The Deep and the Shallow

The Deep and the Shallow 

A medley of book review weeklies and monthlies arrive here in a more or less continuous stream. I look through them, both to get an idea of what’s new – what is getting the attention of serious opinion-shapers – and to see if there’s a new book I’d like to read.

Since many of the most highly praised books seem to concern themselves with people’s wounds — with the dizzying defiles they fearfully face, with the fault lines that cut with equivalent depth through the author and the body politic – I don’t buy them.

I like happy endings, where hopes long denied get fulfilled, where the apparent pointlessness of someone’s particular experience resolves itself into retrieved significance, where the lead character’s imperiled identity returns from his or her ordeal more solid than before. This pretty much prevents my purchasing most of the novels and memoirs I see reviewed nowadays.

I tend to buy nonfiction.

That said, this predilection of mine for happy endings puts me at risk of being ranked as a shallow person – not a deep one.

The preference to which I confess here has only got more confirmed with time. In fact, it has come to comprehend an evolving relation to time itself. The 20th of January was the date of our wedding and, last Saturday, we celebrated the 19th anniversary of that day. Over a fine French dinner, we talked about the changes our marriage has brought about in each of us.

This is easier to measure with us than it might be with people who married at the time of life when you grow up together. We met when we were fully formed adults with established professional lives. So the changes were visible to both of us and have been ongoing, sometimes subtle, at other times dramatic. There is no doubt that marriage itself is a power in the world and has the power to change the person who marries.

The year before, on our 18th anniversary, I had noted a changed relation to the way I lived the flow of time. Temporality is how the philosophers name the experienced flow of time. Nostalgia, a habit of yearning that had haunted me since childhood — of longing for lost time — had been my typical way of being in time. In my rough translation here, the French song, les feuilles mortes (“the dead leaves”) expresses that feeling:

But life soundlessly separates  

those who love one another

and the sea erases on the sand

the footsteps of disunited lovers.

By our 18th anniversary, that whole backward yearning had been flipped by a face turned forward to the future. It was a remarkable reversal of orientation.

This year, the 19th since our wedding, my relation to temporality seems to have changed again. Amazingly, I now don’t long for the future either. The whole quality of yearning – what the German Romantics call Sehnsucht – has actually evaporated! What’s wrong with me? Have I become ever-more-hopelessly shallow?

But look up! Look around! Fear not! Turn on the TV and the YouTubes! The self-help gurus will be here soon. They are coming to my rescue! They’re bound to approve this change. They all recommend Living in The Now! As do the modern-world Buddhists. They also meditate with the aim of shedding the illusion of a time-bound life. If you can appear to incarnate this accomplishment, you might make a pile of profit and gain enormously appreciative followers.

However, that’s not what I mean. Of course I don’t live in the so-called Now. The philosophers call it the “specious present,” the instant so vanishing that it’s already past by the time you turn around to pin it down.

I’m not trying

 to catch the butterfly.

Let her flutter.

 Let her fly.

Nor do I dwell in a conscious condition that tries to shrug off the passage of clock and calendar minutes or years. What then do I mean, exactly? I think it’s more like an acceptance of the time-bound life we have.

I’m no longer trying

to get out of the story by rushing backward —

nor to get ahead of the story.

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” ( 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 . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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