Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

One of our back-to-back appointments here in California was cancelled, freeing the Saturday afternoon hours, so we decided to go see “Wonder Woman,” a great hero of my childhood now back in living cinematic color.

The Israeli girl they found to play her looks absolutely fabulous. Not muscle bound (“overtrained” they call it in Israel) but agile as service in the IDF renders you, the martial athleticism and stunning good looks are not artificially combined in this instance. The computer magic that extends her native powers blends seamlessly with what the real woman can do. The script is tight and the dialogue often amusing. Though the setting is World War I, the pacing is very much of the present hour.

There was a move to ban the film in Lebanon (on account of the Israeli actress) which I believe was unsuccessful. So it’s showing now all round the planet.

Which is interesting because – am I the only one who has caught this? – it’s a cinematic expression of Jewish theological assumptions about good and evil as well as Jewish experience of these realities.

For example:

  • The terrible weapon that Wonder Woman battles to overcome is partly exported from the Caliphate in Ottoman Turkey. Of course, those jihadis whose aim is a revived global caliphate are also dedicated enemies to Jewish political independence.
  • The world’s most terrible weapon exudes poison gas, surely a reference to Zyklon B, the gas that was used to murder Jews en masse in the Nazi era.
  • The mistaken approach to the combat turns out to involve laying down arms and entering a negotiation with an enemy whose will-to-kill is entirely active, uncured and dangerous as ever.
  • Appeasement of this kind is finally unmasked as evil’s handiest instrument.
  • The dreams of prelapsarian and post-apocalyptic innocence — where the devil is conceived as a being external to our human condition — are alike exposed as escapist fantasies.
  • All of us have a good and an evil impulse and we have to do the best we can with the real people that we are.

And, as the original Wonder Woman used to say to her acolytes in my childhood:

You can do if you think you can, girls!

Posted in Action, beauty, Biblical God, Childhood, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, Erotic Life, Evil, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Gender Balance, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Identity, Jews, Judaism, life and death struggle, Love, Masculinity, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Past and Future, Peace, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, Power, presence, relationships, Roles, Romance, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Memoirs, True or False?

“Kierkegaard Training a Girl”
From the Danish satirical weekly, The Corsair
1845-1846

Memoirs, True or False?

Readers of this column are reminded from time to time that I recently finished a memoir, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, and am looking round the publishing business to see if any editor/publisher will put up the money and the backing necessary to get it published in the right way. I’m reminded of the time I watched a newly-built boat being slid down the ramp and floated out onto the bay. Nice work if you can get it!

Meanwhile, maybe not coincidentally, I’m reading biographies of two well-known people whose first-person memoirs I have read previously.

The first was mentioned in last week’s column: Kierkegaard’s Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen by Joakim Garff. I haven’t read Regine’s memoir, nobody has. She didn’t write one. But her biographer covers experiences that Kierkegaard, the fiancé who jilted her, wrote about in partly autobiographical work that is studied in philosophy and theology departments and widely read even outside academic precincts. Kierkegaard’s discussion of the attractions of the seducer, of life at the ethical level, and of spiritual life left a profound imprint on me when I first read it as a young graduate student.

The other biography I’m reading is The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natalie Robins. Diana Trilling was a public intellectual and critic, married to Lionel Trilling, Professor of English at Columbia University, a respected literary critic and opinion shaper. I’ve previously read her memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling.  

Diana Trilling’s memoir contains 13 indexed references to my parents, all unflattering. My father and Lionel Trilling were the closest of friends at Columbia College and for some years thereafter, though their friendship ended at my father’s initiative. The biography I’m reading now has a cast of characters that includes people I knew and challenges they faced with which I’m personally familiar.

All very interesting, no? So what could go wrong? Aren’t these opportunities to recoup lost time — whether the time of past experiences that formed the family that formed me — or of the past time of reading philosophical and spiritual works that went into my formation on those levels?

Full disclosure: I read stuff about the Trillings mostly to see if they contain any more defamations of my parents. I can’t stop ‘em, of course; I’m not the king. But I think I should know about them and be aware of the shadow they can cast.

