It’s Our Twentieth!

Abbie and Jerry
January 20th, 1999

It’s Our Twentieth!

January 20th, 2020, is our twentieth anniversary and, over the past few days, we’ve been talking about what it all means.

In our first year, when I still lived in New York and Jerry in Washington D.C., we each felt this imperious bond pulling us toward a joint life lived in shared space and time.  I sensed that this relation was not a thing to be contained or shaped to fit my convenience.  We shouldn’t settle for a commuting marriage.  Rather, the marriage and its requirements should shape where and how we lived from here on.

To make this feasible, I felt it would be best for me to take early retirement.  When I floated that idea with colleagues, to a man and a woman, they all (with the exception of one very close woman friend who was also a philosopher) — advised against it.  The Provost, the Director of the Humanities Institute, a woman colleague in Psychology – all described my experience of falling deeply in love as a kind of benign and enjoyable … psychotic episode.  Inevitably, they assured me, remission would set in and I would return to sanity and the real world.

It was not that I had been feeling all that bad about being single.  By then, feminism had bestowed on a woman’s solo life a social dignity that was new but also quite real.  I loved teaching, loved my familiar New York neighborhood and – as much as anyone can say that – I “had it all worked out.”

How did I know I wasn’t – as some colleagues were tactfully hinting – crazy?  Well, I was coping competently with the other challenges in my life.  My character, capacities and relationships hadn’t collapsed.  But you can never know with certainty – if by “know” is meant occupy a vantage point outside the realm of your experience.  I didn’t possess what is called “the view from nowhere.”

Was I so fatally smitten that it had become psychologically impossible for me to step beyond the romantic feeling — into a more neutral and objective space?

No, I could have done that.  Nothing I could see, from the advice of bystanders, or from within myself, or from guidance coming to me in prayer or meditation, authorized a recourse to neutral outsiders.  I didn’t feel that I was nuts and needed to check my desires and beliefs with a credentialed specialist.  But I was also aware that it is possible for the firmest beliefs and the strongest desires to be deluded.

Why then did I take that chance, putting at risk the identity conferred by place, institution, status and role?

By “taking a chance,” I’m not speaking of being in love or even of marrying Jerry.  I’m speaking of reshaping my life so that, henceforth, the requirements of a life together would determine my and our future choices.  Why did I decide to do that?

My whole life long, I had viewed romantic love as the best thing in the world.  By romantic love, I didn’t mean the sort of coupledom that medieval troubadours sang about – like the romance of Tristan and Iseult – where the lovers exist in a bubble of their own, defying the norms of their day, and find untroubled union only in their premature death.

Walking through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, one comes upon the gravestone of Heloise and Abelard.  In French it reads, “They lived a very Christian life and in death they are together.”  If you don’t already know it, I suggest you look up the story of their “very Christian life.”

No, the couples who modeled romantic love for me came from a different text and tradition:  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca — Jacob and his Rachel at the Well.  They were each flawed people but, by their union, they moved the story of God and humankind forward.

I saw marriage founded on true love as a thing of tremendous consequence.  My parents’ marriage had been of that order, so I knew it was attainable.  The possibility hadn’t died with the Biblical prototypes.

Anyway, as Charlotte Bronte famously wrote,

Reader, I married him.

Was I right?  How did that work out?

Actually, far better than, in the more extravagant daydreams of my girlhood, I could have pictured.  Because being knowingly loved is reassuring …  profoundly and minutely … recessed parts of me could come out of their concealing shadows and get integrated with the parts already visible in daylight.

Of innumerable results, I can only list a few: unfinished articles could find their ways to completion.  A book previously published could be updated and reissued.  Fights I might have lacked the courage to fight alone, or the know-how to win, could be fought through to the finish.  New projects I never thought to undertake could be set going.  New friendships — and the irreplaceable old ones – could be sustained and supported, from Jerry’s side to mine and mine to his.

We read each other’s work and make suggestions that prove helpful.  We know how to get out of each other’s way and let each one be.  We support each other’s feelings, intuitions and silences.

Let’s face it.

It’s a miracle!

