Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

 These are some of the books I’ve been reading lately – that I can recommend.

A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson.

This book started out so fact-crammed and deadpan that I thought it would be a painful climb through the 976 pages before we get to the Notes and the Index.  (It’s 1088 pages all told.  I’m on page 475 now.)  By now, however, I’m fascinated.

I was reading Johnson partly to compare a British Conservative historian with Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States, which describes roughly the same events from the vantage point of an American Liberal.  Neither history is factually inaccurate, so far as I can tell.  They just foreground different facts, each leaving in shadow the data that don’t fit his or her narrative.  Historians seem to be rather like lawyers.  The good ones don’t lie, but they tell whatever part of the truth will help their client!

Whereas Jill Lepore has a striking gift for story-telling, getting the color into the anecdote and just writing well — Johnson writes in grey tones, without trying to be eloquent.  At first, it seems a rather dogged business, even to keep going with him.  He fills in the economic part of the story without moralizing: what life held out for those who weathered the trip and what you could expect if you stayed home in Britain or Continental Europe.  The economics of the human race is its inflow and outgo, its metabolism; so it’s informative to view it plain.

As for slavery, our great original sin, although at first Johnson appears to put it dismissively in the background while he sets up the rest of his story, fact by fact,  I learned more about its actual villainy from him than I did from Jill Lepore.  To me, the deepest horror of slavery lies in an aspect of which I did not know: the breeding of human beings for sale.

To treat the human eros that way is blasphemy.  It’s a crime against God.

As a proud Englishman, Johnson occasionally betrays just a smidgeon of British contempt for us that is interesting.  I had no idea we had put up such a poor show in the War of 1812.  Not so bad on the water, from which Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem, but pretty sorry on land.

All this compiling of fact, economic, legal, and political, suddenly is seen to provide the groundwork for a part of the story that I didn’t see coming.  Among the “facts” of the American story is the verbal blossoming of New England.  Suddenly, our raw country springs into literature!  An American voice, a new sound, is heard.  First, there is Emerson.  He works, consciously and deliberately, to create, embody and justify the American character.  No longer cringing before its more mature and cultivated European models, the American is his own man or woman, shaped by original experiences — not a hand-me-down copy of long-established beliefs and attitudes.  Then we find Thoreau, paring his life down to essentials, trying to pay as he goes, in real sympathy with the woods around Walden pond.  There is Longfellow.  Nobody talks of an upright, unproblematic fellow like Longfellow any more, but Johnson makes clear his poetic reach and power.  And then there is Longfellow’s opposite, Edgar Allen Poe, who inhabits the other side of our vast, seemingly vacant spaces: the scary side.  There is Walt Whitman — gay and in the closet — the first American literary self-promoter.  He collected photographs of himself and designed his own tomb, anticipating the genius for self-invention of “Papa” Hemingway a century later.  Finally, outselling them all, is Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was translated and read all over the world.  As a girl, my mother must have read it in French.  Or in Russian.  It was her favorite novel.  It kept Britain from taking the Southern side.  It excited the first world-wide wave of anti-Americanism.  As Lincoln said, when he met Mrs. Stowe, it “started this great war.”

And now — what I am reading now — the extraordinary American epic: the Civil War.  It was bound to come.  Everything in our contradictory history explained and incentivized it.  Johnson’s picture of Lincoln is utterly riveting and stunning.  He thought long and deeply about the morally corrupting realities of slavery.  He had the mind of a good logician, the rough and ready, variegated, first-hand experiences of life that Emerson and Thoreau found marking the American Character.  He had a wide-angled view of the political forces in play, military good judgment, the tragic sense and the humor – above all the freedom from ego – to fit him for the task of leading America through it.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

Love in the Western World

by Denis de Rougemont

This is another book that I started out disliking, but have come to find fascinating. (In quite a different way of course.)

D de R begins by making clear his opposition to Romantic Love as he understands it.  His purpose, stated at the outset, is to discourage readers from nourishing romantic delusions.  D de R wants us to get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family and not make trouble dreaming wild dreams of great love.  He associates the romance delusion with what Freud called the Death Wish, which is an erotic yearning capable of breaking through all the bonds that hold society together.  He holds, reasonably enough, that pursuing such a course can only end in self-destruction.

