Battered, Bruised … but Unbowed?

“Elijah is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, to his disciple Elisha”
Marc Chagall, 1956

Battered, Bruised … but Unbowed?

Last week, reflecting on my deep reluctance to do anything that would promote my newly-released book, A Good Look at Evil, second edition, I determined that the real barrier isn’t that I believe I have nothing to give that might help people.  It’s rather that I feel I’ve awakened the sleeping dogs … of evil.  And I fear evil.

Lest you dismiss this as puffery in disguise, I’ll give one reason (in addition to those set forth in the book) why I think I’ve got evil’s number.  Some years ago, when the first edition came out, a friend of mine was reading it when an unexpected guest rang the downstairs bell.  The guest was a man who had embezzled a fair proportion of my friend’s life savings and, unbeknownst to himself (but with the cooperation of his victim), was about to get arrested for embezzling and sent up the river.  Anyway, after dropping in, the embezzler noticed my book lying on a side table and opened it out of curiosity.  Soon, forgetting his manners as a guest, he was deep in A Good Look at Evil, apparently enjoying it hugely!

“Why,” I asked my friend “was he enjoying it?”

“Because,” my friend said, “it was about him!”

So few books are.  Although the second edition has some distinguished endorsers quoted on the back cover, I’m pretty sure that a recommendation from this guy, preferably accompanied by his mug shot, would have put the first edition over the top.

The message of A Good Look at Evil is that our lives are stories.  Not made-up stories.  Not fantasies or projections.  True stories.  We can bungle the story.  We can disguise it.  Or we can recognize it, respect it and live it straight.

If I’m right about this, where does evil come into it?  Evil has a pretty good sense of what story it is that we’re trying to live.  Evil comes to spoil our stories.  To confuse them.  To muddy them.  To get us to feel awkward or embarrassed or scared of living the true narratives of our lives.  We need to know this.  Many of the great novelists of the nineteenth-century knew it and helped us to see it.  But the cynicisms and pseudo-landscapes of modernity have obscured the fact of the matter.

That said, what’s been going awry in my life lately?  Since it’s appearance for sale on Amazon, I’ve been in a prolonged struggle to get it appropriately presented there.  At first, Amazon foregrounded the first edition, making it hard to find the revised and expanded 2018 second edition.  At the same time, the “Look Inside” (electronic preview) feature first showed the 1987 edition and later, no inside pages at all.  But this week capped all. When I ordered the book, the edition that arrived was bound in the 2018 cover but contained all and only the 1987 contents!  So the endorsers, whose blurbs concentrated on the new materials, were given the lie by the content inside the covers!  This disfigured package was simply an affront to its author.

It seemed to me terrifying.  Nor did my Guidance blow away the thick fog that settled around me.  Nothing I got back in prayer or meditation suggested that this wasn’t any big deal, or wouldn’t be a big deal hundred years from now.  Nothing suggested that I should try to “get above it” or “get distance on it.”  Nothing I received inwardly advised me to hang back from the fight that loomed.  Hang back because I’m a woman and we get nailed as nags, as nervous nellies, as neurotic.  On the contrary.  What I received was NOT to internalize a problem that existed in reality, not just in my mind.

Why do we blame ourselves?  And then — thanks to feminism telling us to “man up” — blame ourselves for blaming ourselves?  My mind goes now to the women who were so brutally mistreated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and yet went back to share his company and his bed, where he, of course, hit them again. This woman-beater told them, “I am the Law in New York.”  It’s the same message that Bill Clinton, then The Law in Arkansas, managed to convey to the woman he, on her credible account, raped when he was Attorney General of that state.  Ladies, don’t get alone in a room with an attorney general!

What’s with us women?  You want my opinion?

IT’S NOT A FLAW.

It’s the Yin that complements the Yang on nature’s balance scales.  We are, I’ve long suspected, hard-wired for a kind of pliancy and receptivity.  Why wouldn’t we be?  How much spare yardage does nature have?  La Femme, wrote Simone de Beauvoire, the founder of modern feminism, est en proie a l’espece.  Hey, woman is at the mercy of the species.  No kidding.  Sans blague!  Why didn’t I think of that?  What does it mean, practically?  It means, born vulnerable!  I hope I didn’t say the wrong thing.  Where protection is called for, a decent man is instinctively protective of women.  So sue me.

Feminism is on message when it goads us to be more assertive, to say what we mean, to stand up.  But, for rhetorical purposes, it has denied this deep trait, pretending it’s just a social construct.  Like hell it is.  Schneiderman’s victims included hard-shelled New York women, professional women, at least one big city lawyer.  What the predator sees is the vulnerability underneath the armor!

Back to Abigail and her thwarted story.  To recap recent misadventures: Just around the time of publication date, I took a wrong step in the blizzard and fractured my knee.  That was the leg with the neuropathy for which I’d finally found an effective treatment.  Now the treatment would have to be postponed, or rolled backwards, since I could not travel to California for the next scheduled round, nor continue the exercises at home that I’d been given to do between treatments.

Being forbidden to drive, I could not get to the Franco-Tunisian café where I ordinarily go to review and make sense of my days.

