Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Exiles Return: A Novel

by Elisabeth de Waal.

This book would never have come to my notice had it not been for Barry Cooper, the professor of political science at Calgary.  Cooper has an insider’s understanding of a philosopher of history named Eric Voegelin.  Who, you may ask, is Eric Voegelin and what has he got to do with The Exiles Return or its author, Elisabeth de Waal?

Voegelin is the only political philosopher I know of who has the temerity to suppose that political history needs to include a spiritual component.  Not for decoration, but because otherwise it’s incomplete.  Voegelin asks, what relation to a divine reality do the people have, at this or that stage of history?

This seems to me the most interesting and demanding question you can ask about any phase of human history.  Not what gods did they worship but what was going on in the realm of the spirit at that time and place?  It’s the big question, about any of us.

Anyway, according to Cooper, Elisabeth de Waal had a profound friendship with Eric Voegelin.  And, despite her aristocratic Dutch name, de Waal, she was one of the Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna – Jews forced into exile by the Nazis – that I wrote about in a column not so long ago.

Her novel concerns the post-War return to Vienna of a cast of characters whose connection to each other unfolds – like puzzle pieces fitting together – as the story moves along.  The best of them is a scientist, resuming the post from which he’d been dismissed as a Jew.  He becomes a kind of spectrometer by which to analyze the metal — base or gold or somewhere in between — of the other returnees.

At first, all seems relatively ordinary and uneventful.  By the final chapters, a sense of entrapment – of being in a prison without walls – enfolds the lead young woman character in a way I’ve never seen depicted so accurately.  I felt trapped too, without aesthetic distance from what I was reading.

A digression here, to retrieve a memory of my own trip to the city of Vienna, to which I’d hitchhiked with a woman philosopher friend, many long years ago.  We’d already traveled by “auto stop” (as they called it) through Germany first, sometimes given lifts by ex-POW’s who’d enjoyed their forced vacation in the US of A.  Only in Austria did we get rides from unabashed ex-Nazis.

“I was in S.S.” one boisterously cheerful driver said to us on the road to Vienna.  “All my friends were in S.S.  We were all picked men!  Not one of us under six feet!”

In Vienna, the youth hostel had a large empty room on the second floor, filled from end to end with unoccupied cots.  Yet the “hostel father” claimed, with a faint smile, that there was no room in the hostel.  Obviously, the two Australian girls, to whom he said this, did not get it.

“We’ve come 9,000 miles to see Vienna,” one of the young women exclaimed indignantly, “and we’re NOT getting a very good impression of Vienna!”

Righto.

There are some situations that look tangled and twisted on the surface but may be pretty good underneath.  In other cases, the reverse is true.  The top layer looks super-ordinary but underneath, what you find is

sheer, twisted corruption.


Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year

by Henri J. M. Nouwen.

This is a book I found to read while Jerry was away for an American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, where the book he edited, Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative, was seeing daylight at a book reception.  I was housebound with a cracked kneecap.  Couldn’t do much of anything.  Daily chores took four times as long (they still do) and were that much more tiring.

I was forced to BE —

not to do.

Since my teens, I can’t remember spending five days just being – instead of doing.  To pass the time, which to me was unexpectedly serene, I read Sabbatical Journey.   The book contains the daily journal of a Catholic priest who, the jacket says, “is considered one of the great spiritual writers of modern times.”  I’d never heard of him, but that’s not a sign of anyone’s unimportance.

Henri (as people call him in the book) had decided to take a year off from his normal duties as the pastor of a community in Canada ministering to the mentally handicapped.  It should not surprise any of us that he discovered great depth of insight and spiritual maturity among the people who were disabled in that way.

During his year off, he travels to several cities in Europe where he has friends, including Holland, his native land.  He criss-crosses North America, renewing old friendships, officiating at weddings and funerals, serving in other priestly capacities and jotting occasional reflections in his journal.   He seems deeply earnest and open-hearted.  Although I’ve not finished the book, I doubt if anything surprising will happen between pp. 163 and 226.

The only surprise comes after the journal’s last page.  Suddenly, without any hint of this in the inner life he records so amply, his life is over.  He has two heart attacks, with no one by his side at the hospital where, on September 21, 1996, he suffers the second, fatal one.

One expects a sudden death to be foreshadowed by a life beset by sharp peaks and valleys.  But it is not always so.

Here are some lines from his journal entry on March 17th, 1996:

All human beings have their tragedies –

death, depression, betrayal,

rejection, poverty, separation, loss, and so on.

We seldom have much control over them.

But do we choose to live them

as occasions to blame,

or as occasions to see God at work?

The whole Hebrew Bible is a story of human tragedies,

but when these tragedies are lived and remembered

as the context in which God’s unconditional love

for the people of Israel is revealed,

this story becomes sacred history.

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The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

Sorry, my turkey and I are away. I wish you all

A BLESSED THANKSGIVING!

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About Abbie

Tyler Wursta, Videographer and Video Editor
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My Therapist is a Horse

My Therapist is a Horse

By that I don’t mean that it’s healthy for me to relax and do something different, rather than “think” all the time.  I mean Cali [aka California], a tall pinto, is my therapist.

Last Friday, I was having my lesson in natural riding.  Cali decides what path to tread going round the arena.   This time, she was traveling in small, intricate loops that frequently changed direction.  This in contrast to the wide arc, circling the whole arena, that her path normally describes.

My trainer’s intelligent assumption is that the horse is reading Abigail accurately.  When Cali stopped in her tracks, my trainer asked me what was going on in my life just now.

Inside the arena, I’ve learned to respond from the heart.  So I mentioned the cascade of tasks now summoning and descending on me from every quarter.

I’ve connected with a wonderful designer who can prepare the MS of Confessions of a Young Philosopher for publication.  She’s reading the book now and we had a lengthy conversation about the sorts of readers I should seek and related matters.

I want it to have illustrations, like the books I loved from youth – nineteenth-century novels like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.   Why do I want that?  Because I think words and images go together naturally.  Words don’t dwell in empty space.  They live in worlds.  Pictures help locate the world for the words.

Besides preparing the MS, there are things one does nowadays that give the author what is called a “platform.”  One tries to get to be familiar and recognizable to people out there in the great world.  (In contrast, the Bronte sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte, disguised their sex by pseudonyms, and I’m with them.  Jane Austen pretended she was writing letters, and I’m with her.)

Be that as it may, one writes to reach people.  At the present time, that means being heard over the pervasive static.   Today people get to be alone when they’re driving.  In their cars, they listen to podcasts.  So I’ll be putting this column on podcasts.  For that you need background music — for the preamble and the “outgo.”  There’s a 1954 French rendering of les feuilles mortes, “Autumn Leaves” that I like.   There’s a whopping fee for the permits.  Otherwise, the French will have you guillotined, just for openers.

Meanwhile, how about a video labeled, “About Abigail Rosenthal”?  How ‘bout that, Currer and Acton Bell (Bronte pseudonyms)?

So why is Cali doing these intricate to-and-fro loops?  Because, my trainer inferred, while you’re being drawn left and right in your efforts to reach readers out there in public space,

DON’T FORGET WHERE YOU’RE HEADED.

What a deep, deep insight!  The human therapist who could match it could name her fee!

The trouble is, I’ve spent a lifetime staying out of public space.  I had work to do.  I had no time to be “a success.”

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not sour grapes.  I “coulda been a contender.”  Omitting tell-tale names, there was the esteemed French philosopher who was clearly looking at me throughout his crowded lecture.  Nothing prevented my going up to make friends after the lecture.   Since I was a beginner in philosophy, I had nothing to tell him that would’ve been worth his valuable time.  If he had other reasons for his interest, I didn’t want to know what they might be.

Thanks to my mother’s cousin, who was Israeli ambassador to Paris, I could’ve met Charles de Gaulle.   I managed not to, since I had nothing to say to de Gaulle.

I shared an office with future opinion-shaper Susan Sontag when we were both assistants at the Columbia Religion Department.   Together we went to a Fair Play for Cuba Committee meeting, back when I was a fervent Fidelista — me and Susan and her friend Irene.  I stopped being Fidelista when the mass executions started, and I don’t recall how Susan parsed that one.  By then I was transferring to Penn State where I finished my graduate studies in a more interesting Philosophy Department than Columbia’s, though it had sub-zero prestige at the time.

When I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, I got an offer from a senior colleague, a man whose shoulders were heavy with international honors.  It was a gig directing a program in feminism.   I said (truthfully) that the gig was not my style.  He answered (truthfully) that I was being “very foolish.”  Golly, when I think of it, I could have spared myself the seven years that followed, fighting to get my job back!

During the seven-year job struggle, a collegial friend introduced me to Hannah Arendt.  She was very cordial and clearly well-disposed.  When my name was mentioned to her later, she recollected me as “that lovely girl.”  I believe she would’ve been happy to take a nice Jewish girl under her wing.  But I wasn’t going under the wing of a public intellectual who had written a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, that whitewashed the Nazi official charged with implementing the Holocaust while blaming his Jewish victims.

Being a “success” is a full-time job.  I didn’t have the time.  I needed to seek the truth of my life through the medium of philosophy.  For that, it was vital to keep my molecules together, rather than dispersed into the public arena.

Given all this, my present efforts to reach a wider public are a reversal of the whole strategy of my life.

Well, my trainer commented, you need to find the rhythm that will include time to recall and renew your real purpose.  You ought not to drive yourself in a way that neglects any present sources of rest and refreshment.

Cali noticed that we had arrived at a good understanding.  Accordingly, she resumed her

supple,

stretched-out,

wide-arc stride

round the outmost circle of the arena.

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Time and Me

“Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

Time and Me

 When I was a little girl, I didn’t worry about Time at all.  I pretended I was a deer and roved the forests.  I pretended I was a boy raised by wolves and roamed the jungle.  Back then, it wasn’t called trans-genderism or trans-speciesism.  It was the reality of my childhood.  I didn’t raise philosophical questions like, “What’s the difference between the real and the imaginary?”

Sometimes, as when you climb up some tree and can’t get down, or say the wrong thing unwittingly, grownups would point out the difference.  Otherwise, provided you kept within the imaginary boundaries, the difference gave no trouble.

Until one day, you found yourself unable to believe the unbelievable.  You had lost the talent.  Grandpa died, who was (at least in my mind) the king of the Jews.  Mother was away a lot, clearing her parents’ apartment.  Something unpleasantly called adolescence stood at the door.  Anyway, for whatever reason, my imaginary worlds vanished.

Where those worlds had been, a great dark vacancy loomed instead.   And into that emptiness came Time.  As a problem.  It felt to me like

a torrential wind that

carried everything before it.

Suddenly reality, which till then had not been a problem, became an insoluble one.  Take any scene in which I found myself, scene filled with people – so palpable, so multi-textured and many-colored – and let the company depart.  What had happened to that scene?  Where did all that real-life go?  It had become mere memory-traces — almost nothing at all!

It was here.  And then it was not-here.  It was now.  After which it was then.  There was no holding it back or pinning it down.  Everything was either gone — or about to be gone!

How did I get cured?  Time was superficially “cured,” if that’s the right word, by other scenes, non-imaginary, that began to populate my days.

Like for example adolescence, which for me meant being a wallflower.  Or, if a youth finally asked me to dance, well… boys were no longer fun.  They’d become self-conscious and sweaty and were often trying to take some kind of advantage.  Relations with boys were now asymmetrical, out of joint.

My mother hadn’t taught me how to flirt in America because she knew nothing about it.  She knew about coquetterie, in Europe, what the dictionnaire de francais Larousse calls le desire de plaire aux autres: the desire to please others.  It was not the same as being kind or nice.  And it was not second nature.  It was something you learned.  Renee, her French woman friend, gave interesting hints about what it was.  But in America, all that was useless.

What finally tamed Time for me were the intentions that, gradually, by trial and error, I came to recognize as my own.  If you have learned the purposes that belong to your life, Time is the medium in which you can work them out.

It takes Time to realize your purposes.  Without Time, the lessons you need to learn, and the work-in-the-world you need to do, remain unreal — merely hypothetical.

There’s another question that looms the more one gets some idea of who one is and what one is to do here.  That question is,

will I get it all done?

I’ve read somewhere that Michelangelo’s last words were, to his young assistant,

I am dying, Giulio,

and my work

is still unfinished.

From Michelangelo, it sounds like a joke, almost.  Had he shaped one more masterpiece in stone, the world would have staggered under the added burden of appreciation therewith bestowed on us.

One thing his case makes clear however: we don’t know when our work is done, or which thing we did counts most importantly as “our work.”

The other day, I had an insight about Time that was new to me.  It’s hard to explain.  It was more like an image than a string of words.  The words by which I can share it go something like this:

Time is the medium for my thinking and doing, sensing and saying, in the world.

And it’s filled, right now.

All that I was and am and will be

are in it with sufficiency

right now. 

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The Worse, the Better?

“The Fallen Jockey”
Edgar Degas, c. 1881

The Worse, the Better?

In the 1930’s a political strategy known as “worsism” was in fashion.   Worsists believed that

the worse, the better!

This meant, the more desperate people became, the closer we got to the revolution that would bring … whatever it was supposed to bring: a new heaven and new earth, I suppose.

I dunno about that.  When I need to chill out in the evenings, I’ll sometimes watch an old-time western movie.  What I like about them is the way everything works out in the end: the bad guys finish dead on the barroom floor, the good guy rides into the sunset in his well-creased Stetson hat, alongside the prettiest girl in the West.  They’ll start a new life in happy-ever-after country.  It NEVER fails.

So you can imagine my dismay the other night when, at the end of a well-acted, well-scripted, technicolor western film, the Arapahoe kill every last defender, burn the fort, put a lance all the way through the tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, put an arrow in the bosom of his true love, and that’s … The End?  The credits come on.  I couldn’t believe my eyeballs!

My inference?  If you think, “the worse it gets, the better it will get,” you might be wrong.

Here’s another example that comes to my mind.  Among the most influential thinkers of the last hundred years is the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.  One awkward fact about Heidegger is that, in the 1930’s, he joined the Nazi party.  When the dust settled after the War, nobody quite knew what to think about that.  However, one of his former students was a respected political philosopher named Hannah Arendt and she vouched for him; it had been a brief episode, she wrote.  He’d been out of his depth, but hadn’t meant anybody any harm.  We all make mistakes.

Recently, Heidegger’s private journals are beginning to see publication.  The first set, dating from the 1930’s, has been published as (appropriately enough) The Black Notebooks.  The newly available material makes clear that Heidegger was – in the run-up to the War and post-War to the end of his days – a deeply committed Nazi.  So Arendt was certainly wrong when she wrote that his Nazism had been a mere “escapade” before he returned to his native residence, the “residence of thinking.”  Apparently, at the hearthside of his residence of thinking, the flame of Nazism was kept lit and burning.

Since he is considered a very profound metaphysician, Heidegger’s was (his defenders claim) a metaphysical Nazism, not just the crude empirical kind.  And his enmity toward Jews wasn’t mere biological racism.  Oh no.  What he repudiated was the metaphysical Jew.  Not surprisingly, the metaphysical Jew had virtually all the traits that anti-Judaism ascribes to the actual Jew.

Bad enough?  There’s worse.  After a brief pause while the shock of this news sank in, articles currently posted on academia.edu give us an array of philosophers writing about the “Jew” of Heidegger – as if it were now intellectually respectable to discuss this imaginary entity!  What’s being admitted into polite philosophic discourse are the oldest calumnies, familiar to anyone who knows how the oldest-hatred-in-recorded-history sounds!

What do I think about all this?  First, I notice how rapidly – almost instantly! – the unthinkable becomes thinkable (and of course, the thinkable becomes doable).

Second, I notice what happens to me as I take in this kind of information.  The “mystic chords of memory” are plucked and, in this case, the memories are extremely frightening.  They actually include a weird (if you like) “memory” of a past life in Germany in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.  I remember exactly how I died and what I was thinking as the sealed truck filled up with carbon monoxide.  Could it be a false memory?  How would I know?  I only know I have it.

And of course, the Holocaust was not just a great big massacre.  It was the end result (predictable retrospectively) of roughly 2000 years of theologically-originated demonization.

Now let’s just rise vertically above that sad scene for a few moments and see how the current epidemic of anti-Israelism fits into the bigger story.   Functionally, it evens the moral score.  If Jewish suffering – the Holocaust — makes a person feel some kind of guilt or compunction, well, not to worry!  The Israelis are just as bad!  They’re worse!  They’re the very worst thing on earth!  Blah, blah and blah.

Anti-Israelism has little to do with Palestinian suffering.  As ex-terrorist Kasim Hafeez put it, if people really cared about Palestinians, they’d be incensed by the leadership’s embezzlement of funds raised internationally to support the Palestinian population, for one example.  The pro-Palestinian placards have as their aim delegitimizing the Jewish state – and, increasingly, the Jews who walk that gauntlet to get to class.

And that’s about curing the discomforts of inherited guilt?  By incurring fresh guilt?  Get out of a hole by digging in deeper.  What could be more logical?

From my lessons in natural riding, I’ve learned the power of intention.  You can get a horse to move if you focus your intention on how he is to move.  Without any physical aids!

In the 1930’s, the liberal answer to worsism was meliorism: step-by-step, incremental social improvement.  Would that cure the latest wave of anti-Jewish feeling?

While I have nothing against meliorism, in my experience, that’s not the way the cure for this syndrome works.  Anti-semitism can take over a person, a political party, a social climate, overnight.  And from what I’ve seen, the recovery from anti-semitism is equally sudden.  Somehow one sees that one has been boxing a shadow — one’s own delusion.  It looks silly.  One just stops.

But how to bring that about?  The Jewish tragic sense – “It’s back!” –  only incites the defamer.  How can one respond to these energies so as not to whip them up?

The anti-semite, working himself into a lather of phony indignation to camouflage inherited guilt – could surely be induced to see the comedy of himself.  If I could only get way high above the battle,

I’m sure I could find a joke funny enough.

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Androgyny?

Androgyny?

“The Lure of Androgyny” is the title of an article I just read.  It reports that the trend to downplay biological differences between the sexes is now world-wide.  This is different from giving women equal opportunity.  More like:

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A WOMAN.

The writer, Mary Eberstadt, gives many illustrations.

Of late, physical qualifications for serving in the military, the police and fire departments have been (as Eberstadt puts it tactfully) “altered.”

Yeah, altered.  Having myself been caught in a very bad city fire, where one woman died, I would not have liked to peer down at the floor of flames below, only to see a fire-woman climbing toward me up the rescue ladder.

In the entertainment fields and the arts, prizes are no longer awarded to actors and actresses.  Everybody’s an actor now, Hamlet and Ophelia both.  (Okay, as long as she can drown like she used to.)  Pop music is following suit, but I don’t know enough about that to recognize Eberstadt’s examples.

Blue jeans (as it happens, my garment of choice) have been unisex for decades of course, but now high fashion designers are turning out unisex outfits for every occasion.  Could be cute; what do I know?

Bathrooms are going unisex.  (No need to go there; I have a whole column about the effects on my bladder.)

So are sports, to the manifest disadvantage of women athletes.  (One of the beauties of sport is its truthfulness.  The question of who won and who lost can’t be fudged.)

Why did all this happen, some of it fairly recently?  The writer offers her own explanations.

For one thing, the sexual revolution – from Woodstock to now — urged women to make unencumbered “pleasure” their objective.  Make love like a man – you can do it, girl!  This purportedly liberating desideratum came with a tacit social threat:

“if you, little girl, are looking for security,

trust, respect, etcetera,

 you’re probably INHIBITED.

And God forbid you should be inhibited.”

Another factor, possibly related, was the proliferation of single parents, usually female.  What with one thing and another, women had to learn to defend themselves and boys, raised without protective fathers, grew up without the influence of that role model.

When Jerry and I fell in love, one of the things he said to me was that he wanted to protect me.

Protect me? I thought indignantly. 

Why would I need protection?

I’m a New York girl!

In the years we’ve been married, I couldn’t begin to enumerate the times when Jerry’s world-wise, steady, intelligent protection proved to be absolutely necessary for me.

Eberstadt’s article also covers the corresponding pressures on men and boys to act less obviously male.  In the past year, The New York Review of Books reviewed a book that dealt with the effects on boys of this new devaluing of maleness.  Although the review avoided polemic and dealt tactfully with this delicate subject, it must have drawn some push-back.  This in turn prompted the management to issue a formal apology.  Which in turn led the staff to protest the apology as censorship.  (Naturally, I’m with the staff.)

Chewing on all this, I retrieved the essay, “And God Created Woman,” by the widely respected and influential French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.  He is commenting on a rather intricate rabbinic discussion of the relations between the sexes.  The upshot, for Levinas, is that the highest relation between men and women is as one human being to another – NOT as man to woman.

Here he sums up his view.

Woman is not at the summit of the spiritual life

the way Beatrice is for Dante.

It is not the “Eternal Feminine”

which leads us to the heights.

Hmn.  One human being to another?  One reason that a truthful woman who’s been victimized by a man will be reluctant to come forward is that her very complaint draws unwanted attention to her vulnerability.  The woman hopes that her complaint will summon gallant men to defend her honor.

What she fears is the debased response to her report that she’s been treated as a target.

The debased man will treat her complaint

as a prompt

 to target her again.

The vulnerability of women has not gone away.  What has been discouraged and derided is the urge to respond to that vulnerability honorably.

What’s the moral?  Debased homo sapiens sapiens will see in weakness the opportunity to exploit and misuse it.

By contrast, seen through the lens of ideality, vulnerability prompts protectiveness.  Ideality prompts even more than that.  The poet put the matter plainly:

I could not love thee, Dear, so

much,

Loved I not Honour more. 

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