In the case of the present biography of Diana Trilling, the author performs somersaults of tact, even to the point of changing the past. For example: in Diana’s memoir, the Trillings accompanied my father to the pier to see my mother off for her treatment in Switzerland for TB. When my father rejoined them after his private farewell and noticed Diana’s tears, he said to her dryly, “I didn’t know you could cry.” The biographer has lifted my father’s rather cool remark to the wife of his best friend and made it into an apology for a different incident.   In the context where the biographer now puts his remark, my father and Lionel criticize Diana’s writing in a way that reduces her to tears and my father says to her penitently, “I didn’t know you would cry.” Both of these incidents are first recorded in Diana’s own memoir, but they sound a lot nicer as the biographer retells them now. So I’d like to thank Natalie Robins for her tactful softenings of the written record, but it might be hard to do that without offending her.

With Kierkegaard, it’s a different matter. I didn’t know any of these people. I don’t know any Danes, much less 19th-century Danes. They sound perfectly recognizable as human characters but I don’t have a dog in their fights.

Or do I? Kierkegaard makes a case for something he terms “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” He means that a spiritual summons can override morality – morality, not just social convention! The example he famously gives is the akedah, the binding of Isaac, God’s command to Abraham to take “thine only son whom thou lovest” and sacrifice him. Abraham’s obedience would be the limiting case of the believer’s submission to the divine decree.

Atheists cite it to show what’s wrong with religion. Believers handle it in other ways. When I was a child, I asked my mother, “Would Daddy sacrifice me if God told him to?” “No,” my mother answered promptly. She didn’t have a degree in psychology from the University of Lausanne for nothing. “Would grandpa?” Grandpa was an eminent rabbi. “Yes, grandpa would.” Since that preserved the principle of obedience but put me out of immediate danger, I never bothered my head about it again.

For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s deep trust that God would make it come out right somehow – while avoiding any shallow certainties-in-advance about what God would do – is the model he limns.

Anyway, for Kierkegaard the real model case was his breaking off his engagement with Regine Olsen because the higher summons to follow his spiritual calling overrode “the ethical level.” Furthermore, on Kierkegaard’s account, he was grateful to Regine when he learned that she had gotten engaged to another man, because, by this “generous” act, she had cleared him of having done her any permanent injury.

It’s a peculiar story, but it seemed to have its own painful plausibility. Generations of students of philosophy and theology have drunk deep from this Kierkegaardian flagon.

Now I learn that this isn’t quite what happened. First of all, his journal records that he wasn’t at all “grateful” to learn of Regine’s new engagement. He’d finally worked through his inhibitions and returned to Copenhagen hoping to renew his suit. He was enraged. He “hoped she’d be recognizable by a black tooth but be green all over her face.” Far from renouncing his early love gracefully, he wrote about her again and again — without the name but everyone knew who he meant. When he died in 1855, fourteen years after the engagement was broken off by him, he made Regine (now Mrs. Regine Schlegel) his heir and trustee, writing as follows: “What I wish to express is that for me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is to revert to her in exactly the same manner as if I had been married to her.”

Of course, on these terms she had to refuse the bequest, which would have made her and her husband bigamists! In this “suspension of the ethical,” there is no discernible higher purpose. Only a stubborn, ego-driven self-will. Here Kierkegaard obeys nobody but Kierkegaard.

Does this truth-behind-the-mask change anything for the philosophical reader? I can’t speak for anybody else, but I take philosophy very seriously. I’ll tell you what it changes for me.

If Kierkegaard’s model was his own case, it leads me to question the concept he drew out of it. Perhaps the cases where it looks as if ethical considerations are being set aside because of overriding spiritual demands have been misconceived. Maybe what is really going on is a conflict of duties, where both demands are compelling but only one satisfies spiritual requirements as well. In that case, a believer will follow the duty with the spiritual component, but that doesn’t mean that the whole realm of duty has been set aside!

Back to the real Kierkegaard. If initially he felt that he couldn’t live in intimacy with a woman, that’s what he should have told her. It was a neurotic suspension of the ethical, not a “teleological” one. Perhaps she could have won him over, coaxed him to try the tests of married life, perhaps not. But at least she would have understood what happened. She would not have allowed him to freeze her into an ideal, of the past or the future, one that couldn’t be lived within the present.

