Evil Is Understandable

Evil Is Understandable

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

By Barry Cooper, Professor of Political Science, University of Calvary

Abigail Rosenthal is a professor (emerita) of philosophy, which is not the same thing as being a real philosopher. Indeed, there are few enough books written today by genuine philosophers. This is one. Like Socrates, she also conducts conversations with the many non-philosophers, but unlike him, she does so over the Internet in an online column, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Any book with the title, A Good Look at Evil looks to be heavy going, but Rosenthal’s treatment of an undoubtedly important philosophical problem is remarkably accessible to anyone who still retains a hold on commonsense.

To begin with, she takes the view that “good” is the ability to work out one’s own story, the story of one’s own life, what she calls a corrigible nonfiction narrative. And evildoing is the deliberate prevention or interruption of working out your own life-story, whether you do it to yourself or to somebody else. Stories, literally, reveal who I am –as when, having been offered a bribe of some kind –money, a promotion for considerations, a #MeToo opportunity– one says: “that’s not who I am.” This is, then, a genuine and practical philosophy of existence, a recovery of the understanding of philosophy as a way of living. Moreover it is devoid of the high sounding and usually empty words we often associate with philosophy, words that properly speaking are the verbal coin of the realm for intellectuals, sophists, PR flacks and similar frauds.

Rosenthal relies on Aristotle, Kant, and other great predecessors for what we now call a philosophical anthropology, that is, a philosophical understanding of human being, as well as upon more lightweight contemporary moral philosophy. She draws some delightful portraits of contemporary miscreants –the gambler, the rake, the seducer. She tells us a good deal about why politicians, as distinct from statesmen, are rightly held in contempt, and not just in America, but in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Russia, Africa, Asia. Everywhere! Why? Because, she explains in detail, they are invariably sell-outs. One way or another they betray the trust that reposes in their office and do so for unworthy motives. And everyone, including them, knows it. It happens on the grand stage of world politics and the petty stage of academic politics. Political correctness is just a recent instantiation.

Hard cases may make for bad laws but also for very interesting philosophical problems. For example, evildoers do bad things by spoiling life-stories but some are worse than others. Deliberate evildoers are worse than impulsive ones, for example. Moreover, when one moves from doing bad things to individuals to doing bad things to populations, the latter is worse than the former…

The paradigm case where genocide is linked to mass murder is the Holocaust. Inter-tribal destruction, even the example where Western cultures extinguished aboriginal cultures by killing the aboriginal population, as in Tasmania and Newfoundland, do not compare to the Holocaust because the numbers of human beings murdered is not comparable. Moreover, butchery motivated by desire for loot and power or by cultural contempt is (or seems to be) less malevolent than the meticulously planned and executed Nazi murder of so many millions of Jews. Here we have a genocidal holocaust, not mere mass murder or cultural genocide. That is about as evil as it gets. Worst of all, it took the teamwork of the Germans, either active or passive, to get the job done. Under such circumstances, Rosenthal argued, the only appropriate response is to do whatever one can to survive.

The last chapter of the original (1987) edition described what it would be like to think (if that is the right word) like a Nazi. Obviously, it is not acceptable to take Nazi words at face value and entertain some allegedly “higher” notion of good and evil. We, like Rosenthal, suppose that all along the Nazi knew he (or she) was in the wrong. To the claim that they were entirely ordinary, Rosenthal agreed. She adds that they were also quite determined not to know what was going on, which is another way of saying that they knew perfectly well what was going on. Their unctuous evasion was contradicted by their cooperation with the German government and churches to ensure the Holocaust went smoothly. The notion that the Holocaust was entirely the responsibility of the Leader is likewise evil nonsense because everybody (including Nazis) knows that human beings simply cannot sign over their liberty to another. The Nazis were never victims. So far as the very boring Eichmann was concerned, “being that boring is the symptom a persistent and thickly insulated untruth.”

