Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Dante and Beatrice” Henry Holiday, 1883

Beatrice in Modern Gear

“Thou “who, to bring my soul to Paradise,

 Didst leave the imprint of thy steps in hell …”

So wrote Dante of Beatrice at the end of his Divine Comedy.

 The eternal feminine leads us above.”

So wrote Goethe at the conclusion of his Faust.

“Tu m’a rendu meilleurs —

ou moins mauvais.”

“You have made me a better man, or anyway less bad,” my first love affirmed, in a letter written many years after we had parted.

So dated! they say.  So yesterday! they say.  Such a trap for women! as they say.

In my Facebook home page, where I’m asked to give my favorite line in literature, I quote the last line of Kipling’s Kim, where the Tibetan lama believes he has redeemed the half-Indian, half-Irish youth who attached himself to the old monk.

“He smiled,

 the smile of one who has won salvation

for himself and his beloved.”

Of course, many a woman has tried to save a man to her own detriment and without succeeding.  There are excellent reasons to warn a girl against embracing such an ideal.

Is there anything at all to that idealized picture, for a woman?  Is it all simply a delusion, top to bottom?  If so, what does the real world look like — the solid reality that we should put in place of this chimera?

Of course, a fourteenth-century poet and politician like Dante and an eighteenth-century all-round genius like Goethe had to know, as we do, that such an ideal could be a woman’s undoing.  The difference is that, in our time, we are told that the idealization of woman is always a snare and a delusion.

Why?  Why are we told that?  Is the advice to treat idealizations as poppycock good advice?  Regardless of whether it is or is not the right thing to say in a particular case, why does everyone today think it is always the right advice?  Feminists think that.  Novelists think that.  Men of science think that.   Therapists think it.  Why so much consensus?  Why do they care so much — if some women want to idealize themselves — or some men want to see an occasional woman in that light?

Why the rush to disenchant?

Over breakfast this morning, Jerry and I, two philosophers, were talking about the difference in worldview between the Ancients and the Moderns.

For the Ancients, for instance Aristotle, the external world of matter and the inner world of human aspiration and fear, were the same world.  In this sense, Dante was an Ancient.  “Love,” Dante wrote, “moves the sun and the other stars.”  Ideally, he thought, physics and human purposes can work in harmony.

For the Moderns, consciousness and physics occupy completely different spheres: the inner world subjective but delusive, the outer world real but indifferent to our deepest hopes and fears.  What’s “real” for a modern person?  The random play of bits of matter and natural forces devoid of purpose.

In his major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, Sartre illustrates his concept of bad faith or inauthenticity by sketching a café scene where a man and woman are talking and the man puts his hand on hers.  The woman pretends to ignore his hand while continuing to discuss her ideals.  How inauthentic!

So what’s authentic?  The interplay of blind forces, when you get down to it? “Your place or mine?”

Something is wrong with our physics, our psychology, and the rest of it.

When my father was dying, he was also communicating with me, in a silent but emphatic inner speech.  It was not coming from me, and it had great authority.

Love is stronger than the laws of our physics.

 Love actually does

 move the sun and the other stars.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, Chivalry, Christianity, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, Courtship, 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, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Medieval, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, Mysticism, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Renaissance, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Delusions of Intellection

“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”
Honore Daumier, 1865-1867

Delusions of Intellection

 “People live and die by ideas!”

 “You are what you think – much more than what you eat!”

With encouraging words like these, I would try to persuade students in an intro course to see the study of philosophy as a help and benefit to themselves.  Many did, at least for a little while, I think.

What I believed then, and still think, is that philosophical study gives your thinking more scope and range.  You see alternatives.  The screen of your vision is wider.  You have more chance to understand a stranger by inquiring into how he or she thinks.

Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, where I taught, is a way station on the way to America.  My students were the children of immigrants or, in some cases, immigrants themselves.  It was a challenge – and enormous delight for me – to keep recasting a philosopher’s view, in the garb it would wear in Somalia, in India, in Texas, in Albania, in Russia, in Arabia.  The same thought from different vantage points!  And to see that philosopher’s thought come alive in the mind of that student!  We are not so far from each other as we look, provided we recognize that we each begin our lives rather differently.

