This week, when Jewish time has been flowing between the New Year 5781 and the sacrosanct Day of Atonement, I have asked a couple of people I know for forgiveness. It’s the time of year when this is required, for any wrong one has done to another.
I can’t imagine anyone performing this duty with ease, which is doubtless one reason why these are called the Days of Awe. For my part, I can’t recall ever having done it at any time before this past week. Whether it’s easy or hard,
I never did it.
So what’s different now? What made me do it this time round? Only that, this season, I felt the Drumbeat of Urgency. There was Something blocking my path and I did not feel as if I could get round it.
The protocol for the Days of Awe has it that, before you can effectively pray to God for forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, you must first square it with the persons you have injured. Your fellow mortals.
Until you’ve done that, don’t even send God a letter! The Lord won’t open it! God doesn’t want to hear from you, and will be disinclined to help you till you’ve made it good – or as good as you can – with the ones you hurt.
The odd thing was, I could literally feel it – the force of this protocol! Ordinarily, it’s not particularly rare for me to sense the Shekinah, the presence of God, in one way or another. Not this week. I felt like someone trying to get past the glass door behind which she sees the lights of a party to which she was not invited.
Sorry. Got to show
Got to show a real one!
Not that thing.
It was worse than being snubbed socially by The Beautiful People. Not only are you not invited – but you know it!
So what happened after I asked the ones I had injured for forgiveness? One of the people, to whom I sent my spelled-out-in-some-detail regrets, responded so handsomely, so lovingly, that it actually felt as if the whole world had undergone extensive repairs. The other one, also a congregant, has not responded as yet.
The third injured party was the one I couldn’t find. That injury dates back to the first years after we’d both graduated from Barnard College. I hadn’t thought of the incident in years, or perhaps even considered it an injury at all. Only now did I get a sense of what my words might have meant to her!
We’d both majored in philosophy. She became a psychotherapist. I became … whatever I became. There was a time when, some years later, she happened to befriend the man who would turn out to become my first husband. When John told her that he hoped to marry her college friend Abigail, any bitterness she might have felt did not prevent her saying to him, “You couldn’t do better. She’s the best!”
John later reported to me that she expressed alarm after he’d boasted to her that, during all the months of courtship, we had never had a fight. In the realms of psychotherapy, I gather that’s not a good sign. Whatever the merits of psychoanalytic lore, those people do have experience. She’d been right to be alarmed. John and I couldn’t work out our differences and our marriage did not last.
Unrepaired injuries don’t go away. So I very much wanted to contact her again. However, I was not successful. She was not in the online Album of my college class. I looked through my calendar books but none contained her number. Whether or not she’s still in the Book of Life, at this point the injury I did her looks irreparable. I am sorry. Despite what I implied at the time, it was not her fault. It was mine. That said, it might be that I get some points for trying, since I sense that now, once more,
The Abduction of Rebecca by Eugène Delacroix, 1846
When one has been through a difficult passage in the course of one’s life, it’s common to get the collective advice from Job’s Comforters:
get over it!
I’ve always thought that was very bad advice – except maybe for horses with fences to jump. For us people, by contrast, the real challenge is to getthrough it – normally by getting way down to the bottom of it, navigating that and suffering it through.
As I mentioned in a previous column, for the past ten days we’ve been in California, first at a conference of the Eric Voegelin Society in L.A., where Jerry and I each had papers to present, and then, farther south on the coast, at a clinic where from time to time I get beneficial neuropathy treatments not available elsewhere.
By far the most telling event was the EVS conference. Eric Voegelin was a rare thinker: enormously erudite, courageously anti-Nazi in the Vienna of the 1930’s, and gifted with one original insight of the greatest value.
What insight was that? It’s that the study of human beings, whether as individuals or in their cultures, shouldn’t be confined to their competing interests – for survival, power and the rest – but should also take into account their spiritual breakthroughs!
Since my personal experience of people supports that kind of curiosity, this alone would foster sympathy for the published works of Eric Voegelin. Also, the academics drawn to him have taken care to keep their own windows of the soul ajar – in one degree or another. Which means one is presenting work to, or hearing from, some unusually fine-tuned people.
That said, I set off for the conference with feelings more deeply troubled and torn than I’d allowed myself to know, as we packed and got going. The inaugural volume of Voegelin’s magisterial, five volume Order and History is titled Israel and Revelation. He credits Biblical Israel with having discovered what he calls “the form of history,” meaning history insofar as it has spiritual direction and purpose.
Yet Volume I is seeded with denigrations of the Israelites and the successor Jews. For this purpose, he partly draws on the Biblical narratives themselves, which are openly and incessantly self-critical and self-exposing. (For a late example of self-criticism, Rabbi Jesus’ criticisms of Pharisaic pretense are drawn from the familiar array of parables that the Pharisees cited against themselves!) It would be all too easy and convenient to overlook the spiritual heights that this level of self-criticism commands and just zero in on the bad report cards. That kind of misreading would be superficial but not necessarily malicious.
