From the Horse’s Mouth

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, 1819.
Illustration by C. E. Brock, 1897 ed.

My latest ride at what I shall call The Metaphysical Stables has proved particularly gratifying. This time Legacy, the mid-sized, hairy dog, did not sit on my lap while I waited for Dusty to be saddled and bridled. One front foot of Legacy’s was bandaged because a horse had stepped on it. Naturally, that will discourage leaps on laps for the present.

However, Dusty was ready to take me up a notch, to a sitting trot, which put me in girl-philosopher’s-heaven-on-earth!

As you may recall, this horse is not merely a beautiful animal in motion. Thanks to his interpreter, the gifted young woman who trots alongside me and translates for Dusty, his circles, halts, and loops have communicative power.

(Are you skeptical as to whether any of this can be for real? I’m not trying to convince you. All I will say is that what comes to me from the horse’s mouth contains infinitely more insight than what I got years ago from a Park Avenue psychotherapist whom I paid twice as much per hour. I judge by the results!)

Be that as it may, I remarked to my human guide that recently I’d been “working through” certain configurations in my memory. Even though none of this work has been visible, it has felt monumental. Chiefly, it’s had to do with two figures from my past: my father and my first love.

Of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, the theologian Thomas Altizer has remarked to me – twice and I quote him: – “I am a sonovabitch; I am a sonovabitch. And there’s only one thing I care about. And that is God. And your father was a man of God.”

My father’s life had its own problematic, its own difficulties. For a fact, it had not been easy to be the daughter of such a man and eventually to become one’s own person. But as of now, I said to the horse and his young woman interpreter, I believed I’d come to understand whatever I still needed to “get” about my father, and was in shape to move on.

With respect to my father, Dusty appeared to concur; by now I am ready to move on. However, it seemed that such was not the case with respect to my first love. There, all had not yet been tallied up as required.

Goodness! I thought, fairly disconcerted. I go through my memories regularly, with a very fine-toothed comb. What could possibly remain to be sifted through?

    “You’ve not entered into his mentality – seeing it from his point of view.”

Oh. Okay. I can do that. On occasion, I’ve done it with students who were giving me trouble in class. Just give me a minute here. 

    “Oh! He still loves me – passionately – and always has!”

    “What are you going to do about it?”

    “Well, I can’t do anything about that now,” I said. “I’m married to the man who’s the Right One for me, with whom I’m totally in love. And by this time, my first love has got his own fully-furnished life as well.

    “That’s true. Also, if you were ever to be in contact, it would hurt him too much.”

    “Hurt him? I never imagined such a thing. Why would he care? He’s become very successful. He’s pushed and shoved his way up to relative prominence within a tightly competitive circle of Parisian intellectuals. I doubt he defends any views that I would think true – but, to the world he occupies, he presents a smoothly assured, varnished-over face.”

    “People,” said Dusty, “are never the same as the smooth facades they present to the world.”

    “How does that make you feel?” asked my guide, looking up at me.

    “Terrific! It’s like that line from Camelot, the Broadway musical: 

‘Where’s the knight pining so for me

he leaps to death in woe for me,

where are a maiden’s simple joys?’”

My guide grinned up at me, with womanly understanding.

In fact, as I told Jerry later over dinner, I felt rather elated for the rest of that evening. I’d long supposed that I’d been played for a fool, used and shrugged off, and well, perhaps that had not been quite the case. We’d both, the first love and I, known (and I suppose I’d made clear enough) that the love could not be realized in a life together. So perhaps he too had suffered, and still did in some way, despite the professional success within his small but influential coterie.

However, by morning I saw the whole story differently. I’d been slowly making my way through The Ark of a Covenant, a very big book by Walter Russell Mead, about America and the Jews. That morning, I happened to come on some over-lengthy quotations in Mead’s book, from prominent American anti-semites of the 1920’s. The terms they used – the word-pictures they painted – were aglow with loathing. They shocked me, physically and morally!

I remembered how my first love had made use of his original attraction to me as Jewish to bind me to him, and how later he had again singled out my Jewish identity, but this time negatively and woundingly, to push me into a distance safer for him: good for idealizing but not good enough to warrant simple kindness!

All at once I felt deeply disheartened. Not only deflated with respect to “a maiden’s simple joys.” Also stymied with respect to a deeper summons within my life: to make clearer the part Jews play as God’s pilot project in history.

Maybe it’s simply incurable, anti-semitism, the human refusal of a personal God who acts and relates to us in history. Maybe that perennial refusal will always be projected onto Jews – as the visible object by means of whom that refusal of The Invisible can be acted out in real time – where history happens. I thought of the literary cases, where the ambivalence is illustrated by means of two fictional characters who are apparently polar opposites but really two sides of the same coin: the delectable Jewish maiden and her utterly contemptible father. The motif is in Shakespeare, Walter Scott, G. E. Lessing, even George Eliot. They go together. They make the world’s spiritual ambivalence seem almost livable, almost coherent.

Finally, sitting for meditation this morning, I came to see it more whole. Anti-semitism is not a mere mistake. What’s at issue is a spiritual matter. Reasoning can give support. But only in the context of …

the turning around of the soul.

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” (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. 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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