Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Shared here are my impressions of two books that I read recently.  Both were riveting, but in entirely different ways.

Bloomfield Avenue: A Jewish-Catholic Jersey Girl’s Spiritual Journey

by Linda Mercadante

Linda Mercadante is best known as the author of Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.  In this memoir, she has the rare gift of getting her personal importance entirely out of the way, so that readers are free to take in the story she tells.  She’s not asking us how we like her.

Newark was her hometown, a place that carried absolutely no cachet.  As she made her way through schools, a sorority, religious affiliations and jobs, her path was beset by a succession of social exclusions.  To begin with, in a milieu of Italian Catholics where her parents ran a bakery geared to the Catholic calendar, she had a Jewish mother.  Her mother didn’t seem to convey anything positive about being Jewish, but she didn’t want her daughter to wear a crucifix.  So home itself contained at its core the experience of nonbelonging that repeated itself in the world outside, where being Jewish was not an honor.

Nor did being a girl carry with it any invitation to explore one’s talents.  The purpose of education for a girl was to get a teaching job she would quit when she married the right husband and settled down.  At a succession of schools, and a sorority that didn’t know of her Jewish side, social exclusions continued to fix the boundaries of Mercadante’s experience.

She was obviously gifted.  The problems she encountered seem to have been external (in the sense of cultural) and arbitrary.  She was good at school learning, good at attracting dates once she was in co-ed surroundings, good at most things that test skills.  Social belonging (and beyond that, spiritual grounding) were harder to secure, but she was an earnest, energetic and realistic seeker.

She moved from airline stewardess — a job then considered glamorous for a woman – to a pathbreaking job as a journalist for a local Catholic paper.  That job gave her access to cynical parish insiders and clergy.  Institutional Catholicism, the religion to which she first attached her spiritual longings, proved so riddled with staffers who didn’t mean what they said that she became an atheist.

Traveling in Europe, she was referred by a friend to an evangelical community where, by stages, she took Jesus into her life.   But the evangelicals seemed to her narrow, especially in their views of women’s role in society.

Then she read Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful.  It was her first meeting with feminism.  It shed a dazzling light on the labyrinth of narrow options she’d been negotiating.   When she married a man who presented himself as a fellow evangelical, her theoretical feminism made shattering contact with male violence — the extreme end of the tunnels of coercive control through which she’d been trying painstakingly to find her way.

By this time, the reader is on the edge of her seat.  There’s been one surprise after another, some terrifying, some seeming providential.  I won’t give away the ending (don’t worry, it all works out!) but the book reads as a prooftext for feminism.  The problems of The Movement, its oversimplifications that are a concern for me, form no part of the experience she recalls here.  In this life story, intelligently told without affectation or pretense, feminism rides to the rescue – and we see why.


Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Jozef Czapski

by Eric Karpeles

Czapski is a painter little known here, but his creative talent is quite real, as the book’s color illustrations show.  The interest of this biography lies in the man, an aristocrat who would have been at home in every private palace in Europe, but nevertheless shared the blood-soaked history of Poland, his native country.  His life gives a point of entry into the history of Europe in the 20th century.

He’d been a young man in Tsarist Russia getting military training when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out.  In the period between the two World Wars, he formed part of the avant garde Polish painters in Paris.  As military conditions menaced Poland in the 1930’s, he saw the promised assurances of help from Britain and France recede and vanish. Then, as Poland was preparing its defenses against a Nazi invasion, his country suffered surprise occupation by the Russians — a seizure made possible by the secret terms of the pact between Hitler and Stalin.

Like other Polish officers, Czapski was held by the Russians as a prisoner of war.  Once released, he traveled from one high-ranking Soviet official to the next, trying to find out what happened to 15,000  Polish officers whom he’d seen deported from the P.O.W. camp.  Slowly, he began to suspect the unthinkable.  On Soviet orders, the Polish officers had all been shot dead with impersonal efficiency.

Everyone Czapski talked to in the official ranks of the USSR knew.  Everyone denied knowing.

After the War, Czapki returned to Paris where the trend-setting philosophers did not want to know what happened to 15,000 Polish officers.  France had lived through defeat and Nazi occupation.  After the War, she lay within reach of the Soviet armies that still occupied Eastern Europe.  Czapski attributed the defeatist character of post-War French philosophy to those grim military realities.  For himself meanwhile, he founded a journal around which the circle of Polish intellectuals in Paris were able to express their country’s integrity-in-exile.

Czapsky was an aristocrat.  It’s a fate like any other, neither a fault nor a merit.  If you will, we are all of noble birth — but some men and women know it and act up to their station.

The life story of the painter Jozef Czapski is a roadmap of noblesse oblige.

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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