I’ve come to a revised view of Kierkegaard’s idealization of Regine.

It was spiritual seduction. 

It was a contemptible lie.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Law, Legal Responsibility, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, 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, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Woman on the Pedestal

Soren Kierkegaard, sketch by Niels Kierkegaard,1840
 Regine Olson, painting by Emil Baerentzen, 1840

The Woman on the Pedestal

I’m pretty near the end of Pamela, the novel about the heroine whose virtue gets rewarded that I cited last week. How does she manage to hold on to her “treasure”? (It really is, since once “fallen,” she’ll be pregnant and nobody in the whole 18th century will offer her shelter. By shelter, I don’t just mean social protection. I mean a place to come in from the rain!) For hundreds of pages, she flees one threat after another and hats off to her! Although a girl without social status, Pamela is never confused by the wiles, manipulative insinuations, threats, insults, and near-violence of her “fine gentleman” pursuer. With praeternatural insight, she sees how he risks his own soul every time he menaces her innocence.

For his sake as well as her own, she wants to reform him and her resistance has such a stunning effect on his villainous intentions that he experiences a complete turnaround. He comes to share her high ideals, to love her devotedly and ultimately they marry. Thus he raises her socially while she lifts him up spiritually. (If you can read about this without a little sigh, you’re more liberated than I am.)

What I find striking is that Pamela never loses her presence of mind. In the martial arts of this unequal struggle, she never makes a self-defeating move. Since, in the course of their combat, she comes to be enamored of him, she wins on every front!

Of course, this “virtuous woman” was penned by a man. She knows how to shift back and forth between female wiles and unisex intellectual weaponry. In the real life cases of serving girls pursued by the squire they work for, the underling’s victory is doubtful. Effective simultaneous use of the weaponry from yin and from yang is rare. Some women in her shoes might bring it off but I doubt that I could.

The fact that no higher-ranking professor ever backed me into that precise corner (“be nice to me or I’ll ruin your career”) as I climbed laboriously up the academic ladder, is no evidence that I shared Pamela’s achievements in the “virtue” competition. Advances from powerful men in the field probably would have seemed incestuous to me because my father was also a philosopher. So, subliminally I may have been signaling that I was not that kind of victim. It doesn’t mean I was cannier or purer than other women who were coercively approached. Factors may enter here that have little to do with skill or merit.

A different book arrived via Fedex today: Kierkegaard’s Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen. In case you don’t know the name of Regine Olsen, she’s the girl whom the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard jilted, and of whom he famously said:

“I shall take her with me into history.”

He meant take her image into the history books, not herself into real history. Kierkegaard is one of the important and original philosophers — a herald and forerunner of what, a century later, would be called “existentialism.” He is not just studied in classrooms. He is really read by philosophers, theologians, and seekers who gain insights from him about how to relate to God and how to achieve personal authenticity. And yet, for Kierkegaard, unethically breaking it off with his fiancée made everything possible in his work, even as he continued to love and idealize her. Everyone who knows Kierkegaard knows about Regine.

Rightly or wrongly, Kierkegaard felt that he could not make her the right kind of flesh-and-blood husband. He recognized that renouncing their engagement after capturing her heart was scandalous socially and wrong ethically. Yet he felt spiritually summoned to do it. Having broken all the rules of life in 19th-century Denmark, and broken a good girl’s heart, he went ahead to open the possibility for his readers that the spiritual life might at certain times become ethically indefensible yet higher in the God’s eye view.

Like many philosophy students, I’ve read with fascination Kierkegaard’s versions of what happened between him and Regine when he vowed to leave the real girl behind but take her memory with him “into history.” But what was it for her?

It was, so far as I can tell, her utter undoing — though she did manage to get engaged to another man and to marry him — much to the relief of Kierkegaard who took it as her act of personal generosity toward him. (By marrying, she lifted the onus of what he had done to her.) Her personal papers, reviewed in this new biography, reveal that she never detached her mind from the man who had loved and jilted her, though she survived him by fifty years! The life of a woman whom a man hasn’t scrupled to freeze into his inspiration – when he was unprepared to live their joint story together – what is it? What can it be? A frozen life, one that dare not step forward enough to outlive the moment when she became his ideal.

Are these illustrative cases, the fictional Pamela’s and the historical Regine’s, dated? Are they figures of yesterday or the day before yesterday? Maybe, but offhand I can think of a number of women, some of them in the forefront of the feminist movement, who became the better angels of men who betrayed or disappointed them profoundly.

In public, many feminists repudiate the whole structure: the pedestal and the woman trying to stand on it. I don’t. One can go too far in the other direction and profane one’s image to avoid the traps of idealization. I would be very careful here. Cattiness and rivalry haven’t disappeared with feminism, only acquired new masks. When invited by another woman to tarnish your image — because idealizations are so yesterday – look around first to see if there’s anything she might want for which you’d become less eligible if your image were tarnished. Tread carefully. The world of women is a subtle world. Beware of the Big Simplifications.

What’s the middle way, between the extremes?

Take your beloved with you into history.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, Chivalry, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, nineteenth-century, non-violence, novels, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, 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, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is Virtue Rewarded?

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
1820

Is Virtue Rewarded?

The other day, Jerry brought me a book for nighttime reading titled Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. It’s an 18th century classic by Samuel Richardson but that’s not why he gave it to me. He knows I like happy endings and figured, with this book, the happy ending is already guaranteed in the title! With 160 pages read so far, I’ve got about 343 pages to go before we get to the happy part and, meantime, the perils to which our heroine’s virtue is exposed leave me beside myself with worry by the time we turn lights out.

Is a woman’s virtue rewarded? And, by the way, what do we mean by woman’s virtue nowadays?

At the hairdresser’s recently, I told Jennifer Kelly, my great “hairapist,” that I was getting bored to tears by magazines about hair, and did she have any gossip mags? She brought me Glamour, which seemed to have the right mix of cosmetic advice, human interest stories of great-looking celebrities struggling bravely with fatal illnesses, and cheap-at-the-price therapy for today’s woman.

I was curious to read the therapy article, which happened to be about sex. As I expected, it told women to be their authentic selves in this department too, not just slavishly to keep up with the Joneses.

So far so good. It turns out that the Joneses (i.e. the other girls) are doing stuff that calls for whips and chains. The writer of the article kindly assures her readers that — if they want what the writer terms “vanilla sex” — they should have the courage to follow their star all the way to vanilla.

Holy moly!

Whips and chains?

Porn is the new normal? What wrong with this picture?

The philosopher of art Leo Bronstein used to say, “For young people, never an idea without sex; never sex without an idea.” If Leo was right, what idea is being expressed here in Glamour magazine?

Oh by the way, let’s forget about whether Abbie is “uptight.” I believe that question was better framed by the boys who used to ask, in my dating days,

“Whassa matter? Yah frigid?”

To which the right answer (if I could have thought of it then) would have been:

Only for you and your boorish classmates – buster!”

I suppose that we can shrug off that time-worn, manipulative manner of stifling thought in a woman, even when it comes disguised as stylishly “contemporary.”

Back to my earlier question: what’s wrong with this picture, the one with the whips and chains?

Whips and chains, ladies, are not romantic. Romantic is … who is she? — that unforgettable mystery lady who embodies fulfillment – in this world and beyond the world?   Romantic is the knight’s persistent purpose to become worthy of this ideality shimmering in loveliness. Romantic is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Romantic is Dante’s Beatrice. Romantic is not whips and chains.

What are they trying to tell us about ourselves with this whips and chains business?

First, that we are too boring to excite interest as who we are. We need help from the Marquis de Sade. Help from the pathetic marquis? Have you read about his actual life story? He can’t help anybody, believe me.

Second, the message is, we should have “the courage” to smash bourgeois values. Courage? How much courage does it take? From what I read in Glamour, it looks like it’ll take more courage to fend off the long-distance, vicarious attempts from the sad marquis.

Okay, so de Sade himself wasn’t so happy. Maybe that’s irrelevant. Why are we being asked to follow in his footsteps by smashing the bourgeois norms? What’s the specific way it’ll make the world better or make our particular lives better?

Well (we are now being briefed to believe) in the midst of a panoramic struggle between the Oppressed and the Oppressors. And the Oppressor is loaded with bourgeois values that we have to oppose.

Right. And the Oppressor has great teeth. Does that mean we should never see a dentist? Would our cavities undercut his values? Or erode his teeth? Help me out here. I am getting dizzy.

Well, to put matters more simply still, won’t the boys (and the girls) not like me if I don’t at least pretend to epater le bourgeois (to shock the holder of middle class values)?

In this column, we are committed to avoid giving advice. I won’t say anything about how to solve your problems. My personal advice and a token can just about get you a ride on the Lexington Avenue subway. However, I do have one tip, which could be of generic use.

It belongs to the feminine element in the world to want to be pleasing and attractive. There are many paths to this desideratum but none of them involve following the latest fad blindly. Do that and you’re letting yourself be pushed around. That’s not attractive.

In the early days of the women’s movement, directives would be issued coming from self-appointed spokespersons for official feminism. Like other women who were fervent for their own liberation, I would be keen to pick up every pronouncement from these newly empowered sources. Some were truly helpful and well motivated. Some were just the old cattiness or bullying behind the new pretext. After a while I learned to tell the difference. When I came across the catty or bullying directives, my comment would be:

If I want to be pushed around

I can find a man to do it.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Journalism, Legal Responsibility, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, master/slave relation, Medieval, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, novels, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Renaissance, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, 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, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Chosen People?

“La Mariee”

Marc Chagall, 1950

A Chosen People?

These days I have been reading a splendid book in draft by a British analytic philosopher showing the fallacies that make up the new anti-semitism. He shares the broadly secular worldview of those he opposes, which is important if you want to convince people on their own terms.

Dreams are funny things. Last night I had a dream that was, once I began to decode it, not “funny” in the sense of strange. It was hilarious. As I tried to describe it to Jerry at breakfast, I was laughing so hard it was a while before I could talk.

The late Michael Wyschogrod appeared, with a speaking part in the dream. Wyschogrod had been a philosophic colleague and friend. He also happened to be an important theologian with an influence on Christian as well as Jewish thinkers. In my dream, a group approached Michael for political advice and received the following counsel:

“We should abolish Florida!”

As I started to tell Jerry the dream, the last meeting I’d had with Michael came back to me. I’d asked Michael whether he agreed with the rabbis who held that prophecy had died out of Israel — meaning I suppose that God no longer communicates with people in a direct and unfiltered way.

Michael answered me with a question: “Do you mean, ‘has God retired and gone to Florida?’” It was funny and Zen-like. He was showing me the improbability of God’s deciding no longer to be a Player on the real stage of the world.

Shaking with laughter, I now saw what my dream meant. It pertained to the book about anti-semitism that I’m now reading. “Florida” stands for God-in-retirement, or the secular standpoint. The dream was telling me to get rid of that standpoint. What’s missing in the book I’m reading is the God who’s still a Player.

With impeccable intelligence, the author of this book examines every secular explanation for anti-semitism. It’s commonly said, for example, that Jews are hated because they are “different,” “outsiders,” “scapegoats,” “successful,” “communists,” “capitalists,“ “cosmopolitans,“ ”nationalists,” and so on and on.

None of it accounts for anti-semitism: a weird, shape-changing, bitterly burning and explosive entity that takes every imaginable form and doesn’t go away. My explanation is simpler and covers all the cases.

They are hated because God chose them.

Don’t I mean, they are hated because they mistakenly believe God chose them?

Nope. If people thought God hadn’t chosen them, no one would give a damn what they believed. Who cares if so-and-so thinks he’s terrific when he’s not? We pity the guy who thinks he can fly and jumps out the window. We certainly don’t hate him with a deathless intensity. Jews are hated because people think God really did choose them.

One of the first Europeans to write a literary work in which a Jew appears as a character who is actually a good man was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He wrote “Nathan the Wise”(1779) and was much criticized for writing that play. (How could a Jew be a good man?) There is an opening scene where a handsome youth saves a pretty Jewish maiden from a fire. When he first meets Nathan, her grateful father, invective pours from him – chiefly the accusation that Nathan is a member of ‘the chosen people.’ Nathan hasn’t said a blessed thing about being chosen. So why is it the first thing the Christian youth thinks of in a context where it’s perfectly irrelevant?

In the time of my first marriage, my then husband had the visit of a collegial friend. He and his wife arrived as guests in the house in Maine that I had inherited. My husband’s colleague astonished me by entering my mother’s home with a volley of remarks nasty toward “Jews” (that is, to me, a real person, not a character in a book he had evidently been reading by Nietzsche). At that time, I had the belief, which I shared with other liberals, that all human discord arises out of some “misunderstanding.” So I kept trying patiently to get to the bottom of his incivility. What was driving him? Why couldn’t he get his mind off Jews? Finally, it burst out of him like steam out of a pressure cooker. “It’s the chosen people!” Just then, my maladroit former husband cut off the discussion. Otherwise I would have wanted to ask him what he meant by that.

I was in Sydney when the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon was widely reported in the Australian press. Although the murderers were not Israelis, the Israel military command had jurisdiction in the area and the commander was later found guilty of culpable negligence by an Israeli Commission of Inquiry. A quarter of the population of Israel was in the street protesting what had happened. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “for a week, no one smiled.” Meanwhile, in a leading Sydney paper, a cartoon was prominently featured showing a bearded God telling a character representing the generic “Jew” that, as of now, the chosen peoplehood (it was some kind of a crown) was being removed.

The Australia I knew was a highly secular society. In the 18th century, the first church to be built there was burned down by the convicts. The cartoonist likely did not believe in God, much less a God who had conferred a special relation to Himself on the Jewish people. None of those supporting beliefs were present when he drew his cartoon. Yet, even without them, “chosenness” still rankled.

To my mind, this is what lies at the bottom of the malicious, eliminationist fury that no argument can cure or even touch. The hatred of the Jew is a burning resentment of the God of Israel. It’s at bottom a spiritual condition of a weird and unique kind.

Is there a cure?

Yes!

  • Be able to give a good account of your own life in its one-thing-after-another and one-choice-after-another specificity, as it unfolds in its real time and real places.
  • Make it a true story and as good a story as you can.

If you do that, you will naturally come to read the Bible with understanding and you won’t need to hate Jews.

(In case you wondered, Jews can hate Jews too. This hatred is an equal opportunity employer.)

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Bible, Biblical God, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, Seduction, self-deception, 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, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Jews on the Brain”

From the “Exodus Series Paintings”
by Maria Lago

“Jews on the Brain”

Over time, I have from time to time lost a friend or two – to many forces and factors – but, among them, sudden and insistent incursions of anti-Jewish feeling. Interestingly, I’ve encountered relatively little anti-semitism from strangers.

So the usual diagnosis of “prejudice,” that it is a pre-judgment of the other – whom we do not know and on whom we can therefore project some trait that we’ve repressed in ourselves – that diagnosis has not proved applicable in my experience.   Simply because the people who turned anti-semitic knew me well and loved me with understanding love. How do I know this? I know it the same way anyone knows such things.

I conclude that prejudice against Jews is no ordinary prejudice. What is it, then? As you can imagine, I think a lot (incessantly in fact) so from time to time I’ve come up with some thoughts of my own. But, recently, a writer who is a sort of pen pal, someone for whom I have the highest regard, recommended an unusual book on the topic: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg. Although I’ve read a fair number of weighty tomes on this theme, what Nirenberg has here pulled together, in its detail and overview, seems new to me.

Identified by Nirenberg with “the Western tradition” are cultures whose notion of the divine originates in Hebrew Scripture and Jewish practice. That would take in Christian and Islamic cultures in all their heterogeneity. These cultures have had the double-edged task of hugging the Jewish influence close enough to extract the divine juice from it, but pushing it far enough away to avoid blending into it and thereby ceasing to be what each claims it is: a new revelation.

You might say, “I don’t see a problem. At least in the ideal case, we acknowledge our parents and teachers with reverence and affection. Doing that doesn’t make us feel threatened in our very identity! Why can’t Christianity and Islam do the same? What’s so hard about it?”

Well well well. What’s true “in principle” doesn’t always hold in the push and pull of religious struggles for authority and dominance. What I call “the ideal case” was not found to be politic. Instead, each religious culture and subculture, sect and sub-sect, defined itself by the emphatic proclamation:

I Am Not A Jew.

In the early centuries of Christianity, some patristic writers wanted to ditch Hebrew Scripture altogether. The stories in that scripture occur on the plane of history, where families live, wars are fought and empires rise and fall. Those who wanted to get rid of the “Old Testament” risked confusing the new religion of Jesus with gnostic rejections of the everyday world as metaphysically unreal. On the other side of the dispute, any writer who held out for retaining Hebrew Scripture, in whole or in part, risked being accused of “Judaizing” or actually being a “Jew”!

The term “Jew” was not taken to designate a member of the surviving tribe of Jehudah (into which Benjamin was absorbed when the other tribes were either “lost” or else lost their distinctiveness as political entities).   It was given a particular meaning (not a good one). In Christian polemic, “Jew” stood for “literalism,” “carnality,” “bestiality,” “hypocrisy,” “rigid legalism,” “arrogance” and “pitiless condemnation,” or “murderer of God when he incarnated as a man” and “hater of humanity”!

Heavy heavy,

as we used to say in the counter-culture.

When the European world discovered the uses of modern economic practices, like lending at interest, the law that protected contracts carried with it these fabled dangers of “Judaizing,” which are played out in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”.

Hebrew Scripture does not forbid lending at interest, only lending at exorbitant interest. Most professions were forbidden to Jews, but medieval kings extended special protections to Jewish money-lenders, allowing them to lend at higher rates. That permitted a fine regal division of labor: most of the proceeds raked off by the royal “protectors” and popular resentments kindly allotted to the king’s Jews. Shakespeare’s Jew lived in Venice because, in the playwright’s time, Jews had been long expelled and there were virtually none in England.

The Protestant Reformers championed the authority of Scripture (as opposed to clerical authority). Chairs of Hebrew were established in universities, rabbinic experts were consulted in the work of translation, Hebrew was even considered the ur-language spoken by God in heaven and yet, with a few exceptions, real Jews were still viewed as beneath contempt and the rival readings of Scripture were routinely denounced as Judaizing.

When the philosophers of Enlightenment found that religious hatred could be dissolved in the new solvent of Reason, Jews were still discovered by them to be the people least capable of reason!

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten in Nirenberg’s book. I’ll omit the chapter on Islam, though I did find – when I worked my own way through the Al-Azar-authorized translation of 9 volumes of hadiths – that not once does a Jew appear there as a good guy.

Hell, I like happy endings. Does this story contain one? Oh sure. When the messiah comes, or comes back if you prefer, we’re all gonna go to our happy place. But within the terms of our present discussion? Any happy ending here and now? Let me lay down some postulates that might conceivably help.

  1. Jewish history began as sacred history – and it still is that. Sacred history’s task is to provide a generally useful metric for profane history.
  2. Sacred history puts terrific pressure on the people who live within it. Human nature being what it is, those whose history it is are naturally and continuously tempted to profane it.
  3. With God’s help, some Jews resist this temptation in outstanding measure. Others, not so much.
  4. Bystanders have been, and will be, tempted to cope with the pressure of sacred history by caricaturing, despising and profaning the prototypical case, and the actors in it. They do that because the Jewish actors in it stand in for themselves.
  5. Jews are God’s pilot project, a representative model of what happens – for good or ill – in the divine/human partnership. When they did it — or do it — right, they provide illustrative material for the question, how did they do that? When they get it wrong, for the question, what’s the lesson here?   Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we read the Bible – not to confirm our dogmas – but because real life is still like that.

Does all this mean that (as Jews sometimes complain) they/we are not being treated “normally”? Not being treated the way other men and women are treated?

Yes.

Living in sacred history is — or can be seen to be – the generic human task. If this is the real task of a fully human life, none of us should “normalize” it.

Let’s face it.

Real life ain’t normal.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Medieval, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Renaissance, Roles, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, slave, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Believe You Me”

A detail from “Moses with the Ten Commandments”
Rembrandt, 1659

“Believe You Me”

In “Treachery and Transcendence,” last week’s column, I wrote about the disappointing “new treatment” for my walking handicap. Despite all, I decided to continue it for another week or two, just to see if it could be of some benefit even where I no longer trusted the people administering it. By today, seeing that I was no better than when I’d started (only poorer and out two months of precious time), I realized it was time to quit – the experience was demoralizing me — even before the paid-for sessions had run out.

I woke this morning still riven by thoughts of trying again to “explain” to the facility’s administrators why I could no longer trust them and why I was dropping their treatment.

In meditation, Guidance was cutting. The desire to repair the breach, teach the trespasser, is itself a temptation, it said to me. Evil has magnetic force and the desire to “help” keeps one within its gravitational field. Emmanuel Levinas is rightly admired as a philosopher, but he is mistaken when he makes us all morally responsible for the Other. The Other, like the self, is responsible for herself. Otherwise, freedom stops and instead we’re bound together in a skein woven of the chain links of previous conditions going back and back without end. Nobody can ever be reproached or praised. Everybody can only be “understood” in terms of what was driving her.

Last Saturday, in Torah Study, we read Numbers 16, the chapter where there’s a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. Korah and his faction of 250 Levite elders give voice to the uprising. Why should Moses continue in the leadership as the holiest Israelite? Isn’t the whole community holy? Who made him the CEO of holiness?

In fact, Moses has not claimed to be at all “holy,” much less to outrank anyone else in that respect. At first he does a bit of negotiating with Korah, pointing out that the rebel faction has already been singled out for special responsibilities with regard to the implements of holiness. However, the main thing Moses does is turn the situation over to the God who gave him his original assignment. God then opens a chasm in the earth, which swallows the insurrectionists alive.

End of episode, but not of the discussion, which went round our study circle. Some commented on the phenomenon of spiritual envy, others puzzled over the egalitarian claims. Finally, my turn came.

“When one wants to evaluate a moral dispute,” I said, “it’s useful to see who is lying. For example: Korah asserts that Moses led the Israelites out of a ‘land of milk and honey’ – only to arrive at this dry desert place. But Egypt wasn’t a land of milk and honey. It was the site of bondage and hard task-masters.

“Also,” I went on, “the story of Moses’ leadership didn’t begin that morning. There is a track record: the ten plagues of which he accurately warned Pharaoh, the night of passover, the parting of the sea waters permitting the Israelites safe passage to the other side, the mountain that shook, the ten commandments Moses took down from the mountain, the manna provided … .”

Here the Discussion Leader interrupted me. These things took place, he said, “on Moses’ watch. But who is to say they could not have happened just as much on Korah’s watch?”

“Moses,” I replied, “wasn’t just ‘watching.’ He was not a bystander. He was the active mediator between God and the human scene.”

“Yes,” said the Discussion Leader. “But I’m playing devil’s advocate. I’m trying to see how it looked from Korah’s viewpoint.”

“I’m not here to see it from Korah’s viewpoint! That’s psychology! I’m not here to do psychology! With psychology, there is never any beginning. Everything is a reaction, and the chain of antecedent causes extends indefinitely back in time. With moral evaluation, there is freedom.

“With freedom

The action begins now.”

I spoke with heat, provided perhaps by my recent encounter with the treatment facility whose supervisor had not acknowledged her broken promise. Instead, she had given me a new definition of the word “promise.” In her usage, it designated a commitment that can hold for a week and a half, after which it lapses unless the recipient applies to have it renewed. Absent such a request to keep the promise current, there’s no need to inform the recipient that it’s now null and void.

The supervisor had not been redefining “promise.” She was lying.   How do I know this? Because I paid for the treatment by check in three installments.  A check is a cashable promise. If, after a week and a half, my checks had bounced, no administrator in that facility would have accepted a “redefinition” of my check such that it could bounce unless the facility had asked me to reaffirm its value. Not asked in a week and a half. Not asked ever.

What is a promise? It’s a commitment we truthfully affirm.

Who are we,

what is the space between us worth,

if we cannot be believed?

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, scientism, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, 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, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments