My Latest Teaching Anxiety Dream

Illustration from  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” 
Edmund Dulac, 1911

My Latest Teaching Anxiety Dream

Last night I had a variant of the dream that visits many teachers in the pre-dawn hours.  Short of taking a survey, I have yet to meet a teacher who’s never had this dream in some form.  We don’t talk about them when we get together.  But it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been out of the classroom.

The dream doesn’t go away.

My latest version had me scheduled to teach a class based on a three-page article in The New Yorker magazine.   Preparation would consist in rereading the article, underlining key passages and thereby refreshing my memory as to what I was going to talk about.

Grasping the three glossy pages, which I’d already cut out of the magazine, I was trying to overcome a peculiar reluctance to reread them when the face of my watch showed the time: 5:30 p.m.  Oh dear.  I had to be at the classroom by 6:00 p.m., which left no more time to prepare!  Then I realized that the case was actually much worse than that.  The class was to have begun at 5:00 p.m.  Which meant that students would be moving out the door by the time I got there!

Good grief!  I’m in the soup now!

About then, I woke up.  These dreams don’t come with happy endings.

Years ago, I shared lunch with two Oxford professors who looked fairly unflappable.  They were discussing Teaching Anxiety.  They said that psychological research into stress-producing situations had found that public lectures are, for the speaker, the most stressful of situations.  Worse than divorce or getting a bad-news medical diagnosis.

It’s nice to know that experts consider one’s stress to be “normal,”  but that doesn’t make the dreams go away.  You wake up feeling exhausted and guilty.

In meditation this morning, I wondered if I could get to the bottom of this dream anxiety and guilt by doing what the after-life researchers call a “life review.”

Life reviews are among the features typically included when people who’ve been revived after suffering clinical death have experiences to report.  All the morally consequential scenes that occurred in the life of the recently-deceased person pass before him or her.  Especially the scenes he or she is least proud of!

As a possible cure for my anxiety dreams, I decided: Maybe I don’t have to wait till I’m dead to have a life review.  I can line up every horrible memory right now, in my own room at home, while I’m sitting for morning meditation.

Reader, I actually did that, and thought, as I surveyed the entire lineup:

YUCK.

Where ‘s the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can jump off it?

In the therapeutic jargon of our day, people speak of “forgiving themselves,” but I never could make much sense of that.  Who am I to forgive myself?  I mean my question in the logical (or perhaps ontological) sense.  Are there two different people here?  Abigail#1 who forgives and Abigail #2 who is forgiven?  Maybe the real problem stems from that very dissociation or self-doubling.

I decided to approach the problem of me and my sins another way.  Suppose I moved Abigail #1 so that she became congruent with Abigail #2 and they finally coincided?  The reproacher and the reproached would then become one and the same.  There’d be only me here to take the fall for us both.

So I tried that.  Now I can’t explain why — and can’t describe what was happening as a step-by-step process — but, as I watched me coming to coincide with my sins, what I saw and felt was …

comical.

And at the same time, I don’t know how, but the comedy felt situated within a much vaster landscape where I was being somehow …

embraced.

This surprising turn led me to assume a different vantage point.  Suppose I approached the life-review from another direction.  Instead of gathering the evidence for a quasi-judicial determination of how horrible I’d been, why not review the chronological record of my life from the standpoint of seeing where God (or my relation to God) had been, throughout all those times and incidents?

Well, it was a long, long story.  I saw me as a little girl, surrounded with such fascinating, truth-seeking people, my parents.  They were fearless of each other, unafraid of relating to people in an open and intimate way, bringing the whole world into their apartment as background fit for discussion and acknowledgment, invoking the layers of culture they and their friends had natively – French, Russian, Spanish, German, Yankee and, on my father’s side, McGuffy’s Reader, Louisville Male High, Columbia in the twenties, New York at its heyday, the JTS seminary, a philosophical dissertation and unfathomable conversation … and there also I could see my grandfather, Rav Tsair, and from him the Jewish lineage going back to Origins – and adults not treating children as needing to be lied to.

