Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Exiles Return: A Novel

by Elisabeth de Waal.

This book would never have come to my notice had it not been for Barry Cooper, the professor of political science at Calgary.  Cooper has an insider’s understanding of a philosopher of history named Eric Voegelin.  Who, you may ask, is Eric Voegelin and what has he got to do with The Exiles Return or its author, Elisabeth de Waal?

Voegelin is the only political philosopher I know of who has the temerity to suppose that political history needs to include a spiritual component.  Not for decoration, but because otherwise it’s incomplete.  Voegelin asks, what relation to a divine reality do the people have, at this or that stage of history?

This seems to me the most interesting and demanding question you can ask about any phase of human history.  Not what gods did they worship but what was going on in the realm of the spirit at that time and place?  It’s the big question, about any of us.

Anyway, according to Cooper, Elisabeth de Waal had a profound friendship with Eric Voegelin.  And, despite her aristocratic Dutch name, de Waal, she was one of the Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna – Jews forced into exile by the Nazis – that I wrote about in a column not so long ago.

Her novel concerns the post-War return to Vienna of a cast of characters whose connection to each other unfolds – like puzzle pieces fitting together – as the story moves along.  The best of them is a scientist, resuming the post from which he’d been dismissed as a Jew.  He becomes a kind of spectrometer by which to analyze the metal — base or gold or somewhere in between — of the other returnees.

At first, all seems relatively ordinary and uneventful.  By the final chapters, a sense of entrapment – of being in a prison without walls – enfolds the lead young woman character in a way I’ve never seen depicted so accurately.  I felt trapped too, without aesthetic distance from what I was reading.

A digression here, to retrieve a memory of my own trip to the city of Vienna, to which I’d hitchhiked with a woman philosopher friend, many long years ago.  We’d already traveled by “auto stop” (as they called it) through Germany first, sometimes given lifts by ex-POW’s who’d enjoyed their forced vacation in the US of A.  Only in Austria did we get rides from unabashed ex-Nazis.

“I was in S.S.” one boisterously cheerful driver said to us on the road to Vienna.  “All my friends were in S.S.  We were all picked men!  Not one of us under six feet!”

In Vienna, the youth hostel had a large empty room on the second floor, filled from end to end with unoccupied cots.  Yet the “hostel father” claimed, with a faint smile, that there was no room in the hostel.  Obviously, the two Australian girls, to whom he said this, did not get it.

“We’ve come 9,000 miles to see Vienna,” one of the young women exclaimed indignantly, “and we’re NOT getting a very good impression of Vienna!”

Righto.

There are some situations that look tangled and twisted on the surface but may be pretty good underneath.  In other cases, the reverse is true.  The top layer looks super-ordinary but underneath, what you find is

sheer, twisted corruption.


Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year

by Henri J. M. Nouwen.

This is a book I found to read while Jerry was away for an American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, where the book he edited, Theology Without Walls: The Transreligious Imperative, was seeing daylight at a book reception.  I was housebound with a cracked kneecap.  Couldn’t do much of anything.  Daily chores took four times as long (they still do) and were that much more tiring.

I was forced to BE —

not to do.

Since my teens, I can’t remember spending five days just being – instead of doing.  To pass the time, which to me was unexpectedly serene, I read Sabbatical Journey.   The book contains the daily journal of a Catholic priest who, the jacket says, “is considered one of the great spiritual writers of modern times.”  I’d never heard of him, but that’s not a sign of anyone’s unimportance.

Henri (as people call him in the book) had decided to take a year off from his normal duties as the pastor of a community in Canada ministering to the mentally handicapped.  It should not surprise any of us that he discovered great depth of insight and spiritual maturity among the people who were disabled in that way.

During his year off, he travels to several cities in Europe where he has friends, including Holland, his native land.  He criss-crosses North America, renewing old friendships, officiating at weddings and funerals, serving in other priestly capacities and jotting occasional reflections in his journal.   He seems deeply earnest and open-hearted.  Although I’ve not finished the book, I doubt if anything surprising will happen between pp. 163 and 226.

The only surprise comes after the journal’s last page.  Suddenly, without any hint of this in the inner life he records so amply, his life is over.  He has two heart attacks, with no one by his side at the hospital where, on September 21, 1996, he suffers the second, fatal one.

One expects a sudden death to be foreshadowed by a life beset by sharp peaks and valleys.  But it is not always so.

Here are some lines from his journal entry on March 17th, 1996:

All human beings have their tragedies –

death, depression, betrayal,

rejection, poverty, separation, loss, and so on.

We seldom have much control over them.

But do we choose to live them

as occasions to blame,

or as occasions to see God at work?

The whole Hebrew Bible is a story of human tragedies,

but when these tragedies are lived and remembered

as the context in which God’s unconditional love

for the people of Israel is revealed,

this story becomes sacred history.

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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