Nor could I get to the weekly Torah Study (Bible study of the Pentateuch).  Even if I got a lift, it seemed too demanding and risky to totter across the lobby and into a chair at the common table.  Since we lack a full-time rabbi at present, there is no one tasked with the duty of cheering the disabled.  So, at a time of crisis for me, there was only silence from that quarter.

At the same time, someone I would have thought trustworthy volunteered to convey a prayer-based healing by telephone.  He turned out to be trading on female vulnerability to try to get away with stuff over the phone.  Get thee behind me, Satan!

Since I had to concentrate on my main job, which was not to fall again, the painful fracture also led me to postpone much of the effort one normally puts in to bring a new book to the attention of the reading public.

Now add the crowning setback just mentioned: the cover of the 2018 revised, expanded Good Look at Evil, arrives, wrapped round – all and only — the 1987 book!

By now, I was getting scared.  If I had evil’s number, did it have mine?  I’m not such a fool as to think I can handle life all by myself.  I did “look up” for Guidance.  The Guidance was insistent.

This IS just what it feels like: the destruction of a significant work.  You MUST oppose it.  Don’t hold back.  Send emails.  Make phone calls.  This is not the time to be harmonious, though that’s what you prefer to be.  You must be cognizant of what your editors and Amazon can do to fix this, and ASK ONLY THAT.  You must remain factual, not emotional.  But you must not damp down your legitimate determination to set to rights the selling of the updated edition of the book you wrote.  If your editors cannot fix it, or won’t, you must go higher in the organization.  Or get lawyered up, if need be.

The editors did fix it.  Why?  How?  It looked to me as if the bad guys (the nameless adversary who seemed to know where I live) had won.  Why should all that downhill slide stop, turn round, and reverse itself?  Was it just because I kept at it?  Kept trying?

There’s a passage in scripture where Elisha the prophet finds himself surrounded by a dangerous “host” from the king of Syria.  His servant says,

“Alas, my master!  How shall we do?”

“Fear not [Elisha answers]: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” II Kings 6: 15-17.

Elisha then manages — as if to pull back the curtain hiding the sky — to show his servant that “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”

Well, I sure can’t do that.  What can I tell you?  Life is not predictable.  Bad things happen.  Things can happen that are worse than bad, that seem custom-tailored to embody our worst fears.  Not everybody survives every danger every time.  Often enough, it seems the bad guys win.  But still, where you know what the situation calls for, it’s crucial to persist.  The bad guys count on us not to persist.

Therefore, it’s important to remember, against all appearances, against the odds, that

they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

 

 

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Before Feminism – and After!

 

“Ladies in Blue”
The Archaeological Museum of Herakleion, Crete. Excavated from Palace of Knossos.
Late Minoan IB ca. 1525–1450 B.C.

Before Feminism – and After!

Lately, I’ve been reading When Men Were the Only Models We Had, by Carolyn Heilbrun.  It’s a memoir on coming of age as an intellectual woman before feminism.  As a graduate student in Columbia University’s English Department, her great teachers, Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, taught her to roam free in the Life of the Mind, the only constraint to be good thinking and good writing.  Clifton Fadiman, a critic well known at the time, was not an academic but taught her by example to write clearly, honestly and without pretentious jargon.

I know what she is talking about.  In my childhood, listening to the conversations between my father, Henry M. Rosenthal (considered by his classmates at Columbia their one “genius”) and art historian Leo Bronstein, his best friend, was like having died and gone to heaven.  I could not think that growing up could show me anything better and, in a way, it never did.

The only barrier that stood between Heilbrun and the Life of the Mind was that it was represented to her as an exclusively male consortium.  Crudely lettered,   like a tree house club with a sign nailed at the base:

No Girls Allowed.

Although that restriction had been no part of my childhood, nor indeed through high school, my women’s college or the Fulbright year in Paris, it descended like an iron curtain over my years as a graduate student of philosophy.  At Columbia, where I received my masters with doctoral candidacy, the problem was not the unfunny jokes about women.  It was the careerist and second-hand feel of the place, which threatened to kill motivation at the root.   At the much less prestigious Penn State, to which I transferred, the atmosphere was original and intellectually alive, but salted with exclusivist maleness.  You got the Life of the Mind all right, but in a tree house Not for Girls.

Was I unusually sensitive?  Of the women who were grad students with me, one converted to Catholicism and entered a convent.  Another, of Russian origin, also became a nun, entering an order that practiced flagellation.  A third, married with children, was forced out by a schedule of courses that precluded her other duties.  What happened to me – no ordinary troubles I assure you — is told in Confessions of a Young Philosopher (forthcoming).

“That’s a hundred percent,” remarked a high school friend with whom I recently revisited my grad student days.

Yeah.  So I fully understand the dilemma Carolyn Heilbrun portrays in her memoir.  Of the three men who modeled for her the Life of the Mind, the most influential was Lionel Trilling.  She quotes him on how women were seen by people like himself.  Here’s how they looked in the 1920s:

  • The masculine mind, dulled by preoccupation, was to be joined and quickened by the Woman-principle, which drew its bright energies from ancient sources and sustained the hope of new things … — they were to be free, brilliant and, in their own way, powerful and, like men, they were to have destinies, yet at the same time they would be delightful, and they would be loved because they were women.

