A Good Look at Evil’s Second Edition

A Good Look at Evil’s Second Edition

The author’s advance copy of my expanded second edition of A Good Look at Evil, arrived Friday.  The look of it is entirely gorgeous.  To have such endorsements, from opinion-shapers of recognized importance — the well-regarded new literary critic Adam Kirsch, the tough-minded analytic philosopher William Lycan, the eloquent, seasoned, well-credentialed fighter for women’s rights Phyllis Chesler, and the gifted novelist Gail Godwin — is enormous.  If no one else should ever read the book, this is a tall mountain already climbed.

What is the meaning of an achievement like this in the course of a life?  Some time ago a colleague told me that the ancient Greeks would shout with one antique roar  – when an athlete had won an important race, or a wrestling match, and was at the top of his game —

Die now!

The Greeks believed that the aim of a life is glory.  Therefore, they thought it best to depart when one’s glory was at its peak, not yet surpassed or outlived.  In his elegiac poem,“To An Athlete Dying Young,” A. E. Housman celebrates their outlook.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory cannot stay.

Although I’m way past the hour for so fine-tuned an exit, anyone who has reached the top of a steep, steep climb can hear — behind today’s congratulations — antiquity’s more sincere advice: die now!

It happens that I’m not free to do that.  I have two more books to do. Confessions of a Young Philosopher still needs to find the right publisher and there is another book beyond Confessions.  In Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, from which so many public intellectuals emerged to shape America’s mind in the twentieth century, Henry M. Rosenthal, my father, was considered by his more famous classmates to be the one with the most “genius” and the most personal integrity.  He was enigmatic.  People pained him because he was burdened with a kind of moral x-ray vision.  He could see where they were going wrong, or where they would go wrong if they continued down the road they had chosen.   There were things he knew that I’ve always wanted to fathom – that I feel the wider world would benefit by knowing.  So I can’t “die now” – or die yet.

Besides, I’m not an ancient Greek.  Glory isn’t my aim in life.  Aristotle distinguished three types of life goal: pleasure, fame, and virtue (arête, excellence).  If you deliberately make pleasure your aim, it’s destabilizing and puts you at the mercy of stuff over which you have minimal control.  (In our day, it’s not hard to fill in the lurid details in living color.)  The quest for fame or glory (“celebrity”) puts you at the mercy of the public and its fleeting preferences.   Virtue or excellence (what we would call “being the best that you can be”) is obviously the noblest of the three aims but has its own fragility.  Circumstances can overwhelm your efforts: disease, extreme poverty, persecution, a disabling childhood, wars, earthquakes, plagues can all interrupt and thwart your efforts to be the best that you can be.  Aristotle admits this.  He’s a realistic philosopher.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, for Aristotle.

Okay, so much for our gifted cultural forebears on the pagan side, of whom Poe writes, in his poem dedicated to Helen of Troy:

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome.

Another strand finds its way into our common culture.  (There is wisdom to draw on, and much of it, from nonwestern sources, but I can’t make this post go on indefinitely.  It’ll soon be closing time at my café.)  What’s the other strand, having to do with the aims of life?

It’s the Bible of course.  There the whole scheme of life is depicted quite differently, but one of the prominent aims gave my book its theme: the struggle with evil.  In the Bible, that is, evil is an acknowledged reality.  The Greeks did not know that.  With glancing exceptions, in general the classical world attributed the vices to ignorance, to an uncultivated mind.

With all due regard for what the classical world knew and achieved, in this respect they were mistaken.  Evil is a power in its own right and has a cunning all its own.

People who have liberated themselves from stultifying, fundamentalist homes cringe when they hear that kind of talk.  They heard it all through their childhood from authority figures with narrow minds and inflated egos.  They saw it used to manipulate people and push them around.

The “God” word is often used like that too.  For manipulative purposes.  But let’s not rush to judgment here.  It’s the words for what is best, like “love,” “truth, “beauty,” “justice,” “brotherhood,” “peace,” that can be misused in this way.  Lies wear the look of truth — for ornamental purposes.  How else would wrong intentions make themselves appealing?  That doesn’t mean that true words were never spoken.

So the Biblical world shows us how it is when we encounter evil: the deliberate effort to sabotage our best selves.  In contemporary times, there is no avoiding the Biblical narratives.

And the classical world gives us philosophy: the longest conversation in history – international, inter-ethnic and interdenominational – about humanity’s most important concerns.  There is no avoiding philosophy.

What my book, A Good Look at Evil, tries to do is admit the Biblical awareness, that evil is real, and bring to bear the resources of philosophy to the understanding of it.

What’s my aim as the author, now?  It must be this:

to make that understanding more widely known.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Eternal Feminine

 

“Pathless” Michael Whelan, 1999

“…the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home/she stood in tears amid the alien corn”

The Eternal Feminine

Many years ago – it was our last evening in Paris – the first boy I loved told me that I had become, for him, “the eternal feminine.”  Later I learned that his reference to Goethe’s Faust (whose “eternal feminine leads us above”) is by now formulaic in the French lexicon-for-lovers.  At the time, however, it was very imprinting.  After all, feminist formulas aside, isn’t “the eternal feminine” what every girl hopes to grow up to be?

This week I’ve been reading a novel by Dara Horn with the title, Eternal Life: A Novel, that is the most enthralling I’ve come across since … I don’t know when.  Since before I cared about romance and boy/girl stuff and was devouring Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, which was about Mowgli, the kid who was raised in the jungle by wolves.

The heroine of Dara Horn’s novel is a girl – a woman? – named Rachel whose strange fate it is never to die.  She’s about 2000 years old, but few in her world know it or ever knew it.  She gets reconfigured in each generation so that, once again, she’s young enough to be marriageable, to have children, and to live a “normal” woman’s life.

The only trouble is, it’s far from normal, because she lives long enough to outlast – to bury – each generation of children that she has, each husband, and to outlive each milieu that she inhabits “normally.”

She’s Jewish.  Did I mention that?  Her first — and deepest – love was the son of the high priest in the days when the Second Temple still stood.  They meet intermittently throughout the centuries.  He shares her fate, for reasons I won’t disclose so as not to give away the plot.

Why am I enthralled by this story?  You see, to be Jewish means belonging to an eternal people.  Not eternal in the sense that (so far) they’ve outlasted their latest would-be annihilators.  Rather the Jewish people’s “eternity” involves …

an unusual relation to time.

They are acculturated to see themselves as present-in-the-past as it unrolls. Century after century.  Present at the foot of Mount Sinai when the covenant is sealed for the whole people.  Present (and still grieving) when the First Temple falls.  Present at the scene commemorated on the Arch of Titus in the city of Rome, when the sacred objects of the Second Temple were carried off by its conquerors and … you get the idea.

When my parents were newly married and on a trip to Rome, standing where they could look down at the Arch of Titus, they overheard two bearded Jews contemplating the scene below and saying, the one to the other,

“Well, there they are.  But here we are.”

The Jewish continuity can be lived in many ways.  To my mind, a common mistake would be to confuse the detritus – the debris — of history with its essence.

So what’s the essence?  I have an idiosyncratic viewpoint.  To me, romance is the essence.  Adam and Eve?  A romance, though a difficult one.  Abraham and Sarah?  Another pairing, with real-life difficulties.  Jacob and his Rachel?  Well, obviously a love story, despite all.

These are the Ur-Stories, bearing within themselves the eros of history: the Ur-Couples whose romantic difficulties are real – in that they are not supposed to be “transcended.”  They are supposed to be lived through.

I think of God as the one

whose Witness allows us to 

take our romantic lives

seriously.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, Childhood, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, motherhood, Mysticism, novels, Ontology, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

So Sue Me

So Sue Me 

Although writing this column is enlightening for me, the author, and I hope for you my much-loved readers — the elect, the favored few, the discerning ones – tonight I simply can’t.  I’m all out of moxie.  Exhausted.  Spent.  Empty as a drunk-up soda bottle made of plastic.  Kaput.  It’s over, friends.

We came home late – and I mean lights out and in bed by 4:00 a.m. – after what was, in the favorable and the unfavorable senses, a helluva trip.  We went to California for five days, to undergo an innovative new treatment for my neuropathy.  Since that condition first set in about two decades back, it gradually got worse till, in recent months, it began to go down a steeper hill faster.

I don’t need to tell you how many types of purported cure I’ve tried.  When you’re desperate, there ain’t too much you won’t try.

I paid a nice Polish woman, who advertised as a superior pray-er, to pray for me.  She really was a good pray-er.  While she was praying, I felt the presence of God, real, near and loving.  Some key insights came through too, apparently from God.  But it didn’t cure my neuropathy.

I paid a French psychic to do her thing.  She was, for a time, seemingly the real deal.  I had a tendency to get styes on my eyelids.  That cleared up.  No more styes.  When our home got infested by flies, she gave me a mantra to repeat 100 times a day.  The flies flew away.  Smart flies.  Who knows what was in that mantra?  But the neuropathy stayed.

And I had nothing against mainstream medical care.  I went to a total of four “top-rated” neurologists.  They diagnosed MS, Parkinson’s, arrested MS, idiopathic peripheral neuropathy (this after precise testing of neurons and muscles), and atrophy of the walking capability because we live in car country now.  All through these dark diagnostic clouds, the neuropathy persisted.

Evangelical Christian friends prayed for me with all their heart.  Nada.

Even my co-religionists prayed.  Nada.

I saw four different physical therapists.

And a past life therapist.  Need I go on?  You get the picture.

Then last September, at the Ontario, California airport, Jerry went to ask for a wheelchair for me.

“What’s wrong with your wife?” said the dispatcher lady.

“Neuropathy,” replied Jerry.

“Oh.  My husband suffered from neuropathy for years and he’s been greatly helped by a treatment that’s only offered at one hospital in the whole country: Loma Linda Hospital in California.”  Then she was gone, to help other customers (or to unfold her wings and fly back to her Home On High?).

The treatment has only been offered in a clinical setting since June of 2017.  So, short of sending Someone to tell me to take up my bed and walk, the Lord had no earthly instruments available much earlier than the date, two months later, when we first heard of it.

I won’t go into the week of five treatments from which we just returned.  For reasons irrelevant to the treatments, it was a week filled to the brim with close calls.  Here’s one, just to give you the flavor.

I was trying to put together a sandwich on the gluten-free bread to which I am now restricted, with filler ingredients supplied by the workers behind the store counter.  For hygienic reasons, they do not use any bread not supplied by the management, which was why I had to assemble the sandwich myself.  As I opened their tiny tube of mayonnaise, it squirted all over my French windbreaker jacket.  The jacket is the kind you see in old, grainy French movies with Michelle Morgan and Gérard Philipe.  Nobody makes ‘em like that any more.  It’s irreplaceable.  Although Jerry has once again proved his love by finding a dry cleaner with the skills to restore its temporarily-lost glory, I of course couldn’t know that as we set forth.  We hadn’t boarded the plane yet.  It was the first day of our trip.  You get the idea.

 The whole week was like that.

It’ll be a slow, uphill climb, involving strenuous home exercise and a number of return trips to Loma Linda.  

I am getting better.

But I am all shook up.

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, hidden God, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Therapy from the Jews

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Therapy from the Jews

Have the Jews anything to offer the world today in their capacity as Jews?  The remarkable plasticity and resilience of anti-semitism doesn’t answer my question about being a Jew: what the hell good is it?

Let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine our world with “the Jews” magically lifted out of it.  If we like the Bible, let’s suppose we can keep that.  If we like the Talmud (Jewish commentary on the Bible), let’s even keep that, since by now the Oral Law has been written down.   Would the world be worse off if they simply ceased to exist as Jews while blending any of their possible inherited plus factors into the universal stock?  Is it such an advantage for Jews to continue to exist as walking targets?

What’s the use of all this baggage?  I ask the question as someone who has not been acculturated into the practices and habits of the observant Jew though, from my Orthodox students at Brooklyn College, I perceived that I shared a good deal of the mind-set anyway.

I subscribe to The Jewish Review of Books.  Though many of its essays are excellent, I read the latest issue with sudden impatience.  Jew!  Jew!  Jew!  I’m about to suffocate with it!  Let me out of here!  Stand away!  I’m coming up for air!

What’s a Jew?  I’m not asking for answers from social scientists.  I’m asking, what’s the good of it?

Thomas Cahill has a book, The Gift of the Jews, where he spells out the Jewish contribution to the world.   (He has other books, like How the Irish Saved Civilization and so on.)  Cahill’s view, which is seconded by a good many scholars and thinkers, goes like this:

The gift of the Jews

is the relationship they lived out,

remembered and recorded,

between themselves and

a God who is personal

and acts in history.

What’s “history”?  It’s where we really are, in the moving flow of forces – physical, biological and cultural – of human actions for good and evil — and how all that combines into who we become.  So God, the God first encountered by the Israelites, interacts with that.  God’s nature is such as to be capable of relating to whole peoples, and to individuals in their whole nature.  To put it another way:

God takes in

the entire complex picture of ourselves,

fairly.

The story of those interactions in history, between God and people like us, are what the Bible records.

What’s the “Chosen People”?  That’s the people who signed on to a voluntary agreement with the God of history to do what He (excuse the pronoun) asked of them.

Has that ancient agreement been superseded by now?  The theologies of religions for whom the Biblical record provides basis and precedent have at times included the claim that the ancient agreement is over.  But if the covenant is passé, apparently the Jews never got the message.

So, for the Jews themselves, what’s left of the agreement today?  It’s a puzzlement.  The question of what good are the Jews seems itself like a luxury question, since Jews are trying, as they always have, to survive, and there’s not much margin for asking the further question, why go on doing that — as Jews?  You don’t ask why you run from a fire or flood, and that’s what anti-semitism comes to.  Still, even within the globally endangered situation, Jews still do ask the “why go on with it?” question, and their answers are not always faithful to the original terms of the agreement.

Let me line up some of the less-than-fully-faithful answers to the “why” question. Who am I to do any such thing?  Well, the tradition has it that every Jew living now was present at the foot of Mt. Sinai when the people agreed in a single voice to sign on.  So my qualifications are excellent.  Like John Adams and Ben Franklin,

I’m one of the original signers.

Off the line they signed on are those …

  • whose observance of their corner of tradition is so mechanical, rigid and dogmatic as to shut out input from the still-living God of history;

  • whose yearning to seem “modern” and “scientific” transforms the Biblical record into a metaphoric rendering of the real facts, viz., that the record was scripted by a succession of committees who made up the stories for the purpose of ensuring their own power;

  • whose modernity is so devout that all persons, divine and human, must be drained from the Biblical record, to be replaced by the greatest story-teller the world has ever known, “energy” (e = mc square);

  • whose realistic fear of anti-semitism leads them to latch on to utopian schemes in which all the world’s oppressed converge in imagined unity to build “an unreal city in the future” – while they ignore the disciplines of actual problem-solving;

  • whose meditative practices aim at melting into the Absolute where, of course, nobody can hurt you or even want to, once they see how benevolent you look.  I meditate too, but only to get re-centered for my life in history.

*               *                *

If such are the unfaithful, who, what and where are the faithful?  

  • They live chronologically, connecting their precedent trains of conditions, purposes and actions to the ones that have followed, as the sequences have unfolded in their time.  

  • They hold themselves accountable for what they have believed and attempted, and how that has worked out.  

  • They look up for guidance but take responsibility for their lives as they go along.  

  • Their decisions for the future respond to the time-line they have kept in view.  

  • The Biblical record was preserved because it formed part of that time-line.  It modeled for them the life with God in history, when it went well and when – for various reasons – it didn’t go well.

God sometimes works miracles and sometimes lets the chips fall.  God’s personhood encourages and sustains ours.

The gifts of the Jews,

faithfully understood,

aren’t reserved only for the Jews.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Bible, Biblical God, Childhood, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Friendship, Gnosticism, Hegel, hegemony, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Idolatry, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Memoir, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, public facade, Reductionism, relationships, Roles, secular, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Deep and the Shallow

The Deep and the Shallow 

A medley of book review weeklies and monthlies arrive here in a more or less continuous stream. I look through them, both to get an idea of what’s new – what is getting the attention of serious opinion-shapers – and to see if there’s a new book I’d like to read.

Since many of the most highly praised books seem to concern themselves with people’s wounds — with the dizzying defiles they fearfully face, with the fault lines that cut with equivalent depth through the author and the body politic – I don’t buy them.

I like happy endings, where hopes long denied get fulfilled, where the apparent pointlessness of someone’s particular experience resolves itself into retrieved significance, where the lead character’s imperiled identity returns from his or her ordeal more solid than before. This pretty much prevents my purchasing most of the novels and memoirs I see reviewed nowadays.

I tend to buy nonfiction.

That said, this predilection of mine for happy endings puts me at risk of being ranked as a shallow person – not a deep one.

The preference to which I confess here has only got more confirmed with time. In fact, it has come to comprehend an evolving relation to time itself. The 20th of January was the date of our wedding and, last Saturday, we celebrated the 19th anniversary of that day. Over a fine French dinner, we talked about the changes our marriage has brought about in each of us.

This is easier to measure with us than it might be with people who married at the time of life when you grow up together. We met when we were fully formed adults with established professional lives. So the changes were visible to both of us and have been ongoing, sometimes subtle, at other times dramatic. There is no doubt that marriage itself is a power in the world and has the power to change the person who marries.

The year before, on our 18th anniversary, I had noted a changed relation to the way I lived the flow of time. Temporality is how the philosophers name the experienced flow of time. Nostalgia, a habit of yearning that had haunted me since childhood — of longing for lost time — had been my typical way of being in time. In my rough translation here, the French song, les feuilles mortes (“the dead leaves”) expresses that feeling:

But life soundlessly separates  

those who love one another

and the sea erases on the sand

the footsteps of disunited lovers.

By our 18th anniversary, that whole backward yearning had been flipped by a face turned forward to the future. It was a remarkable reversal of orientation.

This year, the 19th since our wedding, my relation to temporality seems to have changed again. Amazingly, I now don’t long for the future either. The whole quality of yearning – what the German Romantics call Sehnsucht – has actually evaporated! What’s wrong with me? Have I become ever-more-hopelessly shallow?

But look up! Look around! Fear not! Turn on the TV and the YouTubes! The self-help gurus will be here soon. They are coming to my rescue! They’re bound to approve this change. They all recommend Living in The Now! As do the modern-world Buddhists. They also meditate with the aim of shedding the illusion of a time-bound life. If you can appear to incarnate this accomplishment, you might make a pile of profit and gain enormously appreciative followers.

However, that’s not what I mean. Of course I don’t live in the so-called Now. The philosophers call it the “specious present,” the instant so vanishing that it’s already past by the time you turn around to pin it down.

I’m not trying

 to catch the butterfly.

Let her flutter.

 Let her fly.

Nor do I dwell in a conscious condition that tries to shrug off the passage of clock and calendar minutes or years. What then do I mean, exactly? I think it’s more like an acceptance of the time-bound life we have.

I’m no longer trying

to get out of the story by rushing backward —

nor to get ahead of the story.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, bureaucracy, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immortality, Institutional Power, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, TV, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Feminine Force

Pablo Picasso, 1921

The Feminine Force

Some years ago, I met a young woman artist, a painter of very large canvasses, who had married a young Moroccan in order to give him a way to live and work in New York City.  I no longer recall why she brought her husband-of-convenience to my parents’ apartment to meet my mother.  Anyway, he was polite but didn’t say much beyond the how do you do’s.  My mother, who had lived in Tel Aviv when it had three streets, gave him a keen look and said this:

“How your grandmother must have loved you!”

“When she died, I left home,” responded he.

If I knew half of what my mother knew, I’d be a pretty smart lady.  What I remembered in after years, when I had read many books on the legal and social position of women in Islam, was that a woman can, by her feminine force, become the master of the space she inhabits.  

What is this force?  Cleopatra captivated the affections and affected the policies of the two most powerful men of her day: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – luring the second to his doom with her.  Since Antony’s successors in Rome effaced every mark of her influence, we have only second- and third-hand accounts, but the bare facts of history are impressive enough.  What was she using in the way of feminine force or charm?  These men could afford the best.  They didn’t need her.

At the same time, when it’s wielded socially or personally, the feminine element usually includes a fair amount of self-surrender, of submission — whether feigned or real.  Henry James has a wonderfully well-written novel, The Bostonians, in which the reader gets a close analysis of a young, 19th-century New England feminist, Verena, who is under the emotional and erotic sway of an older woman, a zealot for the cause of women’s liberation.  Pulling in the opposite direction is a handsome young anti-feminist, newly arrived from post-Civil War Mississippi, who is intent on persuading her to give in to her womanly destiny and become his wife.  The contest of wills between these two competitors for Verena’s life choice is as artful a portrayal of the influence of one will over the will of another as I have ever read.  It is clear that what is being preyed upon, from two opposing directions, is the femininity of Verena – her inclination to surrender!

James was not just writing about feminism in the 19th century.  I can recall explaining the syllabus, on the opening day of a class on 19th-century philosophy.  

“Why,” asked a young woman student, “are there no readings by women philosophers of the 19th century?”  

My explanation?  I thought students, including women students, who aimed to understand philosophy in depth – or even go on to do their own original work in the field – should read the best philosophers.  So far as I could tell, the best ones had been men.  (This is not true in 19th-century literature, but it is in philosophy.) If women are to be able in future to do work as good as the best, they should simply read the best and go on from there, as they do in the sciences!

I invited the student who disagreed with me to discuss our differences privately, in my office.  There she told me that she thought it important, for “balance” and women’s morale, to read work by both sexes, regardless of which texts were more challenging philosophically.

I won’t try to resolve our disagreement now.  Perhaps she had a point.  Perhaps I too had a point.  What struck me about our discussion was something else.  As I stated my own view, she looked frightened — almost as if she were looking over her shoulder for instructions from her handlers.  I was sad when she dropped the course, but even sadder when I saw the expression of sidewise-looking fear on her face.  

It was the fear of resisting another’s will.

Sanine was the title of a 19th-century Russian novel (1903), apparently borrowed by my parents from Lionel Trilling, to whom they never returned it.  I used to pour over the novel my teens, trying to fathom the mysteries of men and women.  The surname of its hero, a handsome rule-breaker, nihilist and free spirit, gave the book its title.  In a climactic scene, Sanine has offered to row a young woman across a lake so that she can get home expeditiously.  The girl is pretty, intelligent and self-assured.  With other young people in their circle, she and Sanine have shared theoretical discussions about the meaning of life and the future of Russia, all from a respectful distance.  It’s dusk.  She suddenly rises and shifts position in such a way as to unbalance the boat he is rowing.  He half-rises to steady her and, without knowing why, she prolongs their physical contact a moment beyond the needful.  

In late-19th-century Russia, that counted as consent.  Immediately he moves to push her backward in the boat, while she protests that she meant nothing of the sort.  The last sentence of the episode reads:

Suddenly, unaccountably,

she lost all power of volition

and of thought;

her limbs relaxed,

and she surrendered to another’s will.

Of course, we know what would happen to Sanine today.  If the outcry didn’t originate with the girl, it would come from her fellow fighters for female freedom.

But what is really happening?  Is he showing masculine force?  Is her surrender – in its own way — an assertion of feminine force?  What sort of feminine force serves a woman’s interest?

Perhaps it would be helpful, if fairly unusual, to describe the ideal situation.  We aren’t necessarily living in the ideal situation, but its contours can for once be stated.  

  • Women can be very charming, to men and to other women.  This is a power that they should not suppress, but enjoy and express, while not using it to deceive or undermine the other whom they charm.

  • Women need to be self-protective and to look for the quality of protectiveness in men.  Why?  I hate to mention this, but relations between the sexes are not symmetrical.  We have vulnerabilities that men do not have, to wit: we can get pregnant, we are more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases, we can be more easily raped, we are more liable than men to be imprinted by intimacy, particularly first intimacy.  We are more liable than men to be seduced, often by the most time-worn and obvious approaches.

  • Women should act so as to be worthy of the protections they need and worthy of the love they rightfully seek.  We should look for the gallantry we require and seek to evoke it.  “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more” goes two ways — from him to her and from her to him.

  • In our lives, women need to find out what it belongs to us alone to discover, to accomplish and to do.  It is also an ethical duty to try to be personally happy and fulfilled.  If we don’t at least try to be as happy as we can be – I don’t mean to pretend to be — we will find ourselves unconsciously thwarting the happiness of others.

  • There is a surrender to another’s will that does belong to the feminine side of the yin and yang of nature — of creation.  You can see it in other creatures.  You can observe it in our own species.  It’s obvious.  Only an intellectual would have to argue for its naturalness.  In view of the considerations lined up above, it is best reserved for the most protected circumstances:

Mutual love,

reciprocal commitment,

and social safety.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Chivalry, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Ethics, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master/slave relation, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, non-violence, novels, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Year Resolutions?

Sign Posted Near Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond

New Year Resolutions?

It’s 2018, the firecrackers have ceased their explosive booming sounds, the subzero temperatures are keeping everyone indoors who can manage to stay there – except for the people like the ones on crews working to repair downed power lines – and it looks like we have here a moment …

to reflect on the moment.

For myself, I’ve honored the passing of the old year by not making any resolutions with regard to the new. How do I know what inner qualities life will call forth from me, or what qualities life will repress? Each day’s a bit of a surprise, in big or little ways. As my mother used to say, “The unexpected always happens!”

Should I resolve to worry less? Yeah, but that don’t mean I’ll worry less. I regard the world, the horizon of life in the future and the unrepaired past – personal and humanity-wide – with worry. As we say in New York City,

GO FIGHT CITY HALL.

Meaning: there ain’t a thing I can do about my worrying: about past and future, with respect to me personally, everyone I know, the human race and the other creatures on the planet.

When I was just starting out as a newly-employed young adult, I made it a practice to go through every last one of my possessions once a year, discarding anything I no longer needed to keep. This gave me the chance to get a complete inventory of the baggage I was carrying in life while conforming as closely as I could to Henry David Thoreau’s principle:

Simplify, simplify!

That changed when my parents died. I came into possession of some of their life baggage, for better or worse. How to simplify that was less obvious. If Leo Bronstein, my virtual godfather, was right when he said, “Purity is loyalty to origins,” then it would have been a false and misleading “simplification” just to jettison this inheritance, which included things, places, persons and papers.

Even Thoreau may have made some things look simpler than they were. In Walden, he gives an inventory of his basic needs and modest outlay to cover them. But the weekly visits of Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, to pick up Thoreau’s laundry, are omitted from the tally sheet.

Okay, okay. So it’s harder than it looks. Life doesn’t come down to slogans. But I still think you get points for trying. So, with a friendly wave to the great man, here’s a Thoreauvian record of my effort to “simplify, simplify,” as of now, the first week of 2018.

  • Lined up all the tax data that I could gather before the 1099 forms arrive in the mail.
  • Transferred the info that I’ll need to have at hand for my 2018 calendar and address book. (I know, I know, everybody else puts them on their phone. So sue me.)
  • Gathered and typed up vital info needed by survivors in the event of my being suddenly called to the Next World.   It’s not complete, but it’s a start.
  • Went through many file cabinets, discarding folders whose contents are no longer needed.
  • Started discarding books (for giving to used bookstores) that were acquired for projects either completed by now or else abandoned, so that I can find the books I do need.

When Thoreau was dying, he was asked, by a local busybody, whether he had made his peace with God. (That’s how people talked in those days!) His reported reply?

We have never quarreled.

I don’t know that I can say the same. But as of this moment, having done all I knew to do in order to pull level with the New Year,

I think I know how he felt.

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Biblical God, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment