What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

“Head of Christ”
Rembrandt, c. 1648-1656

What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

The other night this question kept me up half the night.

I’m not concerned with his orthodoxy.  He allowed healing on the Sabbath and held that what you said could be more polluting than what you ate.

He sounds like a Reform Rabbi.

He couldn’t stand people so fixated on “doing everything right” that they let nobody else through the gates of heaven and weren’t getting in themselves either.

He sounds like someone who

could tell crap from clay.

Was he differing from his co-religionists when he criticized Pharisees who “thanked God that they were not like other men”?  Actually, he was quoting one of the Pharisaic parables of self-criticism.  The Pharisees themselves had drawn that distinction, between the good ones who prayed in secret and the bad ones, the show-offs, who didn’t practice what they preached.

So far, it seems, he was a perfectly recognizable kind of Jew.  So what was keeping me up half the night?

Well, let’s start with me.  What do I mean by a Jew?  Why, if someone nails me as “a Jew,” do I agree that that is indeed what I am?

It’s not like getting a big social promotion.  It’s nothing like getting knighted by the Queen.  To what am I agreeing?

I wasn’t raised in such a way that Jewish practices got to be second nature.  I sometimes say that I belong to a Reform temple because “they’re the only ones who would have me.”

Here’s my general sense of it.  Everyone is in the midst of living his or her nonfiction life story.  At some point along one’s particular plotline, one might notice that God is there as a Witness and can be the Unseen Partner in one’s story.

It’s what Abraham discovered: that he had this kind of partnership with God.  It’s the Ur-Story (literally!), the paradigm case.   And Jews?  They are God’s pilot project – the paradigm case of the story we all live.

As everybody knows.

So what exactly is it that puzzles me about Jesus as a Jew?  Abraham had a story.  Jacob/Israel had a story.  King David – they all had stories.

What sort of story did Jesus have?  By now, Jewish readers are no doubt put off by any protracted discussion of the man in whose name co-religionists have been pitilessly persecuted for about the last 2000 years.

Me, I don’t blame Jesus for what was done in his name.  But meanwhile, Christian readers must be waving the four gospels at me and repeating with exasperation,“Here!  Isn’t that a story?”

My answer would be No.  The stories I mean, stories of a Jewish type, are situated within the real constraints of a particular culture, a given juncture in history, and a local context in nature.  Storied people have health problems, cosmetic problems, romantic longings, economic concerns, social and psychological vulnerabilities, and so on.

Here’s an example of Jesus seemingly riding through concerns like those.  Jesus says:

If a man takes your coat,

run after him and

give him your cloak too.

As I write this, as it happens, I can’t find my favorite, demi-saison, brown coat with the French cut.  Don’t think I’m not depressed about it.

About coats and the people who grab them, the rabbis have a different saying:

Justice without mercy is cruelty.

Mercy without justice is promiscuity.

In other words, the rabbis think that the secret of living is to maintain a balance while you move forward along the plotline of your own story.  To avoid other-worldly extremes at the top or at the bottom.

If you stay in that mid-zone — or keep trying to — you will live a story: the story of how you stayed there, losing your balance, finding it again, and going forward.

I’ll omit the Messiah Question, but if Jesus was expected to bring about Isaiah’s vision, it is still inadvisable for lambs to lie down with lions.  That’s not a pussycat lookin’ at you.

What kind of a Jew was this man from Nazareth?

I don’t have the Christian answers because I don’t pose the Christian questions.  For me, the Jewish question is,

what’s the story

with Jesus?

What’s he doing and what does he expect me to do about it?  Well, of course I don’t know, but here’s what came to me the other night at about 4:00 a.m.

He had a heart so full, so full-to-the-bursting with love, that his words went to extremes, as a way of signaling his own filled-up-ness.  How to interpret it?  I think it’s a mistake (except in rare instances) to take it literally.  You can’t walk off a cliff and expect not to fall just because Jesus said, “Take no thought for your life … God’s eye is on the sparrow.”  The sparrow has wings.  You better look where you’re going.

But it is a way of signaling … a certain largesse …

in the Region of Trust.

