Epicurean Materialism


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Photo: Clemcal, via Flickr

Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.
―Baruch Spinoza

A little after nine, on the western outskirts of Berlin, we tried to find a bite. The first restaurant was filled with merry revelers and contained a video of a brightly burning log, but we were informed that a party was in progress, which went some way toward explaining the five dirndls, two pairs of lederhosen, and single loden jacket on the premises. That left us with a single option: the train-station restaurant.

The train-station restaurant appeared to be closed but was in fact merely deserted. A visibly drunk waiter gave us our choice of any table in the two massive dining rooms. Both were funereal, brightly lit by a series of 1980s chandeliers and enlivened by sepulchral muzak. The menu was strange and dubiously cross-cultural; we ordered dumplings. The drunk waiter conferred with a man in chef’s whites in the corner while they stared at us.

Some minutes later, the chef himself approached our table. They were out of everything but turkey dumplings, he said. Would we like turkey dumplings? The answer was obviously no, but we smiled and said, Of course, and sure enough, the turkey dumplings appeared. Aware of potential scrutiny, we feigned great enthusiasm. The drunk waiter, who had started hiccuping cartoonishly, wove by a couple of times. To our immense relief, a small group of Japanese tourists wandered in and sat on the other side of the dining room.

It was at about this time that the chef reappeared at our table. He was carrying a plastic bag and smiling mysteriously. From the bag, he removed a book. He put it down on the table with an air of revelation. We looked at it. It was a German copy of Spinoza’s Ethics.

“Spinoza!” he said.

“Ja!” we agreed.

Had we read it? He asked. Not for a while, we said apologetically. (I wasn’t even sure the survey-course translation I’d read ought to count.) But we’d heard of it? Ja, ja! We said. Natürlich! I should add here that the chef did not really speak English. Which is to say, his English was about a thousand percent better than the average American’s German, and two thousand percent better than ours, but between us, there was very little possibility of having an in-depth philosophical dialogue. If, indeed, this is what was expected.

Yet, over the course of the next few minutes, he managed to communicate that he loved Spinoza very much. When he was sixty, he said, he planned to travel to Leiden and study Spinoza properly. He was now fifty-eight. I was jet-lagged, but tears still pricked at my eyes. 

My friend recommended a book to him; he copied down the title with the air of one who takes recommendations seriously. Then he wrote down his contact information for us: name, e-mail address, phone number. He had a clear and handsome hand. Would we let him know, he said, if we heard anything about Spinoza? We assured him we would. We parted on warm terms.

“When you think about it,” said my friend, “turkey dumplings are a very Spinozan dish.” It was true.

We had thought to stay on a little, but then the waiter came around, turned out the lights, and slurred that he wanted to close and that we’d all have to leave. I am not sure whether the other party got to finish their meal. When we did exit, it was to find our friend the chef sitting outside smoking a cigarette. He hailed us. “Spinoza!” he said. We nodded happily. And then things went strange. “I go to Leiden when I am sixty,” he said. “I am going to be King of Europe! I am Catholic!” And, “Like Nostradamus, the prophecy, you know? Catholic! King of Europe!”

“Oh,” said my friend dejectedly, when we were out of earshot. “I guess he’s crazy.”

We heard his voice then, from behind us:  “See you later, alligator! In a while, crocodile!”

Like a griffin will come the King of Europe, Accompanied by those of “Aquilon”: He will lead a great troop of red ones and white ones, And they will go against the King of Babylon.
—Nostradamus, Prophecy Eighty-Six