The Argument from the Improbable Self
Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues you had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated you are, the more annotated your mental life, the more taken aback you’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires you had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, you ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and nearly forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on your watch. You ought to have sent up a balloon now and then to get a read on the prevailing cognitive conditions, the Thinks watching out for the Think-Nots. Now you’ve gone and let the stockpiling of fallacies reach dangerous levels, and the massed weapons of illogic are threatening the survivability of the globe.
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen river and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers. He’s thinking zealots proliferate and Seltzer prospers.
It’s 4 a.m., and Cass Seltzer is standing on Weeks Bridge, the graceful arc that spans the Charles River near Harvard University, staring down at the river below, which is in the rigor mortis of late February in New England. The whole vista is deserted beyond vacancy, deserted in the way of being inhospitable to human life. There’s not a car passing on Memorial Drive, and the elegant river dorms are darkened to silent hulks, the most hyperkinetic of undergraduates sedated to purring girls and boys.
It’s not like Cass Seltzer to be out in the middle of an icy night, lost in thought while losing sensation in his extremities. Excitement had gotten the better of him. He had lain in his bed for hours, mind racing, until he gave up and crawled out from under the luxe comforter that his girlfriend, Lucinda Mandelbaum, had brought with her when she moved in with him at the end of June. This comforter has pockets for the hands and feet and a softness that’s the result of impregnation with aloe vera. As a man, Cass had been skeptical, but he’s become a begrudging believer in Lucinda’s comforter, and in her Tempur-Pedic pillow, too, suffused with the fragrance of her coconut shampoo, making it all the more remarkable that he’d forsake his bed for this no-man’s stretch of frigid night.
Rummaging in the front closet for some extra protection, he had pulled out, with a smile he couldn’t have interpreted for himself, a long-forgotten item, the tricolor scarf that his ex-wife, Pascale, had learned to knit for him during the four months when she was recovering from aphasia, four months that had produced, among other shockers, an excessively long French flag of a wool scarf, which he wound seven and a half times around his neck before heading out into the dark to deal with the rush in his head.
Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games.” Among these equilibria is one that’s called the Mandelbaum Equilibrium, and it’s Cass’s ambition to have the Mandelbaum Equilibrium mastered by the time he picks her up from the airport Friday night.
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience—a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.
For close to two decades, Cass Seltzer has all but owned the psychology of religion, but only because nobody else wanted it, not anyone with the smarts to do academic research in psychology and the ambition to follow through. It had been impossible to get grants, and the prestigious journals would return his manuscripts without sending them out for peer review. The undergraduates crowded his courses, but that counted, if anything, as a strike against him in his department. The graduate students stayed away in droves. The sexy psychological research was all in neural-network modeling and cognitive neuroscience. The mind is a neural computer, and the folks with the algorithms ruled.
But now things had happened—fundamental and fundamentalist things—and religion as a phenomenon is on everybody’s mind. And among all the changes that religion’s new towering profile has wrought in the world, which are mostly alarming if not downright terrifying, is the transformation in the life of one Cass Seltzer.
First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had singled him out as the only one among them who seems to have any idea of what it feels like to be a believer—“to write of religious illusions from the standpoint of the regretfully disillusioned”—and had ended by dubbing him “the atheist with a soul.” When the magazine came out, Cass’s literary agent, Sy Auerbach, called to congratulate him. “Now that you’re famous, even I might have to take you seriously.”
Next had come the girl, although that designation hardly does justice to the situation, not when the situation stands for the likes of Lucinda Mandelbaum, known in her world as “the Goddess of Game Theory.” Lucinda is, pure and simple, a wondrous creature, with adoration her due and Cass’s avocation.
And now, only today, as if his cup weren’t already gushing over, had come a letter from Harvard, laying out its intention of luring him away from Frankfurter University, located in nearby Weedham, Massachusetts, about twelve miles downriver from where Cass is standing right now. Cass has spent the last two decades at Frankfurter, having first arrived to study under the legendary Jonas Elijah Klapper, the larger-than-life figure who had been Cass’s mentor and Cass’s tormentor.
After all that has happened to Cass over the course of this past year, he’s surprised at the degree of awed elation he feels at the letter bearing the insignia of Veritas. But he’s an academic, his sense of success and failure ultimately determined by the academy’s utilities (to use the language of Lucinda’s science), and Harvard counts as the maximum utility. Cass has the letter on him right now, zippered into an inside pocket of his parka, insulating him against the cold.
It will be a treat to tell Lucinda about Harvard’s offer. He can see the celebratory clinking of flutes, her head thrown back in that way she has, exposing the tender vulnerability of her throat, and that’s why he’s decided to wait out the week until she comes home to tell her. There’s no one in all the world in a better position than she to appreciate what this offer means to Cass, and no one who will exult more for him. Lucinda herself has known such dazzling success, from the very beginning of her career, and she has taught him never to make apologies for ambition. Ambition doesn’t have to be small and self-regarding. It can be a way of glorying in existence, of sharing oneself with the world and its offerings, of stretching oneself just as wide to the full spread of its possibilities as one can go. That’s how Lucinda goes about her life.