However, in passages scattered throughout Volume I, Voegelin goes far beyond this, falsely accusing Jews of an exclusively ethnic self-concern accompanied by hatred of mankind. In doing so, he employs most or all of the denigrations that – collected together – add up toperennial anti-semitism. Since he had written against Nazi racial theories and narrowly escaped the retributive hand of the Gestapo, he had every reason to know how dangerous – how lethal! – such misreadings of the Biblical narrative are.
The paper I read (which pulled as many punches as I could live with pulling) was well received and, I suspect, perfectly well understood – including the parts I didn’t put in the paper. So, what continued to trouble me? Well, speaking frankly, there are things that trouble me that might only glance off people differently constituted.
Here’s the trouble: Voegelin knew personally a number of pathbreaking Jewish thinkers, whose concerns were universal, in the intellectual circles that he frequented in Vienna before the War. In his Volume I, published in 1956, he often references Martin Buber, whose categories transcend the parochial, and he does so deferentially. He is rumored to have cherished a discretely romantic attachment to a young Jewish woman (a beauty, I presume) whose distinguished family patronized the arts from their palaces in Paris and Vienna.
Ergo: he knew better.
One of my private ways of assessing an opaque personality is to imagine what it would be like to make love with that guy. To quote the great Mae West, “A man’s kiss is his signature.”
If, in imagination, I submit Eric Voegelin to the Abigail Test – all I can say is –
We’ve been in California for the past week and a half for hybrid purposes: first a conference of the Eric Voegelin Society in Los Angeles at which Jerry and I each gave papers, followed next by four days of treatments for me at the Neuropathic Therapy Center at Loma Linda, CA.
Each back-to-back turn of this two-fold plot had its own entirely distinct significance and implications – the first of course intellectual and the second obviously physical. Likewise, the impact of each will take time and call for its own separate species of assimilation.
Meantime, en route and at bedtime, I’ve been reading the book whose title you see above, which reports on cases, more readily studied in animal behavior, where mind and body have more influence on each other than is explained by our currently admitted theories.
Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist, who has studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard. He’s a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, a member of many scientific societies, a Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge in the U.K., and the author of numerous articles as well as four previous books. His books are based on research projects he has conducted, which challenge current orthodoxy regarding living things. What orthodoxy is that? That “living organisms are nothing but complex genetically programmed machines. They are supposed to be [in essence] inanimate, literally soulless.”
The cover photo of Sheldrake’s latest book, Dogs that Know, etc., shows an expectant-looking dog sitting with his back to us, and his face to the front door. As experimental research reported in this book will show, this may be one of those dogs that knows his owner is about to come home, even though the time of that return deviates from the owner’s ordinary routine and the place from which the owner returns is out of earshot, eyeshot, and smell range. What is more, the owner who will come home has not yet gotten up from his desk, put on his hat or coat, or even put away his tasks for the day. So far, all he has done is silently form the intention to return home.
The research Sheldrake reports in this book is based on “hundreds of people experienced in dealing with animals,” including “dog trainers, veterans, blind people with guide dogs, zoo keepers, kennel proprietors and people who work with horses.” To this, the research project added two thousand more responses from people reached through public appeals, plus formal surveys “involving random samples” in the U.S. and the U.K. and, lastly, “experimental investigations” designed by Sheldrake.
What’s the upshot? In cases that considerably outdo and outnumber what could be expected under the laws of chance, animals know when their owners are coming home even when habitual patterns, times and sites of origin vary. Where there is a bond between pet and owner, the anticipatory behavior starts when the owner has formed the homecoming intention but has not yet acted on it.
Animals show a sense of homing direction even when setting out from previously unfamiliar starting points.
Animals can foretell events without sensory clues.
I won’t belabor these points or detail the kinds of evidence marshalled. Any reader who is curious is hereby encouraged to check out Sheldrake’s book, with its many fascinating cases and shrewd experimental techniques – carefully designed to rule out the ordinary sorts of explainings-away.
Since I’ve had at least one distinct, unforgettable and unmistakably precognitive dream, as well as a few visions that, pointedly and correctly, predicted future events, none of this upsets any views, philosophic or other, that I hold or have ever held. Personally, I don’t doubt the reality of telepathy, influence at a distance or precognition. The question this book – with its compelling evidence – raises for me is of another kind.
