Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime

by David Pryce-Jones

I rode in the limousine with David Pryce-Jones and other speakers going to the conference titled “Is It 1938 Again?” held at Queens College of The City University of New York.  We were among the passengers only because of an old connection to the College President, who in this way kindly enhanced the conference experience for Jerry and me.

Pryce-Jones impressed me as a very interesting guy, exceptionally well-traveled, multi-lingual and thoughtful.

This book is put together on a basis new to me.  It’s a succession of vignettes, or short portraits, of men and women writers whose only common trait is their having autographed Pryce-Jones’s copies of their books.

So Pryce-Jones has made the acquaintance of a great many glittering names and this book could be discounted as an outsized exercise in name-dropping.  Except that each vignette is of someone who strikes a personal balance while standing on a hinge of history.   That’s not common.  I’ll pick out just two examples.

Svetlana Alliluyeva was Stalin’s daughter.  Imagine being Stalin’s daughter!  On the one hand, you love your Daddy.  On the other hand, at least 20 million dead … ?

Svetlana Alliluyeva defected to the West and was the object of much curiosity.  Some time after autographing her book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she accepted an invitation from the Pryce-Joneses to visit them in Wales.  He gives an account of her visit.

While not as paranoid as her father, she did not have a trusting nature.  Though she angrily rejected initial inquiries about her father, in the end she couldn’t stop talking about him.

She was still incensed about the bungling way Stalin was cared for when he was dying.  The old nurse assigned to spoon glucose into his mouth was blind.  Accidentally, she broke the ampoule holding the glucose and so broken glass was added to the stuff she was putting in Stalin’s mouth.

She recalled that her father had very much trusted Hitler and was so shocked when Hitler invaded Russia, breaking the Hitler-Stalin Pact, that he shut himself away for three days.

“Throughout, she talked of him as small, insecure and nervous about his health; his ears hurt in an aeroplane and he didn’t like flying.”

What comes to mind, reading his daughter’s portrayal of Stalin?  The figures who scar the human landscape, sending millions to their death, are human.

Remember that,

the next time you encounter a world-historical monster.

A quite different encounter, with Bernard Berenson, inspires another kind of portrait.  Pryce-Jones was a schoolboy of seventeen at the time of their meeting.

“Until I was in Florence,” he writes, “I had never heard of Berenson, though he was then at the height of his fame.  Every door was open to him.   He had identified great artists, authenticated their works and been involved in the selling of masterpieces to the best collections, in the process of building his own fortune.  His library was one of the finest in Europe, and according to rumor he had read all the books in it.”

There was a time when visits to Berenson would be preserved in photographic articles, in Look or Life Magazine.  He would be shown seated at an elegant garden table on the terrace of his villa, overlooking the terraced Italian landscape, exemplifying the lost art of leisured, contemplative conversation.

“Small, neat and very tidily dressed, he had the sharply defined features of someone accustomed to command.”

Pryce-Jones was asked about his school projects by BB and said that he was thinking of writing an essay about the Dreyfus affair for the Eton College Literary Society.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew and a captain in the French Army who, in 1894, was falsely accused of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s Island.  Though eventually exonerated, and found to have been a victim of evidence fabricated for anti-semitic purposes, his case tore French Society apart.

Berenson was a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  When he heard what the young Pryce-Jones was going to write about, his whole manner changed.

“BB turned red with anger.  He raised his voice.  Everyone else was silent.  … ‘I lived through the affaire, and was in Paris off and on through most of it.  Anti-Semitism was rampant.  Paris was reeking and drenched and soaked with it, and most Academicians and other writers were anti … .  High society was rabidly anti-Jewish.  Never have I encountered such expressions of hatred, of loathing, as I used to hear against Jews from the mouths of Parisians.’ ”

I don’t know what lessons others might draw from this story, but for me the lesson is simple.

No matter what ideal heights you occupy,

no matter what terraced gardens lie beneath you –

in the battle of life,

never think you have risen

above it.

Posted in book reviews, books | 1 Comment

The Old Account Was Settled

Abigail and her father

The Old Account Was Settled

There’s a country gospel song about our debt of sin.  It goes:

The old account was settled long ago.

I’ve been reckoning up accounts that ordinarily get settled in young adulthood, when you figure out what you owe your parents.  And what you owe yourself, if your life is to have its own record to stand on.

In my possession is something an archivist has called “a trove”: the papers that belonged to Henry M. Rosenthal, my father.  They include his journals spanning three decades amidst people who marked American intellectual life from the 1920’s to the mid-1950’s; correspondence that’s sometimes quite dramatic; unpublished MSS, fiction and nonfiction; published essays and reviews; papers relating to his and my mother’s Holocaust rescue work.

In June of 1940, Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and did more than anyone else to make it a crime under international law, wires from Sweden:

“Trying to get some contributions friends. 

Save me.  Wire.  Letters too late.

Faithfully, Lemkin.”

I see the public man.  I see the private man.  Along certain lines, HMR is more achieved, more brilliant than I expected.  Along others,  more frustrated and thwarted than I knew.

People thought the world of him, as this letter from Columbia University philosophy professor Horace L. Friess attests.

“It is rare indeed to find a friend who goes beside one’s spirit with as much of an ideal brotherly quality as Henry does with mine. … But what comes chiefly to mind is this.  There is a gripping sense of work to be done in the world and of the many gifts which it requires, such as fortitude and incorruptibility, understanding, imagination, and detachment, trained skill and perseverance and generous love.”

