The Devil in the Details 

Dante in a dark wood
Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1857

The Devil in the Details 

Depression is not an attractive word, but it describes my mood in recent days.  Two explanations (or causes?) spring to mind.

First: I have this neuropathy handicap.  My walking lacks its former, rhythmic life-of-its-own, becoming instead a means to get from one seated place to the next.  The condition has gotten gradually worse over twenty plus years, during which I’ve combatted it with every remedy I could find, from highly-recommended medical specialists to a whole gamut of holistic alternatives.  And yes, I pray a lot, thank you for asking.  The only measurable improvement has come in the last two years from an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda Hospital in southern California.

However, my visit last month hit a brick wall.  By every metric they have at Loma Linda, my treatments have succeeded!  To close the gap between my still- limping condition and the full capacity to stroll that I long for, all I’ll need is to do the homework they gave me for a supposedly final course of exercises.

The trouble is, the drill they sent me home to do seems to be making things worse, not better!  Maybe it will work if I do it for longer.  Maybe it can be adjusted to make it work better.  I’ll call them to see what they think.

For myself, I have no idea.

The New Age-niks believe that all our reverses of fortune originate in our bad attitudes.  It’s all in our minds.  I’ve tried that approach.  The dentist I had in New York was plenty thankful for the New Age.  It gave him lots of expensive cavities to fill.

Second: One of the platforms of my life here in the country, post New York, has been the local Reform temple that I joined, having stumbled into it because it was offering a concert that Jerry wanted to attend for his birthday. The part of temple life that I best relate to is its weekly, verse-by-verse study of the first Five Books, the Torah or Pentateuch of the Hebrew Bible.  I might not know The Practices of my people, but I do know how thoughtfully to discuss a text.  In the last nine or so months, this part of my local life has come under an Undeniable Shadow.

I don’t know quite how to describe The Shadow, without getting lurid.  Let’s just say it’s a feature I deem corrupt and insidious, which I have been unable to offset by any effort I’ve made.  It’s not that my life at the temple has been all sweetness and light up till now.  It’s included many combats that were, I think, fair fights.  I won some and lost some.  Some of us thought differently than others on matters that arose.  We felt differently.  There were hard feelings and bruised hearts.  But for none of these combats did the terms “corrupt and insidious” come to mind.  This one is different.  Let’s leave it at that.

For me, it’s become a question of footing, physical and spiritual, with both kinds of footing apparently giving way at the same time.

I’ve just set out these two explanations for my recent, decentered mood, but at first, I was unable to account for it.  Ordinarily, my moods will zigzag from high to low and back again in response to the incidents of the day.  But a feeling that stays low, stretching over a number of days, is not a common one for me.  It was only after much talking it out with Jerry that I was able to track it.

Until I finally tracked it, my whole universe appeared formless and void.  “Abigail” seemed just a two-dimensional placeholder for projects I had earlier set in motion.  She no longer seemed to have desires of her own.  The writer who had, in A Good Look at Evil, tracked the stratagems of evil – as the deliberate thwarting of one’s ideal life story – and had, in Confessions of a Young Philosopher, shown the actualities of such a story in our time, seemed to have quit the field.  All that remained was the author’s name, on the published book and on the manuscript awaiting publication.  The person whose hard-bought wisdom was shared in these books had left.  No one here now but the shell.

Is there a real devil or devils – a species of malevolent spirit not made of earthly stuff?  How should I know?  Jewish reflection on this subject is not dogmatic.  It is found in the form of stories, midrashim, where the listeners pull out the lessons for themselves.  Only The Practices have the force of law (Halakah).  The Practices are subject to argument that records majority and minority opinion, but tends to avoid speculative theology.

So, is the devil, or are the devils, real?  I have to say …

I wouldn’t know.

They’re not in my recently-published book, in any case.  I only write about what I do know.

But if, as a thought experiment say, I were a devil, and wanted to put Abigail out of the action, I could hardly do better than to dishearten her long quest for competence in strolling and, at the same time, her institutional link to her all-too-beleaguered people.  Both mischances undermine

the place to stand and

feet with which to stand on that place.

I don’t know if there’s a real devil or not.  But sometimes it helps to assume there is one –

the better to rally one’s forces

to beat the devil down.

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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