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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The Right to Think

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

The Right to Think

In the dusty arena of public life, we see a contest between the Right to Life and the Right to Choose.   There is, however, a third right that gets little or no play in that same arena: the Right to Think.

Ordinarily, by the time an unhappily pregnant woman stands at the fork where she’s supposed to decide which of the first two roads to take, she’s either too terrified or too coerced by besetting pressures to have recourse to that third right.

Since I am now safely married as well as beyond the natural age of childbearing, I am not in those ways discouraged from exercising the third right.

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic so soon after “Abortion on My Mind,” except for the fact that the same column was recently rejected by the online journal where these little essays are often published, partly on the interesting grounds that it could offend prospective donors.  That puts me on my honor to write about it again.  Let me illustrate.

Long ago, a senior colleague who had just observed my teaching hour and held in his pocket his yet-unwritten Teaching Observation Report, asked me why I thought he was supporting a certain candidate for departmental chair.  The election for chair was to be held the next day.  I had just told him that I thought his candidate unqualified.  In any other circumstance, I would have tactfully evaded his question. (When I later told the story to Hannah Arendt, she reproached me for not answering in a more diplomatic fashion.)  The reason I said what I really thought — he’s weak and you think you can use him — was precisely his having the unwritten teaching evaluation in his pocket!  It meant that his real question was, What will you do to keep your job?

You see?  Real life is more amusing than it looks.

In the present case, I was not being threatened.  But when told that a certain piece of writing should be vetoed for reasons that impinge on the writer’s freedom to think, it becomes obligatory to exercise that freedom.  For me to change the subject to one less controversial might be construed — if only by me — as acquiescing in such reasoning.  As a result, I really can’t write this column about any other topic.

Well now, what do I really think or feel about abortion?  A colleague emails that his right-to-lifer friends simply can’t abide dissent on this question.   Smoke rises from the tops of their heads when anyone dares to treat it as a topic open for discussion.

Really?  Well, tough.  Suck it up.  We’re here, boys and girls, in the human story together, where my truth-seeking weighs as much as anyone else’s.

Despite my present social safety, please don’t suppose that I think I’m above it.  My mind can go back instantly to the moment in my youth when, in sheer terror, I said to a young woman friend and confidante, 

“Suppose I get pregnant?”

“You’d have an abortion.”

“But isn’t abortion a sin?”

“There are many sins, dear.”

In fact, I had no way to get an abortion.  My life would have been, quite simply, ruined.  It wasn’t on a whim that I seriously contemplated downing myself in the river Seine.

My mother, who was a profoundly feminine and maternal woman, deeply and romantically in love with my father, believed that criminalizing abortion was one obvious way that men exerted their power to control and dominate women. 

The rabbis, when they discuss this issue, don’t get into the ontological status of the unborn.  So far as I know, they take for granted that the life inside the womb is fully human.  For them, the issue is one of self-defense, as when two conscripts in opposing armies fight to the death.  If the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, they give her first right of self-defense almost till the moment of delivery.  After that, the child’s natural right gets priority.

That seems to me a clearer way to put the case.  If we extended “self-defense” beyond its traditional Talmudic perimeters, now to cover all the ways in which men combatively hold their ground – whether their turf be professional, economic or social – we see what’s at stake for the contemporary woman who’s pregnant without wanting to be.  It’s objected that mores have relaxed in recent decades and that’s certainly true.  On the other hand, not in every case.

Let me make this point more vivid.  Back in the days when such issues could still be turned over in mind reflectively, I taught an evening class in Applied Ethics at Brooklyn College.  Most of the students in that class were African-American women of mature age.  Some worked in hospitals as paramedics.  In our discussion, they mentioned that women prominent in the Right-to-Life movement would come secretly into those hospitals for their own abortions.

Feminists, aware that the vulnerable are more readily targeted, have deemphasized the anatomy-is-destiny aspect of being a woman.  “One is not born a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in the opening sentences of The Second Sex.  “One becomes one.”  For strategic reasons, biological sex has been redefined as something one can move around at will: as grammatical gender, the consequence of acculturation — or even stipulation construed as free and arbitrary choice.

