Like so many mysteries, it started with a body. While Russell Shorto was working on The Island at the Center of the World, his best-selling history of New York City’s Dutch origins, he came across a footnote about René Descartes. Specifically, it was about what happened to the French philosopher’s body after his death in 1650.
Descartes was one of the great philosophers of modernity, the first to propose that the mind and the body, reason and faith, could be seen as two separate spheres. Yet when his remains were exhumed in 1666, they were divided on the same lines as his own mind-body problem. His skull was stolen and placed in a cabinet of scientific curiosities. His bones were buried in a church in Paris, where they were revered by his followers as if they were the relics of a saint. When he learned this, Shorto began to wonder whether the line between religion and the Enlightenment was as clear as it seemed.
Descartes spent most of his working life in the Netherlands, so Shorto came here to do research for the book that became Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason (Doubleday, 2008). Since 2007, he has lived in Amsterdam full-time. Just back to his apartment on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal from a book tour in the United States, he talked about history, modernity and why an atheist can’t win an American election.
Why this book?
I think I first encountered this fact about the bones in 2003—not long after September 11, 2001. Everybody was saying, ‘Apparently Western values are under attack.’ But what are Western values? This book was my non-standard way of trying to go at that question.
The whole problem of September 11, and now basically the entire Bush years, has been this rise of fundamentalism around the world: Muslim, Christian, and also secular atheist. You have people like [Richard] Dawkins and [Christopher] Hitchens saying, ‘Look, in the West, in the past few hundred years, we’ve developed these tools, this way of seeing things, and we’ve learned that religion is part of the infancy of our species. We need to grow up.’
But as I detail in the book, it’s not a black-and-white question of the theological versus the secular perspective. Really there are two secular perspectives, one radical and one moderate. And the moderate has always seen it as the job of reason to incorporate the irrational into our understanding of things. Because reason isn’t something that fits over all of reality, and certainly not over all of human experience.
That’s what I think is the flaw in the whole Christopher Hitchens argument. It’s reductionist. It’s too wild a world.
I can understand saying that organized religion has created more problems than it’s solved. But the underlying essence of trying to contemplate things that are beyond reason’s ability to contemplate—that’s why we have religion and art. Those things are valid.
I think this conflict helps explain why people are looking forward so much to this election. They see Bush as having been very much a player in this battle of fundamentalisms that egg each other on, and they are looking for some other way of approaching things.
So which candidate represents the move away from fundamentalism?
I think you can explain both Obama and McCain that way. McCain is a very strange choice for the Republicans; he’s a kind of non-Republican. He’s always kept the Christian conservative wing at bay—until recently. And I think Obama’s a pragmatist; he’s not a real ideologue either. In both of them, as well as in the overall spirit of the times, there’s this hunger to move on, past this kind of pointed dichotomy [between religion and atheism]. That’s Descartes’ bones in the election, as far as I’m concerned.
Do you think we could have an American president who was an atheist or didn’t go to church?
Well, that’s such a huge difference between Americans and Europeans, but—Americans’ faith is public, it’s part of the public discourse, and that’s held to be good. Because Americans are overwhelmingly religious, it’s part of your bio, part of your résumé. It certainly doesn’t matter to me, but I think it would be very hard [for an atheist] to get elected. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, but I don’t know. Americans are very stubborn on that point.
Your first book was about the search for the historical Jesus, the second about religion and psychiatry. And you studied philosophy. Did you have personal reasons to write Descartes’ Bones?
I was born and raised Catholic, and left it very dramatically when I was a teenager. So my first book was a way for me to come back at it from a rational perspective—and to reach this conclusion, that you can be as rational as you want, but you’re not going to get that thing, that leap. So this basic divide between reason and faith has always been a challenge for me.
And for some people, history matters. Like that building across the canal. [He points out his front windows.] Some people will walk by and say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ Others will feel, or want to feel, a connection to everything that’s come before. And I think I have that—at least intermittently.
So that’s always an important part of what I do as a writer: try to find out what’s underneath. I don’t think I’m going to unearth anything of grand importance, but just for myself, if I’m going to try to know a thing, I want to get down as far as I can.
You’re thinking of writing a book about Amsterdam, aren’t you?
Yes, one that would mix history with the present.
And you’re working on a book with Geert Mak?
A very small book. He and I have each written an essay about Henry Hudson for the Hudson Year, 2009 [the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New York]. He did the first part, using Hudson in Amsterdam as a way to talk about the Dutch world in the 17th century. And then he kind of pushes him out to sea, and I pick him up there and bring him to New York. The book will be given out free on KLM flights between Amsterdam and New York.
What do you think of the claim, in recent Dutch debates about history, that establishing a Dutch historical canon and teaching the country’s history in schools unfairly excludes immigrants?
I think that’s completely silly. If you’re, say, Peruvian, and you come to the Netherlands, it’s absurd to think that Dutch history should somehow include the history of Peru, in order to make you feel that you’re part of things. Your job is to hold together your own personality and sense of things, and you do that by taking in what this culture gives you and blending it with what you learn from your parents, and the books your mother gives you about your home country, and all of that. You have your own identity that you piece together, and what this society chooses to do in terms of reinforcing its history and culture is part of that. It’s not the whole thing.
I think it’s useful to have some kind of canon, something that gives a basic awareness. All the information kids take in on the internet, for instance—that’s not education, that’s just stuff. It’s not the same as providing a framework.
Canons are good even if mostly what you do is react against them. It’s good to have structure.
That’s what you do in your book, too: provide a framework for thinking about the Enlightenment.
Amsterdam Weekly, November 6, 2008. We spoke on Nov. 3, when we didn’t yet know that Barack Obama would win the election in America.