Recognition

Detail from Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, 1659

Recognition

There is a battle scene in Homer’s Iliad where a deep, obscuring fog comes down suddenly over the field of combat. The soldiers have endured danger, hard blows and mortal injuries, but this they cannot stand.

“Please,” they cry out to the gods above, “don’t let us die in the dark!”

We need to be seen.

It is said that solitary confinement is a form of torture that many, if not most, can’t survive without suffering a lot of psychological damage.

Of course, there are times when one needs to be alone, but not indefinitely. Even solitude has its touchstones of homecoming, of reunion – with memory, with aspiration, with nature and wild creatures.

It takes special training to resist brainwashing, because what the mind controller does is deny every form of recognition to his victim. Every value, every loyalty, every commonplace familiar name for familiar things — by which each of us gets her bearings — is rebuffed, refuted, ridiculed and thrown back in the form of an accusation.

This may be why we feel intuitively the value of someone like Winston Churchill, in the recent film, “Darkest Hour.” He is shown on screen, in the role he really played in history — against all the military and logistical probabilities, against the combined force of opinion and argument from his peers — refusing to give in to Hitler.

How did he do it? Where did he get the wherewithal? How did he know he was right? Know it back then, before “history” turned out to vindicate his refusal?

Where do we go to get recognition when “all the world” refuses it? Would Churchill have been right, even if the British forces had been wiped out at Dunkirk and the British Isles overrun by Hitler’s Nazi invaders? Surely Churchill knew that was a strong possibility.

It’s hard to script a general rule to cover cases like this, even if philosophers like to do that sort of thing. Perhaps it’s helpful to try to inhabit the full density of the particular case that one faces: learning everything that one can about it, knowing what happened in similar cases in the past, taking stock of one’s own capabilities as realistically as one is able to do. I don’t know about general rules, though I’m prepared to admire any experts who do. I do somewhat better on particular cases.

In one such particular case, there came a moment when I felt so utterly alone as to be unrecognizable. Without social force. A figure to be jeered at. I was in the sixth year of what turned out to be a seven-year struggle to get back an academic job from which I’d been unjustly fired. I was walking down a sloping sidewalk toward the university’s administrative headquarters, where one more of the seemingly endless hearings on my case had been scheduled. Loaded down with a satchel filled with the documents that pertained to this hearing, I felt like an automaton going though motions whose meaning even I could no longer see.

Suddenly I saw a linked procession of almost-transparent, vibrating figures behind me – but on a path some few feet above the sidewalk. I felt that they were closely connected to me, almost like blood relatives, yet made of finer stuff than flesh and blood. They were conveying a message that I understood clearly, though they made no sound.

They’d been here

the whole time,

witnessing every step I took.

I’d been on a pilgrimage –

a sacred journey for high ends –

and “it was over.”

I will omit the striking way this prediction came true (the whole story is told in a new chapter of A Good Look at Evil, to be reissued in 2018 with Wipf and Stock) and focus on what the appearance of these messengers meant to me at that moment.

They were profoundly consoling! They meant, my efforts had not gone unseen. They were not falsified by all the counter-arguments hurled against those efforts. I was not hopelessly outnumbered. I was not – as I seemed – alone.

Is that what enables the great heroes, the men like Churchill, the women like Phyllis Chesler – another hero of resistance who defends the rights of women globally — to stand against the rising tide of defeatists?

Do they know, 

when they stand alone –

for high and unshakable principles –

that they are nevertheless

Witnessed?

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. 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, the "Genius" Among the Giants. 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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