At present, our culture takes as established the reductionist claims that consciousness has no independent existence apart from the physico-chemical substructure of which it is believed to be composed and on which it is believed to depend. This reductionist and mechanistic view of underlying reality affects, in one degree or another, our theories of psychology, interpersonal relations, aesthetics, painting and sculpture, architecture and political relations. The conception of society as a war of forces – oppressor v. oppressed – derives directly from the view that brute power is the hidden truth of social, cultural and erotic life. There is nothing deliberately cynical or deflationary about these views. How else could our lives be conceived if an underlying war of brute forces is supposed to be the most comprehensive explanatory principle?
My present question is this: what would architecture, city planning, elementary schooling, higher education, social life, courtship and political theory look like if we outgrew our mechanistic metaphysical views?
Cultures rest on what their most knowledgeable strata believe about reality. If Sheldrake’s book is one early indication that our culture’s now-dominant beliefs are about to change, it’s probably time to start visualizing the effects of these changes on the way we live now.
This is a deliberately big book, 585 pages of text, with nearly a hundred more pages of notes and index. Its ambition is also huge: to present and explain the relation between American identity on the one hand, and on the other, the Jews and Israel. Mead takes that relation to register our changing sense of what it is to be an American.
Evidently, the topic Mead has set himself overspills the boundaries of political history as standardly conceived. His stated purpose is “to clear away the mistaken ideas and perceptions that any conversation about the Jewish people naturally and inevitably attracts.”
What’s packed into Mead’s view of “any conversation” about Jews? Well, he enters his imaginary conversation by countering a misconception he calls “the Vulcan theory.” Mead borrows the name from a 19th-century hypothesis that explained irregularities in planetary motion by postulating the existence of a planet, “Vulcan,” whose gravitational field would account for those deviations. As it turned out, Einstein’s relativity theory would better explain the irregularities and the hypothetical planet soon dropped from scientific memory.
Here’s Mead’s analogy: when U.S. foreign policy bends toward Israel favorably, “Vulcanists” imagine that a hidden cabal of Jews is exerting gravitational force sufficient to pull our policy makers out of orbit. However, as Mead shows in several examples, our policy bends toward Israel only when the bend is thought to be in our national interest. More important for Mead’s argument, when policy-makers in Washington think our national interest conflicts with Israel’s, Jewish voters and lobbyists have been powerless to reverse those decisions.
That’s interesting, and – where he gives instances of U.S. policy bending against the preferences of pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC – informative. However, as an explanation for the “theory” of hidden and nefarious Jewish power, his analogy with the Vulcan hypothesis seems to me strained. I have seen “the theory”— of a nefarious and hidden Jewish cabal – take deforming shape in the minds of people whose previous relations with Jews had been close, loving and well-informed. Jews were not an unknown planet to these people. In my experience, what had contorted their thinking was a gap – a moment of unsolved crisis or personal defeat – a felt disconnectionbetween the links in the narrative of their own lives. Western culture contains layer on layer of anti-Jewish theology and literature. Any of these layers can be grasped at to fill a personal gap.
After purportedly clearing away the “Vulcan” misconceptions, Mead takes up the history of the Zionist project. Once again we see Theodor Herzl. He is a journalist, now in Paris on assignment from a fashionable Viennese paper. He witnesses the drumming out of Captain Alfred Drefus, the Jewish officer framed on a false charge of treason and convicted. From the anti-semitic cries of the crowd, Herzl senses the ominous implications for the Jewish future in Europe. The story of Herzl’s negotiations with figures on the world stage – the Kaiser, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Pope Pius X, King Victor of Italy, Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, British sympathizers who were Zionists avant la lettre – all this Mead retells, freshening his story with details not widely known. Noted too is the reluctance of assimilated European or American Jews to welcome the Zionist movement, concerned that it might open them to accusations of dual loyalty.
Now we go back a few centuries. There had been a strand in British Protestantism, visible in America’s earliest settlements, of attachment to the King James Bible and consequent spiritual openness to Jews. In the nineteenth century, that strand blended with American enthusiasm for national independence movements, like those in Greece and Italy. Such enthusiasts raised the question of Jews returning to Zion long before American Jews expressed any interest. Palestine was a preoccupation with Americans. Our countrymen wanted to visit it. Lincoln, on the morning of the day he was assassinated, spoke to his wife of a voyage to Palestine, as something they could look forward to after his term of office had been served.
Such is the setting for the further story that Mead tells, chapter by chapter, down to the present day. The Balfour Declaration, named after British Zionist Arthur Balfour and endorsed by the League of Nations after World War I, established a British mandate for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
We have quite a story. It’s got chronological depth, geographical breadth, theological controversies, territorial rivalries and great power competitions extending down to the present hour. Clearly, no single version of a story like that could please every reader. How should Mead’s version be judged? It’s well stocked with information and well written. Is it marred by any omissions or additions that should be of concern?
I think so. The omissions are important. Let me cite just two of them.
