So Long As You’re Healthy

 

Asclepius, God of Healing
Fragment of mosaic in Roman public bath, 2nd-3rd century, Kyustendil

So Long As You’re Healthy

Of course I’m not referring to the pandemic.  We’re all suffering from that.  I’m looking at the larger question of health — starting with my own, since I know its story best.

How did I get to be as healthy as I am? (I mean apart from my neuropathy — a totally unwelcome fact, for which I’ve got no explanation.)  But there are a lot of painful or jeopardizing conditions from which, as of this present hour, I am not suffering.  So why not?  Do I have an explanation that could shed a wider light on this interesting question of personal health?

In the philosophy of mind, relations between mind and body have come to be called “the hard problem.” For the dominant school of thought, only physical stuff is real, so of course the existence of consciousness has to be a hard problem.  Since I don’t believe that only physical stuff is real, I don’t have what physicalists call the hard problem.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy for me (or anyone) to navigate the sometimes stormy relations between the body that is mine and the “I” of which I’m conscious.

A few years ago, I had cataract surgery.  At the pre-op visit, my surgeon insisted I watch a film that showed in living color all the unintended bad consequences I’d be risking.  She was mounting her advance defense against a malpractice suit, just in case the operation should prove unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, I was thinking,

Is she CRAZY?

Does she imagine that scaring me to death can have no bad effects on how the surgery comes out?  Does she actually believe the mind has no effect on the body?  Why would she believe that?  They’re living in the same place.  My eyes are in my head and, according to her, my mind’s in my head too.  They’ll never pass each other in the hall?

Anyway, the struggle to live as well as one can in one’s body is inescapable.  I am so constituted that every emotion, within and around me, feels like a wave pounding through permeable membrane. Given an emotional/perceptual system like mine, I could expect my digestive pipes to look like a smoking train wreck.  Instead, on most days, I have the alimentary canal of a healthy six-year-old.

Well, how did that happen?  Glad you asked.  It took a lot of thought and a lot of work.  When I was 22, I went to gastro-intestinal specialists.  They told me to accept the train wreck because I was not a 16-year-old anymore!  Okay guys.  Thanks.  You should all live and be well.

Some years later, I consulted a French psychic.  She ignored the mental factor entirely but did recommend 75 high colonics.  Nowadays this garden-hose-at-the-other-end procedure gets the more genteel name of “hydro-therapy.”  Call it what you will, the Frenchwoman also predicted precisely what the hose would encounter.  Fait accompli.  I got the insides of a healthy six-year-old.

I had no more problems of that kind until, more recently, I found myself in a totally unexpected struggle to oust a predator from a religious institution I greatly valued.  The situation was mainly unexpected because I consider myself a fairly seasoned philosophe whose fine savoir faire has been able tactfully to discourage unwelcome advances of many kinds without making a federal case out of any of them.  This guy turned rejection into counter-attack in a way that was new to me.  When I saw that others had been targeted too, I resolved to fight it out.

I was however worried that I might not weather it.  One has a responsibility to one’s body.  I prayed about that.

“Lord, You know I’m fragile.  This could wreck my insides.”

The answer came before I could draw another breath:

“Never mind that now.

Get this scum out of My house!”

Oh.  Okay.  That settled the question for me.  But although the eventual outcome was what I had been fighting for, it was achieved in a way that seemed both unkind and disrespectful toward me as accuser.

That is not uncommon in such cases, but I felt deeply wounded and offended.  The feeling didn’t go away and meanwhile the intestinal train wreck returned.  Oh dear, I thought.  The bad guys have won after all.  I hate when that happens!

One morning at our brunch, I described my symptoms to Jerry, telling him that the incident would invade consciousness when I woke in the morning or in the night.  In daylight, it was becoming the default position of my mind.  As the months went by, it was getting worse, not better.

“It sounds like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” Jerry said.  “Didn’t we read a book on trauma?”

“That’s right!  In An Unspoken Voice, was the title!” I said.  “I’m gonna try to remember his method.”

The author, Peter A. Levine, had noted that animals in the wild have narrow escapes all the time, yet they bounce back.  Unless they’re in human environments, they go right back to their animal lives.  What do animals know, that we don’t?  They know how to perceive.  They know how not to talk.

We need to scroll back in memory to the first instant when the bad thing happened.  The cure lies there, in the moment before interpretation.

I decided draw memory back to the traumatic denouement of the whole encounter.  I learned two things: the bad guy was leaving but I would be treated as a bad guy too.  How did that scene look to me before I thought about it?

In the first instant, it looked entirely different.  It looked like a win – an extraordinary victory for the good guys, starting with me!

