The Philosopher's Apprentice NPR coverage of The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Philosopher's Apprentice

The Philosopher's Apprentice

by James Morrow

Hardcover, 411 pages, Harpercollins, List Price: $25.95 |

purchase

Buy Featured Book

Title
The Philosopher's Apprentice
Author
James Morrow

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

Taking a job tutoring an amnesia victim whose conscience has disappeared with her memory, failed philosopher Mason Ambrose is amazed when his pupil thoroughly studies his morality curriculum and then sets out to remake the world in her own image.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about The Philosopher's Apprentice

Knowledge, and Danger, in Two New Novels

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89463350/89463349" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Philosopher's Apprentice

The Philosopher's Apprentice

A Novel


HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2008 James Morrow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061351440

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 postrationalist 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, voilà: 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."

Continues...