How to Be Modern

Bust of a Woman
Pablo Picasso,1944

How to Be Modern

I’ve never understood why people wanted to be modern in the first place.  Okay, the dentistry is an improvement.  I’ll give you that.

On the other hand, Victorian people (as in the novels of Dickens) seemed to me to boast more definite outlines and be more fully present than the so-called moderns ever managed to become. 

My parents and their generation, though they came of age at the height of modernity – the 1920’s – were closer to the Victorian type of man and woman.  So also was the apartment building where I grew up, with its lion’s head over the front steps and the castle-like crenelation along the roofline.

Whatever they were or were not, modern people were surely anti-Victorian.  I got a better sense of what it meant to be modern when I heard Queen Victoria herself speaking.  That is, I heard what purported to be her actual voice, as she is now — coming to us from the afterlife — via a medium’s 50-year-old tape recording, which you can hear at the Victor Zammit blog.

         “Oh poo!” the scoffers might object.  “Any actor can imagine how she must have sounded and then produce the voice she has imagined.”

That’s not true.  However it was done, conjuring up a voice that delivers Queen Victoria is amazingly hard to do.  The defining angel of the Age that bears her name?  Try to conjure that and see how well you do.

         “Just call me Victoria,” the recorded voice said, “I’m no longer Queen.”   

Well, you can take Victoria out of her queenly robes but you can’t take The Queen out of Victoria.  She showed a “Victorian” concern for her reputation and was appearing (via the 20th-century medium) in order to remove up some of the misunderstandings still tarnishing it.  There was a certain Scotsman, John Brown, whose presence at her side in the time of her widowed seclusion had stirred gossip.  John Brown had mediumistic gifts  and Victoria made use of his abilities to contact her beloved, departed Prince Albert.  With whom, at present, she is living happily in paradise.

The recording wasn’t very good, so I didn’t strain to listen to the end of the tape.  But I stayed long enough to comprehend what must have motivated the moderns.   She was …

SMOTHERING.

“Walk wide o’ the widow at Windsor,” the Victorian poet said.  Her wide hoop skirts enveloped every mother’s son who stood within range of her influence.  The only thing left for a fellow to do was, sooner or later, to …

GET AWAY.

Hence, modernity.  Pardon me for making a long story short.  What did the change comprise?  If you no longer affirmed that Mother Knows Best, to whose head would Victoria’s all-knowingness be most comfortably transferred?  Why, to one’s own manly head, of course!  A head submissive to no man or woman, to no ranking by established values or institutions — only to the deliverances of fact, as expressed by the modern sciences. 

So, in architecture, the moderns defaced the great cities of Europe and the U.S., erecting straight-line buildings, because straight lines are very mathematical and science is writ in the language of mathematics.  The new buildings stood, free of superfluous sentiment, unadorned and uncompromised by the plazas on which they intruded — plazas that embraced monuments to the past and stately palaces from another time.

So too in psychology, the moderns erased those inner features by which heroes can be distinguished from those who go-along-to-get-along.  They did this scientifically – or so they said, whether crediting their findings to Freud or to the Behaviorists.  Decoding action and motivation, they tracked them down the slope to starting points below the level of conscious understanding and choice.  The psyche began to look as unsightly as the city.

And in philosophy, in Vienna or Cambridge University, the knower acknowledged no principle beyond what he thought that science admitted: observable facts and sentences recording such observations – plus the logical relations obtaining between such sentences and other sentences.

After a time, this principle too would break down, because the principle itself was not an observable fact and also excluded too much of what real talk includes.  But the long climb back has been slow and wary.  When consciousness is allowed in as a factor, it’s with a bit of embarrassment.

On the Continent of Europe, where science did not play the same gate-keeper role for philosophers, one still sees the modern ambition to begin the philosopher’s world anew, ab initio: to lay down methods and insights beholden to no predecessors.

There are noteworthy exceptions of course.  But the modern tendency has, unsurprisingly, led to our present period, with its repudiation of every truth claim except for the one that skepticism makes for the truth of skepticism’s own assumptions.

And all the while, in the Anglosphere and on the Continent, two colossi bestride the waves largely unopposed: Marx and Freud.  The economic and predictive track record of the former, the clinical evidence for the latter, are alike shaky and contestable.  But together they go to show that … once you   dethrone mother and her heaven …

you’ll find something else to worship.

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Miracle Stories

"Daniel in the Lion's Den," Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918
“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918

Miracle Stories

We are just back from another of our week-long stays in Riverside, California.  We go there periodically to get treatments only available from the neuropathy clinic at Loma Linda Hospital.

Here’s how we “happened” to learn of this treatment.  We were headed out to Riverside to be part of the graveside service for Jerry’s father, L. B. Martin.  As I recall, it was at the Ontario airport that Jerry requested a wheelchair for me.  By that time, ordinary walking had become perilous.

         “What’s wrong with your wife?” the dispatcher asked.

         “She has peripheral neuropathy,” Jerry answered.

         “Oh, my husband suffered from that for many years but he was greatly helped at Loma Linda Hospital.  The treatment is not available anywhere else.”

No sooner had she said that

than she was gone

and we never saw her again.

At Jerry’s urging, but reluctantly, I made the call for an appointment to see the clinic’s Director, Mark Bussell, that same week — reluctantly, since the ceremony and family reunions would require his full attention.  However, Jerry felt that if this treatment could help, the sooner we learned that, the better. 