If bad things happened, as sometimes they did, they would seem unwarranted and inexplicable, set against that background.

I hadn’t yet come up against experiences that would prove too much for me.  I hadn’t come up against my own contradictions.  The fortress of childhood still gave shelter.  The walls hadn’t narrowed yet.  My personal armageddons lay ahead.

Some of those self-undoings will be recounted when Confessions of a Young Philosopher appears.  I’ve really been shredded — torn from end to end.  As our family friend Leo Bronstein said to me, after he read an early draft of Confessions, I would always be older than I look.

Visiting these episodes in sequence, from a point of view that asked where God had been vis a vis each incident, was astonishing and deeply reassuring.  I know it sounds a bit odd, but I sensed that

Someone had been reaching into the story, 

to help at key intervals,

all the long way.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If Our Time Could Speak

“Time Waits”
Mike Savad, 2011

If Our Time Could Speak

In recent columns, I’ve mentioned that for me The Plague has opened the time to read through the journals, correspondence and manuscripts, published and unpublished, of my late father, Henry M. Rosenthal, who was considered, by classmates in Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, their “genius.”

It’s been a roller coaster ride.  I discovered a 300-page typescript, of which I knew nothing, titled “Time Speaking.” The manuscript is dated 1945 and is addressed to The Future.  Since I’m reading it 75 years later, I guess I’m discovering it at the very future time he’s addressing.

I won’t try to characterize this work, since I’m only a third of the way through, but it struck me as an interesting thing to try to do: portray one’s own era sufficiently well so that it can be understood by the people of the future.

Since I don’t have the synoptic penetration my father brought to that task, I’ll have to make do with my own equipment, which has never been stretched in that way.

But how to begin?  How can you know what it’s like to live now — or at any previous time?  Here’s one technique I’ve used.  When visiting the classical rooms of a museum, I would select an ancient portrait statue and imitate its stance.  If I stood the way a particular sculpted Roman emperor was standing, it would feel quite different from the feeling I get when I stand normally.  I would feel very proud, very noble, magnificently prominent and self-assured.

I suspect that no one today stands that way.  I sure don’t.  Even if you couldn’t hold the pose for long, you got a glimpse of what it felt like to be a Roman emperor.

But where, in May of 2020, could I find an equivalent single figure, holding a pose I could imitate, who could give me a sense of how it is to live in our time?

Of course not everyone in ancient Rome was an emperor.  But no one would have turned down the job.

Is there anyone today whom we all wish we were?  I guess today …

we all wish we were 

who we really are.

Not an imitation of ourselves.  Not a second-hand version.  The real thing.  We want to be authentic.

And we are aware, even if but dimly, that “authentic” today will look different from “authentic” 75 years from now.

So what are the parameters, the boundary conditions, the limits within which we people of today work out the drama of becoming ourselves?   In the future, the parameters we had will be clearer than they can possibly be for us now.  But couldn’t we at least take a stab at it?

I’ve sometimes said that people have grown lighter on the ground than they seemed to be two or three generations back.  The movies make this change visible.  Women in stockings, platform shoes, pointy bras under their silk blouses and fox furs over their shoulders.  Men in suits whose ties folded up to the neck, with vests and pocket watches under their jackets.  Cars with running boards.  Everyone in his or her space, costume and role.  These things were not questioned.  The drama of life was played out within them.  Ethnic and religious identity, sexual mores, age, notions of normality – none of these were up for grabs.

And, as one can see from 19th-century daguerrotypes, people back then were heavier still.  Goodness!  Hoop skirts, mustaches, different hats for different occasions!  Life was serious. The habit made the monk.  Opinions made the man.  Nobody held his lightly.

So we who seem to enjoy a certain lightness — with respect to inherited differences and socially-bestowed credentials — how authentic is our professed lightness?  Do we mean it?  Or don’t we?

In certain respects, we do actually and sincerely mean it.  Take The Plague for example.  As we read this, specialists all over the world are working cooperatively, taking full advantage of computer technology and artificial intelligence, to analyze and share what we are learning about the Covid-19 virus, to test and develop anti-viral treatments and preventives.  In the face of a peril common to us all as human beings, ethnic and historic boundaries have not much impeded this grand, pan-human search for a solution.  It’s unprecedented.  For a fact, we are far less entrapped by the past than we ever used to be.

On the other hand, when we try, by revaluing our values and destabilizing our concepts, to imagine that every aspect of reality is “socially constructed,” we don’t mean it.  If we meant it, we’d crowd into stadiums, restaurants, classrooms and social gatherings as we did before.

Hey, hey, hey, the virus isn’t a social construct.

 If you don’t mean it,

don’t say it.

In part, the relative lightness of today is liberating.  On the other hand, it comes with its own kind of crisis.

Archimedes, the great Greek scientist of the third century BCE, is supposed to have said, in connection with his principle of the lever,

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.”

The lightfoot lads and lasses of today lack such a place to stand.   Too much has been blown away.  All the group solidarity in the world will not replace

one’s own power

to stand one’s own ground.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Jewish Am I?

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky

“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

How Jewish Am I?

If being Jewish by birth is what counts, I suppose I’m Jewish enough.  But it’s not a necessary condition for securing that identity.

A few years ago, a young Christian woman – a friend and participant in our congregation — invited me to witness her conversion to the religion of my ancestors.  Like most Jews, I wondered: Are you sure you want to do this?  Haven’t you got enough troubles?

What do you need it for?

As we drove to the mikvah, I put a number of questions to her.  The answers she gave were sufficiently detailed — free of projection, escapism, or other “psychological” markers — to quiet my misgivings.  I could see that she knew what she was doing.

The same question came up for me this week in a quite different context.  A non-Jewish philosopher friend, for whom Judaism is distinguished by its prioritizing of observance over belief, might suppose me able to confirm his view.

I’m not well placed to confirm his sense of what it is to be a Jew since, where ritual observance is concerned, I’m pretty thin on the ground.  Why then, apart from the accident of birth, do I count myself a Jew? Where I get the sense of having freely signed on to this particular covenant?  Why do I think I would do it again?

No doubt there are more explanations than I know, but three experiences come to mind.

The first came from writing Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  Its original draft sprang from my desire to comprehend the adventures and misadventures of my twenties.  The events of that decade grouped themselves into three sequential parts.  Publishers told me that the three parts fell apart.  As a writer, I needed to get them to hang together – to be the story of one person.  As the person actually concerned, who had to go forward with her life in one package, it was vital to know why Abigail had done it all and been through it all.

I tried various strings on which the beads of these life-incidents might be strung.  Was the connecting string Freudian?  I wrote a draft in a Freudian way.  The three parts still fell apart.  Could G. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century philosopher who strung world history into a single narrative, supply the string?  Nah.  In those days, I considered myself a Hegelian, but that didn’t work either.

Finally, I tried Jewish.  Could it be that I was Jewish au fond? That worked!  Whaddya know?  Now the story made sense as one life — not three disconnected episodes.  Okay!  Live and learn.

What was the second experience?  Here the route was rather roundabout.  There was a time in my life when I was quite alone and certain well-meaning family friends were offering me their wildly inappropriate advice.  Never mind what the problem was that they thought they understood so well and actually did not understand at all.  It was a fact that I was being nibbled to death by yentas.

There was an ashram across town that offered fine vegetarian meals at a discount and taught yoga meditation.  The yentas couldn’t find me there.  The head of the ashram, its guru, was a beautiful young Indian woman.  Her followers claimed that she had achieved Samadhi: the dissolution of personal identity after the yogi merges with the Divine Self.  She had an aura of inner power and delicate grace that looked to me unearthly.  She was marvelous.  I’d never seen anyone who looked like her.

I learned a good deal during the time spent under this influence, reading some of the great classics of Hindu literature in translation, learning to meditate, yogic breathing and asanas (postures), and some of the practices of Indian worship that would be familiar to me when, years later with Jerry, I saw them again in India.