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Red Letter Day

Red Letter Day 

In recent columns, I’ve alluded to reversals of fortune, a succession of them, coming in the form of rejection letters.  Two came from senior editors who turned down an article, controversial and breaking new ground, which was on a topic closely attuned to their readers’ concerns.  When I read a version of that article at a panel last year, a fellow panelist turned to me and said that you could hear the silence crack in the room and that, based on what I had read to them, he would have to change his course curriculum.

So the recent emails were disappointing, but I did not internalize the editors’ rejections.  Too bad.  Still, I knew the worth of what I had submitted to them.

The third editor was different.  She turned down my book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  Let me set that in context.  Confessions was recommended to that editor by a person held in highest esteem at that university press and recognized as knowledgeable in the areas relevant to my book.  Confessions is also the focus of an entire chapter of different book forthcoming at that very press.  It’s quite unusual for an unpublished book to be described in detail and liberally quoted in a book that’s on its way to publication.  The editor of the book on-its-way-to-publication that cites mine is the same editor who just turned down Confessions!

Nor is this the first time something of this kind has happened with Confessions.  In four previous instances, it has been recommended by highly-regarded, well-connected, experienced book people, who had reason to think their words carried weight with the publishers or editors they volunteered to contact. Sometimes they were simply rebuffed.  When the rejections came to me in writing, they praised the book but said it did not fit their lists.

I have run out of big shots.

Previously, a long tally of university presses also said that Confessions didn’t fit their list.  The trade presses (like Random House & Simon & Schuster) will not look at a submission unless it reaches them through an agent.  I have knocked at the door of every agent remotely suitable for this book.  It didn’t fit their lists either.

A word about Confessions itself.  As the title indicates, it’s a memoir, a personal journey, thus a feminine journey.  But the journey is not merely personal.  It traverses current worldviews, philosophical, political and religious.   Nevertheless, it’s not an “abstract” book.  It’s novelistic.  In the true story I tell, contending worldviews were not just worked out on paper.  They were lived through thoughtfully, as a test of their truths and their untruths.  The book offers an original take on a spectrum of issues hard for most of us to escape: the asymmetrical relations of men and women; love, sex and seduction; marxism, existentialism, millenarianism, and anti-humanism; relations between the races; identity politics and anti-semitism.

Readers can learn from it.  It sheds light on lives we are all living, and issues all of us encounter nowadays.  So my concern for this book is not just personal.

After a week or so of mulling over the whole situation, it came to me that – barring some surprise development – by now I have pretty much turned over every rock.  What remains is self-publishing.  For various reasons, I’m told that’s no longer viewed with disdain in the publishing world.  Self-published books sometimes get literary prizes.  It’s a little like going to a ball without a partner.  If you have other qualifications, your dance card might fill up just the same.

If you self-publish, you own the book.  You can offer it and advertise it on any terms you choose, sell it on amazon and continue to do so as long as you desire.  If you want a certain font, you won’t have to convince your editor.  If you want illustrations by original artists, you can hire one.  In the nineteenth-century novels I have loved, words and images were paired.  They should be in this book too.

Since reaching this decision,

I’ve felt lighter,

more at home in the world.

I went for a riding lesson last Friday, at the stable where natural riding is taught.  You don’t use crops or spurs.  You communicate with your body and your intentions.

Before mounting, my trainer instructed me to lunge California.  At one point, Cali stopped, broke the circle and came over to stand in front of me.

“What’s she doing?” I asked my trainer.

“She’s saying that she messed up and she’s coming over to acknowledge you as her leader.”

All my life, I’ve respected horses, while knowing perfectly well that they did not respect me.  Our relationship has not been reciprocal.

So this — respect from a world-wise pinto — is a first in my life.  After this, who needs a tacky old Nobel Prize?

For me, let’s face it.  This is …

 A RED LETTER DAY.

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The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher

The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

The book I’ve just finished reading had an impact on me greater than any book I can remember.  By impact, I don’t mean long-term influence on my heart or mind.  I mean something like being kicked in the chest by a horse!

The author, Edmund de Waal, is a young man of mixed background, Jewish on his mother’s side, and the book’s title is The Hare with Amber Eyes.  It refers to one of the tiny Japanese figurines (netsuke) that de Waal — eventually and by a circuitous route – inherited, long after the Nazis had thoroughly pillaged the art works once owned by his mother’s people.

