A Moral Crisis

Dante and Virgil
Gustave Doré’s illustration for The Divine Comedy, 1866

A Moral Crisis

In A Good Look at Evil, I portray a moral crisis as a time when one’s story comes to a stop.  The halt isn’t called because of an external obstacle.  It comes from within.

What causes this Full Stop?  It occurs when one can make no sense of one’s life story.

What’s a life story?

We land here, born with certain propensities, talents and vulnerabilities.  The place where, at birth, we arrive, is not a vacuum.  It’s full of physical and behavioral requirements.  Those who raise and care for us have their own trajectories, rhythms and beliefs.   They are also the filters through which we first meet the currents and views held within the wider culture.  More pressures and perspectives arrive with the other people and things we meet as we go along.  We absorb delights, shocks and threats, see vistas and project possibilities.

We have to navigate our way through all this, trying our best to preserve our felt sense of who we were at the start — while we learn the ropes.  Reality has many dimensions, so we have to keep correcting course as we search for the path that suits us best and can be achieved in real time.  With increasing maturity, we can articulate our purposes, share common tasks, and honor the reciprocities by which we live.

What all this adds up to is

our story.

Though it’s something like living a novel, our story can’t be called a fiction.  If (as is sometimes fashionably maintained nowadays) what we’re living were really a fiction, then we’d be nuts.  Since we’re not nuts, our real lives are nonfiction stories.

What can bring us to Full Stop is meeting something or someone that critically undercuts the story we’ve been living.  It can be an enemy who sees what we’re about and figures out where our vulnerabilities lie.  (Yes, there are such people.  It’s not all sugar and spice.  Sorry!)  Or it can be some mischance that upsets the delicate balance of our projects.  Or a loss of trust, or self-trust, or honor, that we didn’t even realize we needed.  Like as not, the people who stand nearby do not perceive how dark – for us — is the shadow that has fallen across our path.

Perhaps because I know that the scripts we actually follow might be invisible to others, I could talk two women friends out of committing suicide.  Though I heard them out patiently, I did not take at face value the reasons they gave for their despair.  Instead I looked for the invisible script behind their stated reasons.  The invisible script is not generic.  It’s different for each one of us.

In my life, right now,

I’m passing through a moral crisis.

As I wrote in last week’s column, I’d believed that my book had at last found its ideal publisher.  The signs and signals all seemed to promote this expectation.  My manuscript was submitted with an unusual degree of well-thought-out support from quarters this editor could not casually ignore.  The reasons she set down in her rejection letter were oddly inconclusive.  They were unlikely to have been her real reasons.

Meanwhile, during that very week, I was getting emails from people responding to the excerpts from Confessions of a Young Philosopher that I’d read at the Voegelin Society.  Academics don’t normally send high praise to relative strangers.  Yet here were eloquent emails, unsolicited.  To my mind, it was as if the puzzle pieces of protracted effort were coming together, after persistent waiting and working — and retaining intelligent hope.

A word about Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It’s not a book about my life.  It’s not an anemic young girl’s private diary.

It’s more like

a life about a book.

The hills and valleys of the life described in Confessions can only be understood as calling forth the book that now deciphers them.  What I lived makes sense only in terms of the lessons I drew and can in turn show others.  I was utterly resolved on drawing this sense out of two youthful episodes of my life’s story.  And I have no doubt that the book succeeds in doing what it set out to do.

Prior to the rejection letter, the favorable portents that appeared to surround this manuscript submission were quite striking.  Though I did not speak about it, I could scarcely help believing that Providence had waited for a moment that was exactly right before taking a hand.  My trust in the Unseen was being vindicated in a way better than anything I could have imagined.

As I described to Jerry the kind of blow this was, I realized that … the setback I was describing was precisely what A Good Look at Evil says that “evil” does: it finds the invisible script that supports the visible one.  It knocks that down.  It knows its target.  It controls its aim.

Confessions draws out the inner sense of the hills and valleys I’ve traversed.  It caters to nobody and to nothing.

How could I imagine that —

 in trying to make this book known — 

I could escape blows?

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Rejection Letters

Rejection Letters

It’s been quite a week.  After our time at the Eric Voegelin Society conference in Washington, which was satisfying both humanly and intellectually, one thing after another went bust.

First, on the Sunday train back to Trenton, my watch went bust.  I know, I know, you all get the time from your smartphones.  I get as little as I can from my smartphone.  Don’t want to walk around with a crick in my neck from being all bent over.  Don’t want to miss the world with its sights and sounds.

That makes my wristwatch an important prop.  Since I lack a good spatial sense, I never know quite where I am.  If my watch gives me the time, then at least I can know when I am.  Sadly, the Labor Day weekend meant I would be stuck with the crick-in-the-neck contraption until Tuesday.

On Monday, the “broiler element” in our oven went bust.  It gave off sparks and tongues of fire.  Should we call the Fire Department?  No, it subsided and then went dark.  We called the Appliance Man.  He ordered a new whatchamacallit.  It would arrive by the end of the week.

Next, my printer went bust.  Nowadays you can’t be a starving writer in a garret.  The ink cartridges alone cost too much.  You need a day job.  Negotiating the new printer, black like the old one, took several days and multiple stages.

But all this is background music, the kind they used to play in old movies whenever the killer walked on set, be the set a drawing room, a train or a box at the opera.   That way you knew he was around.  In those days, people needed a lot of mood setting.

The main events were yet to come:

THE REJECTION LETTERS.

The first email came on Monday.  It was from the respected editor of a review magazine for which I have high regard.  This same editor had recently published an essay of his own in another magazine – one that was lucid, plainspoken and brave.  What is more, he had earlier expressed a direct and personal interest in the article I proposed to write.  There would be no chain of command to climb.  The head man would be reading it and deciding the matter.

So … no and nyet and nadaDas Nichts nichtet, as Heidegger would say.  The Nothing nothings.

But (I was urged by the editor) stay in touch.  I write well and what I have to say is new and one learns from it.  “This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.”  [I am quoting.]

Meantime, for the past three or so weeks, Confessions of a Young Philosopher has been in the hands of the most suitable editor I could imagine for it.  Not only that.  The MS had the backing of one of her authors, who quotes liberally from Confessions and makes it the focus of one of his chapters, in a book this editor is currently publishing.  Confessions was also submitted accompanied by strong endorsement from the most justly admired and accoladed figure at that publisher’s hierarchy.  If ever I had reason to expect an acceptance, it was here and now, at long last.  Instead,

“Dear Abigail L Rosenthal,

Thank you so much and, by the way,

NO.”

How intensely and recognizably human — this cascading series of let-downs!  In other words,

I could make no sense of it at all.

The time had come to visit my equine friends.  Horses are four-legged, with big brown eyes, and unequivocally normal.  They send no rejection letters.

They accept me.

After a little time in the saddle, I settled into a more relaxed and rhythmic walk.  Serena, my trainer, asked me what this rejection meant to me.  I said it felt like a physical blow, but that I always persist in an effort to realize a reasonable purpose unless and until I learn – with no misunderstanding possible – that I’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

Cali (short for “California”), the horse under my saddle, twitched one large brown ear.

Serena, who can “talk horse,” said that Cali thinks I haven’t yet run through all the possibilities.  I tend to take Cali’s opinion to heart.

“Are you religious?” Serena asked me.

“Yes.”

Earlier this week, Serena said, she’d copied down a verse from Second Corinthians.  This is what she read me, as near as I can remember.

We are afflicted in every way, 

but we are not crushed;

 perplexed, but not driven to despair;

persecuted but not forsaken;

struck down,  

but not without a way out.

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Womanly Arts

“A Woman at Her Toilet”
Titian, circa 1515

Womanly Arts

At the Eric Voegelin Society conference we attended this week in D.C., Jerry and I were on a panel entitled “Life as a Spiritual Journey.”  They went awfully well — both of our (totally different) presentations.

For the record, I should note that I am always half-sick before these things.  On the roster of experiences that induce high anxiety, speaking in public is generally ranked near the top.  Right up there with divorce, getting fired and life-threatening medical diagnoses.

Nevertheless, two people thanked me feelingly afterward, and two others said they wanted to read the rest of the story.  What I’d read was a distillation of “Paris without End,” one of the early chapters from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It told what Paris signaled to me when I was a young Fulbright grantee, away from home for the first time.

Among the impressions: the American effort to maintain integrity over/against the seductions of Paris – the most beautiful city in the world; the shakeout from the German Occupation of Paris, seen in the “existentialist” belief that values – if they could be so overturned and inverted – must be arbitrary or “absurd”; the marxist proposed cure for the fragility of values, which was to set them aside entirely, until they could be founded anew on a new and purified economic basis.  (As we say in Brooklyn: believe that and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.)

Then there were the thoroughly unofficial concerns of my American women friends.  We were full of surface idealism and subsurface fears.  Of what were we afraid?  We feared (though we were too scared to spell it out in plain words) that, when and as time chipped away at our youth – and with it our power to attract – our vaunted ideals would begin to seem mere phrases, without substantive heft or appeal.  High-sounding, empty words.  On paper, we could make a case for the coinciding of our values and our feminine reality.  But …

we weren’t living on paper. 

At the Q & A, one of the questions prompted me to reflect on the difference that feminism had made to this predicament.

“On the one hand,” I said, “feminism has given us years.  You don’t have to feel it’s all over, once you’re past 23” – as we all had felt or feared.

On the debit side: feminism has denied that there is such a thing as femininity, or that the two sexes are different in any important respect.

“That means,” I concluded incautiously, “if I have a problem as a woman, I would never go to a Public Feminist.”  I would find a woman friend – a civilian!

One of the people who thanked me afterwards was a man who had two daughters, one on the brink of adolescence.  He hadn’t a clue how to guide or protect them, in the face of the culture’s denial that there is, or could be, any problem.  He has two sons as well, and he doesn’t know what to tell them either, now that the traditional masculine virtues are being treated as flaws.

“Femininity,” I responded, “is an art.  So is masculinity.  To master an art, you need models who have themselves mastered it.  Also, as with painting in oils, you need to know the medium, what it can and cannot do.”

Simone de Beauvoir begins volume II of her brilliant and courageous book, Le Deuxieme sexe, the book that, with its publication in 1949, launched the feminist movement in the twentieth century, with this sentence:

On ne nait pas femme: on le devient.

“One is not born a woman.  One becomes it.”  That is true.  Femininity is, at least in its social component, the result of an acculturation.  And it was de Beauvoir’s great contribution to show how this “becoming,” this acculturation, was shot through with features that diminished the women who emerged at the end of the process.

One learns it, this womanization process.  But one also learns every function we have that is not autonomic: the prehensile thumb and how to use it; language; upright bipedal carriage; one’s name, and many more etceteras.  Nor are we the only species that requires acculturation.  Animals of many other species need to learn how to function effectively within their species constraints, inherited and environmental.  It doesn’t follow that what they learn is arbitrary in the sense of “made up” out of whole cloth.  If it were, the young ones would not survive to adulthood.

Every woman knows that you can bungle your professional life and that you can also bungle your womanly life.  In either case, you might fail to gain your objective because of strategic mistakes or because of circumstances beyond your control.  The failure could be remediable in the former case, tragic in the latter case.

That said, the method that conducts to success on the professional track is separate and distinct from the art that will work in the case of womanly fulfillment.

That is so obvious as not to need saying.  Except that today, as we’re told,

you can’t say it.

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Is Beauty for the Birds?

Is Beauty for the Birds?

We set up our deck fountain fairly late this summer and — as a result, it seemed – no birds came.  For weeks, they just stayed away.  This was very disappointing, since we watch them while we talk about deep things over breakfast.

We reasoned that, when they saw no fountain in June or July, they formed other habits, collected around other water coolers for their gossipy bird socializing, and that birds – like the rest of us – are much inclined to groupthink. The word must have got out not to come here.

So imagine our untrammeled delight when, after many featherless weeks, one and then another began to visit our fountain!  At first, there were only wrens or sparrows.  Little pale, unpretentious things.  They didn’t “flock” to our fountain.  A lone bird would poke a wary little beak in the water, turn and look scared, and fly fast away.

But little by little, bird by bird, they began to congregate.  Even lordly cardinals have now joined, in their elitist style — squawking indignantly and lashing out with beaks aggressively when the lesser wrens and sparrows presume to share the space of the fountain.

It doesn’t seem fair to me — since there’s surely room on the rim for all — but beauty has its own preeminence.

Last night, I just finished a book with the title, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, by a writer on aesthetic subjects named Roger Scruton.  I’ve not done work in aesthetics as a philosophical field. I did used to paint, when we owned the house on Bayview Street, setting up my easel in the attic of the barn overlooking Narraguagus Bay.  When I look up now from my computer, one of those scenes of the bay is on the wall above my head, smiling down.

So why am I not interested in aesthetics?  I’ve sensed that, to discuss topics like taste, beauty, art – what are they? – you need to maintain a certain distance from the phenomena.  I’ve got no distance.  For example, it’s said that, to fully appreciate fictional narratives, you’ve got to “suspend disbelief.”  I’ve got no disbelief to suspend.

Scruton raises the question of whether “beauty” is entirely subjective, or actually has certain objective features.  His question reminded me of something I’ve long believed:

people can’t live without beauty.

If everything around them is ugly, people get hopeless.  Even the most relativistic sophisticates choose lovely environments for themselves to live in.  So it can’t be quite true that there is no disputing over taste, that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, or that there is nothing objective about beauty.

Tourists all over the world come to see the great monuments to artistic and architectural genius.  They come to see the Taj Mahal and the Sistine Chapel.  They don’t come to see housing projects or your average factory.

Scruton wants to account for this need, this responsiveness, this consensus.  There must be something real about beauty, something deep, something attached to the terra firma on which we stand by nature – not just by convention.

By the same token, we can generally sense that there is something ugly about rudeness, cynicism, pornography, or propaganda.

This isn’t something I’ve reflected about before now, or written about in any philosophical article.  Ordinarily, I don’t even like to think about it.  It’s too private, too personal, too precious and vulnerable a subject.

 Too sacred.

There.  I said it.  Beauty is a clue to the qualitative side of life.  The deepest truths of our lives are not quantifiable.  Rather, they express a certain natural fit between

the inwardness of things

and their outward form. 

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The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Pierrot by Jean-Antoine Watteau (circa 1718-1719)

I’m reading a book by a philosopher named Susan Wolf about the meaning of life.  Or rather, about the importance of meaning in a good life.

What prompts such a book? you may ask.  Susan Wolf explains that philosophers have been discussing, and differing over, whether it’s better to seek selfish happiness or some universal moral objective in one’s life.  Her contention is that there’s a third thing people seek, or should seek: meaning.

So what gives meaning to a human life?  She thinks two factors confer it.  First is pursuing one’s passion.  Second: one’s passion should be for something that’s got objective worth.

There is a wide range of desiderata that can meet these double requirements.  One can have a passion for philosophy, for example, or for making fine pastries.  Both have “objective worth” in that many people value them.

What concerned me, reading her book, was another matter.  What leads anyone to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”

Most people alive and literate today encounter claims that life is meaningless or absurd.  Different reasons are advanced to support this conclusion.  Here are some of them.

  • We die, all the people who know and care about us also die, and pretty soon no one will know we were ever here.
  • Compared to the size of the universe, or universes, we are but a speck. Too small to matter.
  • Compared to the timeline of this universe, our span of life is too short to matter.
  • All our deepest beliefs, our concepts of self and of value, are fabrications, constructed by the socially dominant group within our culture.

Had enough?  I think I’ll stop there.

Re #1, that’s an empirical question.  There’s a fact of the matter.  Either we die when our bodies die, or we don’t, because we aren’t identical with our bodies.  It’s a real question.  The answer isn’t self-evident.  There is relevant empirical evidence to consider.  I’ll bracket that question for now.

Have you noticed something about 2 – 4?  These next three reasons are highly generic and abstract.  They’ve been introduced into the culture by theorists.  If you’ve embraced them, you’ve pressed into your personal worldview theories that come from outside your experience.  I’ll just say a word or two about these broad claims.

About 2 and 3: why should our filling x amount of time or space decide our importance?  A poem can take less than five minutes to recite and yet be marvelous to hear.  A sympathetic pat on the hand can rebuild the whole world for someone who feels abandoned.

About 4: however derived, if our concepts don’t fit us, we will wear them as uneasily as a pair of shoes that’s the wrong size or shape for our feet.   If it doesn’t fit, we can keep trying till we get a concept that fits better.

Now for the real question:

when does this wondering

about the meaning of life

arise?

It arises naturally just when our own life seems meaningless to us.  When does that happen?