You don’t find a Columbia academic writing that kind of letter every day.

Even ten years ago, when I was a reasonably well-published philosopher, I would not have been able to come to a balanced assessment of this trove, distinguishing the achieved work from what’s unrealized.  I would’ve been too magnetized by him.  He’s ever-fresh, even on yellowed paper.

Do I have what is so charmingly called a “father-fixation”?  Nah.  I had a remarkable father.  There’s a difference.

When Jerry and I were in Denver, we had lunch with a very senior philosopher who, as a young man, had crossed paths with my father.  What he recollected was his “presence.”

At a certain point in my long fight to get my job back, my case came before an Arbitrator.  My father was asked to testify regarding one of the matters that had come up.  Under oath, he answered several questions from my counsel, the union lawyer.  As he spoke, the hearing room took on the hush of a cathedral.  The “Corporation Counsel,” who represented the City University, had a right to cross-examine.  He waived it.

Later I described the incident to a lawyer friend.  About the silence of the Corporation Counsel, my friend commented, laughing,

“No.  You don’t mess with that.”

I am compiling a Master List of these materials, describing their contents for the archivist.  The shorter pieces — often concerning the Jewish spirit — strike me as gems.  I am making sure I have duplicates of those, for posting on academia.edu.  The two introductions I wrote for his posthumous book, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, are already posted on that site.  They get hits from all over the world.

Is the old account settled by this time?

There are some accounts

that don’t need to be settled.

They can be left open.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, Bible, Biblical God, books, bureaucracy, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Ontology, Past and Future, Philosophy, Poetry, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Father’s Continuing Funerary Cortege

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

My Father’s Continuing Funerary Cortege

A country song comes to mind as I try to picture what reading the complete extant papers of my father has been like for me during these past weeks.

 There’s a long line of mourners

drivin’ down our little street

 and their fancy cars are

such a sight to see … 

The singer is commemorating the loss of someone he loved, who went off to find a life larger than their small town could afford, returning only in death when all the success she had won in the great world could no longer touch her.

I don’t know why I think of those lines, except that my father, born in Louisville, Kentucky, liked old-time country music as much as I do.

In fact, my father did not break any records for success in the great world — at least not measured against the career achievements of his peers in Columbia University’s outstanding class of 1925.   His classmates, some of whom had been close friends when they all set out in life, went on to become national opinion-shapers for high-brow America in the period between the 1920’s and the 1970’s.

Instead of trying to characterize my father, let me give you a sample of him, lifted out from the papers I’ve been going through lately.

This one appears to be a sermon, printed in my father’s rabbinical days, dated May 30, 1941.  The name of the publication isn’t preserved.  He’s writing to commemorate the Feast of Weeks, Shevuoth, which is simultaneously a harvest festival and a celebration of Israel’s being given the Law at Mount Sinai.

     Israel seems to have been badly frightened at Sinai.  The thundering and the lightning and the smoke issuing from the mountain scared them, and they said to Moses, ‘You go up and talk to God, we’ll stay here, if you don’t mind’

“What’s the matter,” said Moses, “not scared, are you?”

“O not at all,” the people said, “we’re not scared a bit; we simply realize the historic importance of this occasion, also we don’t think it quite proper that people like us should get too near to God, and to cap it all our knees aren’t in very good shape at this moment; you go up, Moses.” 

         “All right,” Moses said.

     God spoke the words of the Law.  They were as long as all time and, on the other hand, no longer than the Ten Commandments.  Judging from the terrific thunder-crashes they must have been spoken in a Voice louder than the world and all space; still it seemed a mere whisper, requiring one to strain one’s ears to hear.  It seemed to last an eternity, but was all over in a moment, or so it seemed, so that the people didn’t have time to get more scared than they already were.

God said, “Will you now accept the Law?”

      The exact words which the people answered were not recorded, but according to most authentic tradition the substance of it was as follows: “We recognize the honor, O Lord, but may we be excused; It’s not that we’re unwilling, but we’re unready; we’d like a little time first to think it over, and then to talk it over, and then to practice it a little bit, while we feel our way, and get used to the idea.  After all, this Law we’ve just heard spoken of is not a simple thing; there are serious risks involved; we’ve heard spoken, this very moment, unless our ears deceived us, which is not likely, that if we do this or fail to do that, if, in short, we fail to keep the Law after we accept it, we might get into trouble.  So, we appreciate the compliment, but …” 

         God said, “I will now blast the world into its primeval chaos.  This Law is the code of being human.  If mankind does not wish to accept the burden, the challenge, the fight to keep on being human, and the risks of that fight, then let the world return to its original emptiness.”

         The people then accepted the Law, and the mighty historical struggle which it implied.

Among his papers, I find letter after letter expressing the most heartfelt love and attachment.  First from very humble parishioners.  Later, from his students of philosophy.  From notables in his and adjacent professions.

They worried about him.  They hoped to know the secret of him.  They did not get tired of him.

Neither do I.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Biblical God, books, bureaucracy, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, 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, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Mysticism, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family

by Bettye Kearse

It’s the African-Americans who have the secret of America.  Or so we all feel subliminally, with a kind of “holy envy.”  That’s the expression coined by the great New Testament theologian Krister Stendahl, referring to the yearning emotion one may feel confronting another’s faith.

It’s a longing to know … the secret they know that one has been barred from knowing.  Holy envy is not an ignoble emotion.

I sent for Bettye Kearse’s family memoir after I happened to see her television interview on Book Notes.  She was in charge of her words and had, I thought, honest, wide-open eyes.  An interesting woman.

Bettye Kearse descends from James Madison Jr., America’s fourth president.  He’s the Founder who gets most credit for our key documents: the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Her ancestress on the female line was a woman whom the Madisons of Montpelier, Virginia owned as their property.  That ancestress was in turn the child of a woman born in Africa, kidnapped by Portuguese slavers, and shipped on the nightmarish Middle Passage to Virginia’s shores where the Founder’s father, James Madison Sr., imposed on her … his attentions.  So the woman violated by one of our foremost Founders was his half-sister!

Can you follow that?

I don’t know if I want to.

Kearse’s memoir embodies the practice, alive in her family, of designating one member to be the griot or griotte, the male or female chronicler of memories linked one to the next in a lineage as long and unbroken as she can render it.

In the American case, the difficulties of the chronicler are magnified by what Kearse finds to be the incessant erasure of slave records.

You could say that this erasure reflects an indifference to the value of this branch of one of America’s indispensable families.  Or you could say that this erasure reflects the national sense of guilt and moral incongruity.

There are perhaps 38 million people enslaved in the world today.  Many of them are held in regimes, or under conditions, very different from those affirmed in the U.S. Constitution.  Their terrible sufferings occasion no shame in those who tyrannize over them today.  Thus, our national sense of moral incongruity is a mark in our favor.

It’s impossible to put down the story Kearse tells.  She has rethought, re-experienced, and traced the path of her ancestors, from the Middle Passage, the arrival, the imprisoned days and violated nights of slavery, the life-and-death struggles of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and finally the subtle combats of today – more wounding because sized to fit person-to-person encounters.  As she tells it, some of those personal encounters are also touching and fine.

And yet, this hidden history is still one half of a whole.  There is a limit to what one author can compass in one book.  In her memoir, Kearse has not tried to imagine the mind of her other ancestor, the man who wrote:

The aim of every political Constitution is

… to take the most effectual precautions

for keeping [men] virtuous

whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

So the same mind that desired and authored such a constitution also severed his own desire from its connection to virtue.

The same mind!  

 Holy God!


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J. D. Vance

This book has so many endorsements (I counted 69) that I was sure it would be a terrible book.  I now think it may be something close to an American classic.

It too tells a family story.  The family of J. D. Vance moved from a region of Appalachia in Kentucky to a town in Ohio where Armco Steel provided a good living and a chance to rise into the middle class.  Like many of their neighbors, his people looked forward to their children going to college and entering the professions.  Instead, globalism took over Armco’s market.  The rich families moved away.  The better stores and restaurants closed.  And factory workers, who had sunk their earnings into homes that now nobody wanted to buy, could not move without facing the loss of all their gains and hopes.

Their children sank into drink, drugs and dependency.  The author credits grandparents for his escape.  They held out for the virtues of hard work, education and personal responsibility.  Thanks to their support and belief in him, he managed to get through college, did a stint in the Marines (who taught him the basics of adult functioning) and eventually went on to Yale Law School.  He keeps his links to the family and hillbilly origins he loves, while maintaining a self-respecting life as husband, father, provider and concerned citizen.

*     *     *

Now a word about my own origins: While I was reading these two books, I was also reviewing Henry M. Rosenthal.  I had a responsibility to do that, and to make a decision about the proper disposition of these materials.  But I had an agenda of my own.

I wanted to find out – from my father whom I credited with knowing it – the secret of being a Jew.  What’s in the longhouse?  What do the initiated know, that I don’t know?  What is the gnosis — the hidden knowledge — in my own family’s lineage?  Did my father know it?

I think he might have known it.  Probably, where he is now, he knows it.  But he didn’t, so far as I can tell, follow through on what he knew from the beginning.  For reasons best known to himself, he kept secret … the secret of what he knew.

So, what is the secret?  What do the descendants of African slaves and presidents know?  What do hillbillies know?  What do Jews know?

Whatever anybody knows:

Don’t keep it a secret.

Take the risks.

Work it out.

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

Loyalty to Origins

Henry M. Rosenthal, at home in Maine. Lionel Trilling, Walter Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Loyalty to Origins*

What you and I would like to achieve in our identity politics is purity.  We don’t want to be double — or a double-crosser.  We want to be single-minded.  As Leo Bronstein, whom I’ve cited before in these columns, often said:

Purity is loyalty to origins.

These questions come up for me now in connection with the papers of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, which I’ve now almost finished reviewing.  He was of course Jewish, as were most of the members of his circle of talented peers in Columbia University’s class of 1925.

In a non-Jewish culture, how do you handle being Jewish, with purity — without the alloy of ambivalence?  In 1925, it wasn’t easy.

Clifton Fadiman, another classmate, was at one time known to much of America through his high-toned, literary radio show, “Information Please.”  His daughter Anne writes in her memoir, tellingly titled, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, that her father adopted his plummy accents practically overnight, at one go.  In his last year however, when he was dying, he voiced a yearning for the Jewish dishes that his mother used to cook for him when he was a boy in Brooklyn.

Sidney Hook, the political philosopher, was not a Columbia grad, but had been a part of the same post-graduate circle.  I came up to introduce myself after a lecture he gave at an academic gathering in Manhattan.  We fell to talking about my father’s youthful friendship with Columbia classmate Lionel Trilling who later became a celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.

As Hook recollected,

“Henry was Lionel’s Jewish education.  Before that, Lionel was … “

“English!” I finished the sentence for him and Hook laughed.

The implication was unstated: Henry was authentic; Lionel wasn’t.

Unfortunately for the pleasure of invidious comparisons – particularly when the target is famous — things are seldom so clear-cut as that.

In December of 1972, Trilling gave an account of his upbringing to an inquirer named John Vaughan, who was writing his dissertation on L.T.  He wrote Vaughan that his mother “like her mother before her, had been born and schooled in England … and she set great store by all English things.”

If you actually drink in Englishness with your mother’s milk, then the stuff’s not canned.  You got it from your own source.  As for the – as he says – “strangely un-Jewish name” of Trilling, he can’t account for it but says it goes back over several generations to his family’s origins in Bialystok.

About his friendship with my father, Trilling wrote to Vaughn:

In regard to my relation to my Jewishness at that time, you might want to look at a story called “Inventions” by Henry M. Rosenthal which appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1925.  Rosenthal was my very closest friend at college.  While attending the college, he also attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in preparation for the rabbinate.  He had what I have always thought of as nothing less than genius although a few years later something seems to have happened in his life which kept his extraordinary literary powers from developing.  … When I knew him, he was passionately and obsessively Jewish and the story deals with his relation to me as this was conditioned by my feeling about being Jewish.

The odd thing is that Lionel also wrote a short story about Henry titled “Impediments.”  It was Lionel’s story that appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1925.  Henry’s story about Lionel came out three years later, in 1928 in The Menorah Journal.

Each story pits characters representing Lionel and Henry against each other.  At the last scene, each writer comes off worse than his opponent and, each time, it’s his opponent who unmasks the defining weakness in the writer himself.

Thus, in “Impediments,” the Lionel character suffers a late-night visit from a fellow student named Hettner.  They have a verbal sparring match, Hettner “grave and purposeful, myself listening intently to what he had to say, polite and flippant.”

The difference between the two men is epitomized in Hettner’s impossible blue suit.  “A man may be as shabby as he pleases in a rough cloth, tweed or cheviot, and still look gay and interesting, but untidy blue serge gives him the look of a shop assistant.”

Hettner fails to dislodge the Lionel stand-in from his stylish evenness of tone. Leaving, Hettner turns, one hand on the doorknob, and says, “with a fine bitter light in his eyes … ‘What a miserable dog you are.’”

At story’s end, the narrator silently agrees with his accuser.  He has won the battle of words by seeming freer of Jewish intensity than the other man.  But it’s an ignoble victory, of the false over the genuine.

Lionel sent “Impediments” to Henry who wrote back in July of 1925, “What a really fine story you have written. … In short, your story is a thing of merit.  I resent only the excursions on shiny blue suits.  I own one myself, which I must occasionally wear.”

“Inventions,” Henry’s story, is longer and involves a difference more explicitly religious.  The Henry character is trying to shake the Lionel character loose from his unflappable snobbishness and persuade him to join the serious spiritual adventure of living as a Jew.

At the end, the Lionel character challenges the Henry character — unanswerably —

“You are all right.

But find your God

before you try to sell Him to me.”

 

 


*Thanks are due to Trilling biographer Barbara Fisher, for calling my attention to the matching short stories and providing me with the Henry letters from the Rosenthal/Trilling correspondence now archived at Columbia University.
Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, books, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touching Up Roots

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Touching Up Roots

Today, for the first time in my life, I’ve tried – with the help of the kit I sent for – to color my own hair.

What’s the worst that could happen?  I’ll come out looking like a parakeet.  But no.  The worst is when nothing happens.  I must have done it wrong.

Why, you may say, am I fighting Nature?  Isn’t it more honest — not to say authentic — to let Nature take its course?

For you, maybe.

For most of my life (not counting some time out for an earlier marriage) I’ve been a single woman.  That meant, if I wanted to see other human beings while dining solo, I had to eat out.  And, speaking of Nature, it is a sad fact of human nature that waiters won’t hurry to take your order, or to bring it, if you’ve got gray hair.

Well, why didn’t I protest? critics may say.  Talk to the management!  Demand my rights!

Hey folks, not every fight has my name on it.  If I think it’s my fight, I’ll get the sword in my right hand, the armor buckled on and fight till I either lose definitively or win.  But, as there’s more of injustice than there is of Abbie, I won’t charge into the fray unless I see that —

this one’s mine.

“Roots,” by the way, is a word with a metaphorical referent as well as the literal one.  For example, it can refer to a person’s culture or ancestry.  My roots are Jewish and our weekly virtual Bible study class brought us to the topic of women in the Torah (the Pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Bible).  We were reading verses in the Book of Numbers that prescribe a trial by ordeal for the accused wife of a jealous husband, whether or not his suspicion of infidelity has any basis.

As you can imagine, in the present day and age, these verses were not a big hit with our congregants – the women especially.

When it came my turn, I offered my heartfelt opinion that Judaism has some very troubling source texts concerning women and the subject needs some deep and prayerful rethinking.  Our virtual circle had many participants and it didn’t seem right for me to take up time naming the source texts I had in mind.

Here and now, we have a little more time.  How about Lot offering his daughters rather than let the Sodomite mob get at his angelic guests?  How about Abraham pretending that Sarah, his beautiful wife, was his sister to forestall the Egyptian king’s killing him to get at her?

In class, all I said was that I could discover no place in all of Hebrew Scripture where a man rescues a woman, though I did find several places where a woman rescues a man.

Actually, the Biblical narrative as a whole spans more aspects of life than this.  Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews gets from Song of Songs the implication that Biblical couples were the first to practice love-making face to face, in other words, person-to-person rather than object-to-object.  I’m not sure what he takes as evidence here.  In fact, it may not be true.  But I know what he means.

There is a passion in the meeting and seven-years labor of Jacob for Rachel that still stirs the heartstrings.  There is a sense that runs all through the patriarchal period that the man who has a divine mission needs the support and partnership of the right woman and that God has a hand in such a choice.  In other words, the romantic thread in life and the thread of partnering with God should intertwine.

It’s not God or romance.  It’s God in romance.  In the midst of it.  As the metronome of it.

Then what about these quasi-sordid episodes in the patriarchal period?  It’s true that the episode where Abraham hands over Sarah has God intervening to prevent Pharaoh from consummating his unwittingly adulterous desire.  But Sarah couldn’t know that God would do that.

What could she think, given her husband’s ungallant attempt to save himself at her expense?  More urgently, what should their descendants think about these episodes today?

Let me take a swing at it.  The subject comes to my mind particularly at the present time because I’ve been reading the unpublished journals and manuscripts of Henry M. Rosenthal, my late father, while deciding how best to deal with them.

I’ve mentioned in recent columns that some of these materials seem to me extraordinarily gifted.  Particularly when he writes in his journals about meeting and courting my future mother and later when, usually in published essays and reviews, he writes about the Jewish spirit.  And yet, there are other materials that disclose frustration — entire manuscripts that did not know where they were going and finally went nowhere.

It’s been very puzzling to me, how to account for the work that reflects the “genius” his classmates imputed to him, and how to understand the other, blocked and frustrated work.

Finally, I think I have the key.  In his earliest writing, once he has met my future mother, there is a certainty that their love is – for him and for her — a kind of absolute.  He writes about it with great authority.  At his memorial, one of his celebrated classmates said of my father:

“The rest of us fearfully experimented.  Henry was sure of his blessing.”

In his last, unfinished, longhand manuscript the romantic relation is again front and center, as is his relation to a personal God.  So in that way it’s quite Scriptural.  The predicament, for him, is that the two strike him as competitive rather than mutually sustaining.

He has a Biblical passion for God.  And he has a Biblical passion for – her.  And he does not know how to live with both passions.

Isn’t that still the question?

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Latest Teaching Anxiety Dream

Illustration from  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” 
Edmund Dulac, 1911

My Latest Teaching Anxiety Dream

Last night I had a variant of the dream that visits many teachers in the pre-dawn hours.  Short of taking a survey, I have yet to meet a teacher who’s never had this dream in some form.  We don’t talk about them when we get together.  But it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been out of the classroom.

The dream doesn’t go away.

My latest version had me scheduled to teach a class based on a three-page article in The New Yorker magazine.   Preparation would consist in rereading the article, underlining key passages and thereby refreshing my memory as to what I was going to talk about.

Grasping the three glossy pages, which I’d already cut out of the magazine, I was trying to overcome a peculiar reluctance to reread them when the face of my watch showed the time: 5:30 p.m.  Oh dear.  I had to be at the classroom by 6:00 p.m., which left no more time to prepare!  Then I realized that the case was actually much worse than that.  The class was to have begun at 5:00 p.m.  Which meant that students would be moving out the door by the time I got there!

Good grief!  I’m in the soup now!

About then, I woke up.  These dreams don’t come with happy endings.

Years ago, I shared lunch with two Oxford professors who looked fairly unflappable.  They were discussing Teaching Anxiety.  They said that psychological research into stress-producing situations had found that public lectures are, for the speaker, the most stressful of situations.  Worse than divorce or getting a bad-news medical diagnosis.

It’s nice to know that experts consider one’s stress to be “normal,”  but that doesn’t make the dreams go away.  You wake up feeling exhausted and guilty.

In meditation this morning, I wondered if I could get to the bottom of this dream anxiety and guilt by doing what the after-life researchers call a “life review.”

Life reviews are among the features typically included when people who’ve been revived after suffering clinical death have experiences to report.  All the morally consequential scenes that occurred in the life of the recently-deceased person pass before him or her.  Especially the scenes he or she is least proud of!

As a possible cure for my anxiety dreams, I decided: Maybe I don’t have to wait till I’m dead to have a life review.  I can line up every horrible memory right now, in my own room at home, while I’m sitting for morning meditation.

Reader, I actually did that, and thought, as I surveyed the entire lineup:

YUCK.

Where ‘s the Brooklyn Bridge, so I can jump off it?

In the therapeutic jargon of our day, people speak of “forgiving themselves,” but I never could make much sense of that.  Who am I to forgive myself?  I mean my question in the logical (or perhaps ontological) sense.  Are there two different people here?  Abigail#1 who forgives and Abigail #2 who is forgiven?  Maybe the real problem stems from that very dissociation or self-doubling.

I decided to approach the problem of me and my sins another way.  Suppose I moved Abigail #1 so that she became congruent with Abigail #2 and they finally coincided?  The reproacher and the reproached would then become one and the same.  There’d be only me here to take the fall for us both.

So I tried that.  Now I can’t explain why — and can’t describe what was happening as a step-by-step process — but, as I watched me coming to coincide with my sins, what I saw and felt was …

comical.

And at the same time, I don’t know how, but the comedy felt situated within a much vaster landscape where I was being somehow …

embraced.

This surprising turn led me to assume a different vantage point.  Suppose I approached the life-review from another direction.  Instead of gathering the evidence for a quasi-judicial determination of how horrible I’d been, why not review the chronological record of my life from the standpoint of seeing where God (or my relation to God) had been, throughout all those times and incidents?

