“Reality and Unreality”

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from his Opere: Carceri [Prison Series]

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from his Opere: Carceri [Prison Series]

“Reality and Unreality”

Reality or unreality – does it matter?

As I sometimes mention here, Léo Bronstein was my father’s best friend and a kind of godfather to me. One of the many things he did for me – for us all, really – was to fill my mind with vividly colored stories whose meaning was not obvious but required decoding.

He was part of a family of crazy Russian musicians who did not have to try to be “interesting.” They just were, whether or not they tried.

One time he came over to our apartment to visit, still excited by an occurrence of that week. His brother’s household was a stopping place for wandering souls who found there a temporary home and respite. One of these was Lola. I don’t know what he did in his day job, or what his talents were. However, I was told that he was a “communist” and was in “the underground.”

I pictured “the underground” as a kind of dungeon below street level where unlucky people who had fallen into it were doomed to live out their days. For example, the disembodied voice from the basement, daily heard in our kitchen when the dumbwaiter was ready to be loaded with our trash and pulled by ropes down the shaft, seemed to me to waft upward from the same “underground.”

Anyway, Lola surfaced rarely and unpredictably, but just then had decided to drop in on the spacious apartment of Léo’s brother. He had not been there long when the doorbell rang again.

It was Lola’s sister Lala. Her tragic history included a seduction at the hands of a handsome musical genius who had left her with a venereal disease. She had been a virgin when she met the genius. In those days, there was no cure, only a profoundly humiliating treatment, to be administered indefinitely. The poor girl went mad and was thereafter intermittently confined to one asylum or another. She must have been on furlough when she too decided to drop in.

Unfortunately, in the course of this visit, Lala began to carry on in so extreme a style that the family felt threatened. It was unclear what sorts of breakables might get broken – vases or heads – but finally they decided to call the police.

At the last minute, Lola remembered that he was wanted by the police, and stepped discretely into a nearby closet.

Two seasoned New York cops stepped into the beautiful apartment. They listened to the family’s explanations. Then they listened to Lala’s contrary account. They shook their heads, trying to figure out which one was the crazy one.

At that point, Lala broke in to say helpfully,

“I will prove to you that I am not crazy.

There is a communist in the closet!”

The whole family, Léo included, froze in horror.

For their part, the cops did not hesitate one minute. They seized Lala and dragged her back to Belleview. For if there is one infallible sign that a person is crazy, it’s the claim that there is a communist in the closet.

What is reality? What is unreality? Does it matter?

One time in my childhood, our whole family went to the circus. In those days, people with physical “challenges” were deemed freaks and might be seen in the side shows. Moving along one aisle, we passed a family of miniature people, fully grown but even smaller than I was. They appeared to be in their living room – but it was on a raised stage. The room included a fireplace, armchairs and other accoutrements of bourgeois life. The paterfamilias was striding back and forth across the living room carpet. His angry and eloquent speech was addressed to the junior members of his group.

I stood watching absorbedly, the rim of the stage at the level of my small chin. The patriarch seemed a normal father, quite a bit like my own father when he was in full denunciatory mode. Suddenly he walked to the edge of the stage, looked directly down at the audience and said, “We are having a private discussion. Would you please move along.”

I can still recall how shocked and mortified I felt to be caught eavesdropping. I hadn’t believed that they were quite real.

What is reality? What is unreality?

Clearly it does matter.

Recently I have mentioned in these columns a powerful feeling of having perished in Germany in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust. The feeling includes details of a killing method that I only read about years after I first had the impression of succumbing to it. People were crowded into the backs of vans and exhaust pipes were emptied into the holding area. There are also episodes in my present life where the past life hypothesis seems to have a particular explanatory power.

On the other hand, these impressions could be memory traces floating into my consciousness from someone else’s life. How do I know this was my life?

Or again, since my parents were involved in rescue work, and the reality of the Holocaust marked my childhood, it might be that long-repressed awareness of those formative impressions is becoming conscious only now.

Since acupuncture deals with mood and emotional factors as well as physical symptoms, I mentioned this quandary to Richard, my acupuncturist.

“Which is it? I have no idea. A genuine past life? Someone else’s memory? The impressions of my childhood? How can I find out?”

“It doesn’t matter which it is,” was Richard’s verdict. “The effect on you is the same, no matter what the cause. What’s happening is that you are getting strong enough to face the feelings you’ve been carrying.”

Reality or unreality? Can we tell which is which?

When does it matter?

In the case of Lola and Lala, we can tell and it does matter. A more thorough search would have uncovered the communist in the closet and the crazy woman registered as an inmate at Belleview Hospital. The cops would still have dragged poor Lala back to her unhappy quarters, possibly detained Lola on other charges and perhaps implicated the family for sheltering a fugitive. So the actual confusion was curable — but perhaps better left uncured.

In the circus case, the poignant truth was that the only way these little people could suffer or enjoy anything like a normal life was as freaks maintained by the circus. Society needed to evolve further for a more tender provision to be thinkable.

In my own case, there is certainly a fact of the matter. God knows what happened, but it may not be relevant to me to find out. The one datum that is new and important to know has already come to light: that the Holocaust must have profoundly affected the sensitive, vulnerable, unfiltered awareness of the child I was.

Real life has the characteristics of a detective story, with many clues strewn about. But not every clue solves every mystery.

One has to discern which mystery is one’s own to solve.

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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2 Responses to “Reality and Unreality”

  1. Elmer says:

    In your “Reality and Unreality” piece, the Lola/Lala story—a scene worthy of Kaufman and Hart— is, to coin a phrase, an illustration of situational metaphysics, a complex of views, perspectives, realities, whatever you want to call ‘em..
    The family: How to contain a person who is mentally ill —that is, someone who does not conform to the family’s standards of nice behavior at a family gathering in a fine apartment. How things ought to be; the family’s reality.
    Lola: I must avoid the police, because I think they’ll arrest me for being a communist, or maybe a Communist.
    Lala: I can pass the test for not being crazy: I can tell you there’s a Communist in the closet.
    The policemen: Talking about communists in closets is a sure criterion for craziness.
    Léo Bronstein, whose reality is to see all these realities in play at once.

    The lesson, please remember that this is a philosopher’s-eye view, is that reality is person-centered. There is no umpire-like REALITY against which THINGS or SITUATIONS may be infallibly judged.

    In lots of instances there is a useful match in our realities. People who live in Brookline all share a system of street names and street numbers. People find their way to parties in places they’ve not visited before. Taxi drivers deliver people safely to their homes, etc. But then there can be conflicts in realities. Relatively minor ones, when a mother thinks her child should be in bed by 9 pm, and the child thinks he needs another hour of study time. Rather more serious conflicts as in the Lola/Lala story. But there can also be horrible clashes of realities: The death-dealers and the dead in Paris on the 13th of November, for example. As a philosopher, indeed simply as someone who tries to be a decent human being, I’m stumped to know what to do about horrible reality clashes. As a soldier I was trained to shoot the German or the Japanese before he shot me.
    Young Abigail and the family of midgets: They were putting on a show for you, and the father character’s speech was partly a joke but more importantly a device for getting the crowd to move along to the other freaks. You were, forgive me, too young to make the distinction between a play and, as we say, real life. Learning how to do that is a subject for an essay in itself.
    Past life: The issue—an issue—is how to make sense of someone’s having a past life. Here I might adopt the Buddhist policy: If you can understand someone’s talking about his/her childhood, then surely you can understand talk about something that happened in a life before that childhood. Yes, but we can check up on childhood stories. How do you check on a past life story? Richard avoids the question in a common sense way: What difference does the truth or falsity of a past life premonition make? It’s whether you make it a part of your life story that matters. Well and good, if the “making it a part of your story” only concerns you, but if you push it too far, for example claiming to know some otherwise unverifiable fact based on your past life experience, unkind people might scoff.
    ​I’m mindful that from ancient Greece to past and present India talk of past lives, the wheel of rebirth, etc. made sense. So this is not a topic that can dealt with in a quick paragraph. But, of course, that’s just what I’m doing here. But—another “but”—here we have another case of person-centered reality. In a culture where it makes sense to talk about the transmigration of souls, people talk about it. The talk is partly and importantly propelled by its helping one make sense of living a life, and in the hands of Plato, the authors of the Upanishads, and the Buddha, the talk may help one to lead a better life.

    • Abigail says:

      Elmer — thanks for this smashing collegial return on my serve. Now that we no longer share an office, who will explain to me what’s play acting and what’s not?

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