My Defense of My Parents

Diana Trilling in her office Courtesy of Bettman Archive
Abbie in her office by Elmer Sprague

My Defense of My Parents

Recently I read the collected letters of Lionel Trilling.  Afterward, curiosity prompted me to look in the file folder I had under that name.  Trilling had been, possibly, the most influential opinion-shaper in mid-twentieth-century America.  In the folder, I found a copy of a long-forgotten letter I had written to his widow, some years after his death.

Diana Trilling was also a public intellectual.  She had just published her memoir of their marriage: The Beginning of the Journey.  It contained 13 indexed references to my parents – all unflattering.

Here is the letter I wrote to the late Diana Trilling.  It registers a daughter’s defense of her parents.

Dear Mrs. Trilling,

I am Abigail Rosenthal, the daughter of Henry and Rachelle.  I have just purchased a copy of your memoir, in which my parents appear, and I hasten to write you – even before having read the book through – about them.

Without preamble: their absoluteness wasn’t arrogance.  His intransigence wasn’t a pose.  It was one reflection of other qualities: a strong sense of self, the good fortune of a true and lasting love – great courage and energy for life – and tremendous humor.  I wish I could reproduce his funniness.  [Clifton] Fadiman spoke of it at his memorial.

What united all these implausible strands – and mother’s natural coquetrie with her untarnished devotion as wife and mother?  Though they seldom used the word, it would not be spoiling the story to say that they both believed in God.  I don’t mean fanatically.  He, after all, had left the rabbinate and eventually shrugged off the outward practices of Judaism.  But his originality was his transparency to the transcendent.  It made him funny because it made him essentially unafraid.  And his relative isolation came from an ability – at least in the years I knew him – to see people with a laser vision, a vision that also pained him.  He saw what they were, with great compassion, and with a love many people felt even if he separated himself from them.

Like most Jewish men of his time, he felt the weight of a tragic reality, the outnumbering weight of the anti-Semitic configurations in the world.  It did not surprise him.  He understood it.  I suppose in a way it frightened him, as it would any thoughtful person.  Yet he and my mother faced into it with all their love and courage.  Among much else that they did, they brought over ten families, total strangers, saving them from the Holocaust – walking through the State Department’s endless paper barriers.

I adored them both.  It was a real friendship, born in adulthood, after they had given up trying to shape me or my life.

He and your husband could not live out the distinct and significant dramas of their respective lives side by side.  Yet I do not think that my father ceased to love Lionel Trilling.  And, once in a while, word would come back to us of your husband’s ongoing regard and concern. …

I thank you for your book, its honesty and its historical effort – of recuperation of precious time and people.  But I ask you to believe their daughter – that my parents were much more than what must have been visible to you then.

Sincerely,

 

[signature]

Mrs. Trilling did not reply to my letter.

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The Devil in the Details 

Dante in a dark wood
Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1857

The Devil in the Details 

Depression is not an attractive word, but it describes my mood in recent days.  Two explanations (or causes?) spring to mind.

First: I have this neuropathy handicap.  My walking lacks its former, rhythmic life-of-its-own, becoming instead a means to get from one seated place to the next.  The condition has gotten gradually worse over twenty plus years, during which I’ve combatted it with every remedy I could find, from highly-recommended medical specialists to a whole gamut of holistic alternatives.  And yes, I pray a lot, thank you for asking.  The only measurable improvement has come in the last two years from an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda Hospital in southern California.

However, my visit last month hit a brick wall.  By every metric they have at Loma Linda, my treatments have succeeded!  To close the gap between my still- limping condition and the full capacity to stroll that I long for, all I’ll need is to do the homework they gave me for a supposedly final course of exercises.

The trouble is, the drill they sent me home to do seems to be making things worse, not better!  Maybe it will work if I do it for longer.  Maybe it can be adjusted to make it work better.  I’ll call them to see what they think.

For myself, I have no idea.

The New Age-niks believe that all our reverses of fortune originate in our bad attitudes.  It’s all in our minds.  I’ve tried that approach.  The dentist I had in New York was plenty thankful for the New Age.  It gave him lots of expensive cavities to fill.

Second: One of the platforms of my life here in the country, post New York, has been the local Reform temple that I joined, having stumbled into it because it was offering a concert that Jerry wanted to attend for his birthday. The part of temple life that I best relate to is its weekly, verse-by-verse study of the first Five Books, the Torah or Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible.  I might not know The Practices of my people, but I do know how thoughtfully to discuss a text.  In the last nine or so months, this part of my local life has come under an Undeniable Shadow.

I don’t know quite how to describe The Shadow, without getting lurid.  Let’s just say it’s a feature I deem corrupt and insidious, which I have been unable to offset by any effort I’ve made.  It’s not that my life at the temple has been all sweetness and light up till now.  It’s included many combats that were, I think, fair fights.  I won some and lost some.  Some of us thought differently than others on matters that arose.  We felt differently.  There were hard feelings and bruised hearts.  But for none of these combats did the terms “corrupt and insidious” come to mind.  This one is different.  Let’s leave it at that.

For me, it’s become a question of footing, physical and spiritual, with both kinds of footing apparently giving way at the same time.

I’ve just set out these two explanations for my recent, decentered mood, but at first, I was unable to account for it.  Ordinarily, my moods will zigzag from high to low and back again in response to the incidents of the day.  But a feeling that stays low, stretching over a number of days, is not a common one for me.  It was only after much talking it out with Jerry that I was able to track it.

Until I finally tracked it, my whole universe appeared formless and void.  “Abigail” seemed just a two-dimensional placeholder for projects I had earlier set in motion.  She no longer seemed to have desires of her own.  The writer who had, in A Good Look at Evil, tracked the stratagems of evil – as the deliberate thwarting of one’s ideal life story – and had, in Confessions of a Young Philosopher, shown the actualities of such a story in our time, seemed to have quit the field.  All that remained was the author’s name, on the published book and on the manuscript awaiting publication.  The person whose hard-bought wisdom was shared in these books had left.  No one here now but the shell.

Is there a real devil or devils – a species of malevolent spirit not made of earthly stuff?  How should I know?  Jewish reflection on this subject is not dogmatic.  It is found in the form of stories, midrashim, where the listeners pull out the lessons for themselves.  Only The Practices have the force of law (Halakah).  The Practices are subject to argument that records majority and minority opinion, but tends to avoid speculative theology.

So, is the devil, or are the devils, real?  I have to say …

I wouldn’t know.

They’re not in my recently-published book, in any case.  I only write about what I do know.

But if, as a thought experiment say, I were a devil, and wanted to put Abigail out of the action, I could hardly do better than to dishearten her long quest for competence in strolling and, at the same time, her institutional link to her all-too-beleaguered people.  Both mischances undermine

the place to stand and

feet with which to stand on that place.

I don’t know if there’s a real devil or not.  But sometimes it helps to assume there is one –

the better to rally one’s forces

to beat the devil down.

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I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Illustration Edward A. Wilson

I Was Politically Correct for 15 Minutes

It happened like this.  I was remembering a case I know of, where a young woman, who had her whole life before her, was being forced into the sealed back of a truck.  Uniformed Nazis were turning a hose filled with carbon monoxide into the space where they had confined the young woman and her family.  This occurred in the late 1930’s, the run-up decade before the Holocaust.

As I recalled the incident, I felt myself entering into the mind of that young woman. Nobody could hear her.  Silently, she seemed to be saying,

“I deserve to be heard!”

Editorially, I added my own comment on the sad scene that I was picturing:

Everybody deserves to be heard!”

Curiously, without linkage or transition, this casual editorial comment suddenly changed everything in my worldview: the scenery, the cast of characters, the proportions.  I became what Goethe called a “Beautiful Soul.”  My whole psyche lifted up with pure motives: peaceful, innocent of envy, without violence, acquisitiveness or worldly ambition.  I was a vessel of peace and love, from top to bottom and from edge to edge.

That afternoon, I happened to be due for a manicure at a local salon where television plays on a large silent screen.  This entertains the bored clientele.  In honor of Veterans Day, the big screen was showing a news program with children inviting veterans to visit their school.  I noticed that I no longer associated these frail oldsters with sacrifice for their country – a sacrifice that tragically included incurring guilt while under arms.  Instead, I now viewed them as eager volunteers for acts of the most sordid violence.  I hated and feared them, separately and together.

“Ugh!  What ugly brutes!” I thought, as I watched the ancient veterans genially greeting the schoolchildren.

Driving home, I turned on Willie Nelson’s “Road House,” which plays country songs from an earlier era, songs that tell local stories about real people and still have simple tunes with fiddle and guitar.

“Ugh!” I thought, as I listened to Hank Williams singing ‘Cold Cold Heart,’  “Rednecks getting set to round up a lynch mob!”

Hmm, I thought.  For Abigail to hate country music is a brand new mindset!  Let me scan the wider landscape and see how the rest of the world looks to me now.

Sure enough, the world’s peoples were differently arranged.  On the one side, I saw the seried ranks of oppressed people, like a single high human cliff, joined in their collective victimization.

On the opposing side, Europe and its heirs: arrogant, stupid, self-deceived and cruel.  Worthless! — they all looked to me now.  I hated them.

Then, as suddenly, it was over.  I flipped back again.  How did that happen?  A memory came to my rescue.  It was years ago.  I was attending a Mozart concert in Salzburg, Austria with Anna, my philosopher friend with whom I’d been hitching through Europe.  At the performance, there were truths we held to be self-evident:

Mozart

deserved to be heard.

The old lady in the seat next to ours,

squeaking her chair to interfere with the concert,

had less right to be heard.

Neither oppressed nor oppressors are a uniform bloc.  It doesn’t line up like that.  How does it line up?  You need to examine the particulars.  The devil and the better angels are in the details.

For the last ten days, Jerry and I have been away, partly to get me another round of neuropathy treatments, partly to attend meetings of religionists where Jerry has had panels to chair.  I supposed that the attendees included some Beautiful Souls as well.  Perhaps their epiphanies might be lasting longer than mine did. Whether or not this was so, the meetings were not about concerns particular and private to me.

However, “Dear Abbie” is a different forum, where my private concerns can be mentioned.  Privately, I imagined that, were the embattled State of Israel to be annihilated, many current religionists would think,

“They had it coming!”

They would not say it, of course.  But they would think it.  The Beautiful Jews, if any were around, would think it.  And the Beautiful Gentiles would think it too.  With the following justification:

“The State of Israel extends over Occupied land.”

As if the nations that the Beautiful People come from aren’t on territory Occupied against the wishes of predecessors who were, at some point, displaced by the regimes currently governing those nations!

As if the West Bank of the Jordan River wasn’t Occupied by the State of Jordan between 1948 and 1967!  As if Great Britain didn’t Occupy the land between the inauguration of its Mandate after World War I and Britain’s transfer of its Mandate to the United Nations in 1947!  As if the Ottoman Turks didn’t Occupy the land for the 300 years previous to World War I!

As if the Bible, drawn on for spiritual nourishment by religionists the world over, doesn’t explicitly state that the Promised Land had previous inhabitants: the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Canaanites, the Amalekites, etc. etc. and the famous Philistines – who had themselves crossed the sea from Greece to Occupy the Mediterranean coast, no doubt at the expense of previous coastal peoples.

Why then this pious readiness to say, “the Jews had it coming”?  Why this purportedly moral outrage, so extreme that it actually is capable of legitimating the next Holocaust?

If I wept all the tears that are in me for a thousand years, believe me, it would not be for me alone.  It would also be for the Beautiful Souls who think this is okay.  Why do they think that?  Because the alternative is, for Beautiful Souls, utterly unthinkable.  What alternative would that be?

Just this: If there ever was a God of Israel … or a covenant between Israel and its God, there is one still!

That’s the one utterance that must never

            never

                        never

                                        never

                                                                  be heard!

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A Rich and Novel Treatment of an All-important Subject!

A Rich and Novel Treatment of an All-important Subject!

Amazon Customer Review of Abigail L Rosenthal’s  A Good Look at Evil. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2018.

By Jonathan Weidenbaum, Ph.D., School of Liberal Arts, Berkeley College, NYC

I first received this book in the expectation of procuring some insight into the nature of evil. What I gained was certainly this, but far more.

A Good Look at Evil begins with a unique take on the ethical life as the realization of one’s ideal story, and evil as the destruction of this process either within oneself or in others. In unpacking these deceptively simple definitions, Rosenthal offers a wealth of ideas which may serve to deepen and transform our grasp of human nature. Here, for instance, one finds keen profiles of unsavory figures like the seducer and the sell-out—depictions on par with the best philosophical novels. Here is also a merciless dissection of Hannah Arendt in light of new evidence concerning the Eichmann trial and her relationship to Martin Heidegger. Here is a penetrating study of the different kinds of personalities and motives behind genocide.

Chapters such as “Thinking like a Nazi” can compete with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew for recognition as among the greatest phenomenologies of self-deception and the genesis of the bigoted mind. All throughout, Rosenthal engages with a host of authors both classic and contemporary. She explores topics which connect philosophy with anthropology, history, and even theology.

Rosenthal’s concept of God as a co-author of our life-narrative merits some future exploration, and may yet have some impact on the philosophy of religion. The sheer originality of this book make it a pleasure to read, and my grasp of the range and phenomena of evil have advanced considerably after having completed it. This is no small claim, given that I have been teaching courses in both theoretical and applied ethics for close to twenty years.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the perennial questions of right and wrong—indeed for any intellectually curious and morally serious person.

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Economic Life

“Landscape with The Fall of Icarus”
Joos de Momper, c 1565

Economic Life 

I suppose that people’s political differences turn on their differing solutions to the problem of economic life.

What problem would that be?

Oh, let’s say the human species has its overall metabolism: its ways of handling the inflow and outgo of whatever sustains us in life.  So of course differences about how to sustain us in our lives would be highly consequential.

About economic theory, I do not pretend to have a clue.  Two stories always come to mind when the talk turns that way.  One is about our family friend Leo Bronstein, celebrated teacher and thinker about art.  The other concerns Soren Kierkegaard, who thought deeply and is considered the 19th-century forerunner of existentialism.

When Leo was a young man in Paris, stranded without a ruble by the Russian Revolution and burdened with the same birth name as that of the communist leader Leon Trotsky, he had enough francs in his pocket either to eat for a week or to purchase a prime seat at a concert.  Of course, to continue being Leo, he chose the latter.  This hungry-looking lad was noticed by a Spanish gentleman in the next seat.  At Intermission, they began to chat.  The Spanish gentleman became his patron, guiding him up the ladder of higher degrees in Paris and taking him home to Catalonia for summer vacations with his family.

About Kierkegaard, the story I read was somewhat similar.  To sustain the inflow and outflow of his remarkable philosophico/theological talent, he kept up a bachelor’s life of fine restaurants and private equipage of horse and carriage, as long as he could.  When he no longer could, he died shortly thereafter.

I don’t have an economic theory, but I think

it’s good to remain yourself,

as long as you can.

Speaking of transformations and staying who one is, from time to time I go back to a book by the historian Norman Stone with the title, Europe Transformed 1878-1919.  It tells the most remarkable story.  Up to the last third of the 19th century, illiteracy and hunger were widespread, almost the norm, in the populations of Europe.  Then, with breathtaking rapidity, railroads and public education changed everything.  Produce could be brought cheaply from far-off places and carried by train.  And the children of the poor learned to read.

Great news, right?  Well, yes and no.  As food prices fell, farmers were undersold and could no longer make ends meet.  So they left their farms on whatever terms they could get and went to the city.  When the farmers left, the blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, shoemakers and owners of general stores folded too.  The countryside was denuded.

The same thing happened here in the USA.  Jerry and I visited Turkey, Texas, the town where he was born.  When Jerry told his father about the visit, L.B. commented:

“Has it blown away yet?”

Yeah.  Pretty much.  Everyone who’s got wheels has moved to Lubbock.  The big city.  We would’ve done it too, had we not started out on higher ground.

Every technological advance raises the question anew: How much real work is to be found in the big city?  And how much make-work?  Jobs created to siphon off discontent and wounded pride?  Fodder for the demagogues in every age and clime.

The solutions that call in the government carry their price in top-down constraints on the normal freedoms of everyday people.  Jerry’s cousin Margaret lives in Lubbock.  She and her husband used to go out on weekends to serve free homemade chili to the homeless.  The city got wind of it and shut them down, of course.

On the other hand, the free market has its own towering costs.  My old neighborhood in Manhattan used to include foreign enclaves with their distinctive restaurants, music and languages: Italian, German, Mexican, Hungarian and the poor of every land.  They were protected by the Third Avenue El that roared through, shaking the tenements and making neighborhood life undesirable for the rich.  Now the El has been torn down, rent-controlled housing is no longer in the landlords’ interest, and foreign wealth is buying the real estate at top dollar.

Nobody who doesn’t already live there can afford to move to the upper east side of Manhattan.  As for the rich who can afford it – and moved there partly to get the urban life we old renters took for granted – all I can say is,

“There goes the neighborhood.”

So what’s it all about, economic life?  People will kill and die for their economic theories, but the theories never quite square with the way things are – behind the theorizing.

You’ve got a theory?  Good for you.  I hope you can find somebody to pay you to expound it safely.

Let me give it a go.

Abbie’s Economic Theory:

The goal of economic life is to make at least possible

a man or a woman who can live out his or her story 

without having to lie too much –

just to survive.  

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The Horse Knows

Photo by Joan Summers

The Horse Knows

As a child, I regarded animals as people. Particularly large animals, like the big dog that followed me around when we were at Hilltop, the bungalow colony in New Jersey where my family spent summers. They looked different from human people, maybe, but children don’t make a federal case out of that.

I didn’t ask myself what a dog’s sensory receptors could take in that mine could not, nor what I could do better than the dog could. I didn’t wonder about the dog’s cognitive abilities. The dog was just one of the people you met when you were out of doors.

There was a cat that sat on the landlady’s porch. I would pet her seemingly without end. I didn’t ask myself whether the cat was bored or how she felt about me.

Animal relations were not problematic.

When I was ten, my illustrated edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book was one of my favorite books. Its hero is Mowgli, the boy who was raised by the wolves. Mowgli has good relations with friends of varied species. They teach him many things good to know: to hunt, to deal with enemies, to be a loyal ally.

How to cry is the one thing they did not teach him. When he has to leave the jungle, he asks his animal friends what’s happening to him, what’s wrong? He should not worry, they explain.

“These are only tears, such as men use.”

When you are growing up, you learn more about such tears. You learn that animals talk only in illustrated children’s books, not in real life. I had resolved not to grow up. I thought grownups were oversized and insincere. But sometimes, you don’t get a choice.

Recently, what with Jerry’s weeks of gradual recovery from his all-too-serious surgery, I told one of his nurses about my own caregiver’s symptoms. She thought I should have a stress test and an EKG.

Turns out it was “only” stress. My heart’s fine. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that my coping stratagems were not fully adequate for the current situation. I would need something more.

Facebook had an advertisement for something called Equine Gestalt Coaching Method. I consider horses to be good for you, with or without the “Gestalt” part. But I hadn’t found any safe way of being around them since I was last in the saddle. I was thrown at a run and really can’t count on falling so well next time. Anyway, the Coach is Joan Summers, so I called her.

Joan said her treatment doesn’t involve riding. You get in an arena with her and the horse. The horse wears no halter. Then something or other happens. I didn’t ask what.

When I arrived, I was introduced to Star, the four-legged coach. With Star looking on, I described, to Joan and the owner of the stable, my previous riding experience, which had ended so woefully. On impulse, I looked suddenly at Star.

“Did she understand what I said?”

“She understood every word.”

There are, the two women explained, energies behind every spoken word. Star was a lead mare, thus responsible for the safety of the herd. So she is precision-tuned to the energies of sound. She might not have gotten the words, but she got the point.

To me, this idea was extremely exciting. This was not just kid stuff. Mowgli was right!

Joan and I entered the arena with Star and began to discuss my sense of who and what I was – who and what I am. Every time I would say something just because I thought I was expected to say it, the horse would knock over chairs, buck or even sit down on the soft turf of the arena. Or she would just trot off by herself till I stopped messing around.

In marked contrast, anything I said that I could entirely vouch for would elicit a relaxed, alert stance. She would come right over to where I was, ears listening, head high, posture elegant and collected.

Well I’ll be!

The horse knows the truth!

Do you know what that means, for a philosophy teacher – or for any of us? It means, there IS truth! And that, deep down, we know it!

So the relativism, the skepticism, the cynicism, the various super-educated, soul-deadening layers of denial … are false. If the horse can tell –

crap from clay —

deception and self-deception from integrity –

so can we all!

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What About the Jews?

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

What About the Jews?

Over yesterday and today has hung the heavy cloud of the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue.

The feelings that settled over me immediately were desolation and isolation.  Plus a welling up of the fright and sense of hopelessness that hovers, always, along the sides of The Well of Time.

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, his novelization of the Book of Genesis, begins,

Very deep is the well of time.

What does that say to me?  There is expectancy.  A story will unfold in time.  It will, because it already has.  There is no danger that the story can be lost, misremembered, or misunderstood.  It’s the story that discloses itself simultaneously with its divinely shaped meanings.  One is safe.  One is within the Ur Story, the tale of human relations with the God who has person-to-person relationships.  There is no way to fall out of it – this well of time.

So, a deranged shooter comes in from a side door and sprays the still-living players with his loaded weapon and rallying cry, “Death to all Jews!”

Why?  Well, I’m no psychologist but I tend to think we are what we believe.  It seems he shares the basic belief of the anti-semite about “the Jews”: that they are a uniform entity, powered by a single, undivided will, able to reach into every corner of this planet, to help itself at the cost of harming every human being and every good thing.

When you think of it, the anti-semite’s belief pays a sort of inverted tribute to the claim God makes for the descendants of Father Abraham:

In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

It’s God’s very promise to the Jews, only with the word “cursed” put in place of “blessed.”

So the rather special, set-apart status of the Jews is acknowledged by the anti-semite, in a manner of speaking, more than by people who don’t seem to suffer from the morbid syndrome I call “Jews-on-the-brain.”

The Bible records, and everyday experience confirms, that Jews don’t all think alike, don’t all will the same things, and don’t act as a single, united force in the world.  Since not every anti-semite is stupid, surely many of the bright ones would have noticed this fact.  Why then is their hypothesis not refuted by these counter-examples?

You might say, well, that’s the nature of prejudice.  It is resistant to empirical evidence when the evidence does not confirm its outlook.  Yeah but such resistance is not confined to bigots.  We’re all resistant to anomalies that might tend to undermine our worldviews.  If we weren’t, we’d be changing our worldviews twice a day at least.  We give up our beliefs only reluctantly, over time, when reality finally compels us to let go of them.

Yet anti-semitism has a strange, more-than-ordinary resistance to reality.  If one form of it goes out of style, the syndrome reappears, reenergized and decked out in a brand new disguise.

The Jews are the marker left

 by God’s dealings with humanity. 

Nobody knows what to do about that historical fact.  Is the sincere anti-semite trying to erase that marker?

Yes.

He’s a very sincere fellow.

You’ve got to give him that.

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