Well, it was a long, long story.  I saw me as a little girl, surrounded with such fascinating, truth-seeking people, my parents.  They were fearless of each other, unafraid of relating to people in an open and intimate way, bringing the whole world into their apartment as background fit for discussion and acknowledgment, invoking the layers of culture they and their friends had natively – French, Russian, Spanish, German, Yankee and, on my father’s side, McGuffy’s Reader, Louisville Male High, Columbia in the twenties, New York at its heyday, the JTS seminary, a philosophical dissertation and unfathomable conversation … and there also I could see my grandfather, Rav Tsair, and from him the Jewish lineage going back to Origins – and adults not treating children as needing to be lied to.

If bad things happened, as sometimes they did, they would seem unwarranted and inexplicable, set against that background.

I hadn’t yet come up against experiences that would prove too much for me.  I hadn’t come up against my own contradictions.  The fortress of childhood still gave shelter.  The walls hadn’t narrowed yet.  My personal armageddons lay ahead.

Some of those self-undoings will be recounted when Confessions of a Young Philosopher appears.  I’ve really been shredded — torn from end to end.  As our family friend Leo Bronstein said to me, after he read an early draft of Confessions, I would always be older than I look.

Visiting these episodes in sequence, from a point of view that asked where God had been vis a vis each incident, was astonishing and deeply reassuring.  I know it sounds a bit odd, but I sensed that

Someone had been reaching into the story, 

to help at key intervals,

all the long way.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If Our Time Could Speak

“Time Waits”
Mike Savad, 2011

If Our Time Could Speak

In recent columns, I’ve mentioned that for me The Plague has opened the time to read through the journals, correspondence and manuscripts, published and unpublished, of my late father, Henry M. Rosenthal, who was considered, by classmates in Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, their “genius.”

It’s been a roller coaster ride.  I discovered a 300-page typescript, of which I knew nothing, titled “Time Speaking.” The manuscript is dated 1945 and is addressed to The Future.  Since I’m reading it 75 years later, I guess I’m discovering it at the very future time he’s addressing.

I won’t try to characterize this work, since I’m only a third of the way through, but it struck me as an interesting thing to try to do: portray one’s own era sufficiently well so that it can be understood by the people of the future.

Since I don’t have the synoptic penetration my father brought to that task, I’ll have to make do with my own equipment, which has never been stretched in that way.

But how to begin?  How can you know what it’s like to live now — or at any previous time?  Here’s one technique I’ve used.  When visiting the classical rooms of a museum, I would select an ancient portrait statue and imitate its stance.  If I stood the way a particular sculpted Roman emperor was standing, it would feel quite different from the feeling I get when I stand normally.  I would feel very proud, very noble, magnificently prominent and self-assured.

I suspect that no one today stands that way.  I sure don’t.  Even if you couldn’t hold the pose for long, you got a glimpse of what it felt like to be a Roman emperor.

But where, in May of 2020, could I find an equivalent single figure, holding a pose I could imitate, who could give me a sense of how it is to live in our time?

Of course not everyone in ancient Rome was an emperor.  But no one would have turned down the job.

Is there anyone today whom we all wish we were?  I guess today …

we all wish we were 

who we really are.

Not an imitation of ourselves.  Not a second-hand version.  The real thing.  We want to be authentic.

And we are aware, even if but dimly, that “authentic” today will look different from “authentic” 75 years from now.

So what are the parameters, the boundary conditions, the limits within which we people of today work out the drama of becoming ourselves?   In the future, the parameters we had will be clearer than they can possibly be for us now.  But couldn’t we at least take a stab at it?

I’ve sometimes said that people have grown lighter on the ground than they seemed to be two or three generations back.  The movies make this change visible.  Women in stockings, platform shoes, pointy bras under their silk blouses and fox furs over their shoulders.  Men in suits whose ties folded up to the neck, with vests and pocket watches under their jackets.  Cars with running boards.  Everyone in his or her space, costume and role.  These things were not questioned.  The drama of life was played out within them.  Ethnic and religious identity, sexual mores, age, notions of normality – none of these were up for grabs.

And, as one can see from 19th-century daguerrotypes, people back then were heavier still.  Goodness!  Hoop skirts, mustaches, different hats for different occasions!  Life was serious. The habit made the monk.  Opinions made the man.  Nobody held his lightly.

So we who seem to enjoy a certain lightness — with respect to inherited differences and socially-bestowed credentials — how authentic is our professed lightness?  Do we mean it?  Or don’t we?

In certain respects, we do actually and sincerely mean it.  Take The Plague for example.  As we read this, specialists all over the world are working cooperatively, taking full advantage of computer technology and artificial intelligence, to analyze and share what we are learning about the Covid-19 virus, to test and develop anti-viral treatments and preventives.  In the face of a peril common to us all as human beings, ethnic and historic boundaries have not much impeded this grand, pan-human search for a solution.  It’s unprecedented.  For a fact, we are far less entrapped by the past than we ever used to be.

On the other hand, when we try, by revaluing our values and destabilizing our concepts, to imagine that every aspect of reality is “socially constructed,” we don’t mean it.  If we meant it, we’d crowd into stadiums, restaurants, classrooms and social gatherings as we did before.

Hey, hey, hey, the virus isn’t a social construct.

 If you don’t mean it,

don’t say it.

In part, the relative lightness of today is liberating.  On the other hand, it comes with its own kind of crisis.