What could be wrong?  I began to notice certain changes in the ashram. There were features of its routines that were taking on the character of a cult.   I won’t detail them.  There are lots of books about cults if you want to study that phenomenon.  At the same time, the guru herself changed.  It was rather sudden, and to me unmistakable.  I know what despair sounds like.  The last sermon I heard her give disclosed a degree of demoralization that was precipitous and deep.

As I stood in the doorway, looking at her for the last time, I realized that, in a system aiming to dissolve the personal self into the Divine Self, the guru could not find sufficient belief in her own legitimacy as a person to save herself.  In all the ashram, there was no one whose beliefs authorized stepping in to help her.  The Guru Gita, the song of the guru that one chants every morning in Sanskrit, tells the disciple to follow the guru even if she falls.  There was no one to care.

The realization followed: if I needed a defense from yentas, I would have to fight them off, myself.

I had made an earnest attempt not to be Jewish.  It hadn’t worked.

The third experience was direct, not roundabout.  There was, however, a context.  I had gone to hear a talk by one of the philosophic colleagues of my late father.  The speaker had been a friend of my parents and had spoken at the memorial for my father.  Much to my surprise, his talk was openly and aggressively disparaging of Jews and the Jewish spirit.  It was a speech he would not have given had my parents been alive.  The cats were away.  The mice could play.

My subway ride home required a change of trains.  Standing on the platform as the trains clattered by, I thought about the talk I’d just heard.  A question was forming in my mind.  In the roaring darkness of the subway, I decided to put it to God directly.

“Lord, what is a Jew?”

This was the silent message I received:

a Jew is someone who has

 a passion for God.

The message continued that this passion is for God in one particular form.  A God sufficiently distant from ourselves to make us visible (and thus real) to God as our Witness.  He can see what we choose to do.  God leaves us enough room for the storyline of ourselves.  The story is not random or pointless.  Our choices have a moral feature to them.  That’s why they’re interesting.  God doesn’t like to be bored.

“Lord,” I asked the second part of my question, “what is an anti-semite?”

An anti-semite is someone who hates God

in that particular form.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Autonomy, Biblical God, books, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Hegel, hidden God, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fording the Flood

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

Fording the Flood

I had a dream the other night, depicting the journey I’m in the midst of at present.

On a bus traveling long distance, I was a passenger.  It was not a bus of recent vintage.  It lacked the wide aisles, reclining seats, or inside climate control of the newer buses.  If maintenance crews had ever kept it in repair, that too was in the past.  There were none of those posted notices that tell riders how to behave.  In fact, I might have been the only passenger, since I didn’t perceive others.

The driver was going full tilt, not realizing that we were on a one-lane road.  He also failed to notice that his left wheels were perilously close to a precipice at  road’s edge.  It was up to me to bring this to his attention, but I couldn’t find the words.

“Bus-bus-bus” was all I could say.

Eventually the bus did clear the narrow road, and move onto a wide-open mall or plaza.  However, as if the previous hazards hadn’t been bad enough, this plaza was filling up with floodwaters.

Since I’d watched TV programs on how to survive weather emergencies, I knew that it would not be a good idea to try to drive through the rising waters.  The driver didn’t seem to know this.  Hence I decided to leave his bus.

As I stood in the flood, the waters came about hip-high.  It would not be easy to ford them, especially for the six miles I would have to cross to get home.  Yet I had no choice but to set forth.  And there my dream ended.

In morning meditation, it came to me what the dream was about: my experience reading the journals and other materials of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal.  As I’ve mentioned in recent columns, his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 deemed him their “genius.”

Don’t just take it from his daughter.  The year that visiting Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch spent at my father’s philosophy department, she met Lionel Trilling at a New York literary party.  Trilling, a classmate of my father’s, was a then-celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.  Told she was visiting the Hunter College philosophy department, Trilling asked if she’d met Henry Rosenthal there.

“Not only I met him,” she said in her French-accented English, “but I fell in love with him and his whole family!”

Instantly Trilling drew her aside, saying intensely in a low voice,

“He was the only man I ever knew who was a genius.”

Years later, at the memorial for my father, Clifton Fadiman, a critic widely known at the time, said to the gathering,

“Of us all, he was the best talker.”

This in a circle of future opinion-shapers, all of whom prided themselves on talking well!

Although his published work included the posthumous, Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, I always had the suspicion that the secret of him – if he had a secret – awaited discovery in the journals (1925-1955) and his earlier work, published and unpublished.

My father began his working life as an ordained rabbi.  Eventually, he went into philosophy.  Although he certainly wasn’t in his element in the American rabbinate of the period, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in it by accident.  Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism (a branch of Reform Judaism) knew him at that time and, in a published piece, compared him to a Hasidic Master.

What was he, really?  And what – now that The Plague prevented me from advancing any other project – should I do about it?

Here’s where the bumpy bus ride comes in.  All the bright young men of the class of ‘25 defined themselves as “modern.”  To be modern meant, among other things, to subscribe to the iron certainties of Marx and Freud.  So, like his classmates, HMR descended into that long, underground tunnel that verbally flattened all the heights and depths of the life of the spirit.  Under those metallic constraints, his classmates could survive and even flourish.

Not him.  Not Henry.

As I turned the pages of the journals, I perceived his mounting anger and frustration within the worldview where he had caged his spirit and its genius.  He was not finding his way out and he had misconceived the problem.

The supreme ambition young men entertained back then was to write something they called “The Great American Novel.”  They all wanted to be the first to bring it out under the blue American skies.  Almost all of them felt like failures if they did not publish a novel or if they published one that was not deemed singularly great.  My father shared his classsmates’ ambition and did not grasp the fact that he was not a novelist at all.

Reading the journals, and tracing the vagaries of this misunderstanding, I began to think, well okay.  That’s that.  He never found the vehicle for his talent.  I’ll finish reading these documents and then, when The Plague recedes, convey them over to the archive that’s expecting to receive them.  I was saddened but – as it was not clear to me either what his vehicle should have been – I could accept the mismatch between a talent and a life, without imagining that I had any further role to play in the story.  The story was apparently over.

That was before I began to read through the articles and reviews.  They were exceptionally subtle, intense to the point of white heat, unconventional, powered solely by an inner summons.  I won’t try to quote from any of them here.  Reading them, I was absolutely knocked flat: surprised, overwhelmed – “flooded” (as in my dream) — by the authority and truthfulness manifest in each paragraph.

His actual focus was the Jewish spirit.  He was not looking at that phenomenon sociologically, historically, psychologically, or even through the lens of “tradition.”  What he saw directly — at first hand, as it were — was its ineluctable depth and reality.

To modern people, this had to be far from obvious.  In the twenties and thirties of the last century, neither the Holocaust nor the Jewish state had yet driven its tent pegs as deep into history’s shifting sands as they have now.  So you had to have the eyes of a Hebrew prophet to see how consequential Jews would prove to be on the sands of future time.

One of my father’s published pieces was a review of a book on ancient Israel.  In it a well-known scholar claimed, in the most careful and genteel way he could, that the providential role of Israel was to prepare the way for Christianity.  Perhaps, my father demurred gently, the part played by Christianity was rather to preserve the still-providential role of Israel.

A psychic once told me that she had a vision of my father in a past life.  He was, she saw, a member of the crowd that crossed the Reed Sea with Moses in the exodus from Egypt.

Of course, I won’t try to figure that one out.  But her picture corresponds to the feeling I get from the pieces I’ve been reading recently.  He had the intensity and inner accuracy that would, in other circumstances, have given him the ability to pass,

dryshod and sure-footed,

through many floodwaters.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, novels, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another Door

“Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor”
Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1901

Another Door

After the death of my mother, I devoted long weeks to clearing my parents’ Manhattan apartment.  It seemed the bitterest of times.

All the tapestried layers, the complexities of them – the charm, the humor, the remarks that burst forth ex nihilo (out of mysterious nothingness) and the condensed insights that perhaps had piled up from lives that stretched back over many centuries – all that was to be packed into several large cardboard boxes containing … personal effects!

What insights do I have in mind? 

What remarks?

Here’s one of the insights.  After the Second World War, the nations of Eastern Europe came under the control of Soviet Russia and the communist regimes it imposed.  Under such regimes, religion was outlawed.  Despite this prohibition, when the Polish Pope came to Warsaw, television news showed him saying the mass publicly from his hotel balcony.  Under his balcony, the people of Warsaw filled the square and filled the streets beyond, as far as the eye could see.  Since the Russian occupation of Poland, no one had seen anything like this.  My mother and I were watching the news together.

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism,” she said without hesitation.

She was a few years ahead of the Sovietologists and the Cold War experts.  Sometimes, it helps if you understand people.

Here’s one of the remarks.  I remember my father voicing it when he was first admitted to the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine.  He would die a week later, though no illness was ever diagnosed.

The intelligent young physician had begun to give him oxygen.

“How do you feel?” he was asked.

“I feel REAL resuscitated.”

Later a philosopher colleague of mine who knew Wittgenstein told me, in that context, “real” means “not.” My father’s remark was funny and informative, but – like him — oblique.  It was the last complete sentence I ever heard him speak.

When both my parents were gone and I was kneeling in my blue jeans on the floor of my father’s study, sobbing, placing last little items inside the remaining cardboard boxes, I came across a small sheet of paper, with one sentence penned in my father’s clear and elegant hand.

“The future is the past 

entered through another door.”

Because our present time-out-of-time has blocked every one of my other pending projects, I’ve been spending these recent weeks reading through my father’s journals, which span the first three decades of his adult life.

He became at the end of his life (when he and I enjoyed an adult friendship) much more like the rather pure self that he had been at the beginning when, as a very young man, he’d just met my future mother.

All the way through, the journals will show him unpredictable, original, creative and elusive.  In the middle years, he will find life desperately frustrating and will have a tremendous struggle to gain the vantage point from where he will see its significance, for himself and for others.

At a certain point, I enter the story of course.  “Abigail is born” but, in the journals, she is never front and center.  He is the hero and my mother is too.  So what I am reading about is pre-history, which runs alongside my own for part of the track.  And yet, in the strangest way, I feel that — by reading about this part of the past, I am reentering my own future —

through a different door.

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, Biblical God, Childhood, Cities, Class, Contemplation, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Immortality, Jews, life and death struggle, Love, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, motherhood, Ontology, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, social construction, Social Conventions, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Filial Piety

Funerary Relief, 4th Century BCE
Archaeological Museum of Athens

Filial Piety

I once wrote an article whose original title was “Filial Piety.”  That’s the category under which people used to cite the duties and types of honor that children were thought to owe their parents.  Every philosophical journal to which I submitted the article in America sent it back on the grounds that they had already published a piece on … child abuse!

Okay.  Finally I got it published in England, but not before I changed its title to “The Filial Art.”  In our time, nobody’s against art.

These days, I’ve been reading through my father’s unpublished materials: journals, correspondence, manuscripts, to see if anything there should be lifted out for publication – or not.

Henry M. Rosenthal was described by his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 as their “genius.”  Diana Trilling, writer and wife of the even-more-public-intellectual Lionel Trilling, wrote about him as a young writer, that “as we heard him, Lionel and I felt that we were listening to our American-Jewish Joyce … the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”  Clifton Fadiman, another of his well-known classmates, devoted much of his eulogy at my father’s memorial to reflecting on the meaning of genius.  He was uncompromising, Fadiman said.  The rest of us made compromises.  “Henry never did.”

Obviously, it’s something of a responsibility to be the child of such a man.  Since it’s no honor to one’s father to live a stunted life in his shadow, one needs to get enough “escape velocity” to discover one’s own story.  On the other hand, there is the danger of escaping so far and so violently that one fails truthfully to honor what is unique and irreplaceable about him.

I did manage to live my own life.  What I also did, in the years after his death, was complete the editing and introductions, biographical and philosophical, for his posthumous book, see it all the way through to publication and journal reviews, get their house in Maine sold, and take care of sundry other matters.  So it isn’t as if I’m running in the red with my father.  If I don’t succeed in finding something publishable in these materials, they will be archived for others to work on.  But if I do see stuff in them from which I believe others can profit, I intend to lift that out and get it published.

