Knowledge, and Danger, in Two New Novels

Two new novels feature highly educated main characters who discover that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews The Philosopher's Apprentice, by James Morrow, and The Soul Thief, by Charles Baxter.

Excerpt: 'The Philosopher's Apprentice'

'The Philosopher's Apprentice' cover
Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Chapter One

This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my first-floor apartment, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm, fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. Contemplating the Danaus plexippus through a gash in my screen door, I was utterly mesmerized, transfixed by the creature's ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned with black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket's epiphany.

Inevitably Lao-tzu's famous riddle crossed my mind—"Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?"—and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the monarch. I don't know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet.

The telephone rang: a representative from my bank, recommending that I go further into debt. I slammed down the receiver and attempted to reenter my Taoist reverie, but it had evaporated. No matter. The butterfly had served its purpose. Thanks to that fragile creature, I'd finally acquired the hook on which to hang my doctoral dissertation. Mason Ambrose, embryonic ethicist, would write about the imperatives entailed in humankind's connection to Danaus plexippus, and to insects in general, and to everything else in the world boasting wings, legs, tentacles, talons, tusks, claws, scales, feathers, fins, fur, or flesh. With a rush of joy, I realized that this Darwinist stance would appeal neither to secular Marxists, for whom moral lessons lay exclusively within history's brute curriculum, nor to evangelical Christians, for whom a naturalist ethics was a contradiction in terms, nor to middle-class mystics, who detested any argument smacking of biological determinism. A philosophical position that could simultaneously antagonize the collectivist left, the God-besotted right, and the Aquarian fringe must, I decided, have a lot going for it.

"I've even thought of a title," I told my long-suffering adviser, Tracy Blasko, as we shared a pitcher of sangria in the Pettifog Café that afternoon.

"That's half the battle," Tracy said. In recent months she'd begun to despair that I would ever find what she called, not unfairly, "a topic sufficiently pretentious to hold your interest during the writing phase."

"I want to call it Toward a Materialist Deontology," I said.

"Sounds like a goddamn doctoral dissertation," Tracy said, unsheathing her wickedest grin. She had a round, melodic face whose softness belied her gristly intellect. When the renowned deconstructionist Benoit Tourneur had visited our campus earlier that year, Tracy alone had summoned the gumption to dismantle, publicly and definitively, his ingenious apologia for Heidegger's Nazi affiliations. "But whatever you call it," she added, looking me in the eye, "the topic is eminently worth wrestling to the ground."

"Will the committee agree?" I said, all aglow.

She nodded. "I'll call in a few favors. Congratulations, Mason. You've cracked the first nut—the fruitcake can't be far behind. Shall we order another pitcher?"

"Love to, but I'm late for a class." I rose abruptly, kissed her on each cheek, and explained that in prelude to my Darwinian explorations I was auditing Ben Glockman's legendary Biology 412: Monkey Business: Sexuoeconomic Transactions in African Primate Communities.

"One more thing," Tracy said as I started out of the café. "You should call it Ethics from the Earth."

For the next two years, I taught English at Watertown High School by day and wrote Ethics from the Earth by night, laboring to convert my status at Hawthorne University from ABD— which at most schools stood for "all but dissertation," though Tracy preferred "Aristotle be damned"—to genuine doctor of philosophy, and so it was that, raisin by raisin, currant by currant, the fruitcake took form, until 382 manuscript pages lay in my hard drive. And then disaster struck.

Tracy Blasko, dear Tracy who was half in love with me and I with her, poor Tracy went to pieces, checking herself into the Boston Psychiatric Center for clinical depression and alcoholism. The task of shepherding me through the final revisions fell to the innocuous Carol Eberling, a glum Hegelian who boasted none of Tracy's acid humor or affection for audacity. But for me the real catastrophe—and I'm afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters—was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated post rationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.

There are certain coordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonizing the locals. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at three o'clock in the morning, for example, or Fenway Park during the bottom of the ninth with the Sox trailing the Yankees by seven runs, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my Web site. This scholar who'd delivered the Gifford Lectures, published eighteen books, and routinely communed with St. Augustine's shade—why would such a man waste his time picking through the dregs and dross of cyberspace? I suppose he went slumming one day, ordering his search engine to display all notices of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voila: the blistering review I'd composed to amuse myself during the gestation of Ethics from the Earth.

It was Dr. Eberling who alerted me to Pielmeister's displeasure.

"He's livid, you know," she said. "Really, Mason, you ought to send him an apology."

"I will not eat crow," I replied. "Nor any other bird Pielmeister would put on my platter."

What most infuriated the Augustinian, I suspected, was not my essay's sarcastic tone, savage rhetoric, or unkind cuts. My sin was that I'd caught him in a logical error. Pielmeister's argument reduced to an assertion that the acknowledged incompleteness of the evolutionary model (paradigm A) meant that divine creationism (paradigm B) must be the case. In other words, he was telling his readers that not A equals B, a lapse in rationality of a sort normally granted only to incoming freshmen and aging department heads.

It's a particularly bad idea to make academic enemies when the school in question is Hawthorne. At the turn of the millennium, our eccentric president, Gaylord Boynton, since retired, inaugurated a forum that endures to this day: dissertation defenses staged in a large auditorium and open to the general campus community. Boynton believed that such a practice would increase both the quality of the dissertations and the intellectual vigilance of the sponsoring faculty. Did this in fact occur? Hard to say. I know only that the innovation makes the average Hawthorne Ph.D. candidate feel less like he's explicating a thesis in early-twenty-first-century Boston than answering a charge of necromancy in late-seventeenth century Salem.

So there I was, striding through the foyer of Schneider Auditorium in prelude to mounting the stage and holding forth on my Ethics while several dozen students and professors stared and salivated. Perhaps a heated argument would break out, complete with red faces and projectile epithets. Maybe Dr. Pielmeister would ask a question so devastating that the candidate would faint dead away. Conceivably the event would turn physical, the professors assailing each other with half-eaten doughnuts. You never knew.

My abdomen spasmed. My bowels went slack. I gritted my teeth, decorated my face with a grin, and entered the arena.

My passion for philosophy traces to an unlikely source. When I was ten years old, a subversive baby-sitter allowed me to stay up till midnight watching The Egyptian on American Movie Classics. This 1954 Cinemascope spectacle stars stolid Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe, an abandoned infant who rises to become the most famous healer of his generation, physician to the pharaoh Akhenaton. It's not a very good movie, being overlong, ponderous, and badly acted. I love it to this day.

Early in The Egyptian, Sinuhe's adoptive father, a master of the trepanner's art, opens up a patient's skull. "Look, this tiny splinter of bone pressing on the brain," the old man tells his son. "When I remove it, he will speak again, and walk, and live."

Young Sinuhe asks, "Why, Father? Why?"

"No one knows."

Cut to our hero, still a boy, walking beside the ancient world's most philosophical river, meditating on the mystery of it all. "From the beginning I kept to myself," Sinuhe tells us in voice-over. "I used to wander alone on the banks of the Nile, until the day came when I was ready to enter the School of Life."

Cut to civilization's would-be elite prostrating themselves before a basalt idol, among them Sinuhe, now a handsome adolescent.

"In the School of Life were trained the chosen young men of Egypt, her future scientists and philosophers, statesmen and generals," Sinuhe continues. "All the learning of Egypt lay in the keeping of the gods. For ten years I served them in the school, that I might earn the right to call myself a physician. I learned to bend my body to them, but that was all. My mind still asked a question: Why?"

From the moment I saw Edmund Purdom impersonating piety in that Egyptian academy, I was hooked. The inquiring and defiant mind thriving within a begrudgingly reverent posture—it all made sense. Bow before Isis and Horus and Thoth, perhaps even believe in them, but give them no sovereignty over your thoughts—that was the way to be in the world. Sign me up. Call me Sinuhe.

At Villanova, I took every undergraduate philosophy course I could squeeze into my schedule, and soon I'd set my sights on the doctoral program at Hawthorne. Late in my senior year, I went through a crisis of doubt when my provisional girlfriend, a willowy physics major named Morgan Piziks, informed me at the end of our fourth date that anybody seriously interested in the question "Why?" should look not to philosophy but to the physical sciences—to cosmology, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, and the periodic table of the elements.

My mind went blank. Try as I might, I could contrive no riposte. I felt instinctively that Morgan's claim enjoyed the nontrivial virtue of being true. What could I say? What counterblast was possible? By what conceivable stratagem might I send her worldview tumbling down when I couldn't even get her to sleep with me?

A few weeks later, I chanced upon a quote from Wittgenstein that renewed my faith in philosophy: "At the basis of our contemporary picture of the universe lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena." Today that assertion strikes me as glib at best, but at the time it saved my sanity. Science could merely describe a phenomenon; it could never tell us the purpose of that phenomenon. The seminal question "Why?" still sat squarely within philosophy's domain. So I continued to think of myself as the post-Aristotelian Sinuhe, exploring the banks of the Nile, wandering and wondering and idly tossing stones into the water.

Excerpted from The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow with permission from William Morrow/ HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright (c) 2008 by James Morrow.

Excerpt: 'The Soul Thief'

'The Soul Thief'
Courtesy of Pantheon/Schocken Publicity

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The Soul Thief
By Charles Baxter
Hardcover, 224 pages
List Price: $20.00

Chapter One

He was insufferable, one of those boy geniuses, all nerve and brain.

Before I encountered him in person, I heard the stories. They told me he was aberrant ("abnormal" is too plain an adjective to apply to him), a whiz-kid sage with a wide range of affectations. He was given to public performative thinking. When his college friends lounged in the rathskeller, drinking coffee and debating Nietzsche, he sipped tea through a sugar cube and undermined their arguments with quotations from Fichte. The quotations were not to be found, however, in the volumes where he said they were. They were not anywhere.

He performed intellectual surgery using hairsplitting distinctions. At the age of nineteen, during spring break, he took up strolling through Prospect Park with a walking stick and a fedora. Even the pigeons stared at him. Not for him the beaches in Florida, or nudity in its physical form, or the vulgarity of joy. He did not often change clothes, preferring to wear the same shirt until it had become ostentatiously threadbare. He carried around the old-fashioned odor of bohemia. He was homely. His teachers feared him. Sometimes, while thinking, he appeared to daven like an Orthodox Jew.

He was an adept in both classical and popular cultures. For example, he had argued that after the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, Marion Crane isn't dead, but she isn't not-dead either, because the iris in her eyeball is constricted in that gigantic close-up matching the close-up of the shower drain. The irises of the dead are dilated. Hers are not. So, in some sense, she's still alive, though the blood is pouring out of her wounds.

When Norman Bates carries Marion Crane's body, wrapped in a shower curtain, to deposit in the trunk of her car for disposal, they cross the threshold together like a newly married couple, but in a backwards form, in reverse, a psychotic transvestite (as cross-dressers were then called) and a murdered woman leaving the room, having consummated something. The boy genius wouldn't stop to explain what a backwards-form marriage might consist of with such a couple, what its shared mortal occasion might have been. With him, you had to consider such categories carefully and conjure them up for yourself, alone, later, lying in bed, sleepless.

Here I have to perform a tricky maneuver, because I am implicated in everything that happened. The maneuver's logic may become clear before my story is over. I must turn myself into a "he" and give myself a bland Anglo-Saxon Protestant name. Any one of them will do as long as the name recedes into a kind of anonymity. The surname that I will therefore give myself is "Mason." An equally inconspicuous given name is also required. Here it is: "Nathaniel." So that is who I am: Nathaniel Mason. He once said that the name "Nathaniel" was cursed, as "Ahab" and "Judas" and "Lee Harvey" were cursed, and that my imagination had been poisoned at its source by what people called me. "Or else it could be, you know, that your imagination heaves about like a broken algorithm," he said, "and that wouldn't be so bad, if you could find another algorithm at the horizon of your, um, limitations."

He himself was Jerome Coolberg. A preposterous moniker, nonfictional, uninvented by him, an old man's name, someone who totters through Prospect Park stabilized with a cane. No one ever called him "Jerry." It was always "Jerome" or "Coolberg." He insisted on both for visibility and because as names they were as dowdy as a soiled woolen overcoat. Still, like the coat, the name seemed borrowed from somewhere. All his appearances had an illusionary but powerful electrical charge. But the electricity was static electricity and went nowhere, though it could maim and injure. By "illusionary" I mean to say that he was a thief. And what he tried to do was to steal souls, including mine. He appeared to have no identity of his own. From this wound, he bled to death, like Marion Crane, although for him death was not fatal.

Chapter Two

On a cool autumn night in Buffalo, New York, the rain has diminished to a mere streetlight-hallucinating drizzle, and Nathaniel Mason has taken off his sandals and carries them in one hand, the other hand holding a six-pack of Iroquois Beer sheltered against his stomach like a marsupial's pouch. He advances across an anonymous park toward a party whose address was given to him over the phone an hour ago by genially drunk would-be scholars. On Richmond? Somewhere near Richmond. Or Chenango. These young people his own age, graduate students like himself, have gathered to drink and to socialize in one of this neighborhood's gigantic old houses now subdivided into apartments. It is the early 1970s, days of ecstatic bitterness and joyfully articulated rage, along with fear, which is unarticulated. Life Against Death stands upright on every bookshelf.

The spokes of the impossibly laid-out streets defy logic. Maps are no help. Nathaniel is lost, being new to the baroque brokenness of this city. He holds the address of the apartment on a sopping piece of paper in his right hand, the hand that is also holding the beer, as he tries to read the directions and the street names. The building (or house—he doesn't know which it is) he searches for is somewhere near Kleinhans Music Hall—north or south, the directions being contradictory. His long hair falls over his eyes as he peers down at the nonsensical address.

The city, as a local wit has said, gives off the phosphorescence of decay. Buffalo runs on spare parts. Zoning is a joke; residential housing finds itself next to machine shops and factories for windshield wipers, and, given even the mildest wind, the mephitic air smells of burnt wiring and sweat. Rubbish piles up in plain view. What is apparent everywhere here is the noble shabbiness of industrial decline. The old apartment buildings huddle against one another, their bricks collapsing together companionably. Nathaniel, walking barefoot through the tiny park as he clutches his beer, his sandals, and the address, imagines a city of this sort abandoned by the common folk and taken over by radicals and students and intellectuals like himself—Melvillians, Hawthornians, Shakespeareans, young Hegelians—all of whom understand the mysteries and metaphors of finality, the poetry of lastness, ultimaticity—the architecture here is unusually fin de something, though not siecle, certainly not that—who are capable, these youths, of turning ruination inside out. Their young minds, subtly productive, might convert anything, including this city, into brilliance. The poison turns as if by magic into the antidote. From the resources of imagination, decline, and night, they will build a new economy, these youths, never before seen.

The criminal naivete of these ideas amuses him. Why not be criminally naive? Ambition requires hubris. So does idealism. Why not live in a state of historical contradiction? What possible harm can there be in such intellectual narcissism, in the Faustian overreaching of radical reform?

Even the upstate New York place-names seem designed for transformative pathos and comedy: "Parkside" where there is no real park, streets and cemeteries in honor of the thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore, best known for having introduced the flush toilet into the White House, and . . . ah, here is a young woman, dressed as he himself is, in jeans and t-shirt, though she is also wearing an Army surplus flak jacket, which fits her rather well and is accessorized with Soviet medals probably picked up from a European student black market. Near the curb, she holds her hand to her forehead as she checks the street addresses. She is, fortunately, also lost, and gorgeous in an intellectual manner, with delicate features and piercing eyes. Her brown hair is held back in a sort of Ph.D. ponytail.

They introduce themselves. They are both graduate students, both looking for the same mal-addressed party, a party in hiding. In homage to his gesture, she takes off her footwear and puts her arm in his. This is the epoch of bare feet in public life; it is also the epoch of instantaneous bondings. Nathaniel quickly reminds her—her name is Theresa, which she pronounces Teraysa, as if she were French, or otherwise foreign—that they have met before here in Buffalo, at a political meeting whose agenda had to do with resistance to the draft and the war. But with her flashing eyes, she has no interest in his drabby small talk, and she playfully mocks his Midwestern accent, particularly the nasalized vowels. This is an odd strategy, because her Midwestern accent is as broad and flat as his own. She presents herself with enthusiasm; she has made her banality exotic. She has met everyone; she knows everyone. Her anarchy is perfectly balanced with her hyperacuity about tone and timbre and atmosphere and drift. With her, the time of day is either high noon or midnight. But right now, she simply wants to find the locale of this damn party.

Again the rain starts.

Nathaniel and Theresa pass a park bench. "Let's sit down here for a sec," she says, pointing. She grins. Maybe she doesn't want to find the party after all. "Let's sit down in the rain. We'll get soaked. You'll be the Yin and I'll be . . . the other one. The Yang." She points her index finger at him, assigning him a role.

"What? Why?" Nathaniel has no idea what she is talking about.

"Why? Because it's so Gene Kelly, that's why. Because it's not done. No sensible person sits down in the rain." She salts the word "sensible" with cheerful derision. "It's not, I don't know, wise. There's the possibility of viral pneumonia, right? You'd have to be a character in a Hollywood musical to sit down in the rain. Anyway, we'll arrive at the party soaking wet. Our clothes will be attached to our skin, and we'll be visible." She seems to inflect all her adjectives unnecessarily. Also, she has a habit of laughing subvocally after every other sentence, as if she were monitoring her own conversation and found herself wickedly amusing. Together they do as she suggests, and she takes his hand in a moment of what seems to be spontaneous fellow feeling. "I can stand a little rain," she says quietly, fingering his fingers, quoting from somewhere. She leans back on the park bench to let the droplets fall into her eyes. To see her is heaven, Nathaniel thinks. No wonder she wears a flak jacket. They wait there. A minute passes. "Boompadoop-boom ba da boompadoopboom," she sings, Comden-and-Greenishly.

"Look at that," he says, pointing to a building opposite them. Through the second-floor window of a huge run-down house, the party that they have been seeking is visible. The nondifferentiated uproar of conversation floods out onto the street and makes its way to them in the drizzle. To his left, he sees a bum standing under a diseased elm, eyeing them. "That's it. That's us. There's the party. We found it."

Theresa straightens, squints, wiping water from her eyes. "Yes. You're right. There's the place. What a wreck. I hope it has a fire escape. Hey, I think I see that kid, Coolberg," she says. "Right there. Near the second window. On the right. See him?"

"Who?"

"Coolberg? Oh, he's a . . . something. Nobody knows what he is, actually. He hangs out. He has some grand destiny, he says, which he's trying to discover. On Tuesday last week he was going around saying that art is the pond scum on the stream of commerce, but on Thursday he was saying that art is not superstructural but constitutes the base. Well, he'd better decide which it is. He changes his mind a lot. He's a genius but very queer."

"Queer how?"

"Well, in the good way," Theresa says. She thoughtlessly puts her hand on his thigh and strokes it. "Maybe he'll tell you how he's being blackmailed. That's one of his best stories. Come on," she says.

After standing up, she twirls around a lamppost and then dances barefoot into the street, neatly avoiding a car before managing a splashing two-step into a puddle, holding out her sandals as props, a serious Marxist hoofer, this girl, and Nathaniel, who can't match her steps with his own, is stricken, as who would not be, by love-lightning for her. He follows her. The bum stays outside under the elm, watching them go.

In the apartment doorway everyone gets it. "You're soaked! That is so cool. This is very MGM, you two. Did you just kiss out there? Standing up or sitting down? Do you even know each other? Did you just meet? Are you guys in a Stanley Donen movie or a Vincente Minnelli movie? Have you been introduced? Do you need to be? Do you want to dry off or is that soaked look a thing that you'd like to keep going for a while? Want a joint, want a beer? The beer's in the kitchen and there's more out on the fire escape unless someone stole it or squirreled it away. Why not sit down right here, on this floor? There's whiskey if you want it. Is Marcuse correct about repressive tolerance or is 'repressive tolerance' another example of the collapse of that particular and once-viable Frankfurt Institut fur Sozialforschung nonsense? Buying off the masses with material goods? Well, everyone knows the answer to that question. Don't stand out there. Come in. Dry off. Join the party."

They do come in, they do attempt to dry off with kitchen rags, they drop their sandals in a pile of sneakers and boots and sandals by the door. Almost immediately, while Nathaniel is recalibrating his emotions in relation to the woman he has just partnered across the street, she disappears into another room. Holding a beer bottle (he has misplaced the six-pack that he himself had brought—perhaps it is still out on the bench in the park and is now being consumed by the elm-bum), he damply threads his way through the corridors of the party, long dreamlike hallways of grouped couples, trios, and quartets. His clothes stick to his skin. The smell of dope and cigarette smoke, the pollution produced by thought, mingles with the aroma of whatever is cooking in the tiny kitchen, where a whitish semi-liquid chive dip has been laid out on a gouged table, bread crusts of some sort piled on a plate nearby, and after he leans over for a bite of whatever it is, Nathaniel stops, pauses, before a disembodied conversation about Joseph Conrad's Eastern gaze on Western eyes—the novelist is treated with friendly condescension for writing a variety of Polish in English that mistakes particularity for substance—a conversation that transitions into the weekend's football game and the prospects of the Buffalo Bills. Someone in another room is singing "Which Side Are You On?" in a good tenor voice. Soon, having wandered in front of a phonograph, he hears, first Joe Cocker and, quickly after that, Edith Piaf, the turntable being of the old-fashioned type with a spindle and a stack of LPs slapping down, one after the other, a vinyl collage, "Non, je ne regrette rien," followed several minutes later by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, out of tune as usual, playing "Open Country Joy."

Excerpted from The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter Copyright © 2008 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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The Philosopher's Apprentice

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