Personally, I don’t see a problem.  Seems to me they got it right the first time.

However, as Heilbrun quotes Trilling’s later view, Sigmund Freud entered the club house and changed all that.

  • The substance of this judgment is that women are hostile to men and carry their hostility to the point of being castrating

What a comedown!  The Freudian view was that to be a woman was to be a defective man.  The view was not confined to graduate school classrooms.  In her forthcoming memoir, The Politically Incorrect Feminist, the heroic Phyllis Chesler describes her battles to stop colleagues in psychiatry and psychology from enforcing this view by abetting and authorizing the confinement of nonconforming women to asylums.  There they might be coerced into sexual submission or service as housemaids to doctors who had the power to release them or else inflict electro-shock therapy or even lobotomies.

Behind the theoretical disparagement of women stood measures of punishment and control that are morally terrifying to contemplate.  Women did not discuss them but we were aware of them.

Such are the wounds that feminism came to bind up and heal.  So what, if anything, went wrong?  Well, very much went right.  It was a swift and immense social revolution that raced round the planet like a prairie fire and shed no blood.

Say what you will about the costs (and they were many and steep) women today are freer and happier than they were back then.  You can see the change in the documentaries about feminism.  The early combats were grim and the combatants solemn and desperate.

So what’s my problem?  After all, the feminist movement liberated women from their entire dependence on men for economic, social, professional and all-round human standing.  (I’m not suggesting that no problems remain on these scores, but the changes have been substantial.)  They changed the words if not the tune.

A woman without a man 

is like a fish without a bicycle.

Those were the new words to the old tune.  We don’t need men, feminists said.  Not for sex, not for intellectual or moral legitimation, not for support – material or emotional.

I remember meeting a friend for dinner who was a well-known and effective fighter for women’s health.  Her third marriage had ended even more disastrously than the first two.  I learned from her about the new feminist fashions: skirts studded all over with safety pins!

“Are you still looking for the right man?” I asked her.

She shook her head as if the answer was obvious. “Are you?”

“Yes.”

“If you find him, I’ll believe in God.”

*         *          *

I think of the women who were models for me in childhood: Renee, Betja and my mother.  Renee was a graceful Frenchwoman, an intuitively hospitable presence presiding over her Princeton home and garden at 1 Valley Road, with a slow, subliminal coquetry that never appeared other than natural and low key — but absolutely authoritative as a woman.  Betja was an eye surgeon, named Woman of the Year in New Jersey, who adored her collegial husband and her children, spoke English in the liquid accents of her native Russia (where as a schoolgirl she had to pray for the hemophilia of the future Tsar).  Betja was no less a woman in all the ancient senses than she was a surgeon.

And my mother?  A writer friend, who is now reading the forthcoming collection of Lionel Trilling’s letters, writes of being “especially mesmerized by Trilling’s devotion to, and even dependence on, Henry and Rachel Rosenthal’s intimate friendship.  Lionel’s letters are mainly to Henry but also to Rachel.”

She could read Dostoevsky in the Russian, Proust in the French and Thomas Mann in the German.  When we watched the Pope on television saying the mass over a sea of faces in Warsaw, I asked,

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism,” she said.

She was years ahead of the professional Sovietologists.  They hadn’t a clue.  Mother understood people.  When she was dying, she said to me,

“Don’t think you have the answers because you are intelligent.

It’s not enough to be intelligent.”

There is more to the liberation of women than we have seen so far.

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“Evil? What Do You Mean, ‘Evil’?”

Adolf Eichmann, 1961
Nazi official in charge of The Holocaust at his trial

“Evil?  What Do You Mean, ‘Evil’”?

Back when the first edition of A Good Look at Evil came out, I told a Maine neighbor that I had written a book about evil.  He was a carpenter who had done a fair amount of skillful repair work for our family.  He smiled humorously, looked at me and said:

“What do you know about evil?”

He was not questioning my competence as a philosopher.  It was a Downeast compliment!  He meant, I was a good person.

Still, his question seems a fair one.  Aside from my personal encounters with it, and study of some of the cases that made history, what do I know about it?

Let me stand back and give The Doubters houseroom, as they voice what may well be the temper of the times. What would they say about my claiming I can give evil “a good look”?

Here’s my conjectural list:

  1. Everybody is excusable because either preconditioned or else conditioned by impinging circumstances. People do what they do non-deliberately.

  2. Anyway, we “know not what we do,” since our consciousness is just the visible tip of a vast unconscious force or combine of forces.

  3. The conceit of self-caused motivation, or of action that’s self-starting, is a side effect of privilege — class privilege, money privilege, leisure privilege, indulgence from peers and freedom from persecution.

  4. To call an act or an agent “evil” is judgmental. The judging person elevates herself to a level higher than the one she is judging.  She’s at least self-righteous.  She’s pretending to be holier-than-thou.   Since she’s emotionally invested in her own moral superiority, she’s an interested party and should recuse herself.