Entries for Gaza in the Index do not include the government of Israel’s voluntary withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which forced the removal of about 8,000 Israeli settlers, with homes, schools, neighborhoods and small manufacturies in a place they’d called home since 1967. The Israeli decision was unilateral, carried out without concessions from the other side. It was effected by the Israeli military and bitterly contested politically on the home front. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expected that the territory thus vacated would be converted to peaceful manufacture and agricultural uses. Instead and immediately, Gaza became the base for tunnels running up to and under the Israel border and rockets, thousands of which have since been launched into Israel, resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties and deaths. This is a rather large omission.
Now take Mead’s account of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. It occurs in three stages. The first occurrence is on p. 312, in the context of Henry Kissinger advising Israel not to launch preemptive attacks that Golda Meir was allegedly “contemplating.” Next, on p. 328, we get a description of the battles, with Egypt and Syria achieving “significant initial successes” till Israel manages to push them back and gain new ground. Only on p. 331 do we learn that Israel was unwarned by the United States which knew of the pending attacks, unsupplied with vitally needed arms, and “worried about the sustainability of their position.” In other words, totally surprised and running out of weapons, the Israeli military was unable to carry on the fight and close to capitulation. (Mead fails to mention that, rather than live to see Israel’s surrender, Prime Minister Golda Meir privately planned her own suicide.) By the time the attentive reader has put the clues together, the meaning of the story – Israel’s close brush with national annihilation – has been frittered away. In sum, Mead’s partial disclosures (with disjoined pagination) of what actually happened in the Yom Kippur war are misleading. Clearly he means to give equal weight to “both sides.” But it seems that, in these and other cases, Mead has mistaken even-handedness for full, objective and truthful reporting.
What about additions? Mead sometimes describes at length certain claims that target Jews to demeaning or discrediting effect. Here the well-known distinction between use and mention might be consulted. When the word is what’s being referred to, we have an instance of mention. Otherwise, when the word refers to something beyond itself, we have the word in use. With respect to that distinction, I will not quote Mead’s own quotations and paraphrases of demeaning language about Jews, since mention can blend into use. From what I’ve noticed, the more a demeaning word or discrediting claim is mentioned – the more smoothly that blending is achieved.
All I can say about use and mention, in Mead’s version of this long story, is that –
Straight ahead for us this week is a trip to California, with complex, hybrid purposes. Following an academic weekend in L.A., where both of us are presenting papers at the Eric Voegelin Society (which is a group within the American Political Science Association), we spend whatever remains of the post-Labor Day week getting me more treatments for my neuropathy. The preparations for such a two-purpose trip have been varied, complex, with unexpected add-ons, and have had to be pressed into the few days still available.
Some people spend heavy money to acquire the power to get in touch with their feelings. For better or worse, that’s not my problem. My feelings know where I live. I’ll just convey some of the facts and attendant feelings around my paper to be presented at the Los Angeles EVS meetings. EVS, that’s the “Eric Voegelin Society.” Who’s he? He was an extremely learned, thoughtful and serious thinker, who wrote against Nazi racial doctrines in the 1930’s prior to the Second World War, and narrowly escaped the long, pitiless, retributive hand of the Gestapo in consequence. Later, he taught and had an important scholarly influence in the United States.
What was special about him? Unlike typical political scientists, Voegelin held the view — actually and openly — that the many-layered history of humanity can be rightly understood only if one factors in the spiritual element (in the lives of individuals, groups and cultures).
Such a view, unencumbered by dogmatism or received doctrines, is highly unusual for an academic in the field of political science — or any field in a nonsectarian curriculum for that matter. As an enterprise, instanced in books, with papers presented at meetings such as the upcoming one in L.A., it’s both courageous and amply supported by scholarship. Also, the academics who give papers at the EVS tend to be gentler, less concerned to get in their knockout blow ahead of the other guy, than has been my experience at academic conferences of the standard sort.
That said, in Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation, I’ve found egregiously negative views of Hebrew Scripture, of Jews and Judaism, that (to my mind) fall far short of fairness. In just one example among many, he writes of Israelite “habituation, institutionalization, and ritualization” that “degenerate sooner or later into a captivity of the spirit … that has become demonic imprisonment.” Can I be the first person to have noticed this?
Let me briefly spell out my own view of Hebrew Scripture (more commonly known as “The Old Testament”). It gives us the first example of human life in history with God-as-Witness. What do I mean by human “life in history”? I mean life in identifiable circumstances, unfolding in linear time, that you can still dig up, in geographical space, locatable on a map, in contact with adjacent real cultures having languages you can decipher. (Among those ancient languages, only Hebrew is still spoken in a real culture and a territory partly congruent with the land described in Hebrew Scripture. And Jews are still adhering to many of the practices ordained for them in the first Five Books of said Scripture, the Pentateuch.)
