'Sophie's World' -- a beach book to save civilization?

April 23, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I've just read a book that has been vastly successful all over the world but not in the United States, yet somehow to me feels characteristically American: affirmative, reaching, youthful in perception and attitude. It might well enrich your life in ways you cannot now imagine.

The book is "Sophie's World, A Novel about the History of Philosophy," by Jostein Gaarder (Translated by Paulette Moller. 403 pages. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $19). Mr. Gaarder is a Norwegian high school philosophy teacher, age 43.

"Sophie's World" has been the No. 1 best seller in Norway for three years and in Denmark for an entire year. It is now the top seller in Britain. It is on the market in 33 other countries. It has sold a million hard cover copies in Germany. It's hugely popular in Brazil, Japan, Korea. Yet in the U.S. only 50,000 copies are in print, far from a heavy sale.

Why not here? In significant part, I believe, because of the influences of the fanatic "political correctness" movement, the censorial multiculturalism sect. Both are regarded by thinking Europeans as somewhere between absurd and culturally criminal. (Consider making French, German, Italian "gender neutral.")

This book is categorically anti-fanatic. It rests on the very solid foundation of 3,000 years of Western philosophy. Yet it can be read, and easily understood, as light fiction, which it is as well.

Unless you already enjoy a ready awareness of the canon of Western philosophy, if you read this book you will learn something - as well as finding your mind enlivened, your process of looking at life and its events significantly jostled and jangled into wakefulness.

This is how it happens: Sophie, 14 going on 15, starts getting letters about the history of Western philosophy. At first they are anonymous, but the plot thickens and weaves, dodges and feints. By the time the process is done, she has been brought, with considerable fun and games, to existentialism and the logical positivists.

That process begins with a pair of questions: Who are you? Where does the world come from? There are lots of other questions, but the book never lets go of those.

The book goes further, playfully but effectively raising central questions about truth and reality, free will and awareness, about the meaning of time, in a series of internal puzzles for the characters. Are the main characters real or imaginary, they are forced to ask themselves. Can they escape the prison of their fictitiousness?

What's the point? Mr. Gaarder responds: "To wonder about life is not something we learn, it is something we forget."

For some, this may be a beach book, a bedside book. It is neither high literature nor deep scholarship. But it can be a studying book. You could spend a year reading it, a page at a time. Or in the spare time of two days you could read the whole thing.

Mr. Gaarder's distillations of complex concepts are nothing short of revelatory. By voicing everything at the level of a skeptical but energetic 14-year-old girl, he slaps the adult reader with a sort of motivation by embarrassment: If this kid can get it, what are you complaining about? And it works. The kid's mind is much more flexible than those of most of her elders.

The book neither pretends to be nor serves as a substitute for a liberal education or a solid university-level survey of philosophy. But it is a glorious provocation, a grand tumble.

It has a greater, grander value, however.

Though "Sophie's World" says nothing about them, in today's world, there are two great threats to civilization and long-range survival: blind mysticism and cultural proscriptiveness.

Chewy words. What do they mean? The first is historically more familiar: the substitution of superstition or magic tricks for reason and causal analysis. The second is the attempt to eradicate or reject the fabric and lessons of cultures. Its methods range from massive attempts to destroy unwanted truths and "ideas," as was so long practiced in the now defunct Soviet Union, to shouting down speakers in public debates.

In America today, the first of those threats looms on the far right. When you hear politicians insisting on their special personal connection with God, history warns us soon to expect the smell of burning human flesh.

The second threat comes from the not-so-far left. Certainly, among the promoters of "political correctness" and "multiculturism" there are people of admirably benevolent, humane and progressive intent. Rightly, they seek to bring into the intellectual mainstream virtues, insights and cultural riches that have been suppressed or ignored or neglected.

But the most powerful, and the dangerous, element of the multicultural movement is the force that, in the name of opening minds, seeks to extinguish knowledge. The characteristic and defining chant of that mob is "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go!"

These are the would-be thought-cops who propagandize book-burning on the argument that the bulk of Earth's accumulated culture can and should be dismissed as the product of "Dead White European Males." They infest, and dominate, many American university campuses.

Their core contention: There is as much intellectual, material and spiritual validity in the baying-at-the-moon rituals of Stone Age 00 societies as there is in three millennia of cumulative record of the world's best minds working in disciplined, reflective, recorded and re-examined analysis and discourse.

In that willful mindlessness lies the gravest peril. "Sophie's World" is an enchanting and persuasive, though unintended, response.

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