McGuffey’s Readers, Eclectic Primer, 1909.

How important is it to be witnessed? I think we’re built to view it as pretty important. It’s close to the heart of motivation. We don’t want “no one to know.” 

“As God is my witness,” we say, to underscore how seriously we take what we’ve affirmed. Right, but we’d rather not have God be the only one who believes us.

I’ve more than once encountered people who were players with me, in the same real-life scenes, but have since erased some particular act from their memory – a key act on which the ensuing drama turned – which they no longer care to remember.

In one case, a senior colleague, who’d got me fired for refusing to vote for his candidate for chairman, later asked me – about the same individual he’d once backed – 

Who hired that guy?”

Of course, I was too nice to remind him that I’d undergone a seven-year struggle to get my job back after I’d asked him, in effect, that very question.

In my local temple, when I’d protested the presence of a predator then preying on women congregants, a board member phoned me to say that my objections had “legal implications,” which meant that no one should meet with me except in the presence of a lawyer. His call came shortly after an agreed-upon meeting with other board members at our home had been cancelled without notice or apology to us, the hosts. Although the predator did finally get ousted, the whole experience was quite shocking to me. Eventually, as part of my own effort to cure a trauma that got worse over a period of years, I made an effort to contact the board member who had made the call. 

Frustratingly, he retained no memory of having ever made any such phone call! Since Jerry had also gotten on the phone during his call, I did have a witness. Finally, after an interval where we continued to talk back and forth around the incident, some fragments of recollection eventually returned to my erstwhile caller who did express his regret.

What’s the implication of such stories? For normal people, not suffering from some pathology, memory itself seems to have pretty high standards and keep rather strict accounts. It may find witnessing a past deed intolerable if close inspection can’t also deliver exoneration.

In recent days, I’ve been struggling with the memory of a long sequence of efforts, over a period of years – at some cost to me in time, money and (in the final instance) trauma – to defend my temple as God’s house and the institutional face of the Jewish covenant in this locality and … what with recent turnover of personnel, membership, and newer crises nearer to hand, it seems that …

no one remembers or cares.

The oubliette (or forgettery) was where, before the Revolution, French aristocrats could consign people whose presence they found inconvenient. These were deep dungeons where protesters were kept in solitary confinement and no one ever knew what became of them. Minus the picturesque, ancien regime trappings, the forgettery is just where I feel I’ve been relocated.

Maybe God knows. I assume divinity does. But God wasn’t the only witness to the track record to which I allude here. It’s not a question of gaining credit. It’s having a story to share that really happened! A true story!

Why is that so important? I have the impression that, when people descend into cynicism, what they really feel is that no one knows. No one cares. No one sees me. No one could testify on my behalf.

There are some people, perhaps philosophers or religionists, who think that every single meritorious deed etches its own indelible place in eternity. If it happened at any time, seen or unseen, then it’s eternally true that it happened and nothing – no deep dark oubliette – can take that truth away. 

I admire that thought, but I’m a bit too literal-minded to share it. To my mind, ordinary remembering means a lot.

Some years ago, I had an invitation to speak at a philosophical conference in Louisville, Kentucky, the town where my father was born and spent his boyhood years. I carried a number of stories about Louisville in my head – inherited memories, as it were.

As the day to leave for Louisville drew nearer, my friend and colleague Elmer Sprague noticed that I was getting rather agitated.

     “What’s bothering you?” he kindly asked.

     “I will look for my father there, and not find him. The town must have greatly changed.”

Elmer advised me to ask the conference manager to point out an old Louisvillian – there must be one at the conference – who could give me a tour of the parts of town that my father knew. It was first class advice and I followed it. 

Initially, my tour guide drove me to the courthouse where my Dad had won the high school honor of standing to read the Declaration of Independence to the celebrants assembled for the Fourth of July. 

Like his schoolmates of those days, my father had learned to read from the McGuffey Readers where, if little Timmy decided to cut school and go huntin’ instead, he’d get treed by a bear. And eaten! They had old time religion in Louisville when my father was a boy.

My guide next drove me to the banks of the Ohio. After my father had left Louisville for Columbia College and another life, the river had flooded my grandfather’s small business. They had not been able to afford a shop on higher ground.

Finally, there was the old house. I got the address from my aunt. Standing in front of it and looking up, I saw – as if with hallucinatory clarity – the edges of inherited memory slide into congruence with the front and sides of the real house! 

     “They kept collie dogs,” I said to my guide, inconsequentially. 

To honor someone or something is to keep its place, the place memory has reserved for it. It was in that place for a reason.

The first time I saw modern Israel, looking down from the El Al plane as it circled for a landing, the words that came unbidden to my mind were these:

There it is – again! 

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time! 

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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2 Responses to Witness

  1. Tom Eggebeen says:

    As I read, I recalled the line from “Avatar” – “I see you” they would say in greeting to one another, and it’s the official theme song of the film. From: “Yolife – Sawubona, meaning “I see you,” is a South African Zulu greeting made popular in the epic film Avatar. It says, in essence, “I see all of you, your light and your darkness, and I am always here for you with respect and love.” The response, ngikhona, means “I am here.'” Thanks for this personal note … in a world of distractions and self-interest, to “see” someone, to recall their life, to have some kind of honest recollections, even when painful, is vital to being human, and then humane … or something like that.

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