The Atheist in the Attic
by Samuel R. Delany
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 13, 2022
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Another in the "Outspoken Authors" series from PM Press, several of which I have purchased, but I got this and a few others free from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. All the free ones were published years ago, so I wasn't under a time constraint for reviewing. I decided I would review them at the same time as other books by each author. This one came out in 2018 on Delany's 76th birthday. I reviewed quite of few of his books in 2014-15, when he was named SFWA Grand Master, and recently went back to an early work I didn't get to then. You can find links to all of those pages by clicking on his name above. "The Atheist in the Attic" is a non-SF novella, published complete for the first time in this book, although the copyright page says it appeared in the literary journal Conjunctions in two parts in 2016. I only found the first part in their archives, but not everything is available online. Sadly, just a few days after searching there I saw an article at Locus that said they are closing up shop after forty years, but will maintain the website as long as possible. Delany will be one of the authors celebrating the 40th anniversary with a reading in July. [UPDATE: Now just a few days later they are rethinking that decision, and may continue after all.]
What follows will be as much about the men and their times as it is this specific story. It could be considered non-fiction since it involves historical figures, but it's also somewhat fictional because certain details might not be known about the meetings between Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza in November of 1676. Wikipedia's page on Leibniz mentions the meetings without any elaboration, and the Spinoza page doesn't offer any more insight, other than they might have discussed Spinoza's Ethica, which he had been working on for several years, even though it was not published until after his death. The story is told in first-person by Leibniz in his journal, but it would take a lot more research than I have time for to find out if that journal was ever published, or read by anyone else, or if it's a complete fabrication. No, I think we have to view this as Delany's speculation as to what they discussed, along with other things Leibniz was thinking about at that time, basing it on other writings by the two men. Other than a short preface supposedly written years later, the journal entries in this story were all written on the evening following their first meeting, although they met at least two other times in the days following. This was about three months prior to Spinoza's death. The meetings took place at Spinoza's home in The Hague. He was a philosopher and writer, but he made his living as a lens grinder. Leibniz found that fascinating, since on this trip he also intended to meet with van Leeuwenhoek. The lens grinding likely contributed to Spinoza's death from a lung disease like silicosis, due to inhaling fine glass dust.
Leibniz was a polymath, a true renaissance man, educated on a wide array of disciplines, beginning with philosophy, then the law, as well as mathematics, and several areas of science. He was also a multi-linguist, writing in at least three languages, conversant in six or more. He was self taught in maths, inspired by his meeting Christiaan Huygens. His wikipedia page says he was considered by some to be the "Father of Computer Science." He designed and built mechanical calculators, and refined the binary number system. He became aware of Spinoza's writings through Henry Oldenburg, a German colleague. At the time of the meetings with Spinoza, he was employed as a diplomat for Duke John Frederick of Brunswick. He was to meet with several people on the trip at the behest of his employer, although he kept the meetings with Spinoza a secret at the time. One other thing about Leibniz that colors my perception of this story is he was also known for deception. At various times he was accused of back-dating some of his work to make it appear his ideas were older than they were, and was accused by Isaac Newton of stealing his notes on calculus. Thus we can't trust everything he says here, nor what he reports as Spinoza's statements. I also have to wonder what Delany might know about Leibniz that led him to spend so much time on the discussion of a certain servant in the household of his friend in Amsterdam, with whom he was staying between his other meetings.
Along with the philosopical discussions, another good thing is it compelled me to research these men and the time period, most of which I only had the vaguest notions before. Neither Leibniz or Spinoza were atheists in the strictest sense, although the latter was accused as such by others at various times. I gather that Leibniz was at most a Deist, or maybe an agnostic in later life. Spinoza was Jewish by heritage, but was critical of organized religion of all stripes. The more I read about him, the more I feel he expressed many of my own spiritual and political opinions. Volume 31 of Britannica's Great Books of the Western World covers several works by Descartes (a strong influcence on Spinoza), as well as Spinoza's Ethica. I need to read that book while my mind is on these ideas, although I will probably put if off as I have for those books for too many years. I wish it also included Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, because it is implied that may have had an influence on Dutch society, mostly not in a good way. Only a few years before their meetings, the Dutch had been involved in wars with both England and France, as well as suffering internal strife. Spinoza's treatise featured his thoughts on how the state and religion should be balanced, as well as on the nature of God, all of which was met with vehement oppostion by many. He did have supporters, but they were in the minority. Most particularly in his corner were Cornelis and Johan (called Jan in this story) De Witt. Cornelis had been imprisoned, and when Jan came to visit with him, they were both tortured and lynched.
1672 in the Netherlands was known as the Rampjaar, the "Disaster Year." Three words came to describe the turmoil; the people were "redeloos," the government was "radeloos," and the country in general was "reddeloos." Those terms might have slightly different interpretations based on the source, but as Spinoza relates them here, "In the rampjaar, the year of the disaster, the people were deranged, the government was desperate, and the countryside totally insane." The De Witt's were stripped and hung upside down, while a mob cut them to pieces, some of which they ate. Cannibalism was also evident in the countryside, where peasants were starving due to the war, since their crops had been requistioned for the army. Spinoza's refutation of the Torah as legitimate, and his thoughts on the nature of God, led to Jewish authorities to issue a herem against him, equivalent to excommunication from the Catholic Church. Some branded him an atheist, but he wasn't. He never denied the existence of God, only in how the Divine interacted with humanity. His ideas transcended just Judaism, as witnessed by the fact that shortly after his death, all of his writings were added to the Catholic Index of Forbidden Works.
As for the story's title, Leibniz references the accusations against Spinoza in two different entries. The first time he says it is his recollection of what Spinoza said about it: "If they try to arrest me for atheism...I will simply have our friend here [his landlady] tell them I am hiding in the attic, when in fact I have gone out into the world to walk among the winter drifts by the canal..."
Later he claims to have remembered the statement verbatim: "Trying to arrest me for atheism, given the specificity of my arguments, is like hunting for a man hiding in the attic of a building that has none, when in truth he is sitting in the back garden of another house, working diligently on his own concerns, in another neighborhood entirely."
It's a toss-up as to which is correct, or if both are Leibniz (or Delany) putting words into Spinoza's mouth. Maybe if I ever get around to reading more of his work I'll know for sure. But I suspect Spinoza was no more an atheist than I am, merely a man trying to interpret his own experiences in the world as best he could. The reference to the garden in the last quote probably relates to something he had said earlier about how he came to differentiate between the will of God and the nature of the physical world. I also wonder if it was the same garden in which Leibniz spent a few moments the afternoon before their first meeting.
Also in this book is a short biography of Delany, a complete (at that time) bibliography, an interview conducted by the series' general editor Terry Bisson, and an essay originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction in 1998. "Racism in Science Fiction" is both a personal tale, as well as an overview of the systemic racism in publishing. Just before Delany accepted his first Nebula trophy, an author from the Golden Age made a speech that essentially was "What's this genre coming to?" That author is identified in the interview, as well as the person who influenced his speech. It turned out the rant came from someone who had not yet read Delany's book, but later when he did he was man enough to admit he had been wrong, and in fact became one of Delany's strongest supporters. That was Frederik Pohl, who would later acquire several of Delany's stories for the various magazines he edited, as well as helping edit, publish, and champion Dhalgren. The person who had told Pohl about how bad Babel-17 was? Lester Del Rey. In spite of the fact things have improved since the mid-60s, it is also evident they have not changed enough. People of color and other marginalized voices still have a hard time finding their place in an industry that has a never-ending supply of mediocre white cis-het authors. Publishing and editing positions are also predominately white, mainly because a lot of those jobs are in New York or other very expensive cities, but also don't pay enough for those who may not have the financial support of trusts or other family wealth. Covid has shown that many of those jobs can be done remotely, which if that continued (but might not), more people would have the chance to work in the industry without having to upend their lives to move to an expensive city. I'm sure we'll be discussing these issues for many, many years.
Even with the success Delany has had, he still faces some pushback from the mainstream publishing houses, since he is hardly within the mainstream. He reports that the advance for a recent novel was no better than he received for his early work, and it was released by a small press. Whether that's because he is black, or due to the book's subject matter, I can't say at this time. By the way, in the past I have occasionally capitalized Black, but Delany's preference is it shouldn't be. Then again, that could just be his own opinion, others might disagree. Similar to how I've seen some Latin American authors embrace the term Latinx, while others don't like it. Since I'm white I doubt my opinion or preference matters, but I might stop capitalizing it, but also might not go back and edit other pages where I did capitalize it. [EDIT: I just looked back at my profile article on Delany, and I did not capitalize it there, but may have on review pages for some of his books.] In either case, I'll continue to read, and re-read, Delany, as well as many other black authors, current and past. I suggest you do the same.
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