Conversation With Spinoza: A Cobweb Novel
By Goce Smilevski
Translated by Filip Korzenski
Northwestern University Press, 152 pages, $16.95.
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A few centuries too late, it seems that Spinoza’s time has finally come. In a world in which many Jews are yet again attempting to assert a secular identity as the dialectic antipode of extremism, Spinoza has been credited lately as the first secularite, as the founder of Modern Jewry, identifier of its humanitarian agenda and prophet of the existential crises that follow the philosophical limitation of God’s meddling within the mundanity of His creation. As unwitting subject or spokesperson, Spinoza is especially attractive to American Jewry because he seems to us a rebel, the Enlightenment equivalent of a bar mitzvah boy gone bad. Mostly, though, what makes him interesting to us is the God issue: Long before Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced God dead, Spinoza slyly hinted that he was not God with a big G at all, but rather a universal constant to be encountered only through a revelation, or manifestation, as thing — as animals, plants and as us, men, the only creatures made in His, or maybe Its, image, and as such the only creations capable of creation themselves.
One of the most promising of these creations, and a rather young one at that, is Macedonian novelist Goce Smilevski, whose fourth novel has just been translated as “Conversation With Spinoza.” As it is subtitled “A Cobweb Novel,” it’s interesting to note that one of Spinoza’s favorite pastimes was putting two spiders in a jar and watching them fight to the death. Smilevski is cruel, too, but never to his reader, who is positioned as a conversationalist with the great philosopher on his deathbed. Rather, Smilevski is cruel to his subject, Spinoza himself, putting him not only through all the paces that good research can conjure when liberally handled (for example, Spinoza is heard at a young age arguing his mature ideas with Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera, the influential scholar and teacher responsible for Spinoza’s cherem, or excommunication), but also through many trials that are pure, and often gratuitous, invention.
Woven into this web, in sections arranged as silken strands to meet at the tangling middle that must mean Spinoza’s death, the philosopher is talked through a handful of amorous encounters both hetero and homosexual, all the while being chastised by the narrator — which is us in conversation — for having subordinated the passions to the intellect. If Pascal was right when he said that it’s hard to be a philosopher and a man at the same time, then there should be a novelistic corollary: It’s hard to write humorously, and sexually, about a man you evidently revere.
Still, there’s much to relish here, not the least of which is Smilevski’s sense of the fantastic that owes as much to the rigorous philosophical play of Jorge Luis Borges as it does to the miniature parables strewn throughout the works of Milan Kundera. This sense is the privilege of a writer engaged with ideas of Humanism supposedly destroyed by a century of technology and war, necessarily unreferenced in the text as the narrator is us, is any reader who will ever come to these pages, in any century, with any politics. I suspect that the current Spinoza obsession in America has much to do with our need to justify our secularism, in substantiating it as not just a modern dereliction but as an actual European creed, with history behind it, the bona fide of ages of thought on the nature of man’s relationship with God. Smilevski, being an Eastern European, seems to find in Spinoza a similar assurance brought .to bear on a different concern: In a Godless Europe in which democracy was never native, it has become necessary to find a religious course that allows one to respect all creation without recourse to laws that necessarily issue from divinity as unified in one supreme intelligence. A young heir to Gunter Grass and Jose Saramago, Smilevski might be the newest of a rare thing — a living European novelist with a message for the future of his continent, with an imagination borne against inheritance with such force that even Spinoza might have approved.