And the blanket of defeat?  That descended a few seconds later.  It was an interpretation, based on comparing it with what I judged to be the appropriate – the ideal — ending.

Once I perceived that first instant, the memory stopped haunting me.  The PTSD went away!  And the train wreck of my alimentary canal?  What happened to those pipes?  Well kids, believe it or not (and I can scarcely believe it myself) –

they’re back to being the pipeline

of a healthy six-year-old.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, books, Chivalry, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romantic Love, scientism, 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, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What Are We Really Arguing About Now?”

Model of 4th Century Rome
by Italo Gismondi, Archeologist

“What Are We Really Arguing About Now?”

My recent columns were about “argument” in the philosopher’s sense of reasoning.  Thinking they might find them of special interest, I’ve sent the columns to philosopher friends.  And was pleased, but not surprised, to find that they engaged with the subject, adding stories of their own about the philosophers I mentioned or dramatic tales of arguments haunted by unstated subtexts.

For instance: there was the world-famous philosopher who was not interested in food.  He took long walks in the woods with my friend, discussing arcane matters while subsisting on candy bars.  And another philosopher whose ideas shaped an epoch but took irreparable offense at the faintest provocation.

It was just as I thought:

philosophers come alive

in the country of argument!

One friend wrote that he is now reading a biography of mathematician/philosopher Frank Ramsey, the book’s appeal being its depiction of the “life in Cambridge during the 1920’s, Bloomsbury people w. Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Ogden, Keynes, Richards, all interacting weekly if not daily.”  On the same principle — that they depict the life-world, the surround in which thinkers like Wittgenstein and Freud found their defining arguments — I’ve read several books about Vienna in the decades before World War II.

For me, human lives – including but not limited to the lives of philosophers – have their defining arguments.  The arguments might be sound or unsound, but as long as their conclusions are believed true, people will live and die by their arguments.

Here’s a case in point: Many years ago, I was chatting with a Tennessee farmer while patting his horse.  I forget what we were talking about, but maybe it was theology.  Anyway, to illustrate his own point, he put his hand way inside the horse’s mouth, back behind the teeth.  “You see,” he said, showing me the smooth gumline, “that’s exactly where you can put the bit.  And some folks say there ain’t a God!”

Now I’ve heard better arguments about God’s existence, and I’ve heard worse.  My point is merely that

on that argument

this man had taken his stand in life.

That’s the role of argument in the life of any one of us.  We may arrive at our premises by empirical observations, via trusted authorities, from intuitions or inspiration – or various combinations of these.  The conclusions we act on will follow from our premises, whether articulated or not.  However come by, there is some argument on which each of us relies in charting our course through time.

The fun and intrigue of exploring de Beauvoir’s Paris is that, for such an opinion-shaper, the life of her argument finds its shape, its thrusting force and its defining resistances, in the life of her time and her city.

All of which leads me to ask:

What is the shaping argument –

of our time and place?

The question arises in unprecedented circumstances.  We are all more or less globalized now.  So the opinion-shaping argument cannot be found reflecting the character of a city like Paris or Vienna.  The world is our city now.

In the bygone cities where philosophers once lived, conversed and wrote, human understanding seemed to progress by an effort of reasoning.  The advice of Socrates, in his Athens, may be paraphrased as follows:

“Don’t force the argument, don’t cheat your way to victory with rhetorical effects, don’t manipulate, don’t try to impress the unwary.”

Follow the argument where it leads.

If one can identify a culture or epoch by locating its defining argument, what are we, citizens of the world-city, arguing about now?  Or are we just squabbling multitudinously?  Is there — can there be — a world-spanning argument?

Well, let me give it go.

The real argument is about whether we, who inhabit our human world, with its reciprocities and its tensions, its truthful moments and its deceptions, its unfairness and occasional restitutions, will continue to dwell in our human incompleteness — facing the worst and acknowledging the best – as best we can.

Or, alternatively, will we reject the only world we have, and the imperfect people we are, preferring what Albert Camus called

“an unreal city in the future”?

That’s what the argument is all about.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, books, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Ontology, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, status, status of women, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Love of the Argument

Blackboard of Mathematician
Photo by Jessica Wynne

For Love of the Argument

I first met Bryan Magee when he was visiting Sidney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy.  My then husband was teaching there and I had been granted a nice little niche as “Research Affiliate.”

We had Magee over to dinner at our flat, where he commended the meal, especially “this fish.”

“This fish,” I grinned haplessly, “is chicken.”

So I’m not a natural chef.  So better I should know it now.

In the British set-up, only one person in a department gets to be the professor.  At Trad and Mod, David M. Armstrong, the celebrated “Australian materialist,” was the Professor.  (The term “materialist” designates the metaphysical claim that only physical stuff is real; it does not refer to a person’s fixation on things like food, clothes or money.)

