The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
25 June 2008
Henry and I exchanged bewildered glances. In recent years I'd beheld Max Crippen's sculpture of the Crucifixion rendered entirely in Lego, Valerio Caparelli's Norman Rockwel-style painting of God inseminating the Virgin Mary on their first date, and Leonard Steele's rock opera set in the Vatican's luxury suite for retired paedophile priests, but what Edwina and Charnock had achieved was sacrilege of a wholly different order: blasphemy beyond the meaning of the word. (pp.76-7)
Though both are steeped in unreality, there's an important distinction between fantasy and absurdity. If fantasy is the art of making the reader think seriously about things which are weird or outright impossible, absurdity invites us to take nothing seriously—not even the mundane, which in the absurdist author's hands is made ridiculous. The distinction, in other words, is driven by tone. Like his previous novel, The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow's The Philosopher's Apprentice is told in a drily humorous tone, one which is made even more so by its deliberate and ornate formality.
In The Last Witchfinder, a historical fantasy set in the 17th and 18th centuries and narrated by Newton's Principia Mathematica, these linguistic gymnastics were presumably used for the purpose of creating, if not verisimilitude, then at least a sense of otherness through which the novel's readers might be transported to another era and its different modes of thought. In The Philosopher's Apprentice Morrow can have had no such goal. Set in the present (or in a near future all but indistinguishable from it), it begins with Mason Ambrose, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at a Boston college, hitting upon the topic for his dissertation, which he titles "Towards a Materialist Deontology" (later changed by his advisor to "Ethics From the Earth")—a study of the moral lessons imparted by the natural world. When this neo-Darwinian creed raises the hackles of an evangelical member of the philosophy department who gets himself placed on Mason's dissertation review board, the stage is set for the spectacular implosion of Mason's academic career, an event which leaves him wide open to the advances of Edwina Sabacthani, billionaire and genius scientist. Edwina offers Mason a huge sum of money to relocate to her private island off the Florida Keys and become the tutor to her teenaged daughter Londa. Or rather, to become Londa's rehabilitator, following an accident which has left her with the most peculiar type of brain injury—the inability to tell right from wrong.
When one considers that in addition to Morrow's deliberately old-fashioned prose (Mason "[cringes] to hear such a dumb, folksy locution escape [his] lips" (p. 9), Edwina "expounded upon the sorry condition of Londa's conscience" (p. 24), Londa "finally conceded that self-mutilation was not essential to the pursuit of ethics, but her words sprang more from acquiescence than assent." (p. 57)), The Philosopher's Apprentice is generously seasoned with punning, semi-alliterative, or just plain weird names (people named Felix Pielmeister, Alexander Hornbeam, or Percival Sarnac; restaurants called Tasty Triffid or Tao of Sprouts; a children's television show titled Professor Oolong's Oompah-pah Zoo; non-profit organizations with acronyms like BUBBA: Baptists Against Butchery, Bestiality, and Abomination), it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the novel's readers are being strenuously urged to read it as an elaborate joke. There's nothing wrong with trying to be funny (unless of course you're not successful at it), but with The Philosopher's Apprentice Morrow appears to be aiming less for laughs than for a sense of otherworldliness, or unreality, that goes beyond fantasy—the kind of irrationality that permeates, for example, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. It's not so much that the worlds of these books are different than ours, as that their definitions of normalcy are slightly askew.
Mason's early experiences on the evocatively named Isla de Sangre are quite obviously intended to recall Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau. Soon after his arrival on the island, Mason is confronted with the products of Edwina and her assistant Vincent Charnock's research—genetically engineered lobsters, feathered lizards, a tree with mammalian circulatory and nervous systems—and upon exploring the island he discovers that it has been trisected into discrete realms. In one of them he finds the child Donya, who also claims to be Edwina's daughter, and shares her sister's moral affliction. In the third he finds the abomination described in this review's opening passage—a vat-grown fetus accelerated to adolescence before his eyes, and dubbed Yolly by her mother, Edwina. The three girls, Edwina reveals, are her clones, a self-centered attempt to experience motherhood in all its facets before a terminal illness claims her life.