The treatment does not involve drugs or surgery, though it does include some dietary restrictions.  It uses a light-touch massage whose effect is to open targeted tiny blood vessels (in the micro-vascular system) that allow nutrient-rich blood to reach nerves previously starved.  This is the “hydraulic” part of the treatment, which induces nerves to regenerate, and it’s the easiest part to understand.  There are other aspects to the treatment, of which I’m less competent to give an account.

In my case, as treatment continued over the next few years, additional complexities peculiar to me were identified and addressed.  The process is slow, but from that first week it was clear that my condition had stopped getting worse and had begun, incrementally, to get better.

I don’t have a stoic bone in my body.  If something is wrong with some physical part of me – unless that ailing part’s been amputated and burned in fire – I don’t get “resigned” to the loss.  If I said I was, the hypocrisy would be an ugly thing to behold.  I’m not saying this is a virtue.  Or a vice.  Only that it’s who I am.  I’ve tried to be someone else.  It didn’t work.

Since you don’t have to be silent during the treatment, I generally find things to talk about with Mark Bussell.  One of the topics we discussed this week was miracles that may have come into one’s own life experience.  By “miracle” I don’t mean supernatural occurrences.  The things that have happened to me that I deem “miraculous” don’t break any laws of nature.  It would be perfectly reasonable to dismiss events that I call “miracles,” seeing them rather as instances of different event-streams, whose simultaneous occurrence had a meaning for me, converging by chance

If however you do see the hand of Providence in such stories, you have to be careful how and when you tell them, because – more often than not – they can be poorly received.  Anyway, in talking with Mark Bussell, it seemed to me pretty safe …

to share a story or two.

Or three.

Or more than three.

Holy Hannah!  I’ve got one miracle story after another!  In fact, if I blended the professionally respectable c.v. that I assembled two weeks ago in “Read it Here First! My Obit!“, with a parallel c.v. listing the miracle stories in chronological order – my word!  We have here a technicolor epic!  Where is Cecil B. DeMille now that we need him?

If my treatment provider, sober and data-driven as he is, hadn’t been willing to hear such a narrative, I doubt if I myself would have grasped the full extent of it.  There are people who have a good ear for classical music.  (I don’t.)  There are people who have a good eye for painting.  (I do.)  But the talent for listening intelligently to miracle stories has yet to be recognized.

For that reason,

I suspect,

most of us keep ours to ourselves.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion

By Bernard Harrison

It’s not common that you see someone with a high degree of philosophic training actually doing something helpful with it.  This book, by a well-regarded British philosopher, sheds a unique light on anti-semitism.

One feature of “the oldest hatred” is spotlighted here that I had never stopped to think about before.  Oddly enough, anti-semitism is an attitude that has been held by intellectuals of the first rank!  That’s a fact I first noticed when I was researching A Good Look at Evil.  I read ten volumes of  transcripts of the trials of Nazi war criminals that were held at Nuremberg after World War II.  To my surprise, many of the defendants were well trained in philosophy!  All were well educated!  They were not brutes.  Could anti-semitism be a malady of the intellectuals?

Harrison faces this question and answers it affirmatively.  Yes !  Over the past two centuries, there have been philosophers, poets, novelists, critics, journalists (and of course politicians) who were filled to the brim with anti-semitic views that have not changed, in the letter or the spirit, in the last two thousand years!

Ladies and gentlemen, this fact is remarkable.  If a visitor from outer space were to tour our planet, it might even be deemed its most striking feature.  An inter-gallactic anthropologist might report it as follows:

On planet earth, the smartest people

believe a delusional fantasy.

What does Harrison’s book do that other excellent books on the subject have not done?  To my mind, it usefully defines anti-semitism, breaking it down into two basic variants: the social and the political. 

The first, social anti-semitism (“we don’t have them to dinner”), is obviously burdensome for the victims: psychologically, professionally and socially.  However, it is not normally dangerous.  What it exhibits is a dislike of the stranger, the Other.  We human beings may be evolutionarily hardwired to feel some kind of animus or recoil when we meet someone who is different from our group.  Jews are certainly not the only ones to encounter social prejudice.  In the course of happier experience with the outsider, social prejudice is sometimes overcome, but there’s nothing new or peculiar about it.

The second variety of anti-semitism has a different dynamic and is very dangerous.  It aims at the elimination of the whole targeted group.  Harrison names it “political anti-semitism.”  It’s an ideology, a cultural formation.  It targets Jews specifically, across millennia, accommodating itself to the Zeitgeist — even as that has changed from one cultural era to the next — yet keeping the same underlying tenets.  Unlike social anti-semitism, political anti-semitism is compatible with having Jewish friends and the most tastefully benign feelings.  It is an intellectual distortion, to which intellectuals have been and are particularly liable.

What are its beliefs?  It imagines Jews (and lately Israel) as instigating a world-wide conspiracy to destroy all that is good, right, peaceful and normal, with the aim of benefitting themselves, the Jews, pictured as a homogeneous and preternaturally powerful group with a single, common, devilish will of its own. 

So, like any theory, it offers an explanation.  What does it explain?  It explains anything that has gone wrong, in the deluded one’s personal life or political views.  It explains the anomalies.  Why didn’t my expectations work out?  The Jews did it!  That explains everything.

This is a feature I myself have noticed in such anti-semites: they have Jews on the brain.  They can’t stop talking about Jews or thinking about them.  Instead of facing their own real-life predicaments and figuring what precisely went wrong, they have a ready-made answer for every unsolved problem.  It’s a syndrome I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  I’ve seen it distort people’s lives and sap their reasoning abilities.  It’s the saddest thing.  It’s horrible.

Unlike me, Harrison keeps his cool as he diagnosis the syndrome.  His remedy?  It’s to show that political anti-semites are self-victimized by a delusion.  In order to argue his case persuasively, he must face the daunting array of empirical claims about Israel, as well as legal claims about free speech – especially in university settings.  He manages this, going into “their own court,” using examples that avoid partisanship and taking up each of the major claims, one by one, on its own terms.

In completing his portrait of this delusion, there is one other task Harrison sets himself.  He must show what Judaism actually is.  This he manages to do, with a precision and nuance that I for one have never seen accomplished by a non-Jew.  He has portrayed Judaism from the inside: its idiom, its background assumptions, its way of being in the world and the way it looks to itself. 

He has done this partly to show how widely its assailants have missed the mark.  But also explained here is a feature I’ve never seen noticed in this kind of book: the attractions of Judaism for a people who have oddly chosen to remain what they are, when it would have been enormously advantageous for them to become indistinguishable from everybody else.

Posted in book reviews, books | 5 Comments

How Hegel Helps

How Hegel Helps

A British analytic philosopher friend read my “Obit” column of last week and noticed that I’d spent some of my professional time with G. W. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century German philosopher.  He emailed to ask what on earth I ever saw in him.  Something like the philosophic equivalent of “What was a nice girl like you doing with that guy?”

Many philosophers in the Anglosphere see Hegel as unintelligible at best – and at worst inspiring utterances like “How good it is to die for the Kaiser!”

My friend’s question inspired me to figure out why, at a certain phase of my own development as a seeker, trying to find her way within the forest of philosophy, Hegel looked to me like the answer to a maiden’s prayer.

*          *          *

Women have to find some way of getting a handle on what’s happening in this man’s world.  If we are to rise above passivity and get some perspective on the goings-on around us, we need advice.  I don’t mean cosmetic advice.  Nor help mastering some saleable skill.  Those supports are already available.

I mean, what’s motivating people?  Why are people doing what they are doing?  Why are they saying what they are saying now, but weren’t saying a decade or two back?

What produces the coloration, the texture of an era?  What sets the boundaries on desire at a given time and place? 

Why did the great 19th-century novelist Henry James come to regret having lived to see World War I? 

Why did European and Anglo-American girls in the 1920’s suddenly decide to show off their legs, their jazz dancing and agree that life was meaningless?

Why did feminism become a viewpoint no eligible male would want to be heard deploring?

Why did postmodernism arise from a tiny circle of Parisian intellectuals to suddenly sweep American universities and cultural platforms?

There is something to be explained here, and it very much concerns any woman who doesn’t want to arrive at the status of groupie for the latest cultural fad, merely repeating what everyone else is saying today.

Where can she go to get that explanation or even admit the question in the first place?  Current philosophy, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, queer studies, psychology, history are, often as not, incompetent to furnish answers because they too are at the mercy of the Zeitgeist.  They don’t necessarily know that.  They may take themselves to be state-of-the-art thinkers.

Yeah.  That’s the trouble.  The “art” of opinion-forming is at the same “state” for everybody that has learned it at the “right places” from the “right people.”  Sincere seekers aren’t likely to get the overview they need from them.

What Hegel discerned is that a cultural era has – is defined by – a certain way of thinking.  It doesn’t just feature a style of dress, or way of communicating, or a channel for power and prestige.  Let me repeat this:

A cultural era is

a way of thinking.

That means, ladies, that you, who can also think, can penetrate to what is going on if you look in the right direction.

So what are the opinion-shapers thinking?  Well, like anyone, they are thinking about their next dental appointments, their next meetings with their editors, their regrets, petty humiliations, muffled hopes, kids, wives, lovers and losses.  That’s private thinking.  It might shake out from the culture-shaping thoughts, but it doesn’t constitute them.

What does “a culture” think?  Can a culture think?

Yes (Hegel says).  Every culture is defined by what it thinks is true.  And true on the highest plane of truth.  True vis-a-vis ultimate things.  To put it in Hegel’s terms:

A culture is defined by what it thinks about the Absolute.

When does a culture go down?  I mean fall from internal causes, not get buried under a typhoon or volcano.

It falls when what it thinks is true can’t be held as truth any longer.  Why not?  Because the culture’s key claims look refutable.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Today’s column is just a Hegel primer.  It tells our reader that Hegel encourages her to look for the thought-forms that define the Zeitgeist and to ask herself to what degree they are really believed. 

Since a culture can also be undermined by shallow arguments and false claims, we should not only ask what people presently claim to believe about ultimate matters – or disbelieve.  The consequential question is the next one: 

Are they right — the latest opinion-shapers?  Have they themselves framed the questions rightly?  Do their questions fit reality as our reader has experienced it?

If we learn to ask questions closer to our lives, we might even get on with the business of women’s liberation.

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Read it Here First! My Obit!

Abbie in Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

Read it Here First!  My Obit!

All this week, Jerry and I have been attending to what I call “Last Arrangements.”  Though we’re not expecting to kick off any time soon, you never know, and one of the chores I’ve set myself was writing my obit.  So here it is!

           *    *     *

Abigail L Rosenthal, Professor of Philosophy Emerita at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, died [date] after a brief illness.