For students to acquire this sense of shareable thought-worlds, and learn to move with relative ease between them, seemed to me a great benefit for them.

But there is a more troubling aspect to the fact that we each inhabit thought-worlds that define us in some degree.  We can wrap ourselves in delusive thoughts.  Intellectual delusions seem uncannily easy to fall into and astoundingly hard to get out of, once we’re inside one.

Just now, I’m reading a book called Prodigal Sons by Alexander Bloom.  It’s about the world of New York intellectuals, largely Jewish, formed in the 1930’s.  That’s as far as I’ve got, so I don’t know as yet, from the book, how they went on intellectually after the 1930’s.   Not all of them were Jewish, of course.  The young intellectuals included sons of established American families who had suddenly fallen on hard times in the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  The Jewish boys, sons of very poor immigrant parents, were of the generation excluded from ivy league colleges because of the tight quotas then barring Jews.  So they went to the city colleges, where the student population was in some cases almost 90% Jewish.

The boys were trying to figure out how to enter American society and how to fulfill their parents’ dreams for them.  It was the era when the Soviet Union promised to be the great experiment that would bring to all a just society, overcoming class inequality, giving birth to a world where, as Karl Marx (and later Antonio Gramsci) envisioned it, all people could be renaissance people.  The whole human race would be able to fish in the morning, farm in the afternoon and philosophize or paint in the evening!

Look, kids, each one of these skilled activities takes time, training, moxie and concentration of life energies.  Ask the working farmer, fisherman, philosopher or painter.  No one who has actually done these things for a living could imagine that objective as feasible.  That you could run an economy, much less organize the human species, on the basis of such an end-in-view, was a delusion.  Yet highly intelligent, well-educated, well-meaning young men and women managed to believe it.

Of course, it wasn’t just a case of belief.  In the circles of the believers, you could meet influential people who would publish your stuff in the New Masses.  Or in the Partisan Review, which you and your friends had just launched.  You could put your talents as a writer and dialectician into play!  Suddenly, you had a world!  America – the shining new world that had kept you out or let you down – was coming to you.  Heeding you.

When the Soviet Union finally fell in 1989, I recall one sign that a demonstrator was holding up in a Moscow street:

70 YEARS TO NOWHERE.

The “nowhere” was actually quite blood-drenched.  There is a thick collection of essays, one on each country in the world where the regime called itself by the name of communist, put together by French scholars.  The collection is titled The Black Book of Communism.  The estimate in the Black Book is between 60 and 100 million dead of unnatural causes.  That’s a whale of a lot of murders, boys and girls.  Bad karma.

It’s obviously not the only case of intellectual self-deception.  It happens to be the one that comes to mind as I read about the exciting ferment of life among the New York intellectuals of the 1930’s.

The real question is, why is it that we let ideas lead us “to nowhere”?  Sometimes we come under someone’s influence.  We meet a pied piper with an idea.  But at other times, it’s the idea itself that grips us, and then we find the pied piper to lead to nowhere under its shining banner.

Why? who are we? what are we? that we let ourselves be led in this way, pulled along by an idea that turns out visibly bad only later?

As may be surmised, I’ve done my share of believing things that turned out not to be true, or not as true as I believed them to be.  Ideas are like flashlights, lighting up the dark in front of us.  Or like guiderails, keeping our footing seemingly firm on the rocky escarpments we climb.   It’s hard to put down the flashlight or let go of the guardrail, before you have something else to see by, or to grip.

Even when we begin to sense the holes or gaps in the ideas we presently hold, we fear to let go at the risk of also losing

peer approval,

opportunities for advancement,

and a shared thought-world.

We fear standing alone to face the unknown.

On the other hand, wouldn’t life be dull if we knew in advance just what to think and if truth were handed to us,

on a silver platter,

risk free?

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Hegel, hegemony, Heroes, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Law, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, nineteenth-century, Oppression, Past and Future, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reductionism, relationships, Renaissance, Roles, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, 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, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Private Matters

“Le Touquet”
Henry Ossawa Tanner, circa 1910

Private Matters

The man I love has gone through harrowing surgery this week.  It was not one of the operations currently at the frontier of the surgical arts.  Once, it was.  Now it’s about at the middle.  Surgeons do it every day.  Yet, it’s not trivial.  The whole life system is put in brief storage, then reactivated on a firmer footing.

Never mind the raw details.  If the Good Lord had wanted me to relish those, He would have given me a very different sensibility.

We had less than one week between learning that it was necessary and going through with it.  And we had about four days to put everything we were engaged in, the projects of our two active lives, into storage.  Two kinds of storage had to be prepared:

(a) short term, till the recovery process would be
sufficiently achieved;

(b) “indefinitely,” if there was not going to be
 a recovery process.

So, come to think of it, there was a striking parallel between what was to be done to the body of the patient and what we were doing to the action fields of our lives:

storage,

either provisional or lasting.

If you think we weren’t scared, think again.  We each have a long list of very realistic reasons to believe that we can’t – without extreme diminishment – survive the loss of the other.

When I met Jerry, I wasn’t particularly keen to marry again.  Frankly, I was concerned about the possible sanding down of the crisp edges of my hard-wrought identity.  Hell, I’m a modern woman.  I’d be nuts not to be concerned.  I had a studio apartment on Manhattan’s upper east side for which I paid old rent; a job to kill for; an ambiance both familiar (having grown up there) and aesthetically rich, with nearby parks and museums I loved.  I had come to terms with the broken places in my personal history and looked forward to a life of meaningful work in a field, philosophy, to which I felt a profound commitment.

I married Jerry because I fell in love, in the literal sense of that image.  Once I realized what had happened to me, I tried to fall out of love.  It was like scrambling to get up from the depths of a well with steep, slippery sides — by trying to levitate!  The way down the well seemed natural and irreversible.  The way up could only have been managed artificially.

Something was happening to me on a scale bigger than the life I was managing on my own.  For me, philosophy is not a mental game.  Nor is it, primarily, a career or “profession.”  It’s the search for truth, from age to age.  To pretend that my love for Jerry was a contrivance for me to use at my convenience would be to falsify that love.  Since he felt the same, we had to work out the consequences together: to put “empirical legs under it,” as we said.  To find out what would germinate in that love, we had to live together and not hold back.  That’s called “marriage.”

What I “gave up” – as it looked to me then – were the identity-defining boundaries of my life: institutional supports from the college where I was a philosophy professor; interaction with students I loved; the city where people knew, or could sense, who I was and I didn’t have to explain why I was alone.

It could be that I call this the “Non-Advice Column” because I would never advise another woman to do what I did.  The risks were enormous and obvious.  Suppose we didn’t work out?  Suppose we were not enough for each other?

What happened was better than even I could have imagined.  From the plateau afforded by our love, I could see the broken puzzle pieces of my past begin to come together and to fit inside a larger picture,  with a larger frame.

Philosophical articles I had not been able to put together found their solution.  Projects so remote I scarcely dared to dream of them came into focus as work to be done.  I found the way to untangle morbid human entanglements that I would have thought must travel with me to the grave.

How to explain it?  How should I know?  One could say that, by now, I had become seasoned enough to understand what I was doing and knew that it would prove to be a good bet.  Yeah, but that doesn’t sound like me.  What I often say, laughingly, was that God got tired of looking down and seeing what happened when Abigail relied on her own terrible judgment, and so decided to lean down and take a hand.

So, when I say that we were preparing to put on hold the life we had risked everything to find – you can see how puzzling and terrifying it was.

As of tonight, Jerry is deemed to have come through the surgery successfully and to be on the rocky, upward road of recovery.  It’s been a difficult process.  More than most people I know, Jerry has the gift of acceptance, of the situation he’s in.  Still, he has another gift: truthfulness.  He doesn’t deny to himself the fact that this is quite a painful ordeal.

It’s a mantra of the present age that we each die alone and are alone for the most telling confrontations of our lives.  There’s something to this.  No matter how squishy our relativism, deep down we know where the account books of our lives are kept.  We either have a record we can stand on, or not.

But this week, I have been struck by the presence of friends who sensed intuitively how big and dark was the abyss we were looking at.

Their friendship encircled us —

here –

 right where we stood.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, novels, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Persecution and the Art of Writing

 

Detail of “Voltaire in His Study”

Persecution and the Art of Writing

That’s the catchy title of a book published in the 1950’s by a man named Leo Strauss – initially derided, later enormously influential.  Outside philosophy and political theory, Strauss’s name is not generally known.

Briefly, he claimed that many of the most esteemed philosophers wrote in code.  They wrote on two levels: a popular level for the naive reader and a higher level, encoded for initiates who could see through the surface to the text’s hidden teachings.

Why was Strauss’s claim derided at first?  Why did it eventually gather followers and a wide swathe of influence?

Since I just finished reading Persecution and the Art of Writing, the book where Strauss’s thesis was first promulgated, the cause of the derision seems clear enough.  Strauss wrote in a liberal era when the idea of philosophers keeping their true views secret seemed completely foreign.

Why should truth-seekers hide their findings?  It sounded like a Conspiracy Theory without conspirators, a drama without Dramatis Personae, a tempest in an émigré philosopher’s teapot.

Today however, when writers I know are proceeding with extreme caution, when a misplaced pronoun can get one denounced for Thought Crimes, Strauss’s idea looks less far-fetched.  It seems a bit more like the human norm.

I’m very much for straight shooting.  In fact, I could almost say that the aim of a human life is to become the kind of person who says what she means and means what she says.

But think of the opening days of a courtship.  What is one really thinking?  How much of that is one saying?

I remember the retort of an undergraduate, a young woman to whom I was giving a tutorial on Plato’s Republic.  Plato was the first philosophic feminist who was realistic about the problems of such a policy.  Realizing that coquetry and desire to please kept most women out of the business of truth-speaking, he postulated an “ideal” solution: let the state manage courtship!  The state has an interest, since courtship produces babies who are the future citizens.  In the “ideal” case, the state will decide which men and women should be paired together for reproductive purposes.  Let’s make erotic life rational!  That’ll be perfect, right?

My student, a young Palestinian whose parents were pressing her to drop out of college and marry a husband of their choosing, said this:

“What is the selected woman supposed to say to the selected man, when they are put by themselves in a room together?”  She stuck out her right hand, as if to shake hands frankly with a colleague.  “Hello, I’m Sally?”

Obviously, that’s not how you stage a courtship.  We can generalize this point.  There are things you do not say until it’s time to say them.

Elsewhere, Plato gives his own guidelines for the training of young philosophers.  The teacher should closely watch the student to see if and when he or she is ready for the next higher stage of dialectic.  If the student knows when and with whom to speak, and when and with whom to be silent, that student is ready to go up higher!

Does this mean that real life is a tricky business, where one can say the right thing to the wrong person or the wrong thing to the person you mistook for the right person?  Does it mean that it takes a lot of time, trial and error, before you learn who is who and which is which?

Yes.

 

Posted in Action, Art, Art of Living, books, Contradictions, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Feminism, history of ideas, Literature, Love, Philosophy, Political, politics, politics of ideas, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, relationships, Roles, Romantic Love, social construction, Social Conventions, status, status of women, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Walking Into The Fire: The Politically Incorrect Phyllis Chesler

Walking Into The Fire: The Politically Incorrect Phyllis Chesler

Do men and women now treat each other better than they once did? The feminist revolution peeled off the conventions that used to govern relations between the sexes. Yet man-woman relations seem never to have been in worse shape, the exaggerations from the #MeToo movement matched by the vileness of powerful men who’ve targeted vulnerable women.

A New York firefighter once told me that his training required walking into the fire, since it’s easier fought from inside. Walking into the fire is exactly what Phyllis Chesler does in her new memoir, “A Politically Incorrect Feminist: Creating a Movement with Bitches, Dykes, Prodigies and Wonder Women.”

We see Chesler walking full-face into the hottest sectors of the movement she helped inaugurate. What was happening in the red-hot center? She takes us there, like a confiding friend, free of pretense or any fear that you could possibly misunderstand.  Without claiming to do so, she’s put together a priceless historical record of the American feminist movement in its Second Wave.

Celebrated for her pioneering work, “Women and Madness,” she knew, and fought closely alongside, everybody: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Catherine McKinnon, Robin Morgan, Barbara Seaman, Andrea Dworkin — and that’s just for openers.

“A Politically Incorrect Feminist” reminds us why an advocacy movement for women was needed:

“[At] the psychoanalytic institute where I trained in the late 1960s and early 1970s … we were taught to view the normal female (and human) response to sexual violence, including incest, as a psychiatric illness.  We were taught to blame women as seductive or sick. … Women were hysterics, malingerers, childlike, manipulative, either cold or smothering as mothers, and driven to excess by their hormones.”

Even male serial predators were blamed on “the mothers, not the fathers, for having sent them over the edge.”

Although Chesler, who is the professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies Emerita at the City University of New York, holds the unfashionable view that madness is real — not a mere social construct —  she saw nonconformity misdiagnosed as mental illness and the diagnosis used to enforce her profession’s distorted view of women.

It was this coercion in medical guise that led her, in 1969, to co-found the Association for Women in Psychology. In a precedent-breaking speech at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, she detailed the ways her profession had failed to help women and “in fact further abused them. … The crowd,” she writes, “went crazy.”

No doubt her hyperbolic demand for a million dollars in reparations, “for the purpose of establishing an alternative to a psychiatric asylum,” did nothing to calm the crowd. Undaunted, Chesler went on to write “Women and Madness,” her book about systemic malpractice in her profession — and to enjoy but also suffer — the international fame it brought her.

She got thousands of letters and calls. The writers were not protesters of any kind. They were just women living the ordinary lives of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. They told of vain efforts to defend their own children from sexually abusive fathers.

Letters came from wives threatened with psychiatric confinement if they tried to divorce brutal husbands or get custody of endangered children. If they attempted to flee with their children, they could wind up in prison.

Within psychiatric asylums, women were actually put to work as housemaids for their psychiatrists’ wives! To gain release, they had to mime the docile behaviors deemed “normal” in those days. Some were coerced into concubinage by malpracticing doctors who could free them at will — or subject them to electro-shock therapy or even lobotomy — also at will.

Chesler’s report is morally terrifying.

Yet the movement to liberate women had its own dark side, and Chesler does not try to hide it. In the name of solidarity and anti-elitism, feminists were pressured to publish anonymously: “I learned early on that no one — neither the misogynists nor the allegedly revolutionary feminists — wanted women to be known for accomplishing something.  For different reasons, both groups wanted women — or at least women of ideas — to be obliterated.”

When feminists finally got enough power to become opinion-shapers themselves, some were quite capable of using their position to “eliminate other feminists by discrediting and shunning them and by disappearing their work in the eyes of the media, in the histories the victors wrote, and in the films they produced or for which they served as consultants.”

Vivid illustrations are provided and names are not withheld. There was also plagiarism, “justified” because creative work should belong to the movement, not to its creators. Prominent male predators were excused for opportunistic reasons. Some of her examples have reached public consciousness in recent months. One affected Chesler herself, and she tells the full story in her book.

Feminism was many things to many people. It had a spiritual dimension, in which Chesler — the child of an Orthodox Jewish home — played her own part. Movingly, she tells what it was like to be one of the “Women of the Wall,” in their campaign to allow women to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the sacred site now under the control of ultra-Orthodox exclusivists.

Showing us the darks and lights of feminism, Chesler’s is also a loving voice. She ends her story with valedictory obits, of one departed comrade-in-arms after another. There, only the good is remembered.

Perhaps one day — from some yet-to-be-discovered future standpoint — we will have enough distance to look back on the feminist movement, with all its darks and lights, and we too will remember only the good!

This review originally appeared at The Daily Caller, August 14, 2018. 

Posted in books, Cultural Politics, Culture, Femininity, Feminism, Gender Balance, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, status of women, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, Writing, Zeitgeist | 2 Comments

Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Studio Interior with ‘The Steeplechase’
Edgar Degas, 1881

Nudnikerie: My Album of Antisemites

Nudnik: “A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit the status of nudnik, a nuisance must be the most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.”  The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten.

As for “Nudnikerie,” the coinage is mine.  I hope and trust it will pass into general usage.

Conceivably, readers might be hoping that they won’t be reading any more columns about antisemitism.  Maybe they won’t because the world suddenly cures itself of its Oldest Hatred problem.  Or because Abigail died and came back Swedish (a hope she sometimes expresses).

Sorry. As it happens, I’m currently going through an immense manuscript on the subject of antisemitism, written by a first-rate British philosopher.  I’m not reading it for fun.  It’s been sent me as a referee.  I’m one of those peers who are asked to contribute what is called “peer review.”

As I read, certain scenes pass quite naturally before my mind.  Darkened corners of memory are lit up.  I relive my own encounters with real-life antisemites.  They didn’t try to kill me, so I use “nudnik,” which is a comical term.  The scenes are painful nonetheless, because, in many cases, I am remembering people I knew well and liked or loved, before they assumed that character.

Antisemitism is wrongly defined as a rejection of The Other.  In some cases, the remembered individuals and I had been close for years, shared personal stories and faced the storms of life together, as friends do.  In such cases, the change in outlook toward me was heralded by changed attitudes toward themselves.  Here are three stories from the Album.

One friend was a German woman.  She had come to this country as a G.I. bride, but was divorced with kids when I knew her.  If she hadn’t changed in that particular way, she’s a woman I might have included in that charmed number of European women in midlife whom I sometimes cite as possessing — in their very being and carriage, in their way of setting a cup of tea, or moving with slow grace from one room to another – a whole encyclopedia of womanly arts.  When we got a chance to sit down over tea, we would talk in the way women sometimes can, with nothing held back.

So what happened?  Well, I’m not sure.  All I do know for a fact is that she read the chapters on the Holocaust in the first edition of A Good Look at Evil.  It includes a discussion of German complicity.

Everything functioned as if this was indeed, as it was self-styled at the time, an act of the national will….  Orders did not have to be given.  Far-reaching interpretations and creative implementations welled up from every stratum of national life.

I didn’t write that out of bigotry.  It was based on my reading of the evidence.  But I can understand why, if it appeared to misrepresent her family or personal circle, she would feel affronted.  She’d been an athletic teenager when Hitler was in power.  She probably won swimming contests where you had to say “Heil Hitler.”

However, that doesn’t explain why she started reading books like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, citing it to me as a reliable source.  When I saw it on her table, I picked it up and said to her,

“That’s Hitler’s bedtime reading!  It’s like reading pornography!  Would you have pornography in the house with your children?”

Perhaps, as a local friend has suggested, it was a kind of breakdown, or early onset of dementia — as a delayed reaction to war-time trauma.

That might be.  The human soul is mysterious.  The only thing I can cite was a cumulative, darkening pessimism in her that had begun to worry me as it accelerated in the years preceding her transformation.

In another case, the man had been a friend of my husband’s since graduate school.  As it happens, he was a priest.  There was also some reason to think that he’d made a wrong career choice way back when.

Anyway, when Jerry and I married, one of the changes that Jerry experienced was the profound religious turn described in his book, God: An Autobiography, as told to a philosopher.   Before that, Jerry had held a high-minded naturalistic worldview: what you see is what you get, but you should try to live up to a high standard all the same.  Once his outlook was so dramatically expanded, Jerry, as a newcomer to the world of religious experience, confided in his old friend the priest.  Who turned out to have little to offer, aside from detached comments and deflection.

It may be that Jerry’s spiritual encounter reminded his friend that he was in the wrong business.  He’d never had a vocation for the priesthood.  If he wanted to break with Jerry to avoid the discomforts of this realization, what better way than to pick a quarrel with Jerry’s wife?

One afternoon, the three of us met at a nice restaurant for what Jerry and I expected would be a convivial lunch.  Instead of a natural flow of conversation, the friend force-marched it to the topic of Israel and insisted I respond to a loaded question from him.  My reluctant words triggered his interrupting to lay it down that, on these matters (which he had brought up) he “couldn’t talk to an American Jew!”

Now the word “Jew,” flung in one’s face as a one-syllable epithet, is meant to be insulting.

In three ways, ladies:

(1) A man talking to a woman ought to acknowledge her as a woman.  To erase the sex difference in that way is ungallant and therefore threatening.  (Sorry if this is not the current view.  The current view does not help women protect themselves or recognize when a social protection has been removed.)

(2) I didn’t hold whatever view I expressed because I was “an American Jew.”  I held it because I thought it was true.  The ad hominem attack demeaned me in a second way: as a thinking being.

(3) To autocratically terminate the discussion you yourself began is to violate collegiality, friendship and civility.

What do I really think was going on?  Jerry’s friend did not care to face the possibility that he had chosen the wrong path for his life.  His sudden antisemitism was a distraction, sadly provided by the current culture and therefore ready-to-hand.  It had the purpose of aiding his project of evasion and self-deception.  Hey, good luck with that!

My third case was a group phenomenon, which I have written about before in these pages.  It concerns the group of let-us-say peaceniks who, for some years, disfigured the central square in our town by meeting there once a week for two hours, rain and shine, to hold up placards denouncing Israel as deserving of more scorn and vilification than any other country on this planet.

I considered them a menace to the social – and possibly physical – safety of their Jewish neighbors in the town, who include me.   I had pressed our then rabbi to undertake a succession of initiatives whose aim was to persuade them to cease and desist their Nudnikerie.  Nothing worked.

WHY WHY WHY? I complained to Christian friends.  I’ve tried everything I can think of.  All that’s happened is that I’m the one who’s lost standing.  And they are still feeling like the good guys, while they hold up signs in the middle of the town square that express the latest update on the Oldest Hatred.

One of these Christian friends had a suggestion.  Why not meet at an outdoor café adjacent to the town square, Jerry and me and two sympathetic Christian women friends, to pray and discuss our own religious experiences, within sight of the Vigilantes, but not trying to engage them?

So we did that.  We had a nice, confiding discussion though it didn’t seem to have any effect on the Nudniks.  We were about to fold it up when I had the sudden impulse to join hands in a circle and address some quiet but audible words to God:

Lord, I’ve tried everything I know to touch their minds and open their hearts.  Nothing’s worked.  Could You please show them what they need to see and know? Could You show them how to stop menacing their neighbors?

When I looked up again — so help me! — they had disappeared.  I guess they’d concluded their Vigil and just closed it up, but gee – so quickly!  And so help me, whether because I stopped driving by the town square at the Vigil hour, or because eventually they shut it down –

I never saw them again.

 

Posted in Absurdism, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Biblical God, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Institutional Power, Jews, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Love, Martyrdom, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, non-violence, Oppression, pacifism, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political, Political Movements, politics, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, 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, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Homage to Milbridge

Homage to Milbridge

Last week, Jerry and I spent two whole days in Milbridge, Maine, bookended by travel days of which (the return trip) the less said the better.

About the state of Maine, I smile when, looking down, I can see Maine from the plane as it descends to the Bangor airport.  Milbridge has a special resonance with my whole soul and body.

Why do I feel that way?  It’s a real feeling, not an imagined one.  Let me go over its layers, the mille feuilles of the feeling.

First, my parents purchased the house in Milbridge, with its view of Narraguagus Bay, at a long-ago time when I was in what you might call a dismantled state, far away in a fishing village on the Portuguese coast.  My mother said:

“Someday, Abigail will be herself again and she will want a place to come to.”

This indeed came to pass, as did many of my mother’s visions of life-in-the-long-term.  It was not precognition, I think.  It was her loving, intuitive sense of the directionality of a life.  In the years when my parents were alive, I would come to recognize the house as a summer place of refuge and renewal for me.

When the complete cast of characters that made up our world in Milbridge was alive and well, it was a landscape of gaiety and country adventures: outdoor games, picnics, trips to the State Fair and Maine rodeos (in which friends competed), cantering through the grassy fields, sailing, canoeing and shared town events.  The triumphs of life and the fun.

The trials as well.  The last illnesses of my parents unfolded there and my father died in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth.  After my first marriage ended in divorce, a local sage reassured me:

“There’s lots more fish in the sea,” possibly thinking that it was time I looked over some of the local mariners.

It was in Milbridge that the long-distance call came from New York that my seven-year job fight had been won.  I went promptly to tell old friends Frank and Ada Graham and do some cartwheels on their lawn.

After the deaths of both parents, I was pretty much alone, without mother, father, husband, child or sheltering siblings. There was a person, then in my life, who spread defamatory fictions about me in the circle of my New York City friends – and was believed! – by people who personally knew no evil of me.  It led me to discover one of Abigail’s Adages: “Slander is always believed.”

Not in Milbridge.

There people know you in the round.  If you want to do something you don’t want the whole town to know, don’t do it in Milbridge.  By the same token, if you want to make up a damaging story about someone of whom the town knows no evil:

Don’t do it in Milbridge.

After my job was secure, I could turn to getting my father’s posthumous philosophic manuscript published.  Once the book had appeared to favorable reviews, I felt that the house was no longer the sole visible evidence of my parents’ presence in the world.  Since the house and its obligations also tied me to my ill-wisher, I felt the time had finally come to sell the house.

As I began to gather the needed proofs of ownership, some unforeseen problems surfaced.  My parents had been pretty smart people but, when it came to buying a rural property, they were babes in the woods.  My father had bought the shore strip for $500 from a neighbor — who didn’t own it!  There was also a right-of-way that we didn’t own.  So the rectangular half-acre of land continuing on the other side of the road and abutting the Bay that they thought they owned was actually a triangle that stopped short of the road on the near side.  A property of that size and shape is unsaleable.

I learned that the right-of-way was owned by a man of about 99 years of age who had myriad descendants.  If I couldn’t get him to sign off on the sale, I’d be spending the rest of my days tracking down his heirs.  But who knew how to find him?  The shore strip turned out to be the property of a couple who lived in Massachusetts.  They too would not be easy to find, much less do business with.

Enter Shirley Kennedy, a local friend and champion barrel racer.  Shirley knew the who, the when, and the whereabouts of everybody in the locality.  Leading the way on horseback, she tracked them all down: the aging shore strip couple from Massachusetts and the old man with the right-of-way.  If you can picture the scene, it sure didn’t hurt that we were on horseback when we found them.

These days, our house has become unrecognizable to me.  It was purchased by two southern ladies who’ve filled it out with stepped gardens, patriotic bunting draped over the porch, and the porch itself reconfigured to appear more mansion-like and imposing than it ever looked in our day.  I stop by the house when we’re in town, to peer at it, trying to see if I can recognize one molecule of how it was when it was ours.  Nope. Not even a ghost of it is ours now.  It’s all theirs — but I’m always relieved to see it well taken care of with its new air of splendid permanence.

There are other ghosts, as the tally of people I still know thins out.  After my parents died, when I first drove up from New York to uncrate their things, now shipped from their vacated New York apartment to the house on Bayview Street, I worried how it would be, getting all their forwarded possessions set to rights, working alone in the now-uninhabited house.  Would it feel scary?  No, I said to friends.  It wasn’t as I’d feared.  It wasn’t bad.  Instead, I reported:

The silences are friendly.

Posted in Action, Afterlife, Art, Art of Living, beauty, Childhood, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Faith, Femininity, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, Guilt and Innocence, Heroes, hidden God, Ideality, Identity, Immorality, Immortality, Law, Legal Responsibility, Love, Memoir, memory, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, Mortality, nineteenth-century, Ontology, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, relationships, Religion, Roles, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status of women, 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