Desire, Distraction and Dialectic

“Mother and Child by a Fountain,” Pablo Picasso, 1901

Desire, Distraction and Dialectic

I have a woman friend whose mother hated her in the womb.  Surely an exaggeration! — you may protest.  Well, I met the lady only once, but she was the coldest being I ever encountered who was still organic

In religious terms, what should be said about a phenomenon like that?  I frame the question in those terms because, in rabbinic tradition, the stone tablet on which the first five commandments were inscribed concerned right relations between ourselves and the divine.  That tablet included the one about honoring your father and your mother.  The other five dealt with relations between people.

So what should a woman do when the commandment concerning the most foundational relationship cannot safely be obeyed in any ordinary way?

Let me consult my own life experience.  When someone hated me, who was in a position to do so deliberately and effectively, the problem it posed was that of a distraction.  (Even a small distraction can generate a major hazard.  Think of a bee sting while driving.)  To hate effectively is to work at throwing the victim off course.  How is that done?  By confusing, defaming or injuring the target person in whatever way the hater thinks safest.  And then continuing to do so.

The victim’s proper aim is to get back on course.  To recall and resume whatever the life aim had been before the adversary came to thwart it.

In my friend’s case, the adversary wished her ill even before she could discover the earliest hopes of her life.   And there was a related problem.  No one would believe such a report.  Since nothing in her environment would validate her experience, it would be a struggle for her to achieve or maintain self-trust.  

Each of us plays the hand we’re dealt.  Given human imperfection, I think my friend has done unusually well on many fronts and maybe that counts as a near-miracle.  Most crucial, she didn’t give up.

She has stayed in the game.

An historical analogy comes to mind.  We in the USA share a common motherland.  In my childhood, she was typically represented in terms of her best feature: her children would be deemed “created equal.”  In actual fact, some of the first of her children, including the one who’d written the lines about being created equal, owned other children of the motherland.  That Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just,” shows that he recognized the contradiction and was uneasy about it.  Many of her first children – the ones who owned slaves — shared the unease with the slave system, though they found it hard, socially and financially, to get clear of it.  Their descendants, by then more economically entangled in it, became its defenders.

The founders did not originate the slave system.  Western nationals had traded in human beings as property for the several preceding centuries.  Human traffickers from all nations are doing it still.  What the founders did originate was political equality as the raison d’etre of their motherland.  Her reason for being.

In the American story, the contradiction would stand out more and more starkly.  One would prefer to honor one’s motherland.  One’s safety at birth and progress to adulthood has depended on protections afforded and justified by her constitution.  Her wrongs were corrigible in principle by appealing to her best feature in the constitutionally prescribed ways.   Nevertheless, at some point, one has made the belated discovery that the contradiction was present at the creation.  Now what?

How to react?  One way would be to Denounce every one and every thing, past, present and future, in which a single speck of the founding contradiction could be detected.  

Anything wrong with that kind of hygiene?  If I give myself over to it, I can enjoy the feeling of purity washing over me.  I can feel born again, this time by a virgin mother!  And, as a side benefit, I’ll get the pleasure of destroying people who are not as pure as I am!

I see only one defect in my plan.  I’m not as pure as I sound.  The American DNA, the founding contradiction, lurks in me too.  Sooner or later, someone will find me out.  And another thing: running around being holier than thou doesn’t make a man or a woman especially desirable.  During the French Revolution, there were knitting women, called les tricoteuses. They sat knitting at the foot of the Guillotine, watching the heads of aristocrats roll.  Les tricoteuses lacked sex appeal.  You wouldn’t want to make love with one.

Well then, if the Method of Denunciation is not as good as it looked at first, what method would work to remove the contradiction at the creation?  Let me offer a few reflections of my own.

The method and aim of history is not to find purity.  Human life isn’t pure.  Look back at your personal history up to the present time.  Does everything you find there look that great?

The aim and method of history – for individuals and larger associations – is to face into contradictions.  Be assured: there are more contradictions where those came from.  Only from facing them can one find the pathway to coherence.  There is no built-in end point to the dialectical processes of history.  Any coherence found will always be provisional. 

Finding the contradictions

that belong to the present hour

is our dialectical opportunity –

not our fatal flaw.

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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