The first segment of The Philosopher's Apprentice, in other words, is a thought experiment made flesh. Imagine that it were possible for a person to be a truly blank slate, to come into being fully formed at the age of five, or eleven, or seventeen, with all the practical skills required for successfully navigating the world at that age—language, the ability to use tools, creative problem-solving (a contraption of Edwina's invention conveniently furnishes the three girls with these)—but with no life experiences, and none of the lessons through which most of us stumble into a half-formed, ill-defined moral code. How would one go about helping such a person develop a conscience?
It's a fascinating question (though admittedly also a silly and contrived one) but one which Morrow, to the reader's disappointment, seems more interested in getting past than delving into. Mason sets Londa (who conveniently possesses the capacity to inhale and effortlessly comprehend thick tomes and discursive philosophical texts) reading assignments, and engages her in role playing exercises of the kind we might remember from junior high social studies lessons—if a poor man is dying and the only pharmacist in town refuses to lower his prices, is it right for his wife to steal medicine for him? Morrow's interest lies less in the process and more in the result—a latter-day Joan of Arc, determined to save the world from starvation, poverty, disease, misogyny, racism, environmental exploitation, and all the other ills perpetrated by those she dubs 'Phyllistines,' whom Mason leaves, at the end of his period of tutelage, with the uncomfortable impression of having unleashed on the unsuspecting world a benevolent monster.
When the novel rejoins Londa more than a decade after she and Mason part ways, she has become a figure of both fame and infamy, a saint of secular humanism and a demon to the American right. Mason, meanwhile, is back in Boston living in comfortable anonymity and connubial bliss with his young wife Natalie, both of which are shattered when a sick and deranged man shows up on their doorstep claiming to be their son, the product of an abortion only several months past, plucked out of a medical waste basin and accelerated to adulthood through the same process that gave the world Londa and her sisters. (In keeping with the already-established theme of referencing classic science fiction works driven by the irresponsible use of technology, this segment is highly reminiscent of the middle parts of Frankenstein.)
Soon other couples are undergoing the same hellish experience, as thousands of reconstituted fetuses (somewhat nonsensically dubbed "immaculoids"), brainwashed with the cutting edge in anti-abortion propaganda, descend upon an unsuspecting populace, and, having properly terrorized their parents, march on Londa's compound, a putative city on the hill named Themispolis, and burn it to the ground. A grief-stricken Londa vows not revenge but rehabilitation—"You'll be happy to hear that I'm planning a different destiny for the Phyllistines. It's fine to love your enemies, but it's even better to cure them" (p. 242). Taking advantage of a vanity project called Titanic Redux, in which a copy of the doomed ocean liner (blah blah technological arrogance blah) attempts to recreate, successfully, its predecessor's aborted voyage, Londa hijacks the ship and sets its passengers—billionaires, CEOs, lawmakers and lobbyists—to work doing menial and exhausting labour in subhuman conditions and polluted surroundings in the hopes of making them see the error of their ways, with predictably disastrous results.
Londa proceeds from her creation towards her destruction with the grim inevitability of a greek tragedy, and is impelled towards that ending by the same fatal flaw that drives so many of those works—hubris. In the novel's final third, she is repeatedly compared to both Joan of Arc (albeit a saint of science, not God) and Frankenstein's monster, and the audience is inevitably forced to conclude, long before her tragedy has run its course, that in the words of James Hurlbut, she belongs dead. But why? The crux of The Philosopher's Apprentice is a question for which Morrow seems to have very little time or care. He has Mason suggest, for example, that Londa's troubles begin when Mason introduces her to Christianity and the Beatitudes, a suggestion that is never challenged, and therefore seems to stand for Morrow's position too.
