Female philosopher

On Asking Dangerous Questions About Spinoza

Rachel Kadish recently published her third novel The Weight of Ink (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) in which the protagonist is a female philosopher in the 17th century who studies Spinoza, Hobbes, Descartes, the audacities of the Koerbagh brothers, the writing of Thomas Browne, Pierre Bayle, and others–at a great personal cost.  The novel also weaves in Isaac Vossius’s famous library, the philosophical speculations of Lodewijk Meijer, Pieter Corneliszoon Plockhoy, and Franciscus Van den Enden.  Rachel and I spoke via email about her novel, specifically about the challenges facing women thinkers in the 17th century, why Spinoza is a fascinating topic for a novel, and working with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

Can you tell me what The Weight of Ink is about?  

The novel opens in contemporary London, when the renovation of a seventeenth-century house is interrupted by the discovery of shelves of documents hidden inside a staircase. Helen Watt, a British professor with a very personal reason for her passion for Jewish history, is called in to examine the documents, most of which are signed by an obscure seventeenth-century rabbi. It’s not long before Helen realizes that there’s something about the documents that doesn’t make sense—there are, in fact, radical statements contained in the letters. Helen–along with Aaron Levy, an arrogant American grad student she brings in to assist her—quickly realizes that the documents were written by a scribe for the rabbi, who was blind…and that the scribe was a woman.

The narrative alternates between the story of the contemporary scholars trying to solve the mystery of the documents, and the story of the seventeenth-century woman who undertook a grand deception in order to write them: Ester Velasquez, a member of the same Amsterdam Portuguese-Inquisition refugee community that excommunicated Spinoza.

Ester and her brother, both orphans, have come from Amsterdam to London in the household of the blind rabbi—and when the brother is unwilling to serve as a scribe, it’s Ester who reads and writes for the rabbi, thereby gaining access to a world of books and letters inaccessible to most Jewish women. The more she studies, the more compelled she feels to ask dangerous questions—questions that would be bring dangers down on her household if anyone knew what she was asking, or to whom she was addressing her correspondence.

You’ve said that your idea for the book came from the hypothetical question as to what a brilliant woman from the same community as Spinoza might have written, and the challenges she may have faced.  Can you say more about that?  

I often start writing when something is bothering me. Years ago, one of the things troubling me was a question initially posed by Olive Schreiner, and later and more famously by Virginia Woolf: what if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister—what would such a woman’s fate have been, given the constraints of women’s lives in those days?

Woolf answered the question succinctly: she died without writing a word.

I couldn’t help thinking: what would it have taken for a woman of that era—a woman with a capacious intelligence and no outlet for it—not to die without writing a word?

And what if that woman were further disadvantaged by poverty or religious difference? If she’d been daring or desperate enough to seek out an intellectual life even against the strictures of her situation, how might she have managed it?

For one thing, she’d have had to be a genius at breaking rules.

What can we learn about the challenges facing women thinkers in the 17th century?  

The constraints on women’s lives in the seventeenth century were profound. If intellectual exchange requires a combination of educational foundations, social permission to write, leisure time in which to do so, and access to others engaged in scholarship…well, it’s easy to see why women were rarely able to join the conversation in a meaningful way. That said, some still did manage to write openly under their own names—mostly women who were wealthy, childless, or both. We have Aphra Behn, of course, and Anne of Conway and Mary Astell and Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wroth and others… The reception for their work was uneven, and certainly doesn’t sound to the modern ear like full respect. (Descartes’s letters to Elisabeth of Bohemia mix praise for her mind with statements about how he’s too ravished by her beauty when in her presence to properly attend to her thoughts on philosophy.)

Jewish women of the seventeenth century Amsterdam community tended to be relatively well educated–the community prided itself on educating its sons, and in some households that extended, within limits, to daughters. But an education like the one my character acquires would have had to be accrued by a woman in secret, against the norms of any community of that time and place.

To what extent do you think books like The Weight of Ink can challenge researchers to be more inclusive of women in the canon?   

I’d be delighted if this novel encouraged researchers in that direction, of course—though I know many scholars understandably dismiss fiction as…well…factually false, which it is! But I was careful to make everything in the book—including the path Ester Velasquez takes into an intellectual life–plausible.

I think it’s important to underscore the fact that most seventeenth-century women and members of other suppressed groups couldn’t easily or safely write under their own names. So if intellectual or artistic material was originating from within those groups, considerable effort probably went into hiding that fact. Given that, how can we be sure that absence from the historical record means true absence? We know that women often wrote under men’s names. So just because we don’t have evidence that women were writing doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

Is the main character Ester Velasquez based on any particular woman?  

No. Ester is an invention from start to finish. That said, I worked hard to weave my story between the known facts of seventeenth-century life and Jewish history of the time. Every piece of her story is possible, as far as I know.

I understand that for a while you thought of yourself as the Milli Vanilli of metaphysics (lol!)  Can you say why, and what would you call yourself now after studying Enlightenment philosophy?  

For a long time I struggled with the philosophical portions of the novel. I’d followed my character unquestioningly into that terrain, because one thing I know as a novelist is that you have to let your characters have interests and capabilities other than your own—if you don’t do that, all your characters eventually come out like you (the author), which ultimately makes for dull books. I had a feeling all along that Ester had to be tough-minded and rational in a way that would lead her into a kind of fearlessness exploration of forbidden questions. So that meant exploring the metaphysical questions that would interest her.

So I read and read. I worked extremely hard–but at first I struggled to get any purchase on the material. I don’t have a natural aptitude for philosophy, and there was something about it I found very difficult to enter. I had to work hard to get my head around one sentence at a time…and once I understood that sentence it would knock out of my head the prior sentence that I’d labored so hard to understand (picture a Newton’s cradle, with each silver ball knocking another out of line—that was my brain on philosophy). I felt I was just lip-syncing philosophy—and I think that was the point when I wrote a despairing email to my agent telling her I was the Milli Vanilli of metaphysics.

And then somehow on my sixth or so attempt to read Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment it was as though someone had suddenly translated it into English for me, and I finally could read that—and the rest of my stack of books about philosophy and philosophers–like a normal person.

Later, once I thought I had Ester’s intellectual path mapped out, I showed the relevant sections of the novel to some wonderful people who live and breathe philosophy, and they helped me fine-tune the philosophical components of the story. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was astonishingly generous with her time, reading and re-reading pages to help me get things right. Steven Nadler and Kristin Waters also offered invaluable help. The accuracy of my depictions of Spinoza and the philosophical world of the seventeenth century is due in large part to them keeping me on course. And if there are errors, they’re my own fault.

Can you explain the role that Spinoza plays in The Weight of Ink?  

I never know how much of a spoiler is ok for an interview! So without giving too much away, I’ll just say that my character Ester Velasquez is powerfully driven to join the philosophical conversation of her day…and the person she most wants to speak to is Spinoza, who of course was excommunicated by the community in which both she and Spinoza grew up.

Why Spinoza?  What do you find most intriguing about the time in which he lived?  

I was fascinated by the fact that Spinoza grew up in a community of refugees, with their particular strengths and fears. The more I read about the Portuguese Inquisition refugees of seventeenth century Amsterdam, the more they reminded me of the Holocaust refugees I knew as a child (my mother’s parents and extended family were survivors, and my mother was born on the run). Those seventeenth century refugees, with their fears and their strengths and their fierce determination, felt familiar in many ways…though of course there were also marked differences.

I was fascinated by what Rebecca Newberger Goldstein highlighted in Betraying Spinoza – that Spinoza’s ability to see above and beyond all sectarianism stands in striking contrast to the fiercely identity-bound experiences his community was reeling from.

What role would you say that philosophy plays in your novel?  

For Ester, philosophy is a way out—a language that allows her to escape the constraints of being in her body—a woman’s body, a Jewish body, a body threatened by the Inquisition and by the strictures and dangers of seventeenth-century society. Penning philosophical questions allows Ester to search past the tragedies and puzzlements of her life for a meaning that makes sense to her—and doing it under a man’s name allows her mind to go where her body can’t.

What surprised you most about philosophy while writing and researching your book? 

I think philosophers and novelist tend to come at the world from opposite directions. Philosophers seem to look over the heads of individuals, seeing past the particularities of individual lives in order to move directly to abstract principles. As a novelist I can only arrive at larger abstract principles by first working my way through the ins and outs of a few messy individual lives. For me it’s the detail—the particularity—that’s the route to human truth.

What do you hope academic philosophers might learn from The Weight of Ink?  

I wouldn’t presume to suggest anything…I’m still busy trying to learn from philosophers!  But I suppose I hope the novel’s human story serves as a reminder of the personal urgency that drives people to philosophy. The need for philosophy isn’t at all bloodless or abstract. People are often desperate for answers and for the kind of guidance and clarity that philosophy can offer. I think the crazier our world gets—the more irrational, fanatical, fact-free—the more powerful and personally urgent the need for clear reasoning becomes.

What do you hope your book will achieve?  

Any good story, no matter what the setting, should leave a reader feeling that s/he has been touched deeply by the lives of strangers and maybe even changed by the experience: inclined to see the world differently and more deeply.

The best fiction immerses us in two simultaneous, contradictory, and often stunning realizations: other people have lives very different from mine… and… other people feel just as I do. I think that combination of realizations makes us better people. It’s one of the things I hope to experience when I write, and it’s what I hope a reader would get from reading my novel or any other.

Who do you hope will read it?  

Anyone who loves a good story! But since you’re asking…I’d love to be a fly on the wall and hear this book discussed in the context of courses on seventeenth century history, Jewish history, philosophy…and of course women’s history.

To me, the issues raised in this book feel all too contemporary. This is a novel that reaches back in time to ask a question that’s very current: what does it take for a woman not to be defeated when everything around her is telling her to sit down and mind her manners?

So I’d love to hear the book discussed as part of a conversation about women’s roles today.

Do you have any advice for philosophers interested in writing fiction?  

My main advice for anyone wanting to write a novel of ideas is this: the characters, not the ideas, must drive the story. If you set out to write a novel of ideas without first developing your characters and figuring out who they are, what they want, and what they’re afraid of, you’ll end up using your characters like marionettes: walking them through a plot in a way that will feel forced.

Ideas are a wonderful grounding for a novel, but they have to be much deeper in the background than you might guess—otherwise the story feels didactic. Figure out who your characters are and what pressures they face, and then think about what your characters would do in response to those pressures. The plot will flow from there, and the ideas will work their way into the story as you write it.

We have a copy of The Weight of Ink to give away!  Share this post on Twitter or Facebook for a chance to win.  Winner will be picked at random on October 3 at 8am EST.

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Rachel Kadish is the award-winning author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, as well as the novella I Was Here. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and Tin House, and has been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and elsewhere. She has been a fiction fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, has received the John Gardner Fiction Award and the Koret Foundation’s Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award, and was a writer-in-residence at Stanford University. 

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