  5. Experimental psychology demonstrates that people are herd animals. We are hard-wired to do what everyone else is doing.  The apparent exceptions are programmed either by prior indoctrination or their own psychological abnormalities.

  6. People who believe they have the right to condemn others typically exhibit hardness of heart, narrowness of outlook and a capacity for cruelty that we associate with the great tyrannies of history.

  7. Anyone you know who was raised around people using words like “right or wrong,” ““good or evil,” will show near-allergic aversion to those very words! Survivors of such families have seen first hand how guilt can be exaggerated for the purpose of micro-managing a child’s every word and deed.

  8. Cultures differ about what they deem right or wrong, true or false. These differences tell us that there is no fixed standard to which individuals in their disparate cultures can repair in order to find out what is universally right or wrong, true or false.   “Good,” like “evil,” becomes a matter of perspective.

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.

To comprehend all is to forgive all.

Let’s see: not to take this personally, but what have I been called, so far, by implication?

Self-righteous,

 holier-than-thou,

self-interested,

privileged and over-privileged,

out of touch with my real unconscious motives,

indoctrinated or psychologically abnormal,

hard-hearted,

narrow,

potentially cruel,

a recruit for tyranny,

manipulative,

controlling,

uncomprehending

and unforgiving.

And I’M supposed to be the “judgmental” one?  Actually, friends, the most insultingly personal condemnations that have come my way in recent years, were reprisals for voicing a judgment.  One time, when a normally mild-mannered woman friend had finished her tongue-lashing of me in the terms itemized above — which I told her did not come near to describing who I am — she finished by confessing that she’d been finding excuses for times when she’d fled from outbreaks of wrong-doing that she should have confronted and opposed.

Even if we can’t help making judgments, isn’t the question still worth asking, whether “evil” – the word — stands for anything objectively real?

Well, let’s look at our other judgments, for starters.  Our doctor can judge accurately that we suffer from anemia.  We can judge that we’ve been tactless.  Or that we’ve stepped in smoothly to repair an awkward social situation, bless our hearts.  None of these judgments seem moral as such.  They look like judgments of fact, though the facts may be measurable in the medical case and more nuanced in the social cases.

Can we also judge that someone is being mean?  Deliberately mean?  Malevolent?  Dangerous?  Dangerous because out of control?  Dangerous but cunningly concealed?

If and when we have to make judgments like these, we will bracket our “nonjudgmentalism” and mentally move to figure things out.  We sift evidence.  We consult intuition.  We share impressions with people whose track record and common sense we trust.  We ask ourselves whether this is “projection” or, in the opposite case, “denial.”  Both are possibilities.

Well, we could be missing the mark, couldn’t we?  Yes.  We could continue to hope for the best when the worst already looms.  Or we could fear the worst when there is much to look for that is promising.

Doesn’t this mean that life is morally dangerous?

Yes.

 Interesting but dangerous.

 

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Sex, Honor and Philosophy

Sex, Honor and Philosophy

Plato wrote a dialogue, The Symposium, on this very topic.   The setting is a drinking party held to celebrate the victory of one of the guests in a poetry contest.  They go round the circle, each guest standing up to give a speech on the Great Question of the evening:

What is love?

It’s a question that you never get to the end of.  Years ago, in a down-at-heel café on the Rue de Tournon, I overheard two men speaking to each other in Russian.  I know what Russian sounds like since there were many Russians in my childhood, though I never learned their liquid language.

“What are they saying?” I asked my Czech friend, Anna.

“You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

“What is love?” the first one is saying,

“To love is to suffer!” the other one is replying,

We both laughed.  It was so Russian!

Anyway, none of the ancient Greeks at Plato’s drinking party answered the Great Question that way.  For one thing, unlike the Russians, the Greeks were talking about same-sex love.  Interestingly, however, nothing they said would be inapplicable to the love between men and women.

Why do people connect erotically?  Unlike today’s people, nobody gave “pleasure” as the answer.  One said you do it to get schooled in the social arts by the more polished partner.  Another said you do it as a spur to ambition – to shine in each other’s eyes.  Another recommended it as a health measure.  A more romantic speaker believed that we each search for our other half, to feel complete.  The most seductive speaker suggested we succumb to approaches that flatter hopes or vanity.

Finally, as is the way with these dialogues, Socrates steps up.  He credits a wise woman named Diotima with the secret of love.  Eros is at work on every level of life, from the biological to the political to the workings of memory.  But love comes into its own as our intrinsic longing for what is divinely good and beautiful.

Unlike most dialogues, in this one, Socrates doesn’t get the last word.  The contest is disrupted by Alcibiades, a drunken party crasher who treats the guests to a graphic description of his frustrated passion for Socrates himself – not as a reminder of transcendent perfection but as his love object — in the flesh.

Today we read this dialogue, as shaped by Plato’s talent as a writer.  We can picture it any way we like.  In those days, nobody carried a video phone or a tape recorder.  If someone had, more than likely one of the guests – explaining such an interesting topic in his drunken haze —  could have been nailed for sexual harassment.  The speakers themselves describe a multitude of motives as erotic.  Surely, on such an evening, dominance, revenge or injured pride could be found in the mix.