The “child of interesting parents,” she was the daughter of a philosopher, Henry M. Rosenthal, considered by his classmates of Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, the class “genius.”  Her mother, who could read Thomas Mann in the German, Proust in the French and Dostoevsky in Russian, was the daughter of the eminent rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz (pen name, Rav Tsair), who had been chief rabbi of Odessa and a leading figure in the Hebraist renaissance.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.

Born in Manhattan, Abigail attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art where, as she said, “you got points for being sensitive,” and graduated from Barnard College with Honors in Philosophy.  After her year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Sorbonne and College de France, she wrote her M.A. thesis at Columbia University on “Action and Purpose in Merleau-Ponty.”  At Columbia, she was a Graduate Assistant in the Religion Department and Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics.  Emerging from the examinations at Columbia with doctoral eligibility, she nevertheless took her doctorate at Penn State, with a dissertation on “Hegel’s Humanism.”

Those student years became the subject of her last book, Confessions of A Young Philosopher (2021).  It is a “confession” in the Augustinian sense of a search for truth put to the tests of personal and philosophic experience.  Each phase of the search is animated by a particular worldview, embraced and lived through till its limitations are discovered in episodes that are often searing. The last chapter, “Aftermath,” concludes with the view that inspired everything that she did and wrote thereafter: that a good life can best be seen as a truthful, dialectically self-corrective narrative, whereas an evil life takes the opposed direction, destroying its own story and going on to spoil the stories of others.

Her professional path was consistent with these early concerns.  After the first years as Assistant Professor at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, she accepted a position in the Philosophy Department of Brooklyn College, publishing “A Hegelian Key to Hegel’s Method” in the Journal of the History of Philosophy and “Feminism without Contradictions” in The Monist.  This was the first time a well-regarded philosophic journal devoted an issue to feminism as a topic worthy of philosophic investigation.  Her contribution was anthologized in Morality in the Modern World.  In these articles, she did philosophy in a Hegelian way, rather than approaching the subject as a historian of philosophy.

Her professional life at Brooklyn College included the drama of a seven-year job struggle, which an Arbitrator decided in her favor.  In “God and the Care for One’s Story,” the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil’s expanded second edition, she put that trying time to philosophic use, arguing that key moments of those seven years are reasonably seen as instances of providential intervention rather than as episodes occurring by chance.

In another chapter of A Good Look at Evil, she defended Holocaust victims from the armchair reproach that they had gone “like sheep to the slaughter.”  That chapter is titled, “The Right Way to Act” and has been twice anthologized.

She was the editor of her father’s posthumous book, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, to which she contributed biographical and philosophic introductions.  Her articles, posted on academia.edu, range over a wide terrain, with titles like “Getting Past Marx and Freud,” “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” “Defining Evil Away: Arendt’s Forgiveness,” “Moral Competence and Bernard Williams” and “In Windowless Chambers.”  The last, a defense of introspection, was reading at a faculty seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She considered friendship an intrinsic feature of philosophy and retained friends from the years at Stony Brook, Brooklyn College and — during her first marriage to philosopher John Bacon — from her year as Research Affiliate at Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.

Her second and lasting marriage was to philosopher Jerry L. Martin whom she met in the course of a fight, eventually successful, to save Brooklyn College’s then-outstanding core curriculum.  At that time, Martin had founded an organization based in Washington D.C. to defend academic freedom and the liberal arts. They fell in love over many long-distance phone calls.  The story was written up in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. When they married, Abigail took early retirement and they moved to the little town of Doylestown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Besides continuing philosophic work, she wrote a weekly essay for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.”  Her “non-advice” covered a wide range of topics, but was primarily aimed at women whose actual lives she thought more interesting than is disclosed by the more generic approaches typically taken.

*         *          *

At the end, I think you put in a sentence about how her inconsolable survivors will never forget her, but maybe I’ll leave that for others to append.

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Snobbism

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1748

Snobbism

I was reminded of how much I hate snobbism by another biography of a philosopher.  Having just finished Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, from which I learned about a man, an era and a creative philosophical method – I hoped to get an analogous mental windfall from Cheryl Misak’s biography of Frank Ramsey, a towering figure, still unfamiliar to me.

Ramsey’s a key player in several adjoining top-of-the-ladder-of-intellect disciplines: mathematics, philosophy and economics, to name three.  A number of abstract instruments and moves are named after him:  Ramsey Pricing, Ramsey’s Problem, the Keynes-Ramsey Rule, Ramsey Sentences, the Ramsey Test for Conditionals, Ramsification, Ramseyan Humility.  He is said by his biographer to have anticipated the work of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing as well as decisively influencing Wittgenstein’s turn from his earlier position in Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus toward the one he still fills in contemporary culture as the author of Philosophical Investigations.

He died in November of 1929, prematurely and unexpectedly, of jaundice. He was 26.  The major thinkers of his time and place (England’s Cambridge University) mourned him sincerely.  I’m almost as interested in philosophers’ lives as in their thought, since a realized achievement in thought is often intertwined with a life.  More than in other disciplines, in philosophy the life sometimes serves as a test of the thought.  Can they live their views?  If they can, what does that look like?

So what stopped me by the time I finished chapter one?  It was Misak, the biographer: a woman, doubtless gifted enough to take on this formidable task — every evidential detail of which she’s hunted down like a well-schooled hound at a foxhunt.  Don’t come as you are.  Dress for the hunt.  Red coats please.

I’ll pause for my personal recollections of English snobbery.  Some years ago, an English friend and colleague set up a series of invited lectures for me at various English universities.  After one talk, an attendee phoned my friend to report:

She was wonderful.  She hates it here!

After a different talk, at the informal post-lecture gathering of students and faculty, one student emphatically characterized English society to me as –

“a culture of intimidation.”

Unhappily Misak, Ramsey’s biographer — recounting his start as a child of “the intellectual aristocracy,” including the social ranking details pertaining to his parents – herself affects little literary curls of the lip and tiny clinkings of the silver chains of status that simply chill me to the bone.

As the precocious young Ramsey proves his eligibility for the right sort of prep school (“public school” as it’s called), one is aware that the social ordeals of such a training ground will set a boy’s course in later life.  Is he good at sports?  Is he the type to be mocked or bullied? 

These Darwinian games, that only the fittest survive unscarred, may also be found in American high schools.  (Full disclosure: I went to The High School of Music and Art in New York City, where you got points for being sensitive.)  Be that as it may, my sense is that at least here you can outlive the rank they stick on you in high school.  There by contrast, the youthful jockeyings for place and power adhere pitilessly into adult life.

Frank Ramsey was good at games, good at boyhood friend-forming, good at exuding that air of unassuming triumph that discourages bullies.  So I don’t have to suffer for him.  He was good at everything – except surviving his twenties.  I don’t mind him.  It’s his biographer I can’t take.

I’ve met two Russian former princesses, a French count with whom, along with his wife, I enjoyed dinner and their evening at home, and a young roommate who was a French aristocrat.  (I forget how I knew that.  She wouldn’t have told me.)  It doesn’t matter that their respective motherlands no longer admitted castes or hereditary privileges.  You could still tell who was what.  I’ve read that Ethiopian nobility, imprisoned by an unfriendly regime, drew deference from other prisoners, even behind bars.

None of this offends me.  I don’t care who outranks whom. 

Everybody outranks somebody.

Rather, it interests me.  And one of the features of the continental aristocrats that I’ve met was their simplicity and openness.  This unpretentiousness can be misleading, of course.  When I told my mother how charmingly the princesses had raved about her “refined Russian,” she nodded and said, without missing a beat,

Yes.

They used to beat their serfs till the blood ran down.”

So charm is one thing.  Character is another.  But the continental aristos that I met did show a gentle and tactful manner.  At least in my presence, they didn’t try to intimidate.  They didn’t keep their snubs all shined up and polished. 

What I find stifling and unbearable in the British class system, with its snobberies, is that

it’s rude —

unmannerly —

and classless.

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Hunting Eichmann

Eichmann pictured at a rabbit farm in Argentina in 1954.

Hunting Eichmann

This is not a book review, despite the book title above.  I haven’t read the book, only watched a talk before a packed hall by Neal Bascomb, the author of Hunting Eichmann, on a C-Span history program last Saturday night.   The talk was given in 2019, so before the storms of pandemic and the election campaign.  Presented in a peaceful interlude.

Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi official in charge of the extermination of the Jewish people wherever they could be found.  Before the defeat of the Hitler regime cut short his career, Eichmann had been quite effective in his niche.  You couldn’t ask for a more competent mass murderer.

He made his escape at War’s end along what’s been designated the rat line of sympathetic churchmen, which took him to the edge of Iberia, where he caught a ship for Argentina under his new name of Ricardo Klement.  There he remained, along with other escaped Nazis, under the sheltering dictatorship of Juan Peron.

When Israeli agents kidnapped Eichmann and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people, there was a great brouhaha on behalf of Argentine sovereignty and international law as it was then construed. 

The government of Israel sent Josef Avidar, a retired general who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Argentina, to Buenos Aires to smooth matters there.  He was my mother’s cousin, so he stopped for lunch at 1245 Madison Avenue on his way back to Israel.   As the conversation wended along, my parents gave voice to all the reservations of the time.  I remember the tone of his voice as he responded, unruffled,

Don’t worry about Argentina.

We have settled with Argentina.”

The Jerusalem trial gave rise to a different controversy.  It was ginned up by the political theorist Hannah Arendt and concerned the character and motives of the defendant.  Arendt deemed Eichmann a petty bureaucrat who couldn’t think for himself and maybe couldn’t think at all. 

Two chapters of my Good Look at Evil delve into Arendt’s claims, which I think mistaken.  Here I’ll only observe that most time-serving organization men will not be heard to sum up their achievements in these words:

I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of of five [of the six] million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.

The story told by Neal Bascomb includes details only recently released by Israeli intelligence.  Since I was hearing it for the first time, rather than reading it, I didn’t get all the details lined up nor the names spelled correctly.  But I’ll give you a bit of the gist, as I heard it.

Ricardo Klement [aka Eichmann] had been working in obscure and humble circumstances (raising rabbits, I think the author said) in a suburb of Buenos Aires, when his son Klaus Eichmann began dating a local girl.  Their relationship had gone far enough to rate a dinner invitation extended to the young suitor.  By way of table talk, Klaus remarked that it was too bad Hitler hadn’t finished the job with the Jews.  The girl and her Jewish father exchanged glances.  There were no more dates.

Not long after that dinner, the girl who had dated Eichmann’s son happened to read in the newspaper a list issued by a Prosecutor-General of West Germany, of war criminals still at large.  Adolf Eichmann’s name was on that list.  She decided to write the German prosecutor, who wrote back advising her to gather more information.

Now watch what she does.  She goes to the home of young Klaus Eichmann and knocks on the door.  Señor Klement answers and invites her to step in.  As they chat briefly, he refers to Klaus as his nephew.  Shortly thereafter, Klaus returns home, not at all pleased to see her there.  He hurries her out the door, meanwhile saying over his shoulder,

I‘ll be back in a moment, father.

That shows you.  Even world-class monsters can’t think of everything.  If multi-tasking is hard, multi-identity-holding is harder.

The nabbing of Eichmann by Mossad and Shin Bet has been generally viewed as a smooth operation.  In fact, it hung by a thread.  Those who took part were at the highest risk.  Once Israel had him, he was offered to the West German government and other tribunals.  The global murderer, who had acted with such impunity, became an orphan that nobody wanted.  Finally he stood trial in Jerusalem where his victims shared their clear and vivid memories. 

Hannah Arendt claimed they couldn’t have remembered such mind-numbing experiences.   She was wrong.  They did.  I’ve read the trial transcript.

I listened to Neal Bascomb’s story, riveted by its many hair-pin turns and its far-from-foregone conclusion.   Aside from the surprising reversals in the plot, another factor held my fascinated gaze: Bascomb himself. 

The author is a rather nice-looking, blond young man who told his tale humorously, soberly, with good timing, in utter freedom from today’s toxicities.  Where did he come from?  Who contrived his upbringing?  I have in mind the way he pronounced the word “Jewish.”  It was innocent and straightforward.  He wasn’t fighting against the muscles of his mouth.  He seemed like a time-traveler projected from the decades just after the War ended — that beautiful interlude when the Holocaust had made people tired of hunting down Jews.  The longest hunt season hadn’t yet revived under new auspices.

This author seemed to me entirely normal.

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What’s with Wittgenstein?

What’s with Wittgenstein?

Ludwig Wittgenstein seems still to bestride the narrow straits of world thought like a colossus, reflections of him flickering over cultural regions far afield from his own.

By lamplight, I’ve been spending my recent weeks with the man, reading Ray Monk’s fine philosophical biography just before lights out.  I can’t say I’ve enjoyed his company.

One philosopher, John Nelson, recalled the Wittgenstein effect when he came on a visit to Cornell University:

Under the relentless probing and pushing of his inquiry my head felt almost as if it were ready to burst . . . There was no quarter given – no sliding off the topic when it became difficult.  I was absolutely exhausted when we concluded the discussion.

Oets Bouwsma asked the visitor whether he was able to sleep at night after such mind-wracking sessions.  Wittgenstein replied, with a Dostoyevskian smile,

No, but do you know,

I think I may go nuts.

One thing is clear from the biography.  This was not a pose.  He was not playing at being the tormented genius.  What you saw was what you got.

I consider philosophy a relief from torment, so I hoped to learn from Monk’s book what exactly was the nub of Wittgenstein’s torment.  What I valued about this biography was that Monk did not look for the tie-breaking evidence outside the realm of philosophy itself.

Thus, he wasn’t tormented because he was a genius, or gay, or made vulnerable by his Jewish ancestry — or because everyone who was anyone in his birth city of Vienna was considering suicide.

His philosophic work was what tormented him –

for philosophic reasons!

That might be the definition of a philosopher.  So of course he interested me!

What was philosophy, as he saw it?  I believe he saw it as a sort of auto-immune disease of the mind – one to which any otherwise healthy mind is vulnerable.  He would advise his gifted students to go into some other line of work.  It may be correct to say that, ideally, he would have liked to be the last philosopher, the one who put the whole misguided enterprise to bed and turned out the lights.  And yet, he liked to “talk philosophy” and relished the company of at least some of the most gifted colleagues that he met.  How right – or how wrong – is he?

We have here a real detective story, a whodunnit or whatdunnit.

Philosophy – the name is Greek and means “the love of wisdom” – occupies that part of a person, or a culture, that faces the ultimate questions: what is the difference between right and wrong, are we free, how do scientific fields and ordinary experience relate to one another, is there a divine dimension to our lives, how do mental things relate to physical things — the mind to the body — what makes things beautiful or ugly and do these have any connection with truth or goodness, how should communities organize themselves legally and in terms of shared aims, what can orient and ground our search for truth, what gives meaning to our lives.  The field arises in the ancient, Greek-speaking world and, as a result, there is a history of philosophy: the successive, sedimentary ways these questions have been addressed down the centuries, with each layer responding to the one that came before.

It is a wonderful discipline,

rich and influential

over any culture that includes it.

What was Wittgenstein’s take on what I call “the longest conversation”?  He saw it as misguided – arising out of a misunderstanding or misuse of language.  Ordinarily, he thought, in the normal course of life, we don’t ask philosophic questions.  Therefore, it’s not natural for us to try to answer them.  For him the question becomes, how can we cure ourselves of such a deep and disorienting habit? 

The Wittgensteinian therapy looks for the actual practice that preceded the philosophic question.  It discerns the displacement that allowed the philosopher to veer off course, getting distracted and bemused by his pseudo-problems and pseudo-answers.  To get “philosophical” is to miss what is actually going on.

Philosophy doesn’t have the last word.  The last word isn’t a word at all; it’s a kind of seeing.

I guess it’s time for me to put in my two cents.  I would agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy, being an ancient discipline, has inherited problems some of which can now be set down as useless baggage.  Which problems belong in the junkpile, and how they got to be loaded into the  mixed inheritance, are not self-answering questions.  You don’t throw out a painting because it’s old.  Is it a forgery or an original?  With experience, you can discern the clues.

Here’s an example of a problem that, in my view, Wittgenstein mislabels as useless baggage.  Here’s how he thinks of introspection:

You observe your own mental happenings. How?  By introspection. But if you observe, i.e., if you go about to observe your own mental happenings you alter them and create new ones: and the whole point of observing is that you should not do this – observing is supposed to be just the thing that avoids this.

Wittgenstein’s point is that observing should leave the data unaffected by the observer.  But why should that be a requirement of observation?  Even the physicist has had to give up that condition.  In the mental environment, looking at oneself looking, observing oneself observing, just goes with the territory.  We are affected by being observed, and by our own self-observation.  It’s not a glitch but a feature – of having a mind.

Wittgenstein will identify a particular displacement as having given rise to a philosophic problem, and advise instead to stand back silently and see what is going on.  Don’t try to articulate what you see: just see it. 

For my part, I’d say: Not every conceptual problem is a displacement.

Furthermore:   

If you say it,

that might help you to see it.

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Atonement Day

“Red Square on Black”
Kasimir Malevich, 1920-24

Atonement Day

Monday’s not only the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Atonement, but it’s the day on which I’d committed to leading an afternoon discussion group at my Reform Temple.  The discussion leader has about ten minutes to present the topic and she can pick her topic.  So I picked —

SIN.

What the heck.  That can’t be bad.  Should draw the big crowds.

In my ten minutes, I figured I’d shovel two obstacles out of the way, which block people nowadays from taking a fresh look at this topic.

The first obstacle is the “nonjudgmental” mindset.  Note that it never means refusing to judge that this shoe is a size too small or that the light’s turned green so I can cross now.  In practice, the prohibition applies fairly narrowly to judgments of right and wrong.

Since my co-congregants tend to be liberal, they’re avowedly nonjudgmental.  At the same time, they are Jews.  So I thought to cite a book, Mission at Nuremberg, where Tim Townsend, an American army chaplain, ministers to Nazi war criminals sentenced to hang.  He gets four or five of them to return to the (Lutheran) church and, by his lights, find forgiveness for their sins and restoration to the grace of God.

I don’t fault the good Lutheran chaplain.  He may well have worked some inner transformations on his doomed parishioners.  For myself however, I find the Jewish doctrine of atonement more credible.  (Sins against other people call for confession of the specific wrong to the one wronged, repair of the actual injury where feasible, and evidence that – faced with the same tempting circumstances — the wrongdoer would resist next time.)  Under the genocidal circumstances, these remedies would not all be available.  If the genocidaire asked me, and I thought he really felt bad about it, I might advise him to get started on the long road back, but I sure wouldn’t tell him not to worry because it’s all okay now that he’s heaven-bound.

Anyway, however you set about repairing a wrong, the example shows that the judgment of its being wrong can’t easily be dodged!

The second obstacle to taking sin seriously is cultural relativism.  It was brought into our culture by influential twentieth-century anthropologists.  Professionally committed to treating good and evil as nothing but what is approved or disapproved by any given culture, and finding that different cultures held different moral values, the earliest cohort of anthropologists would typically discover far-off tribes whose values differed from our own and then report their findings.

In her widely-read book, Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict described the Kwakiutl, an indigenous tribe living in the Pacific Northwest.  Their potlatch ceremony included a competition between tribesmen to see who could destroy more of his own goods!  In Benedict’s value-neutral report, the reader might also detect a subliminally ironic comparison with the conspicuous consumption seen in the United States.

I read that book in college. Years later, reading Slavery and Social Death by the African-American Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, I noticed Patterson’s more detailed account of the potlatch ceremony.  It seems that … among “the goods” that the Kwakiutl destroyed … were slaves.

If Patterson’s right, why did Benedict omit that detail?  Was it because she knew that slavery was wrong and killing slaves more wrong still?  She omitted it because the intrusion of objective wrong into her narrative would undermine her case for cultural relativism.

Supposing that good and evil have a standing independent of cultures opens up questions that seemed closed and settled.  It also allows us look more searchingly at the topic of sin – whether there is such a thing and whether it differs in some way from mere wrongdoing.

There was another book I read in preparation for my ten minutes: Elie Wiesel’s Night.  It’s a short book, a memoir of his boyhood experience as a victim and survivor of the Holocaust.  It’s quite a shattering read and, up till now, I’d deliberately refrained from getting near it.  I’d read trial transcripts, memoirs, historians’ accounts, but always instinctively avoided Wiesel’s Night.

As he reports, the victims marked for being murdered always refused to believe – until the very last – that anything so inconceivably horrible as putting people in ovens would be possible in our civilized world.  This stubborn optimism-of-the-sane persisted as, in each step and stage, another layer of human worth and dignity would be peeled away.  Privacy, any ability to put a good face on anything about oneself, most of the strength for emotional continuing – all this was peeled away –

layer by layer.

I tend to understand history and personal life erotically.  Normally people are motivated by their ability to focus and sustain desire and desirability.

So when you reduce and peel away, maliciously and gratuitously, every last skin that allows for desire – so that nothing is left but the after-trace of the human being to whom the worst has been done – what meaning can we assign to such a reduction?

The cynics and those who take the tragic view will answer at once:

 There is no meaning left.

 The sky goes dark.

I decided to try to take up residence in the mind of the man or woman who has been (for cruel purposes) reduced to the sub-erotic level:

What’s there?

What I saw and felt was that there, in the absolute center of the worst that can be done to a human being, is one clear metric:

We can measure evil.

If there is such a thing as evil, then we can also take the measure of good in all its degrees.  Good is what takes the other direction from evil.

So, without wishing to, the people of the covenant, in whom (Gen. 12:3) God promised Abraham that “all the families of the earth [shall] be blessed,” have rendered a great service.  By suffering an evil so terrible that even its deniers acknowledge it by their denial, they have made our otherwise opaque and unreadable time

transparent and legible in moral terms.

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The Good Book

Boy and Sheep Lying under a Tree
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1881

The Good Book

We’ve been away in California for the past week, to allow me another round of the neuropathy treatments available only at a clinic in Loma Linda.

The friends and family we usually see there are now under the pandemic’s lock and key.  We were making our masked way to and fro under the rule of social distance, applied to personnel at the Marriott and our servers at outdoor restaurants.  Though the human factor will find a way to get through, even under such difficulties, the altered interactions were tiring, as were the morning treatments.

This choreography led us to look toward bedtime reading as the lamplit highlight of each day.  What to read became more of a problem than I’d expected, because a new book on logic, for which I’d entertained the highest hopes, turned out really bad after its misleadingly exquisite opening chapters.

You don’t want to read news magazines at bedtime.  You want a book.  The Marriott had placed two leather-bound books on my night table: The Book of Mormon and the King James Bible.  Since I’m not a likely candidate for The Book of Mormon, that left the King James.  It’s not been revised in the light of nineteenth-century Source Criticism nor updated for the modern idiom.  But what the heck.  I’m not actually that modern and my father, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky in an era when the King James was the only version read by the local people, thought it was closer to the spirit and beat of the Hebrew original than the more recent translations.

Since Saturday morning Torah Study at my Reform Temple has made me fairly familiar with the Torah (the Pentateuch or First Five Books of the Hebrew Bible), I thought I’d start from the Book after that.  I’ve read through the Bible before, the New Testament as well, but not in a long while.

Now I reread Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1st Samuel and most of 2nd Samuel.  One thing is clear to me.  These Books were not cooked up in a smoke-filled room in Babylon City hundreds of years after the events they describe.  Here’s why.

Had it been put together by men distant from these events, saying to each other, heh heh, let’s fabricate a national epic, it would have been a flattering story.  Whereas it’s often disgraceful.  There is no national epic that comes anywhere close to it in this respect.  It’s one of those family stories you wouldn’t want to be allowed out of the closet.

A second reason to credit the historicity: it’s full of long lists of boring, unpronounceable proper names.  The kind of lists nobody would retain for any purpose other than the record of a family album.

A third reason it’s likely to be factual: It’s studded with place names identified as x and further identified as the place that used to be called y.  Why write that down if it’s made-up?

A fourth reason: When an event is described as having happened in the locality of z, and then reported to be commemorated at z by some heap of stones or other marker, the narrator standardly finishes his story as follows:

And the heap of stones is there  

“to this day.”

Why say that unless the reader who travels to z can see for himself that the commemorative heap is indeed at z?

These seem to me marks of a preserved record of a history that is real rather than mythic.  That’s not to rule out exaggerated or encoded elements.  But even those are embedded in a grounded narrative studded with factual flags.

What do I make of these memories?  This time, reading these chronological Books of the Bible was for me an encounter with reality — filled with excitement, drama, threats, rescues, feasible fights, and the sweat of life on the dirt-and-sand-packed ground.  God is in it, though not as the only player.  And everybody knows who everybody is.  People are sharply etched against the timeline of their lives.

Okay, maybe the sun didn’t stand still at the battle with the Amorites in Joshua 10:12-14.  (Or to update the astronomy, the earth didn’t stop rotating on its axis.  If it had, all the players and much more would’ve flown off the planet.)  But exceptionally bright moonlight (the moon is reported to have also stood still in the same battle) might have prolonged visibility.  What I call “Jewish miracles” don’t require suspending the laws of nature.  They do require that one notice and rise to the occasion of providential coincidences.

Orde Wingate was the British officer whom Moshe Dayan credits with training his clandestine fighters before the declaration of modern Israel’s statehood.  Wingate would spend his evenings reading the Bible, wearing nothing but the kerosene lamplight, while he pondered the military strategies encoded in Joshua and Judges.

The stories I read weren’t just about battles won and lost.  Some stories struck notes of poignant friendship — Ruth to Naomi, Jonathan to David — like plucked harp strings that you can still hear.  These players act in the midst of hard choices whose measure they prudently take.  They don’t act like made-up characters.  One could call them hyper-real.

How do we too get to be real to ourselves in our own circumstances?  I think we get there about the way the Biblical characters did: staying on the timeline, taking one step after the previous step, keeping consecutive accounts of our aims, motives, acts and their consequences, course-correcting when we notice missteps, in sum: living our stories as gap-free as we can.

The Bible is a compilation of stories, lived well or badly, in part or in whole.  Truthful memory can be terribly unflattering.  Why then were so many combined efforts put into this record?

Well, supposing the Bible has this part right —

there might be another Witness

with a very good memory.

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