As is the wont of Aussie hosts, Armstrong invited Magee to go with him on a reduced-scale bushwalk.  Magee, an urban type, was soon crimson and perspiring.

“How anyone can think of this as pleasure … baffles me,” he commented when the mid-life fraternity initiation was finally over.

He’d been an M.P.,  a Member of Parliament, and was a worldly man with plenty of stories to tell.  Since I never saw him engage in contests of conceptual agility with the colleagues at Trad and Mod,  I never pegged him for a philosopher precisely.  But he was.

These nights, I’ve been reading Magee’s paperback book titled Men of Ideas: Some Creators of Contemporary Philosophy.  It records dialogues he held with 15 leading Anglo-American philosophers, originally a highly successful BBC television series.  It came out in the 1980’s but, despite changes in fashion, I doubt that the shape of its own cutting edge has been much sharpened or sanded down since then.

He spoke with 14 men and one woman, each very distinct thinkers.  If you suppose it would be easy to get each one to encapsulate his or her philosophic views and then respond to precise and searching questions … well you probably never did imagine doing that would be easy.  Bet your boots it’s not easy.

Did you want to know the difference between the early and late Wittgenstein?  Here is Anthony Quinton, Trinity College, Oxford, to explain.  The early Wittgenstein held that meaning consists in the naming of objects in the world.  A fact is a certain arrangement of objects in the world and a meaningful sentence would be an arrangement of the names of those objects so as to picture — or have a form corresponding to — that external arrangement.  Nothing could be clearer.  The only trouble was that most of our communications don’t exhibit that kind of clarity.  When we say, for example, “he really knows how to behave” or “that’s morally (or aesthetically) unacceptable,” we have something in view not captured by early Wittgenstein.

And the late Ludwig?  He does a complete about-face.  I don’t know of anything like it in the whole history of philosophy.  Now he holds that meaning arises within the particular context where we speak.  So we look for the specifics of the situation in which language is actually used.  The great philosophers raised scaffolds of abstract theory, on which their views of meaning were hung.  So the job of today’s philosopher would be to dismantle the tradition’s scaffolding and recover the circumstances where the philosopher’s displaced terms are used in their everyday sense.

Do you wonder why you never read the novels or philosophic work of Iris Murdoch — only her husband’s pathetic account of her last decline?  Well never mind all that.

Magee’s interview with Murdoch in her heyday focuses on the difference between writing novels and writing philosophy, as she sees it, having done both.  She turns out to have a very elegant mind and to explain that difference with great assurance.  Philosophic writing has to be utterly clear in defining its problems, its terms, methods and how its resolutions would look.  Whereas novels dwell in the half-light, where life retains its mysteries, ambiguities and surprises.  Even its resolutions are never complete or definitive.

My goodness, I thought, imagine having so definite a view of these differences and yet being able to do both!  It’s like going on a workmanlike hike and also, with the same body, engaging in a flying trapeze act in roughly the same time span!   I can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat!  Formidable!

Do you wonder what Noam Chomsky is about, aside from his torrentially flawed anti-Israel polemics?  Well, glad you asked.  It seems that, prior to Chomsky, childrens’ acquisition of language had been explained by B. F. Skinner.  The child sees a red ball.  The ball is the stimulus.  She is told to call it “red.” The word “red” is the response.  Eventually, she acquires the habit of saying “red” whenever she sees the red ball.  This is called “Behaviorism” and it dominated the field of linguistics before Chomsky.

What Chomsky noticed was the child’s skill in putting newly-acquired sounds together, assembling them according to grammatical rules that were not acquired in this way, or even taught at all at the age when complex speech patterns first show themselves.  To try, on the stimulus/response model, to explain the syntactical rules that children master without being taught them, would be like explaining the complex guidelines to which bees conform in their beehives, on the Skinnerian model.  Obviously, what bees know, they know innately.  They don’t have to be taught.  Similarly, human beings are born knowing a good deal about how to speak.

So here are three philosophers lifted out of Magee’s 15.  Their differences are evident, but what do they have in common?

They come alive in argument.  They live in that inner space where the reasoning process lives.  They recognize each other as citizens within that realm.

Long ago Socrates warned against the hatred of reason.  He said that newcomers to philosophy meet with a few bad arguments and rush to the judgment that no argument can lead one toward truth.  But that’s analogous to someone who, disappointed by his earliest friends, decides that no human being is any good.