In my life, when suddenly all of it seems grey and pointless – the grey extending as far as the horizon — when I can’t find a reason to take another step, the most urgent thing is to find out why I suddenly feel this way.  It’s important to ask that question without delay, because the feeling itself seems quite cosmic, as if there’s no reason to seek its cause because it’s just the way things are.

The question to ask is, what was the trigger, or precipitating occasion?  Often it’s something very small, a sensation or an encounter that triggers a memory.  Something has bumped one’s functions or forces out of alignment.  We are more delicate, more easily disaligned than we realize.

What fashionable contemporary thinkers call the absurdity of life either reflects some personal quandary that they’ve not seen and resolved, or else some highly theoretic claim coming to them from opinion-shapers and embraced to show that they too are in the vanguard.

Life comes to us already purposive.  Every living thing has purposes.  Ours are more individuated, conscious, complex and adjustable, but

there is no purposive void.

 

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“Two Views”

“Two Views”

This is the aerial view of Narraguagus Bay and the same bay, painted as I saw it from the attic of our old barn.

We are back there this week, visiting old friends in Washington County, Downeast Maine. It’s good to be home again.

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Real Life Returns

Illustration by Kurt Wiese
All The Mowgli Stories, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1936

Real Life Returns

I’ve just finished writing and footnoting an article, exploring new territory, with potential impact in a controversy that’s been roiling opinion-shapers for decades.  Tonight I sent it to an editor at an influential journal of opinion who has signaled that he is receptive.

Of course, I’ve said things along these expectantly hopeful lines before, in this column.  As my mother used to say, “the unexpected always happens.”  In this case, the unexpected would be that … nothing happens.  Or a flower pot could fall on my head, and with it – there goes the influential article.  Instead we have to line up the mourners for a very small, local, social event: my funeral.

But as of now, I rather think something will happen, meaning that this article could well be accepted by an appropriate editor.  I am not trying to get rich and famous.  I am trying to say something that hasn’t been said and ought to be said.  How does that make me feel I wonder.

It makes me feel like a very small child, walking through the tall, sunlit grass, pushing back the dandelions on the path.  Instead of feeling like a grownup who’s applied for epaulettes of her own, I feel … like a kid again.

At Camp Hilltop, the bungalow colony in the Watchung hills of New Jersey where we kids spent our summers, we only took our parents along because somebody had to cook and pay the rent.  But it was essentially our place.  I named all my friends after the animal characters in Kipling’s Jungle Book, reserving “Mowgli,” the name of the boy who was raised by the wolves, for myself.

I fought my first battle against injustice there.  I was six and Jan, the unjust boy, was five.  So maybe you’ll think it was an unfair combat.  Why fight a smaller kid?

Well he may have been smaller, but he was certainly badder.  It started when we were all sitting on the porch steps of one of the bigger bungalows.  Jan came along with a hammer.  We wore sandals.  That gave Jan the idea of going from bare foot to foot to hammer our toes.  Nobody said anything.  They all sat there while Jan took his turn at each set of toes.  The big kids were just putting up with it.

That didn’t look right to me.  Before Jan could smash my toes, I rose to my feet and said loftily,

“This time, Jan, you’ve gone too far.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but all the other kids did.  It meant, we had to have a fight.  It was first (and, to date, my last) combat with fisticuffs.

I didn’t like it one bit, and would have run away as soon as Jan’s first blow landed, but the other kids wouldn’t let me.  The had formed a circle around the combatants and were yelling,

“Don’t run away, Abby!”

As Johnny Cash says in “A Boy Named Sue,”

“What could I do?”

Jan ran away first.  It was counted a famous victory.

I was ten when I met my first romance at Hilltop.  Arnie.  He was twelve.  We played tetherball.  He coached me to swim more lengths of the pool.  That was as far as it went.  He won the name of Baloo, the bear in Jungle Book.  Mowgli’s friend.

Flossie was Bagheera, the black panther.  I thought she was the most wonderful person in the world.  She was thirteen, which is much more elevated than ten.  Together with a girl who lived in the compound of the farmer down the road who kept horses, we went on a tearing gallop up Old Stony Road.  In this world, it hardly gets better than that.

So why, having just finished an extremely grownup thing, an article taking moral risks in a real controversy, do I remember Camp Hilltop and feel like a kid?

It’s been a long and stony road.  I don’t know where Arnie is now, or Flossie, or poor Jan.  But I feel like I’m in the midst of …

real life again.

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