For many readers, the most interesting part of Rosenthal’s book will likely be her discussion of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. I will not go into details because Rosenthal’s discussion deserves to be studied on its own. All I will say is that Arendt was not “taken in” by Heidegger. Nor was she just a young woman in love with her prof, and Heidegger was not simply an opportunist with a roving eye. Arendt’s amply documented life, with which Rosenthal is entirely familiar, details a life story that began exceptionally and wonderfully, and “regrettably she spoiled it.”

 

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Admiration

Admiration

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Despite W. H. Auden, and his poem, In Memory of W. B. Yeats, we live in a time whose typical mood is suspicion.  It’s almost the default stance.  There’s even a label for the role suspicion plays in the way we interpret people, actions, fiction and nonfiction, past and present.  It’s actually called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Stanley Rosen, my teacher of classical philosophy in graduate school, was a man of rather outsized self-esteem.  Nevertheless, one time he said to me, “I read Plato because he’s smarter than I am!”  Many students read Plato and think they are the smarter and more up-to-date ones.  Why is it so hard for most contemporary people to see what my teacher saw?

When I taught Plato’s Crito, the scene in the Athenian prison cell where Socrates explains to his friend Crito why he feels duty-bound to submit to the death penalty, which is the sentence that the jury has voted – wrongly but lawfully – my students would jump to the conclusion that Socrates refused his friend’s offer to help him escape “because he had a martyr complex.”  As if the man Plato called “the wisest and best man of his generation” had not been persuaded by his own reasoning but by a motive entirely different, less admirable and perhaps unconscious.

We look at each other askance.  We walk and talk and work and live it up (or live it down) but always under a cloud of suspicion.

Lately I’ve been reading Life in Culture: Selected Letters of Lionel Trilling.  Trilling was a literary critic who influenced a whole array of attitudes among educated Americans in the 20th century.   By now, his name is no longer in high cultural fashion and there may be no such position of influence for any single intellectual to occupy any more.  So little are we predisposed to admire people for their accomplishments of work or character.  So little space and time and silence can we find in which to entertain such a feeling as admiration!

Anyway, my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, and Trilling had been best friends in college and for some years thereafter.  I never knew precisely what occasioned their breakup, but I approached this collection of Trilling’s letters (which include some to my father and separately to my mother) in today’s typical mood of suspicion – no doubt heightened by my awareness that he and my father had quarreled.  I expected to meet a pretentious opinion-shaper, whose airy conclusions had no bite in the real world.

Hence I was taken aback to discover a person I couldn’t honestly fault or deprecate.  Maybe it’ll happen.  I’m not halfway through.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

The letter most striking to me was not one of those Trilling wrote to fellow intellectuals who were famous.  It was his letter to his sister Harriet.

The situations in our lives hardest to handle optimally are the ones that unfold with the people closest to us.  With family.  The people whose closeness we didn’t choose and whom we can’t normally divorce.

Here’s the situation he writes her about.  Probably because of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, their parents have fallen on hard times.  The support of their father and mother has been borne by Lionel Trilling alone.  He and his wife Diana have gone into debt to continue to pay his parents’ rent.  Harriet, their other child, has shirked the common obligation, acting as if it’s not weighty enough, not poetic and interesting enough, to deserve her sustained attention.

Most people I know, if they’ve got a deadbeat sibling, will decide that, rather than provoke ill will, it’s better (more peaceable) just to meet the whole of the shirked obligation by oneself.  She won’t pay in any case.  So why spoil our beautiful family circle by making a fuss?

(If you’re an only child, please accept my congratulations.)

Instead of taking this line, Lionel Trilling writes his sister that his awareness of her unfairness has created a barrier between them.  Emotionally as well as financially, she’s running in the red with her brother.

Now many people would consider that, having gone that far toward rectifying the imbalance between brother and sister, Lionel should stop there.  But he does not.  He goes on to remind Harriet that she is also in debt to several other people, mutual friends.  She may imagine that this awkward fact has flown from the minds of these friends, but such is not the case.  Her other creditors continue very much pained by it.

It happens that, as a child, I knew Harriet (a little bit).  She rented one of the cottages in Hilltop, the bungalow colony in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey where my family used to spend our summers.   Harriet has certainly passed off the stage of cultural history without leaving anything like her famous brother’s mark.  She sang, as I recall, but I don’t know that she ever gave a recital or a concert.  Lionel was slender and looked the part of an eminent literary critic.  Harriet, his sister, did not cut a figure.

What is money?  My mother used to say, “Money is love.”  Meaning, that’s what it stands for, particularly when siblings quarrel over a legacy after their parents are gone.  Did Mom love you best?  Did she love me best?  Whoever grabs the money gets the love.

Likewise, the sibling who has felt less of the parental favor may want to compensate by seizing more of the inheritance.  Or by contributing less to a joint filial obligation.

But really, does that get the love more evenly distributed?  Doesn’t it rather give the shirker more grounds for self-contempt, mixed with contempt for the sibling who – out of misguided “fairness” – has allowed the less-loved child to become a ripoff?

What I admire in Trilling’s letter to his sister is that he did not permit this counterfeit compensation to pass for legal tender.  For her sake and for his own, he stuck by the truth of the situation.

A good literary critic will know what’s a symbol, what’s a metaphor, and what’s neither.  Money is neither a symbol nor a metaphor.  Money is not ambiguous.

The beauty of money is that, when you’re dealing with a deadbeat — or a bad check –

you know it.

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What’s Your Evidence?

Abbie, Philosophy Department office
Photo by Elmer Sprague

What’s Your Evidence?

In the claims and counter-claims of real life, what is to count as evidence?

Recently, I had occasion to try to defend myself to a third party, against the damaging claims of a person who had been victimizing me for many months.   In my own defense, I laid out a paper trail of carefully assembled documentary evidence, backed by a witness known to be truthful, who stood ready to confirm what I said.

To my vast disappointment — in the essentials —

I was not believed.

Let me qualify that.  My documents were not treated as fabrications.  My witness was not dismissed as unreliable.  Only as not probative.  As incapable of deciding the main question: Who here had been the most pitiable victim, the one most entitled to heartfelt sympathy?

Having been involved in two legal proceedings at an earlier period in my life, I know what sort of thing counts as “evidence.”

In the first proceeding, my case went to Arbitration.  When my union counsel looked through the documents I had rounded up, he said I was “the hardest working client” he’d ever had.  I was placed under oath, testifying for five hours, three of “direct” and two of “cross.”

The Arbitrator ruled in my favor.

In the second legal action, a lawyer friend read the Court Papers I submitted and emailed me: “Superb.  Reads like a closing argument.  Now you have to hope the judge reads them!”

The court case was settled in my favor out of court.

In my present situation, I believe the documentation and witness backing my claim to victimhood would have merit in a court of law.

However, we were not in a court of law.  We were friends having a discussion.  But I knew that I had not prevailed.  My adversary had got there first, with a story that made him seem the more compelling victim.  Nothing I could have said or done would have turned the emotional tide in my favor.  We parted friends, but my sense of defeat is large indeed.

During the week that followed, Jerry and I had our first movie outing since his surgery.  We went to see “The Bookshop,” a well-written, very well acted, beautifully photographed English film.  It’s about a woman who wants to open a nice little bookshop in an English village.  The local establishment tries to frustrate her at every turn.  With each snub and cut, she is made to realize that her insignificance is simply bottomless.

If an oblique sense of justice is supposed to shine — even through the mists of social life – the bookshop owner keeps being taught that she weighs less than a speck of dust on the social scales of justice.  For the just and the unjust, the scales stay level.  Justice weighs no more than injustice.

I sat through about a third of this artistic film before saying to Jerry,

We have to leave.

“It’s bringing back my year in England!  I feel asphyxiated.”

In this column, I’ve sometimes inveighed against utopian ideologies that aim to repair this imperfect world by comparing it with a fantasy realm – an escapist’s “unreal city in the future.”

The events of this week were a reminder that the difficult drill in real life is to stay in real life.  To show up.  To hang in.

But how?

Sometimes you feel that every door is shut, ditto the windows.  You feel as if you’re choking.  You just want to jump out of this world!  (Not by suicide.  That’s cheating.)  By dying of natural causes — but soon!  By endorsing some ideology built on proven impossibilities.  By treating the whole world as maya – illusion – and trying to walk around in a benevolent trance, hoping someone will love you for the phony, loving expression on your face.

So how does one stay real, and stay in real life, at times of utter frustration?   So far as I can tell, what you do is look around at the options.  Not everything is shut down tight.  There’s a bit of light in the room.  Ergo something must be open.  Take the door, or the window, that’s open – even if it’s open just a crack!

Take the merest sliver of an opening, and stay alert for further guidance, however you get it.  In the generality of cases, there will be some opening and/or guidance.

We should not scorn to take it.

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Are People Really Good at Heart?

Are People Really Good at Heart?

 “In spite of everything,

 I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

These words — set down as a belief, not a question — are among the last lines in the diary of Anne Frank, before the Frank family’s hiding place was betrayed and the Nazis came for them all.   Did she still believe that in Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp where she died?

I once had a friend, a fellow Fulbright scholar named John Armstrong.  To test his idealistic values, John decided (along with two friends who followed his lead) to drive down the length of Africa, from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope.  The trip was to be sponsored by the maker of the small French car they’d be driving.

As part of his research into the terrain they planned to cross, John asked me to introduce him to Richard Wright, the writer then living in Black American Exile in Paris.  When I told Wright of John’s plan, the writer said instantly, “They’ll never make it past Egypt.”

By fall, a front-page story in the New York Times confirmed Wright’s prediction.  Their bodies were discovered north of Khartoum.  Most pages of the diary John kept were not released by the Egyptian authorities.  Their guide was not found among the dead.

More recently, Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin, a young and idealistic American couple, decided to undertake a world bicycle tour.  They named it the “Kindness Tour.” It was to be a demonstration that the goodness of people will be unleashed if only you let your defenses down and give people the chance to show what’s in their hearts.  Lauren and Jay met with quite a lot of kindness and seemed well on their way to confirming Anne Frank’s thesis, when a group thought to be affiliated with ISIS caught up with them in Tajikistan and deliberately ran them down with their vehicle.  The incident brought these earlier cases to my mind.

Anne Frank should’ve been right. 

John Armstrong should’ve been right.

 Lauren and Jay, on their Kindness Tour, should’ve been right.

In one sense, they were right.  Kindness is the human norm.  We are most ourselves when we are kind.  It often takes courage to be kind, particularly when others are not.  A small gesture of kindness can pull someone out of the deepest despair.  It can put things in their right order and proportion for a fellow mortal.  We are all bound to die someday.  On that day, what will count will be the deeds of kindness we did, however small and seemingly inconsequential.

What went wrong, then?  Anne did not volunteer to be a victim of the Shoah, much less its paradigm case of victimhood.  But John and the Kindness Tourists did volunteer.  What can we imagine that they learned, in their final moments?  If John was left to die of thirst and exposure, he had many days in which to take in the limits of his idealism.  Unless there is something we weren’t told, the Kindness Couple had only seconds.

What was the lesson, the right inference to draw, for these idealists?

Good people are not preserved in their being,

 evildoers are not reformed, 

the world is not improved,

by believing something that

 is not true.

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Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Dante and Beatrice” Henry Holiday, 1883

Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Thou “who, to bring my soul to Paradise,

 Didst leave the imprint of thy steps in hell …”

So wrote Dante of Beatrice at the end of his Divine Comedy.

 The eternal feminine leads us above.”

So wrote Goethe at the conclusion of his Faust.