This final task was, however, one I had planned to leave for the last phase of my own working life.  But now, with our present days turning into The Year of the Planetary Plague, my own projects are – apart from this column — all on hold.  In consequence, figuring out what to do about the HMR papers moves suddenly to the head of the queue.

When one tries to understand someone who was a major life influence, it’s not only that person about whom one is inquiring.  The investigation is also, of course, about oneself.  In what way was I influenced?  How did it help or hurt me?  What did I make of it?

It’s too soon for answers.  However, these questions give my present effort to retrace his life its ineluctable fascination and surprise.   He had a quality of hiddenness about him that I may not ever succeed in decoding.

The end of his life came without any illness having been diagnosed.  It took him only a week to die.  When he had slipped into a coma, I voiced a lamentation to my mother, standing with her at the foot of his hospital bed.  My mother and I were very close.

“I left Pheidias [my first love, a Greek communist in Paris] for the values that my father represented, and now … he is leaving!”

It would have been said within earshot, had he not been in a coma.  Then I walked to the head of the bed where he lay dying.  Between him and me, a wordless final communication began.  It was transmitted along what I can only describe as an energy current, going from his heart along the length of my arm and right into my heart center.

Distinctly, though silently, it sent the following message:

Love

 is the strongest force

in the universe.

It’s more fundamental than the physical forces –  

than the strong force,

 the weak force,

electromagnetism

 and gravity.

He wasn’t preaching.

What he was telling me was descriptive, on the order of fact, not admonitory.  With this benediction, he was perhaps addressing my complaint to my mother and releasing me into my own life world —

where I’d be able

to observe this for myself.  

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, Mysticism, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What About the Plague?

Hands
Rodin, 1909

What About the Plague?

 I feel it’s a privilege to be alive at this time, 

as it is at all times.

It’s now being said that we can’t shake hands – perhaps ever again!  Henceforth, our hands will be condemned as bearers of lethality.

If we are to embrace our humanity again, it’s vital to get this one figured out.  It’s up to us (as human beings, some of whom do scientific research) to make it safe – or at least safer? — to shake hands.

We speak of people being out of touch, having lost touch, having the common touch, the human touch, staying in touch.  After infancy, we go beyond touch and learn to talk but — at the very start of our memories —

touch is the human norm.

It’s been reported that the present plague originated in the “wet markets” of Wuhan, where stuff like boiled bats gets added to the soup.  If that’s so, with global traffic carrying toxic practices to every latitude, we are going to have to figure out how to get these dictators

to clean up

their acts.

It’s speculated that further viral waves might follow in succession, in the wake of our present distress.

If so, then we as a human race will need to find more rapid methods for detecting infection and building remedies.

There is one affliction I sense besetting us all, whether or not we have personal losses to mourn: plague deaths can’t be honored by farewells or proper ceremony.  There are too many of them and the dying person may be contagious.

It seems to me, though I have no way of verifying this, that there is nonetheless

a great welling up

from all these frustrated farewells.

Even if they can’t now be exchanged face to face, they are still being experienced — in the collective silence.  We feel them.  We are not indifferent.

The policy decisions, about steps and stages of societal recovery, are beyond my competence or reach.  Different nations and, in our own country, states are experimenting with different strategies.  Perhaps one size won’t fit every circumstance.  It’s only retrospectively that we may get a rough idea of which regimen did the least harm, what trade-offs were better or worse.  At present, every plan must be educated guesswork.

Just as the farewells surround us with their muted fullness of feeling, so I have the sense, accurate or not, that many of the small businesses and services that humanize our days are not crushed yet — only on standby.

They are our reserves of activity, of creativity, of personal contact, of skill and practicality.  They address the needs of our complex human situation.  An important number will manage their necessary struggles to survive and welcome us back.

And we will be …

so very glad

to see them again.

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, bureaucracy, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, Faith, Freedom, Friendship, Health, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Ideality, Identity, Institutional Power, Journalism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Love, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, politics, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, science, scientism, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Time, twenty-first century, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment