of non-observant Jews living under a totalitarian dictatorship.

At the age of twenty-two I dreamed of writing the definitive treatise about Spinoza. I soon realized that there already existed a virtual mountain of brilliant analyses of the great thinker. Eventually I left Spinoza to his own destiny and began to devote myself to reading Marcel Proust, although without ever losing my deep sympathy for the philosopher.

More than thirty-five years later I decided to give a present to my sons: the history of a Jewish family, traced all the way back to the twelfth century and carried forward to the end of the twentieth. My idea was to write a fictional family history modeled on many real events, a blending of fantasy and recorded history, so that actual events and fictitious ones always reflected one another. With this broad-brushed fantasy fresco, ironic versions of real historical events offered with a knowing wink, and an assortment of entirely fictitious quotations, I aimed to provide a glimpse of the contributions of the Jews to Europe and their fate there over the past millennium.

The choice of the family name for this imaginary family saga was never in doubt. Who but Baruch Spinoza, monumental philosopher and scholar both in the Jewish and secular Western traditions, could best represent the importance of the Jewish minority for the world around it? Add to that the fact that his background and life of hardships offered wonderful opportunities to weave the panorama of Jewish Europe and the typical conditions of persecution, banishment and dramatic twists of fate that confronted a people who were richly endowed both spiritually and intellectually. Thus was determined the novel’s prevailing tone as a harsh, arbitrary, ironic and exuberant tale in which anything could happen. After all, humankind is a mystery.

Everything in the novel materialized for me in a blinding flash, presenting itself whole and complete as soon as I decided to give the family the name of Spinoza. After that, all I had to do was sit down at my desk. In less than six months I wrote out every bit of that complicated family history – a tale that existed within me already, a compendium of material I’d storing in my subconscious for almost thirty years.

For me Spinoza, the name, was like Marcel Proust’s famous story about tasting his petite Madeleine dipped in lime tea and suddenly, without seeking to do so, reliving an intense experience from the past. No sooner had I uttered the name ‘Spinoza’ than I suddenly saw the image of the room where he had worked polishing lenses. Along with it came the city of Leyden where he lived in exile, then Amsterdam, and then Spain, the country his ancestors had fled because of the Catholic Inquisition, and after that Granada, a place where Jews and Moors co-existed in peace. All of that took shape and emerged, complete with the characters and their eras, from my inner depths. After all, the past can be saved from oblivion only with the help of our memories and our imaginations. They are our only means of creating any sort of immortality.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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