Today philosophers and others who work in the Academy — the House that Plato Built — can be fired, stripped of tenure and emeritus status, denied publication by editors of professional journals and books, after merely being accused without a hearing or trial.  The accusation can be enough.  It goes without saying that a verdict of guilty after a hearing is social and professional death.  That’s a hell of a lot of punishment for what might be a single misstep.  (Or maybe more than one?)

Anybody reading this

who is without erotic sin,

 please raise your hand!

Well, shouldn’t serious philosophers just stay out of trouble?  Isn’t that the best way to protect yourself and to keep your professional honor?  Stay home!  Keep to your cozy room!  Keep a safe space between you and anyone you talk to.  Keep your conversation neutered.  Use no sexual metaphors.  Don’t even call “philosophy” – the Greek terms means “love of wisdom” – by its Greek name.

Call it, say,

The Disinterested Approval

of Wisdom.

Never speak of yourself as having — for anyone or anything — a passion.

Hey!  Steady as you go!

Not even a convent or monastery

 expects that much austerity

from a young nun or monk! 

When I set out after wisdom as a young student of philosophy, the idea of bringing my feminine self into its sacred male precincts was repudiated outright by my fellow grad students and by the professors I most wanted to emulate.  They actually told me, sometimes in words and more often indirectly, that if I wanted to stay in the field,

“you have to destroy your femininity.”

Why did they do that?  And why did I remain friends with some of them in after years, when the culture had changed in this regard?  Though their words were hurtful, generally speaking their intentions were not malicious.  They were trying to be men.  I honored that in them.  I was trying to be a woman, even though a philosopher.  It wasn’t easy for any of us.  Since we’re not animals, we lack unerring instincts.  We have to proceed by trial and error.

By the time I had my first teaching appointments, the line between woman and philosopher was no longer incised in stone.  The man/woman ratio was advantageous for a young woman looking for a male partner in life.  Being a woman in the field was interesting.  It was fun!  When I think of those first years, forgive me, lads and lasses, but the song from Camelot, the musical, floats into memory:

Where are the simple joys of maidenhood? 

Where are all those adoring, daring boys? 

Where’s the knight pining so for me,

He leaps to death in woe for me.

Where are a maiden’s simple joys?

By the time I was threatened with reprisal, it was for withholding my vote — not my body!  My body was considered my own business.

Are women now seeking the equivalent of back pay for millennia of erotic disempowerment?  And if they are, isn’t this understandable?  Isn’t this the price of large-scale social change?  After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, as they say.

All I can say is, had I sought reparation – among the “guilty” or the “innocent” — for the suffering of my graduate school days, I would’ve missed some of the longest and best unbroken friendships of my life in philosophy.  And missed the capers, the mischief, the laughter, the tales told out of school, that still bring a wicked grin when I remember all that.

More, I would have missed philosophy itself – the love of wisdom that naturally embraces the teasing, the heartbreak, the reciprocities of wounded pride, in the shared pursuit of as much truth as we can get, retail or wholesale, when we do go after truth.  There would be little to ponder, little to research, little to write about, little to share.

That’s a heck of a lot to lose

 for the sake of a moment’s revenge.

 

 

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The Man from Dothan

The Man from Dothan

In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there is a brief but indispensable walk-on part played by a figure of whom we learn only that he is “from Dothan.”   He guides young Joseph to Dothan where he will find his ten elder brothers.

Joseph will be wearing the coat of many colors given him by his father – a garment that will remind his envious brothers that he is his father’s favorite.

  • The brothers will throw him into a pit, then sell him to Midianite merchants.

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  • The Midianites will sell him to an Egyptian aristocrat, Potiphar.

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  • In Potiphar’s house, Joseph will rise to the position of overseer, where he will attract the notice of Potiphar’s wife.

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  • Failing to seduce him, she will falsely accuse Joseph of rape, for which – though innocent — he will be sent to prison.

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  • In prison, he will meet two men accused of attempts on the life of Pharaoh. They tell him their precognitive dreams, which he will interpret correctly.

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  • When Pharaoh has troubling dreams, the exonerated ex-prisoner recommends Joseph as dream interpreter.

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  • When Joseph correctly deciphers Pharaoh’s dreams, he is rewarded with the highest administrative post in Egypt.

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  • When the years of famine foreseen in Pharaoh’s dream come to pass, Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt to buy provisions.

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  • After some subtle interplay on the theme of recognition and accountability, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and the Israelites accept his invitation to resettle on the outskirts of Egypt.

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  • When Joseph has died and been forgotten, the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years.

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  • God intervenes to deliver them from Egypt, takes them under the leadership of Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai, gives them the Ten Commandments and invites them to partner with Him in history.

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  • They agree to accept God’s offer.

Nota bene: Without the man from Dothan, none of this could have happened.  So one has to keep a lookout for the man from Dothan.

Take my own case.  Since my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, died, I‘ve been aware of a responsibility to make his unique presence more known.  There are boxes of his journals, letters and unpublished manuscripts sitting atop the row of file cabinets in my office.  They are silent reminders.

Getting the boxes into my hands required a dismaying legal struggle, though my father’s will was quite clear in giving me access to them.  Those who helped in that struggle, writing letters on my behalf, must have been puzzled not to see the intellectual memoir of my father appear, since writing it had been my purpose in seeking their help.  The truth was that, several times, I had begun to write such a book and failed, each time, to see how to do it.

He was brilliant.  He was incandescent.  He was elusive.  I simply could not get a handle on these materials.  Eventually, they would be archived.  There was no point in my bringing them out sooner if I could not do it in the right way.

In the Columbia class of 1925, which included some extremely bright young men who went on to influence American opinions and attitudes in the twentieth century, Henry M. Rosenthal had been judged by his classmates to have been their “genius.”  One of those classmates, who had been, in his day, a cultural celebrity, said at my father’s memorial,

“All of us made compromises.

Henry never did.”

To the people, students and friends, who were influenced by him, he was unforgettable.  A former student, herself a distinguished philosopher who knew the top figures in the field, wrote us that Henry M. Rosenthal had, for her,

“an intelligence that I for one will never see again.”

Just this week, the roadblocks have begun to roll to the side of the road.  A celebrated writer of my acquaintance wrote me that she had been reading an advance copy of the correspondence of Lionel Trilling, the literary critic.  Trilling was among the most renowned of the public intellectuals who had been my father’s classmates.  He identified my father as “the closest friend” of his youth.  To the surprise of the writer (who’d been a student of Trilling), the letters of my father and mother were the most vital and interesting part of this correspondence!  One of its themes is my father’s intense sense of the Jewish vocation, and Trilling’s aversion to being identified in those terms.  She urged me to go back to the memoir of my father and take it up again.

Of course, many other projects drum on the window for my attention.  But perhaps time expands to make room for the assignments that need time.  Anyway, strongly urged by the writer, I picked up the earliest of my father’s journals to see whether, by now, it might have become clearer to me how to approach it.

As I began to read Journal # 1, for the first time I saw what was going on with my father: the struggle between his intense transparency to God and the anti-spiritual carapace of modernity that the gifted youth of his generation felt they had to wear.  The brittle shield of modernity! And — beyond modernity but perhaps nearer to truth –- the great fear that went with Jewish existence, almost from its beginnings.

If we recall the scene at the foot of Mount Sinai, the great fear is the negative of that picture.  The negative goes with the picture.  Any people who had contracted that covenant with God, to live the Ur-story behind all stories, would attract the most violent and continuous of hatreds.  It goes with the territory.

His celebrated Jewish classmates affected plummy accents and convoluted “English” perceptivity.  My father affected nothing, wore not one mask, and fully felt the fear.  To feel it, and understand its sources was realistic — was masculine — was authentic.  But it was not marketable.  It was not the stuff of brilliant careers.

The writer who urged me to get back to the memoir of my father because, she thought, he might live when all the “hollow impersonators” would be forgotten, has played the part, for me, of

a directive from Dothan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Proof of Heaven?”

 

“Paradise”
Marc Chagall, 1961

“Proof of Heaven?”

Epicurus, ancient atomist and empiricist that he was, taught that we human beings are composed of large numbers of atoms, each one too tiny to see.  So, he maintained, is everything else.  When such collections of atoms cease to hold their shape, we — the personal beings we are — vanish in the surrounding void.  Is that something to fear?

No no, on the contrary.  Nothing to fear here:

Where I am [he wrote]

death is not.

Where death is,

 I am not.

Feel better now?

The same point is made with less classical serenity by a fictional character quoted approvingly by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks:

“Lest old age and sickness weaken me so much that I will fear death and induce me to seek the comforts of religion, I draw up my testament today, in the fullness of my faculties and of my mental stability.  I do not believe in a substantial and immortal soul.  I know that my personality is a mass of atoms whose dissolution entails total death.  I believe in universal determinism … .”

To underscore the point, Gramsci adds:

The will is thrown into the fire.

These rather grim ancient beliefs, that Death is The End, are cherished and upheld, as indisputable scientific fact, by the preponderance of received opinion in 2018, the present year.  If anyone thinks differently, she is likely to keep that wayward thought out of publication.

Jerry is away in Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa this weekend.  He’s giving talks he had committed to giving before I suffered my stress fracture, as well as one of the two talks (the written one) that I was slated to give.   So I am alone, in our three-stairway house, which must be negotiated with extreme care because my one assignment in these weeks is not to fall again.

Ordinarily, solitude is something I enjoy.  The mind gets a chance to stretch out and ask itself whatever questions lay back of the day’s demands, silently awaiting the mind’s unhurried attention.  But not this time.

My physical vulnerability entangles me in its own nervousness.  If the staircase creaks or an unexplained thud is heard outside, it creeps me out. On the kitchen counter, I see an undisciplined army of very tiny ants.  They are not marching toward some bit of food I could detect and wipe off the surface.  They just meander about aimlessly, giving me the shudders.  Did some unseen enemy send them?

Although I’m in the middle of several interesting books I’ve never read before, I noticed Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife on my shelf and decided to reread that slender paperback.  If, as some say, all fear is at bottom the fear of death, maybe this would help, till Jerry got back

It’s really quite a story!  The author is a very successful neurosurgeon who ’s taught at the Harvard Medical School, “authored or coauthored more than 150 chapters or papers for peer-reviewed medical journals and presented [his] findings at more than two hundred medical conferences around the world” — before moving to the Ultrasound Surgery Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

He does surgery on the brain.  Nowadays, patients who suffer heart death can be revived.  So it’s brain death is that’s presently considered to be real death.  As his story opens, Eben Alexander’s beliefs on the question of whether we survive real death are exactly like Epicurus’s:

We don’t.

Then he contracts bacterial meningitis, suddenly and without warning, from an extremely rare strain of E. coli bacteria.  It’s not affected by the antibiotics with which he’s immediately bombarded by medical colleagues.  The bacteria eat through his neocortex, which is the outer surface of the brain, where thoughts, dreams, hallucinations, experiences of any kind, are housed.  If he survives, which is not thought likely, only the primitive parts of his brain are expected to remain, the parts that cannot produce experience.  He lies in a coma for seven days, during which his chances for any degree of survival lessen day by day.

On the seventh day, Dr. Eben Alexander opens his eyes in a focused way, smiles a beautiful smile and says, to friends and family praying round him,

“All is well.”

Though it takes some months for him to recover the all the skills, normal emotions and fund of memories that belonged to life inside his physical brain and body, a colleague who attended him, infectious diseases specialist Scott Wade, writes in an Appendix that his “full recovery … is truly remarkable.”  In sum, no one knowledgeable in the field knows how he contracted this strain of the disease or how on earth he recovered from it.

The title of the book gives away the real plot: the author’s report of the voyage he (or his consciousness) took, without the participation of his brain, to a realm of hyper-real beauty, understanding and divine love.

The specific relevance of the author’s medical credentials and the warrant provided by attending colleagues — that his complete recovery did happen and is medically inexplicable — constitute evidence of the most powerful kind that we don’t die when the brain dies.

Unsurprisingly, he has been attacked, in an article in Esquire magazine.  To my knowledge, the individuals that the reporter claimed to be citing either deny that he contacted them or deny that he reported their remarks accurately.  It seems to me highly improbable that a man with a lifetime of top credentials in his field should suddenly morph into the fraud the writer of the Esquire article purports to have unmasked.  In any case, attacks like that are predictable when a particular model of reality, shared by educated people within a culture, is credibly challenged.

As a thought experiment, it would be interesting to consider what shifts would have to occur, within contemporary fields of inquiry, if the hypothesis of an after-life were to be adopted by people working in that field.  What would change in psychology, for example?  In sociology?  In fields like English literature?  In history?   For painters?  For architects and city planners?  For novelists?  For philosophers?

For me, what Eben Alexander’s account does is shift my attention from the possible fear of death back to my this-life preoccupations.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

Eben Alexander’s report of having visited a dazzlingly beautiful and divinely enlightening Realm of Rest — lying beyond the hardships we face while we are alive here below – suggests that we are supported, invisibly but securely, by Heaven.  It lies just out of sight, but it holds us up. Though we may not know it, we depend on Heaven.

My own sense is that this is true in part, but that it gets part of the picture backwards.

Heaven also depends on us.

This place where we are now, earth-bound and full of difficulties, is the more consequential place.  We are not at rest here.  The struggle between good and evil takes place here — within us and in the larger landscape.  Here we have traction.  It’s not all smooth.  What we choose makes a difference (as the kabbalists say) “in all the worlds.”

Accordingly, I decided to take some Windex, soap and Ajax, and scour the kitchen counter.  I cleaned the undersides of every object that sits on the kitchen counter.  The salt, the pepper, the container with the stuff I spray on vegetables when I scrub them.

They’ll probably be back.

It’s not the final battle.

 But, as of this writing,

I haven’t seen a tiny ant since!

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Woman’s Search for Meaning

“Blizzard”
Joseph Farquharson 1846-1935

Woman’s Search for Meaning

I’ve talked two friends out of committing suicide.  Don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do know what went into my general approach.  First, I ignored their existential/metaphysical pronouncements, eloquent as they were.  Life, they each said, had lost all meaning.  The world and everything in it was totally pointless.

Okay, okay, moving right along here … What precisely, I wanted to know, had gone wrong?  Details, please.

For the first friend, her publisher had dropped the contract for a book on which she’d already worked long and very hard.

The second friend, a proud and classy woman, had been seduced by a man in her consciousness-raising group, who advertised himself as a veteran – an advanced initiate — in the therapy offered by that group.

What was out of joint was not the cosmos.  Rather, it was each woman’s sense of what she represented to herself or to anyone else.  Neither woman wanted to survive as mediocre in her own eyes.

Did I offer a solution?  No.  Not at all.  The point was to call the precise trouble by its right name.  Then “the mind’s instinct for self-delight,” as Thomas Hardy calls it, was able to find its own way out of the labyrinth.

I do recall, though, that in the case of the seduction, I took absolutely seriously my friend’s sense of having been desecrated by someone unworthy of touching her — even if he wore ten gloves.  I did NOT say, “It’s not that big a deal.”  Maybe for someone else, it wouldn’t have been.  Someone more sportive, more disposed to say with a shrug, “win some, lose some.”  But such a woman would never have contemplated suicide in the first place.

These invisible crises can arise when, outwardly, we seem to be coping quite successfully.   We are more delicate than we look.  It’s not the apparent size of the defeat that undoes us.  It’s what, in us, has been defeated.  For that, the big picture might be beside the point.

Recently, I’ve been passing through a crisis of my own.  It started on My Worst Birthday, if you remember that column.  There I am, walking up the darkened, snow-covered footpath to our front door when – what d’ya know? – that patch of snow wasn’t the footpath and I slam down on the pavement about a foot below.  And the leg that thus collides with a hard surface for which it’s unprepared is the same one that’s been in treatment for neuropathy.  The first effective treatment I’ve encountered after years of vain searching.

As the diagnostic picture shifts, travel plans for resumed treatments shift too, and with them speaking engagements.  There are two and then three reschedulings.  Finally my travel plans are canceled altogether.  Jerry will go to give his papers without me and read my paper at one event.  The other talk I’ll simply have to miss, with apologies.  The neuropathy center was at first encouraging, then sharply discouraging, once the MRI’s (reporting a stress fracture) are read.  They don’t want to see me till the medical team here deems me completely healed.

In the midst of these dislocations and reorientations of projects, we’ve had to  relocate to hotels twice, dodging power outages, for two of the four great winter storms of March.  Moves possibly contra-indicated for a person whose walk is wobbly even with a nice black shiny walking stick and whose One Major Life Ambition has come down to Avoiding A Second Fall.

Oh, and one more thing.  During this time, someone I believed trustworthy volunteered to do a distance healing for me.  It would be some combination of prayer and unspecified other techniques.  The person making the offer claimed to be a gifted healer.  Since I’m trained in second degree Raiki healing and have done four such healings, one of which failed but three of which were deemed successful by the persons I did them for, I don’t find such claims particularly exotic or hard to believe.  I’ve done distance healings and received them, with different techniques.  Some of the purported healers I thought charlatans.  Some meant well but were ineffective.  Some were effective in some respects, but not in as many as they claimed.  But the same might be said for doctors I’ve known.  Since I’m not a materialist, the notion that the mind can act on the body doesn’t unsettle my intellectual conscience.  I didn’t know that my would-be healer would help, but hey, how bad could it be?

Well … I’ll just say that, had I not been philosophically trained, experienced in distance healing, and knowledgeable about mind control (there’s a chapter on spiritual seduction, “Going to the Bad,” in A Good Look at Evil) it could have been a damaging experience.

What’s the combined impact of all this?  It’s like being spun around so many times that one loses one’s sense of direction.  It’s what they call anomie.

It’s become a crisis of meaning.  At first, I was too busy coping with one rapidly changing circumstance after another to notice the underlying loss of grip.  But I could feel that my world had changed imperceptibly into something that felt rough and indifferent to me.  It felt meaningless.  But why should it feel that way?  After all, nothing cosmic had changed.  Only a lot of what are called “little things.”  By this time, however, I know enough about these crises to stop still in my tracks, drop whatever else I’m doing, turn and take it very seriously.

Time to quiet my mind, 

to focus,

to get a sense of true north.

The last chapter in A Good Look at Evil is called “God and the Care for One’s Story.” It tells of a sequence of happenings that intervened in my life to “save the story,” as it were.  In that chapter, I make the case for viewing these events as providential, though, as I readily admit, they can reasonably be viewed as chance happenings.  I merely argue that it’s a better explanation – more illuminating overall — to see them as divine interventions.

Nevertheless, even though I’m prepared to say that miracles happen, now it comes back to me that they don’t happen predictably.  For much of the time covered in that chapter, what I was going through was pretty near intolerable.  It seemed absurd.  It seemed meaningless when I was in the middle of it.  Only, every time I was ready to give it up and pack it in, something would happen, some little coincidence or oddly hopeful signal, that would tell me to keep on keeping on.   Despair was tempting but always premature.  I didn’t know the ending yet and therefore shouldn’t pretend to know it.

It’s quite true that at present I don’t know what part of my story this is.  Though I’m home, making my way cautious step by cautious step, I don’t have the comfortable sense of living in familiar surroundings.  The landmarks have been subtly altered, expectations thwarted, plans frustrated.  But, if I remember rightly, that’s exactly what it’s like when you live a new chapter.

Precognition and

living one’s story

are incompatible.

It would be like flipping to the next page in a novel before one has read the page that’s open now.  Recent happenings have made a heretofore familiar landscape seem unfamiliar to me.  My surroundings suddenly look uncharted.

At such moments, one can only look for clues to the unknown plot as it unfolds – to listen for

hints

from the Great Co-Author.

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