The Baiter and the Baited

“Stag at Bay on a Rocky Shore”
Thomas Blinks, 1860-1912

The Baiter and the Baited

We are back from a week of my neuropathy treatments at the Loma Linda clinic in California.  The main progress this time has been in locating more precisely the regions of the body – ahem, my body – where inflammation blocks the flow of blood to the micro-vessels and the neurons they feed.  Symptoms are not yet improved, so far as I can tell, though sonograms do register progress at the micro-level.  If we had six weeks to spend consecutively, we are told that we might see substantial symptomatic improvements.  But we don’t have six weeks to spend at one time.  At most, at intervals, we will have a single week at a time.

I wonder: what IS this handicap?   I mean, really.  Was there something my body would have once wanted to tell me, but the physical medium has become the message and meanwhile the original message has got obscured?

One of the friends who joined us at brunch was Jerry’s attorney in California.  He reads eclectically and brought this bit of news from his polymathic researches: genes are no longer seen as programming the body.  The latest view is that genes are the data base from which the single cell selects certain data and rejects others in designing the future human body.   As to what determines (or rather, influences) the cell when it makes its choices, that’s an open question – but probably no single thing.

If this view sticks, it will be bad news for philosophic determinists, materialists and functionalists, but for me it’s just interesting.  (Long ago, I told my students not to invest their talents in philosophic materialism because it’s going belly up.)

What’s interesting about this view is its implication that intelligence – or something equivalent to intelligence – goes all the way down to the single cell.  Actually, it’s not all that surprising.  The last time I read a respected tome in ethology, I learned that even the lowly worm has memory.  What is more, if you cut him in half, each half will crawl away, still remembering …

Jerry’s attorney friend drew the moral that we need to “talk to our bodies” more than we do.  If we talk to our bodies, they might answer back and actually tell us how they feel.  Maybe we get sick because they find no other way to be heard.

We had made a dinner appointment for one of our nights in Riverside.  It was with a philosophic colleague of Jerry’s whom he did not know well, their paths having crossed briefly some years back.  I was looking forward to meeting a colleague whom Jerry was disposed to like.  His wife, who was in another profession, would be joining as well.

We were not far into the evening when the colleague turned, looking directly into my face, to tell me the following: he had attended a lecture by a Princeton historian who described an eleventh-century incident from the First Crusade.  A contingent of German Crusaders had paused in their trajectory to the Holy Land, turning aside to butcher a Jewish population encountered along their way.   The massacre, according to the Princeton historian, was grasped in Jewish memory so tenaciously that it had worked its way into the Jewish prayer book, the siddur.  The wax [not his word] of Jewish memory was so deeply grooved by this particular pogrom that – to this very day – Jews will never trust a Christian!  (And of course, gosh, the Holocaust only made it worse!)

When I write down this preposterous nonsense, from here it’s easy to see that I was being baited.  But when you are expecting a pleasant social hour with a collegial couple and you’ve put on something pretty, you’re not all suited up for combat.

I made the cardinal mistake of trying to correct a good faith “misunderstanding.”  Of course, it was no such thing.  It was baiting.  Let me break that down into its components.

  1. Apart from my obvious Jewishness, there was no reason for a philosophic colleague to tell me such a story.  We had not been discussing the Crusades.

  2. In the historical record of anti-Jewish acts, there has been such a cascade of defamations masked as theology, despoilations, expulsions and massacres, before and since the eleventh century, that it’s unreasonable to imagine pre-twentieth-century Jewish minds affected by that one pogrom alone.

  3. If one were to assume that there exists a boundaried array of “Jewish attitudes” to be parsed at our dinner table, then I – not the Gentile Princeton historian – would be the one to advise about them.

  4. In the alleged conglomerate of Jewish attitudes, there was underlying insult, to wit: the surface good behavior of any Jew masks implacable bigotry — a prejudice dating back to one bad incident in the eleventh century – but now applied to all Christians regardless of their character, whether just or unjust.  So Christians are herewith forewarned to be wary of Jews, no matter how nice they might seem.  Jews are out to get you.  They want vengeance for the First Crusade.

Does that about cover it?  Maybe.  I hope so.

Although from here it seems obvious that the colleague was actually baiting me, I didn’t quite get it in time.  Jerry, who’s usually pretty good at gauging the forces in the room, didn’t get it either till we both had time to revisit it later.  My real concern isn’t this particular case of l’esprit de l’escalier (the witty riposte that we only think of as we descend the stair to the exit).

I want to know why I have this neuropathy.

I would like to understand my body.  Is it trying to tell me something?  If so, it must have tried in other ways.  To what am I not listening?

On our flights to and from California, I had a chance to reread the initial chapters of A Good Look at Evil.  The book struck me as, if you’ll forgive me, profound.  That is, it’s the product of thinking that is not borrowed, not second hand, not done to make a splash or vindicate an established consensus.  It’s a quest for truth about good and evil, conducted at the frontier of that quest.  It’s quite exhaustive, detailed and often surprising.  Whenever, since its publication, I’ve given talks based on the book, reactions have been dramatic and real.

In the years leading up to its expanded reissue, could I have sensed that I had in hand something that would obligate me to step forward to present it publicly?  Could this walking handicap be my resistance to that summons?

I decided to treat myself more lovingly and ask my legs, in a gentler way,

What ails you?

Now it could be that the recent incident has colored the response from my legs.  Anyway, this is what they replied, so far as I could hear them.

We are terrified to step forward

in a Jewish body. 

It doesn’t matter what medical remedies you find.

We just won’t do it.

Since this reluctance is sufficiently reasonable for the purposes of the body I’m in, it seems to me kinder to concede to my legs the prudential realism of their concern.  Here is how I could answer them.

Hey little legs,

you’re not crazy. 

There really is a pack of dogs

out there.

That said, it’s statistically unlikely that I will be literally murdered by a hater of Jews.  In the meantime, my work summons me to step forward and say what I know.  Only, in the present circumstances, 

a gentle and kindly self-understanding 

is probably appropriate.

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“God and The Care for One’s Story”

This is the talk I gave for the Adult Education program at Temple Judea of Bucks County on April 14th.  The video was taken by Jerry, my husband, from his smartphone.

It includes the Q and A, which shows a very engaged and thoughtful audience. The video starts a little after my talk did.  I’d just been explaining the thesis of A Good Look at Evil, which is that we live nonfiction stories, and evil-doers try to spoil our stories. To explain what I mean by “story,” I start with a Biblical illustration, the Joseph story from the Book of Genesis.  Then I’ll go on to give examples from my own life.

Enjoy!

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Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

“St. Jerome in His Study”
Albrecht Durer, 1514

Good Philosophy Gets You to the Bathroom in Time

In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer published an article for Britain’s widely read Sunday Telegraph, titled,

“What I Saw When I Was Dead.”

In the atheist circles in which Ayer traveled, if one had an experience while one was deemed clinically dead, one certainly didn’t talk about it!  The philosophers I knew coughed embarrassedly when they alluded to Ayer’s article and agreed that “Freddy had lost his cool.”

I felt differently.  A philosopher had had an experience that contradicted the views he had painstakingly worked out over a professional lifetime and he was making that fact public!  Ayer hoped he wouldn’t lose his membership in the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.  But he stood prepared to risk it!

Being blackballed is, in some respects, a fate worse than death.  I thought Ayer’s decision to go public with an experience inadmissible in his society, took courage.  Alone among the philosophers I knew, in 2004 I published “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” in Philosophy, the journal of The Royal Institute of Philosophy.  If Ayer was honest enough to risk his professional reputation and social standing, someone should pay attention.

What kind of experience did Ayer describe?  It wasn’t the by-now familiar one of leaving one’s body, going through a tunnel toward The Light, meeting dead relatives and so on.  The experience he reported was a painful one.  To me, it looked as if Ayer was being forced to live inside the philosophical worldview he had espoused, and was finding that worldview untenable.

To explain briefly: Ayer belonged to a philosophical school of thought that held all knowledge to depend on “sense data,” the perceptions we get from sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.   For such philosophers, the problem to solve is how to get from mere perceptions, which are private and subjective, to the world of physical objects that exist in space and time whether or not we perceive them.  If a philosopher can’t bridge that gap between the subjective and the objective domains, then he or she can’t account for the space/time world that the natural sciences describe.

Ayer made a number of attempts to show that it would be possible for philosophers to start with subjective sense data and get from there to the world of physical bodies in objective space and time.  However, his own honesty prompted him to admit that each of his arguments depended on some sleight of hand or other.  Even so, he was not yet ready to give up the attempt.  It was at this point that he “died” in a hospital bed and had the vision he reported in the Telegraph.

In his vision, “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should … space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint … was awry … .”  Since time and space are treated “by Einstein’s theory or relativity … as a single whole,” Ayer decides in his vision to cure the problem of space by “operating upon time.”  Trying to warn the “ministers of time,” he waves his watch at them, but – as with the ministers of space –- fails to get their attention!

The world that Ayer experienced, where space and time were out of joint and “the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should” was an uncomfortable one for the philosopher.  It was lit by a bright, red, painful light.  It was not a world Ayer could live in with any sense of ease.   Yet – and this is the amazing part – it was the very world that his own philosophical arguments had constructed.  It was as if sent to the philosopher as a warning that his favorite views were false.  False because one couldn’t live inside them.

I don’t know if the annals of philosophy contain any other experience of that kind.  Ayer was honest enough to receive a vision that refuted his views and had the still-greater honesty to make it public.  Wow!  Doesn’t happen every day.

Is it only philosophers, and the most honest ones at that, who are open to seeing that their favorite views – if they tried to live inside them — would be like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t fit together?

Let me supply an example of an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle that we can all recognize.  Let’s take the … uh … French, or Italian, or anyway Continental … philosophical view (it has several provenances) that the seemingly objectively external world is actually a societal construct.  Now let’s proceed to take this fashionable view to the public bathroom, as I did on two recent occasions.

A few weeks ago, Jerry and I stopped in New York’s Metropolitan Museum before going to a memorial meeting being held in midtown for a deceased friend.  It happened that we both needed a bathroom.  The Met, a place I once knew like the back of my hand, had its rooms divided differently from the way they used to be.  I didn’t know where I was.  I couldn’t find the bathrooms.  This wasn’t good.  Like many women, that’s the first thing I look for in a new place.

A guard directed us.  There’s no Men’s Room or Women’s Room any more.   There was only one “Family All-Gender” bathroom.  The line for it was very long.

In an earlier world, the processing of guys was much faster because a row of urinals took care of them in most cases.  Women can’t deal with urinals without damage to their clothes, modesty and hygiene.  Guys can.

In the Family All-Gender room, there were only about six booths.  Each had doors extending to floor level, possibly to thwart voyeurs with smart phones.

In sum, wait times were longer and convenience reduced.  But the philosophical postulates were safe from challenge, dieu merci.

Last Thursday, Jerry and I drove at my behest to a mall where a new, fashionable and dirt-cheap line of clothing is sold.  At bathroom time, we again found the expected All-Gender bathrooms.  There were two of them.  Each held one booth with a door that closed and one sit-down toilet with no door to hide it.

Out of long habit, Jerry and I separated, each going through a different All-Gender door.  Jerry is not shameless but he is practical.  Seeing the open toilet, he used it, turning his back to whoever might enter.

A woman did enter and, seeing the back of a man standing there, gasped and quickly withdrew.

I do not know why these All-Gender bathrooms can’t include a row of urinals for the convenience of the row of male backs that ornamented bathrooms in my Fulbright days in Paris.  Is it because the presence of urinals would be an acknowledgment that males possess an appendage that makes urinals practical for them – but not for females?

Even if architects won’t admit the existence of these appendages,

all the same

they do exist.

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Time Travel

Roman Era Funerary Portrait, c. 100-120 CE

Time Travel

When I was a girl in New York City, my favorite thing to do was to go by myself to the Metropolitan Museum.   In those days, the vast rooms were usually empty.   Often I seemed to be the only one there.

And what a luxury it was, to be alone with those treasures!  I did not approach them in a “modern” way, as exemplars of line, color and form.  Though I was not without feeling for “beauty,” I was not there for that quality lifted out of its context.

What I wanted was to be elsewhere.

Elsewhere meant the past.

If I lingered by resplendent Egyptian sarcophagi, or ancient stone passageways that led nowhere, it was to try to feel imaginatively what it was like to live then.  It was, I sensed, very different from how it is to live as people like ourselves in the here and now.

Was it Voltaire who said, “The ancients did not know that they were ancients”?  If he meant that they were people like us who just happened to live in previous centuries, I guess I disagreed with Voltaire.  Rather, I thought, they passed their lives and had their being in a world whose contours and thicknesses, grammar, authorities and mysteries, were quite distinctive – not like ours.

It’s not just that the face of the Sphinx has worn down or the shining surface of the pyramids rubbed off.  It’s rather a particular quality of life that has fled the earth.

I feel that in Tudor England, the “thee’s and thou’s” belonged to a way of patterning human affairs that we cannot recapture.  What’s lost are not just certain craftsmanly skills or concepts we no longer entertain.  The burning pride and shame that Mary Queen of Scots must have felt when, in 1587, she knelt for her beheading — surrounded by people who did not pity her or think her too royal for such a fate — we no longer feel as that queen would have felt them.

The recorded voice of Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892, Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland, can still be heard reciting his epic poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  When we listen to that voice of an earlier era, intoning his lines,

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

what is conveyed is a quality of experience inadmissible in good society today. What quality is that?

Martial glory.

The question is not whether this is a socially useful feeling to have, or whether it’s better for society that we not have it.  The reality is, people do not feel it today as Tennyson soaringly expressed it.  If we want to get in touch with our feelings – an objective widely recommended – we won’t find “glory under arms” among our feelings.  It’s simply not there.  Conceivably, we might do our duty under arms.  We won’t glory in it.

Often, when we mourn a dead friend, we mourn the loss of the feelings we will not be able to share as such with anyone else.

One time in meditation, I had a vision of the Second Temple in the days of its flourishing in ancient Jerusalem.  I heard the sounds of rams’ horns, I saw bright-colored banners fluttering, the crowds hurrying to and fro, and shared the sense that this would never end.  It was so alive!  It was so beautiful!  I was so happy to be there!

It’s been a feature of my life, which the formerly empty historical rooms of the Metropolitan Museum helped to sustain, that

I have always longed for the past.

Not for the past that can be retrieved and decoded.  Rather, for the part of the past that is truly irrecoverable.

For what am I longing?  Perhaps these lost worlds affect us in much the same way as the friendships that death has taken from us.

It’s as if parts of ourselves

shadowed forth from the buried layers of the psyche

remind us of our present incompleteness.

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In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague in His Prime

In the Hall of Mourning, There are Many Mansions

Elmer Sprague passed away in his sleep, April 19th, 11:20 a.m.

On July 17th, 2018, a friend got in touch to tell me he’d been scheduled for the gravest kind of surgery in the morning.  My friend has been a colleague and witness to many of my life’s twists and turns, the rough and the smooth. The report after surgery?  If the medical experts are to be credited, he is looking at about a year of “heroic” treatment, postponing but not preventing the end.

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

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

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

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

“I will never have a body as beautiful

as the body of Moses!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t Socrates wrong?

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

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

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

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

                          with a parting kiss.

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The Burning of Notre Dame

The Burning of Notre Dame

The first photos showed the cathedral’s high spire falling, its skeletal wood frame silhouetted against the engulfing red flames and – seen from the city’s venerable center – a column of smoke rising.

Notre Dame is the heart of Paris.  No one builds like that today.  By contrast, efforts have been made to replace the World Trade Center – not adequately, in my view, but a building of the same form could be replicated were one so minded.  The same cannot be said for this crowning exemplar of twelfth-to- fourteenth-century gothic architecture.

Was it what a New York fireman friend has called “a set fire”?  This one might well have been an accident, set off by workmen with torches, though most accidental fires don’t begin as infernos.  If there were more to know, one can’t help feeling that, after duly investigating, “they” wouldn’t say.  Churches are being mysteriously vandalized all over France – desecrated, not just vandalized – but wars of religion have been safely relegated to earlier times, so the question can hardly be raised.

Secular Paris,

 the Paris that believes nothing

 — not even its own erotic spasms –

 cannot know why its heart is breaking.

From what I remember, when you stand on the high towers and look down, you can see how the city first unfolded, each expansion circumvallated by a wall, which then overlooked further expansions, to be contained in their turn.

One time long ago, my first love argued that I had never understood him, since the human soul turns up new, unexpected contours, like the cathedral of Notre Dame that we had just encircled, walking alongside its walls.

It was a lovely image, even though I thought it was misleading, since I did know him.

An account of one of the sackings of ancient Rome described the city as well guarded by its sentries, walled defenses and preparations for an anticipated fight.

There was, however, one thing outside their defensive perimeters: the high-towered, well-constructed aqueducts carrying Rome’s water supply into the city.  The barbarian invaders — Vandals, Visigoths or whoever they were — simply knocked down the aqueducts.  The population had to flee. The city died of thirst.

For Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame may have been the spring that watered a spiritual thirst inadmissible in the polite, urbane and ironical tones of its inhabitants.

Of that kind of thirst

cities can also die.

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Tintoretto

Jacopo Tintoretto
Self-Portrait, c. 1546-48

Tintoretto

We spent Monday through Wednesday of the past week in the nation’s capital.  Jerry had been invited to the annual Board meeting of the higher ed organization he founded, of which he’s emeritus chairman.

When we were first married, I found the role of “spouse of” almost weird, like pretending to be a native of some foreign country that I’d never even visited.  By now, however, there’s hardly a friend we meet in D.C. whom I don’t know and like, which means the socializing there is closer to a joint venture.

In separate meetings, we saw eight people in three days, subtracting at least eight waking hours of travel all told from the three days.  Now that’s a lot of people – in not a lot of hours.  Neither of us is an extrovert.  Personally, I feel like a deep sea diver coming up with the bends.

While Jerry was at his Board meeting, I decided to take in the National Gallery.  I wasn’t sure how I’d do at a big museum that I didn’t already know well.  My neuropathy condition makes walking uncertain.  Also, I did not remember if the nation’s premier museum was or wasn’t situated at the summit of a crescendo of stone stairs.

Happily, the front doors were at ground level.  (For the handicapped, life is a long series of sub rosa stratagems.)

All the while, another obstacle was giving me pause.  For me, perceiving paintings or other works of art has involved more than the eyes.  When my legs were trustworthy, I would move toward, back from, and around works of art with my whole body.  The body rhythm became part of the perception.  If it was a statue from another time, I would stand like the statue I was looking at, trying to feel what it was like to be him or her, back then, back there.  For me,

perceiving art was something like impersonation.

What kind of seeing could I do, if I couldn’t dance around the thing seen?

All the same, as I moved along, walking stick in the left hand, it was turning out feasible.  There must be some sort of virtual body that accompanies the sincere viewer.

At the present time, the National Gallery is hosting a blockbuster exhibit of Tintoretto.  I hadn’t come all that way to visit Tintoretto, whom I’d always thought of as the poor man’s Titian – the Venetian painter nobody today needs to see.

Well, I don’t know where I got that narrow notion, but it’s all wrong.  Tintoretto is an utter marvel!  Draughtsmanship perfect in its kind, colors bright and unashamed, placement of figures almost shocking in its unconventionality, telling portraits that seemed to stay in their frames by choice, not perforce.  So alive!

Nobody rich and powerful is flattered – except by being depicted, according to protocol, at the right end of large canvasses paying homage to the Virgin Mary and saints at the other end of the same canvasses.  The holiness of the idealized figures doesn’t spill over onto their powerful patrons — rendered here just as who and what they were, in their jewels and expensive clothes — no more and no less.

What a great thing was the art of that day!  The artist was fully embedded, and a knowing player, in the politics and belief systems in which, then as now, people lived!

By contrast nowadays, to depict persons or things “honestly,” it’s thought that they must be rendered ungainly or in some way visually absurd.

But why?  What’s the message?  What’s the point?  Spell it out, please.  Why is visual disappointment a necessary feature of the truth?

In our actual lives, when people (including absurdist philosophers) want to make a favorable impression, they still dress to look right.  Is it so much truer to be ugly?

Why not make the real beautiful?

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