Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present

By Dara Horn

The only other book by Dara Horn that I’ve read is Eternal Life, which is a kind of romantic fiction with a difference.  In that book, the girl and boy first meet in the period of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where he is a member of the priestly class.  In the tradition of all bodice busters, they fall deeply and irrevocably in love, but there’s an unusual glitch.  

They can’t die.

They survive, century after century, into the present era.  Meanwhile, in each generation, their children are born, grow old and predecease them.  It’s a kind of curse, and I forget how it ends (sorry!) but, be assured, it’s haunting.

Aside from that, I see occasional articles by Dara Horn in the Jewish Review of Books.  Four other books of hers are cited inside the cover.  She’s taught Jewish literature at top universities and is a scholar of Jewish history.  In short, she’s a talent, a fresh voice, and a presence on the cultural scene.

Ordinarily, such early and deserved success has its price.  An acclaimed  writer can feel reluctant to jeopardize her perch near the top of the prestige ladder.  However, in the case of People Love Dead Jews, we can stop worrying.  Dara Horn has not sold out.

Her title makes clear her thesis: the wide public acknowledgment of the Holocaust as outstandingly horrible tends to mask (or compensate in advance) for a contempt and erasure of Jews that continues — briskly and dangerously — for Jews living now.

Some of her examples were news to me.  Take Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.  The Secret Annex, where (till they were betrayed) the Frank family hid from the Nazis, draws more than a million visitors a year.  Anne’s Diary has been translated into seventy languages and has sold upwards of 30 million copies.  Nevertheless, a young employee at the Ann Frank House was forbidden to wear his kippah on the ground that it might compromise the museum’s “independent position.”  Hmm.  Of what was the museum displaying independence?

Throughout Europe, there are Heritage Sites to which Dara Horn travels. These sites show and even reconstruct places where — before the Holocaust — real Jews once lived and worshipped.  Coupled with displays of local pride at a Jewish heritage that draws touristic visitors, discreet silence reigns as to why no Jews live there now.  

Take the town of Harbin in Manchuria (Northeastern China).  About a million people live there at present.  In 1896, it contained only a few small fishing villages scattered round the bend of a river.  In that year, China ceded the locale to Tsarist Russia, a concession that allowed construction work to continue on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  To build that section of the railroad, Russia needed skilled people who would migrate to Harbin  because, for them, living in Siberia would be an improvement!  

Ah-hah, the Jews!  Promised freedom from antisemitic laws, they flocked to Harbin!  They built schools, theaters, orchestras, synagogues, ritual baths, bakeries, kosher facilities and so on.  And the railroad of course.  The Jewish population grew to about 20,000.  At which point — between White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution, Japanese occupation forces  throughout the Nazi years, and finally Soviet Russians returning to Siberia after the War — the entire Jewish population was either forced out or murdered.  I omit details.  Dara Horn found one Jew alive in Harbin. That town is now a Heritage Site.

I’d known nothing of this story, but learning it now struck me with  peculiar force.  In the Preamble of my new ‘Dear Abbie” podcasts, I describe three women who – in my childhood — exemplified the art of being a fully grownup woman.  One was a Russian woman who, as now I recollect, had been born — in Harbin!  As a schoolchild, she recalled time being set aside for the class to pray for Alexei, the hemophiliac son of Tsar Nicholas II.  My mother’s woman friend returned to Russia on a touristic visit after the fall of communism.  She had no thought of Harbin, but in Moscow she did go into a synagogue, one of those recently reopened.  Perceiving a Jewish woman who spoke Russian natively, Jews crowded round her to tell her what they had lived through.  From them, she learned what she would have faced had she not emigrated to America as a young woman.  When she returned to her hotel that night, she cried for many hours.

In other places, it’s worse: there are not even heritage sites.  For example, there are none in the Middle East and North Africa, where Jews lived for millennia before they were driven out or killed, their synagogues burned, their neighborhoods reduced to rubble, and commemorations of vanished communities prohibited.  

Nevertheless, as Dara Horn has discovered, there is “a virtual museum called Diarna, a Judeo-Arabic word meaning ‘our homes.’  The flagship project of the nonprofit group Digital Heritage Mapping, Diarna is a vast online resource that combines traditional and high tech photography, satellite imaging, digital mapping, 3-D modeling, archival materials and oral histories to allow anyone to virtually ‘visit’ Jewish historical sites … .”  

The recovery of these data has called into being — from different individuals who get no profit from their efforts — spontaneous courage and tireless ingenuity.  This kind of zeal for memory must be borne aloft on a counter-entropic energy of its own — like a waterfall that insists on flowing uphill.

There are other stories, American stories – too many to tell here.  

Dara Horn seems herself like Diarna: a counter-entropic cascade of insightful outrage that – against the probabilities – flows tirelessly uphill! 

Posted in book reviews, books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pixels Thin and Thick

Abbie Sets Forth

Pixels Thin and Thick

On the day I got married, Jerry said to me after the ceremony, “Look in the mirror!”  Puzzled, I pulled down the car mirror, looked, and said aloud,

My God!

I looked different.  Like a photo that has more pixels.  It was a very odd change.  I surmised that it signaled my having acquired a denser presence to my life.  

Recently by contrast, I’ve had the worried sense that my pixels might be thinning out!