What kind of story is told in the aforementioned Books? In the main, it’s not been prettied up. For a sacred text animating a whole people, this frankness about discreditable parts of the story is, so far as I know, unique. Likewise, according to George Foote Moore’s magisterial three volume work, Judaism, the rabbinic commentary on the Tanach (Hebrew Scripture) is notable in preserving minority as well as majority opinions on its interpretations and rulings.
So it’s not so divine that the human presence has been booted out, or banished Upstairs. These self-exposing, self-critical features are what tell me that God is in it. Whatever its omissions or simplifications, to my mind, the story is essentially true. So, for students of political history who don’t conform to the academic etiquette of atheism, the project of Eric Voegelin can be of the very greatest interest.
For Voegelin to publish these slurs on the Israelite story can have only one explanation: at least only one that’s persuasive to me. It’s the more delicately expressed version of what Esau says to his father Isaac, after he learns that his brother Jacob has “stolen” the paternal blessing first, ahead of Esau his older brother. Esau’s complaint bears what my father called the most “bitter reality.”
Why have Jacob’s descendants, the Jews and modern, reborn Israel, been targeted for the longest continuous hatred in recorded history?
Does this mean that others get no blessing? Of course, it does not mean that. Not even in Hebrew Scripture does it mean that, much less in rabbinic discussion afterward. But if it’s history you are talking about, taking place in linear time, there must be a before and after, a first and a next that follows. For all I know, the “next” may in certain respects be an improvement. It’s a record of occurrences later in time. Much has happened and been learned. Appreciations are in order. Gratitude is in order. But to pretend that this historical sequence ought to be burdened with calumnies, that’s been –
When people are no longer present to each other, or able – in an unforced way – to walk in and out of each other’s days, the risk is that spatial distance will become psychic distance. That’s when measures of psychic exertion are necessary if the connection is to be kept alive.
In the small town in Downeast Maine where my parents owned a home, there lives a couple whom I’ve known since my high school days. I knew her first when she was my father’s philosophy student – the only one he ever had who went from an F to an A in one semester. She grew up on a midwestern farm and had never heard of Plato! Back then, I considered her the most beautiful girl in New York. In those days, her husband was a sports writer. His career came to a crashing halt after he wrote an expose of a football coach – very popular in his home town. The coach’s lawsuit was subsequently upheld by the home town jury.
My friends proved amazingly resilient. They relocated to Maine, where they continued as writers, but in a different field. Eventually, they made their own nationally admired contribution to that new field. It was they who encouraged my parents to rent a summer place in Maine, where eventually my parents would buy an antebellum house on the bay. My parents were assured that the old lady who owned it would soon be moving to an assisted care facility and they could move in as soon as that happened. Actually, it took another year before she moved. My mother said, “I bought the house with the old lady in it!”
My parents were liked in the town. Years later, a neighbor remarked to newcomers, “Too bad you missed the Rosenthals. They were beautiful people.” My mother was reckoned “almost a saint.” (The almost gives an idea of the precision with which judgments of character were rendered in that locale.)
After my parents died, I drove north from New York to unpack the furniture and possessions that had been sent by truck to the house, reopen accounts at the bank and the local stores, and reopen their friendships, now on my own. To the couple I’d known since girlhood, nothing had to be “reopened.” I could tell them whatever needed telling. Though I’d dreaded facing the silences in the now-empty house on the bay, in fact, to my surprise, I found the very silences friendly.
The house and the town became a great shelter and refuge in my life. It turned out to be the only place on God’s green earth where a certain purveyor of defamatory New York gossip was not believed. Only there were earlier chapters of my personal history framed in common memory. After my divorce from the first husband, the local cracker-barrel philosopher assured me, “There’s lots more fish in the sea.” (I think he meant for me to give the local boys a chance.)
The couple I’ve mentioned had been there to witness one story after another. When, after my seven-year job struggle, I was finally reinstated with tenure, they were the first we told in person. With my mother, I drove over to their place to do cartwheels (or Abbie’s facsimile thereof) on their green lawn.
The other day, we talked by phone long distance. I had to crank up the courage to call. Sometimes, longing itself can be a barrier. One puts certain emotional ties inside the steel brackets of memory, and only with an effort can the brackets still be pulled apart.
Nevertheless, as we talked, the fun and familiarity that can only be found in the present came storming back, stronger and fresher even than the bygone train of the remembered years had been.
It was almost painful, this transition from the achieved past, with its accompanying nostalgia, to the present and its quite different longing –
to be filled to the brim with an unfinished friendship.
This morning at brunch, Jerry asked me what I thought were the big philosophic problems of our time. What are the great questions and concerns? I had to take a few moments to squint at the sky and describe whatever first came to mind. (Brunch is a fun time for us.)
So far as I can see, I said to Jerry, the biggest questions fall into two distinct regions of experience:
nature and history.
Where nature is concerned, here are some of the questions: how rightly to live in nature, preserving (and not ruining) her realm; how to comport oneself as a member of the natural order; how to be (as far as possible) healthy; how to plumb her secret springs, i.e., find out her ways and laws. The great systems of philosophy have in the past piggy-backed on the best natural sciences available. The 17th-century’s famous “quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns” reflected philosophy’s struggle to absorb the Copernican/Keplerian/Galilean findings in physics and yet try to rebuild the world in terms still meaningful to human beings. For Kepler, “God speaks the language of mathematics.” For Aristotle, whose account of nature best represented “the Ancients,” the natural order contained a hierarchy of purposes, into which we human beings, with our purposes, could be fitted quite smoothly. If you took the Aristotelian hierarchy one step higher, as for example Dante did, the natural and supernatural layers clicked into their respective places harmoniously.
Modernity is about three centuries old. It’s been a huge wrench, a backache for our species. Human beings have been trying to find the right chiropractic ever since. Its questions are still with us. Does teleology, the language of purpose, reassert itself at the most elementary physical level, where the littlest particles become definite things — depending on whether or not they are observed? Does the purposive mind return after all — to play an unexpected part in the career of these infinitesimal particles – which the moderns have (typically, up till now) conceived as mindless? And, by the way, what part do spontaneous remissions play in the modern understanding of disease? I try to stay away from doctors, because I don’t want my body acting out their horrible, supposedly-neutral predictions based on the probabilities!
We look to the East for systems of understanding that foreground proper comportment in a social order stabilized by its accommodation to nature. Would Confucianism be such a system? Or can nature itself provide methods that effect a transcendence of the natural and the social orders? Would Advaita Vedanta, or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras show the way to that kind of transcendence of nature through nature?
Now that our planet is getting smaller, allowing members of one culture access to the theories and practices of other cultures, there is excitement compressed in the contemporary questions about how to live naturally.
Answers and methods are on offer.
We can but try.
The second facethat reality turns toward us nowadays — the other big question it poses is — how to live in history. According to Eric Voegelin, a thinker of continuing international influence who was concerned with the meaning of history, this question is not as old as the previous one. It makes its appearance only three or four thousand years ago. The people of Israel were the ones who first explored it. What did they see? They saw the divine component at work and making a difference — not just in nature — but on the timeline linking the human past to the human future.
For the people of Israel, the divine is not just a force in nature. It expects things of us, orders us to live a certain way, gives commands (ten big ones), orders us to remember and recordthe story of our interactions with the divine in real time, real space and real human cultures. The story goes forward step by step, one foot in front of the other, at times under the leadership of individuals who can hear the commands better than other people can.
So where are we now, we earnest seekers for truth, with respect to the original challenge of history? It seems that, for better or worse, we still live in “interesting times.” Unfortunately, the intrinsic interest of our times has been obscured by certain views that have been in fashion for at least the past hundred years.
If you combine the ingredients of Charles Darwin, Frederick Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, you’ve got the recipe for obscuring history. How? Via a doctrine or hypothesis that assigns the major human purposes to the Unconscious! Here’s how it works: I tell you that I want to get from point A to point B. I tell you that this is my purpose. If you read the fashionable post-Freudian, post-modern opinion-shapers, you will tell me that I can’t know that this is what I really want. You tell me that my professed purposes merely veil unconscious ones that might well horrify me if only I could see them clear.
How do I respond? Well, since I’m a pretty brave soul, I answer that I’d like to see my real purposes, ugly or not. Ah, you tell me, quickly and condescendingly, that I never can! You and your insider friends, who possess the correct theory — which they get partly from Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, but have updated with Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937, Italian communist who died in prison but whose Prison Notebooks everybody who is anybody is now reading), Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean Francois Leotard, Jacques Derrida et al — these guys can decode your Unconscious for you. And if they, or we who are justified by them, find some really filthy stuff inside your Unconscious — whose presence you’ve betrayed inadvertently — we can deconstruct and then reconstruct you on our terms.
Since you never knew who or what you represented in the power struggles of history, nor what moved you to think and act as you did before we took you apart and put you back together again on our terms, you are in no position to present yourself as the bearer of “rights.” Rights belong to inviolable individuals.
That sure ain’t you.
If that’s the veil, the needless obscuring, of history, what must happen before we can recover our place in history and the actual problems to be discerned there? How do we get back to real history? What’s really in the way?
Well, first of all, these people don’t believe what they say. They go to the dentist when their teeth hurt. They jump out of the way of speeding motor cars. They save their money and look for bargains, just like real people.
In that case, why do they talk the way they do? Like members of a massive revolutionary movement with code words to which they alone are privy?
Let’s ask that question another way. What would it cost them to drop all this rank-pulling? Especially since it’s not clear that they actually outrank anybody I happen to know personally?
