My Mind Is Not My Brain

From Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience
by Pim Van Lommel M.D.

My Mind Is Not My Brain

How much hangs on that denial – or on its contradictory, that my mind is my brain! 

If our minds are our brains, as I once thought, and as our educated contemporaries mostly still assert, it follows that one day we will all entirely cease to be.  And, unless we’ve managed to become unusually famous, whoever survives to remember us will, sooner or later, also cease to be.  If such is the case, and you’re anything like me, you won’t want to think about it too much.

It’s too depressing.

Not only is it depressing at the end.  Prospective annihilation has some effect on us even before the bell tolls.  For sufferers, oblivion might give the hope of curing life’s tumultuously painful disappointments.  Others, more agile, might be spurred to seek compensatory entertainments that, however, still wear the Dreary Colors of Plan B.   Meanwhile, the purveyors of purple prose are still posing next to their products: “Anxiety,” “Anguish,” “Despair” and of course, “the Absurd.”

On the other hand, if you’ve tried hard to corrupt or destroy a bunch of people and left a trail of hurtful damage behind you, a final fade-out after your last breath would be very good news.  Hey, you won’t have to pay!  Sorry subpoena servers!  Bye now!

So far, we’ve been canvassing subjective attitudes toward identity theory’s reduction of mental states to brain states.  But suppose we leave attitudes aside and look instead at scientific studies conducted by well-credentialed researchers and published in respected medical journals like Lancet.  Could there be credible evidence that, when our brains die, we remain conscious?

Among the most respected researchers is Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel, who was originally persuaded by his own observations to conduct and report studies of patients in cardiac care units who were revived after prolonged brain death should have made their revival impossible.  They reported verifiable observations that they could not possibly have seen or heard from their bodily position — lying on an operating table, under a sheet, after having been pronounced clinically dead.  

What these patients reported observing while “dead” could only have been seen from the ceiling or overheard from conversations in the hospital corridor some distance away from the cardiac unit.  By now, hundreds of such studies have been conducted and verified under the most exacting conditions.

The book that I’ve been reading recently on the topic is Pim Van Lommel’s Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (Harper One, 2010), translated from the Dutch edition of 2007.  Although I’ve read or browsed a good many such books, in this one I was particularly struck by Chapter Nine, “What Do We Know About Brain Function?”

Here are some of its findings: (1) From detected neural activity, you can’t tell what’s occurring in consciousness nor, from reported conscious states, can you predict where the supposed neural correlates will be found. (2) Both electrical and magnetic stimulation wipe out brain function if done at high intensities.  So they are of limited use for therapeutic or investigative purposes.  (3) Although communication between “cerebral cortex, thalamus, hippocampus and brain stem” was believed to be a prerequisite for “the experience of consciousness” — and they all stop during cardiac arrest — near-death experiencers report heightened consciousness during cardiac arrest.  (4)  There are complex mathematical reasons why brain tissue cannot be the storage site for memories.  (5) Subjects whose brain tissue is largely lost can show unimpaired brain function.  Likewise, patients with dementia can experience “brief lucid moments (‘terminal lucidity’) shortly before they die.”  (6) MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) mapping, PET (positron emission tomography) scans, and EEG (electroencephalogram) measurements have shown changes in “the anatomy and function of the brain” in patients given placebos comparable to the results delivered by antidepressants.  It follows that the mind (supposedly the product of the brain) can change its supposed producer, the brain.  (7)  Although a computer cannot “adapt and change its own hardware and software to new demands and circumstances,” the brain can do all that.  It follows that the brain is not a fancy computer.

In sum, consciousness does not track to brain tissue at specific locations,  can be present without brain activity, and can itself produce and modify brain stuff and function.  It follows that brain activity is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for consciousness.

If brain death does not make us cease to be, what does this do to a whole slew of commonplace attitudes?  Let’s take a look at some of them.

Cynicism?  That would look more like a defensive posture, rather than an unforced reading of the long-term score.

Cruelty?  Ruthless manipulativeness?  Bullying?  Those would look more like willful blindness: pretending that nobody can see my victims and they can’t see me.  By some accounts, in a life review after death, you do see what you did to others and how they felt about it.

Despair?  Unlike the first two, that one looks more sincere: like a felt lack of loving understanding.  In my own life, despair has been premature.

Exclusive fixation on success?  That looks rather like short-term ambition.  A better-grounded ambition would have to do with doing well what was worth doing.

Warranted choices?  Those would involve persistence in the search for the purpose and the right pathway for the span of one’s time between birth and one’s physical death.

What about God?  If there were a God, what would it change?  Would the hypothesis of a divine Witness make any difference to the way one spends one’s time here? 

Try it

and see.

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Does God Play Favorites?

“Joseph Telling His Dreams”
Rembrandt, 1638

Does God Play Favorites?

I don’t enjoy competition.  By that, I’m not intending to reject anyone’s marketplace of skills or services.  It’s just my sincere personal confession.  

For example, I was a natural athlete as a child.  But later, when events like foot races got more organized, with grownups setting them up and people cheering from the sidelines, it came over me that, when I won, the other kids had to lose.  Without thinking about it, I slowed down and stopped winning.

One time, the rules of chess were explained to me.  The moment came when I grasped the point: the game was a representation of war, by indirect means.  Instinctively, I shrank back in horror and never tried to play chess.

More recently, someone taught me how to play some card game.  In the middle of a practice hand, I had the sudden sense (correct or not) of knowing which card to draw.  Maybe I was giving too much credit to my pictured psychic powers but, in any case, I stopped playing.

I have no principled objection to fair competition.  On the contrary.  When friends who rodeo told me that harder events were being dropped to spare the feelings of less skilled riders, I was appalled.  (If you can’t trust rodeo, what can you trust?)

What I’m mentioning here are personal reactions to winning and losing.  The situations that I find instinctively preferable are the ones where we can all have fun together and be friends.