Because Nazis are conceded – even by people who deem all values subjective and relative – to be evil, they have a continuing fascination.  We don’t have experience of anyone or anything that is good unqualifiedly.  But thanks to Hitler, we have at least one moral certainty:

Nazis or Nazism

 — what they believed and acted on —

was evil.

Inevitably, three chapters of my book, A Good Look at Evil, deal with Nazis and Nazism.  In preparing it, I read trial transcripts, memoirs, propaganda, and many of the major works dealing with the Holocaust.  I found this research depressing.  Once, talking in French to a survivor whose large eyes signaled indelible surprise and the permanent anticipation that no one would believe her, I was in tears.  Sometimes, reading about the clergy that went along with Hitler, I was angry.  But I never once felt that I’d been kicked in the chest by a horse.

The Ephrussi, maternal relatives of the author, were among the great Jewish banking families of Europe.  Like the Rothschilds.  They emerged out of Tsarist Russia in mid-nineteenth century, stopping long enough in the port city of Odessa to slightly alter their names along lines more elegant and international.

My mother was born in Odessa.  Her father, my grandfather, was chief rabbi in Odessa, probably some decades after the Ephrussis had emigrated.  I never asked mother about Odessa, though I have a sepia photograph of her from Tsarist days, a soulful Russian schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.  By the time she was in her teens, the family had moved to Switzerland.  Mother went to high school and university in Lausanne.  But that’s another story.

So my family brushed by the Ephrussi, but we were never as rich or as secular as they.

The Ephrussis had branches in Vienna and Paris, with great mansions in both cities.  The eldest son in each branch was dedicated to the firm.  The younger ones could pretty much march to the beat of their own drummers, personal and idiosyncratic.  Typically, they became avid collectors and, to some extent, tastemakers.  In Paris, Charles, the youngest son, was probably the model for Swann, the hero of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Quest of Lost Time).  The family mingled with the beautiful people in the best circles.  They gave stupendous dinners.  They changed clothes three times a day.  Charles patronized and advised the new painters: Degas, Renoir and the rest.

That is, they did all that until the Dreyfus Case, wherein a young French Jewish officer was convicted — on charges later shown to be fabricated — of treason.  L’Affaire divided France.  Needless to say, in the best circles, the anti-Dreyfusards predominated.  Suddenly and uniformly it was “discovered”: the Ephrussis were, after all, Jews!  Their sumptuous dinners, their tasteful at-home teas … were declined.

Meanwhile, all the while, a dull, muffled growl of resentment at Jewish success –in all the walks of life where Jews had any presence – was growing louder.

How predictable!  By any sociological measure, a foreign people — who show more skill than the natives in mastering the arts, sciences, manners and attitudes of the host culture – will be resented.  Now factor in two thousand years of rancor theologically rationalized, but struggling to find new channels in a newly secularized Europe – and one knows that this cannot end well.  It will only be a matter of time.

The kick in the chest to which I allude occurs in the Vienna chapters, where the Nazis have taken over the government and public life … more or less from within.  Here, for want of time and space, I have omitted the author’s loving portrayals of that branch.  The break-in, first by wild, raucous mobs, then by the more orderly Gestapo, is described only in Vienna.

To watch the hate-filled mob tramp through the meticulously ornamented portals and stairways, wresting paintings from their frames, tossing out a collector’s library, throwing majestic pieces of furniture down the stairwell, confiscating or smashing items precious and rare – was extraordinarily shocking.  It sent my whole system reeling.

What does it all mean?  I omit the author’s description of a family terrorized and deprived of every social help.  One has read such stories.  How should the unique features of this one be comprehended?  Why am I so kicked in the chest?

Should it not have been obvious to these faux-Parisians and faux-Viennese that their way of life wasn’t prudent?  If outsiders emulate the mores of the ancient families of Europe – no matter how perfectly they do it – they invite a day of reckoning.   Certainly my grandfather would have known it, intuitively and thoroughly!

But the secularism, the aestheticism, the European-ness of these newly-arrived families was quite sincere.  It was not an affectation.  They were happy to change clothes three times a day and they did it well.

