“How I Got to be a Person Whose Whole Life is Lived in Cliches”

“How I Got to be a Person Whose Whole Life is Lived in Cliches” 

The Rabbis inveigh against gossip.  Since a lost reputation is almost as hard to recover as a lost life, they deem it equivalent to a capital crime.

On the other hand, there is usually an other hand.  Literary and philosophical gossip can shed light – unexpected and instructive – on an influential figure.  To philosopher Hans Jonas’s Memoirs, I owe the datum about Leo Strauss that, on Jewish High Holidays, Strauss felt tormented by the consciousness that he was not in synagogue – where he felt he should be.  Since Strauss was a political philosopher who drew a thick and rigid line between philosophy and religion, it is interesting – even revealing – that he had to struggle to maintain this line.

In my own view, our actual lives are much more like interesting and suspenseful novels – much more story-like – than is generally acknowledged.  Accordingly, what is called “gossip” seems to me a natural part of real talk.  I don’t mean breaking a confidence or malicious tale-bearing.  But one can hardly talk interestingly about anything without bringing in people and what they do and say.

That said, ordinarily when I tell a story in this column about something that really happened, I leave off the names.  In the story I’m about to recount, however, I’ve decided to retain the names.  By now the main participants have gone to feminist heaven.  In my opinion, the time has come to tell all.

It was some years ago.  A leading feminist of the day, Barbara Seaman, author of The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill and Free and Female, was the star of a birthday party at the New York restaurant, “Top of the Sixes,” to which 500 of her most intimate friends had been invited.  Her then husband was hosting the event.

Having known Barbara almost since childhood, I was one of the guests.  She was a very kind woman, almost naïve as well as munificent.  Lots of people liked or loved Barbara.

At my table, the dinner plates had been cleared away when a late guest arrived, taking the seat next to mine.  It was Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that had virtually launched “Second Wave Feminism” in the USA!  What an honor, to be seated next to one of feminism’s Founding Mothers!  But good grief!  For her to arrive at our table and go hungry was simply unthinkable!

Immediately I rose and pushed through the kitchen doors.

“We have a late guest,” I told the crew.  “She is one of feminism’s Founding Mothers.  We can’t let her go without dinner!”

They got the message and put together a plate for her with everything on it.  I carried the plate back to Betty Friedan, pleased to have done my small part for The Cause.

By that time, as I recall, the speeches and toasts had begun.  It was all very satisfying.  I turned to Betty Friedan and exclaimed, about this coming-together of devoted allies, long-time friends, and even a supportive husband, “It’s really ‘Feminism without Contradictions’!”

Actually, I was alluding to an article under that title that I’d published in The Monist, a well-regarded philosophical journal.  It was the first such journal to have devoted an entire issue to philosophical questions raised by feminism.

“Contradictions!” sniffed Betty Friedan.  “You don’t know what a contradiction is!”

Yes I do, I thought.  It’s a claim that something can both have and not have the same trait or property at the same time and in the same respect.  Aristotle’s Law of Contradiction is one of his three basic laws of thought.  The other two are Identity and Excluded Middle.  You can find the discussion in Book IV of The Metaphysics.  But of course I said none of the above.  I just looked at her, stupefied.

“You’re a person,” Betty Friedan went on, “whose whole life is lived in clichés.”

OMG.  I am?  It is?  But I got you dinner!  After a few moments,  I got up and started to walk aimlessly around the ballroom floor.  Along the way, I bumped into Peggy Brooks.  She had supported one of my manuscripts when she was editor at Dutton.  One time, when I was out of a job, we’d shared lunch during the very hour when a three-man panel was convening to consider my reinstatement at Brooklyn College.  At the same hour, Peggy had put money on a horse.  I came out ahead by a vote to 2 to 1, and her horse did as well by the same ratio.  Peggy is what used to be called a great lady.  She stands by her friends.  When I’m in New York, we still visit.

I told Peggy how I’d just been characterized and by whom.  She shook her head regretfully with a considering look.

“You are the last person of whom one would say that she lives in clichés.”

The glittering evening had an odd sequel.  The very next day, I’d been invited to a Bar Mitzvah at an orthodox synagogue.  The women sat upstairs in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary.

Perceiving that I knew very little of the Ancient Customs of My People, the other women in the balcony helped me adjust the black lacey hair covering, fixing it with a hair pin.  They made sure I had  the prayer book opened to the pages corresponding to the service below.   They did not look askance at the uninformed stranger but did what they could to make me feel at home.

So what’s the moral?  Is there any?

Hey, I dunno.  But it’s a datum.

Definitely a datum. 

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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