Archimedes, the great Greek scientist of the third century BCE, is supposed to have said, in connection with his principle of the lever,

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.”

The lightfoot lads and lasses of today lack such a place to stand.   Too much has been blown away.  All the group solidarity in the world will not replace

one’s own power

to stand one’s own ground.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, 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, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Jewish Am I?

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky

“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

How Jewish Am I?

If being Jewish by birth is what counts, I suppose I’m Jewish enough.  But it’s not a necessary condition for securing that identity.

A few years ago, a young Christian woman – a friend and participant in our congregation — invited me to witness her conversion to the religion of my ancestors.  Like most Jews, I wondered: Are you sure you want to do this?  Haven’t you got enough troubles?

What do you need it for?

As we drove to the mikvah, I put a number of questions to her.  The answers she gave were sufficiently detailed — free of projection, escapism, or other “psychological” markers — to quiet my misgivings.  I could see that she knew what she was doing.

The same question came up for me this week in a quite different context.  A non-Jewish philosopher friend, for whom Judaism is distinguished by its prioritizing of observance over belief, might suppose me able to confirm his view.

I’m not well placed to confirm his sense of what it is to be a Jew since, where ritual observance is concerned, I’m pretty thin on the ground.  Why then, apart from the accident of birth, do I count myself a Jew? Where I get the sense of having freely signed on to this particular covenant?  Why do I think I would do it again?

No doubt there are more explanations than I know, but three experiences come to mind.

The first came from writing Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  Its original draft sprang from my desire to comprehend the adventures and misadventures of my twenties.  The events of that decade grouped themselves into three sequential parts.  Publishers told me that the three parts fell apart.  As a writer, I needed to get them to hang together – to be the story of one person.  As the person actually concerned, who had to go forward with her life in one package, it was vital to know why Abigail had done it all and been through it all.

I tried various strings on which the beads of these life-incidents might be strung.  Was the connecting string Freudian?  I wrote a draft in a Freudian way.  The three parts still fell apart.  Could G. F. Hegel, the nineteenth-century philosopher who strung world history into a single narrative, supply the string?  Nah.  In those days, I considered myself a Hegelian, but that didn’t work either.

Finally, I tried Jewish.  Could it be that I was Jewish au fond? That worked!  Whaddya know?  Now the story made sense as one life — not three disconnected episodes.  Okay!  Live and learn.

What was the second experience?  Here the route was rather roundabout.  There was a time in my life when I was quite alone and certain well-meaning family friends were offering me their wildly inappropriate advice.  Never mind what the problem was that they thought they understood so well and actually did not understand at all.  It was a fact that I was being nibbled to death by yentas.

There was an ashram across town that offered fine vegetarian meals at a discount and taught yoga meditation.  The yentas couldn’t find me there.  The head of the ashram, its guru, was a beautiful young Indian woman.  Her followers claimed that she had achieved Samadhi: the dissolution of personal identity after the yogi merges with the Divine Self.  She had an aura of inner power and delicate grace that looked to me unearthly.  She was marvelous.  I’d never seen anyone who looked like her.

I learned a good deal during the time spent under this influence, reading some of the great classics of Hindu literature in translation, learning to meditate, yogic breathing and asanas (postures), and some of the practices of Indian worship that would be familiar to me when, years later with Jerry, I saw them again in India.

What could be wrong?  I began to notice certain changes in the ashram. There were features of its routines that were taking on the character of a cult.   I won’t detail them.  There are lots of books about cults if you want to study that phenomenon.  At the same time, the guru herself changed.  It was rather sudden, and to me unmistakable.  I know what despair sounds like.  The last sermon I heard her give disclosed a degree of demoralization that was precipitous and deep.

As I stood in the doorway, looking at her for the last time, I realized that, in a system aiming to dissolve the personal self into the Divine Self, the guru could not find sufficient belief in her own legitimacy as a person to save herself.  In all the ashram, there was no one whose beliefs authorized stepping in to help her.  The Guru Gita, the song of the guru that one chants every morning in Sanskrit, tells the disciple to follow the guru even if she falls.  There was no one to care.

The realization followed: if I needed a defense from yentas, I would have to fight them off, myself.

I had made an earnest attempt not to be Jewish.  It hadn’t worked.

The third experience was direct, not roundabout.  There was, however, a context.  I had gone to hear a talk by one of the philosophic colleagues of my late father.  The speaker had been a friend of my parents and had spoken at the memorial for my father.  Much to my surprise, his talk was openly and aggressively disparaging of Jews and the Jewish spirit.  It was a speech he would not have given had my parents been alive.  The cats were away.  The mice could play.

My subway ride home required a change of trains.  Standing on the platform as the trains clattered by, I thought about the talk I’d just heard.  A question was forming in my mind.  In the roaring darkness of the subway, I decided to put it to God directly.

“Lord, what is a Jew?”

This was the silent message I received:

a Jew is someone who has

 a passion for God.

The message continued that this passion is for God in one particular form.  A God sufficiently distant from ourselves to make us visible (and thus real) to God as our Witness.  He can see what we choose to do.  God leaves us enough room for the storyline of ourselves.  The story is not random or pointless.  Our choices have a moral feature to them.  That’s why they’re interesting.  God doesn’t like to be bored.

“Lord,” I asked the second part of my question, “what is an anti-semite?”

An anti-semite is someone who hates God

in that particular form.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Autonomy, Biblical God, books, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Hegel, hidden God, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fording the Flood

“Red Square on Black”
Kazimir Malevich, 1920-24

Fording the Flood

I had a dream the other night, depicting the journey I’m in the midst of at present.

