Saints, Lovers and Writers

Saints, Lovers and Writers

Girls and women tend to think that their work is an addendum, an add-on, to the main event: life.

I have published books and articles, given papers internationally, fought for the right to teach philosophy without selling my conscience for it, and now have on my to-do list two books being prepared for publication. A Good Look at Evil is under contract for reprint. It will come out with two new chapters and only needs a new Forward from me. The other book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, is completed and awaits word from an editor at a very suitable academic press, who has – so far – expressed interest and encouragement.

And yet, and yet … I tend to treat this part of my life as something on the margins, or (like the Wizard of Oz) behind the curtain.

To some extent, we can put this down to the condition of the “second sex,” as famously summed up by Lord Byron:

A man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart.

‘Tis woman’s whole existence … .

You do sense that the woman Lord Byron may have been poeticizing about, whose love is her “whole existence,” is about to get dumped.

Have I mentioned here that, when I was a young girl, my covert ambition was to be a great lover or a famous saint? A lapsed-Catholic colleague tells me that the aim of the saint in his former religion is to attain soul-union with God, after which she can intercede for the other parishioners, who are not so pure as she is. What, he objects, would a nice Jewish girl do with such an ambition?

My formerly Catholic friend misreads me. I didn’t know anything about Catholicism or how you get to be a saint. I’d seen Jennifer Jones star in the movie, “Song of Bernadette.” She plays a little French peasant girl who sees the Virgin Mary and is told by the lady in her vision to scratch a hole in the dirt. Pure water springs from the hole and eventually pilgrims — the halt, the lame and the blind — come to Lourdes from all over the world to get cures from the spring water.   Some of the cures are certified as miraculous, the peasant girl is later canonized as a saint, and to this day people pray to her to intercede with God for them.

I didn’t care about most of that, and it wasn’t the main event in the movie. What got my interest was how she stood fast for the truth of what she had seen, despite ridicule and at the sacrifice of her private happiness. She seemed to me to be very great. A lot better than most girls. Outstanding. And indistinguishable – in my imagination — from the beautiful movie star who played her.

Another saint played by a beautiful movie star was Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc. Knowing nothing of war, Joan (another peasant girl) had been guided by her angels to lead the armies of France against the English invader. In the fight to free her country, in the ebb and flow of powers and possibilities, she’d done the very best that her situation allowed – and a few rungs up from that!

If Catholics treasured the memory of women who were so outstanding, then good for them! Such women simply interested me. That didn’t make me a Catholic, any more than admiring Gandhi made me a Hindu.

The point was to be outstanding. To break the mold.

Somehow, writing philosophical books and articles was what I did best, so far as I could tell. Well, no contest, it really was what stretched my abilities and captured my interest more than any other action. But I continued to think of it as something I did “on the side.” Not my real aim. Not the center of action in my life.

As for “great lover,” I don’t think I had a model in the same way. I read about them in books by male authors: chiefly Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence. Joined with the proper male counterpart, they could make the earth move. Which was nice but didn’t seem a lasting accomplishment. So I wove such fictional figures together with great women whom I did know personally and with certain Biblical prototypes.

These were partners like Sarah or Rachel — indispensable for the heroes of the spirit who made lasting covenants with God. In the politics of human reality, the man who took the initiative in such divine-human transactions needed the right wife. That was too obvious to need saying, though the hero of the spirit did sometimes say it. The role she played was supportive, sustaining if you will. But she didn’t seem to be out in front like the famous saints.

How to put all that together? Actually, though the pieces seem unrelated, they’re not a bad fit, if fully assembled. To be in a close-up with God is necessarily to be sincere. God hates phoniness. It makes Him sick. To be a true – and true-hearted – lover, the same non-phoniness would have to be a prerequisite. (If you had to lie, in the close-up, all day long, it would take all your strength and you wouldn’t have much left over for any actual loving. You would be resentful and would tend to stick your foot out for the man to trip over, when he went out to wrestle with the angel.)

The eros, the desire-fulness of these intimate relations, human and divine, creates the adhesive force needed for each. If one listens for the divine hints and leadings sufficiently to allow one’s divine Partner to co-script the story, one will be out on the front lines of life. Whichever role they play in the threesome, the human partners need to make room for this kind of listening and responding. So these seemingly incompatible and immature longings may not turn out so inconsistent or childish after all. They are at home in the subtleties of intimate life.

What prompted these reflections was my rereading the two recently-written final chapters that I’ll need to include in the updated reprint of A Good Look at Evil. These new last chapters seem to me – forgive me one and all – absolutely first rate. I mean, seriously good. Also a good guide that can actually help those who will read this book when it comes out again!

Not on the sands of Canaan four thousand years ago, not on the battlefields of fifteenth-century France, not in the curative spring of fresh water at Lourdes in the nineteenth century, but right here — on the plains of the mind where I work — I see the battle fought, all the way through, for the truth of what I have seen.

You can’t put that in the movies.

You have to put it in a book.

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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