Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Will to Matter: Why Sex Can Never Triumph Over Metaphysics

I am re-reading Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem for my Philosophy of Mind class. This time around, while I should be focusing on the relevant themes to my course, I keep analyzing the motives of her protagonist, Renee Feuer.

Renee is a graduate student at Princeton, obsessed with the Mind-Body problem, but perhaps even more obsessed with her need to matter. And I love the play on words: to matter is both an intellectual /moral judgement, as well as a material affair--to be a body that exists in the world. Renee oscillates throughout the novel between the life of the mind and the life of the body, and she pursues, sexually, those "gods" on her own personal "mattering map" who she hopes will finally make her matter:

For the smart are the masters in my mattering region. And if you gain power over them, then through the transitivity of power you too are powerful (1983, 96)
The first time I read this book, I didn't dwell much on Renee's particular spin on the mind-body problem. Historically, when philosophers debate they mind-body problem, they are either trying to grapple with establishing the existence of other minds or unravelling the problem of personal identity. I tended to see Renee as preoccupied with the former question. And, yet, Renee, as Goldstein portrays her, is not consumed with the question, how do I know what others are thinking, or that others think, or that other people think like I do?

Rather, she is consumed with a need for the Other (in good old Sartrean fashion) to recognize that she exists. But not just any Other, it must be someone of great importance on her mattering map. Hence, Renee's quest is essentially narcissistic (or solipsistic, if you will). Renee bumps up against the horrific sense that we are all alone; she rebels against this void by seeking one who will devote himself to making her matter, which means to making her feel that she is not alone, isolated, and therefore insignificant to others. Like Sartre, she casts this need of the recognition of the Other to matter in sexual terms.

There it was once again: the ineradicable separateness of consciousness. The world he inhabits is his alone--with precious few of its details expressible in language and thus accessible to us. Others. How I would love to slip into his world and see thing as he does, to merge our two worlds like two drops of water. That would be to become one with him--for we are our worlds, just as Leibniz said (But windowless?) Of course, one bumps into the metaphysical facts. How close can we get? One penetrates the other, the other is penetrated, but we never break through. Sex is a battle against metaphysics. (1983, 239)

What really strikes me as interesting about this passage is that Renee's desire to "merge our two worlds like two drops of water" is not motivated at all by an interest in the Other; rather it is motivated by her own insatiable desire to escape her profound sense that she is not so important on her own mattering map. Her loneliness is not borne from a sense of isolation from others, it is borne, rather, from a sense that others don't value her enough, and more importantly, in ways that would put her at the center of her own mattering map.

Towards the end of the novel, Renee (whose name alludes to Descartes, i.e. the mind) starts an adulterous affair with Daniel Korper (the body). His lovemaking is exquisite to her, precisely because he attends so intently to her body, to her "feminine sexuality," in a way that finally makes her matter (in both senses of the word). Sensing that the affair is about to end, that Daniel will abandon her to her sense of loneliness again (particularly because she is in a loveless marriage), she protests, declaring her love and need for him to stay with her.

"I'm sorry, Renee," he finally said. "I can't do it for you. You would like a passion to sweep you away beyond decision, beyond responsibility. You won't find such a passion, at least not in this bed." He paused, and then went on. "I won't be distilled into the essence of your life. I don't have the taste for such things, not anymore." He got up and pulled up his pants. "If you want to leave your husband, leave him. But don't do it for me. Don't do it for any man."

His response is more De Beauvoirian than Sartrean (I keep thinking of De Beauvoir's brutal acount of the "Woman in Love" from The Second Sex). Her motives are laid bare; she does not want to resolve the mind-body problem in some cool, disinterested and curious way that one might associate with a more technical (analytic ?) philosopher. Rather, she wants to establish the existence of Other minds in order to justify her own existence.

This last point is what is really interesting about the novel. Because when it ends, it is clear that she has failed, utterly failed, to understand, to know her husband. A woman so consumed with the need to understand Other minds, albeit seeing them only through her own mattering map (conceptual scheme), is bad at it. She had interpreted Noam's (her husband) treatment of her as a sign that he had finally discovered that she did not mater any more. But, this was not the source of his aggression; rather, he had lost his own sense of identity, by losing his mathematical powers. He blamed her at first for distracting him from his work only to realize that the fault lie in his own degraded state.

Renee becomes moved by his suffering and tries to tell him that he needs no justification--that even though he has lost his genius, he has value in the fact he is a person (a very Kantian approach) and not for what he bequeaths to Others or the world. Noam does not take well to this consolation and the last pages of the novel are devoted to Renee lamenting the fact that she cannot console Noam to see that he needs no justification. However, the reader can see plainly why he would not (could not) believe her. She herself has constructed a world in which one much strive to matter, and matter in a particular way, to an elite group of Others. She is preoccupied with justification.

I have rehearsed all of this to you, dear readers, because in this episode lies an important insight, one that I am only now mature enough (grown up enough?) to notice: that the motives for loving the other make all the difference to the health (longevity) of the relationship. Those who choose partners, with the sole intention of justifying their existence--of fulfilling their will to matter--are the most prone to cheat, to turn to others when their partner no longer makes them the center of their own mattering map.

Don't get me wrong. The passages describing Korper's lovemaking are rapacious; they inspire in me the desire to be so loved. And yet, I couldn't help but ask myself how long such a intense passion, a stolen passion, can really last, particularly if it is fueled by ones' own solipsistic need to matter. So, I appreciate, in a way, that at the end of the novel, Noam's suffering finally rips her out of her own preoccupations and forces her to confront that essentially we do, in fact, have access to Others. We can share their sorrow, we can recognize our own battles with loss, and in those relations to the Other, we are, perhaps, overcoming the mind-body problem.