Ah, glad you asked. If you drop all this hocus pocus about the Unconscious, you will be left to face the real contours of history. That’ll be interesting, but of course difficult.
Lately, I’ve been in a funny sort of crisis: the crisis when nothing is going wrong — and that’s what’s wrong! It’s as if the distance between my present place and its boundaries is equidistant on every side. Nothing inclines me to take a step in one direction rather than another. Consequently, I’m suffering from a deficit of rough edges — a disappearance of traction — a loss of grip.
I believe Martin Heidegger called moods of this kind unheimlich, i.e., “uncanny.” (Heidegger was the 20th-century’s most celebrated German philosopher of human existence, as well as a lifelong secret Nazi sympathizer.) Well, maybe what I’m describing is what he meant by “uncanny” or maybe he meant something different. In any event, I wouldn’t ask Heidegger to hold my watch while I took a shower. I’m not trying to celebrate my loss of grip as a sign of authenticity.
There’s an odd kind of plenitude to it. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than our pleasant home. Jerry is upstairs at his work that I too value highly. I can’t think of any man I’d rather be married to (from the list of previous candidates). I can’t think of any task not already on my agenda that I’d prefer to be doing instead. There’s no previous phase of life experience that I now yearn to revisit.
Of course, I do wish I didn’t have the neuropathy from which I get my walking handicap. But in that connection, an insight came to me in meditation that surprised me. (For me, meditation and prayer blend into each other. First, I sit cross-legged or in a half-lotus. Then I quiet my mind, as meditators do. Then I silently ask if there’s anything God wants me to know, or to do.) What came to me was that the reason my handicap has so troubled me was — not that it deprives me of freedom or enjoyment — but that I fear the handicap could block my ability to carry out some assignment that God might put in my path.
Can you imagine?
This is me I’m writing about, not some imaginary character named Saint Goody-Two-Shoes! That’s what’s added the component of anguish to my neuropathy experience? Well, shiver me timbers! — as the old sea captains used to say. If I read about someone making such a claim, I’d say that’s got to be at least an exaggeration. Nevertheless, strange as it sounds, what came to me in meditation was that, regardless of the handicap, I can now do whatever God wants me to do. And, if that’s the case, then I need not be in anguish because of my handicap.
Of course, it very much bothers me. I want to take the long strides I used to have, let the ground revive my feet each time they touch it – and there’s no denying the sincerity of that desire. The body wants to get its norm back. I wouldn’t be going to California for treatments and doing homework exercises if I didn’t sympathize and agree with my body. But apparently, that’s as far as it goes. It stops well short of anguish. And — with vicarious anguish for those who are — I’m not in pain.
What about the state of the world, the extremisms that imperil the world’s democracies, the rise in Jew-hatred here and abroad, the survival of the ecosystem, the health of our friends? Why wouldn’t any or all of these imbalances tilt me off the slightly eerie equipoise of which I now complain? Well actually, for the same reason that I don’t seem to be decentered by my neuropathy. None of these seem to be within my power to affect significantly. And none prevents me from acting on any directive that appears to me (with time allotted to consult wiser heads) God-sent.
So here I am, at a mental standstill, pushed in equal degrees from all sides, and still feeling this loss of grip.
I was pondering this inner state last Friday, mounted on a lovely brown mare named Spice. The young woman who is my horse-empathic guide translated what Spice was conveying to me, as the mare took her deliberate, unpredictable sidesteps, halts, circles and reversals of direction. Here’s the gist, so far as I could get it: “When my book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, comes out, some readers will surely misread it or get its meaning quite wrong. It’s important for me to know that I can’t control what they get from it. I’m not obligated to furnish further explanations. What it means is just what I wrote.”
As I rode, I wondered: can I think of anything else that might explain this lingering sense of stasis? There was this: I was feeling as if I already foreknow what would, in the best case, follow from the efforts I’d so far invested in the story of my life. I think I know what still needs to be accomplished. If all goes well, and I do get the future at which I aim, those outcomes could be seen as deducible from my present inputs. But if so, they lose their character as future! A deducible world lacks surprises. Or, if it has any, it would take a better mathematician than I am to discover them. No wonder I feel that I’m at full stop!
But wait a minute! Where did I get the idea that the contents of the future are already contained in the present? No human life has deducible outcomes, least of all a life prepared to act on directives from on high!
Suddenly, my guide called something to my attention. A band of about five white herons was alighting on hillocks and rocks around a small lake at the far end of the field. They were not native to these parts, she told me, but must have flown up from a southern state. For a while they stood, in their one-legged poses, like birds in a still life. Then they slowly circled the sky overhead before flying away. It was not a scene I would ever forget.
Spice, a little spooked by the unfamiliar spectacle, shied suddenly. Cowboy style, I kept my seat, a feat my guide put on record with an authentic western yell. Then she asked what I made of the scene we had witnessed.
When I’ve talked about the need to defend one’s story, I’ve had in mind my experience that ill-wishers can show astonishing astuteness in picking out key elements of the life project or story they choose to attack, even before the victim herself understands the story that is under attack.
But, whether or not it’s attacked from without – the real question is:
Can I discern my story?
If I can’t, it might slip away, even without a premeditated assault against it. Implicit here: one’s story has a normative aspect. It’s not composed just of the bare happenings of which one may become aware, awake or asleep. To “live one’s story” requires discernment and, at times, the courage to fight for it! It calls for closing the gap between how one actually lives an experience and how one might live it better.
In the way I am using the term “story,” might it not be better to call it the “ideal story”? I prefer to avoid the term “ideal,” because of its better-than-achievable connotation. The story that concerns me is fully achievable.
I like to compare its achievable aspect to certain examples in the Bible. Take the wonderful Joseph story in the Book of Genesis. Joseph – who’s been wickedly torn from his home, sold in Egypt, and is now a slave in the House of Potiphar – could have said to Potiphar’s seductive wife, “Hey, great idea! I desire you too! Let’s you and me kill Potiphar and take over his House!” Instead of which, Joseph finds himself falsely accused by the scorned wife of doing exactly what he refused to do, and is sent to prison. What’s the point?
The point is that he loses everything – but saves his story.
So, “the ideal” as I see it doesn’t mean unfeasible-down-here-but-realized-in-heaven. Rather, it’s found precisely in the here and now that confronts us. I don’t know about you, but I can’t cure, or even treat lepers, without the help of a team of medical specialists. Nor could I part the waters of the Reed Sea without some serious water transfer engineering. However, I can refuse to vote for a candidate for chairman of my department whom I think unqualified, even if I’m pretty sure that my refusal will get me fired.
Let’s go to fictional examples. They’ll be less controvertible. Lately I’ve been gripped by a series on Netflix with the title “Virgin River.” Maybe you’ve watched it. It’s so well written and well acted that I forget it’s fiction and will catch myself worrying about its characters. Here’s the plot so far. A good looking young woman named Mel comes to the small town of Virgin River to take an advertised job as the nurse to the town’s doctor. She hopes that the change of scene will help her recover from the loss of her stillborn baby and the recent death of the husband she loved.
At the restaurant bar where townspeople gather to eat and exchange the local news, Mel meets Jack, a veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, who owns the bar. They fall in love. Do they live happily ever after? You can bet they don’t. First, Jack decides to end his affair with a local woman. However, before he can quite do that, she turns out to be pregnant. With twins! His twins.
In real life, I don’t normally give advice. But this is fiction — so here goes! Mel should not have excluded her late husband from her grief over the loss of their stillborn baby. It was his loss too. They should have lived it through together. Had they done that, mutual anger might not have grown to the point of precipitating the driving accident that caused his death.
With regard to the twins: once Mel discovered that Jack’s ex was pregnant, she should have quit her job in Virgin River and found a nursing job elsewhere. That would give Jack the time and space needed to see if he could bring himself to marry the woman whose babies he would be responsible for, as their father, in any event. As long as the emotional tug-of-war continues, between his new love and his former lover, the battered combat veteran will be unable realistically to sort out his duties and emotional resources.
So much for Abbie’s advice. What part of it is not contained in the actual, seemingly modern script? Only a reference to the norms, not just the social conventions but the best idea of what’s right to do. The omission is misleading, though of course it intensifies the dramatic suspense. Most people, when they are caught in a situation not of their choosing, do take their feelings and the practicalities into account — but they also consult the norms! In the real-life dilemmas, real people ask themselves and their well-judging friends, what is the right thing to do?
In real-life choice, there is a normative element to be discerned. Sometimes the ideal solution is unreachable or presents itself only as a choice of the lesser evil. Still, to ignore the ideal element misrepresents the nature of the real choices embedded in our human situations.
A friend once asked me for advice about how to handle a corporate intrigue in which she’d found herself embroiled. I asked some questions. “What are the officially-assigned responsibilities of each player in the intrigue, within the corporate structure? What is your job description in the corporate structure? What feasible actions are available to you within your assignment? What do you figure to be the likely consequences of each course of action available to you? What would do the most good in the situation, regardless of the cost to you? Is there a way for you to take the better course, while minimizing the risks to you?”
And so on and on. A situation can be approached in idealizing terms, without necessarily having to walk off a cliff every time. Realism and idealism are not always, or necessarily, at odds. If one can reconcile them, one should certainly try to do that.
Huh? What about God and good, hell and evil? Well, life isn’t as picturesque as a fairy tale. The moral or spiritual configurations don’t show up in full regalia at key turns of every road.
Not to worry. If we mind our own business, God and good, hell and evil, will show up in due course.