My Identity Crisis

Abbie in a previous identity, Philosophy Staff Room
Photo by Elmer Sprague, colleague and friend

My Identity Crisis

Our week in California, never an easy one — because much has always required attention there — was difficult in various ways but notably hard for me this time.

First, the neuropathy treatments I get at Loma Linda Hospital were attended by disconcerting side effects.  This hasn’t happened before.  It’s a new, experimental treatment, nested in a highly regarded research hospital.

What they do is based on a general view of neuropathy that goes like this.  Blood, a liquid, travels from the major pipes in the body (arteries and veins) into the tiny pipes that feed neurons (the neuro-vascular system).  Neuropathy occurs (if I’ve got this straight) when, for any number of reasons, this passage from big to little pipes is blocked in some area.  In cases like mine, the tiny neurons are starving but not dead yet.  (“I woke up not dead again today,” to quote Willie Nelson.)

The treatment (discovered by Dr. Mark Bussell who heads the Neuropathy Institute at Loma Linda) consists in retraining the big vessels to release the blood into the smaller networks.  It works by a curious train of manipulations that can be continued (at a slower pace) as homework between treatments at the Institute.

One starts to feel the difference and see changes after one treatment.  Sufferers travel from far countries to receive this treatment, currently offered only at Loma Linda.  Its effectiveness is measurable and repeatable, so other neurologists are starting to take notice.

All this is background to my experience of the past week.  For the first time, I felt side effects when the increasingly activated transmission lines between brain and foot began to trigger resistance in brain and foot alternately.  I won’t try to capture the medical jargon for describing that resistance.  How about headaches, faint nausea and wobbliness?  Will that do?

The point for me was that this phase of treatment was not at all fun.  It was uncomfortable, disturbing and unfamiliar.  There were no obvious rewards for undergoing it.

On a parallel track — the track of the conscious mind — the trip afforded me time to reread A Good Look at Evil from start to finish, in its present, expanded 2018 version.  The new version includes an additional Part Four, with two new chapters plus a fresh Preface.  So, three decades later, the scene-setting framework is new and the book winds up in a new place.

Not to beat around the bush, I was terrifically impressed with what I’d written – really bowled over!  What had somehow been produced by me (note the passive voice) went sufficiently deep so that neither the philosophic arguments made for the book’s original concepts nor its illustrative concrete cases look dated.  From my sojourn among the Australian materialists, I had taken the lesson that philosophy should not veer too far from empirical evidence.  This though the book is not limited by a strictly empirical outlook.  The task of A Good Look at Evil is to make clear the shape of a good life and the role of evil in trying to destroy what is good in a life.

I review the ups and downs of philosophy on this terrain over the last two hundred years, the contributions to moral reflection from —  among other fields — anthropology, psychological studies on the formation of identity, and I take into consideration a vast array of materials relevant to the controversies surrounding the Holocaust.  When I come to the Holocaust of the Jews, the prose is sharp and cool but there is a white heat of anger behind it.

Then there is the transition to Part Four, the new materials.  These two chapters concern individual persons (political philosopher Hannah Arendt is the subject of Chapter Eight, I am the subject of Chapter Nine) and the particulars of their lives that dramatically illustrate the book’s theses about good and evil.

Books of fiction sometimes contain passages that take the breath away.  When I read Gone With the Wind in early adolescence, I came to the scene where Rhett tells Scarlet that he knows how many times she’s lain in his arms and wished he was Ashley Wilkes.

“Well tonight,” Rhett says, “there are going to be only two people in my bed!”  With that, he sweeps her into his arms and carries her up the grand stairway to their marital bedroom where he kisses her with such soul-searing, burning intensity that “the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness!”

I don’t know if that’s great prose.  Maybe not, but I do know the effect it had on 13-year-old Abigail!

Well, please forgive the comparison but … that’s the breathtaking effect of the transition from “Thinking Like a Nazi,” which was the last chapter of the previous edition, to the particular persons appearing in Part Four.

I simply gasped.

So why am I talking about an identity crisis?  Somatically, I’m merely undergoing the transition to a rerouted circulatory system.  Psychically, I’m just going from thinking that I wrote a “pretty good” book to seeing that it’s considerably more than pretty good.  That realization carries with it a responsibility to make A Good Look at Evil known, so far as that comes within my capabilities.

It’s as if two strangers have set up their living quarters in me, the one in my body, the other in my mind.

I’ve got to learn to be nice to them.

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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