In thy name shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

In what did “the blessing” that God laid on Abraham consist?  Precisely in this: to be a witness to the world of what happens between God and humankind.

The Ephrussi family was situated in one peculiar sector of the European scene — to which they were present unreservedly.

Their presence helps

to make what happened

intelligible.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman

by Stefan Zweig.

It’s impossible to write a more definitive biography of Marie Antoinette, the unluckiest Queen of France, than the one by Stefan Zweig.  The biography combines the objectivity of a historian, the curiosity of a psychologist, and a novelist’s sympathy for his heroine.

She loved life’s pleasures, knew the art of pleasing, and — because of these personal flaws — went far toward putting the budget of France in the red.  She was excoriated in terms that expressed all the hatred that can befall a woman: as a she-wolf, a whore, the emblem of all the vices of her sex, a debauched female, a criminal mother, and on and on. At an earlier phase, anyone at court who won her favor was envied and the public went wild for her when she appeared in Paris.

 She had been the toast of the old regime.

 She became the she-devil of the new.

Her particular flaws were not uncommon ones, but they went unchecked under the regime of which she was the Queen. The consequences were such as to give her a starring role in the world-historical event that changed the political order of Europe: the French Revolution.

She was unlucky and did not know how to be lucky. The impotence of her bridegroom lasted seven years, by which time the young couple had attracted the voyeuristic attention and coarse humor of the whole nation. Though his condition was eventually corrected by surgery, the psychological effects were lasting. He could not play the man with her, nor with his realm when he had to. Erotically, they never became a couple, nor a good team when external threats swirled around them.

The famous “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” is too bizarre and improbable for me to comprehend, even after I read Zweig’s lucid explanation. She’d been the target of a pair of grifters who pretended that she’d ordered a staggeringly costly piece of jewelry. They implicated high-placed others in their scheme, by prevailing on them to advance the price of the necklace, supposedly on the Queen’s behalf. When the female swindler finally made her escape to England, she targeted Marie Antoinette with lurid pamphlets purporting to expose the Queen’s vices. Marie Antoinette was innocent of all the accusations connected with the necklace, but guilty of having lived so improvidently as to make them plausible to her ever-growing public of detractors.

She had one true love, and it wasn’t Louis XVI. Zweig, who assembles the evidence that this clandestine affair was consummated, argues in her defense that her marriage had been a contract of state between a girl of fifteen and the undeveloped, teenage Dauphin, for which union she had at length produced two children, thereby fulfilling her duties under the contract. Be that as it may, her lover, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, adored her to the end, and beyond, as no one else did.

As her fortunes declined, the escape plan engineered by Count Fersen was thwarted at Varennes. She was confined, first to the palace in Paris and finally to a dark and comfortless cell. She had many chances to escape that last ride in the tumbril (the open cart) to the guillotine. She and Louis XVI bungled every one of them. Time was of the essence and they missed their moments almost unerringly.

Her case grew hopeless but she seldom failed to captivate those who were her captors – most especially the humble poor who saw a woman in misfortune – but sometimes even committed revolutionaries. By what were they captivated?

She was not a religious woman. By stages, she lost her reputation, her youth, her beauty. Even her children were taken from her. What then did she keep? She never failed in her invincible belief that she was the queen. It was a belief she shared with those who hated her the most — and with those who tried in vain to save her. Had she not embodied this queen-ness in every molecule of her being, and held fast to it through all the storms of that time, how could there have been so profound a reversal of a nation’s habits of chivalry and scorn as the French Revolution?

The crowned heads of Europe did little or nothing to save her, mourned her execution pro forma, and busied themselves with their king business: realpolitik and the securing of their own necks.

The bodies of the royals were thrown into a mass grave pit, covered in quicklime and, a few years later, no one knew where the Queen of France was buried.

Only one man poured into his memory all the ardor and devotion to which Marie Antoinette believed she had title by virtue of her queenship. To the end of his days, Count Fersen reproached himself for his failure to risk all and ride with her on the unsuccessful flight to Varennes in 1791. Even had the mob torn him to pieces, he reproached himself again and again in his journal: “Why, ah why, did I not die for her on the twentieth of June?” Strangely, on that very date nineteen years later, Fersen was torn to pieces by a Swedish mob, who hated him for many reasons, among them his unrepentant royalism.

It was only decades after the death of Marie Antoinette, when it was finally safe to remember her, that innumerable false memoires and forged letters began to appear, catering to a reborn taste for the unluckiest Queen of France.

By what were they captivated?

She seems to me to embody the predicament of being a woman: loved and hated, admired and scorned, for the very same qualities, forced to be Queen of France, forced to be the target of the French as they overthrew the monarchy. The bare-breasted woman in Delacroix’s painting, “Liberty at the Barricades,” is not a real person. She is a symbol. Marie Antoinette was not a symbol. She was a real person, who was regarded as a symbol, excoriated or adored depending on how one valued the symbol.

Most of us have a symbolic life and a real life. We are what we represent and what we really are. The problematic of our lives is to keep them in a prudent and credible balance. One could say that Marie Antoinette failed to keep that balance.

But perhaps she did not fail.

Perhaps she was a perfect Marie Antoinette.

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A Moral Crisis

Dante and Virgil
Gustave Doré’s illustration for The Divine Comedy, 1866

A Moral Crisis

In A Good Look at Evil, I portray a moral crisis as a time when one’s story comes to a stop.  The halt isn’t called because of an external obstacle.  It comes from within.

What causes this Full Stop?  It occurs when one can make no sense of one’s life story.

What’s a life story?

We land here, born with certain propensities, talents and vulnerabilities.  The place where, at birth, we arrive, is not a vacuum.  It’s full of physical and behavioral requirements.  Those who raise and care for us have their own trajectories, rhythms and beliefs.   They are also the filters through which we first meet the currents and views held within the wider culture.  More pressures and perspectives arrive with the other people and things we meet as we go along.  We absorb delights, shocks and threats, see vistas and project possibilities.

We have to navigate our way through all this, trying our best to preserve our felt sense of who we were at the start — while we learn the ropes.  Reality has many dimensions, so we have to keep correcting course as we search for the path that suits us best and can be achieved in real time.  With increasing maturity, we can articulate our purposes, share common tasks, and honor the reciprocities by which we live.

What all this adds up to is

our story.

Though it’s something like living a novel, our story can’t be called a fiction.  If (as is sometimes fashionably maintained nowadays) what we’re living were really a fiction, then we’d be nuts.  Since we’re not nuts, our real lives are nonfiction stories.

What can bring us to Full Stop is meeting something or someone that critically undercuts the story we’ve been living.  It can be an enemy who sees what we’re about and figures out where our vulnerabilities lie.  (Yes, there are such people.  It’s not all sugar and spice.  Sorry!)  Or it can be some mischance that upsets the delicate balance of our projects.  Or a loss of trust, or self-trust, or honor, that we didn’t even realize we needed.  Like as not, the people who stand nearby do not perceive how dark – for us — is the shadow that has fallen across our path.

Perhaps because I know that the scripts we actually follow might be invisible to others, I could talk two women friends out of committing suicide.  Though I heard them out patiently, I did not take at face value the reasons they gave for their despair.  Instead I looked for the invisible script behind their stated reasons.  The invisible script is not generic.  It’s different for each one of us.

In my life, right now,

I’m passing through a moral crisis.

As I wrote in last week’s column, I’d believed that my book had at last found its ideal publisher.  The signs and signals all seemed to promote this expectation.  My manuscript was submitted with an unusual degree of well-thought-out support from quarters this editor could not casually ignore.  The reasons she set down in her rejection letter were oddly inconclusive.  They were unlikely to have been her real reasons.

Meanwhile, during that very week, I was getting emails from people responding to the excerpts from Confessions of a Young Philosopher that I’d read at the Voegelin Society.  Academics don’t normally send high praise to relative strangers.  Yet here were eloquent emails, unsolicited.  To my mind, it was as if the puzzle pieces of protracted effort were coming together, after persistent waiting and working — and retaining intelligent hope.

A word about Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It’s not a book about my life.  It’s not an anemic young girl’s private diary.

It’s more like

a life about a book.

The hills and valleys of the life described in Confessions can only be understood as calling forth the book that now deciphers them.  What I lived makes sense only in terms of the lessons I drew and can in turn show others.  I was utterly resolved on drawing this sense out of two youthful episodes of my life’s story.  And I have no doubt that the book succeeds in doing what it set out to do.

Prior to the rejection letter, the favorable portents that appeared to surround this manuscript submission were quite striking.  Though I did not speak about it, I could scarcely help believing that Providence had waited for a moment that was exactly right before taking a hand.  My trust in the Unseen was being vindicated in a way better than anything I could have imagined.

As I described to Jerry the kind of blow this was, I realized that … the setback I was describing was precisely what A Good Look at Evil says that “evil” does: it finds the invisible script that supports the visible one.  It knocks that down.  It knows its target.  It controls its aim.

Confessions draws out the inner sense of the hills and valleys I’ve traversed.  It caters to nobody and to nothing.

How could I imagine that —

 in trying to make this book known — 

I could escape blows?

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Rejection Letters

Rejection Letters

It’s been quite a week.  After our time at the Eric Voegelin Society conference in Washington, which was satisfying both humanly and intellectually, one thing after another went bust.

First, on the Sunday train back to Trenton, my watch went bust.  I know, I know, you all get the time from your smartphones.  I get as little as I can from my smartphone.  Don’t want to walk around with a crick in my neck from being all bent over.  Don’t want to miss the world with its sights and sounds.

That makes my wristwatch an important prop.  Since I lack a good spatial sense, I never know quite where I am.  If my watch gives me the time, then at least I can know when I am.  Sadly, the Labor Day weekend meant I would be stuck with the crick-in-the-neck contraption until Tuesday.

On Monday, the “broiler element” in our oven went bust.  It gave off sparks and tongues of fire.  Should we call the Fire Department?  No, it subsided and then went dark.  We called the Appliance Man.  He ordered a new whatchamacallit.  It would arrive by the end of the week.

Next, my printer went bust.  Nowadays you can’t be a starving writer in a garret.  The ink cartridges alone cost too much.  You need a day job.  Negotiating the new printer, black like the old one, took several days and multiple stages.

But all this is background music, the kind they used to play in old movies whenever the killer walked on set, be the set a drawing room, a train or a box at the opera.   That way you knew he was around.  In those days, people needed a lot of mood setting.

The main events were yet to come:

THE REJECTION LETTERS.

The first email came on Monday.  It was from the respected editor of a review magazine for which I have high regard.  This same editor had recently published an essay of his own in another magazine – one that was lucid, plainspoken and brave.  What is more, he had earlier expressed a direct and personal interest in the article I proposed to write.  There would be no chain of command to climb.  The head man would be reading it and deciding the matter.

So … no and nyet and nadaDas Nichts nichtet, as Heidegger would say.  The Nothing nothings.

But (I was urged by the editor) stay in touch.  I write well and what I have to say is new and one learns from it.  “This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.”  [I am quoting.]

Meantime, for the past three or so weeks, Confessions of a Young Philosopher has been in the hands of the most suitable editor I could imagine for it.  Not only that.  The MS had the backing of one of her authors, who quotes liberally from Confessions and makes it the focus of one of his chapters, in a book this editor is currently publishing.  Confessions was also submitted accompanied by strong endorsement from the most justly admired and accoladed figure at that publisher’s hierarchy.  If ever I had reason to expect an acceptance, it was here and now, at long last.  Instead,

“Dear Abigail L Rosenthal,

Thank you so much and, by the way,

NO.”

How intensely and recognizably human — this cascading series of let-downs!  In other words,

I could make no sense of it at all.

The time had come to visit my equine friends.  Horses are four-legged, with big brown eyes, and unequivocally normal.  They send no rejection letters.

They accept me.

After a little time in the saddle, I settled into a more relaxed and rhythmic walk.  Serena, my trainer, asked me what this rejection meant to me.  I said it felt like a physical blow, but that I always persist in an effort to realize a reasonable purpose unless and until I learn – with no misunderstanding possible – that I’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

Cali (short for “California”), the horse under my saddle, twitched one large brown ear.

Serena, who can “talk horse,” said that Cali thinks I haven’t yet run through all the possibilities.  I tend to take Cali’s opinion to heart.

“Are you religious?” Serena asked me.

“Yes.”

