“Broken Pieces”

Franz Kafka, 1923

Franz Kafka, 1923

“Broken Pieces”

I’ve never read Kafka and don’t want to, because I prefer happy endings. Elizabeth Bennett should marry Mr. Darcy, Peter Pan should never have to grow up, and … you get the idea. The whole notion that real life is “absurd” has always struck me as a rush to judgment while the jury’s still out. I’m not persistently optimistic when dealing with the hurdles of life, but I am persistent. I don’t give up – at least not till I’ve personally checked all the exits, found every window and door locked and barred, and seen for myself that there are no exits.

On TV last night, I was watching an economist I’ve never heard of named Deirdre McCloskey talk about her new book, Bourgeois Equality. She gives an importance to ideas that is congenial to me as a philosopher, but rare for an economist. There are two conditions that she claims as prerequisites for economic progress: liberty and dignity. People need to be able to think well of themselves (that’s the dignity part) and to feel unimpeded (that’s the freedom part). If those two preconditions are met, people can figure out what their real problems are and they can invent their way out of their predicaments.   One invention suggests another and soon needs are met, and new kinds of work called for, which were not even dreamt of before.

I’m no economist, but this way of approaching life makes sense to me from other contexts. For instance, I have talked a few friends out of committing suicide. In each case, we first talked our way toward finding the nub of the problem, usually, a double-bind. The would-be suicide thought she had exactly two ways to go and either way would nullify the goal she wanted to reach. Her predicament was felt as humiliating and ending her life appeared to be the best way to preserve dignity.

Fortunately, we gave ourselves the time to think more accurately about the situation. We were free to get outside the box and see that there were not just two ways to go. A third or a fourth way was also possible. That said, my friend could see that it doesn’t do much for dignity to be found dead in a motel room. Given a wider optic, suicide no longer looked smart.

So I prefer happy endings and believe in persistently holding out for them. Sometimes, however, persistence is not enough – because nothing will be enough.

Take my recent, Kafka-esque contact with everybody’s unfavorite federal agency, the TSA. I have a bit of a history with them, none of it nice. The first few times I was invited to get inside their X-ray machine, I declined. I’d already had radiation treatment for cancer, with machines that are at least required to meet the more fine-tuned hospital safety standards. However, the alternative I was offered turned out to be my first – so far only – experience of sexual molestation. At the hands of two girls in uniform. I hope they enjoyed it.

Given the effect of that on my psyche, I decided I’d probably live longer if I went back to their X-ray machine. However, always on the lookout for happy endings, I decided recently to apply for TSA’s expedited pre-boarding status. You drive one hour each way from where we live, write TSA a check (nonrefundable) for $85 – I should think the average terrorist can spring for that – and let them press your fingers on a little screen to get your fingerprints. No problem. So, two weeks or so after filing this application, I should get the clearance, right?

Wrong. There’s been a delay. My “prints” didn’t come out clearly. A further “background check” will be needed. No, I can’t drive back to TSA and give them a new, sharper set of fingerprints. Their software can’t handle the shock of that. By the way, the “background check” will take eight weeks.

“But,” I protested, “by that time, all our traveling will be done!”

The mechanical-voiced lady for whom I had waited fifteen minutes on the phone (she’s real, only she doesn’t sound real) is 100% unmoved. Not even her molecules move.

All I can say about this degree of stubborn stupidity is that it’s dehumanizing. It’s an object lesson in how NOT to exercise power. It’s the right ending denied. One is tempted to say that it’s Kafka-esque, meaning “absurd.” But that’s not accurate.  These are the broken pieces of what should have been a happy ending.

It’s not absurd. It’s wrong. 

That said, I’m beginning to think that the absurd can have its uses. In one of the collections of his humorous essays, Woody Allen mentions (tongue- in-cheek) a new religious holiday in the Ultra-Ultra- Orthodox Jewish calendar: the holiday that commemorates all the promises to His chosen people that, through the millennia, the Holy One has broken.

For whatever reason, I found this hilarious. Of course, it’s utterly absurd. It’s not about happy endings at all. When I alluded to it laughingly in Torah Study, I learned that my co-religionists don’t think it’s the least bit funny. Everyone looked at me reproachfully and I haven’t had the temerity to mention it again. Except to myself. It still makes me laugh.

Why does this strike me as funny – not wrong, not insulting to my long-suffering people, not blasphemous?

In the what-you-see-is-what-you-get Bible movies of my youth, all God’s promises got kept. All the divine warnings came true. I loved it. I still like to watch those pictures when they get revived. They make a kind of supernatural sense, if you think the idea that God acts in history makes sense at all.

I take the Jewish people to have made the solemn, irrevocable commitment to live that idea in the real world. Jewish historiography doesn’t do much to trace what happened to Jews in history in those terms, because the conditions of emancipation for Jews included an agreement to present a secular face to the public that was ready, for the first time, to admit them to citizenship. Naturally, the secular requirement applied to Jewish historians too.

So people, whether Jews or Gentiles, who are curious to learn what happened to the Jews after the last books of the Bible were written – what happened in history in covenantal terms – have to consult whatever hints and clues they can find. There is no such legible history to read, for those who – out of curiosity — ask that interesting question.

After the Bible,

supposing the covenant still in place,

what happened

to the people of the covenant?

The real narrative has been a multiply-broken one. To discern it calls for an intelligence that, at its best, is able to visualize the unbroken original, working from the clues in the shards.

What happened? When it is not blatantly tragic, this seeing capacity – oscillating back and forth between the ideal wholeness and the real brokenness – becomes utterly funny.

You laugh until you cry.

And then you cry until you laugh.

 

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, soon to appear in a revised second edition. 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, 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. 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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