In fact, says Socrates, few among us are outstandingly good and few are outstandingly bad.  Most are somewhere in between.  And it’s the same with arguments.  So, we should avoid

misology, the hatred of reason —

since it resembles misanthropy, the hatred of human beings.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, books, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Fashion, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Institutional Power, Journalism, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, novels, Ontology, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, 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, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Argument

Abbie in a previous identity, Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Argument

Arguing, in the philosophical sense, doesn’t mean quarreling.   The term “argument” designates one or more statements, each capable of being true or false, which present the basis for a final statement called the conclusion.  If the conclusion is supported by the previous statements (which are called premises or reasons) the argument is valid.  If in addition, the premises are true, the argument is sound.

Simple enough.  When someone says — about the case another person is making for his views –

“That doesn’t follow!”

she’s discounting his conclusion because of the way he arrived at it.

And when she says, about the reasons he gives for his beliefs –

“That’s not true!”

she means that, even if his reasoning was okay, his starting point was wrong.

So, in a general way, we all know what arguments are and we know how to evaluate them.  What no one teaches us is what is actually going on in real life.

I once attended a meeting at the American Philosophical Association where Christina Hoff Sommers, the well-known critic of contemporary feminism, was giving a talk to a packed hall of feminist philosophers.  For me, though I have my own reservations about some of the pathways taken by this or that variant of feminism, taking on Christina’s role would be a one-way ticket to cancer.  An auditorium of wall-to-wall angry women is an audience I could not face.  But there’s Christina, doin’ her number!

We got to the Q & A and one woman philosopher raised her hand to object:

“You have not given an argument!”

Now Christina had given about ten arguments (that is, reasons for her particular conclusions) but she was so astonished to hear an objection

of the masculine type in that setting,

that she appeared stumped, unable to recall her own reasons for her conclusions.  Her comeback, as I recall it, was that arguments weren’t needed or that what she’d just presented was lots better than an argument.

You can lose an argument for reasons that are irrelevant or even false.  Even though, in a cooler moment, you knew that.

Jerry and I spent the past week in California, where I go periodically for treatments for my neuropathy.  Since in this Time of Plague we were not planning to see family or friends, the question loomed, how would we pass the time between treatments?  We couldn’t go to a movie or a concert.  We couldn’t take walks because I have neuropathy.  There were only so many episodes of “Friends” we could bear to watch.

Finally, I thought of the solution.  Jerry’s an accomplished logician.  Why not go over the art of argument as it occurs in real life?  I can hold my own on paper, or inside the boundaries of an intellectual space where the terms are understood and the shared objective is truth.  But when I get blindsided in real life, I often find myself speechless and defenseless.  So, when that happens, what I need to know is,

What’s really going on?

and

what needs to be done about it?

Take one example:  I am insulted by the husband of a friend.  He smilingly offers his medley of reasons for concluding that what I  said should be discounted because I am the one saying it.

It’s called the ad hominem fallacy.  Why then am I rendered speechless?  Oh, so glad you asked!  It’s because I don’t want to counter-attack, since I fear it would hurt or offend his wife — who is my friend.  If she’s such a friend, you say, why doesn’t she rise to your defense, or at least applaud your counter-attack?  Puleese.

Here’s another example: Jerry and I meet an old friend of his for lunch at a restaurant in D.C.  Their friendship dates from grad school days.  The old friend begins a discussion with me, about Israel, which he steers toward the point where he can ask me a loaded question.  I begin to respond but he cuts me off, declaring —

“I can’t talk about Israel to — an American Jew!”

The one-syllable word “Jew,” flung in one’s face that way, is being used as an epithet.  A man doesn’t hurl an epithet at a woman.  A colleague (which he was) doesn’t hurl an epithet at another colleague (which I was).  A friend doesn’t fling an epithet at the wife of a friend.

So what did I say?  I said nothing at all, though I didn’t spend too much more time at lunch.  Most of the hour remaining I spent in the Women’s Room.

Women friends, to whom I confided the story later, all reproached me for not hitting back.  The real reason I didn’t verbally hit back was that I didn’t want to goad Jerry into a man-to-man kind of fight over a woman, where each combatant has to outdo the other to prove his manhood.  The ensuing quarrel between the men was conducted by email.  Their friendship didn’t survive the incident but I didn’t make it worse or cause the breakup.

I could go on, and in fact our logic lessons in California called up memory after memory of this kind.  In actual human encounters, a surround of issues hovers over the reasoning process.  All the fallacies covered in the logic textbooks fail to cover actual arguments in their real life surround.

My conclusion?  If I weren’t in the middle of several projects needing to be seen through to completion, how about a logic textbook analyzing actual argument situations – bringing in their surround – and recommending effective stratagems?

Gentle Reader, do you hear the faint summons?   You would be doing a real service and I’ll wager you could get very rich.

It’s virgin territory.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, bad faith, beauty, Biblical God, books, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master/slave relation, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Roles, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, 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, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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 | 2 Comments

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