Renee Feuer is a graduate student at Princeton. She, a philosopher, is writing her dissertation on “the mind-body problem,” a metaphysical debate about the relationship between the self (mind) and the physique (body). A follower of Cartesian dualism, Renee believes that the body and mind are separate entities, and that in some cases a person’s outward appearance can differ greatly from their inner self.
The novel shows this theory in action.
Renee has just married Noam Himmel, a world-renowned mathematician. Renee is attracted to Noam mostly because of his intelligence; she hopes that being accepted by him will make her feel smarter. It becomes clear that Noam is not satisfied with Renee’s intellectual abilities and instead wants her only for her physical features.
Renee is “the body,” being beautiful and desirable. Noam, of course, is “the mind.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is not a sustainable relationship.
Although not explicitly feminist, Mind-Body touches on themes common in the movement both in the 80’s and contemporarily. Renee, working in an androcentric field full of egocentric men, needs to prove her intellect to lovers and peers. This is unfair and wrong, and leads, of course, to self-doubt. When she compares herself to the brilliant Noam, she feels inferior. When looked at from a larger scope, Renee is highly intelligent, as the reader can tell from the prose as well as the character’s speech in the book. But neither her partners nor the Orthodox family she was raised by acknowledge this. She is the Other.
Worst of all, beauty stands prevents Renee from succeeding with her studies. The director of her program goes as far as to call her “marginal, very marginal.” In other words, useless.
The phrase, or perhaps cliche, “trapped in one’s own body,” comes to mind. What makes Renee attractive externally is the very thing that makes her internal self “marginal.” For Renee, the mind-body problem is more tragic than trivial.
Indeed, the protagonist imagines what life would be like with a man’s body. If she were male, she would be judged solely by the merits of her intellect. This is the case with Noam, of course; Himmel is homely but can still manage to woo Renee, not to mention win the highest honors in his field.
The first half of the book follows the descent of the Fuerer-Himmel marriage. Renee decides to look outside the marriage for love, preferring, oddly enough, Noam’s peers. She soon learns that these fellow Princetonians are not only uninterested in Renee, The Self, but have little desire to keep The Body around for much longer, too. Thus, the problem extends beyond a singular man.
While the narrative has a pretty clear ending point, the question of the mind and body has yet to be answered. Of course, Goldstein doesn’t set out to solve said problem. Such an answer would likely come from empirical data and careful research, not an anecdote of a young woman and her bad marriage.
The Mind-Body Problem, for better or for worse, is as much an academic work as it is a love story. The book is often alienating. I’m glad I bought it on Kindle because looking up a word or phrase (“ontological determinism”? Huh?) is as easy as tapping and highlighting.
If you feel scholarship and narrative shouldn’t cross paths, then this isn’t for you. However, if you’re familiar with the basics of philosophy and want a somewhat-salacious tale of Yiddishe love… this might be for you. The latter group, I’m sure, is smaller in number than the first, which might be why this novel isn’t exactly well-known.
Many stories that take place in academia refrain from diving into the weeds of higher knowledge and instead focus on the boom-boom-boom of the human heart. Goldstein’s novel does both, and it does both well.