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.

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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.

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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.

 

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I Dreamed I Saw Grandpa

Rav Tsair with Abigail, age 10

I Dreamed I Saw Grandpa

Let me make this clear: my family did not go in for paranormal visitations.  They lived in the same world of hard knocks and occasional fun we all share.  And, though I was close to grandpa, he’s never showed up in a dream of mine – not before he died and not since.

Let me explain who and what he was, a little.  He was tall, white-bearded when I knew him, and had the sad, seen-it-all-at-least-two-times-over Jewish eyes, as well as tremendous personal vibrancy and humorous resilience.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.  Though he didn’t over-value it, he also had a German doctorate in Judaica.  Without presuming to say who’s ahead on points, or ahead in whose eyes, he was one of the greatest Talmudists of the 20th century, by any measure.  When I was a younger woman, and feeling smart-alecky, I used to refer to him as the “king of the Jews.”

What was he to me?  He was the living, breathing validator of the Jewish purchase on reality.  The covenant is actual, the Bible is historical, or kinda historical, and this is as true as true gets.  You need not look any further.

In after years, I did a lot of looking further, naturally.  There were other religious vantage points to try out.  There was atheism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and the deathless philosophic lineage that Plato set in motion.  But always, under everything, my grandfather’s sad eyes – that had been there and back.

Still, I never dreamed of him after he was gone, nor thought of him particularly – except as a bulwark against anomie (directionlessness).  I had, in him, an unshakable point of departure and return.

Anyway, all of a sudden, there he was.  In my dream.  He showed up in the midst of a place without any particular architectural distinction.  It was not a landmark place.  It did not nestle in a larger landscape.  It was just some unadorned rooms, painted a pale blue color, where many people congregated, rather aimlessly, it seemed.

I knew that my mother (middle-aged in the dream, though she lived to be older than that) was about to arrive on the scene and I hoped she would get there in time to see her father again.

But then, unaccountably, their hoped-for reunion seemed to fall through, because he died. I would have to tell her that he died.  Meanwhile, without tears or ceremony, I simply lifted up his dead body and carried it to a private room, like a hospital room, a place where his body could be seen by her in a more fitting style.

However, by the time mother reached his room, the situation had changed.  Grandpa got up again.  He’d been dead, so this counted as a resurrection.  I thought this remarkable enough to warrant broadcasting and went to find the aimlessly milling crowds to tell the news to my co-religionists (as I now realized they were).

“My grandfather,” I buttonholed one after another, “resurrected himself.  He was dead, but he got up.  He’s not dead any more!”

You would be amazed how little stir this caused.  Everyone I talked to was busy with Politics – with the causes of the day.  No one cared about a resurrection.

I went back to the room where my grandfather had been.  He was dressed as he used to be, was as much taller than me as he used to be when I was a child, though in my dream I was a grown person.  He wore his usual suit, with matching vest and gold watch and gave me his sympathetic attention as I told him about the lack of interest of my co-religionists in his resurrection.

“There’s a proof-text in Halacha for resurrection, isn’t there?” I said to him, by way of justifying my own focus on this event.

He gave me a very humorous look and quirked an eyebrow (or gave a wink) at my recourse to the Hebrew term “Halacha” (Jewish law) and the term of art, “proof-text.”

His humorous look took in the fact that Hebrew is hardly my language, that Halacha comprises millennia of texts, scroll on scroll, of which I had read not a one in the original, that “proof-text” alluded to thousands of years of Jewish argument and counter-argument, of which I knew not one at first hand – but that I too, the grandchild he loved, had hitched a ride on this ancestry, this lineage, this indissoluble reality – and

he didn’t see a problem.

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What’s With the Nothing?

“Et in Arcadia ego”
Nicolas Poussin, 1637

What’s With the Nothing?

In the mornings, when I sit for meditation, I ask for input from On High and generally aspire to learn what the day should hold for me if I orient rightly.  Normally, the answers I get don’t descend in words.  There’ll be an image, or a textured feeling or sense of direction that’s not very precise.  The “answer” does rule out certain approaches while it confirms others.  Since it often surprises me, and sometimes disconcerts or evokes strong resistance in me, it would be inexact to dismiss the answers I get as mere wish fulfillment or projection.  (I’m not tempted to talk like that, but Received Opinion would be.)

Anyway, this morning’s received image was peculiar.  It was a vision of a body, clearly my body, with only one thing missing: my head!  Oh dear.  For a licensed intellectual, that’s not good news.

A bunch of chores filled up the daylight hours.  I hoped that, by this evening at my favorite café, a positive idea for this column would have come to me.

Nah.  Still nuthin’.  As Martin Heidegger (considered by some the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century) would say,

Das Nichts nichtet.

Which, freely translated means,

The Nothing nothings.

If you never took Contemporary Continental Philosophy, I’ll bet you’re sorry now!

Well, I always write about what most concerns me, and beggars can’t be choosers, so – nothing for it – I’d better plunge headfirst into The Nothing.  Hey, what does that feel like?  Be the first kid on your block to find out.

I expected to land hard on the desert terrain of emptiness, absurdity and pointlessness.  For at least the last hundred and fifty years, that’s been the landscape described by contemporary philosophers when they go as deep as they can get.

Instead, to my astonishment, the feeling I got was big, expansive, grateful (if “grateful” can be called a feeling) and rather full!  Were there directional arrows in that full field of felt experience?  Arrows to tell me, Go here?  Go there?  Turn right at the next fork?  No, not like that.  Rather, I could sense directional vectors following naturally from who I’ve become and what belongs to my life.  Impossible to replicate the fullness of the feeling, but – free associatively — I’ll set down some of the vectors describing the terrain as I discerned it.

First, what IS the takeaway from my newly revised and expanded book, A Good Look at Evil?  It’s that people need to become – not just what they’re best at doing – but who they’re best at being.  Who am I? is a good question!  Even for the most intuitively self-assured among us, the answer isn’t ready-made.  We get to it by trial and error, by trying not to lie as we go along – since a lie won’t give the answer.  Over time, our effort becomes a narrative, which is to say a true story.

It’s important for us to recall the story’s incidents in chronological order.  That way, if our provisional conclusions get overthrown by some future experience, we can go back to where we first embraced our now-doubtful premiss, revisit the experience that prompted it, and revise our conclusion accordingly.  Our future sheds retrospective light on our past.

Who then, what then, are the evil-doers?  Voluntarily and knowingly, they mess up the story.  They could be oneself, if one is masking the hard lessons of experience.  Or … others.  Or they could be your local school shooter.  Did he or they “just snap”?  Evil generally involves discernment, strategic planning, and these young killers with their bland faces are no exception.

Where are we headed?  Is it to the romantic happy-ever-after?  Wedding bells?  I’m all for that.  Did I live happily ever after, after Jerry and I married?  Yeah, I think so.  Only, right now he’s suffering from the after-shocks of a visit to the root canal dental specialist.  Doesn’t make either of us happy.

Should we strive for global consensus?  Would I be happier if nobody disagreed about politics or Jews or Israel?  Take it one rung higher.  Would I be happier if no one on the planet were despised for his or her color, continent of origin, or social class – high or low?  If we all knew instantly and globally how best to conduct our relations with planetary resources and wild nature?

Political disalignments concern the same thing that used to trigger religious conflicts: The Big Picture.  Suppose we all looked up at the sky, then out to the horizon and we saw …

 The Same Big Picture.

If I try to imagine such a universal consensus about the world and its desiderata, straightaway I see … that’s not where the problem lies.  That’s not where the solution is to be found.  It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing over the great generalities.

The incongruent Big Pictures are the metaphors for the real discrepancies in our respective experiences – which lie in the details.  People don’t kill and die (really) for big reasons.  Rather, insofar as we endorse the erasure of those who don’t share our Big Picture, we do it for very small reasons.

The state, Plato wrote long ago, is the soul writ large.  Political differences – differences over what we stereotype – are psychical differences, writ large.  Differences of the soul.

We are more interesting than we look.  If, as the French painter famously depicted, Death too is in Arcady, it is no less true that

God too is in the world.

That means we don’t need to be in such a tearing hurry.  We have more time than we think.  It all needs to be explored.  We have time for one another.  It all needs to be turned up to the daylight and lived out.

We should not come to agreement too quickly.

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Battered, Bruised … but Unbowed?

“Elijah is taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, to his disciple Elisha”
Marc Chagall, 1956

Battered, Bruised … but Unbowed?

Last week, reflecting on my deep reluctance to do anything that would promote my newly-released book, A Good Look at Evil, second edition, I determined that the real barrier isn’t that I believe I have nothing to give that might help people.  It’s rather that I feel I’ve awakened the sleeping dogs … of evil.  And I fear evil.

Lest you dismiss this as puffery in disguise, I’ll give one reason (in addition to those set forth in the book) why I think I’ve got evil’s number.  Some years ago, when the first edition came out, a friend of mine was reading it when an unexpected guest rang the downstairs bell.  The guest was a man who had embezzled a fair proportion of my friend’s life savings and, unbeknownst to himself (but with the cooperation of his victim), was about to get arrested for embezzling and sent up the river.  Anyway, after dropping in, the embezzler noticed my book lying on a side table and opened it out of curiosity.  Soon, forgetting his manners as a guest, he was deep in A Good Look at Evil, apparently enjoying it hugely!

“Why,” I asked my friend “was he enjoying it?”

“Because,” my friend said, “it was about him!”

So few books are.  Although the second edition has some distinguished endorsers quoted on the back cover, I’m pretty sure that a recommendation from this guy, preferably accompanied by his mug shot, would have put the first edition over the top.

The message of A Good Look at Evil is that our lives are stories.  Not made-up stories.  Not fantasies or projections.  True stories.  We can bungle the story.  We can disguise it.  Or we can recognize it, respect it and live it straight.

If I’m right about this, where does evil come into it?  Evil has a pretty good sense of what story it is that we’re trying to live.  Evil comes to spoil our stories.  To confuse them.  To muddy them.  To get us to feel awkward or embarrassed or scared of living the true narratives of our lives.  We need to know this.  Many of the great novelists of the nineteenth-century knew it and helped us to see it.  But the cynicisms and pseudo-landscapes of modernity have obscured the fact of the matter.

That said, what’s been going awry in my life lately?  Since it’s appearance for sale on Amazon, I’ve been in a prolonged struggle to get it appropriately presented there.  At first, Amazon foregrounded the first edition, making it hard to find the revised and expanded 2018 second edition.  At the same time, the “Look Inside” (electronic preview) feature first showed the 1987 edition and later, no inside pages at all.  But this week capped all. When I ordered the book, the edition that arrived was bound in the 2018 cover but contained all and only the 1987 contents!  So the endorsers, whose blurbs concentrated on the new materials, were given the lie by the content inside the covers!  This disfigured package was simply an affront to its author.

It seemed to me terrifying.  Nor did my Guidance blow away the thick fog that settled around me.  Nothing I got back in prayer or meditation suggested that this wasn’t any big deal, or wouldn’t be a big deal hundred years from now.  Nothing suggested that I should try to “get above it” or “get distance on it.”  Nothing I received inwardly advised me to hang back from the fight that loomed.  Hang back because I’m a woman and we get nailed as nags, as nervous nellies, as neurotic.  On the contrary.  What I received was NOT to internalize a problem that existed in reality, not just in my mind.

Why do we blame ourselves?  And then — thanks to feminism telling us to “man up” — blame ourselves for blaming ourselves?  My mind goes now to the women who were so brutally mistreated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and yet went back to share his company and his bed, where he, of course, hit them again. This woman-beater told them, “I am the Law in New York.”  It’s the same message that Bill Clinton, then The Law in Arkansas, managed to convey to the woman he, on her credible account, raped when he was Attorney General of that state.  Ladies, don’t get alone in a room with an attorney general!

What’s with us women?  You want my opinion?

IT’S NOT A FLAW.

It’s the Yin that complements the Yang on nature’s balance scales.  We are, I’ve long suspected, hard-wired for a kind of pliancy and receptivity.  Why wouldn’t we be?  How much spare yardage does nature have?  La Femme, wrote Simone de Beauvoire, the founder of modern feminism, est en proie a l’espece.  Hey, woman is at the mercy of the species.  No kidding.  Sans blague!  Why didn’t I think of that?  What does it mean, practically?  It means, born vulnerable!  I hope I didn’t say the wrong thing.  Where protection is called for, a decent man is instinctively protective of women.  So sue me.

Feminism is on message when it goads us to be more assertive, to say what we mean, to stand up.  But, for rhetorical purposes, it has denied this deep trait, pretending it’s just a social construct.  Like hell it is.  Schneiderman’s victims included hard-shelled New York women, professional women, at least one big city lawyer.  What the predator sees is the vulnerability underneath the armor!

Back to Abigail and her thwarted story.  To recap recent misadventures: Just around the time of publication date, I took a wrong step in the blizzard and fractured my knee.  That was the leg with the neuropathy for which I’d finally found an effective treatment.  Now the treatment would have to be postponed, or rolled backwards, since I could not travel to California for the next scheduled round, nor continue the exercises at home that I’d been given to do between treatments.

Being forbidden to drive, I could not get to the Franco-Tunisian café where I ordinarily go to review and make sense of my days.

Nor could I get to the weekly Torah Study (Bible study of the Pentateuch).  Even if I got a lift, it seemed too demanding and risky to totter across the lobby and into a chair at the common table.  Since we lack a full-time rabbi at present, there is no one tasked with the duty of cheering the disabled.  So, at a time of crisis for me, there was only silence from that quarter.

At the same time, someone I would have thought trustworthy volunteered to convey a prayer-based healing by telephone.  He turned out to be trading on female vulnerability to try to get away with stuff over the phone.  Get thee behind me, Satan!

Since I had to concentrate on my main job, which was not to fall again, the painful fracture also led me to postpone much of the effort one normally puts in to bring a new book to the attention of the reading public.

Now add the crowning setback just mentioned: the cover of the 2018 revised, expanded Good Look at Evil, arrives, wrapped round – all and only — the 1987 book!

By now, I was getting scared.  If I had evil’s number, did it have mine?  I’m not such a fool as to think I can handle life all by myself.  I did “look up” for Guidance.  The Guidance was insistent.

This IS just what it feels like: the destruction of a significant work.  You MUST oppose it.  Don’t hold back.  Send emails.  Make phone calls.  This is not the time to be harmonious, though that’s what you prefer to be.  You must be cognizant of what your editors and Amazon can do to fix this, and ASK ONLY THAT.  You must remain factual, not emotional.  But you must not damp down your legitimate determination to set to rights the selling of the updated edition of the book you wrote.  If your editors cannot fix it, or won’t, you must go higher in the organization.  Or get lawyered up, if need be.

The editors did fix it.  Why?  How?  It looked to me as if the bad guys (the nameless adversary who seemed to know where I live) had won.  Why should all that downhill slide stop, turn round, and reverse itself?  Was it just because I kept at it?  Kept trying?

There’s a passage in scripture where Elisha the prophet finds himself surrounded by a dangerous “host” from the king of Syria.  His servant says,

“Alas, my master!  How shall we do?”

“Fear not [Elisha answers]: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.” II Kings 6: 15-17.

Elisha then manages — as if to pull back the curtain hiding the sky — to show his servant that “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”

Well, I sure can’t do that.  What can I tell you?  Life is not predictable.  Bad things happen.  Things can happen that are worse than bad, that seem custom-tailored to embody our worst fears.  Not everybody survives every danger every time.  Often enough, it seems the bad guys win.  But still, where you know what the situation calls for, it’s crucial to persist.  The bad guys count on us not to persist.

Therefore, it’s important to remember, against all appearances, against the odds, that

they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

 

 

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Before Feminism – and After!

 

“Ladies in Blue”
The Archaeological Museum of Herakleion, Crete. Excavated from Palace of Knossos.
Late Minoan IB ca. 1525–1450 B.C.

Before Feminism – and After!

Lately, I’ve been reading When Men Were the Only Models We Had, by Carolyn Heilbrun.  It’s a memoir on coming of age as an intellectual woman before feminism.  As a graduate student in Columbia University’s English Department, her great teachers, Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, taught her to roam free in the Life of the Mind, the only constraint to be good thinking and good writing.  Clifton Fadiman, a critic well known at the time, was not an academic but taught her by example to write clearly, honestly and without pretentious jargon.

I know what she is talking about.  In my childhood, listening to the conversations between my father, Henry M. Rosenthal (considered by his classmates at Columbia their one “genius”) and art historian Leo Bronstein, his best friend, was like having died and gone to heaven.  I could not think that growing up could show me anything better and, in a way, it never did.

The only barrier that stood between Heilbrun and the Life of the Mind was that it was represented to her as an exclusively male consortium.  Crudely lettered,   like a tree house club with a sign nailed at the base:

No Girls Allowed.

Although that restriction had been no part of my childhood, nor indeed through high school, my women’s college or the Fulbright year in Paris, it descended like an iron curtain over my years as a graduate student of philosophy.  At Columbia, where I received my masters with doctoral candidacy, the problem was not the unfunny jokes about women.  It was the careerist and second-hand feel of the place, which threatened to kill motivation at the root.   At the much less prestigious Penn State, to which I transferred, the atmosphere was original and intellectually alive, but salted with exclusivist maleness.  You got the Life of the Mind all right, but in a tree house Not for Girls.

Was I unusually sensitive?  Of the women who were grad students with me, one converted to Catholicism and entered a convent.  Another, of Russian origin, also became a nun, entering an order that practiced flagellation.  A third, married with children, was forced out by a schedule of courses that precluded her other duties.  What happened to me – no ordinary troubles I assure you — is told in Confessions of a Young Philosopher (forthcoming).

“That’s a hundred percent,” remarked a high school friend with whom I recently revisited my grad student days.

Yeah.  So I fully understand the dilemma Carolyn Heilbrun portrays in her memoir.  Of the three men who modeled for her the Life of the Mind, the most influential was Lionel Trilling.  She quotes him on how women were seen by people like himself.  Here’s how they looked in the 1920s:

  • The masculine mind, dulled by preoccupation, was to be joined and quickened by the Woman-principle, which drew its bright energies from ancient sources and sustained the hope of new things … — they were to be free, brilliant and, in their own way, powerful and, like men, they were to have destinies, yet at the same time they would be delightful, and they would be loved because they were women.

Personally, I don’t see a problem.  Seems to me they got it right the first time.

However, as Heilbrun quotes Trilling’s later view, Sigmund Freud entered the club house and changed all that.

  • The substance of this judgment is that women are hostile to men and carry their hostility to the point of being castrating

What a comedown!  The Freudian view was that to be a woman was to be a defective man.  The view was not confined to graduate school classrooms.  In her forthcoming memoir, The Politically Incorrect Feminist, the heroic Phyllis Chesler describes her battles to stop colleagues in psychiatry and psychology from enforcing this view by abetting and authorizing the confinement of nonconforming women to asylums.  There they might be coerced into sexual submission or service as housemaids to doctors who had the power to release them or else inflict electro-shock therapy or even lobotomies.

Behind the theoretical disparagement of women stood measures of punishment and control that are morally terrifying to contemplate.  Women did not discuss them but we were aware of them.

Such are the wounds that feminism came to bind up and heal.  So what, if anything, went wrong?  Well, very much went right.  It was a swift and immense social revolution that raced round the planet like a prairie fire and shed no blood.

Say what you will about the costs (and they were many and steep) women today are freer and happier than they were back then.  You can see the change in the documentaries about feminism.  The early combats were grim and the combatants solemn and desperate.

So what’s my problem?  After all, the feminist movement liberated women from their entire dependence on men for economic, social, professional and all-round human standing.  (I’m not suggesting that no problems remain on these scores, but the changes have been substantial.)  They changed the words if not the tune.

A woman without a man 

is like a fish without a bicycle.

Those were the new words to the old tune.  We don’t need men, feminists said.  Not for sex, not for intellectual or moral legitimation, not for support – material or emotional.

I remember meeting a friend for dinner who was a well-known and effective fighter for women’s health.  Her third marriage had ended even more disastrously than the first two.  I learned from her about the new feminist fashions: skirts studded all over with safety pins!

“Are you still looking for the right man?” I asked her.

She shook her head as if the answer was obvious. “Are you?”

“Yes.”

“If you find him, I’ll believe in God.”

*         *          *

I think of the women who were models for me in childhood: Renee, Betja and my mother.  Renee was a graceful Frenchwoman, an intuitively hospitable presence presiding over her Princeton home and garden at 1 Valley Road, with a slow, subliminal coquetry that never appeared other than natural and low key — but absolutely authoritative as a woman.  Betja was an eye surgeon, named Woman of the Year in New Jersey, who adored her collegial husband and her children, spoke English in the liquid accents of her native Russia (where as a schoolgirl she had to pray for the hemophilia of the future Tsar).  Betja was no less a woman in all the ancient senses than she was a surgeon.

And my mother?  A writer friend, who is now reading the forthcoming collection of Lionel Trilling’s letters, writes of being “especially mesmerized by Trilling’s devotion to, and even dependence on, Henry and Rachel Rosenthal’s intimate friendship.  Lionel’s letters are mainly to Henry but also to Rachel.”

She could read Dostoevsky in the Russian, Proust in the French and Thomas Mann in the German.  When we watched the Pope on television saying the mass over a sea of faces in Warsaw, I asked,

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism,” she said.

She was years ahead of the professional Sovietologists.  They hadn’t a clue.  Mother understood people.  When she was dying, she said to me,

“Don’t think you have the answers because you are intelligent.

It’s not enough to be intelligent.”

There is more to the liberation of women than we have seen so far.

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