Since I am not a great fan of Sigmund Freud – neither his ego, his id, nor his Death Wish — I was finding D de R tiresome before he even got going.

It was a while before I began to see that he was pointing out something real.

When I lived in Paris, I couldn’t help noticing – none of us Americans could help noticing – that the couples strolling in the streets, the statues decorating the public squares, the artistic films, the popular songs, the classics of French literature, all described a type of romantic intertwining that we Americans had never seen.   Purportedly, it was irresistible, enveloping, complete in its choreography – and yet self-terminating.  That is, everyone agreed that l’amour was all in all, a world of its own and at the same time, doomed to end.  As one famous song, Les feuilles mortes, had it,

 the sea erases on the sand

 the footsteps of disunited lovers.

There were many such songs.

I did not know where and how this strange thought-form originated.  I thought it was mistaken — not because romantic love is delusive — but because the idea that it has to end is false.  Why should it end?  And yet, the citizens of France seemed to think it did.  It shaped their youth.  It reshaped their later years.  Where did they get such an idea?

D de R tells us.  At least, he makes out a persuasive case that it originated in a certain gnostic heresy that spread like wildfire through Europe from about the 10th century through the 13th: the Cathar heresy.

This heresy was brutally stamped out by Christian orthodoxy, its adherents killed and its attitudes driven underground.

What makes it “gnostic” and what does that mean?  Gnosticism has many varieties and is found in all kinds of circumstances around the globe.  It may represent a universal human tendency:

the desire to get the hell out of this world.

Typically, gnostic religions or cults have held that the empirical world is bad, a fallen or delusive realm, and its established divinities must be bad too.  The aim of the gnostic is to rise into a higher, purer, “more truly real” sphere by renouncing the world’s practices and acquiring – by some secret method – the knowledge (gnosis) that forever frees one from the world’s fetters.

For the Cathars who were “Pure” – the ones at the “Perfect” level — that meant renouncing marriage.  For Believers who could not attain the highest level, marriage was permitted but disvalued.

As de Rougemont tells it, underground Cathari ideals influenced the medieval troubadours and the ideal of courtly love that their lyric songs and poems championed.  At its inception, the idealized “Lady” of courtly love was code for the gnostic ideal.  She was to be adored but not carnally embraced, because she represented the hidden realm of pure Spirit.  The medieval romances, above all the story of Tristan and Iseult, should be read in this light: as encoded representations of the Cathari message.  As secret Cathars must do, Tristan and Iseult violate all the official protocols and obligations: Iseult’s arranged marriage to King Mark, Tristan’s required fealty to Mark, his feudal lord.  Their love has no means of actualizing itself in the empirical world.  For that reason, the fabled romance has “Death” inbuilt, as its telos or goal.

D de R shows – to my mind, persuasively – how this version of the romantic ideal is carried forward into post-medieval times, forgetting its origin but reappearing in attenuated form in many of the great classics of literature, in France and elsewhere.

Look at Romeo and Juliette, Dante and Beatrice – none of them can live together in the real world!  There are people who believe that these idealized couples must cover the whole spectrum of romantic possibilities.  Such is the entrancing power of ideas – even false ones – when they are beautifully expressed!

Though he has persuaded me that this gnostic thought-form, carried through the centuries, can still distort the lives of modern people, Denis de Rougemont’s conclusion — that romance itself is fatally misguided — does not follow from the evidence he traces.

In my experience, romantic love can give courage and sustenance for life within the real world.

You don’t have to die

to find something desirable

that you can trust.

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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2 Responses to Book Matters

  1. Regarding the books you mentioned about American history, have you ever heard about “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn? I just finished reading it and found it fascinating to learn from a very diferent perspective to what usually we are taught.

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks, “Of Movies and Lies.” I’ll be sure to put it on my list. Am still slogging through Paul Johnson. Why can’t people write short books? (Then we could all be well read!)

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