“Tu m’a rendu meilleurs —

ou moins mauvais.”

“You have made me a better man, or anyway less bad,” my first love affirmed, in a letter written many years after we had parted.

So dated! they say.  So yesterday! they say.  Such a trap for women! as they say.

In my Facebook home page, where I’m asked to give my favorite line in literature, I quote the last line of Kipling’s Kim, where the Tibetan lama believes he has redeemed the half-Indian, half-Irish youth who attached himself to the old monk.

“He smiled,

 the smile of one who has won salvation

for himself and his beloved.”

Of course, many a woman has tried to save a man to her own detriment and without succeeding.  There are excellent reasons to warn a girl against embracing such an ideal.

Is there anything at all to that idealized picture, for a woman?  Is it all simply a delusion, top to bottom?  If so, what does the real world look like — the solid reality that we should put in place of this chimera?

Of course, a fourteenth-century poet and politician like Dante and an eighteenth-century all-round genius like Goethe had to know, as we do, that such an ideal could be a woman’s undoing.  The difference is that, in our time, we are told that the idealization of woman is always a snare and a delusion.

Why?  Why are we told that?  Is the advice to treat idealizations as poppycock good advice?  Regardless of whether it is or is not the right thing to say in a particular case, why does everyone today think it is always the right advice?  Feminists think that.  Novelists think that.  Men of science think that.   Therapists think it.  Why so much consensus?  Why do they care so much — if some women want to idealize themselves — or some men want to see an occasional woman in that light?

Why the rush to disenchant?

Over breakfast this morning, Jerry and I, two philosophers, were talking about the difference in worldview between the Ancients and the Moderns.

For the Ancients, for instance Aristotle, the external world of matter and the inner world of human aspiration and fear, were the same world.  In this sense, Dante was an Ancient.  “Love,” Dante wrote, “moves the sun and the other stars.”  Ideally, he thought, physics and human purposes can work in harmony.

For the Moderns, consciousness and physics occupy completely different spheres: the inner world subjective but delusive, the outer world real but indifferent to our deepest hopes and fears.  What’s “real” for a modern person?  The random play of bits of matter and natural forces devoid of purpose.

In his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, Sartre illustrates his concept of bad faith or inauthenticity by sketching a café scene where a man and woman are talking and the man puts his hand on hers.  The woman pretends to ignore his hand while continuing to discuss her ideals.  How inauthentic!

So what’s authentic?  The interplay of blind forces, when you get down to it? “Your place or mine?”

Something is wrong with our physics, our psychology, and the rest of it.

When my father was dying, he was also communicating with me, in a silent but emphatic inner speech.  It was not coming from me, and it had great authority.

Love is stronger than the laws of our physics.

 Love actually does

 move the sun and the other stars.

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Delusions of Intellection

“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”
Honore Daumier, 1865-1867

Delusions of Intellection

 “People live and die by ideas!”

 “You are what you think – much more than what you eat!”

With encouraging words like these, I would try to persuade students in an intro course to see the study of philosophy as a help and benefit to themselves.  Many did, at least for a little while, I think.

What I believed then, and still think, is that philosophical study gives your thinking more scope and range.  You see alternatives.  The screen of your vision is wider.  You have more chance to understand a stranger by inquiring into how he or she thinks.

Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, where I taught, is a way station on the way to America.  My students were the children of immigrants or, in some cases, immigrants themselves.  It was a challenge – and enormous delight for me – to keep recasting a philosopher’s view, in the garb it would wear in Somalia, in India, in Texas, in Albania, in Russia, in Arabia.  The same thought from different vantage points!  And to see that philosopher’s thought come alive in the mind of that student!  We are not so far from each other as we look, provided we recognize that we each begin our lives rather differently.

For students to acquire this sense of shareable thought-worlds, and learn to move with relative ease between them, seemed to me a great benefit for them.

But there is a more troubling aspect to the fact that we each inhabit thought-worlds that define us in some degree.  We can wrap ourselves in delusive thoughts.  Intellectual delusions seem uncannily easy to fall into and astoundingly hard to get out of, once we’re inside one.

Just now, I’m reading a book called Prodigal Sons by Alexander Bloom.  It’s about the world of New York intellectuals, largely Jewish, formed in the 1930’s.  That’s as far as I’ve got, so I don’t know as yet, from the book, how they went on intellectually after the 1930’s.   Not all of them were Jewish, of course.  The young intellectuals included sons of established American families who had suddenly fallen on hard times in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  The Jewish boys, sons of very poor immigrant parents, were of the generation excluded from ivy league colleges because of the tight quotas then barring Jews.  So they went to the city colleges, where the student population was in some cases almost 90% Jewish.

The boys were trying to figure out how to enter American society and how to fulfill their parents’ dreams for them.  It was the era when the Soviet Union promised to be the great experiment that would bring to all a just society, overcoming class inequality, giving birth to a world where, as Karl Marx (and later Antonio Gramsci) envisioned it, all people could be renaissance people.  The whole human race would be able to fish in the morning, farm in the afternoon and philosophize or paint in the evening!

Look, kids, each one of these skilled activities takes time, training, moxie and concentration of life energies.  Ask the working farmer, fisherman, philosopher or painter.  No one who has actually done these things for a living could imagine that objective as feasible.  That you could run an economy, much less organize the human species, on the basis of such an end-in-view, was a delusion.  Yet highly intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning young men and women managed to believe it.

Of course, it wasn’t just a case of belief.  In the circles of the believers, you could meet influential people who would publish your stuff in the New Masses.  Or in the Partisan Review, which you and your friends had just launched.  You could put your talents as a writer and dialectician into play!  Suddenly, you had a world!  America – the shining new world that had kept you out or let you down – was coming to you.  Heeding you.

When the Soviet Union finally fell in 1989, I recall one sign that a demonstrator was holding up in a Moscow street:

70 YEARS TO NOWHERE.

The “nowhere” was actually quite blood-drenched.  There is a thick collection of essays, one on each country in the world where the regime called itself by the name of communist, put together by French scholars.  The collection is titled The Black Book of Communism.  The estimate in the Black Book is between 60 and 100 million dead of unnatural causes.  That’s a whale of a lot of murders, boys and girls.  Bad karma.

It’s obviously not the only case of intellectual self-deception.  It happens to be the one that comes to mind as I read about the exciting ferment of life among the New York intellectuals of the 1930’s.

The real question is, why is it that we let ideas lead us “to nowhere”?  Sometimes we come under someone’s influence.  We meet a pied piper with an idea.  But at other times, it’s the idea itself that grips us, and then we find the pied piper to lead to nowhere under its shining banner.

Why? who are we? what are we? that we let ourselves be led in this way, pulled along by an idea that turns out visibly bad only later?

As may be surmised, I’ve done my share of believing things that turned out not to be true, or not as true as I believed them to be.  Ideas are like flashlights, lighting up the dark in front of us.  Or like guiderails, keeping our footing seemingly firm on the rocky escarpments we climb.   It’s hard to put down the flashlight or let go of the guardrail, before you have something else to see by, or to grip.

Even when we begin to sense the holes or gaps in the ideas we presently hold, we fear to let go at the risk of also losing

peer approval,

opportunities for advancement,

and a shared thought-world.

We fear standing alone to face the unknown.

On the other hand, wouldn’t life be dull if we knew in advance just what to think and if truth were handed to us,

on a silver platter,

risk free?

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Private Matters

“Le Touquet”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, circa 1910

Private Matters

The man I love has gone through harrowing surgery this week.  It was not one of the operations currently at the frontier of the surgical arts.  Once, it was.  Now it’s about at the middle.  Surgeons do it every day.  Yet, it’s not trivial.  The whole life system is put in brief storage, then reactivated on a firmer footing.

