Apologies to Kierkegaard

“Young Couple”
Angelo Morbelli, 1905

Apologies to Kierkegaard

In a previous post or two of “Dear Abbie,” I found myself sharply critical – denunciatory even – of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). He is the Danish philosopher/theologian who is still studied by serious people today, both inside and outside classrooms. I denounced him for having used his considerable talent, his genius really, to capture the heart, mind and soul of a girl to whom he first proposed marriage and jilted not long after.

My objection was not to his getting cold feet about marriage. Hell, that’s how a lot of us felt just before we tied the knot. To a sensitive loner, trying to keep his precariously assembled molecules together, that can happen.

What I castigated was his acting toward her so that she could never be free of him. If a guy’s gonna let you down, the least he can do is get out of your way after that. If he takes himself out of the picture, you can at least visualize a future for yourself without his silhouette cluttering the horizon as far as eye can see.

That said, I’ve long considered Kierkegaard a serious thinker who tried to be truthful, not merely clever. My conscience was uneasy after these posts about him. Since I don’t think we die when bodily life ends, I also wondered what Kierkegaard thought of my columns. And Regine Olsen, the woman he jilted but never ceased to love, what did she think? (Women don’t usually appreciate it when you criticize their guy, no matter how much of a rotter he’s been.) I didn’t know how he or she would feel, but sensed I might be running in the red with them.

I try not to do that with dead people. Death does not, to my mind, obscure the view of what we have done or what we still mean to each other. An Australian anthropologist once told me that he no longer writes anything about a South Sea tribe that he wouldn’t want its younger members to read in their grad school anthropology courses. There are no far away places any more. If you can’t say it to their faces, don’t say it.

Thus bestirred, I read a long biography of Regine Olsen, the girl Kierkegaard loved, jilted, and – in his view – took with him “into history.” Then I read a still-more-definitive biography of SK. (She left very little paper evidence. He kept every scrap.) On the strength of this further study, I’ve come to a rather different opinion. I withdraw my previous condemnations, with apologies.

SK came to young manhood in a Protestant culture where human life was practically defined as sinful. His mother, a former housemaid, was pregnant when his father, a respectable merchant, married her and thereby saved her from the downfall he had brought on her. This same guilty father had once been a poor boy tending sheep on the cold moors of Jutland. In his solitary misery, the boy had cursed God. To this original sin of the family founder, the whole family attributed the early deaths of five of his seven children. Only one of Kierkegaard’s siblings survived what they all believed was the family curse.

It was an age when girls of respectable families were unavailable to young men. There was no “dating.” Masturbation was viewed as an offense against God. Even one visit to a prostitute could bring death from syphilis, and the fear of it could haunt the man who had incurred the risk for the rest of his life. In this tormenting atmosphere, Kierkegaard passed his first youth and got his higher degrees.

How can a young man, finding himself ardently in love, want to inflict these deep and morbid psychic tangles on a healthy-minded girl? Now add the genius that SK must have recognized in himself. Wouldn’t he feel a primary obligation to protect his gift from the embarrassments of a tortured intimacy? He said later, “Had I had more faith, I would have married Regine.” But he didn’t have more faith!

It was part of his truthfulness, his spiritual sincerity, not to forget or trivialize Regine’s imprint. True, by continuing to idealize her in his published work, he imprisoned her in his public framing of what they had meant to each other.

Although she was a girl, later a woman, of active spirit and mind – she had nothing like his gift. She made a good wife to the decent man she eventually married, but there was a part of her that, understandably, she kept in reserve. When Kierkegaard was long dead, and her husband gone too, slowly, by stages, as her memory faltered, she came to think of Kierkegaard as her real – as we say today – significant other. With her last energies, she answered questions about him asked by later researchers, and made sure that SK’s works were suitably archived.

I now think they both did the best they could in this imperfect world. On reflection, I am more inclined to honor the ardor for one another that was kept in the secret heart of each.

Is lifelong ardor so common a thing?

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Ridicule

“Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the dead mule” 1867
Honore Daumier

Ridicule

It seems almost an age since the Republican Primary Debates, but there is an aspect of that contest that still comes to my mind. Part of Donald Trump’s victory was due to his success in ridiculing his opponents.

He became the twelve-year-old we hated in grade school. Senator Marco Rubio, who is not a tall man, became “little Marco.” Governor Jeb Bush, who has a quiet demeanor, became “low energy Jeb Bush.” Carly Fiorina, who is not conventionally pretty, was ridiculed for her face. (Alone of these targets, she managed to turn the barbs to her advantage. She’s probably been fending off that kind of mockery since kindergarten.) But the others, the men, were surprised to be attacked on this level and could not recover.

By the way, if you could recover, please tell me how you could. When I was mocked, particularly when I entered the field of philosophy — for being a woman or, in after years, a single woman — I just got mocked. End of story.

Remember Soren Kierkegaard? In earlier posts, we talked about him in his peculiar relation to a woman he both idealized and jilted. He’s an important philosopher, doubtless Denmark’s greatest, but I was reliably informed that, to this day, Danish mothers will not name their sons “Soren” because the name still smells of the scorching ridicule that Kierkegaard suffered during his lifetime.

Like many boys who aren’t big hulking athletes, the young Kierkegaard developed an ironical style that he trusted to defend him against boys who were bigger but less gifted.

Approaching mid-life, SK was widely acknowledged to be the most talented writer and thinker in Denmark. When he took his daily walks in Copenhagen, making mental note of his fellow city dwellers with a portraitist’s eye, he was genially recognized wherever he went. It was an honor to stroll with him, or to engage him in a moment’s conversation, or just to exchange courteous greetings.

What changed all that? Kierkegaard made the mistake of entering into a dual of wits with Peder Ludvig Moller, editor of The Corsair, a satirical magazine. With words and drawings, Moller proceeded to caricature SK’s uneven gait, the cut of his trousers, the curvature of his spine and bent posture, and the possible connection between his unlived sex life and his talent.

Children began to hoot when he passed them in the street. His tailor asked him to get another tailor. Undergraduates gave the name of “Soren” to the lead character in an irreverent play that had a run as far off as Norway and was staged before the King. In a formal age, when titles were honored and academic distinction conferred especial authority, graduate students addressed him in the street by his first name.

The thing he hadn’t counted on, when he assumed he could outdo Peder Ludvig Moller of The Corsair in a battle of wits, was that Moller could beat him – and beat him down to the ground – in malice!

The tribe of Jehudah, popularly known as the Jews, were (along with Benjamin) the surviving tribe from the original twelve tribes of Israel. The other ten tribes were lost after the Assyrians overran the Northern Kingdom. For some reason (explain it how you will) the Jews survived, even though they were invaded by the Babylonians and conquered in their turn.   The Jews then went to the enormous and perilous trouble of collecting, editing and collating the records of their interesting adventures with God. The Bible is that very record, of course.   The stories in the Bible include incidents where God intervenes to save the people of the twelve tribes, with whom He has a particular agreement or contract.

The Bible includes stories like the parting of the Red Sea. This divine intervention allowed the fleeing Israelites to escape their Egyptian taskmasters, whose chariots and charioteers were drowned in the waters that closed over the former slave owners when they tried to continue their pursuit.

We omit a number of vicissitudes through which the Jewish people passed in the ensuing millennia. One of their breakaway sects became a separate religion, Christianity. Christianity beat Judaism in the race to win over the powers of the day. It then dominated the thinking both of the greatest intellects and of the common people in the Western World down to the modern era. Which brings me to an incident I read about (sorry, can’t remember the source), during perhaps the twelfth or thirteenth century, when Christendom was at the height of its power and prestige.

As is humanly understandable, Christians took their then dominant position to be a sign of God’s favor. They also took the humiliation of any group of Jews they could lay hands on as proof that “the Jews” had lost God’s favor.

It happened one dark day that an unlucky contingent of Jews was taken by force to an offshore island that was known to submerge when the tide came in. The point of drowning these Jews was to underscore the claim that God’s favor had passed to the Christians. The persecutors stood on the shore, showing their grasp of the Jesus message by yelling this taunt: “Why don’t you ask your God to part the waters!”

When your mouth is filling up with sea water, there isn’t too much you can say about the Jewish assignment to continue as a witness and metric of God’s presence in the world.

My mind goes to a gospel song about Noah in the Ark and Daniel in the lion’s den. There is a question noticed in the song: Why would anybody choose to get into such a fix – one that needs (but does not always get) a rescue from above? The chorus explains it:

I’d rather be on the inside lookin’ out

Than to be on the outside lookin’ in.

 

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Frustrations and Epiphanies

Frustrations and Epiphanies

Our quiet town, with its Victorian houses (many of them kept in good repair by the law firms that have taken them over), its charming signs of civic care and pride, has for some years also been the scene of a performance that I for one find deeply frustrating and troubling.

Every Tuesday, between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., the main square in town is occupied by men and women holding up large placards that read, in big letters, “Justice for Palestine,” “No to Apartheid” and “No to War.”

The implicit claim here, that Israel practices Apartheid, is a false claim. The “wars” that the placarders oppose are not the ones that have been fought against Israel from its inception to the present. The “injustice” they reproach is not the embezzlement of millions from foreign aid by the Palestinian leadership. Nor is it the indoctrination of little Palestinian children to grow up to be suicide bombers. And it’s certainly not the P.A.’s refusal of a succession of two-state solution peace proposals that Israel has made at high risk to its very survival.

The implications are pretty obvious. In the competition for Biggest, Baddest Actor on the Planet, none save Israel warrants the sacrifices that the placarders have made. They are out there rain or shine, summer and winter. It’s single-minded devotion.

Of course nobody nowadays is anti-semitic. Everybody has at least one Jewish best friend. The motivation is the purest idealism. Nothing anti-Jewish to see here.

Suppose we take our placarders exactly at their word. It is still the case that anti-Judaism is the oldest continuously-playing hatred in recorded history. It’s not that nobody else has been exterminated in the last 40,000 years of homo sapiens sapiens. But Jews refuse to stay dead. So the hatred goes on and on. Nobody imagines that this hatred began in 1948 with the declaration of an independent Jewish state, or that – were Israel to be destroyed as its enemies hope – anti-Judaism would die with it. So there is some moral risk attached to singling out the Jewish state for unequal condemnations.

Where’s the moral risk? Well, a passerby might think that the trespasses of Israel must be worse than the destruction of the Bahai in Iran, of the Laogai in China, of 500,000 civilians in Syria, of the ancient Christian populations of the Middle East, of the Yazidi people … and worse than Hamas’s call in its charter for extermination of all Jews and – need I go on? So the passerby who wants to make sure that the Jews don’t get away with being more awful than all the world’s trespassers combined could be stirred to vandalism or violence.

Anti-semitism is contagious. In 2015, when I first noticed our town’s placarders, I became alarmed. “We must do something!” I urged our then rabbi. “Every day they are there with impunity, right in the town square, increases the toxic effect and its dangers!” Our good rabbi allowed me to be persuasive and we did hold a well-attended public Debate. Israel’s defense was taken up by the Israeli Consul in Philadelphia along with our rabbi. The other side was upheld by two representatives of the local Peace Center.

In the aftermath, I felt deeply relieved. The pro-Israel speakers acquitted themselves admirably, our congregants were well-informed, sturdy and played their parts well. I was sure that our peace-loving friends would see that a strong case could be made in Israel’s defense and – out of fairness – would lay down their one-sided placards.

To my horror, the picketing of the Jewish state continued, quite as if the public Debate had never happened.

What else could we try? Maybe they needed more direct contact with us, so that we could explain face-to-face the impact they were having on their Jewish neighbors? After strenuous efforts, a Dialogue was begun, moderated by a very nice lady from the Peace Center who had professional training in Conflict Resolution. Under the rules she set, participants could give voice to their feelings but must avoid judgments of fact or value. Falsehoods could not be challenged directly. Also, the Dialogues were to be kept confidential.

Meanwhile, the misjudgments of fact and value were still paraded weekly in the town square. I implored the placarders to lay down their signs – at least for the duration of the Dialogues. Smilingly they shook their heads. I was quite an “interesting woman,” one commented.

To keep the steam from coming out of the top of my head, I wrote a column or two about it in “Dear Abbie”. I kept names out of it, but did illustrate the problem, citing an exchange or two between me and a participant. My columns came to the attention of the placarders who judged them an unacceptable breach of confidentiality, and they broke off the Dialogues indignantly.

Okay. I wrecked it, our beautiful Dialogues. What can I tell you?

The picketing continued for a time, more defamatory than ever, but eventually it tapered off. Had other causes become more fashionable? No matter. The toxic waves of public bullying were no longer seeping over our town.

What a relief! Oh, no, wait a minute, not so fast.

They’re BA-A-A-ACK!

The placarders have restarted their weekly “vigils.” Jerry has advised me not to drive by them since they seem to get new energy from the appalled expression on my face. Okay. So I drive on the other street.

But meanwhile this hatred-in-the-name-of-peace-and-love goes forward unopposed. It’s not taking place in a vacuum either. Jewish students and faculty are harassed and intimidated as never before, particularly by “Students for Justice in Palestine,” who were actually trained at summer workshops by the American Friends Service Committee! The most recent FBI statistics show Jews as more frequent victims of hate crimes than any other group. There is no one more French than a French Jew, but the Jews of France are actually fleeing that country in the tens of thousands. In England, even Prince Charles has expressed alarm over the rise in anti-semitism and I am reliably informed that Jews are tending to beg off from dinner invitations, so open and unashamed has social anti-semitism become in England nowadays.

The other night, Jerry and I had dinner with a former U.S. Senator, a man of vast experience, good will and charm. I asked his advice about this problem in our town. He said his grandfather had told him, “If you have an enemy, make friends with him.” In other words, start with the personal relation.

I thought about it. Should I invite the placarders for coffee at 7:00 p.m., after their Tuesday night “vigil”? Is friendship the remedy? But I have had good and dear friends, who knew me well and loved me sincerely, turn anti-semite. It didn’t come from something they read. It was an inner turning.

I thought of Kasim Hafeez, the ex-terrorist who spoke at our temple on April 1st. What had turned him? Alan Dershowitz’s Case for Israel led him to travel to Israel for the purpose of disproving the arguments in that book. By itself, it didn’t change his terrorist purpose. What changed him then?

Standing before the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, he saw what others were doing and did the same. Pressing his forehead against the stones, it came to him: Israel is besieged! It’s in danger, surrounded by haters who hope to destroy it! The numbers ranged against it are enormous. It acts in self-defense, to prevent the mass extermination that would happen inevitably otherwise.

In the only other case I know of, where there was the same kind of 180 degree turn, the realization was identical. What’s striking is that in neither case did information become available that wasn’t well-known and obvious before the “realization.” The realization wasn’t the conclusion of a reasoning process. Rather, it was a “discovery” of the obvious.

It was a turning of the spirit.

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A Funny Thing Happened to Philosophy (on its way to the deepest depths)

Martin Heidegger, 1924
Archiv Messkirch

A Funny Thing Happened to Philosophy (on its way to the deepest depths)

Recent projects of work have put me back in contact with a strange business in which philosophy had a strange part to play.

In the 1920’s, as you may know, a young German professor of philosophy named Martin Heidegger began lecturing at the University of Marburg. He outshone rival philosophers who seemed still stuck in outmoded worldviews. World War One had been a vast bloodbath. For Germany it ended with defeat in battle, treaties with the victors on unfavorable terms, and ruinous inflation that led to the fall of the German mark. Since the currency is the earnest of trust between citizens for the purposes of buying and selling anything, its fall signaled the collapse of trust.

Heidegger’s lectures were spellbinding. Most philosophy teachers convey their subject in terms of the past, the history of philosophy – distant or recent. Heidegger, by contrast, embodied the process of thinking philosophically in the very classroom where the students sat. He brought philosophy into being before their eyes!

Of course generally speaking, when a young windbag shares his thinking as it unfolds, what comes out is hot air. So, although you don’t have to be a genius to do that sort of thing effectively – it sure helps. Wittgenstein was a genius who did it and the students who watched him still seem to hear him … after a long pause … breathing his thought into the precise words he wanted. Heidegger was another genius who did his philosophizing while you watched, and the experience of his students marked several generations of thinkers who have passed his influence down to the present hour.

What exactly did they experience? Wherein lay the spell? Young German students hungered to rebuild their country and also to put their personal destinies on new foundations. Heidegger’s wellsprings seemed the purest of them all. Here’s a rough description.

Anything that is done or said must first be — be real — before it can act or speak. So this realness, “Being,” is the most primeval foundation of all, the Ur source — from which it all begins. Furthermore, I myself can only make my moves insofar as I am. So let’s call me being-there. Being-there (Dasein) was true of me then, is true now and will be true in future – unless of course I die first. A fatal eventuality of which I can’t help being aware. So why not philosophize on the basis of that most ultimate, untainted, most virgin source?

That was the spell. Students came from every university to be present as Heidegger took shape as being-there right in front of them. Let others get their outlook at second hand – the shakeout of average opinionating! Heidegger’s outlook came from the depths. He had authenticity, if anybody had it.

As already mentioned, the best and the brightest were in his classroom. And – forgive me for mentioning it but – among the best and the brightest would be found a fairly high percentage of Jewish students. In future, some would become well known. They worked under Heidegger’s supervision, listened to his lectures and afterward fanned out into the wider world, still affected by his influence.

It didn’t all flow one way. Heidegger owed his appointment at Marburg, the publication of his career-making major work, Being and Time, and his career-consolidating professorship at Freiburg, to Edmund Husserl, his Jewish mentor and senior colleague in philosophy. He also shared a secret love with one of his Jewish graduate students, Hannah Arendt. She later became an opinion-shaper in her own right and, in after years, Heidegger’s intellectual protector.

In 1933, Heidegger rose to the post of Chancellor (Rektor) of the University of Freiburg, joined the Nazi Party and, on the first day of term, told the Jewish students that they must get out of his classroom. He signed the decree removing all academic rights and titles from Jews in the university — including of course Edmund Husserl, who up to that point had secured Heidegger’s every place and attainment in the university system.

In the entire history of philosophy, we know of nothing like it. No betrayal on that scale of the loyalty owed by a philosopher to his teacher and his students. It’s without precedent, so far as I know.

If the consequences had not been so gruesome, this piece of intellectual theater might be seen as almost comical. How does Herr Professor Wunderkind move from erupting out of Being into his being-there-ness, right before the mesmerized eyes of his eager young philosophy students — romantically soaring up, up and awa-ay-ay – and suddenly, it’s move over Beethoven, bump and thud, we got country music? Which has been aptly defined as —

three chords and the truth.

Which truth? Well, how ‘bout Hank Williams?

Your cheatin’ heart

Will tell on you.

There are philosophers, good ones, who have gone to the trouble of dissecting and analyzing what went wrong here. Which prior move on the chessboard of thought precipitated this breakout, by a philosopher-genius, into this real cheap, back alley song and dance? (Meanwhile, we should not forget that it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears even to make it possible to ask this question. Had the Nazis won World War Two, Heidegger would not have felt uncomfortable explaining what he did. They didn’t win, so he was, a little bit.)

Our question is simpler. How does one avoid similar dishonor in one’s own life? Never mind all the powerful chains of argument that you might or might not think of in time. The more humdrum remedy is readier to hand.

Look at the human face that your abstruse theoretical doctrines are outraging.

Look at the real face.

 

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“Shabby”

Abbie in Florence at time of Confessions : Part One

“Shabby”

Not so long ago, I reported here, in nearly ecstatic style, that a highly suitable publisher was expressing the kind of interest in my recently-completed book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, that was really promising.   Then, instead of going on to give the sequel, I dropped the subject of the promising press. Readers who were tracking the story might have asked themselves, What happened?

It’s a bit like the girl who confides to her friends that a certain boy is showing all the signs of being smitten and she can hear those silver wedding bells and then weeks go by and what they hear is … nothing. Her friends surmise that something happened and it wasn’t good.

When it comes to selling the manuscript of one’s book, one tries to get in sync with the new rhythms. What are the new rhythms? Well, take the editors who work at the presses. They either need a day job or they soon will. Though some reports say that people are beginning to read again – instant gratification is proving less than gratifying – they aren’t reading in the way that they did.

How was that? The default state was silence. When you went to work, your boss spoke about what he needed done and your colleagues about their part in the overall task. When women met for tea to talk about their husbands, they talked about their husbands. Girls talked about the fearsome world of men on the one side and old maids on the other.   When men met in taverns, they talked about what men talk about in taverns. You could smoke then, and people did that instead of talking. Children played outside. No one had to watch them. They made up games.

  • Teachers broke the silence when they taught.
  • Writers broke the silence when they wrote.
  • Readers explored the silence when they read.
  • Conversation concerned books as much as it concerned people.

Say what you like about that world — I don’t suppose any of us would volunteer to go back — but it’s generally acknowledged to have been less phony and less frequently shattered by aimless noise or kidnapped by images devised to shock.

What is a writer today? A person who tries to find her way back to the default position, the human norm, that pregnant silence – and then to find anew the sounds and images that have the right to break that silence.

So what happened to me at the promising press? The editor there said that my book was “interesting” and fitted a line of books she had already published, whose titles and authors’ names she sent me. She invited me to send the whole manuscript and asked for a c.v. and other materials that, she said, the people in marketing would need. Her emails were signed “warmly” and arrived promptly, even on weekends. Then I heard nothing, only silence (not the good kind) for a couple of months.

When I finally wrote to ask how the process was coming along, she emailed that her computer had crashed, she’d lost “everything” and, on top of that, her boss had pulled the rest of her budget until July! She was, she said, “very sorry.” She did not say, “Stay in touch.” And she did not say: “Buzz off! Take a hint! This is how we editors say ‘bye ‘bye nowadays.”

Not seeing where that left me, I was somewhat paralyzed with regard to submitting the manuscript elsewhere. Meanwhile I turned to other tasks, till I figured it was time to try again, perhaps with her boss this time. I sent a query letter to the boss, with supporting materials, and got an encouraging response. There was no sense of a budget being pulled. The boss had two editors who looked to her like a good fit for this book. The first editor said it “did not fit” her list. (Why can’t they just say, “I’m too small, and my list is too small, for the largeness of your book”?) The second editor was the same one I had dealt with earlier, who’d been so encouraging until she “crashed” and lost her past and her budget.

The second editor emailed to say that I must have forgotten what she had told me earlier: that this book did not ”fit her list”!

Even in today’s world, one tries not to go crazy. By way of response, I cut and pasted our entire previous correspondence, including her assurances that my book fit her list like a glove, up to the “crash” that looked to be the sole barrier between its wonderful “fit” and production.

Her reply included a new explanation. The book had seemed to fit, until she read more deeply into it. It was too much like a memoir and not enough like “auto-theory.” Yeah yeah yeah. Auto-theory and a token will get you a ride on the IRT. She went on to say that the university is very strict about what they allow the press to publish. (If it’s so strict, why did her boss think it was quite allowable?) She wound up by suggesting that I try the “Jewish Line” at two other university presses she named.

There are explicitly Jewish themes in Confessions, but couched in terms from which anyone could profit. Nobody in the book observes the Jewish calendar or cites Jewish sages. Aside from a line or two I quote from my parents, I’m the only Jew in it.

Jerry raised the question of anti-semitism. I hadn’t noticed that possibility myself (Jews go around partly anaesthetized to the phenomenon or we couldn’t live at all) but thought, what the hell, let me follow that down. I wrote back to explain to the editor why Confessions is not what generally counts as a “Jewish book.”

“What,” Jerry said to me, “do you want to accomplish with that letter?”

“If she’s not anti-semitic,” I said, “I want to clarify something that she left rather muddy. And if she is, I want to nail her!”

Her reply came with alacrity, with more detailed clarifications and ramifications plus the names of four or five editors or agents for me to contact. Evidently, I had touched a spring, though what sort of spring was still not quite clear.

When we were in Maine this week, I told the whole story to friends who are writers. Their comment is worth sharing.

A writer deals in the realm of values.

For an editor to respond this way is shabby.

It brought me up short. The editor who decides to publish Confessions of a Young Philosopher will need to be someone whose word is good.

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“Two Views”

Two-views-maine.jpeg two-views-amine-painting.jpeg

“Two Views”

This is the aerial view of Narraguagus Bay and the same bay, painted as I saw it from the attic of our old barn.

We are back there this week, visiting old friends in Washington County, Downeast Maine. It’s good to be home again.

 

Posted in Art, Art of Living, Cities, Friendship, Love | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Why Women Are Mean to Other Women

“No Gossip”
Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1907

Why Women Are Mean to Other Women

Whew! This is a touchy subject. Almost taboo, since we are these days denominated the compassionate, caring, anti-violence sex.

Labels of these kinds call to mind the way 19th-century suffragettes made the case for giving women the vote.   They vowed that women would bring their maternal and nurturing qualities into public and political life. The trouble was, they were maternal because they were in the nursery and nurturing because they were in the kitchen! Train them to be Navy Seals and they won’t be so nurturing.

The differences between the sexes are not moral differences. Badness and goodness are equal opportunity traits. I have enormous interest in women and the greatest sympathy in the world for my sex, but some of the baddest people I have known were women. Recently I had occasion to say to an old friend that her mother was the coldest thing I had ever stood next to that was still organic!

How did she react? She thanked me. I knew what she’d been through.

Badness and goodness are not, in my view, mere effects of conditioning, whether biological or environmental. That said, men and women cope with somewhat different conditions, under which to make their respective decisions for goodness or badness.

So what – for women – are the conditions that make meanness to other women so ready-to-hand? And, if one’s purpose is to treat other women in a gentle and kindly way, what are the temptations that pull against that?

Before we get to that, shouldn’t we first ask if sex differences aren’t really social constructs? Sure, let’s ask.   I remember attending a panel on Sex and Gender whose main speaker was a widely-respected philosopher. Her thesis was that sex differences are societal artifacts. No surprise there. While I was listening to her beautifully articulated argument, I was also thinking, Who does your hair? It was simply fabulous … blond, cut with art … but of course I would rather have dropped dead than ask her. No one dared to raise a doubt about her thesis, which was the regnant opinion then and now.

After the panel, I went out alone to have lunch at a local diner. The American Philosophical Association meeting was being held in the South that year. At an adjacent booth, two couples were seated facing each other. The men were brawny, hulking giants. The women were little bitty women. The men were talking about huntin’, fishin’ and other forms of legalized killin’. The women were talking about … Absolutely Nothing. They were sittin’ there, quiet as little mouselings. Just as I would’ve done in their shoes.

Is this configuration of figures and forces “natural”? I dunno. Why don’t you go over and ask them? I’ll wait here and you tell me what they said.

We are not turned on by cruelty and brutality, especially when turned against ourselves, and we want to be listened to and understood. But in the larger sense, the famous philosopher is leading her sisters astray. As she probably knows, and as we know, the asymmetry between the sexes is part of the attraction. The Official Story is that we want men who can cry like a sensitive girl and that we just hate their manly ferocity. In real life? Not so much. We don’t want our own porousness and malleability mirrored in the other sex.

Are these remarks being directed narrowly just at heterosexual relationships? Without supplying any more anecdotal data, I can call in Plato’s Symposium where the discussion of love pertains only to same sex relations. What is striking in that dialogue is that the same patterns found in man/woman relations reemerge in the same-sex setting. It seems that such relations do not provide any built-in escape from the erotic polarities.

So let’s get down to it. What are the conditions that tempt women to be mean to other women? People compete for what they perceive to be scarce goods. So what’s the scarcity problem, for women?

Good men. They’re scarce and hard to find.

Time. It’s running out. The sand is running through the hourglass. This affects fertility and, to an extent, attractiveness.

Why should women want to “attract”? Isn’t this so passive, so yesterday? Uh huh and yeah yeah yeah. But in the ritual dance of courtship, men are reinforced in their … shall we say … virile importance if they lead. There are different styles of telegraphing this than there used to be, but the underlying choreography … is the underlying choreography. Be very careful of the woman who tells you otherwise.

So what does all this cash for? What am I saying? That there are winners and losers and suck it up?

No no no no. Don’t suck it up. Find a good woman friend. That’s what they’re for. And one other thing:

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder) …

Cry,–clinging Heaven by the hems …

When it’s not all right, no need to pretend it is.

There are political helps as well. This is not the 19th-century. The feminist movement has given us permission to forge our own freedom and find the talents and preferences that are our own. The woman who is prepared to live out her story will acquire an attractiveness that can outlast youth and be more than cosmetic.

The stories we live have room in them for fun, for danger, for tragic losses, for adventure. There is only one thing to keep in mind:

The stories we live are not fictions.

We live true stories.

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