In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague in His Prime

In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions 

A friend got in touch Sunday evening a week ago to tell me he’d been scheduled for the gravest kind of surgery in the morning.  My friend has been a colleague and witness to many of my life’s twists and turns, the rough and the smooth. The report after surgery?  If the medical experts are to be credited, he is looking at about a year of “heroic” treatment, postponing but not preventing the end.

Medical verdicts do not negate collegiality.  I feel that we are going through this life-and-death tunnel together, as we went through so much else.

What is death?  And btw, what do we aim for in life?  I think one hopes to have a certain degree of integration of mind and body.  The way a painter, when he paints, doesn’t ask, what part’s my mind and what part is my body.  Since life is not a painting, the real-life “integration” is achieved when what I say is what I really think and a fair guide to what I will do, on fitting occasions.  One wants to get body – or field of action — and mind together in one package.

It takes a good while before one begins to learn how to do that.  But – if such are the great lessons of life — death seems to ask one to undo all the work one has expended to get on good terms with one’s body.

There is a rabbinic midrash [story or lesson drawing out the meaning of a Biblical text] that captures my point.  In the story, God comes to Moses to inform him that it’s time for him to die.  Moses protests.  They go back and forth, Moses advancing one reason after another why it’s a bad idea, and God still insisting that it’s time.  Finally, Moses comes to his last argument:

“I will never have a body as beautiful

as the body of Moses!”

God can only answer with a kiss on the mouth of Moses.  In God’s kiss, the soul of Moses is lifted from his body!

What does the story mean?  We don’t think of Moses in aesthetic terms.  That’s not because the Bible glosses over the plain fact that some people are lookers.  Like Sarah as a bride, the young Joseph or the young David.  All those characters were good to look at.  But Moses is not young by the time he has his last argument with God.  It’s not the beauty of youth that he’s trying to defend.  What then?

He’s trying (my guess is) to protect the beauty of a put-together, grownup life.  It’s a life where he has sought the truth.  His word is good.  You can depend on it.  He will do what he says, so far as he is able.  You can see that at a glance.

Ideally, philosophy should help one get into that condition. Yet Socrates said that all philosophy is the study of how to die.

I am truly puzzled.  If philosophy (or whatever method one finds) enables one to integrate thought and action and thus achieve “the body Moses had,” then philosophy is what helps one to live.  How can it also help one to die?  Wouldn’t death, from the vantage point of such an achievement, be the hardest job you could give to a philosopher?  A nearly impossible, always unwelcome job?

I’m talking about what a dear and close philosophical colleague is facing.  What we all must face.

Wasn’t Socrates wrong?

It’s like going to be hanged when you’re innocent of the crime for which sentence has been passed.  Wouldn’t you think, this shouldn’t be happening!

There are theological doctrines that deem none of us innocent.  Okay, I mean relatively innocent.  Innocent of cynicism, of deliberate wickedness, of not being who you say you are.  Sufficiently innocent so that you can say, “I’ll never have a body this beautiful” – no matter how you look cosmetically.

No.  A body/mind harmony like that cannot possibly want to separate body from mind, or think such a tearing-apart anything other than premature.

If God wants such a person to quit this life without further argument, He will have to spirit him out of it

                          with a parting kiss.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Immortality, Jews, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, self-deception, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, 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, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shunning

Shunning 

We are social beings, so nobody likes to be shunned.  I first encountered shunning after I wrote a letter to Proceedings and Addresses.  That’s the journal where schedules for philosophic meetings are posted, academic publishers place ads for their books and journals, the editor lines up the obits for the fallen colleagues and the speeches of the recently renowned can be read.

My letter defended a woman philosopher who had publicly complained about certain feminist philosophers who, she claimed, urged the editor of a magazine not to publish her essay critical of their kind of feminism.  It seemed to me that women whose common goal was the liberation of women should not try to suppress views that differed from the ones they happened to hold.

Not long after, I was at a conference on Moral Psychology whose participants included feminists hostile to the woman philosopher I had defended.  At lunchtime they all sat together.  I was fully visible, seated nearby at a table for one.  They pointedly didn’t ask me to join them.

Later I had occasion to tell the story to a student, a bright young woman, as it happens, gay and feminist.

“Well,” she commented, “you didn’t want to eat with those people anyway.”

She had me pegged right.  I enjoy my own company and didn’t mind lunching alone.

Along the shunning lines, I think of what happened to Herman Badillo.  He had been borough president of the Bronx, a congressman, the first Puerto Rican mayoral candidate, and – at the time of this incident — Chair of the Board of Trustees of The City University of New York.  Badillo had an abrasive manner and many enemies, but he was a strong supporter of higher education at the public universities, to which he felt he owed his own career in public service.  Anyway, somebody who didn’t like Badillo got wind of remarks he’d made about demographic changes in New York.  The new groups included Mayans and Incas whose facial features and customs showed no European admixture.  As Badillo described them, they resembled the figures carved on pre-Columbian bas reliefs.  His enemies needed no further ammunition.  They quickly denounced him as a bigot and he was shorn of his former political influence.

I was not a chum of Badillo’s, but I wrote a letter to the New York papers denouncing the gang-up.  I may have been one of his few defenders.  The formerly powerful New York politician called me at home to thank me.

Then there was the drumming out of Larry Summers when he was president of Harvard University.  Summers spoke at a conference convened to determine why there weren’t more women in the hard sciences.  (I can tell you why there’s not Abigail in the hard sciences, but let’s not go there.)  In his speech, Summers canvassed a wide range of possible answers.  Was the cause external, i.e. discrimination?  Or was it internal, e.g. women’s preference for other fields and activities?  The mere mention of the second possibility was all his numerous campus enemies needed.  Women professors in the audience complained of feeling faint when they heard the words of Larry Summers.  (That tells me why these ladies weren’t in the hard sciences.  Hard to concentrate when you have to keep reaching for your smelling salts.)

I got involved because, at that time, I belonged to the American Association of University Women.  The AAUW put out a brochure  explaining to Summers (himself no dummy) his “mistakes.”  Since the brochure had been issued in the name of the membership, this member read it through carefully.  Then I wrote the leadership, pointing out errors of fact and logic that I’d found in their brochure.  As I recall, they didn’t choose to answer.

Irritated, I forwarded my letter to Larry Summers who was soon to be removed from his post at Harvard.  Like Badillo, he wrote back, lonely but grateful.

My goodness! I thought.  You can meet a lot of formerly important people this way.  The way you could have met Parisian aristocrats if you didn’t mind riding along with them in the tumbrils taking them through the streets of Paris to the Place de la Revolution and the waiting Guillotine!

I know more stories like this — touching peers, colleagues and contemporaries – than there is room to tell here.  The tide is beginning to turn, I think, and the thought police no longer have the public space entirely to themselves.  But perhaps a moment of silence is due, to honor those unsung heroes who fought for the right to speak their minds long before the tide turned, and went down in the fight.

In 1933, Stephen Vincent Benet wrote a poem about Cotton Mather (1663-1728).  Mather was the Puritan divine who inspired the Salem Witch Trials, where people were accused of imaginary crimes and  hanged on the strength of the accusations.

Grim Cotton Mather

Was always seeing witches,

Daylight, moonlight,

They buzzed about his head,

Pinching him and plaguing him

With aches and pains and stitches,

Witches in his pulpit,

Witches by his bed.

Nowadays, nowadays,

We’d say that he was crazy,

But everyone believed him

In old Salem town

And nineteen people

Were hanged for Salem witches

Because of Cotton Mather

And his long, black gown.

Old Cotton Mather

Didn’t die happy.

He could preach and thunder,

He could fast and pray,

But men began to wonder

If there had been witches—

When he walked the streets

[They] looked the other way.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, 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, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Journalism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Oppression, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, 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, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, slave, 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, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sacrificial Acts

 

Sacrificial Acts

A review of mine, written in support of an author I greatly admire, was just accepted for publication.  It was written at the sacrifice of long-postponed time and energy that, right now, I really needed to expend on behalf of my own book.  However, come to think of it, I’ve never had an editor accept an essay more readily.  It just slid right in.

It’s occurred to me that, several times in the past, I succeeded better at an effort when I didn’t do it for me.   I don’t mean that I got “ego” out of the way, whatever that means.  What’s ego?  What’s necessary life force?  Which is which?

I mean, I was more effective when – consciously and deliberately – I did it at the sacrifice of my known interests.

Let me give you some examples.  When my philosopher father died, he left his unpublished manuscript on two 17th century philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict de Spinoza.  Everyone I knew advised me to put his manuscript aside “for later.”  I had my own life to live, they said.  Life is for the living.  Rise above your “father fixation” – yeah yeah and blah blah.

The fact was that I had just returned to full-time employment after a seven-year struggle to get back a job from which I’d been fired unjustly.  So there was professional prudence in the general recommendation to rebuild my c.v. with work that had the Abigail stamp on it – rather than take any side trips to bring out my father’s posthumous work.

To me on the other hand, it was unthinkable to turn aside from the implicit commitment to his work that he died assuming I would honor.

To support my efforts in that cause, whenever I could, I would ask to teach Modern Philosophy, which includes Hobbes and Spinoza.  And that was why, when an invited speaker on Spinoza failed to show up before an assembled crowd waiting to hear his speech, I was asked to fill in for him.  My impromptu talk was deemed a great success, saving the college from public embarrassment. The amazing result was that my promotion — stalled till then – suddenly sailed through.

A second example.  A few years later, a different administration decided, God knows why, to completely revamp the college’s award-winning curriculum – around the borough of Brooklyn!  You know: geography of Brooklyn, poetry of Brooklyn, history of Brooklyn?  Now, we had students from all over the world, and they didn’t come to the college to learn about Brooklyn.

I decided, over my dead body!  Allied with one other faculty woman, a distinguished historian, we resolved to fight it through to the finish, win or lose.

In view of the time it would take to fight this fight, and also meet my teaching obligations, my personal life would have to be put on hold.  At the time, my personal life consisted in visits to nearby museums or tea with friends.  Both had to be sacrificed.  Adieu personal life!

Though my colleague and I did succeed in winning a fair amount of faculty support, we knew that the administration still held cards enough to override dissenting opinions from inside the college.  We would need to go outside, if we were to have any chance to win.

I contacted a number of organizations known to care about higher education.  Only one of these responded, an organization in Washington D.C. run by the former chair of the philosophy department at a well-regarded university who had also run a federal agency.  Jerry L. Martin cared about the same issues I did and was obviously a much more experienced strategist than I was.  We talked long distance every day and I would follow through on his advice.

All the same, I was pretty astonished when we actually won. Meanwhile, without ever having met in person, Jerry had fallen in love sight unseen, and I fell in love when we met.  We got married and

my personal life has never been better.

What’s the moral?  I don’t know exactly.  In one case, I sacrificed career advancement and got career advancement back, enhanced.  And then I sacrificed personal life and got personal life back, better than I’d ever known.  It can’t be that sacrifice always brings rewards in the same coin as what you sacrificed.  These happy endings – extraordinary as they are – are just too neat for me or anyone else to take them as typical.  It can’t be right to expect a happy ending as the payoff for one’s sacrificial act.

I wasn’t trying to be sacrificial.  I was only trying to do what the situations seemed to call for.  That’s something to celebrate in itself.

Perhaps Providence simply decided

to join the celebration.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Art of Living, Autonomy, books, bureaucracy, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, Erotic Life, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, Sex Appeal, 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, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kosher?

“Moses and the Tablets”
Rembrandt, 1659

Kosher?

O dear.  This is what you call a “vexed” topic.  A couple of years back, in my temple’s Saturday Torah Study, we came to verses that spell out what you are and aren’t supposed to eat, if you’re Jewish.

Okay, Christian readers … you can stop reading now, with a hat tip to Paul who (possibly Acts 15 and certainly Galatians 2) won the quarrel with Peter and James about keeping kosher and related matters.  And  Secular readers, you too can slip away, thanking God that He made you so free that you are even free from having-to-be-set-free from observance of divine commandments, whether pertaining to food or to anything else.

Since I’ve been to Atheism and found that it tends to have its own substitute gods, I’m less drawn to that form of freedom than I used to be.  But, hey, whatever.

There are, of course, lots of secular Jews but I don’t happen to be in that number.  It’s their indoor atmosphere: too cozy cozy with the secular gods: psychoanalysis? Darwin? self-congratulation about having the right political preferences, whatever those might happen to be?  It feels to me like an apartment with too much central heating.  Stuffy.

Since my father, fed up with institutional Jewish life as he had known it, took us all out of synagogue membership in my childhood, Jewish observance never became second nature to me.  We had idiosyncratic versions of the practices around the dinner table … at the same time that the values of our home seemed to me intensely, intelligently, intimately spiritual.

In adulthood, I tried on a succession of religious and nonreligious hats before noticing how Jewish I was, in essentials.  But I only joined a temple when I left Manhattan and moved with Jerry to Bucks County.  In New York, Jewish identity is not at risk.  In Bucks County, you have to do something about it.  It was a Reform temple because I figured they were the only ones who would have me.   That said, even in the Reform temple, I don’t know what the other kids know and I don’t observe most of the ritual commandments.  Including keeping kosher. The first time, in weekly Torah Study, the verses were read about what not to eat, and the floor opened for discussion, I said, when it came my turn, that I didn’t observe the do’s and don’ts (kashruth).

         “Why do you want to separate yourself from the Jewish people?”

our then rabbi asked instantly.

I froze, having, of course, no reply at the ready.  We were near the end of the hour and it seemed to me that the other congregants were packing up and quitting the study room hastily without looking my way.

Had I just been excommunicated?  I couldn’t find a temple more liberal than this one.  They don’t come much more liberal.

I met with the then temple president to confer about the incident and whether I had any standing to continue as a member.  He was kindly and his advice was mainly practical.  Rabbis are very busy.  They can’t tailor every word to every need.  And, btw, why did I imagine I had to reveal the whole truth every time it came my turn to speak?

We’re in Deuteronomy now, where all the preceding adventures of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers are reprised.  So last Saturday, when we came once again to the verses that concern what you should and should not eat, I had the mother wit to pass when it came my turn.

*          *          *

When I was a child, I asked my grandfather the reason for the prohibitions on food.  He cited the main one:

Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother’s milk.

“It is cruel,” he explained in his tender and authoritative voice.

“But what about the rest?” I persisted.  “Separate dishes and separate towels for dairy and for meat?”

“Oh that,” he said.  “That was added by” – he used a Yiddish term – “the old wives, the busybodies.” 

On the other hand, without the busybodies, most people would not fall into line.  The lines give a people its distinctive shape.  God had His own reasons for designating this people as His pilot project, where everybody gets to see the human/divine interaction, and how it goes in history.  By the same token, I don’t sense any guidance to blur my own separate contours, which have their reasons for being as they are.  Some situations are without a solution.

One must just leave them there.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Childhood, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Health, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mysticism, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, politics, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, self-deception, 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, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Psalms

“The Good Shepard”
Henry Ossawa-Tanner (1859-1937)

The Psalms

The other day, and night, I was having a

dark night of the soul.

It was about A Good Look at Evil again, and the recurrent struggle to get my book shown correctly on Amazon.  My patient readers will recall that, although Wipf & Stock’s expanded paperback edition had a pub date of February 2018, Amazon at first featured, more prominently — and sometimes exclusively — the shorter, hardback Temple U Press edition of years ago.

To correct this error, I had pressed my editors at Wipf & Stock endlessly to prevail on Amazon, pressed them without letup, going way outside my comfort zone to do it.  By the time we left for California, it appeared that the whole problem was finally cured.

I was just about to email my editor to thank him, when I thought to check Amazon one last time.  Et voila!  To my bottomless horror, the problem was B-A-C-K!

Actually, as one of my great research helpers pointed out the next morning, I’d been using the wrong procedure.  The seeming relapse was not one.  But all during the first day of our return and the long, dark first night back, I could see no way out of the maze.  It seemed I had tried everything.  Nothing worked.

We don’t talk politics on this site, so ordinarily, I wouldn’t go there.  But the example that comes to mind is from the pre-presidential career of Donald Trump.  I have the story from an English friend.  Since nobody, not even Trump’s staunchest supporters, thinks him an embodiment of the virtues, no one should take offense.

The story goes that he went up to Scotland to buy a golf course, browbeating and cajoling the locals into selling their properties to make way for it.  At last, he had all the acreage he needed save for a plot of land on which lived a Scottish widow woman, stalwartly holding out.  Possibly her home, which included a waterfront view, had been in her family for generations.  When he could not break her will, he bought the shore strip and erected a barrier on it high enough to close off her waterfront view.

Anyway, that’s how I felt.  Like that widow woman.  Completely blocked.  I had the book, but nobody could see it.  The way the widow woman had her house, but was walled up inside it.

When that’s how you feel, finding “a good book” to read at bedtime is of no interest.  What could a good book tell me?  Good for what?

Some months back, Christian friends had told me that I should read the psalms before turning lights out.  Yeah, I know, but they had leaned forward to say it earnestly, as if it were a packet of letters addressed to me in particular.

Well, I thought, when all else fails …  I’d never really read them sequentially and recalled an orphan in Jane Eyre being admonished by a pompous philanthropist to read the psalms and  answering — with  impudent frankness — that she found them “boring.”

On the other hand, what the heck.  I had no interest in another “interesting” book.  Jerry has a King James Version upstairs.  That seemed about right for my purposes.  I had no inclination to read a translation with a closer match between words in Hebrew and  English.  My father could read the Hebrew all right but, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he used the King James in English, finding its rhythm, significance and weight equivalent to the original, as the modern, more literal translations were not.

I started reading the psalms.  The effect was startling to me.  In three thousand or so years, nothing has changed.  We are still in the same human condition!  We still go through the dark times feeling abandoned, overwhelmed, like a drowning person.  We press to our hearts an invisible God – it’s the strangest thing! – and speak to Him heart to heart with nothing held back because – where? behind what? — would we hide it?

That the civilization we English speakers inherited is threaded through and through with the language of the psalms is an exciting fact.  As information, I’d known the fact, but had not previously come up against it as an encounter.  The last words of Jesus,

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

are the first words of Psalm 22.  So many of the familiar words we speak are likewise quotations from the same source.

The unconcealedness, the truth that we greatly care about ourselves – we are not above it, not detached, not sublimated, not about to be someone else – is what shines forth.  The God one turns to because, What else is there?, the person who turns thither because, Who else can do it? – are wholly recognizable:

long lost intimates.

Posted in Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, Childhood, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, Heroes, hidden God, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, non-violence, novels, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, Seduction, self-deception, social climbing, 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, TV, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Identity Crisis

Abbie in a previous identity, Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

My Identity Crisis

Our week in California, never an easy one — because much has always required attention there — was difficult in various ways but notably hard for me this time.

First, the neuropathy treatments I get at Loma Linda Hospital were attended by disconcerting side effects.  This hasn’t happened before.  It’s a new, experimental treatment, nested in a highly regarded research hospital.

What they do is based on a general view of neuropathy that goes like this.  Blood, a liquid, travels from the major pipes in the body (arteries and veins) into the tiny pipes that feed neurons (the neuro-vascular system).  Neuropathy occurs (if I’ve got this straight) when, for any number of reasons, this passage from big to little pipes is blocked in some area.  In cases like mine, the tiny neurons are starving but not dead yet.  (“I woke up not dead again today,” to quote Willie Nelson.)

The treatment (discovered by Dr. Mark Bussell who heads the Neuropathy Institute at Loma Linda) consists in retraining the big vessels to release the blood into the smaller networks.  It works by a curious train of manipulations that can be continued (at a slower pace) as homework between treatments at the Institute.

One starts to feel the difference and see changes after one treatment.  Sufferers travel from far countries to receive this treatment, currently offered only at Loma Linda.  Its effectiveness is measurable and repeatable, so other neurologists are starting to take notice.

All this is background to my experience of the past week.  For the first time, I felt side effects when the increasingly activated transmission lines between brain and foot began to trigger resistance in brain and foot alternately.  I won’t try to capture the medical jargon for describing that resistance.  How about headaches, faint nausea and wobbliness?  Will that do?

The point for me was that this phase of treatment was not at all fun.  It was uncomfortable, disturbing and unfamiliar.  There were no obvious rewards for undergoing it.

On a parallel track — the track of the conscious mind — the trip afforded me time to reread A Good Look at Evil from start to finish, in its present, expanded 2018 version.  The new version includes an additional Part Four, with two new chapters plus a fresh Preface.  So, three decades later, the scene-setting framework is new and the book winds up in a new place.

Not to beat around the bush, I was terrifically impressed with what I’d written – really bowled over!  What had somehow been produced by me (note the passive voice) went sufficiently deep so that neither the philosophic arguments made for the book’s original concepts nor its illustrative concrete cases look dated.  From my sojourn among the Australian materialists, I had taken the lesson that philosophy should not veer too far from empirical evidence.  This though the book is not limited by a strictly empirical outlook.  The task of A Good Look at Evil is to make clear the shape of a good life and the role of evil in trying to destroy what is good in a life.

I review the ups and downs of philosophy on this terrain over the last two hundred years, the contributions to moral reflection from —  among other fields — anthropology, psychological studies on the formation of identity, and I take into consideration a vast array of materials relevant to the controversies surrounding the Holocaust.  When I come to the Holocaust of the Jews, the prose is sharp and cool but there is a white heat of anger behind it.

Then there is the transition to Part Four, the new materials.  These two chapters concern individual persons (political philosopher Hannah Arendt is the subject of Chapter Eight, I am the subject of Chapter Nine) and the particulars of their lives that dramatically illustrate the book’s theses about good and evil.

Books of fiction sometimes contain passages that take the breath away.  When I read Gone With the Wind in early adolescence, I came to the scene where Rhett tells Scarlet that he knows how many times she’s lain in his arms and wished he was Ashley Wilkes.

“Well tonight,” Rhett says, “there are going to be only two people in my bed!”  With that, he sweeps her into his arms and carries her up the grand stairway to their marital bedroom where he kisses her with such soul-searing, burning intensity that “the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness!”

I don’t know if that’s great prose.  Maybe not, but I do know the effect it had on 13-year-old Abigail!

Well, please forgive the comparison but … that’s the breathtaking effect of the transition from “Thinking Like a Nazi,” which was the last chapter of the previous edition, to the particular persons appearing in Part Four.

I simply gasped.

So why am I talking about an identity crisis?  Somatically, I’m merely undergoing the transition to a rerouted circulatory system.  Psychically, I’m just going from thinking that I wrote a “pretty good” book to seeing that it’s considerably more than pretty good.  That realization carries with it a responsibility to make A Good Look at Evil known, so far as that comes within my capabilities.

It’s as if two strangers have set up their living quarters in me, the one in my body, the other in my mind.

I’ve got to learn to be nice to them.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Childhood, Chivalry, Cities, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Gender Balance, glitterati, Health, Heroes, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, novels, Past and Future, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, relationships, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social construction, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Read Any Good Books Lately?

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Read Any Good Books Lately?

We are in California for my neuropathy treatments, Jerry’s seminar at the Claremont School of Theology and family reunions.  So, in lieu of my usual weekly column, here is something completely different.

I don’t just write.  I read a lot too.  In case you cared to share some of these recent reading experiences, here are my five-star reviews posted on Amazon.

Enjoy!


Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo

by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was certainly one the best writer in English of the 20th century. Her sad simple record of this last living African man taken as a slave from his native home to these shores is certainly worth reading and thinking about.


Kierkegaard’s Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen

by Joakim Garff

There isn’t anything you’d want to know about this famous, aborted love story that this writer fails to tell you. For Kierkegaard’s many followers, including female followers, the book fills in important gaps. I read it from beginning to end and wasn’t bored.


Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

The phenomenon of anti-Judaism is one of history’s peculiarities. Whether you’re Jewish or not, whether you care particularly about Jews or don’t care particularly, this book is an indispensable guide to an extraordinary subtext under history’s surface.


The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling

by Natalie Robins

The persona of Diana Trilling remains so swathed in the cattiness she herself seemed to have shown, that most reviewers of this biography merely took the opportunity to get another swipe in — at Diana. In so doing, they neglected to notice the skill of her biographer. Natalie Robins does not gloss over her subject’s well-known nastiness, but takes great pains to account for it in the context of the times in which this gifted intellectual woman came to adulthood. It’s a highly readable, detailed portrait of an era, including many influential public intellectuals. The sympathy this biographer shows for her subject adds to the interest of the story she tells.


The Wandering Jew Has Arrived 

by Albert Londres

What a testament, from an early 20th century journalist, to the abysmal condition of Eastern European Jews without a state! Londres had no discernible axe to grind, merely records the vanished world of Jews who were scarcely allowed to exist on the level of humanity. He doesn’t imagine that their dehumanized condition could ever spread to “enlightened,” civilized cities like Paris and Berlin! The contrast with Jews who began to settle as pioneers in Palestine is obvious to Londres. An indispensable record of how it was, in most of the places where Jews lived, before the Holocaust and before the Jewish state came to be.


Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World

by Avi Jorisch

An amazing record, of the greatest value in countering prejudice against the Jewish state. Israel’s contributions to the well being and flourishing of the world are almost mythical in their scope and effectiveness. Theodore Hertzl’s novelistic fantasies, about the Old/New Land whose founding he inspired, are surpassed by the accounts of contribution after contribution which are described and documented here.


A Final Accounting: Philosophical and Empirical Issues in Freudian Psychology

by Edward Erwin

Dr. Erwin’s contribution to the philosophical evaluation of Freud’s theory and therapy is sober, evidence-based and extraordinarily thorough. He avoids casting any aspersion on Freud’s character, veracity or methods. His sole concern is with the evidence for or against the truth of Freud’s theoretical account of the human psyche and the effectiveness of his therapy. A side benefit for the reader: the book addresses the questions, What counts as a scientific theory and what does it mean to validate a claim as scientific? After an exhaustive a review of the arguments from critics and defenders and review of the many attempts to provide scientific grounding, Erwin arrives at a conclusion. Without fanfare or rhetorical flourishes of any kind: this emperor has no clothes.


Islamic Gender Apartheid: Exposing a Veiled War Against Women

by Phyllis Chesler

There is no voice I know of like the voice of Phyllis Chesler. First of all, it takes enormous moral stamina to visit the episodes of cruel discrimination against women that she documents here. Second, although many who learn of such incidents privately deplore and regret them, Chesler actually says what most of us only think. That in itself is an education. From reading her words, which say what we only think, we learn what honestly sounds like if only we dared to exhibit it ourselves. Personally I feel grateful for this book and for Phyllis Chesler’s influence in the world. She’s one of the heroes of our time.


The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic

by Michael Medved

There is intellectual courage in this book. Medved retells key episodes in the American story, how we came to be as a nation that spans the territory we have and takes the directions we have taken. Embedded in the national narrative are episodes that bear the hallmarks of divine intervention — of Providence, as it used to be called. Since the temper of the times, and the constraints on what is now considered intellectually respectable, weigh against this kind of emphasis, Medved has given himself a very difficult assignment. That said, it’s a delightful read. He’s a first rate story teller. Of course, if there are reasons to take the episodes he recounts as evidence for divine concern with America, there is also plenty of room to disagree and to explain the events in more naturalistic terms. Whichever way you take it, Medved’s story affords much nourishment for the thoughtful reader.


Moses: A Human Life (Jewish Lives)

by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

An extraordinary book, replete with the signs of serious scholarship, yet empathic with the figure of Moses in a way I for one have never seen before. Coming from a woman, this leap of imaginative impersonation is unprecedented, and profoundly persuasive.

 

Posted in books, Reading | Tagged , , | Leave a comment