Since anti-semitism brings with it a situation that’s the contrary of fun, and is remarkably hard to get rid of, from time to time I’ll read something that purports to get to the bottom of it.  Oh good, I think.  This time we can really get rid of it and have fun together.  

With that hope in mind, I’ve just bought a book by Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels (1989).  This book is titled The Origin of Satan (1996), with a subtitle that promises to explain the historical origin of anti-semitism – of which the demonization of the Jewish people would be the distilled essence.

Here’s the story as she tells it.  At the period before and during the Jewish uprising against Rome that led to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jewish opinion divided sharply over how to understand the pagan occupation of the very Land that God had Promised to the Jews.

The understanding they sought was not just political.  It was also theological.  What did God want Jews to do about this situation?

In retrospect, it all seems easy to read.  It would have been a very good idea to pay the Roman tax (as Jesus advised) rather than try instead to take on the world’s greatest military power.  (But even the quietist followers of Jesus expected him to return from heaven momentarily and overthrow all the powers of the world, Rome included.) 

As Pagels narrates it, Jewish opinion divided roughly along four lines.  The priests and more established citizens counseled maximal accommodation.  The Pharisees tried to occupy a temporizing position in the middle.  The rural population, with its city sympathizers, was for militant rebellion.  At the outer edge were separatist sects like the Essenes, holding themselves apart from political struggle because they anticipated a cosmic combat between God’s few elect (themselves) and His many enemies.

Jesus and the apostle Paul predate the rebellion but the four gospels were written during and after it.  Pagels traces a development, proceeding in chronological sequence from Paul’s letters through the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.  In the threatening context of Roman repression, the conflict between mainstream Jewish leaders and the Jesus movement gradually took on the cosmic dimension that would have been recognizable to the Essenes.  Over time, it got portrayed increasingly as a struggle between God’s people and the devil’s, with “the Jews” more and more assigned to the devil’s camp.

What a consequential misformulation and how dreadfully sad!  Or could it be that the world-historical misunderstanding was itself providential?  

Years back, I recall Jacob Taubes telling me how a friend of his, a Christian theologian, marveled at the divine grace permitting him, a Gentile, to be part of the branch grafted into the original Israelite Olive Tree.  “Why,” remarked Taubes, “does this Viking [probably his friend Krister Stendahl] need to be grafted into the people of Israel?”

Last week, my Wednesday evening class at the local Chabad center discussed some verses in the Pentateuch concerning this very topic.  God, said the Bible verses, chose Israel as His particular treasure out of all the nations of the earth.  This is not, the rabbi explained to us, because Jews are necessarily more gifted or more righteous than nonJews!  

Nor, according to a midrash he cited, were the Jews being favored unfairly in a global competition.  According to the well-known midrash, all the other nations were offered the covenant, one by one, before the Jews were finally given their turn.  Each nation asked first to read the terms of the covenant, spelled out in the ten commandments, and rejected it subsequently because each noticed a commandment that violated one of their customs.

By contrast (so goes the midrash), the Jews agreed to the covenant sight unseen.  We will do God’s covenant, they said, and then we’ll read the terms.

But even that could not explain God’s role in this question of chosenness.  After all, why did God inscribe in the Jewish heart this response to His offer of the covenant — a response so precise and so apt?  By the same token, said the rabbis, God chose The Land of Israel as His special country — though surely The Land had no choice in the matter!

What then is God’s election?  Does God play favorites?  Are there winners and losers in a mysterious God competition?  Can’t we all just get along —  relax, stop sweating it, and have fun together?

The Chabad rabbi compared chosenness to what happens in courtship.  A marriage broker might present a young man with a prospective bride who was the prettiest, the sweetest, the richest, and from the best family.  Yet she still might not be the one for him.  

Choice among comparable things,

 does not require

 a reason.

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In Quest of Healing

Boy and Sheep Lying under a Tree
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1881

We are just back from one of our weeks in California, in quest of healing for my neuropathy.  As I’ve said here before, the experimental treatment on offer at Loma Linda’s neuropathy clinic sees the illness as the result of inflammation blocking neural circuits as well as the tiny blood vessels that feed them.  The treatment combines finely targeted, light-touch massage, dietary changes plus an exercise program. 

In my case at least, healing proceeds inch by inch.  This means that – though objective measurements do show incremental improvements – symptomatically (on my end) it’s often hard to tell.

I have reason to trust and like Director Mark Bussell and his neuropathy treatment team.  One reason is that they are not inclined to deny failures.  But that’s not the only reason.  They have a new approach to an affliction from which millions now suffer hopelessly, so I feel part of pathbreaking work at a medical frontier.

Anyway, all this leads me to reflect on what it’s like to have a body of which you cannot quite approve.

“Approve!  Whaddya mean?” you are inclined to protest good-heartedly.  “It’s not your fault that you have a physical handicap restricting your ability to walk!  You didn’t choose to have it.  Right?”

Right?

Well, there’s the rub.  Reasonably or not, we tend to fault ourselves for … among other things for which we bear no apparent responsibility … our physical afflictions.  Whatever the ideally improved account of the mind/body connection might turn out to be – the effort to get the subjective (what it’s like to be only me) components swallowed up by the publicly-inspectable, objective features (how we all measure that) hasn’t succeeded yet.  Subjectivity remains indigestible by objectivity.  Philosopher Tom Nagel and others have precisely shown that, so far as I can see.

What’s more, one of the obstacles to demonstrating the efficacy of a proposed medical treatment is that placebos, accompanied by the assurance that these pills will cure the patient’s condition, compete with the “real” medication in their remedial effect.

Also, outside the realm of controlled studies, many of us have experienced remission of a symptom when we got good news unexpectedly.  And of course, the reverse is true also.  Bad news can revive an illness we believed cured.

So, how much of me is doing this neuropathy to myself – and what does that truant part of me hope to get out of it?

If, silently and subliminally, you have been asking yourself that about me, please don’t feel bad.  I’m doing it too!

Since my stint in psychoanalysis, I’ve avoided psychiatrists (yuck!  I’m not that sick!) but from time to time I have consulted a psychic or two.  Usually, they don’t do as much harm as real shrinks, though a French psychic did rather cattily tell me that I was being punished for having considered drowning myself in the Seine river after — mon dieu, how to put this — stooping to folly?

To me, her diagnosis just didn’t sound accurate.  Given the way the social dance steps played out for women in those pre-feminist days, it was rational at least to have considered suicide as an option.  Heck, I’m a philosopher.  What was I supposed to do?  Think only good thoughts?

Recently a close woman friend, whose opinions I have reason to take seriously, suggested that the neuropathy, by keeping me relatively housebound, forces me to get my remaining life tasks completed before my Golden Years run out.

That’s conceivable, but personally I think not.  I’d get my work done even better if I could at least be allowed to take a daily stroll in the woods.  I love the woods.

So, what’s my idea of the part played by my mind in my very own mind/body problem? 

You’ve heard of the life review?  It’s the complete, 3-D replay of the sequence of one’s reactions, choices and interactions over a lifetime.  Reportedly, it’s been undergone by many individuals who’ve been revived after clinical death.

Well, I don’t wait for clinical death.  I do life reviews fairly frequently – often finding that my life looks different this time from the way it looked the last time I did a review.  Subsequent experience has provided a wider perspective.

So I did a life review guided by the following question: What in me had opened the door to neuropathy?  Of course, you might object that, on such a question, I’m no oracle.

Quite right.  Now,

 please, please, please,

take me to your oracle!

It was quite interesting to see how different previously familiar scenes looked now, viewed through the lens of that question.

It seemed to me that I’d come into this life with an underlying sense that anti-semitism had a global reach and a highly consequential subjective depth.  Given that founding orientation, the experiences that seemed to tell on my neurons most painfully were the ones where fellow Jews delivered the hits.  They weren’t the worst or the only hitters.  They just hurt most.

Taking my life adventures as a whole, the strategy I’d followed was to do the best I could in the combats – the victories and defeats — of my life.  I would try to pull the strands of meaning from the maelstrom and to move on.   I never wrote anything I hadn’t lived or at least put to some relevant test.  I tried not to hold on to opinions if they came to seem untenable.  I tried not to lie.

In fact, as this life review led me to notice, I really had suffered quite a lot.  More than I generally like to recall.  But also learned a fair amount, wrote about whatever I’d learned if it seemed of wider interest … and moved on.

But my body didn’t always move on.  Not 100 percent.  I tried to cure the curable hurts.  And the incurable ones?  They had to be stored somewhere.  So the problem is to get them out of storage.

And that’s all I can say about

Abigail’s mind/body problem.

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The Kiss of God

Jerusalem Window
Marc Chagall,1962

The Kiss of God

Nowadays, on Wednesday evenings, I drive to the local Chabad, when I can manage it, to study the Parshah (section from the Pentateuch being read during that week by Jews worldwide).  Their building is still under internal construction and renovation, so one enters stepping around cartons, going through unfurnished rooms to get to class.  

The study experience at this new place gives me a delight that I am pausing here to puzzle over.

The Chabad are a sect of Hasidic Judaism with centers for worship, Jewish education, and outreach, at the most far-flung corners of the world.  I’ve even seen a cartoon showing space travelers landing on Mars in the belief that they are the first human beings to arrive there – but lo! the Chabad Center has preceded them on Mars.  Though they don’t go in for secular modernity, the Chabad are deliberately nonjudgmental about one’s degrees of observance – at least if one is not a member.  For example, the Wednesday class is conducted with no Hebrew.

What is it about the Chabad that puzzles me?  Well, for openers, some of the most tough-minded and well-credentialed people I know, who live in cosmopolitan Washington or New York, are doing what I am doing: reading the weekly Parshah at their local Chabad.   So my first question is, why

Here’s a second cause for my head-shaking curiosity.  The Wednesday adult students sit with the Rabbi at a small round table.  So far as I’ve seen, they number about five at most.  Now I’ve taught classes and given lectures in various settings and I can tell you that five is not a large number.  If, week after week, I had to meet a class so minimally attended, I’d need emergency transfusions of self-esteem just to keep going.  

In sharp contrast, the Rabbi does not appear in the least concerned at the smallness of the group.  Not even subliminally, as far as I can tell.  What does this mean? Could it be that he loves God and doesn’t care about the rest of it?

In the Parshah we studied last week, the following events, from the Israelite wanderings through the Wilderness, were lifted out for discussion: Miriam (sister of Moses) died; Aaron (his brother) also died; Moses struck a rock to get it to gush forth water (which it did) but, all the same, he was to be punished for violating the divine command to speak to the rock, rather than strike it.  Also, the Israelites get the divine go-ahead to conquer the Canaanites.

How did the Chabad rabbi interpret these happenings in the Wilderness?  He pointed out that the reason the rock needed to be spoken to was that, now for the first time, the Israelites lacked water.  Previously, the rock had produced it because of “the merit of Miriam.”  By the same line of reasoning, the Canaanites had previously been protected from conquest “by the merit of Job.”  Remember Job?  As it turns out, he’d been the last meritorious Canaanite.  After his funeral, there weren’t any more.  His merit removed, Canaan was open for the taking.

What do I make of such interpretations?  Not being an urbane city-slicker-smart-aleck, I try to see what lessons they might contain.  Can a single individual, or a few of them, save or ruin a whole city, or even a nation?  The Greeks had evidently believed that a city could be blighted if one man in that city, say King Oedipus, unknowingly married his mother.  In Genesis, Abraham persuaded God to spare the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if at least ten righteous persons could be found there.

Is there any basis, in moral or historical experience, for a single individual, or a small group, saving his or her homeland, or else bringing it to destruction?

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

Another event proposed for our study had to do with the death of the righteous.  About Miriam’s end, and Aaron’s, the rabbi told us that such deaths occur in a painless moment, without fear or anguish.  They come easily, because effected by “the kiss of God.”

Not inclined to ask for statistical evidence for such a claim, my mind went back to the time when my father was dying.  I was standing with my mother in his room in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine. 

“He is dying on Friday night,” my mother said to me.  “That’s when the righteous in Israel die.”

Okay.  The kiss of God.

 Works for me.

Lastly, we turned to consider the question of why Moses was punished – allowed to see the Promised Land from the mountain top but not to enter it – for so trivial as mistake as striking the rock rather than speaking to it.

Well, that’s easy.  The advanced soul is judged – judges itself – by more exacting standards than are required by the average person.

So what is the Jewish essence?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the business of partnering with God in history floats around, taking one form or another as real-life circumstances and the covenantal calling suggest.

To my way of thinking, the Jewish essence escapes any definitive summing up.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

By Jerry Z. Muller

This well-crafted, exhaustively researched, intellectually balanced biography of Jacob Taubes may be on its way to becoming the talk of the town.  Since its subject is an academic who cannot be said to have contributed one well-worked-out insight, scholarly discovery, or theoretical breakthrough in his triune fields of religion, philosophy, and political science, the fact that a 519-page biography should be written about him at all — much less appear under the auspices of Princeton University Press — provokes wonder.  The publication of such a biography would certainly gratify Taubes himself (1923-1987) — wherever we might imagine him to be right now.  But Muller did not become his Boswell on that account.

Why then this biography?  In his Introduction, “Why Taubes?” Muller names some of the glittering public intellectuals whose careers and lives crossed paths with his subject.  Thus his life was “a mosaic of twentieth-century intellectual life and an intellectual Baedeker, that is, a guide to key figures, ideas, schools, and controversies.” He was ”an intellectual conduit and a merchant of ideas between the American and German intellectual contexts … “  France and Israel are also on the map of his peregrinations.

These qualities suggest comparison with the 17th-century Jesuit, Father Marin Mersenne, in his role as a central communicative hub for “the moderns” who were coming to philosophic terms with Galileo and Kepler.  Since the biographer reports that the people he interviewed who knew Taubes, whether friends or foes, often used words like “demonic” or “satanic” to describe him, he might be seen as a Mephistophelian version of Father Mersenne.

The list of public intellectuals who crossed paths with, liked, hated, or collaborated with Taubes is stunning.  We meet Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Thomas Altizer, Reinhold Neibuhr, Leo Strauss, Gershom Scholem, Stanley Cavell, Michael and Edith Wyschogrod, Krister Stendahl and Eric Voegelin.  There are more, but you get the idea.

Though many who dealt with him over time were disillusioned, morally or intellectually, he didn’t disappoint them all.  Voegelin recognized him as “a real, live Gnostic,” which did not prevent that anti-gnostic from enlisting Taubes for “reading through and correcting the proofs of Voegelin’s book,” Israel and Revelation.  Their relationship spanned decades and remained friendly, though intermittent.

Krister Stendahl met Taubes at Harvard, where the latter had a Rockefeller fellowship, and found talking to him “an intellectual feast.”  When Jacob’s ex-wife, Susan, committed suicide, their son Ethan went to live with the Stendahls.

The philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod stayed friends with Taubes through all his mental and moral vagaries, winding up his insurance chores when he left Columbia for the Free University of Berlin.  When Taubes was disabled by depression, Wyschogrod, in cooperation with Ethan, brought him back to New York for psychiatric treatment– at least till his eventual paranoia led him to refuse Wyschogrod’s further help.

All these collegial relationships were not just responses to the Taubes charm.  One has to have some thesis or noteworthy viewpoint, to keep company with people of this stature.  On the intellectual front, what was Taubes’s main idea?  It was that overturning the laws of this world would unleash creativity as a concomitant of that revolutionary change.  His prime example of what he supposed was this recurrent antinomian feature of history was the Apostle Paul. 

Is there any merit to this thesis?  Not that I can see.  The biographer points out other passages in Paul where the apostle urged conformity to the governing authorities.  Revolutionary ferment can make way for creative work but does not always or necessarily do so.  Creativity, by definition, departs from some previous pattern but, when successful, introduces its new form in a highly disciplined way.  Libertine Gnosticism’s claim that the mere destruction of social norms will deliver a world situation of redemptive creativity is not backed by evidence that’s clear, unambiguous, or compelling.

Taubes was bright enough to know this.  His antinomian principle looks more like a pretext than a seriously-meant hypothesis.  Under that pretext, he was promiscuous without letup, betrayed collegial friends by undermining them to others behind their backs, sometimes selecting one as his particular enemy and persisting in cunning and deliberate efforts to make his life unbearable.  By allying himself with student radicals in Berlin, he helped to undermine academic standards but later reproved the sub-standard results, meanwhile taking no responsibility for his previous actions.  He would have preferred an academic career in Israel but chose an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist synagogue for his religious refuge when he was in Jerusalem.  He actually boasted of the suicides to which he had driven people.  When he learned that his cancer was terminal, he had misgivings about meeting God weighted down with so much guilt.  He did some fervent praying on his own behalf, but meanwhile staged one curtain call after another, farewelling friends and admirers at restaurants and seminars and at their homes.

How is one to understand such a story?  The readiest explanation would merely cite the fascination exerted by transgressors.  The parlor psychologists would say that reading about an outsized outlaw like Taubes enables normal readers to live out vicariously their own otherwise repressed, forbidden impulses.

I have a certain mistrust of that kind of psychologizing.  It does not seem to me to account for people of the caliber of Eric Voegelin, Krister Stendahl, or Michael and Edith Wyshogrod admitting a man like that into their working lives.

Since I was not as charmed by Jacob Taubes as some claimed to be, I must cast about for other explanations more consistent with my own experience of him.  He’d been helpful to me professionally – and this in spite of getting nowhere erotically with Abigail.  Had I been simply indifferent to the surface layers of erudition and charm that appealed to so many?  It puzzled me.  After we parted, I seldom thought about him.  He didn’t visit my dreams or represent anything in my imagination.  What really had been going on?

Experimentally, I decided to revisit the one incident that had prompted me to stop having anything more to do with Jacob Taubes: my near-heart attack.  I attributed it to him although, for the life of me, I can’t remember the incident that triggered such a reaction in me, which was unprecedented and never recurred.  When I left Columbia to take my doctoral degree at Penn State, I met a middle-aged European philosopher there who asked me if I’d known Taubes at Columbia and unhesitatingly attributed to him his own full-fledged heart attack.  Likely there were others who could have made that claim, or did.  If a reaction that I attributed to Taubes might have killed me, then clearly I was not as indifferent to his influence as I supposed.  What had been going on along the trajectory of that almost-heart attack?

In search of an answer, I decided to relive it in memory.  Oh, I thought.  I see.  From inside the experience, it’s all quite clear.  Let me explain.  There was something Jacob did, more blatantly with some, more covertly with others.  With his rabbinic lineage and ordination, he drew people toward himself with the suggestion that he spoke for the covenant – from within the covenant – and then betrayed their most sacred yearnings.  My body had felt that and reacted accordingly.

I’m not a ritually observant Jew, but I’m very much Jewish.  For me, the covenant between God and Israel is the unsurpassable event in human history.  There is a category in the history of Israel (Leviticus 22:32) as in rabbinic Judaism, that is called

Chillul Hashem,

the Desecration of the Name. 

It denotes acts that appear to reflect badly on God, bringing the Name of God into disrepute, occasioning juicy or malicious gossip at God’s expense.  

Nothing atones for it – not suffering, not the Day of Atonement, not even effortful, conscious repentance.

Jesus, no doubt from within the same tradition, says something very similar: “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven …” (Matthew 12:31).

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Disaggregation

“The Laundresses”
Edgar Degas, 1884

Disaggregation

Disaggregation!  What a title!  Masses of people will be pushing in to hear what I have to say about that one!

It’s the polysyllabic term for what I need to do: separate out and deal with the present pileup of life challenges, each of which is new and calls for resources I never needed before.

Since I haven’t found any time before now to reflect on this pileup, I’ll have to use the time that I ordinarily set aside for this column to double as my hour of retreat for sheltered thought.  Rather odd to do that by means of a column that I share with a lot of readers I don’t know personally – but that’s the time I have.  

Let’s take these challenges one by one, in the chronological order in which they first presented themselves.  

First came the proofreading of Confessions of a Young Philosopher, my forthcoming book That brought to my attention the fact that I’ve done quite a large piece of work.  What’s “large” about it?  I’ll just say what comes to mind:

It has an atmosphere of truthfulness.

It proceeds down a memory pathway untainted by current intellectual fashions in self-understanding: Freudian, existentialist, physicalist-reductionist, Marxist, nihilist, gnostic, and so on.  It’s not post-modern.  It’s not even modern.

While the story pays attention to these way stations of our culture in our time, it unfolds from inside the unsurpassable covenant between God and the people of Israel.  But, as philosophic rationalists would say: 

What is first in the order of explanation

is last in the order of discovery.

The eventual vantage point is found at ground level, encounter by encounter — standing clear only at the end.  That is the genre of confession: spiritual pilgrimage through the writer’s time and place.  But here, as it happens, the pilgrim is a woman.

Now on to the second challenge.  I’ve just had an interview, my first, in what is planned as a series of interviews with people of various perspectives who’ve read my book and have questions about it.  This stage is one I was not looking forward to.  It’s one thing to bare your soul in the privacy of your attic.  (My study looks like an attic; it’s under a slanted roof.)  It’s quite another thing to come down from the attic and answer an array of questions.  The inaugural interviewer was an intelligent young woman who looks to me hard to fool.  Amanda is neither Jewish nor of my generation, but she found Confessions illuminating for the lives of women today.

I’ve replayed our interview once since we did it.  It has yet to be edited for interruptions and repetitions.  Still, what seemed to me undeniable is – for cryin’ out loud — I talk like I know what I’m talking about and I have a lot to say!  And it’s new.  Not padded.  Not your platter of platitudes rewarmed.  Essentially Jewish but not at all parochial.

I’m not bragging.  I’m in shock.  Maybe it won’t happen again.  The next interviews might all come out flat and stale.  But … I sure did have a lot to say!  How could that be?

What else?  Well, third and fourth challenge, almost in the same intake of breath — because that’s how life goes – two infinitely dear friends are facing crises of life and health.

In the so-called normal phases of life, actually we live like trapeze artists, flying through the air but counting on our friends — fellow trapeze artists with us — to catch us so that we can land safely.  Accordingly, anything that imperils our friends jeopardizes us urgently. 

One friend is the chief reason Jerry and I moved here, from our respective big cities (New York for me, Washington for Jerry), to this little town.  Now, for the sake of her health, that friend of this place will be moving away!  The other woman has been the witness of my life from earliest girlhood; she is the loving friend of my time.  She will be having her heart surgically repaired! 

I feel like a person being moved closer to the unshielded frontier of life and wanting to explain — to Whoever is in charge —

I can’t do this.

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Academic Gossip

Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom.
Edwin Landseer, 1848

Academic Gossip

One of the seldom-mentioned pleasures of life in the academy – the House that Plato Built – is academic gossip.  It juxtaposes the life of ideas against real-life — whetting one’s appetite for both!

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller, and can’t recall reading any nonfiction book so many of whose characters were personally known to me.  Despite my hundred-percent-ambivalent relation to Taubes, his biography is giving me one hell of a guilty good time.

The rabbis issued a prohibition against gossip, which they called lashon hara, the evil tongue.  In the harm it does, they compared it to murder.  To a certain extent, as I know from painful experience, they must be counted correct.  Social death, when brought about by social assassination, is equivalent to murder and has been known to occasion suicides as well as fatal illnesses.  This is gossip on the rough side.

On the other hand, conversation that deliberately avoids sharing views and stories about people becomes boring, sterile, and sanctimoniously “over-nice.”  Our true stories really are novelistic.  We don’t live them in isolation, but rather in our complicated human interactions.  We have a natural desire to share these stories, our own and those we’ve witnessed, to hear them and to figure them out.  

Here certain qualifications need to be kept in mind: secrets told in confidence ought not to be divulged; malicious rumors supported by doubtful evidence should not be spread about.  That said, there’s still a lot of real stuff to talk about.  And of course, biographies permit us to do that without worrying over lashon hara

Jacob Taubes — professor in the Religion Department at Columbia University, later at the Free University in Berlin, previously invited to be professor on one temporary basis or another at Harvard and Princeton – made sure to know everybody who was anybody on his philosophico-theological terrain – in the academic venues that spanned Europe and East Coast America.  

Wherever Taubes went, anecdotes followed.  As I go through the Muller narrative, I come across stories of people I’ve known in one capacity or another and, over morning brunch, have been sharing with Jerry some of the stories that the biographer left out.  So far as I can see, Muller’s only problem was forgetting to interview me!

For heaven’s sake – there’s Jack Neusner!  (Later the well-known Jacob Neusner, “an influential figure in Jewish Studies” in America.)   We must have met either in Taubes’s office or as fellow students taking a course in the Columbia Religion Department.

I doubt we hit it off in the boy/girl way, since we went out on only one date, one Saturday night, to see “Ben Hur” at the RKO movie theater on 86th off Lexington Avenue.  I don’t remember whether he paid or we each paid for our own tickets– my preference, even then.  I do recall being pretty irritated when Jack refused to go in till sunset, so as not to violate the Sabbath.  

When Taubes appointed me Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics, Neusner helpfully explained to me why I had been selected for that rather nice position, while he – by his lights obviously more qualified — had been passed over.  Unlike me, Jack was not a girl!

Since nobody thought Taubes was above such considerations, I did not try to talk Jack out of his view.  Anything I said would only have made it worse.

Not long after my appointment for the gig at the Hermeneutics Seminar, I got a phone call from Taubes.  Neusner, he told me, was buttonholing people in front of Philosophy Hall to lobby against Taubes!  I don’t remember what exactly Jack was lobbying for, but it had something to do the appointment of Abigail for the Secretaryship.  From his office window overlooking the mall, Taubes could see Jack busily at work talking to anyone he could get to stop and listen.

“This,” Taubes opined to me over the phone, “is not good.  Can you do something to stop him, Abigail?”

“Jacob,” I said truthfully, “I have no pull with Jack.”

Now I learn from the biographer that – nevertheless, in the long term — Neusner came to enjoy relations with Taubes that were both cordial and mutually beneficial.  Jack “received his rabbinical ordination [from Jewish Theological Seminary] and his doctorate, with a dissertation … supervised by Morton Smith … Taubes served on Neusner’s dissertation committee and thought highly enough of the younger man’s abilities to hire him to teach in the Columbia department.”

Traveling down the byways of academic gossip, I’d not been aware that my friend, the late Edith Wyschogrod, was drawn into her philosophy of religion major by Taubes, nor that Edith’s late husband Michael Wyschograd — in my view a significant theologian – had been his friend.  Edith became an authority on Levinas and, at one time, President of the American Academy of Religion.  Years later, it was Edith who called to tell me of Jacob’s death.  I suppose I must have taken for granted that New York Jewish intellectuals, if they were busy with religion, would have had some connection with Jacob, but I don’t recall ever asking Edith how she knew him.

The future psychic Jean Houston is someone else I once knew.  For the biographer, she illustrates Jacob’s “caring and compassionate” side.  He took an interest in her when she was going through a personal crisis, and was helpful to her – though she might have made short work of his likely concomitant attempts at seduction.  I’d known Jean at a distance for years, having first met her during Freshman Orientation week at Barnard.  Later she would become a successful contributor to the Human Potential Movement, the author of books and articles — at one time attracting public notice as an advisor to Hillary Clinton when the latter was First Lady.  

Long before this public moment, when Jean and I were both grad students at Columbia, for some reason she decided to regale me with the – to her risible — image of Jewish doctors, lawyers et al who’d been stripped for the Zyklon B gas “showers.”  I gathered she found that a case of Jewish intellectual pretense exposed.  

As it happened, I did not see it that way and might have repeated that conversation with Jean to my father who taught philosophy at a department to which, subsequently, Jean applied.  No doubt there were other candidates that my father and his colleagues thought better qualified.  In consequence, my father was not able to support her application.  When  Jean – who was a pretty big girl – next saw me, she backed me up against the wall of an apartment building on a New York city street and demanded to know why I had done that to her.  I denied knowing anything about it.

I deny it still.

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Dragon Hunting

Illustration by C.C. J Ellis

Dragon Hunting

Dragon hunting has never, to my knowledge, been deemed the sport of kings since the requisite skills are not confined to any class of people, royal or other. Rather, the know-how is reserved for gifted souls. They know where to grab the dragon. Not by the head. By the tail.

I wish I had the dragon-hunter’s skills. By “dragon,” I mean anyone who uses means – unfair, unholy, or uncanny – to control others. It would be of the greatest utility to be able to discern the dragon’s visible methods and concealed intentions before the subverting of unwary minds could be carried through.

The lore of the ancient Greeks included the legend that, if a wolf looked at you before you could discern him, you’d be turned to stone. The legend is referenced in The Republic, Plato’s dialogue on political justice. In the midst of that dialogue, a man named Thrasymachus bursts in, declaring that anyone who hopes to understand “justice” by talking about it is wasting time: “Justice,” he says, is the name given by the strongest party to whatever serves his perceived interest.

Thrasymachus is shocking, with his shouting, his uninvited intrusion, and deliberate incivility. He breaks the rules of social life.

Socrates responds coolly:

If I had not seen this wolf

before he saw me,

I would have been turned to stone.

Taking Socrates at his word, how did he do that? How did he see the wolf in time?

At the January 6 Hearings, now being shown on C-Span, Vice President Pence reportedly said to the Secret Service agents who were then pressing him to vacate the Capital in the vehicle they’d provided:

“I’m not getting in that car!”

The Vice President’s decision to remain in the Capital building, despite the mob howling for his murder, made it possible to register the Electoral College results on the due date, despite his President’s historically unprecedented and illegal calls for the Vice President to halt the proceedings. (I recall seeing the President say to the mob, while finally telling them to disperse, “I love you. This day will live forever!”) For the most part, the Secret Service seems to have been working for Trump, not for Pence. To one friendly agent who was attempting to reassure him, Pence said, “I know you and I trust you. But I don’t know who’ll be driving that car.”

This is what is called seeing the wolf before he sees us. It takes more than sang foid (a cool head). I wish I were confident of having what it takes.

More than once, I have seen intelligent, learned and civilized people come under the spell of a cunning manipulator. Right now, I’m reading the biography of Jacob Taubes, international, polycultural, philosophico-theological pied piper, whom I wrote about in an earlier column. Why did he fail to get me under his magic spell when so many others succumbed? He didn’t have anything I wanted. Erudition without purpose didn’t interest me. Wit that went nowhere didn’t amuse me.

With what ingredients does a manipulator mix that magic spell? Some years ago, in an institution to which I formerly belonged, which was devoted to sacred purposes, a newcomer turned out to be a predator. Among the women, as is said nowadays, he behaved “inappropriately.” Although most women were repelled, oddly enough, the manipulator managed to secure the confidence of a woman who had been outspokenly and consistently straight-laced in her old-fashioned piety. When this woman saw that I was wholly committed to ousting the predator, she actually stopped speaking to me! Her one-woman ostracism continued for months, even after the bad actor was gone. Then one day, she snapped out of it.

What changed her? All I know is that when, on the occasion of a death in her family, I passed her on the stair and stopped to express my sympathy, at that moment, she forgot whatever had been causing her to place me beyond the pale. Without a backward glance, she became her old self again. The spell was broken. It didn’t acquire its power by an argument and it didn’t depart under the force of an argument.

Whatever understanding I do have comes from my own direct experience of the syndrome. Here’s what I wrote about it in my forthcoming Confessions of A Young Philosopher:

“’Brainwashing’ is popularly believed to be remote from ordinary experience. It first came to public attention when American prisoners of war in North Korea confessed to crimes that obviously they had not committed. So it got to be associated with physical coercion and exotic locales. The root method does not require any of that, however. A would-be controller has only to persuade her target to act in ways that deviate from the person’s normal sense of style, propriety, or rightness. That departure once made, the victim will be inclined to explain or defend each atypical backstep in ways equally unfamiliar. So, step by step, with each deviation and retroactive rationalization, the manipulator’s desired reshaping of another’s self is accomplished. At the end of the descent, the targeted person will no longer be able to recognize herself.”

If you can see it first, you’ve got the dragon by the tail. Otherwise, the dragon has you.

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Colliding with the Book I Wrote

From “Confessions of a Young Philosopher”
Illustration by Caroline Church

Colliding with the Book I Wrote

Yesterday I started proofreading Confessions of a Young Philosopher, getting through the first of its three Parts, which bears the title, “Beginningwise.“ From this first go at it, I felt clobbered – just knocked down and then run over, as if by a gigantic lawn mower.

Why?

It’s as if I’d never read it before.  I thought I would have to work up some degree of interest, rousing interest from an all-too-dormant state.  Instead, I feel like I need to be sent out for repairs.  What am I seeing in this work at present? 

First, there’s the viewpoint.  In telling the story, I’m proceeding — with clarity of motive and direction – from the orientation provided by my firm-foot-grip on what it is to be a Jew.  My “confession” is not foreign to The Tradition, but not encased in the tradition’s protective codes, interpretive layers, and calendar of obligations.  All that — codes, layers, and calendar — are never disavowed by me but only appear here as helps for binding together this people, assembling them for something like a census, or counting operation.  

That’s not trivial or adventitious considering what this people are – parties to the covenant for which they have been mustered and marked out – but it’s instrumental rather than defining.  The orthodox would not allow me to draw such a distinction.  I didn’t ask them for their permission.  That’s politics, the politics of religion.

So this standpoint, as I define it in my own mind, accounts for my motivation – conscious and unconscious.  I desire to locate or situate my place in history for the indefeasible Jewish purpose of partnering with God at the right place and time.  It’s both sincere and unsophisticated.

The story begins at the time of my youthful Fulbright year in Paris.  There’s no feminist movement as yet.  America believes in itself.  Young Americans believe in their innocence.  My desire to know Paris (that history-dense city of lights) through and through follows as a specification of my original aim.  I am trying to find my place in the times and places of my life.  

It turns out that, me being a woman, there’s a certain erotic choreography pertaining to such knowledge in that place and it’s passagère – transitory in principle. Lovers are what Paris is all about and lovers don’t last!

Though we American young women disapproved of this passagère feature of the Parisian eros, we too felt precarious — at the mercy of time’s winged chariot.  We too had only a short time in which to count as women before we got to be superannuated beings, trailing a past but devoid of a more-than-private future.  We were not ideal beings in Platonic space.  We had our feet moving on pre-feminist planet earth.  If I felt a Jewish obligation to partner with God in actual history – where real human beings live – I would have to tackle this precariousness somehow.

So this was the background, the mise-en-scene, when I met “Pheidias.”  The powerful draw between us isn’t something I made up.  It wasn’t a device by which I could understand Paris.  It was the force of that person beckoning me within my actual place and time.

He meanwhile was crafting a seduction.  In all the time-honored ways that were new to me.  I had no intention of becoming a classic victim.  Nor did I find any ready-made defenses in my repertoire.  Now what?  I could either drown myself in the river Seine (which I carefully considered doing, the night after) or else go on to see and fully experience what that was all about.  Awkward as it is for me now, staring at those technicolor scenes, they too had to be accepted as an unbidden aspect of my project: still to know what my place in time was, so as from there nevertheless to go on trying to connect with my all-knowing Witness, the co-Agent, the immemorial Partner.  

What’s so striking to me now, what bowls me over, is that (though for many years I longed for him) I didn’t want to keep him in my life!  I didn’t see him as a fit partner in terms of my deepest project.  His life-script was mannered, artificially self-canceling, not durable.  So I too was passing through, when our paths crossed.  

He offered marriage.  I didn’t want it, though I would have had to accept his offer had I gotten pregnant.  

It was the Lord’s work

that I didn’t.

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The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes

Jacob Taubes in 1978
Mehner/Ullstein via Getty Images

The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes 

Prominently featured in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review is a biography titled Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller.  The reviewer is Mark Lilla, a distinguished Columbia University historian and social commentator.  Lilla’s review held special interest for me, since I am among the people who credit Taubes with bringing on a near heart attack.  This wasn’t so easy to do, since I never had a heart condition.

When I met him in the 1960’s, he was the youngest in a cadre of four philosophy professors, along with Paul Kristeller, John Herman Randall, and Horace Friess, who were co-teaching a graduate course on Hegel.  He also co-taught a course in philosophy of religion with Horace Friess, and organized the Columbia University Seminar on Hermeneutics, for which he appointed me Secretary.  I don’t recall whether he or Friess chaired the Religion Department at Columbia at that time, but Taubes had an office in Philosophy Hall overlooking the giant reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker on the mall below.

One time Taubes told me that Susan Sontag and I were the two most brilliant students he’d ever had.  Maybe he said that to all the girls, but maybe not.

The reviewer assigns him responsibility for “career-destroying intrigues … sexual escapades … betrayals and suicides of those close to him, including his first wife … .”  In 1949, when Taubes came to Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study with Gershom Scholem, his pained teacher later gave him the dubious credit for disclosing “the reality of moral evil in the world.”

At a later stage, Lilla finds him enjoying “a central role” in Maoist teach-ins with Herbert Marcuse in the early ‘70’s, when he was teaching at the Free University in Berlin while simultaneously ”cultivating a relationship with … Carl Schmitt, the antisemitic ‘crown jurist’ of the Third Reich, whose works [Taubes] promoted for their radical potential.”

Although the biography records the trail of shattered lives that Taubes left in his wake, I would not class him as evil tout court.  To me he was more like one of those twisted, half-crushed, pressed flowers of Mitteleuropa.  To qualify as evil in my book, you have to ruin lives with more deliberate, sustained, and cunning intent.

The first time we talked in his office, he noted that I was alone with a man in a room with the door shut.  “According to the rabbis, Abigail, this is adultery!”  

My goodness, I thought, if you can see it coming a mile away, not only is it not adultery – it’s not even clever!  

One time later, when we knew each other better, I found myself actually wrestling with him.  

“I’m fighting for my honor!” I said.

“Your honor is immaculate,” Taubes replied, with evident regret. 

Another time, we were talking about the European Jews who’d failed to foresee the Holocaust.  Our question was, whether theirs had been a culpable failure.  Taubes thought not.  

“I am the only person I know who would have the inward means to foresee it – and I don’t trust myself!”

What sort of thing did he do to bring on heart attacks?  While I don’t recall the precise back-and-forth that brought me to the point where my heart function seemed to be shutting down, here’s a typical move in the Taubes choreography: he’d invited me to dinner at his home along with another guest, a noted philosophy professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  At dinner’s end, I was suddenly told to give his little boy a bath and then put him to bed.  Meanwhile, my host and his other guest would be leaving together to attend some fine philosophical event.  The sudden collapse of status, the surprise, and disappointment — the silent acquiescence I thought required by politeness – all trivial of course.  But trivia like that can give you a heart attack.

I think he was a seducer in whatever myriad senses that word covers.  So, an engenderer of hopes who disappoints those very hopes.  In this work-up and let-down, he was incessant, insatiable and likely incurable.

Did he suffer from what he was?  Yes, if you count the late “psychotic breakdown … paranoia, depression … briefly, catatonia … electroshock treatments … .”  When he was dying of cancer and asked how he felt, he replied, “Metastatically, not so good; metaphysically, wonderful!”  

What gave Taubes his opportunity at Columbia was not the “charm” which I think both the biographer and the reviewer exaggerate.  If you wanted to be bowled over by Taubes, it seems to me that you had to help.  What actually helped him was the surrounding barrenness of the intellectual landscape at Columbia back then.  

The New York Times review is titled, “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic.”  But thinking is always erotic, since it rests on a desire for truth concerning the matter being thought about.

The prevailing desire at the Columbia I knew then was for careers.   And of course, the subliminal message at that time was, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

However, a more serious question lay back of that one:  

Why can’t a man

be more like a man?

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