My Father’s Diaries
In the wake of the pandemic presently sweeping our small planet, the train of projects I had is now stalled.
As the fact of this frustration sank in, it came to me to turn to a task I’d previously resolved to put off till all else in the queue had been attended to: the HMR papers.
Henry M. Rosenthal, my late father, was an exceptionally brilliant yet enigmatic character. Let me give you an illustration. A friend, who had never met my father, did meet him one night in a dream. I don’t know how she knew who he was, but she did. Her own father having recently passed away, in her dream she asked my father,
“What is death?”
“He explained it [death] completedly,” she told me, “and I understood it all. But when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a word he said.”
“Oh,” I laughed. “That was Daddy all right!”
All his papers are now in my possession, destined for a reputable archive when I’ve done working with them. Since he was a philosopher, and I a philosopher’s daughter, I would naturally expect to distill out of these materials a legible account of him: what the sources of his insight were, what was the recipe, what he was all about.
With most people, one can do this, in varying degrees. With a philosopher, one imagines it even more feasible, since they dedicate themselves to making obscure matters clear and getting chaotic things rightly ordered. I had managed to write the introductions for his Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, a philosophic book that I saw through to posthumous publication. So I’d not expected the private diaries to pose any harder problem.
In fact, they had become a problem I could not solve. I had gone at them again and again, trying one angle, then trying another – always hoping to see how to pull the code of him out of his private reflections on himself and those around him. It was tantalizing. Some of the names in the diaries became eminent public intellectuals. There they all were – the young men — with their gifted wives!
It was no use. Nothing I had tried added up. I could just quote him. But not everything was quotable and I didn’t see how to choose. It was failure after failure. So I had given it up, pending further insight or new information.
Although others did ask me (till they stopped asking) how I was coming along with the HMR papers, I never felt inwardly called to go back to them. Till this week. One morning, in my prayer/meditation, there came an unmistakable message:
Go to origins,
get back to the beginning,
dig as deep down as it goes.
I checked with his photo, hanging on the wall of my room. Ordinarily, he regards me with an enigmatic expression, fond but detached. This time he looked determined and engaged as if he were throwing me a rope line and expected me to catch it.
At breakfast, Jerry said to me out of the blue, “Now that you have the time, why don’t you work on your father’s papers?”
Okay, okay. I can take a hint. No need to shout. I took up Vol. I of the Diaries, 1927-29. This time, I wasn’t looking for a handle, or a way to turn these materials into something like a book. I wasn’t bringing expectations or an agenda. I was just going to read through them all, to the last day of the last year, and then look at subsequent unfinished mss. And letters.
Here is what I found. For the first time, I was understanding him. He had an extraordinarily sure and objective sense of who he was. With faint distaste and solid awareness of his own worth – even superiority – he recognized himself. This self-awareness was not boastful or overblown. It was immovably factual. Such a compound is not a familiar one. Of what was it made?
The outstanding characters in the Bible are uniquely identifiable – not mere types or generic figures. At the same time, they seem to have the gift of knowing how they fit in the Biblical frame.
Since the Biblical times have ended, a man or woman of Jewish identity has had to find that personal uniqueness and its frame within the larger world. My father knew – perhaps better than most of the co-religionists I have met since – what that comprised:
the chosenness —
the hatred engendered by it –
which, internalized, becomes self-distaste –
and withal, the self-trusting sure-footedness –
of a character in a story with God in it.
Picture that as a sense of himself
in the body –
not in the abstract.
Some people, who went on to big reputations in the culture, called him “a genius.” The intelligence he had was not a greater or lesser quantity of the stuff that went into the geniuses one has read about. It was a kind of high moral and aesthetic intelligence, a bodily awareness of being precisely located — with a Jewish locatedness — in the eye of the storm of history.
His classmates, in Columbia University’s class of 1925, many of them Jews, went on to careers that achieved national recognition, which his did not. But I never knew any who had, as he did,
with the Jewish way of being chosen.