Colliding with the Book I Wrote

From “Confessions of a Young Philosopher”
Illustration by Caroline Church

Colliding with the Book I Wrote

Yesterday I started proofreading Confessions of a Young Philosopher, getting through the first of its three Parts, which bears the title, “Beginningwise.“ From this first go at it, I felt clobbered – just knocked down and then run over, as if by a gigantic lawn mower.


It’s as if I’d never read it before.  I thought I would have to work up some degree of interest, rousing interest from an all-too-dormant state.  Instead, I feel like I need to be sent out for repairs.  What am I seeing in this work at present? 

First, there’s the viewpoint.  In telling the story, I’m proceeding — with clarity of motive and direction – from the orientation provided by my firm-foot-grip on what it is to be a Jew.  My “confession” is not foreign to The Tradition, but not encased in the tradition’s protective codes, interpretive layers, and calendar of obligations.  All that — codes, layers, and calendar — are never disavowed by me but only appear here as helps for binding together this people, assembling them for something like a census, or counting operation.  

That’s not trivial or adventitious considering what this people are – parties to the covenant for which they have been mustered and marked out – but it’s instrumental rather than defining.  The orthodox would not allow me to draw such a distinction.  I didn’t ask them for their permission.  That’s politics, the politics of religion.

So this standpoint, as I define it in my own mind, accounts for my motivation – conscious and unconscious.  I desire to locate or situate my place in history for the indefeasible Jewish purpose of partnering with God at the right place and time.  It’s both sincere and unsophisticated.

The story begins at the time of my youthful Fulbright year in Paris.  There’s no feminist movement as yet.  America believes in itself.  Young Americans believe in their innocence.  My desire to know Paris (that history-dense city of lights) through and through follows as a specification of my original aim.  I am trying to find my place in the times and places of my life.  

It turns out that, me being a woman, there’s a certain erotic choreography pertaining to such knowledge in that place and it’s passagère – transitory in principle. Lovers are what Paris is all about and lovers don’t last!

Though we American young women disapproved of this passagère feature of the Parisian eros, we too felt precarious — at the mercy of time’s winged chariot.  We too had only a short time in which to count as women before we got to be superannuated beings, trailing a past but devoid of a more-than-private future.  We were not ideal beings in Platonic space.  We had our feet moving on pre-feminist planet earth.  If I felt a Jewish obligation to partner with God in actual history – where real human beings live – I would have to tackle this precariousness somehow.

So this was the background, the mise-en-scene, when I met “Pheidias.”  The powerful draw between us isn’t something I made up.  It wasn’t a device by which I could understand Paris.  It was the force of that person beckoning me within my actual place and time.

He meanwhile was crafting a seduction.  In all the time-honored ways that were new to me.  I had no intention of becoming a classic victim.  Nor did I find any ready-made defenses in my repertoire.  Now what?  I could either drown myself in the river Seine (which I carefully considered doing, the night after) or else go on to see and fully experience what that was all about.  Awkward as it is for me now, staring at those technicolor scenes, they too had to be accepted as an unbidden aspect of my project: still to know what my place in time was, so as from there nevertheless to go on trying to connect with my all-knowing Witness, the co-Agent, the immemorial Partner.  

What’s so striking to me now, what bowls me over, is that (though for many years I longed for him) I didn’t want to keep him in my life!  I didn’t see him as a fit partner in terms of my deepest project.  His life-script was mannered, artificially self-canceling, not durable.  So I too was passing through, when our paths crossed.  

He offered marriage.  I didn’t want it, though I would have had to accept his offer had I gotten pregnant.  

It was the Lord’s work

that I didn’t.

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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