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The Body Problem

“The Birth of Venus”
Botticelli, c. 1484-1486

The Body Problem

Some years back, a path-breaking feminist book was published bearing the title, Our Bodies/Our Selves.  It included black and white photos of stuff that I was not liberated enough to inspect too closely.  I would have titled this column, My Body/My Self, except that it could have infringed on the copyright of that earlier book.

The title came to mind in connection with a recent series of problems with my body – problems that shed unexpected light on my self.

I have the background problem of neuropathy.  Jerry and I go periodically to California for an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda hospital at a center directed by the creative and dedicated Mark Bussell.  His treatments stopped what looked to be a precipitous decline in my ability to walk and have delivered modest improvements in mobility at the cost of homework exercises and giving up glutens and some other nice things.

These trips to California have also made possible professional activities and human connections that we valued.  But if you asked my opinion, I still would have voted not to have neuropathy.  My walking handicap seems to me consistent with my primordial wariness about moving through life — but I do deplore it.

I like to walk.

There’s an art to walking.

 A teacher at New York’s Art Students’ League once quoted to me

 this Chinese definition of art:

the spirit of life through the rhythm of things.

Anyway, this Fall, when I tripped and fractured my kneecap, we were about to depart for another week of treatments at Loma Linda.  It was to be followed by a second week in San Diego, where Theology Without Walls: The Trans-Religious Imperative, the groundbreaking book that Jerry has edited, was scheduled for presentation at the American Academy of Religion by a distinguished panel drawn from its contributors.

Of course, my part of the trip had to be canceled, both the first week of neuropathy treatments and the TWW second week.  But for the second week, I didn’t think Jerry needed a consort, since this was an occasion in the history of theology — not a social occasion.

So I stayed home alone with a fractured kneecap, in our four-story house, further constrained by a wrap-around leg “immobilizer.”  There were provisions for helpers to keep an eye on me and, at the suggestion of a friend from my temple, I called on the assistance of a committee called Chesed, which stands for Mercy – a divine attribute, alongside Justice, Tzedek.  As readers of this column can recall, my relations with my temple have been betimes storm-tossed, but Chesed showed me a side of the place I’d never encountered:

Jewish compassion: 

gentle, practical,

realistic, tenderly attentive.

Since the injury was quite draining, I didn’t do … anything much.  Well, what can you do, when you can’t … be up and doing?

Be. 

You can be.

I’d quite forgotten how to do that.  You quiet down.  You get very still.  You can watch how a branch catches the sunlight or a last leaf floats downwind.  You get on the same timetable as other things that share existence with you.

I hadn’t done that kind of thing in years.  It was nice.  It had nothing show-off about it.

My knee is close to repaired by now.  The muscles that were weakened by the immobilizer are mostly restored by the rehab drill that I’ve followed pretty faithfully.

Which brings me to the bodily ordeal of the past week: eye muscle surgery to correct a problem of double vision!  (Of course, Abigail, you must be joking!)  For the initial recovery weekend, I’ve been thrown entirely on my Inner Resources.  No books or magazines, no emails, no online life at all.  Just exhausted sleep and whatever you can “see” when your eyes are closed and you’re lying down, with your head elevated on cushions.

Well … what passed vividly in review were some of the major chapters of Abbie’s life.  I saw them one after another in quite a new way.  The visions … insights … recalibrations were too significant to crowd into this column tonight, even if I could.

I feel that I have become a better friend and ally to the life I have.

And perhaps my body

can be on the team too.

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Jews, Christians, and Jesus

“L’âne bleu dans le ciel du village”
Marc Chagall, 1978

Jews, Christians, and Jesus

 I’ve just finished a scholarly book whose conclusion left me head-spinningly dumbfounded. Since I’m supposed to be a philosophe by profession, I’m pretty used to scholarly books, bring some acquired insulation to the reading of them, and they don’t usually leave me in that condition.

The book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin.  The Forward by Jack Miles, author of the well-regarded God: A Biography, cites a “prominent conservative rabbi” who declared privately that Boyarin “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world … possibly even the greatest.”

Here’s what, if asked, I would have said I believed about Jesus before Boyarin’s book left me speechless.  I took no publicly declared position on Jesus … though I’d always felt a muffled attraction.  This attraction stayed muffled because of the history of Christianity vis a vis its Jewish origin – the long record of vilification and persecution whose last realization was the Holocaust.  At least, one would have hoped that was the last of it – save that, since then, this ancient fratricide seems to have rediscovered its voices, updated rationales and lethal weapons.

There was another reason for my discourse about Jesus remaining a guarded one.  I did not want to offend friends who were believing Christians.  Like many who are recognized scholars, I too had drawn a distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the Jesus of Christian doctrine, whose attributes were officially approved in 381 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.  I assumed that Christianity’s key doctrines, the Nicene Creed, were superadded to the Jesus story although he himself would not have held them.  (That Council also ruled that the Jewish followers of Jesus were to be excommunicated if they kept up with any of their Jewish observances.)

So what were the major doctrines adopted at Nicea?

  1. Jesus was divine as well as human.

  2. The people of Israel expected a messiah who would be both human and divine.

  3. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross expiated the sins of his people and human sin generally.

I assumed that none of these doctrines were part of the belief system of mainstream Israelites, whether at the time of Jesus or later.  The split with the Jesus movement I attributed to the above three doctrines – but also to the refusal of the Jesus followers to join Bar Kochba’s last rebellion against Rome in 135 A.D.  They refused, as I thought, because of Bar Kochba’s messianic pretensions.  After his revolt failed catastrophically, those who had doubted its leader were of course vindicated, but the whole episode must have left hard feelings in its wake.

What does Boyarin offer to shake my earlier convictions?

Re doctrines #1 and #2: Boyarin writes that the assumption about the messiah as a divine being in human form was widely and popularly shared in Jesus’s time.  When Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man,” he is referencing the verses in Daniel 7 on which this commonly held view was based.

Re doctrine # 3: according to Boyarin, the verses in Isaiah 53 that refer to a            Suffering Servant who “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors … bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” were also folded into the messianic expectations of  Jesus’s time — widely shared and also referenced by Jesus in the gospels.

I won’t cite more scholarly buttressing.  If it interests you, the book isn’t long and it’s an easy read.  Boyarin is a very good writer.

There’s one more point he brings out and it may be the most important one.  Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., which was followed by the Second Exile, the people of Israel didn’t agree as a body to interpret their covenant with God by means of a single, coherent set of concepts.  They weren’t yet what is called a “religion.”  They were certainly a people, with a roughly shared array of memories – of a dramatic history of interaction with God — with many darks and lights, in the land their God had promised them, where most of that story had been lived and recorded.

The competing views and interpretations of their shared history spanned a wide spectrum.  Rabbinic Judaism won out in the competition, probably because the study-based form developed during the Babylonian First Exile turned out the most portable after the Second Exile.

I have nothing against Rabbinic Judaism and in fact think it the best of the choices then available.  It kept memory continuous, kept the ancient language readable and revivable, and kept intellectual and spiritual energy alive.  From what I’ve read, in philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and other creative Jewish thinkers, that tradition remains an important source of Jewish identity plus moral and spiritual insight.

That the compressed intensities of Rabbinic Judaism could see daylight again as updated Hebrew, colloquial and literary, and could animate the recovery of the land (when life in exile had really failed) is witness to the vitality and truth of the vehicle.

My grandfather, Rav Tsair, who, as I’ve written here, was a Talmudist of stature — and to me an almost legendary figure — worked to demonstrate the purposive continuities that stretched from Biblical Israel to the Israel reborn after World War II.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.

But where does all this leave me – leave us – today?

Can the long, fratricidal history be overcome?

Can we ever find the roots of reconcilement?

To be continued … .

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Who’s In Charge Here?

“The Coat of Many Colors”
Ford Maddox Brown, 1867
(The brothers’ cover story for Joseph’s absence)

Who’s In Charge Here?

Today I read an essay about the meaning of life.  It was written in the form of a book review by Peter Brooks of The Storyteller Essays by Walter Benjamin.  The review appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, where we learn what the sophisticated reader is thinking these days.  Why not?