Earlier this week, Serena said, she’d copied down a verse from Second Corinthians.  This is what she read me, as near as I can remember.

We are afflicted in every way, 

but we are not crushed;

 perplexed, but not driven to despair;

persecuted but not forsaken;

struck down,  

but not without a way out.

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Womanly Arts

“A Woman at Her Toilet”
Titian, circa 1515

Womanly Arts

At the Eric Voegelin Society conference we attended this week in D.C., Jerry and I were on a panel entitled “Life as a Spiritual Journey.”  They went awfully well — both of our (totally different) presentations.

For the record, I should note that I am always half-sick before these things.  On the roster of experiences that induce high anxiety, speaking in public is generally ranked near the top.  Right up there with divorce, getting fired and life-threatening medical diagnoses.

Nevertheless, two people thanked me feelingly afterward, and two others said they wanted to read the rest of the story.  What I’d read was a distillation of “Paris without End,” one of the early chapters from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It told what Paris signaled to me when I was a young Fulbright grantee, away from home for the first time.

Among the impressions: the American effort to maintain integrity over/against the seductions of Paris – the most beautiful city in the world; the shakeout from the German Occupation of Paris, seen in the “existentialist” belief that values – if they could be so overturned and inverted – must be arbitrary or “absurd”; the marxist proposed cure for the fragility of values, which was to set them aside entirely, until they could be founded anew on a new and purified economic basis.  (As we say in Brooklyn: believe that and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.)

Then there were the thoroughly unofficial concerns of my American women friends.  We were full of surface idealism and subsurface fears.  Of what were we afraid?  We feared (though we were too scared to spell it out in plain words) that, when and as time chipped away at our youth – and with it our power to attract – our vaunted ideals would begin to seem mere phrases, without substantive heft or appeal.  High-sounding, empty words.  On paper, we could make a case for the coinciding of our values and our feminine reality.  But …

we weren’t living on paper. 

At the Q & A, one of the questions prompted me to reflect on the difference that feminism had made to this predicament.

“On the one hand,” I said, “feminism has given us years.  You don’t have to feel it’s all over, once you’re past 23” – as we all had felt or feared.

On the debit side: feminism has denied that there is such a thing as femininity, or that the two sexes are different in any important respect.

“That means,” I concluded incautiously, “if I have a problem as a woman, I would never go to a Public Feminist.”  I would find a woman friend – a civilian!

One of the people who thanked me afterwards was a man who had two daughters, one on the brink of adolescence.  He hadn’t a clue how to guide or protect them, in the face of the culture’s denial that there is, or could be, any problem.  He has two sons as well, and he doesn’t know what to tell them either, now that the traditional masculine virtues are being treated as flaws.

“Femininity,” I responded, “is an art.  So is masculinity.  To master an art, you need models who have themselves mastered it.  Also, as with painting in oils, you need to know the medium, what it can and cannot do.”

Simone de Beauvoir begins volume II of her brilliant and courageous book, Le Deuxieme sexe, the book that, with its publication in 1949, launched the feminist movement in the twentieth century, with this sentence:

On ne nait pas femme: on le devient.

“One is not born a woman.  One becomes it.”  That is true.  Femininity is, at least in its social component, the result of an acculturation.  And it was de Beauvoir’s great contribution to show how this “becoming,” this acculturation, was shot through with features that diminished the women who emerged at the end of the process.

One learns it, this womanization process.  But one also learns every function we have that is not autonomic: the prehensile thumb and how to use it; language; upright bipedal carriage; one’s name, and many more etceteras.  Nor are we the only species that requires acculturation.  Animals of many other species need to learn how to function effectively within their species constraints, inherited and environmental.  It doesn’t follow that what they learn is arbitrary in the sense of “made up” out of whole cloth.  If it were, the young ones would not survive to adulthood.

Every woman knows that you can bungle your professional life and that you can also bungle your womanly life.  In either case, you might fail to gain your objective because of strategic mistakes or because of circumstances beyond your control.  The failure could be remediable in the former case, tragic in the latter case.

That said, the method that conducts to success on the professional track is separate and distinct from the art that will work in the case of womanly fulfillment.

That is so obvious as not to need saying.  Except that today, as we’re told,

you can’t say it.

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