“Hundreds of People”
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ great novel of the French Revolution, there is a scene where the book’s heroine says:
- “I have sometimes sat alone here of an evening, listening, until I have made the echoes out to be the echoes of all the footsteps that are coming by and by into our lives.”
At present, she and her father are safe in England, the country where they have found asylum after her father’s long, unjust imprisonment in Paris’s dreaded Bastille. Her friends are spending a peaceful evening at the home where she and her father now live. No one has reason to treat her remark as other than the “idle fancy” she herself calls it. But in fact her people will soon find themselves caught in the Paris of the Terror. They will have a narrow escape from the guillotine that cuts down the innocent with the guilty, the oppressed with the oppressor. Her “idle fancy” has turned out a premonition.
We’ve just returned from the American Academy of Religion conference in San Antonio. There, for the first time in my life, I had to meet publishers’ representatives and give them “the elevator pitch,” the brief account of Confessions of a Young Philosopher, which is the book I just finished writing. For me, the experience had the same strange feeling described in A Tale of Two Cities: “hundreds of people” scaling the barricades that till now have protected my private life and pouring over the ramparts! Here’s what’s been happening.
First, a few publishers actually expressed interest when they heard my elevator pitch. Faithful readers of this column may recall that, about a year ago, I spoke by phone to a literary agent who also expressed interest. My book wasn’t yet ready for submission and, as things turned out, she never got back to me as she’d promised. So that balloon deflated and (with relief) I went back to private life.
The trip to San Antonio was not like that. I spoke with about twenty publishers’ representatives face to face. Having thought through beforehand what the book was about (a complicated spiritual journey) and why anyone should read it, I managed to describe it to strangers in a way that did not sound defensive. In return, I have cards that give the email address of approximately thirteen editors, from houses big and small. It’s of course no guarantee that Confessions will find its publisher from among that number but, even if it doesn’t, a book that I wrote plumbing my inner depths will be Out There in the big world. (Does Dostoevsky give the elevator pitch? I don’t think so.)
Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist who has written a book called Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, tells that if lab rats are trained to do a trick here in America, lab rats in Australia will have learned it too. Even though they were never trained to do it. Sheldrake speculates that something he calls a “morphic field” spreads out from the original happening and allows it to be more widely known than can be explained in terms of present day physics. So, following Sheldrake, I’d say that, whether or not there’s a publisher for Confessions lurking in the original thirteen, my book will be Out There, in the morphic fields of the world.
Anyway, while I’ve been readying the book for submission in various parcels, sized according to different publishers’ specifications, the morphic fields have been getting active on their own.
Item: a philosopher in the U.K. whom I’ve never met, for whose work I have high regard, spontaneously asked to read Confessions. He’s now finished it and sent me eight pages of philosophic reflections about the book. We’ve begun a thoughtful and candid correspondence about some of its themes.
Item: a book I’ve just finished reading and loved, American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag, inspired me to send the author a note of heartfelt appreciation. Kaag has shown the unique importance of “the Americans” – people like Emerson, Thoreau, William James, plus others known mainly to specialists: what they accomplished in philosophy and how intimately their thought was intertwined with their lives and loves. At the same time he tells how his experience finding a not-yet-archived trove containing these materials (which he catalogued and helped archive) touched and changed his own personal and romantic life. I wrote to thank him and he promptly wrote back in collegial style. He’s stepped outside the box to write his book and it’s a victory in the fight to get truthful lives recognized amid the cynicisms that surround us.
Item: a few weeks ago, I wrote a column here called “Heroes and Patriots.” I wrote it to honor Lydie Denier, author of A Voice for Ambassador Stevens. Chris Stevens was the diplomat murdered at an American compound in Benghazi, Libya. Somehow in the quarrels over the handling of that disaster by our State Department, the face of Chris Stevens, surely central to the story, got blurred like a newspaper photo that fades from the public mind. Lydie Denier, the woman who had loved him, brought that face before us again by writing her book. For this beautiful woman, I felt sympathy and admiration. When I saw that her book was getting a little better known, I let her know about my column, posting a note on her Facebook. To my astonishment, Lydie has actually posted “Heroes and Patriots” on her FB! Again to my surprise, Amazon also posted the whole column as a “customer review”!
Item: In Confessions, I suggest that there are gifts of the Jewish spirit from which the non-Jewish world can benefit. The British philosopher with whom I’ve been in correspondence expressed his doubt: how “Jewish” am I? It’s a perfectly plausible question, since on the high holidays I have to look over a friend’s shoulder to know where we are in the transliteration and what’s going on. As if in answer to the British philosopher’s question, a query arrived today from a scholar in Israel who’d read my “Tales of Rav Tsair.” It’s posted on https://brooklyncuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . Rav Tsair, “the Young Rabbi,” was the pen name of my grandfather. The scholar writes:
- “There are a number of people, that include Rabbis, Professors and general students of Jewish history that are attached to his works. Would appreciate if you would share with me your knowledge of this great man.”
Okay, it’s not literally “hundreds of people,” but by now it sure feels like it. My private walled-in house is whirling through the high winds. We’re not in Kansas any more. There are people here I’ve never met. Some of them are fantastic people whom it’s an honor to know, even at a distance. But their coming into my life changes the landscape in ways that are utterly new, utterly unsettling.
I guess the fact is
I have entered their lives
and they are returning the favor.