When one has been through a difficult passage in the course of one’s life, it’s common to get the collective advice from Job’s Comforters:
get over it!
I’ve always thought that was very bad advice – except maybe for horses with fences to jump. For us people, by contrast, the real challenge is to get through it – normally by getting way down to the bottom of it, navigating that and suffering it through.
As I mentioned in a previous column, for the past ten days we’ve been in California, first at a conference of the Eric Voegelin Society in L.A., where Jerry and I each had papers to present, and then, farther south on the coast, at a clinic where from time to time I get beneficial neuropathy treatments not available elsewhere.
By far the most telling event was the EVS conference. Eric Voegelin was a rare thinker: enormously erudite, courageously anti-Nazi in the Vienna of the 1930’s, and gifted with one original insight of the greatest value.
What insight was that? It’s that the study of human beings, whether as individuals or in their cultures, shouldn’t be confined to their competing interests – for survival, power and the rest – but should also take into account their spiritual breakthroughs!
Since my personal experience of people supports that kind of curiosity, this alone would foster sympathy for the published works of Eric Voegelin. Also, the academics drawn to him have taken care to keep their own windows of the soul ajar – in one degree or another. Which means one is presenting work to, or hearing from, some unusually fine-tuned people.
That said, I set off for the conference with feelings more deeply troubled and torn than I’d allowed myself to know, as we packed and got going. The inaugural volume of Voegelin’s magisterial, five volume Order and History is titled Israel and Revelation. He credits Biblical Israel with having discovered what he calls “the form of history,” meaning history insofar as it has spiritual direction and purpose.
Yet Volume I is seeded with denigrations of the Israelites and the successor Jews. For this purpose, he partly draws on the Biblical narratives themselves, which are openly and incessantly self-critical and self-exposing. (For a late example of self-criticism, Rabbi Jesus’ criticisms of Pharisaic pretense are drawn from the familiar array of parables that the Pharisees cited against themselves!) It would be all too easy and convenient to overlook the spiritual heights that this level of self-criticism commands and just zero in on the bad report cards. That kind of misreading would be superficial but not necessarily malicious.
However, in passages scattered throughout Volume I, Voegelin goes far beyond this, falsely accusing Jews of an exclusively ethnic self-concern accompanied by hatred of mankind. In doing so, he employs most or all of the denigrations that – collected together – add up to perennial anti-semitism. Since he had written against Nazi racial theories and narrowly escaped the retributive hand of the Gestapo, he had every reason to know how dangerous – how lethal! – such misreadings of the Biblical narrative are.
The paper I read (which pulled as many punches as I could live with pulling) was well received and, I suspect, perfectly well understood – including the parts I didn’t put in the paper. So, what continued to trouble me? Well, speaking frankly, there are things that trouble me that might only glance off people differently constituted.
Here’s the trouble: Voegelin knew personally a number of pathbreaking Jewish thinkers, whose concerns were universal, in the intellectual circles that he frequented in Vienna before the War. In his Volume I, published in 1956, he often references Martin Buber, whose categories transcend the parochial, and he does so deferentially. He is rumored to have cherished a discretely romantic attachment to a young Jewish woman (a beauty, I presume) whose distinguished family patronized the arts from their palaces in Paris and Vienna.
Ergo: he knew better.
One of my private ways of assessing an opaque personality is to imagine what it would be like to make love with that guy. To quote the great Mae West, “A man’s kiss is his signature.”
If, in imagination, I submit Eric Voegelin to the Abigail Test – all I can say is –
I wouldn’t give him a kiss.