Brooks’s review is very dense but here’s the gist of it.  Novels are what bestow meaning on life because they show how the story ends.  “The End,” written at the close, is what lets the reader see a fictional life as a whole and thus grasp what it all meant.  The novelist doesn’t actually have to show the hero’s death scene.   The mere idea that the story rounds off and comes to a close highlights the lesson of it, what it was really about.

Let’s let Peter Brooks tell you what he’s getting at:

The novel should, then, serve as ‘an optical instrument’

 through which the reader becomes ‘the reader of himself,’

understanding through fiction

what is obscured to him in the perpetual wandering,

 the ‘perpetual error’

 that we call life.

Brooks thinks that the novelist occupies a privileged vantage point — located at a future time when the fictional heroine is already dead or else has her end foreseeable — and the novelist is looking back.

Why should the novelist, who writes about an imaginary character, be the only one who can do that?  Can’t I ask the same question, at any moment:

suppose I died now?

What would I regret?

What would I feel was cut short?

What must yet be done before the end wouldn’t look to me

 like an interruption?

Why should the novelistic view be available only to novelists?  It’s like saying that only a professional singer can sing.

There’s another question.  If we subtract the novelist, what controls our plotlines?  Chance?  Is it the accidents of genetics, geography, the belief system that prevails in our time and place, all of which put together is called “history”?  What controls history?  Chance still?  Or is there a divine influence somewhere?

If there is a providential influence on events big and small, how could such a presence be discerned by normal people who simply want to know what’s true, not to force a moral or supernatural shape on the randomness of experience?

These days, I’ve been housebound, waiting for a fractured kneecap to repair itself, and so I’m missing the discussions at my temple’s weekly Bible study.  I learn from a friend that the group is now talking about the Joseph story in Genesis.  As you may know, it’s the most novelistic tale in the whole Bible, pregnant with human reality, sibling rivalry, erotic temptation, political and administrative smarts, and the most touching scenes of reunion and reconciliation.

To recap briefly: young Joseph — the son of the now-deceased woman his father most loved — is his father’s favorite.  The boy has the tactless habit of telling his less-favored brothers of dreams he’s dreamt (as it happens, actually precognitive dreams) where the same envious siblings will be paying him especial homage.  This puts his brothers in a fratricidal mood.  They control themselves sufficiently to sell him to passing merchants as a slave while telling their father that he’s been killed by a wild animal.  Since Joseph is a talented young man, he makes the most of his new opportunities (some of which will look initially like further downfalls) till he rises to become the top official in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  After a famine drives the brothers to Egypt where (thanks to Joseph) there is food to buy, the reconciled family is resettled in the vicinity.

The family’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, delivered from bondage by a man God appoints, given the basic rules for a moral society and divinely guided to the Promised Land where, with God as their Witness and co-Author, they will live out the further stories that compose the Hebrew Bible.

So, the study group asked: did God put the brothers up to doing their fateful wrong to Joseph?  Did God even prompt the young Joseph to behave in a way his brothers would find insufferable?  Did it all unwind mechanically from a Master Blueprint?

If it did, the story could not teach us much.  Had Joseph remained self-pitying or bitter, he could never have made the extraordinary use he did make of his adversity.  His downfalls happened more than once, and they took different forms.  He lived a disciplined life and gave his full intelligence to each turn of the plot.  Never again did he make the mistake of treating others as mirrors in which he could merely admire his own reflection.  From then on, he gauged his circumstances accurately.  Something analogous can be claimed for the brothers as they went on to live with what they had done.  And so on for each step of the story that followed.

If we allow that there might be a divine presence in our world, that wouldn’t make the world God’s windup clock.  It would still be a real place.  In such a place, some hard knocks would be accidental.  Some would be our fault and we would need to figure that out.  And sometimes, believe it or not, it really IS the other guy’s fault.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”

Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself

by Frederick Douglass, edited by Benjamin Quarles

I know of no book, and no reading experience, like this one.  Years ago, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin of whose author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said when he met her in the White House, “Is this the little lady who wrote a book and started a great war?”  More recently, I read Barracoon, the memoir of the last former American slave to remember Africa, as collected by the great Zora Neale Hurston.  And from time to time, fragmentary reports of lives in bondage must have come my way, from diaries or interviews with ex-slaves.

This book is in a class by itself.  Frederick Douglass was the man who understood, through a genius for moral understanding, what the slave system was all about: the coarsening of every instinct — for the true, the good and the beautiful. 

The True?  If any master got wind of a slave’s dissatisfaction, he would vent the cruelest rage on the reported dissenter.  So one learned to dissimulate.  And of course the cruelties themselves were an admission, by those who used them, that no one would keep herself or himself in the condition of property if he or she could escape it.

The Good?  Douglass is a young man in his twenties before he encounters a white woman who seems spontaneously kind-hearted.  He has not long been in her household before her new husband schools her in the brutal mores demanded by the slave regime.  In consequence, all the grace and tenderness leave her face, voice and conduct.  She loses her goodness.

The Beautiful?  Human beings are drawn by desire toward what is beautiful.  The normalization of rape (masters as unacknowledged fathers), the ripping apart of family ties (mothers sold away from their children) – these ubiquitous deformities profane the life of desire itself.

Meanwhile, how does Frederick Douglass do it?  How does he realize the full depth of what has been inflicted on him from infancy?  How does he teach himself (by subterfuge) to read?  How does he acquire the skills that will prepare him one day to live in freedom?  How does he finally escape?

He answers all these burning questions (save the last, so as not to implicate others) but leaves still burning — like a bonfire in the night — the one abiding question:

how does a human being come to know

that life at the human level

 requires freedom?


How the Scots Invented the Modern World:  The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It

by Arthur Herman

What (before I read this book) did I know about the Scots?  From the romance novels of my youth, I knew that the men usually showed up in kilts and fought for the Stuart king, Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose claim to the British throne ended in 1745 at the disastrous Battle of Culloden.  Indeed, Netflix’s time-travel series, “The Outlander,” follows this formula pretty much to the letter.

I also knew that my Uncle Oscar married a Scottish girl, Aunt Janet, who converted to Judaism.  Through this union, I have three first cousins, Douglas, Glenn and Bruce Rosenthal, whom I’ve not seen in years.   When I raised the question of their visiting Scotland, none of them showed interest.

At Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, where I was a Research Affiliate, I learned that the Department had been given its character by a strong-willed Scotsman, John Anderson, who’d stamped the place with his idiosyncratic mix of philosophic assumptions and personal traits.

I never met a person of Scots descent who wanted to go home again.  Everyone to whom I suggested it shrugged as if the returning son or daughter would find nothing there to satisfy curiosity or sentiment.  Only misty hills and wild animals.

Well, space won’t permit me to give an adequate sense of what the Scots contributed to our world in the way of genuinely constructive attitudes, ideas and inventions.  How about a modernity founded not on skepticism but on a common sense trust in experience?  How about openness to scientific discoveries along with a generous acceptance of the religious aspects in a human life?  How about the view that liberty is essential to political life?  How about a strong devotion to education combined with the conviction of human equality?  How about a respect for intellect that does not let it outrank practical skill and inventiveness?  How about a list of distinguished thinkers (Thomas Reid, Adam Smith), inventors (Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell) and benefactors (Andrew Carnegie, Dr. David Livingstone) as long as your good right arm?

Do dip into this book.  You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

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The Moral Markers

Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel, 1875

The Moral Markers

From time to time, I pause to picture how the recent phases of my life would look to me if there were no God in the pictures.  It’s a sort of thought experiment. Philosophers are given to performing them.  But perhaps any inquirer could ask, how would my topic look if I deleted such and such a datum or interpretation?

Painting with a limited palette is instructive in the same way.  How would my landscape look if I left out the browns or the greens?  Or lifted out all the colors and made a black and white sketch instead?

Sure, if I lifted out the colors, my picture would give me less information.  With fewer data to work from, I would interpret the scene differently.

So this comparison I draw from time to time, between my life seen theistically or atheistically, satisfies curiosity and in my case tends to confirm theism – as taking in more data and empowering my life’s experiments.

Since, at earlier life junctures, I have been successively an atheist, an agnostic, and a follower of a certain Eastern (Vedandist) model of ultimate reality, it interests me to remember what the previous worldviews gave, practically and humanly, and what they left out, in the terms that belonged, more integrally, to my life.

One worldview that, by contrast, I have never tried to believe is the one erasing the moral markers of experience and regarding them as mere “projections.”  I’ve never supposed that, if the world and everything in it were viewed more “authentically,” the viewer would find herself beyond good and evil.

I once had a collegial friend who had written on Nietzsche and Heidegger and believed that life at its deepest disclosed a remote Valhalla where moral distinctions could not penetrate.  She was of Viking descent, as it happens, had blond hair and wore shorts with authority.  We had great good times together despite — or because of — our differences.  She swam and skied, I lived and wrote in cafes.  She was sure life was unintelligible, with only speechless Nature having the final say.  I tried persistently to find the underlying significance of human experience and wanted to put my findings into words.

I relished our complementarity but knew that if, in the course of life, we ever came to a fork in the road that called for a moral choice, our friendship might not weather it.

I hoped that would not happen but it did.  We came to a fork where one path allowed loyalty while the other bent toward betrayal.  It was as if – on the soul level – I could see her sitting in one of those long Viking ships and raising an oar in farewell.

When I say that “never” had I tried to live as if reality were amoral, I mean never – until the other day.  Out of curiosity, last weekend I put on, like a new pair of glasses, the lens of moral neutrality.  Two realizations descended right away.

The first: my life just became unrecognizable.

The second: a lot of people, among them esteemed opinion-shapers, wear the lens of moral neutrality every day.

Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore!  Where are we, Auntie Em, and what just happened?

I think I just entered what is laughingly called The Modern — and lately Post-Modern — World.  Where everything is made of brute forces and moral assertion equals mere social pretense.  Abbie’s purposive strivings and struggles, with varying degrees of success and failure, to do the best she could in her life, have just flattened into  –

energy,  

now spurting, now flagging,

bent on surviving but going nowhere

 except toward more or fewer

spurts of energy.

The novelistic turns of my life, my striving to do my best so far as I could see what was best and to avoid the worst – above all to avoid cynicism – all that gets poured into the energy blender:

whirr and blip, whirr and blip,

till it all goes flat.

So this lens is quite different from the atheist and agnostic lenses that I have worn at earlier life phases.  In my experience, those skeptical lenses obscured some parts of the landscape.  As an atheist, I took in less of the information pertinent to consequential decisions that in any case couldn’t be avoided.  Nevertheless, with or without theistic belief, a purposive and meaningful life was still fully possible.  Theism hasn’t made life easier.  It did tend, at least in my own experience, to make it fuller – of relevant information and a constructive orientation.

The consequences of moral neutrality seem much more radical.  It doesn’t just omit some of the data.  It flattens all of it.  The peaks and the valleys become two-dimensional.  How does it manage that?  Let’s say that, before putting on the lens of moral neutrality, first one had to read about it.  Up till then, one had lived through one’s time oriented by a set of purposes that, whether rightly-aimed or destructive, had taken shape sincerely, in response to concrete experiences.

Once wearing the new lens however, one had to put daylight between oneself and the purposes that earlier had been fully one’s own.  This very setting-aside gesture made room for the “objective” claim that the moral markers weren’t really there.  One’s life purposes were now deemed to be mere evanescent shapes soon to vanish in the whirrs and blips of underlying, random energy.

So, just because I put on the received lenses, I’m expected to walk around pretending that a currently-approved abstraction can take the place of the aims I originally desired in my actual life?

As the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass assures Alice:

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as

six impossible things before breakfast.”

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Lost Innocence and Tanya Tucker

Lost Innocence and Tanya Tucker

Tanya Tucker hasn’t put out a country album in 17 years.  While she’s been… wherever she’s been… country music has changed and now resembles rock ‘n roll.  There’s a heavy, percussive roar behind virtually every song and the lyrics have got flattened too.

The old distinction that country drew, between love and lust, is gone.  The best they can promise now is lust-that-will-last, and how credible is that?  Even the gorgeous models in tonight’s CMT videos won’t be preserved in amber.  (Caution: the scene might not be as bad as I say.  I don’t click in long enough to draw the finer distinctions, if there are any to draw.)

I once heard Leo Bronstein, the philosopher of art, say,

“For young people,

never sex without an idea 

and never an idea without sex!”

If that’s so, today’s country hits aimed at the youth market have no ideas and (as a result) no sex either!

What’s gone wrong?  The new Ken Burns epic film, Country Music, opens a window on America as she goes down the bumpy road of real life.  It’s no longer confined to rural people or even Americans.  All the world listens to country now.  I’ve watched talent shows in Asian settings where the male singers pitch the old favorites like cowboy heroes.  The girls swoon.  The circle of influence is wide and getting wider.

Which brings us back to the question, what’s happening at the source?  Aside from Willie, whose latest album bears the title, The Last Man Standing, and aside from country gospel, is the old well drying up?  Where are the singers and songwriters who still have a tale to tell?

Now for some good news: Tanya Tucker has her tale to tell.  I’ll quote a few lines from her lead song on Side A, “Mustang Ridge,” in the new album, While I’m Livin’:

Now a woman’s life

ain’t just a list

of the worst things she has done

I leave you now with a heart of stone,

sometimes the past is hard to outrun.

Just citing these lines doesn’t give you the force of it; the gravelly voice, the guitar strummed and piano keys hit, and the pacing — which works its own sad lifetime of experience into the present tense.

There were other distinctions that old-time country music drew.  There was the distinction between virtue and vice, goodness and badness, integrity and wickedness.  They put you inside a landscape where such distinctions mattered.  It was also a landscape where there was such a thing as innocence … and it could be lost.

Seventeen years after we heard her last, Tanya Tucker sings today from the other side of innocence.  I find her voice and her lyrics absolutely riveting.

It might be chic to stop there, but in fact I have a little more to say.  There is a look to the innocence of young girls.  We know it when we see it.  We can tell when it’s gone.  The whole culture conspires to deny the reality of what we’ve seen.  We know that too.

Heck, I’ve read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, the bearded philosopher/psychologists who have labored, since the late nineteenth century, to persuade the whole cultivated world that there was no there, there.  No sparkling, pristine, expectant reality behind the word “innocence.”

Can you picture any of these bearded geniuses

as a lover?

It doesn’t bear thinkin’ about!

What I can think about — with great interest in how they have managed it — are those women who have survived the loss of their innocence.  They haven’t “outlived” or “outgrown” their innocence, as if it had been a youthful illusion.  It was real and it was taken from them.  And they know it.

Recently I saw some footage on the net of a young Iraqi woman confronting the captured ISIS fighter who had raped her when she was a prisoner of ISIS.  He was now slated for some kind of punishment, perhaps death, but was standing, head bowed, before his victim.  She was telling him at great length, in Arabic I did not understand, what he had done to her and what she would always think of him.  Her condemnation must have included a lot of detail, since it went on for quite a while.  She did not shy away from any of it although, at the end of her speech, she fainted.

What most struck me, in this extraordinary scene, was that she was unreservedly wrathful — as outraged as a human being can be — and yet stood before her despoiler beautiful as only a Middle Eastern girl can be, lips freshly outlined in a color precise and elegant, eyes expertly emphasized, head high, face emphatically near her former attacker, figure rounded in still-youthful bloom.  She conveyed to the whole world that she had not given up on the womanly beauty that this man had tried to tarnish forever.  Of course she fainted at the end.  What do we imagine a woman is made of?  Steel?

Tanya Tucker’s method is different.  I assume they do it differently in Texas, but it’s clear enough that it’s far from her first rodeo and she has lost more rounds than she’s won.   Indignation is a luxury in her world and she must have set it down a long while back.  What’s she got then — aside from talent to burn?

She still loves the life she’s had, the chances she’s taken, the gift she’s shared, and loves herself all the more when she won’t lie about it.

Now look at my life and all the trouble I’ve had

Shows what you get when you’ve got to be bad.

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