As a strategy, I understand doing that, but not when it becomes a full-fledged delusion.  I don’t know what world these utopians live in, but I’ve never lived there.  In the cases we’ve singled out for inspection here, where pregnancy is realistically experienced by the woman as the destroyer of her hoped-for future, we are looking at a choice of evils.  Whatever path is taken (including the dangerous one of illegal abortion) this particular fork in the road is tragic.

What do I hope for?  In the present era, when intimacy between unmarried partners is socially accepted, my hope is that the woman’s situation and vulnerability will not be borne by her alone as her stigmatizing secret.  I would hope that the man who desires intimacy with a woman would declare and hold himself ready to face the biological and social risks equally with her.

But even to write that is to feel, with sinking conviction, its improbability. 

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Iris Murdoch: Bringing Philosophy to Life

Iris Murdoch: Bringing Philosophy to Life

When Jerry and I fly to California for another round of my neuropathy treatments, we each bring something to read en route.  Obviously our selections have to be in paperback and short.  Since I’d become curious to know more about the four women philosophers – Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Mary Midgley – whom I’ve recently written about here, my airplane book was Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good.

Each of these women brought to philosophy a refreshed awareness of what real people go through day by day and over the course of time.  Their pathbreaking had drama because, when they first began to write and speak, philosophers in the English-speaking world were especially keen to get rid of all that they deemed “nonsense” – which is to say any assertions not backed by sense perception or else not following validly from their premisses.

This swinging scythe had been brought over from Vienna and popularized by A. J. Ayer, in his 1936 bestseller, Language, Truth and Logic.  As a  method for avoiding what it called nonsense, it had the name of “logical positivism.”

Much of our lives could be cut down as “nonsense” if approached that way.  That includes serious stuff: like whatever you might regret on your deathbed or the one good deed that, dying, you might take to redeem an otherwise misspent life.

Since what I am calling “the scythe” was still swinging when I was a grad student, to face it down took more grit than I had.  Its adherents would swing at any utterance that failed to meet its criteria by asking, with long-drawn-out puzzlement, What do you mean?  Since people ordinarily draw on a whole background of assumptions, habits, and memories when they say anything, it’s easy to produce stupefaction by lifting a single utterance out of its human context and demanding that the speaker justify it alone.

Here it might be of interest to say a word about Ayer, the man who made this way of doing philosophy widely accepted in the mid-twentieth century.  Toward the end of his life, funnily enough, he had a near-death-experience during which, — as he confided to his doctor — he “saw God.”  Not only that, but he had the hardihood to describe certain features of his experience (not the seeing-God part) in London’s widely-read Sunday Telegraph, in an article he called “That Undiscovered Country” but the editor retitled, “What I saw when I was dead.”  The philosophers I knew all shook their heads, agreeing that “Freddie had lost his cool.”  I’m the only one I know of who took his about-face to be brave and philosophically consequential.  I even published an article “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” in the October 2004 issue of Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, spelling out why I thought this.

But all that lay far in the future.  Meanwhile, the four women philosophers were pioneering the effort to bring the human story back into the arena of philosophic consideration.

Murdoch is better known as a novelist but, up till now, I’d never felt drawn to her literary output.  Her best-known novel has the title A Severed Head (1961), which may explain my reluctance to read her.  I like novels and films where we get at least the possibility of a happy ending!  Now, despite its awful title, I’m more curious to read it.  

In The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch’s opening essay, “The Idea of Perfection,” strikes me as the most realized of the three essays in that collection.  Here she is trying to give an idea of what’s going on when we choose to act morally.

When philosophers write, they often have an opponent in mind.  The contest frames the discussion.  Murdoch’s opponents — whom she calls “existentialist” even when they’re British — all suppose that we do have freedom of the will, but that our freedom operates in a vacuum.  Nothing informs or justifies our most telling moral choices.  We just decide.

Murdoch argues that moral conduct isn’t like that.  Rather, it’s a response to what we come to see and know over a period of time.  As we approach the action point, two features come into focus: what’s at stake in the situation and what we can contribute to it.

Only one act survives this reflective process: the one that’s the best I can do in that context.  (This processing can happen rapidly, as sometimes it must, but it is still a process of seeing and knowing.)   Therefore, moral choice is not arbitrary willing.  It is not vague.  It is not approximative or blurry.  The right act will be, as Aristotle says, like the arrow winged to its target. 

Just as the right word cannot be replaced by a different word, the right brushstroke must put the color just so, the right note must sound on the beat – so the act called for here and now is the one that I must do.

What Murdoch has noticed about moral choice — and splendidly underscored — is this dramatic and complex fusion of discrete elements which could be summed up as follows:

seeing what’s at stake,

reviewing the relevant experiential layers,

figuring out whether this one “has my name on it.”

I don’t know of any other recent philosopher who has done this.

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Abortion on My Mind

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky
“The Song and the Space”
Arthur Polonsky

Abortion on My Mind

First, let’s approach this vexing topic from the metaphysical side.  

If we adopt the Aristotelian view of gestation (a view that, if I’m correct, was part of the thinking of Christian philosophers in the High Middle Ages) the child in the womb relates to the human being that will emerge at birth as the acorn does to the oak tree – a relation of potentiality to actuality.  From that perspective, the later the pregnancy, the more criminal abortion seems.  On a spectrum from least to greatest, the newly-fertilized egg cell has the smallest moral claim on us.

But suppose we took the typical view of those who presently oppose ending the life of the zygote on the ground that – from the moment of fertilization – the egg cell harbors a fully actual human soul.  I would say, if we assume a discrepancy that vast between the microscopic physical entity on the one hand and its spiritual counterpart on the other, we are in the realm of the near-supernatural.  A soul denied entry at so early a stage might well be capable of finding another mother, if the first one proved so unwelcoming.

What’s my own view of the relevant metaphysics?  Mine is a bit idiosyncratic.  I tend to suppose that the stage at which the human soul enters the fetus varies from mother to mother, as well as from child to child.  If that’s the right view, then a perfectly just law would apply differently depending on whether a human soul was, or was not, in the mother’s body.  If not, no crime.  If yes, then abortion would be more like homicide.  

The trouble with my view is that we have no means of detecting the soul’s arrival.  Therefore, it might be metaphysically safest to assume what the pro-life advocates now hold: abortion is murder (just in case it is).

Even undecidable metaphysical questions may have social and political implications.  What’s remarkable in the situation presently under review at the highest court in the land is that, for at least two generations, American women have felt that – subject only to the privacies of conscience — they could shrug off the constraints of biology.  There’s a philosophical history we haven’t time for here, but it traces at least to Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist groundbreaker, The Second Sex.  A certain line of thinking has authorized women to treat their outsides and insides as mere social constructs or grammatical artifacts.  Urged forward by these assumptions, women have gone from one rights claim to the next – till they came up against the “logical” endpoint of these irresponsible fictions: men winning foot races against women competitors on the pretext that they can deconstruct their grammatical sex though not of course their biological advantages; male felons admitted into women’s prison cells on the same pretext, and so on.  These masculine strengths are not counterbalanced by any corresponding protectiveness toward the feminine.  The Titanic goes down in the North Atlantic and it’s every person for themselves – tricking grammar as well as nature.

Suddenly, the house of cards threatens to tumble.  Men have supplied women with contraceptives, refrigerators, constabularies, policemen, and firemen.  In consequence, women can leave their cookpots; they can safely leave their homes; they can choose to have children or not.  On the strength of such provisions, women thus protected claimed the same entitlements that men earlier gave themselves.  Seeing the logic and the chivalry of the situation, American men voted to expand suffrage along with a host of other protections, prerogatives, and responsibilities.

The Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision has had certain grotesque consequences, including cases approaching infanticide or dismemberment of recognizable babies in utero.  To my mind, it has fostered a general coarsening of sensibility.  I think of the death by court-ordered starvation of Terri Shiavo, which was almost cheered on by men and women who had nothing personal against Shiavo, but were keen to inure society to the killing of those who can’t speak for themselves.  (If Shiavo was so very comatose, why was the priest giving her last rites ordered to stop and leave her deathbed because it was upsetting her?) 

Nor have legally empowered women functioned reliably as a protective bloc for their more vulnerable sisters.  In my own experience, when I tried to get other feminists to defend a woman who’d made a credible accusation of rape against a male politician with a record of public support for “women’s” causes, only one of the well-known feminists to whom I  appealed was willing to join me in that effort.

Every feminist I know wanted to see my engagement ring and reacted just as women did before they were “liberated.”

Spontaneous sisterly feeling may actually be less available now than it was in the days when all women feared an unlicensed pregnancy more than death and believed — as one successful woman writer told me she’d learned at the knee of her southern mother — men are the enemy.  

The vulnerability of women is what the potential pealing back of Roe discloses.  I took note of that vulnerability at the time when the regime of the Shah was overthrown in Iran.  Persian women had been admired for their fine fashion sense and worldly charm.  After the Ayatollah came to power, with scarcely a muffled sound they disappeared almost overnight into black chadors and they have not been seen since.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has reported the reduced ability of European women to circulate in the public space they now share with immigrants whose norms confine women to the home.  Phyllis Chesler, who told her personal story in An American Bride in Kabul has, since that near-fatal episode of youthful romance, fought to rescue women, here and in far-away Afghanistan, whose freedom was simply erased by local mores.

The present legal change, if it goes through, may not roll back the standing of women to the extent that I fear.  But it will ruin some young lives and – to an as yet unknown degree – diminish the social power of all women while at the same time enhancing the power-to-live of the unborn.

I sometimes refer to the asymmetry of the sexes.  The difference is not just about the steps socially marked out for dance partners.  It takes two to tango but real life is not a tango.

Long ago, in “Feminism Without Contradictions,” an article published in a pathbreaking feminist issue of The Monist, I foresaw that the time might come when the interest of this society in feminism burns out again.

People may get tired of 

compensating women

for what, after all,

they are.

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How Can We Know If It’s God?

Sand Dunes at Sunset
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1885

How Can We Know If It’s God?

Are we making a big mistake?  Couldn’t it be Tom, Dick, or Susie instead?  Well, no.  Those three friends are all palpable, visible, leave imprints when they sit on the couch, chat about familiar topics, and seldom sound oracular.

God is invisible and doesn’t leave a mark on the furniture.  Let’s canvass the invisible, impalpable communicators: radios, smartphones, earplugs, intercoms, loudspeakers.  Like our friends, these too would be routinely identifiable and don’t speak with authority — not even when they compel attention or distraction.

What about messages from one’s unconscious, projecting repressed wishes or fears?  Here we have likelier candidates for a source purporting to carry messages from The Unseen Divine — but actually carrying no such thing.  “Believe not every spirit,” cautions the apostle Paul, and he’s surely right about that.

Of course, if you know that a message can’t come from God because “God” is not found in your inventory of the contents of any possible world, then — though the question might still be an intriguing one to puzzle out conceptually — it cannot grip you personally.

That said, for a lot of people — among whom I’m numbered — there is no shutting down of the question: is that God on the line or someone or something else?

There’ve been people, saints perhaps, who’ve reported feeling flooded with the overwhelming certainty that God was envelopingly present.  Their rapture surpassed any other kind of joy and could not be captured in words.

In my teens, I longed very much to undergo such a divine visitation — maybe because it would explain what I was doing sitting home on Prom night.

That said, nowadays I do describe myself as living a prayer-guided life.  What can I possibly mean by that, and how can I tell that it’s meaningful even to talk that way?

Our ways of contacting the divine may vary with our acculturation.  I have a relation to God that’s essentially Jewish.  That doesn’t mean that you have to be Jewish to have this particular relation to the divine, or that Jews generally would recognize as their own a relation to God that’s not embedded in the Jewish calendar.  A Jewishly observant lawyer friend once told me that I have “the Jewish essence — but not Jewish existence.”  

Oh well.  As Willie Nelson would say, There’s nuthin’ I can do about it now.

What do I take the Jewish essence to be?  It’s the effort to face directly into the problematic of history insofar as it confronts the seeker in linear time, his or her actual culture and concrete situations, while being continuously open to God’s help and direction.  It resists escapist flight into an ideal world but tries to realize who and what one is and how rightly to assess one’s circumstances.

This is not to deny that people can have rapturous unions with the divine.  Only that experiences of that type figure as tangential where the most consequential interactions with God are concerned.

In the last chapter of my book, A Good Look at Evil, I report a dramatic example of that kind of God-and-Abigail relationship in my life.  I’d been fired from my job as assistant professor of philosophy after a closely contested departmental election where I voted for the losing candidate.  My fight to regain my position had been going on for six years, during which I’d be reinstated and promptly fired again.  It was a hot June day.  I was walking down the concrete slope to the Headquarters where one more hearing was scheduled, weighted down with a satchel full of documents.  I felt hopeless and alone.  

At that moment, I sensed a row of bearded, semi-transparent figures behind me, walking or floating on a path that was finer than the sidewalk under my shoes.  Their path wound higher than a foot above the street.  This finer path ended like a parabola at the door of the administrative Headquarters.  Behind me, the same path stretched back and back to a beginning point in time: Ur of the Chaldees, where Jewish time begins.  The angelic beings conveyed a message, not audible but clear: I had been on a pilgrimage; it had been divinely witnessed; it was a single effort in linear time; it was over. 

Being all out of ideas, I was inclined to take this message literally, at face value.  So I was shocked to the point of tears when, a few weeks later, a call came from the faculty union that represented me at Headquarters, to the effect that I was being returned to the college — but only for another tormenting year of “evaluation” by my adversaries.  Had the angels lied to me?

I returned duly to the college and lived through the miserably predictable fall and spring terms that followed.  Finally, that academic year was over.  It was June, a full year after I’d seen the angels when the union telephoned again.  I was being returned to the college …

with tenure

retroactive to the preceding June.

So they hadn’t lied to me.  It had been over just when they said it was.  As befits angels, they’d been praeternaturally precise as to timing.

Now, none of this would convince anyone for whom God was not in the inventory of possible beings.  He or she would put my vision down to a distressed mental condition and assign the retroactive tenure to delightful coincidence.  A good story, the skeptic would say, but surely not evidence of providential messaging.

Is there any way to resolve this disagreement?  Well, it depends how you live.  I live in linear time, doing the best I can to be present to the circumstances that confront me, neither veiling experience with escapist fantasies nor stamping it with rigid concepts, however derived.

If, in the uncertainties of day-to-day life, I get a message that seems as if it comes from God — has that kind of authority and relevance — and if it makes more sense of my life than the available alternatives, I try it.  I’m never absolutely certain.  I risk it.  The confirmations have been retroactive.  The mistakes have been instructive.  If you live on the timeline, that’s where God can be found.

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Philosophical Women: the Pathbreakers

Clockwise from top left: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe

Philosophical Women: the Pathbreakers

The Women are Up to Something is a book title lifted from a remark made by a male philosopher who anticipated trouble from one of the women philosophers at Oxford.  The occasion at which the trouble was feared was Oxford University’s conferring of an honorary degree on then U.S. President Harry S. Truman.  

What’s told in this recent book by Benjamin Lipscomb is the story of Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch, four women who had a pioneering impact on the English-speaking philosophical world.  Never mind what was troubling Elizabeth Anscombe about Truman, the honoree at Oxford that year.  To my ears, the book’s title applies more widely to an intellectual universe that was — by definition, by all the habits of speech, by all the instruments that measured social reality — masculine.  Thought was masculine.  Feeling was feminine.  That was the world in which Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, and Murdoch came to womanhood.

What the philosophical members of the intellectual universe thought about was a world composed of value-neutral, insentient particles — called by  Lipscomb little billiard balls in empty space — and how such a world should be received and negotiated by men.

Little girls got to play with dolls wearing pink dresses; little boys played rough sports.  And when the little boys grew up, they got to play with microscopic billiard balls.  And the little girls, once fully grown, married them.

I remember watching a British film — sorry, forget its title — at the movies with a collegial friend who was English.  It included a scene with a British professor giving a tutorial to a young woman student.  Finding her essay deficient, he was dressing her down in the most long-drawn-out, eloquently withering terms.

“He’s saying,” I commented to my English philosopher friend as we left the movie theater, “that she cannot possibly be considered too insignificant!’”  I meant, there is no last step down, no basement floor, under her insignificance.  It’s bottomless.

“No,” my English philosopher friend smilingly demurred.  “He’s just upholding standards.”

There is an intellectual drama being reported in The Women are Up to Something.  When the scene opens, a school of philosophy called logical positivism, based in Vienna, has just made its way over to English universities via the best-selling book, published in 1936, Language, Truth and Logic, by philosopher A. J. Ayer.  Members of “the Vienna Circle” held that what we say is meaningful if and only if we confine our speaking selves to descriptions of fact as perceived by the five senses and assertions validly derived from their premises — thus, true if and only if their premises are true.

If the Vienna Circle’s constraints held, then the reflection we do, shared and private, about moral, aesthetic, erotic, psychological, or social life — all the stuff that goes into life’s big adventures — would have to be dismissed as nonsensical.  It was a very odd moment in philosophy.  Serious people, who were trying to avoid nonsense, had infinitely widened the terrain inhabited by “nonsense.”

The Second World War supervened, breaking suddenly into this intellectual world of rigorously inhibited speech.  The young men, who were to be taught logical positivism or anything else at Oxford, Cambridge, and the other British universities, were instead conscripted and sent off to fight that war.  Oxford, the university so far dominant in this drama, was left with the option of either closing down or expanding its female quota.  In consequence, the four brilliant women would find they had the place pretty much to themselves.

When the war ended, film footage from the newly liberated death camps began to be shown in the London cinemas.  Philippa Foot “went to the cinema and took in the piles of bodies, the remains charred in ovens or tangled in electrified wire, the emaciated survivors … the adolescents flinching instinctively as anyone approached.”  When she next met her mentor, Donald MacKinnon, they sat in silence for a long time.  Finally, she said, “Nothing is ever going to be the same again.”  MacKinnon agreed,  echoing her words.

When the war ended, Iris Murdoch was working for UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in Austria.  For the first time, she was seeing lives “irrevocably broken … .  Nothing nothing nothing ahead for these people.”

Elizabeth Anscombe, the most strong-willed and philosophically confident of the four, had early defied her parents by converting to Catholicism and would soon devote her gifts to the task of translating Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  In that work, no boundaries are set to what is meaningful.

As for Mary Midgley, in March of 1938 she happened to be staying with a Jewish family, the Jerusalems, in Vienna.  So she was just in time to witness what happened in the Nazi takeover of that capital and her family became instrumental in rescuing the Jerusalems along with other refugees.  It would not be hard for her to see that a philosophical account of the real world could not be adequate if it were confined to value-neutral propositions.

What these women were able to take in was that, for us human beings, 

the facts of life have motivating value.

There are fine distinctions — moral, aesthetic, social, and spiritual — to be delineated, characters to be limned, dilemmas to be decoded, and they aren’t fictional.

The philosophers, the lovers of wisdom, can get in there and dig around too.  They might even figure out if the women are up to something.

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Believers

“Blindman’s Bluff”
Francisco Goya, 1789

Believers

When I was a child, the grownups around me held all kinds of beliefs and I wished I could be like them.  Failing that, I hoped they wouldn’t find out how I really felt.

As a high school girl, visiting my mother’s French friend Renee in Princeton, I would watch the Smith girls in their camel hair coats kissing goodbye to their boyfriends at the Princeton Junction station.  The girls displayed an ardor I thought enviable.  To me, the Princeton college boys looked like human beings with cow faces.  So I admired wonderingly the power their girlfriends had mustered — to look at those cow faces adoringly.

Renee took a different view — more French, I think.  To pour oneself, open-eyed and wide-smiling, up near to a boy’s face like that — “holding nothing back” — was obviously self-defeating for a woman, as Renee saw it.

I didn’t know which kind of woman to believe, so I believed them both.  Which is probably about right.  Different strokes for different folks.

If I could interview them now — How’d all those adoring gazes work out for you? — the remaining Smith girls probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about.  What was axiomatic then as a courtship modality is hard even to remember now!

Speaking of beliefs, I can remember clearly when I began to know — not believe — that I was Jewish.  It had nothing to do with the prospect of persecution that is said — like being sentenced to hang — greatly to concentrate the mind.

Whatever anti-Jewish persecution I encountered as a young woman fell far short of the devilish and dangerous harassment that dogs the steps of Jewish students nowadays, converting ordinary social and classroom encounters into tests of the soul.

It was more like little arrows delivered too fast to get one’s shield up.  The barbs were winged in a manner too offhand and ironic to send back without making some awkward tear in the invisible social fabric.  That was the point.  If you didn’t return fire, you lost social power.  If you did, you were acting in a gauche, socially awkward manner, so you lost points that way.  Go fight City Hall.

Some time, I’d like to conduct a workshop, with invited experts who could explain 

How to Handle Social Anti-Semitism

without Spoiling the Party.

I never figured it out, but it would be worth exploring.

At a faculty reception at Brooklyn College, where later I taught philosophy, I once asked Barry Rosen how to handle the social anti-semitism that presents itself as a joke (as in, Can’t you take a joke?).  I’d been pretty much a flop at fielding those jokes during my time in Australia, so I really hoped he could tell me.  Rosen had been held hostage at the US Embassy in Teheran, and I figured he knew about the real world.  He was standing, absorbed in conversation with the great Yaffa Eliach, author of Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, when I joined them, soon finding an opening for my question.

“It’s not a joke,” Barry said, giving me a long, serious look.

Well, I knew that much.  What I didn’t know was what to do about it.  I mean, what do you do while still keeping your honor and your cool.  If there’s an answer, maybe you just have to be more evolved than I am to know what it is.

Anyway, when I found out that, deep down, I was Jewish, it didn’t have to do with believing anything or being mistreated.

I’d been writing the earliest drafts of the memoir of my misspent youth, incidentally soon to appear with illustrations as Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  The true story it tells divides into three rather different sections.  The publishers who rejected early versions told me that the writing looked to them talented but the three sections of the story fell apart.  They didn’t cohere into a single narrative.

Since it was a true story, which had happened to the self-same young woman — me — I knew there had to be some cause or connecting thread that tied its three parts together.  Today’s post-modern publisher’s readers would deny that there is any such a unified self, or unifying thread connecting the parts of one’s story — but the post-moderns came along later and I never believed them.

In those days, when I was putting together the earliest drafts of my memoir, I was also in a Park Avenue neo-Freudian psychoanalysis, designed to cure my misspent youth.  So Freudian explanations were the ones that I tried first, when attempting to get the parts of my memoir to cohere.  They were great stuff.  The Freudian theory successfully explained everything told in the memoir — but the three Parts still fell apart.

Next, I tried the Hegelian treatment of life stories, as embodied phases of dialectic.  I had committed many obvious mistakes of reasoning that Hegel’s explanations were able to lift out and correct.   But dialectical remedies still could not show what had motivated me, what I’d been looking for, as I moved from one misguided life episode to the next.  My story remained rather mysterious, to me who had lived it, and was now trying to write about it.

Finally — being all out of ideas — I tried Jewish.  Was there anything that could help this writer in the Jewish view of life as a partnership with the God who is present to history — that is, present to real situations in real time?

All I can tell you is that, when I tried that one out — as the motivator of me — all three Parts of the story locked into place, swiftly and smoothly, disclosing themselves as components of a single coherent narrative!

And that’s how — despite my apparent neglect of all but ten of the 613 commandments — I became a believing Jew.

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Easter and Passover

“Exodus”
Marc Chagall, 1952-1966

Easter and Passover

This year, the climactic commemorative celebration days for each religion actually did overlap.  Which raised questions about their possible relationship, or at least how they stand today vis a vis each other.

I tend to agree with what I heard Rabbi Irving Greenberg say, years ago, at a certain meeting of Michael Wyschogrod’s “Rainbow Group.”   It was a group of theologians and religionists of various degrees and kinds, dedicated to conducting a candid interfaith dialogue.  During his talk, Greenberg suggested that there likely had been a real resurrection, because God might have had reason to back both religions.  His hypothesis was that each does different work and neither can replace the other.

We can step right over the little storm in the politics of religion that followed his remarks.  What I’d like to know is, what do I think was true about what Rabbi Greenberg’s said?  With what am I agreeing?

Years earlier, I’d attended a course in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary.  The professor was Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl.  At one point, Stendahl voiced the question, for which he would provide his own thoughtful responses, “Why did the Jews crucify Jesus?”  He was a man of obvious personal stature.  I’m not recalling the moment to reproach him,  merely to note that, at that moment, I was seated alongside two rabbinical students from Jewish Theological Seminary.  Instantly the three of us looked at each other — eyebrows raised — two thousand years reflected in our eyes.

There are articles of faith that Easter underscores for Christians, which I find impossible to believe.  For example the tenet, based on Genesis 3, that one disobedient act, discovered in the first appearance of man and woman, put the human soul at a distance from God which only the life and death of God in human form could repair and close up again.

I don’t read the third chapter of Genesis that way.  The words with which God evicts the first couple from Gan Eden seem to me simply an accurate description of the human condition.  After the expulsion, we gain the ability to tell good from evil, we enjoy and suffer the asymmetrical ties between the sexes, and we must work for a living.  That’s how it goes — the real situation — whether in anyone’s single lifetime or in human history.

Does life in history mean that one can’t act in a way acceptable to God?  No.  According to the record we have, Abel’s sacrifice is accepted and Cain hates him for it.  All of which sounds to me remarkably like real life.  

I try to live realistically.  I don’t get a clearer sense of how to do that if I view each and every chapter of my life story through the lens of sin.  I’ve sometimes acted in ways I still approve, at other times in ways I do regret.  Are all the mishandled episodes irreparable?  The arrow of time flows only one way.  In that sense, nothing can be undone that’s already been done.  But I’ve seen relationships repair, incrustations fall off, masks give way to honest looks and long misunderstandings clear up.  I’ve not escaped despair but, in my experience, despair tends to be premature.

Why was Jesus crucified?  I believe he was crucified because he was pure of heart and clear of mind and, in his proximity, people felt close to the divine.  That’ll get you crucified every time.  You don’t need church councils to explain it.

That said, the world would be much the poorer without Christianity.  The cathedrals, the almshouses, the opportunities to preserve and meld the riches of classical thought with the Israelite experience of covenantal life in history, the provision of the vehicle by which we get “Judaism for export,” the achievements in fine art, music, literature, political theory — the priceless longing for transcendence — country gospel, and so on.  I wouldn’t want a world without it.

What about Passover?  What theological doctrines does it presuppose or entail?  None that come to my mind.  It tells the Exodus story from which we learn that God is a player in the historical condition we are in.  Also, that we need to know how to meet God on the plane of action.  Also, that Jews are God’s forever pilot project — from whose spiritually various examples the whole world can take instruction and blessing.

As for those in the world who don’t take instruction and blessing from the pilot project — if instead they find ingenious disguises for their uncannily persistent hatred — well, tough.  Anyway, they should.  

Is being Jewish enviable?  Not really, though personally I wouldn’t prefer to be anything else.  Could one improve the world by taking Jews and their history out of it?

The other day, in a thought experiment, I tried to do just that.  I was curious to see how the world would look if all the Jewish-derived features were lifted out of it.  

The funny thing is, I couldn’t do it!  Without its multitudinous Jewish influences, the world became extraordinarily hard for me to recognize.

So how are these two great religions rightly to do the job of coexisting in history, from this time forward?

Perhaps we need to learn

To forgive each other.

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