Never mind the raw details.  If the Good Lord had wanted me to relish those, He would have given me a very different sensibility.

We had less than one week between learning that it was necessary and going through with it.  And we had about four days to put everything we were engaged in, the projects of our two active lives, into storage.  Two kinds of storage had to be prepared:

(a) short term, till the recovery process would be
sufficiently achieved;

(b) “indefinitely,” if there was not going to be
 a recovery process.

So, come to think of it, there was a striking parallel between what was to be done to the body of the patient and what we were doing to the action fields of our lives:

storage,

either provisional or lasting.

If you think we weren’t scared, think again.  We each have a long list of very realistic reasons to believe that we can’t – without extreme diminishment – survive the loss of the other.

When I met Jerry, I wasn’t particularly keen to marry again.  Frankly, I was concerned about the possible sanding down of the crisp edges of my hard-wrought identity.  Hell, I’m a modern woman.  I’d be nuts not to be concerned.  I had a studio apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side for which I paid old rent; a job to kill for; an ambiance both familiar (having grown up there) and aesthetically rich, with nearby parks and museums I loved.  I had come to terms with the broken places in my personal history and looked forward to a life of meaningful work in a field, philosophy, to which I felt a profound commitment.

I married Jerry because I fell in love, in the literal sense of that image.  Once I realized what had happened to me, I tried to fall out of love.  It was like scrambling to get up from the depths of a well with steep, slippery sides — by trying to levitate!  The way down the well seemed natural and irreversible.  The way up could only have been managed artificially.

Something was happening to me on a scale bigger than the life I was managing on my own.  For me, philosophy is not a mental game.  Nor is it, primarily, a career or “profession.”  It’s the search for truth, from age to age.  To pretend that my love for Jerry was a contrivance for me to use at my convenience would be to falsify that love.  Since he felt the same, we had to work out the consequences together: to put “empirical legs under it,” as we said.  To find out what would germinate in that love, we had to live together and not hold back.  That’s called “marriage.”

What I “gave up” – as it looked to me then – were the identity-defining boundaries of my life: institutional supports from the college where I was a philosophy professor; interaction with students I loved; the city where people knew, or could sense, who I was and I didn’t have to explain why I was alone.

It could be that I call this the “Non-Advice Column” because I would never advise another woman to do what I did.  The risks were enormous and obvious.  Suppose we didn’t work out?  Suppose we were not enough for each other?

What happened was better than even I could have imagined.  From the plateau afforded by our love, I could see the broken puzzle pieces of my past begin to come together and to fit inside a larger picture,  with a larger frame.

Philosophical articles I had not been able to put together found their solution.  Projects so remote I scarcely dared to dream of them came into focus as work to be done.  I found the way to untangle morbid human entanglements that I would have thought must travel with me to the grave.

How to explain it?  How should I know?  One could say that, by now, I had become seasoned enough to understand what I was doing and knew that it would prove to be a good bet.  Yeah, but that doesn’t sound like me.  What I often say, laughingly, was that God got tired of looking down and seeing what happened when Abigail relied on her own terrible judgment, and so decided to lean down and take a hand.

So, when I say that we were preparing to put on hold the life we had risked everything to find – you can see how puzzling and terrifying it was.

As of tonight, Jerry is deemed to have come through the surgery successfully and to be on the rocky, upward road of recovery.  It’s been a difficult process.  More than most people I know, Jerry has the gift of acceptance, of the situation he’s in.  Still, he has another gift: truthfulness.  He doesn’t deny to himself the fact that this is quite a painful ordeal.

It’s a mantra of the present age that we each die alone and are alone for the most telling confrontations of our lives.  There’s something to this.  No matter how squishy our relativism, deep down we know where the account books of our lives are kept.  We either have a record we can stand on, or not.

But this week, I have been struck by the presence of friends who sensed intuitively how big and dark was the abyss we were looking at.

Their friendship encircled us —

here –

 right where we stood.

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