Fording the Flood

“Red Square on Black”
Kazimir Malevich, 1920-24

Fording the Flood

I had a dream the other night, depicting the journey I’m in the midst of at present.

On a bus traveling long distance, I was a passenger.  It was not a bus of recent vintage.  It lacked the wide aisles, reclining seats, or inside climate control of the newer buses.  If maintenance crews had ever kept it in repair, that too was in the past.  There were none of those posted notices that tell riders how to behave.  In fact, I might have been the only passenger, since I didn’t perceive others.

The driver was going full tilt, not realizing that we were on a one-lane road.  He also failed to notice that his left wheels were perilously close to a precipice at  road’s edge.  It was up to me to bring this to his attention, but I couldn’t find the words.

“Bus-bus-bus” was all I could say.

Eventually the bus did clear the narrow road, and move onto a wide-open mall or plaza.  However, as if the previous hazards hadn’t been bad enough, this plaza was filling up with floodwaters.

Since I’d watched TV programs on how to survive weather emergencies, I knew that it would not be a good idea to try to drive through the rising waters.  The driver didn’t seem to know this.  Hence I decided to leave his bus.

As I stood in the flood, the waters came about hip-high.  It would not be easy to ford them, especially for the six miles I would have to cross to get home.  Yet I had no choice but to set forth.  And there my dream ended.

In morning meditation, it came to me what the dream was about: my experience reading the journals and other materials of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal.  As I’ve mentioned in recent columns, his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 deemed him their “genius.”

Don’t just take it from his daughter.  The year that visiting Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch spent at my father’s philosophy department, she met Lionel Trilling at a New York literary party.  Trilling, a classmate of my father’s, was a then-celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.  Told she was visiting the Hunter College philosophy department, Trilling asked if she’d met Henry Rosenthal there.

“Not only I met him,” she said in her French-accented English, “but I fell in love with him and his whole family!”

Instantly Trilling drew her aside, saying intensely in a low voice,

“He was the only man I ever knew who was a genius.”

Years later, at the memorial for my father, Clifton Fadiman, a critic widely known at the time, said to the gathering,

“Of us all, he was the best talker.”

This in a circle of future opinion-shapers, all of whom prided themselves on talking well!

Although his published work included the posthumous, Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, I always had the suspicion that the secret of him – if he had a secret – awaited discovery in the journals (1925-1955) and his earlier work, published and unpublished.

My father began his working life as an ordained rabbi.  Eventually, he went into philosophy.  Although he certainly wasn’t in his element in the American rabbinate of the period, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in it by accident.  Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism (a branch of Reform Judaism) knew him at that time and, in a published piece, compared him to a Hasidic Master.

What was he, really?  And what – now that The Plague prevented me from advancing any other project – should I do about it?

Here’s where the bumpy bus ride comes in.  All the bright young men of the class of ‘25 defined themselves as “modern.”  To be modern meant, among other things, to subscribe to the iron certainties of Marx and Freud.  So, like his classmates, HMR descended into that long, underground tunnel that verbally flattened all the heights and depths of the life of the spirit.  Under those metallic constraints, his classmates could survive and even flourish.

Not him.  Not Henry.

As I turned the pages of the journals, I perceived his mounting anger and frustration within the worldview where he had caged his spirit and its genius.  He was not finding his way out and he had misconceived the problem.

The supreme ambition young men entertained back then was to write something they called “The Great American Novel.”  They all wanted to be the first to bring it out under the blue American skies.  Almost all of them felt like failures if they did not publish a novel or if they published one that was not deemed singularly great.  My father shared his classsmates’ ambition and did not grasp the fact that he was not a novelist at all.

Reading the journals, and tracing the vagaries of this misunderstanding, I began to think, well okay.  That’s that.  He never found the vehicle for his talent.  I’ll finish reading these documents and then, when The Plague recedes, convey them over to the archive that’s expecting to receive them.  I was saddened but – as it was not clear to me either what his vehicle should have been – I could accept the mismatch between a talent and a life, without imagining that I had any further role to play in the story.  The story was apparently over.

That was before I began to read through the articles and reviews.  They were exceptionally subtle, intense to the point of white heat, unconventional, powered solely by an inner summons.  I won’t try to quote from any of them here.  Reading them, I was absolutely knocked flat: surprised, overwhelmed – “flooded” (as in my dream) — by the authority and truthfulness manifest in each paragraph.

His actual focus was the Jewish spirit.  He was not looking at that phenomenon sociologically, historically, psychologically, or even through the lens of “tradition.”  What he saw directly — at first hand, as it were — was its ineluctable depth and reality.

To modern people, this had to be far from obvious.  In the twenties and thirties of the last century, neither the Holocaust nor the Jewish state had yet driven its tent pegs as deep into history’s shifting sands as they have now.  So you had to have the eyes of a Hebrew prophet to see how consequential Jews would prove to be on the sands of future time.

One of my father’s published pieces was a review of a book on ancient Israel.  In it a well-known scholar claimed, in the most careful and genteel way he could, that the providential role of Israel was to prepare the way for Christianity.  Perhaps, my father demurred gently, the part played by Christianity was rather to preserve the still-providential role of Israel.

A psychic once told me that she had a vision of my father in a past life.  He was, she saw, a member of the crowd that crossed the Reed Sea with Moses in the exodus from Egypt.

Of course, I won’t try to figure that one out.  But her picture corresponds to the feeling I get from the pieces I’ve been reading recently.  He had the intensity and inner accuracy that would, in other circumstances, have given him the ability to pass,

dryshod and sure-footed,

through many floodwaters.

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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