War of Contraries: Properties of Light; A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics

By Burstein, Janet | Tikkun, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

War of Contraries: Properties of Light; A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics


Burstein, Janet, Tikkun


War of Contraries: Properties of Light; A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics

Janet Burstein, professor of English at Drew University, has published Writing Mothers, Writing Daughters, about American Jewish women writers. Her new book, Telling the Little Secrets, is about American Jewish writers of the last two decades.

From kindergarten through graduate school we measure ourselves by the smart answers we contrive. But the trajectory of Rebecca Goldstein's work suggests that deeper understandings may come instead from the questions we're willing to live with and from our readiness to reconfigure them. Like the rest of us, her protagonists know what it means to live among irreconcilable differences: conflicting loyalties and appetites, incompatible intellectual, ethnic, and gender commitments. Goldstein--who won a MacArthur grant in 1996 and whose stories have won numerous prizes--often returns in her work to a core of persistent questions that rise from such conflicts. Her most recent novel, Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics, reconfigures those questions within a context of romantic and family love among physicists who know the best of all worlds because they care as much for poetry and religious literature as for scientific abstractions.

In this novel Goldstein tells the story of three gifted physicists: father (Samuel Mallach), daughter (Dana), and daughter's lover (Justin Childs), revisiting from a male narrator's perspective not only what the author once called "the plight of women of genius," but also the persistent conflicts that her first, widely read novel explored. The earlier novel, The Mind-Body Problem (1983), allowed its female narrator-protagonist to ricochet between mind and body, work and sex, traditional Judaism and secularism. Properties of Light, however, demonstrates through its characters, its plot, its structure and texture that difference is real, but conflict is what we make of it.

The novel envisions character in a new way, accepting the influences that drive people toward different ends but showing that one can move easily, gracefully, among them. The energy of Dana Mallach's passion, for example, flows as readily into equations as into filial and erotic love. Her father can translate physics into dance. He feels "the physics within himself, within the muscles of his own body," and on a "darkening afternoon" he dances for Justin "the motions of light in the two slit experiment, his arms held limply over his gangly body as he moved." In him, sexual and emotional energy flow into intellectual passion. The Tantric discipline of erotic love that Dana and Justin study, believing it the prelude to scientific inspiration, makes the same point: that energy can move between body, mind, and spirit, allowing process to link what had always seemed to be incompatible forms of human experience. Thus the mind/body division that disfigured experience for Goldstein's earlier protagonists is not resolved but rather "reconfigured" here, as her characters translate feelings into ideas, and both into movements which literally embody them--and vice versa.

In Justin the novel develops further insight into what seems to be its central precept: that "All things linked are. Thou canst not stir a flower, without troubling of a star." He contains within himself what Blake (like Yeats and other poets, a presence in this novel) would have called a war of contraries. He defines himself primarily as a creature of the mind: as he works on Samuel's discredited hypothesis about the nature of reality, he notes "the deep cold excitement I feel when I am coming into some new knowledge, a sort of icy bliss, it carries me away beyond myself, for I am always, always a thing that would know." A mathematician, Justin loves best the cold of winter and the dark night sky.

But he is also powerfully drawn to Dana, a creature of "furious light." He watches her at night through glass doors that

break her house open to transparency, so that there is a dazzling eruption of unloosed light . …

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