On a bus traveling long distance, I was a passenger.  It was not a bus of recent vintage.  It lacked the wide aisles, reclining seats, or inside climate control of the newer buses.  If maintenance crews had ever kept it in repair, that too was in the past.  There were none of those posted notices that tell riders how to behave.  In fact, I might have been the only passenger, since I didn’t perceive others.

The driver was going full tilt, not realizing that we were on a one-lane road.  He also failed to notice that his left wheels were perilously close to a precipice at  road’s edge.  It was up to me to bring this to his attention, but I couldn’t find the words.

“Bus-bus-bus” was all I could say.

Eventually the bus did clear the narrow road, and move onto a wide-open mall or plaza.  However, as if the previous hazards hadn’t been bad enough, this plaza was filling up with floodwaters.

Since I’d watched TV programs on how to survive weather emergencies, I knew that it would not be a good idea to try to drive through the rising waters.  The driver didn’t seem to know this.  Hence I decided to leave his bus.

As I stood in the flood, the waters came about hip-high.  It would not be easy to ford them, especially for the six miles I would have to cross to get home.  Yet I had no choice but to set forth.  And there my dream ended.

In morning meditation, it came to me what the dream was about: my experience reading the journals and other materials of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal.  As I’ve mentioned in recent columns, his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 deemed him their “genius.”

Don’t just take it from his daughter.  The year that visiting Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch spent at my father’s philosophy department, she met Lionel Trilling at a New York literary party.  Trilling, a classmate of my father’s, was a then-celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.  Told she was visiting the Hunter College philosophy department, Trilling asked if she’d met Henry Rosenthal there.

“Not only I met him,” she said in her French-accented English, “but I fell in love with him and his whole family!”

Instantly Trilling drew her aside, saying intensely in a low voice,

“He was the only man I ever knew who was a genius.”

Years later, at the memorial for my father, Clifton Fadiman, a critic widely known at the time, said to the gathering,

“Of us all, he was the best talker.”

This in a circle of future opinion-shapers, all of whom prided themselves on talking well!

Although his published work included the posthumous, Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, I always had the suspicion that the secret of him – if he had a secret – awaited discovery in the journals (1925-1955) and his earlier work, published and unpublished.

My father began his working life as an ordained rabbi.  Eventually, he went into philosophy.  Although he certainly wasn’t in his element in the American rabbinate of the period, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in it by accident.  Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism (a branch of Reform Judaism) knew him at that time and, in a published piece, compared him to a Hasidic Master.

What was he, really?  And what – now that The Plague prevented me from advancing any other project – should I do about it?

Here’s where the bumpy bus ride comes in.  All the bright young men of the class of ‘25 defined themselves as “modern.”  To be modern meant, among other things, to subscribe to the iron certainties of Marx and Freud.  So, like his classmates, HMR descended into that long, underground tunnel that verbally flattened all the heights and depths of the life of the spirit.  Under those metallic constraints, his classmates could survive and even flourish.

Not him.  Not Henry.

As I turned the pages of the journals, I perceived his mounting anger and frustration within the worldview where he had caged his spirit and its genius.  He was not finding his way out and he had misconceived the problem.

The supreme ambition young men entertained back then was to write something they called “The Great American Novel.”  They all wanted to be the first to bring it out under the blue American skies.  Almost all of them felt like failures if they did not publish a novel or if they published one that was not deemed singularly great.  My father shared his classsmates’ ambition and did not grasp the fact that he was not a novelist at all.

Reading the journals, and tracing the vagaries of this misunderstanding, I began to think, well okay.  That’s that.  He never found the vehicle for his talent.  I’ll finish reading these documents and then, when The Plague recedes, convey them over to the archive that’s expecting to receive them.  I was saddened but – as it was not clear to me either what his vehicle should have been – I could accept the mismatch between a talent and a life, without imagining that I had any further role to play in the story.  The story was apparently over.

That was before I began to read through the articles and reviews.  They were exceptionally subtle, intense to the point of white heat, unconventional, powered solely by an inner summons.  I won’t try to quote from any of them here.  Reading them, I was absolutely knocked flat: surprised, overwhelmed – “flooded” (as in my dream) — by the authority and truthfulness manifest in each paragraph.

His actual focus was the Jewish spirit.  He was not looking at that phenomenon sociologically, historically, psychologically, or even through the lens of “tradition.”  What he saw directly — at first hand, as it were — was its ineluctable depth and reality.

To modern people, this had to be far from obvious.  In the twenties and thirties of the last century, neither the Holocaust nor the Jewish state had yet driven its tent pegs as deep into history’s shifting sands as they have now.  So you had to have the eyes of a Hebrew prophet to see how consequential Jews would prove to be on the sands of future time.

One of my father’s published pieces was a review of a book on ancient Israel.  In it a well-known scholar claimed, in the most careful and genteel way he could, that the providential role of Israel was to prepare the way for Christianity.  Perhaps, my father demurred gently, the part played by Christianity was rather to preserve the still-providential role of Israel.

A psychic once told me that she had a vision of my father in a past life.  He was, she saw, a member of the crowd that crossed the Reed Sea with Moses in the exodus from Egypt.

Of course, I won’t try to figure that one out.  But her picture corresponds to the feeling I get from the pieces I’ve been reading recently.  He had the intensity and inner accuracy that would, in other circumstances, have given him the ability to pass,

dryshod and sure-footed,

through many floodwaters.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, novels, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment