“Hanging Fire”

Henry M. Rosenthal at home in Maine. Lionel Trilling, Walter Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henry M. Rosenthal, at home in Maine.  Lionel Trilling, Walter Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Hanging Fire”

I seem to be at a rather gratifying plateau.

“Confessions of a Young Philosopher” is now edited almost to completion. It may take another few weeks but the major hurdles have been cleared. It is, if I may say so myself, a book that addresses the question of how one lives a philosophic life on a depth level. Also, it takes in what makes that project different for a woman.

After I finished “Confessions,” I had two projects in view. The first was to be a book provisionally titled “Terror and Evil.” The idea for it was prompted by the terrible events of 9/11. Although by now I’ve read many books covering a wide spectrum of views on this topic, I’m still quite puzzled.

Religion comes into it, obviously. But, supposedly, we have outlived the seventeenth century’s Wars of Religion and have no idea how or whether to engage in a new one. It is all very peculiar. You have to take people at their word. If they say they have to kill you at the prompting of God-as-they-understand-Him, it’s more respectful to believe them than to tell them that they really need a job and a sense of belonging. How do you know what they really need? They’ve told you what they need and what they’re going to do about it. One should not patronize people nor underestimate the power of an idea. So, believe them. But I don’t know how to go forward on that basis. So this project is on hold for now.

The second project was to be a book based on the voluminous papers of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal. His influence on me was immense and I have still to take the measure of that. I knew witnesses to his presence whose sense of him was extremely vivid and – for themselves – consequential. For example, one woman wrote, “I always felt important when I walked into his line of sight.” Another, a philosopher who was on the closest terms with some of the finest minds of the age, wrote that he had “an intelligence that I for one shall never see again.”

The boxes lined up atop black file cabinets in my office contain his journals, which are perhaps the best things he wrote. They may help me to crack the code he lived by, which – although he wasn’t secretive – was a mystery to me.

Aware that there were people who helped me secure his papers and have awaited my work on them, I made several earlier efforts to deal with these materials. At first, I thought they might serve as a key to the historical period he lived through. But it turned out that his interest in all that was peripheral at most. He and my mother rescued ten families from the Holocaust. But his inner focus was elsewhere.

Since he was a philosopher by profession, I tried to lift out from the papers a definite philosophic view. But, though he published (posthumously) a book on Hobbes and Spinoza – seventeenth century rationalists – alongside that book was an unfinished, longhand manuscript of an entirely different sort. It confronted a God of the most personal kind, in the most personal terms. It was not a God he talked about. But he died with that God in view.

So my earlier efforts failed to crack the code of his thinking or find out how I was supposed to deal with his influence.

Two things happened to break the impasse. The first: Arlene–our friendship dates back to the High School of Music and Art–who knew and loved the family, suggested I set down passages from his journals along with my responses. In other words, “Conversations with My Father” (his death being no obstacle to such a heart-to-heart).

Well, if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s talk to Daddy! So yes, that’ll work.

The other happening was an email from a woman who is writing a biography of my father’s former best friend, the literary critic and taste-maker to a generation: Lionel Trilling. She and I are to meet this week to trade copies of the letters that went back and forth between the two friends from 1924 to 1930, mine of Lionel’s, hers of Henry’s.

There is now a whole literary/academic industry devoted to the period when Lionel Trilling and his circle of New York public intellectuals, writing mainly for the Partisan Review, dominated American culture. There are books about Trilling’s intellectual friendships. But, although Trilling repeatedly refers in writing to my father as the “closest friend” of his youth, no one has tried to pry open that chapter of his life – which was, as it happens, a defining one for both men. For Trilling, my father was “the only man [he] ever met who was a genius.” So far as I have been able to learn, Trilling never again had so close a friend. For my father? Well, to be investigated … .

So here are two live projects, one on the edge of completion, the other on the verge of the venture.

It’s a blessing.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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3 Responses to “Hanging Fire”

  1. Judy says:

    it is a blessing. Do it! Who else but you can? You will do the very best you can, because you cannot do otherwise. If it isn’t a perfect representation of you father’s essence, he will have to be clearer with you in the world to come. You’ll both probably enjoy that discourse immensely. Hope I can listen in. Bet Jerry does too.

  2. wernercohn says:

    Great projects ! What a great way to spend a retirement !

    All the best


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