It’s 1 a.m. now for Lucinda. She’s taken the little amber bottle of Ambien with her—he’d checked their medicine cabinet round about 2 a.m.—so she’s down for seven and a half hours. She’ll be sleeping in T-shirt and shorts, her muscled legs—Lucinda competes in triathlons—probably already having fought their way clear of the bedclothes. Lucinda begins each night neatly tucked within her comforter, carefully placing her cold feet in the pockets, but no sooner is she asleep then the long struggle for freedom begins, and her legs are nightly manumitted.
For thirty-five weeks now, Cass has had the privilege of acquiring this intimacy of information regarding Lucinda Mandelbaum: her rituals of brushing and flossing and exfoliating and lotioning; the facts that she gets hiccoughs if she eats hard-boiled eggs too quickly and that her cold hands and feet are the result of Raynaud’s syndrome; that she had spent her junior year of college at Oxford and had acquired a taste for certain British products that she orders from a Web site called British Delights; that as a girl she had wanted to be either a concert pianist or Nancy Drew; that she sometimes makes a whole dinner of a product called Sticky Toffee Pudding, is mildly libertarian in her politics, and gasps always with the same sound of astonishment in lovemaking.
How is it that Cass Seltzer is intimate with the texture of Lucinda Mandelbaum’s life? His election—in that old crazy Calvinist sense, about which Cass knows more than a little—is absolute.
Suspended here above the ice-stilled Charles, he pictures Lucinda asleep, her mouth slightly open and her delicate eyelids fluttering in dreams—oh, make them happy!
She usually falls asleep before him, and the sight of her sleeping always wrenches his heart. All that mental power temporally suspended, her lashes reclining on the delicate curve of her high cheekbone, her fluffy ash-blond hair released from its daytime restraints and spread fragrant and soft on her Tempur-Pedic pillow. He sees the little girl she must have been. He sees the phantom child yet to be, materializing before his mind with her mother’s incandescent skin and hair, her gray eyes outlined in blue and lit with points of fierce intelligence. Watching Lucinda sleeping or absentmindedly playing with a strand of hair while she scratches out the esoteric symbols of her science, or leaving his front gate—with its sign left over from the previous owners, “Please close the gate, remember our children”—the force of the fantasy catches him off guard.
Nobody out there is keeping the books, of course, but maybe he’s earned the right to such happiness? Maybe the years he’d given up to mourning Pascale have paid out a retributive dividend? No. He knows better than to believe in such hocus-pocus, nothing else but more spilled religion.
Pascale’s absurd scarf mummying him up to his rimless glasses, he hadn’t thought much about where he would go at this hour and had headed straight for Harvard Square and then down to the river, and then up onto Weeks Bridge, dead center, which seems to be the spot that he’d been seeking.
The night is so cold that everything seems to have been stripped bare of superfluous existence, reduced to the purity of abstraction. Cass has the distinct impression that he can see better in the sharpened air, that the cold is counteracting the nearsightedness that has had him wearing glasses since he was twelve. He takes them off and, of course, can’t see a thing, can barely see past the nimbus phantom of his own breath.
But then he stares harder and it seems that he can see better, that the world has slid into sharper focus. It’s only now, with his glasses off, that he catches sight of the spectacle that the extreme cold has created in the river below, frozen solid except where it’s forced through the three arches of the bridge’s substructure, creating an effect that could reasonably be called sublime, and in the Kantian sense: not cozily beautiful, but touched by a metaphysical chill. The quickened water has sculpted three immense and perfect arches into the solid ice, soaring fifty or sixty feet to their apices, sublime almost as if by design. The surface of the water in the carved-out breaches is polished to obsidian, lustered to transparency against the white-blue gleam of the frozen encasement, and, perspective askew, the whole of it looks like a cathedral rising endlessly, the arches becoming windows opening out onto vistas of black.
Standing dead center on Weeks Bridge, in the dead of winter in the dead of night, staring down at the sublime formation, Cass is contemplating the strange thing that his life has become.
To him. His life has become strange to him. He feels as if he’s wearing somebody else’s coat, grabbed in a hurry from the bed in the spare bedroom after a boozy party. He’s walking around in someone else’s bespoke cashmere while that guy’s got Cass’s hooded parka, and only Cass seems to have noticed the switch.
What has happened is that Cass Seltzer has become an intellectual celebrity. He’s become famous for his abstract ideas. And not just any old abstract ideas, but atheist abstract ideas, which makes him, according to some of the latest polls, a spokesperson for the most distrusted minority in America, the one that most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.