In retrospect it all seems inevitable. Here was a young woman whose encounter with Stoicism had inspired her to burn her palm; the Beatitudes were bound to loosen a few screws as well. But what really got under Londa's skin, I soon learned, was not the Messiah's sermon per se but the discontinuity between its sublime directives and the ignominious course of Western history ... What had gone wrong? She wanted to know. When and why had the teachings of Jesus Christ become an optional component of Christianity? (p. 111-2)
To accept this interpretation, however, is to reduce The Philosopher's Apprentice to a glib anti-religious satire, and while this may very well have been Morrow's aim (certainly his depictions of Londa's evangelical, religious right enemies all seem to fall into this category), there are elements of the novel that don't sit well with it, most particularly Mason's preoccupation with Londa's unnatural origin, and his conviction that it is this original sin of Edwina's that somehow renders Londa monstrous. "You didn't hire me to shape Londa's soul," he angrily tells Edwina when Londa's true origins are revealed to him. "You hired me to make her soul" (p. 87), though both Mason and Morrow are silent on the reason for this distinction.
What is it, in a world not governed by the religiously-tinged conventions of 19th century novels, that makes Londa soulless? It can't simply be the missing years of her childhood and adolescence, not when the end result is so normal and successfully socialized, and not when Mason's aborted son, despite a maturation process less painstaking and carefully monitored than Londa's, and an education intended to turn him into a mindless, brain-washed automaton, manages to overcome both and become, towards the end of his life, a human being. To ask these questions is obviously to demand far greater rigor and rationality from The Philosopher's Apprentice than the novel was ever intended to support, and yet a genre reader accustomed to being able to make sense of outlandish premises, not to mention any reader hoping to wring more out of Morrow's novel than the simple lesson that fanaticism, of any stripe, is a recipe for disaster, must demand just that. (It is the absence of this rigor, incidentally, that has me classifying The Philosopher's Apprentice as fantasy in spite of the SFnal McGuffins driving its plot. It's clear that these contraptions were intended as nothing more than crutches for Morrow's literalized thought experiment, not genuine attempts to puzzle out the implications of new technology.) It's all very well and good to highlight the frustration of trying to do good in an evil world, the temptation to use evil means to achieve that good, but beyond pointing and laughing at the people who do these things, what does Morrow have to say?
It's in considering this question that it becomes apparent that the similarities between The Philosopher's Apprentice and the Series of Unfortunate Events novels go deeper than their styles. Like Morrow's novel, that series tells a story about the moral education of children. In each of the series's thirteen installments, the Baudelaire orphans are confronted with adults—guardians, enemies, allies, and acquaintances—whose behavior is governed by rigid moral and behavioral laws. One by one, these are revealed to be inadequate for dealing with the complexity of the adult world. The Baudelaires reach adulthood when they realize that there are no hard and fast rules for moral behavior, and no easy answers to the question of how to live a good life. Again and again, they are forced to disobey their elders, break laws, and finally engage in immoral acts for the sake of what they hope is a greater good. It's a sad and delicate portrait of one of the most painful compromises of growing up.
Such a compromise is unthinkable in The Philosopher's Apprentice. "If it wasn't for those goddamn ethics tutorials, I might be leading an enviable existence by now," a grown up Londa tells Mason. "House in the suburbs, white picket fence, golden retriever, a couple of kids" (pp. 173-4). Domesticity, in other words, is irreconcilable with a moral life. One can either dedicate oneself to remaking the world—and be destroyed in the process—or one can abandon that goal and live a small, quotidian life with no moral component—as the end of the novel finds Mason doing, his heartbreak over losing Londa assuaged by his stewardship of her daughter, a natural born human "of conventional genesis" (p. 351). and thus presumably not heir to the monstrousness that infected her mother. (To be fair, Morrow notes almost as an aside that the youngest Sabacthani sister, Donya, avoids Londa's fate and manages to use her wealth and intelligence to make the world a better place without resorting to violence—though he takes care to note that Donya's projects are more modest than Londa's, that she is content to nudge the world towards morality rather than trying to transform it, and that this capacity for moderation is probably the result of her more normal upbringing, having spent more of her life outside a vat.) The ending of the Series of Unfortunate Events similarly finds the Baudelaire orphans in a domestic setting, and taking on the care of a young child, but at the same time they are also taking their place in a wider world, in a network of alliances and feuds which has already claimed the lives of their parents and many of their friends, and which they dedicate themselves to understanding, and hopefully using to do good. Unlike the cheerfully defeated Mason Ambrose, there can be very little doubt that these children are fitting guardians, and capable of teaching the next generation how to be good.