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  • An interview with Rebecca Goldstein
  • Jessica Lang (bio)

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Rebecca Goldstein

This interview with Rebecca Goldstein took place on November 9, 2006, in her new home, an apartment in a former factory near the Charles River, in Boston, Massachusetts. The idea of home plays a prominent role in Goldstein's writing, so it seemed fitting to meet her in that setting. Many of Goldstein's novels, starting with her earliest, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), and carrying through The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind (1989), Mazel (1995), and Properties of Light (2000), describe home as a place that is furnished with the creature comforts of middle-class living and located in a pastoral setting with regularly spaced houses and attractive front lawns. For Goldstein, however, this idealized notion of home is a form of exile, an environment that makes her feel oppressed and, as she reveals both in this interview and through her protagonists, least herself.

Goldstein, in her search for home, rejects the physicality in both form and place typically associated with it. Instead, she leaves the externalized space to move into a far less tangible realm, one that invokes aspects of the self such as intellect, imagination, emotions, and creativity. In short, Goldstein is most comfortable developing ideas and explanations, imagining stories, and tracing histories. Part of this propensity she attributes to her training and work as a philosopher; part is inspired by a love of stories and texts passed on to her by her father. While in many ways the tension in her writing between longing for home and living in exile works as a dislocating force, as it uproots the protagonist, thereby forcing changes in habits, at the same time it locates, strengthens, and redefines the [End Page 1] most important ties to the past. Ultimately, many of Goldstein's characters find refuge in the search itself.

Goldstein's quest for place and meaning extends to the narrative structure of her work: her stories typically begin in the present and then hearken back to a past that is—importantly—part of a larger and more complex history than the scope of a novel or biography can ever truly re-create. In some ways this trajectory reflects her sense of her own history and her complicated relationship to the Orthodox Judaism of her childhood. It also speaks to her awareness of a history that extends back thousands of years and the minuteness of her own life in comparison. In our conversation, Goldstein comfortably sifted through ancient Greek philosophy, the anthropological past, the more recent past of the Holocaust, and her personal history as an American Jew. In the historical framework she tends to favor, Goldstein deliberately fractures time in a way that reminds readers that it, too, like light and space, is not only a tool for story-telling but also an element of physics and philosophy. Through fracturing time, Goldstein brings history and the present together, just as the intangible nature of ideas and thought takes physical form in the words and pages of her books.

The presence and absence of place and history, and with them beauty and truth, form the skeleton of Goldstein's texts; this polarization also serves to fill them out. Her construction (at times invention) of language reflects and animates her philosophical and historical ambitions. The Dark Sister (1993), a novel with a double history and a double plot, plays with language of reflection and mirrors; Properties of Light, in which one character is a ghost, invokes a vocabulary of negation and nonexistence. The Mind-Body Problem and The Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind both work to define the limits of the mind and the self, of rationality and love. Goldstein's two most recent works, her nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel (Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel [2005]) and Benedict de Spinoza (Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity [2006]), are in many ways the culmination of her previous efforts: truth and imagination, the self and the mind work together in her understanding of the great intellectual contributions of these two figures...


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