An analogy comes to mind.  I like to watch videos that show unusual animal friendships.  Recently I saw one featuring orangutans who live in a zoo complex that tries to replicate their natural environment.  These animals have certain traits we can recognize.  For example, they like to be admired!  In normal times, zoo visitors have been glad to cater to this taste and the gratified orangs would preen, flirt and even wink in response!  However, for more than a year now, the fans have been kept away by the virus.  The bleachers are empty.

The results have been dramatic.  The orangs are depressed, listless and visibly lonely.  The zoo keepers, fearing that this condition might be — quite literally — the death of them, decided to introduce a new species into their section.  

Otters.

It might have seemed an implausible guess.  But lo! after a brief interlude of mutual uncertainty, the two species have bonded and are now crazy about each other!  Who needs humans when you’ve got otters?  I’m happy to report that both are looking good and doing well.

For me, the video made vivid what loneliness can do.  But I have precious friends. I have Jerry and we love each other.  Why am I feeling abandoned and precarious?  What has changed in my life to produce these reactions?

Actually, that question’s not a hard one to answer.  A whole lot has changed.  My book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, on which I’ve been at work over most of a lifetime, is now moving into production. The “Dear Abbie”columns are now regularly reprinted in VoegelinView, which is the online journal of the American Political Science Association’s Eric Voegelin Society.  It gets a distinguished readership.  These columns are now being published additionally as podcasts.  So my voice is pitching in to add its bodily backing to what I’ve written.  And I’m startled to discover that I still believe and can stand behind what I’ve earlier penned here.

Beyond all this, two themes that colored and shaped my lifelong purposes have been resolved.  I’ve mentioned these resolutions in recent columns.  The first was my filial obligation – what I, as his daughter, owed to an inimitable father.  The second theme, noticed only after I’d settled with the first, involved the painful memory of my Parisian first love.  It lay below the rim of my experience — a story without an ending, a question without an answer, a challenge without a shape.  Abruptly, one recent morning, it ceased to haunt me – or even concern me!  It’s done.  I’ve never read about such a thing or heard of it.  But there it is.

So I feel like a person standing at the border of untrodden territory.  Landmarks long familiar are gone – no longer in front of me to mark the way, nor even beside me.  It all looks unmapped and, for me, unprecedented.

The negative face of this has been the feeling of precariousness and abandonment.  

What’s the positive side?

I am where I should be.

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, books, Childhood, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, novels, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, 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, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Life Review in Seattle

Life Review in Seattle

We were in Seattle for a meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society.  It’s a group within the American Political Science Association, probably the only such group that considers spiritual factors in its efforts to understand history.  It’s nondogmatic, not at all narrow, and, interestingly, one of the fastest growing branches of the APSA!  The people who participate are extremely nice, professionally well-prepared but not pompous or self-important.  (I’ll leave undrawn any contrast with the usual academic person.)  Anyway, the meetings were fully as thought-provoking and truth-seeking as I’d hoped, but I was also there for another purpose.  My only life-long, since-high-school woman friend lives in Seattle.  It was a rare chance for us to meet again.

After cordial greetings, Jerry tactfully withdrew to her late husband’s office, shutting the door to “review his notes” for a panel the next day, thus clearing the way for the two women friends to really get at it.  

The shortest way to the inner life is to begin with objective matters.  As I told her, I was very struck by Seattle.  The city is booming, its skyline punctuated by robust, gleeful, self-congratulatory towers of steel and glass.  It’s fun to look at and softened by evergreen trees at every turn.  My friend, who’s an accomplished painter, gave me her own verbal sketch of present-day Seattle.  It’s a city whose direction comes from its geniuses — men like Bill Gates and Elon Musk.  They give the desirable jobs to their “brilliant” employees – worker bees who put in 16-18 hour days and “must” move on to another desirable job within two years, possibly to show that their talents are still saleable.  

Gawd.  If you’ve got a good job in Seattle, you’ve got no time to die!

Meanwhile, Elon Musk has now got the three most pressing global concerns covered.  With PayPal, he’s reinvented money as a non-thing; with his electric car, he’s addressed the main source of planetary pollution; with his SpaceX pilot project gigantic rocket ship, he’s constructed a way to exit our doomed planet and get human life established on Mars.

Hmm.  I thought about Elon Musk, who has got it all covered.  I gather he’s a guy who enjoys his own life greatly.  With regard to PayPal, if it’s been billed as solving the world’s financial problems, I don’t think it will.  Money’s been a non-thing, a promissory note, since at least the seventeenth century.  The thing-or-nonthing question about money was one addressed by Sir Isaac Newton.  He decided that it’s not a thing with intrinsic value like silver coin.  Money is a promise.  And societies need such promises if new ventures are to be backed.  Plus laws protecting investors by transferring liability to a “legal person”: the corporation.  But these financial instruments, which make new enterprises feasible, have become so complex that only the humble accountants, buried deep in the basements, can explain with assurance whether they track down to real goods and services or are ponzi schemes.  So financial boom-and-bust may be inbuilt in a modern economy, or — if it’s not inbuilt — vastly unequal rewards are.  Boom towns like Seattle will have inequality, risk and some degree of unavoidable nontransparency.  As long as the going is good, people won’t care that much.

The milder economic alternatives — say Sweden’s or Israel’s kibbutzim — depend for their success on people who look alike, share values, and are partly supported by a market economy anyway.  

The drastic alternative, a top-down controlled economy, destroys incentive and incentivizes corruption.  Since the ensuring scarcity isn’t persuasive to the people who actually live under those systems, they must be enforced by ideological fictions and terror.

Ergo, the human economic predicament has no long-term solution, only provisional political adjustments.  As to Elon Musk’s other two efforts to solve the major problems of life on earth: scientific research will eventually produce an eco-friendly fuel so we won’t have to leave the planet.  Earth will stay habitable.  Mars will stay uninhabitable.  Next techie question?

Finally, we got down to what we’d actually come together to discuss: life and romance and how we’d each played the hand of cards we’d been dealt.  They’d been quite different hands.  Nobody gets it all and our fulfillments had been quite different too.  But they accorded with what had been desirable and feasible in each of our lives.  We looked back down the years, marking out our starting places, making clearer what threats and hurdles we’d met.  I marveled at the precision with which she’d recognized what was best and highest among her options.  She underscored a fact of which I’m often unaware: from each near-eclipse of my life efforts, I’d managed somehow to extract benefit.  We’d both avoided cynicism and had the sense

to keep our friendship

alive and well.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art of Living, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Biblical God, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Law, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Renaissance, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, science, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, seventeeth century, Sex Appeal, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, 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, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mysteries

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland

Mysteries

What part of our lives is a real mystery?  I’m not talking about our yet-to-be-solved life problems nor about messages made deliberately unclear or ambiguous in order to confuse people.

Leo Bronstein, who was a professor at Brandeis and my father’s best friend, sometimes would exclaim, with rolled r’s, 

The mystery is in the mystification!”

Uttered in his Russian/Catalan/Left-Bank accents, Leo’s exclamation did not sound in my ears like a denial of mystery per se: only a situating of one aspect within the precincts of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who retains manipulative control over a passive humanity by the application of his three opiates: “miracle, mystery and authority.”

Once we take manipulative mystification out of it, is anything left that may rightly be deemed mysterious?  And if so, does that residual mystery call for decoding, or not?

I consider life an inherently interesting adventure, filled with hidden corners, sudden, blazing illuminations, and cloaked situations that can suddenly throw off their cloaks.  One gets issued many invitations to learn “lifemanship.”  One is warned about lots of “don’ts” but alerted to few positive “do’s.”  The people who know don’t tell; the ones who tell probably don’t know.

Perhaps I can help us out here by dividing the problematic (at least in my own case) into, first, obscure situations that I ought to clear up, second, quests that take years before I even learn what the thing sought after is and, third, prompts to go deeper that belong to my fundamental reasons to live.   Let’s take them one by one.

About the first kind of obscurity, this often looks deep, but isn’t.  For example: a guy I rely on for technical support had been unreachable for more than a week.  This gave me boundless existential angst plus paranoia of a distinctly feminine kind.  He thinks I’m unimportant because I’m a woman.  He thinks (rightly) that I’m less profitable than his business clients.  And so on.  As Caesar says in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “  Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in fuh me!

In that frame of mind, I went to bed hoping for light on the encroaching shadows, but feeling like I’d just flunked Lifemanship 101.  

That night, I had a dream.  I saw a woman on a train who was reluctant to let another woman sit beside her.  Perhaps she feared, reasonably, that the stranger had been exposed to the virus.  But she wasn’t tactful about her reluctance and the stranger looked hurt.  In the dream, I sat down beside the woman and said, “Can you try to put yourself in her place?”  After a gulping moment or two, the woman took my suggestion and the situation calmed.

I don’t usually have dreams like that, so I tried to think what it meant for my own situation.  The same morning, when my helper arrived, I asked him whether his recent days had been particularly busy and whether he thought we should rearrange our contact protocol to allow for remote help.  He looked appreciative that I’d put the question in terms of his present challenges, not mine.  He described his temporary situation and what he was doing about it and … whoosh! … our rapport improved.  Palpably.

Had I read a story like that in a self-help book, I’m sure I would have thought, Pu-leese, stop boring me with your made-up anecdotes!  But since it came to me in my real dream (thank you, good angel of dreams!) I acted on it without hesitation.  So this was a shadowy situation that called for turning on the light – and the light dispelled it!  Dramatically but naturally.  What looked boundless, shrank back to normal size.  The human scale was restored.

The second sort of mystery or challenge is exemplified in the quest I wrote about recently, in my column titled “Closure.”  It was my lifelong effort to figure out what I owed my genius of a father and carry it through to achievement. 

However, the odd thing about resolving a quest is that another quest — long buried under the visible one – can then disclose itself.  This happened to me.

Long ago in Paris I had a first love, described in my forthcoming, Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  He’d left an imprint on my imagination and memory.  As the relation was not a happy one, and did not end well, it left the lingering trace of a problem-never-solved.  It asked something of me, though I’d gone years without noticing that fact.  It was a corner of my life that remained enshadowed.

I now had the freedom to notice it.  It surfaced.  Had it too been with me through the years as a submerged quest?  I did not think there were any elements still misunderstood or unfathomed by me nor promises left unkept.  It was not clear to me what could have been left unresolved.  But if anything was, I prayed to be shown what it was and how to resolve it.

To my surprise, the answer came within a night and a day.   That night, dreams and half-waking memories came unbidden – all with the same theme.  They all showed how domineering and unkind he had been in the times when we were together.  This was not a surprise, but it was striking to be shown only that in my dream state.

In my long-ago understanding of him, he had always been double: with a soul level that was still young, pure and untainted and an empirical level that was a pretty bad actor.  The soul level explained why I had loved him – why we loved each other – and why he had posed an insoluble problem for me.

After that night of dream-like recollections, here is what appeared in meditation that morning: his double nature had collapsed.  By dint of many bad acts, the higher level had now entirely submerged within the lower one.  At the same time that I saw this, I stopped loving him.  The ambivalence – the yes, but no – simply vanished!  This is not something you can fake.  It was gone.  His long reach had fallen short at last.  Henceforth, his life and its debts would be his business, not mine.

So here are two kinds of demystifications: the first fairly simple and “psychological,” the second achieving what had been a lifelong quest, where the resolution might take an ideal form — or even take the form of the quest’s becoming spiritually irrelevant — but in any case the resolution was recognizable and precise.

What is left of the category of mystery?  Are all mysteries like these: obscurities that call only for the light of day?

Is there anything mysterious in itself?  Yes.  There is the realm from which such de-mystifications (or epiphanies) come.

The inexhaustible Source.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, bigotry, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, motherhood, Mysticism, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, 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, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tales of My Mother

Abbie and her mother

Tales of My Mother

Only in Victorian novels do we find good women who are also universally beloved.  Here, from the annals of literary memoir, is the view of my mother taken by the well-known writer, Diana Trilling.  Diana was the wife of the even better known critic, Lionel Trilling.  Lionel and my father had been best friends in college.

“With her Europeanism and her obscure past,” Diana writes, “her redundant figure and her strangely accented name [pronounced Rachelle], Rachel was irremediably unlike the other wives of our acquaintance, and indeed both she and Henry regarded the rest of us as but poor specimens of our sex: thin-bodied, thin-blooded, deficient in physical and emotional substance .”  There is plenty more cutting and slashing, but I’ll omit it, if you don’t mind.

At the time Diana’s memoir was published, Lionel was gone and my parents were gone.  There are thirteen indexed references to my parents in her memoir, almost every one of them unflattering.  In consequence, I wrote a letter to Diana, whom I’d never met, correcting what I hoped were misunderstandings carried over from youthful days.  She never replied.

I used to think that, if I could only have lived the life of a traditional wife and mother, no one would have been mean to me.  But it isn’t so.  My mother spent her adult life inside that template, and did it so well that my oldest friend said of her, when I telephoned with the news of her death, 

She was a jewel of a human being.

However, a jewel of a human being can be hated because that’s what she is!  

I’d like to tell some of the stories that collected in her wake as she moved through her life.  Possibly some of them have been told in earlier columns.  Forgive me.  I just like to repeat them.  For me, the tales of my mother never grow old.

She was highly intuitive.  Not that she was always right, but she frequently detected features of a person or situation that others would overlook.  She was not afraid of people, nor to say what she saw.

“How your grandmother must have loved you!”  With these words, my mother greeted a young Moroccan artist, introduced to her by a girl I’d met in my travels.

“When she died, I left home,” he replied in a low tone, looking  directly at my mother.

“How do you feel about being in a house of Jews?” she said to two young German students brought to the apartment by another friend of mine.  Sorry, I don’t remember how they answered.  Probably with coughing politeness.

She and I had been watching television on the evening of the day the Polish Pope came to Warsaw.  At the time of his visit, as far as any pundit could tell, communism reigned in full strength.  The Pope stood on the balcony of his hotel to say the mass for people in the street below.  The crowd filled the square and stretched to the end of every street as far as the eye could scan.  Since the Russians took Poland at the end of World War II, and set up their communist puppet regime in that country, religion had been virtually outlawed.  No one could remember anything like this crowd.

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism.”

The sovietologists caught up with it later.  At the time of the Pope’s visit, none of them had made that prediction.  How did she do it?  My mother understood people.

During the War years, my family lived on the fourth floor of a walkup apartment at the corner of 86th and Park Avenue.  In those days, that part of town, Yorkville, was an ethnically German neighborhood.  Those old buildings were kept habitable by their superintendents and the tenants understood that.  One of the rules our super laid down was that tenants were not to carry their own trunks down the stairs to the lowest level.  Trunks were to be handed over to him for basement storage.  Nobody but my mother was given pause by that rule.

“It will be very good when Hitler gets here,” the super remarked offhandedly to my mother one day, as she stood watching while he repaired a radiator in our apartment.  It was a second clue.

A few days later, on her way downstairs, my mother noticed two unfamiliar, middle-aged German gentlemen pressing a doorbell on the second floor. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman whose hair was pulled tightly back in an old-fashioned dark bun.  

“Guten tag, grossmutter,” said her two visitors, with extra-wide courtly smiles.

She wasn’t old enough to be their grandmother.

The third clue.  My mother continued down the stairs to street level, saw their parked car, and repeated the license number to herself with every step she took climbing back up the four flights to our apartment.  Where she wrote it down.  Then she took the bus to FBI headquarters in midtown.  They made a raid on the building, found the shortwave radio setup in the basement that enabled our super to maintain contact with the U-boats in New York harbor.  He was packed off to what I suppose was Enemy Agent Summer Camp for the duration of the hostilities.  

I can’t say mother won the War, but it sure didn’t hurt the Allied efforts. After the War, she caught sight of him again walking down 87th and Park.  She said he gave her “a very sour look.”

Among the people my parents worked to save from the Holocaust was a French woman friend married to a Jewish scientist.  The State Department’s paper barriers were as long as your arm.  Till the last paper was signed, she did not tell anyone that she’d been hemorraging.  Then she went directly to the hospital, where the staff received her with shock.

She appears in a scene of womanly wisdom in my forthcoming book, Confessions of A Young Philosopher.

One of the last things my mother said to me was, “Don’t think you understand all about life because you are intelligent.

“It’s not enough

to be intelligent.”

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Art of Living, bad faith, beauty, books, Childhood, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Martyrdom, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, nineteenth-century, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, 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, Theology, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Closure

Abbie and her father

Closure

Whatever the world understands by “closure” – peace of mind after mental storms, acceptance after bitter loss, resetting of purposes after frustration, a body to bring home for burial after a shattering search – I mean something different and quite specific by that word.

I see the lives we live as story-like.  Nowadays many people would claim to agree with me.  However, the “stories” that I have in mind are not embroidered, artificially dramatized, or “creatively” invented.  Instead, in my view, we are living true stories whose meanings it is our business to discover.  The narratives of our lives unfold chronologically and, to find their meanings, we need to keep the “before” and “after” distinct and the original purposes clear.  That way, later modifications can be seen in terms of what they modified and why they did so.

Take Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example.  They set out from St. Louis, hoping to travel from the Missouri river to the Pacific Ocean by an unbroken water route.  It turned out that there was no such Northwest Passage as they had supposed.  Instead, they discovered peoples, places and species of life that they would never have encountered were it not for their original purpose.  This truth of the matter brought “closure” to their search.  Nobody thinks of their journey as a made up story or a failure.

Likewise, we too should keep in view the terms in which our earliest quest was set.  Otherwise, we could miss the point of our story.

For me, one lifelong quest came to closure this week.  The question I had to resolve was, how to be the daughter of my father.  (The name “Abigail” actually means “father’s joy” in Hebrew.)  In 1925, my father was an undergraduate at Columbia University.  Classmates who went on to prominence as public intellectuals rated Henry M. Rosenthal their class “genius.”  In their minds, I think that word referred to his ability to live a first-hand life, as contrasted with their own, possibly more derivative, lives.

By a life at first hand, I don’t mean a life at the social margins.  One meets bohemians, hippies, people in the arts, who are explicitly committed to escaping social conventions.  They travel the well-worn grooves of the bohemian life, which of course has its own conventions.

My father was never a bohemian.  When — in his youth — he was a rabbi, he did not comfortably fit that template.  Nor, when he became a professor of philosophy, was he an easily recognizable type.

What he was … was a man burdened with a gift of living at a certain depth that others could not picture and an ability to hear summonses that others – his brilliant peers included – could not hear.  Whether and to what extent he figured out what to do about all this it is not my purpose to explore right now.  

The problem for me was to figure out how to be his daughter.  There were two obvious ways to do it, both perfectly feasible, both unacceptable.  

The first way was for me to live in his shadow, never finding a life of my own.  Since he was fascinating, extremely funny and unlike anyone else, that might have been the path of least resistance for an impressionable daughter who loved him and shared her father’s academic metier.

However, filial piety itself told me that a choice like that would tarnish his reputation, announcing to the world that he’d been irresponsibly possessive as a father.  So I had a filial obligation to work out my own life course, independent of his.

The second way would be to gain “escape velocity” by interpreting him as a smaller character than in fact he was.  One might call that the psychoanalytic stratagem.  Start with emotional parricide; then climb out the window.  One of my professors in grad school actually advised me to do that.  “You have to kill your father!” he said grandly.  But I didn’t think filial impiety was truthful.  Internalized defamation is not the same as liberation.

When he was dying, I leaned over his hospital bed, sobbed as if tears were words, and laid a hand on his chest.  A speaking current then manifested itself and ran along the length of my arm into my heart.  Of what did the current speak?  It spoke of metaphysical things, of the four physical forces that run the cosmos, but underscored a fifth cosmic force, which it said was stronger than the other four.  It was Love, the Love that Dante said “moves the sun and the other stars.”

This was the message that he left me, unforgettable but still – once its vividness faded — rather lofty and general.  At the time, I did not quite realize that it would set me on a life journey whose goal was concreteness: how in real terms to be the daughter who would live out the love that honored her father.  To read the message rightly would not require any wide understanding of the sun and the stars.  

I needed to figure out

what I owed him.

I pass over my struggles to gain control of the evidence: to work through journals, correspondence, published material and manuscripts.  At the outset, my aim was to write an intellectual memoir that would make known his gift and share my understanding of it.

That task turned out beyond my powers!  At the end of all my reading, I still did not know where he got his epiphanies, his penetrating humor — that went considerably beyond cleverness or irony — or the boundaries of his talent.  The shorter pieces, I’ve posted on his site at https://independent.academia.edu/RosenthalHenry.  The rest has now been made ready for the work of archivists and future researchers less close to him than I am.

Last Tuesday, I posted here parts of a column I wrote the week after September 11, 2001, interwoven with an essay, “Prayer and Its Power,” which he wrote in January of 1945.  Oddly enough, his essay of half a century earlier shed light on those world-blasting events that ushered in the present century.  I felt that the column put a kind of seal on my filial journey.  

Till I see him in eternity,

I can now let us go our separate ways.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Biblical God, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Idolatry, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, 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, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Days of Awe

“September Skyline” Todd Stone

Days of Awe

On the anniversary of September 11, I often rerun the column that I posted here in September 2001, after my visit to the City, a week later.  Like many people, I’d felt shattered by the attack on Manhattan, which is my home town.  

This week, however, that sad anniversary overlaps what are called in Jewish experience the ten Days of Awe.  They run from Rosh ha Shana, New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the world’s creation 5782 years ago — I know, I know, let’s call it a metaphor — to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  That’s the single holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  It’s when you ask forgivenesss from anyone you may have harmed or offended – a forgiveness that your victim has an obligation to grant, if you show that you understand the nature of the injury and resolve not to do it again.  Insofar as you have offended God, on that day you ask forgiveness from God directly.  If God sees that your petition is sincere, there is mercy from On High as well.

It’s impossible for me to overlook this odd fact: these two anniversaries overlap and therefore ought to be acknowledged together.  But I can’t see how in the world to do this.  Perhaps my father can help.  He was Henry M. Rosenthal (1906-1977), a rabbi in his youth, though later he became a philosophy professor.  In January 1945, HMR wrote an essay titled “Prayer and Its Power”.  Maybe it can provide some guidance.  It begins like this:

“Man has been defined as a tool-making creature, and by some as the creature that speaks.  He could also be defined as the creature that prays.  Prayer is one of the activities that give man a status in the natural order that is incommensurate with the rest of it. … But prayer is a faculty that goes to the heart of the matter.  If it is a faculty at all, it is one that touches the innermost reality of things, the secret stuff out of which the universe is built.”

HMR then lifts out three distinctive features belonging to prayer.  First, prayer discovers us to be alive in the wide setting of the universe, “as the stage or the battle-ground on which the issues of life and death, of joy and sorrow, of truth and falsehood, of love and hate, of victory and defeat are fought out.” In this setting, prayer allows us to “enter a plea or an argument or to lend a hand to one or another of the contestants in these great issues.”  So we pray to live, in order that we may take a hand in this contest, even though we know that “the law of average is, in the long run or the short run, against us. … Nevertheless, in peacetime, as in war, men have prayed for life.  They have not had any sense of absurdity about it either.  Life still seemed to them a good thing, whatever happened.”

In my column, I wrote this: I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled.

Beyond prayer’s being a petition for life, HMR sees sincerity as its second feature.  “For sincerity, in the deeper sense, is one of the fundamental things, that one does not carry in one’s pocket.  Sincerity, in this deeper sense, is a quality of the universe, as accuracy is a quality of a watch.  We may go so far as to say that sincerity is the ‘purpose’ of the universe, as telling the time is the purpose of a watch.  … This is perhaps the only true sense in which the universe is properly analogous to a watch: the moral direction of the universe is absolutely irreversible in the same way that time is.  The sincerity of the universe consists in the fact that, morally speaking, it points in one direction only; and that is the direction of more life and greater love.

“Now, when we say prayer has to do with sincerity, what we mean is that when we pray we are seeking the direction of the universe.  We are seeking the direction in which more life and greater love truly lie.  That is what we are trying to do when we pray sincerely.  In the deeper sense, we are making the effort to be sincere; we are seeking sincerity.”

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. … But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.… Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street … the air was acrid, even inside the station.Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off … National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work …  without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone.

“The third principle of prayer is concentration.

“We are a very scattered people, on the whole; and the thing to do when we pray is to concentrate.  Reality is a fragmentation bomb, is continuous detonation, and the present (and constant) state of our souls is the result.  We are pretty much fragmentized.  There is a fragment of suffering, a fragment of anxiety, a fragment of courage, and a fragment of hope; besides many other fragments, too numerous to mention; and some of them unmentionable in their own right.  What we try to do when we pray is to concentrate.  For ordinary human beings this is a very hard thing to do.  We say, for ordinary human beings, because for fanatics it may be relatively easy.  ‘Their minds are but a single thought.’  If it comes to that, the same may be true of the devil: his mind is but a single thought to do evil, but most of us are compounded of good and bad impulses.  We are even compounded of different selves: there is the hopeful self, and the fearful self, the anxious self, the generous self, the mean self, the hateful self, and the loving self.  They are at war with one another.  With which one of these selves shall we pray?  Which shall rule over the others?

“A man’s prayer will thus reflect his ‘dominant self,’ the part of him which is really ‘at the controls’ in the attempted take-off and flight of his spirit.  It is a matter of coordination, but it is a matter of subordination too; and this double principle of co-ordination and subordination is what is called concentration.”

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives. … The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.  … I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” 

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, beauty, Biblical God, Christianity, Cities, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Love, Martyrdom, Masculinity, Medieval, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, relationships, Religion, Roles, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Afghan Hope

Aphrodite Rising from the Sea, c. 460 BCE

Afghan Hope

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York.  She is a veteran of many feminist combats, has blazed trails where colleagues feared to venture, and authored many brave, clear and well-informed books.

In 1961, her life had a different look.  She was a young girl on a whirlwind European tour with her first lover and new husband, a dashing fellow student whose native land was the exotic country of Afghanistan.  In their courtship days, they’d shared bohemian views and pictured joint creative projects, with all the airy sophistication of the young.  Their honeymoon tour was to take in a brief stop in Kabul where she would meet her new in-laws.

When they landed in Kabul, her American passport was confiscated, her father-in-law turned out to have plural wives, her mother-in-law to hate her son’s Jewish bride, and the trap closed.  She was an Afghan wife.

She had no rights.

Philosophers can debate the concept of human rights, and what it means exactly.  If you’ve lost yours, it’s no longer a conceptual problem.

The story of her life inside that trap, and how she finally managed to escape, is told unforgettably in An American Bride in Kabul, the memoir of her experience.

I take seriously the romantic notions that led an intelligent, sophisticated young woman to “blunder” in this way.  A first love is a life-imprinting thing, even if it should turn out to lead “nowhere.”  In her lifelong battle for the safety, dignity and freedom of women, I see Chesler as faithful to the promise implicit in her first love.  That “first, fine, careless rapture” pictures a world where the fervor of discovery can extend itself into the future.  

Love needs to find itself out.

What would it have meant, if it could have survived?  How might it have survived?  I don’t believe in just shrugging off the questions, pulling up one’s socks and chugging on.  These questions lie at the very heart of life.  They demand answers.

It is now August of 2021.  Phyllis Chesler is part of a superb international team of feminists working together to rescue Afghan women.  They include “anti sex-slavery activists, honor killing experts .. a brilliant legal team …”  and they focus particularly on women whose stand for women’s rights has made them Taliban targets.  One of these desperate Afghan feminists, “Aisha,” is an experienced researcher, journalist and lecturer with a degree in medical science.  She contacted Chesler with this simple request: 

Save my life!

Working for a month round the clock, with her team, Chesler succeeded.

My parents rescued ten families, whom they did not know, from the Holocaust.  I know what such work is.  I may sleep better tonight, knowing that Phyllis Chesler has won this round.  What a triumph!  No Nobel Prize is better than this!

It is also, as I see it, a womanly victory.  The safety and support that her first love, the Afghan boy, should have brought her, she has secured, in some measure, for other women.

This is the eternal feminine

in action.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Art of Living, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, bigotry, books, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Female Power, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Journalism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modern Women, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, motherhood, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Death Be Not Proud

Adams Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1891

Death Be Not Proud

We think of our life stories as headed toward a concluding sentence, after which, if they were novels, we would see written: “The End.”

Not that everyone conceives this “end” the same way.  Take Heidegger, the 20th-century German existentialist.  He holds that we should think of ourselves as headed-toward-death from the get-go.  By looking death in the eye, we fortify ourselves to become resolute and brave – getting way beyond conventional people who live by evasion and denial.

Sartre, the 20th-century French existentialist, thinks the very fact of death – along with the other contingencies in our bodies and the natural environment – combine to show that our purposes are unsupported.  Not supported by God and not by nature.  Rather, by nothing at all!  To face this honestly and recognize that we make up our purposes and self-definitions is “authenticity.”  To try to pretend otherwise is mauvaise foi, bad faith.

The various figures in post-modernism tend to view reality, whether natural or cultural, as a social construct. It’s still made up, but not by individuals.  Rather by social groups, identified by their position on a scale of dominance and subordination.  However, they too go to the dentist.  And they can tell the difference between a dentist who knows his craft and one merely flexing his credentials.  One day, a social constructivist I knew told me that he was dying of cancer.  Tactfully, I did not ask if he thought death too was a social construct.

On the Anglo-American side of the channel and “the pond,” it’s typical to see life as ending when the senses and bodily functions shut down.  One time I asked David Armstrong, a leading Australian materialist, whether he’d read my article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead.”  He said he hadn’t (and presumably wouldn’t) because “Freddie” (A. J. Ayer) had evidently confused real oxygen deprivation with fantasized other-worldly visions and thereby “lost his cool.”

Need I go on?  Speaking personally, for better or worse, I am encumbered by no such intellectual constraints.  Like many people, I’ve had pre-cognitive dreams and waking visions, significant coincidences, some of which I think it reasonable to construe as signs of providential intervention.  I’ve even argued to this effect in the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil.

That said, I would have thought that admission of such phenomena into the domain of scientific investigation would be a thing for the distant future.  So far as I knew, any scientist who wanted to conduct that kind of inquiry would be risking his or her career.

I was mistaken.  Apparently, the future is already here.  The August 20th edition of Victor Zammit’s blog includes a video on methodic, scientific investigations of near-death experiences (NDE’s) that were conducted or are now being conducted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA. In such cases, a patient, who has been deemed clinically dead and then revived, reports continuous conscious experience during that interval.  If, as most moderns hold, the brain is what produces consciousness, that should be impossible.

Dr. Francois Lallier, a general practitioner in Reims, France, wrote a well-received medical thesis on such experiences de mort imminente, holding that they need to be “de-dramatized” and studied, rather than explained away.  He found that NDE’s are reported by 5% of patients who survive clinical death in the US and by 4% of such survivors in France and Germany.  These recollections have similar features: seeing a light that is very bright but not over-dazzling, seeing one’s body from the outside, meeting deceased relatives, losing the sense of time, feeling limitlessly loved, undergoing a life review in which one sees how one’s actions have affected others, and entering a domain of universal harmony and knowledge.  Among the after-effects are the persistence of intense, full recollection of this experience and the loss of the fear of death.

Lallier found no correlation of NDE’s with psychiatric disturbances, hallucinogenic medication, epilepsy or neurological problems.  Meanwhile, in 2001, Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel had published a study of NDE’s in Lancet, the well-regarded medical journal.  He found no correlation of these experiences with the duration of the cardiac arrest, the presence or absence of medications or the lack of oxygen.  Van Lommel mentions a recent book containing accounts of 100 cases of NDE’s where the patient, at the time lying “dead” on the operating table, reported observations while out of the body that were veridical (corroborated by witnesses to the events observed).  Steven Laurey of the Coma Science Group in Liege, Belgium, is currently undertaking a study of the brain effects in patients who have had NDE’s.  As yet, he has not come to any conclusions but considers it a field ripe for scientific investigation.

What follows, for you or me?  Certain beliefs collapse.  We are not just dependent on our perishable brains.  Rather, life goes on, with new levels of understanding.  Life is not meaningless and we don’t fabricate its meaning.  Such skills and talents as we have developed don’t reduce to mere devices for dominating other people.  Our lives can be evaluated in terms of the degree of compassionate concern we have shown for other people.  Turns out the golden rule is not reserved for Hallmark cards.  It’s a serious measure of the worthiness of the life one has lived.

There’s one tendency I’ve noticed among the scientists, philosophers, and religionists who are willing to look at these studies.  I call it upward reductionism.  It’s the rush to suppose that — since everything is really Lovewe can look forward to melting like little raindrops into the great Ocean of Oneness.  Nothing is actually separate.  Nothing is really individual.  We are all … just … LOVE and more LOVE.  Quantum entanglement is love in another guise.  You are love.  I am love.  Blur, blur, blur.

I take that to reflect the very early stage, the woo woo stage, of the work ahead of us. What work is that?  It will surely involve the revising, at least in part, of most of our present, modern-day scientific and cultural assumptions.

It promises to be

very interesting.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Biblical God, bigotry, books, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Journalism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master/slave relation, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, morality, Mortality, Mysticism, 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, Renaissance, Roles, science, 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, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

By David McCullough

I’d like to see Paris before I die.”

That’s how W. C. Fields, about to be hanged in “My Little Chickadee,” answers when he’s asked if he has any last wish.

Jacob Taubes, when he chaired Columbia University’s Religion Department, produced this version.  One member of a married pair says to the other, “If one of us dies first, I will go to Paris.”

Anyway, Americans have been feeling that way for about 200 years.  The phases that were played out in the nineteenth century have been expertly evoked by the great David McCullough.  At first the book goes along anecdotally, at a low and even tempo.  Later, it heats up dramatically.

From the 1830’s onward, Americans went to Paris for training of various kinds. The best medical training was to be found there.  You got to watch surgeries performed on poor wretches without anaesthetics.  Afterward, the patient usually died.  But the professor’s technique and autocratic assurance were brilliant.  Would-be artists went there to learn their craft.  In those days, painting was not about self-expression.  Daylight hours were spent on high ladders in the Louvre, copying the great masters.  Promising young artists could gain admission to courses taught by the masters of the day, where they learned how to draw the human figure and how to produce a painting from the canvass on up.

Meanwhile, New England puritans were stunned to discover how exquisite food could be, how inimitable a fashionable Parisian woman could be – and how many arts a civilized life could comport.  They had never seen a city so charming, so capable of flooding the senses!  They hoped earnestly to return home without losing their purity.  They  wondered, shyly, if some of these civilized arts might be exported to the new American Republic without sacrificing its innocent austerities.

Everyone went to Paris, sooner or later: Emerson, Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, Henry Adams, Henry James, Whistler, Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, the list goes on and on.  Only Thoreau stayed home, as we might expect.

The earlier chapters reminded me astonishingly of the initial impressions of Paris that I and my fellow American Fulbright scholars shared in the following century.  We were stunned.  We talked about it endlessly – and in much the same terms!

In the course of the nineteenth-century, this serenely urbane setting erupts several times, each time with more bloodshed and pitiless destruction of its landmarks.  In 1848, Louis-Philippe, the last king of France, is forced to abdicate and flee.  His successor, Louis Napoleon, has time to superintend the reconfiguring of Paris into a splendid seat of empire before he finds himself in an ill-fated war with the Prussia of Otto von Bismark.  

I could have told him not to do that.  His ministers — perhaps carried away by France’s architectural glory – may have mistaken that kind of superiority for triumph on the battlefield.  One has to keep these categories distinct.

The disaster of the Franco-Prussian war is followed by the strange and bloody uprising known as the Commune.

Till finally, it all settles down again, to an even-tempered finale marked by the advent of a new generation of American artists whose talent has developed to such a point of assurance, beauty and originality, that they are even competitive with their young French counterparts.  

With the nineteenth century drawing to a close, we can serenely bring down the curtain on the first century of our compatriots in Paris.

Posted in book reviews, books | 2 Comments