Fording the Flood

“Red Square on Black”
Kazimir Malevich, 1920-24

Fording the Flood

I had a dream the other night, depicting the journey I’m in the midst of at present.

On a bus traveling long distance, I was a passenger.  It was not a bus of recent vintage.  It lacked the wide aisles, reclining seats, or inside climate control of the newer buses.  If maintenance crews had ever kept it in repair, that too was in the past.  There were none of those posted notices that tell riders how to behave.  In fact, I might have been the only passenger, since I didn’t perceive others.

The driver was going full tilt, not realizing that we were on a one-lane road.  He also failed to notice that his left wheels were perilously close to a precipice at  road’s edge.  It was up to me to bring this to his attention, but I couldn’t find the words.

“Bus-bus-bus” was all I could say.

Eventually the bus did clear the narrow road, and move onto a wide-open mall or plaza.  However, as if the previous hazards hadn’t been bad enough, this plaza was filling up with floodwaters.

Since I’d watched TV programs on how to survive weather emergencies, I knew that it would not be a good idea to try to drive through the rising waters.  The driver didn’t seem to know this.  Hence I decided to leave his bus.

As I stood in the flood, the waters came about hip-high.  It would not be easy to ford them, especially for the six miles I would have to cross to get home.  Yet I had no choice but to set forth.  And there my dream ended.

In morning meditation, it came to me what the dream was about: my experience reading the journals and other materials of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal.  As I’ve mentioned in recent columns, his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 deemed him their “genius.”

Don’t just take it from his daughter.  The year that visiting Swiss philosopher Jeanne Hersch spent at my father’s philosophy department, she met Lionel Trilling at a New York literary party.  Trilling, a classmate of my father’s, was a then-celebrated literary critic and public intellectual.  Told she was visiting the Hunter College philosophy department, Trilling asked if she’d met Henry Rosenthal there.

“Not only I met him,” she said in her French-accented English, “but I fell in love with him and his whole family!”

Instantly Trilling drew her aside, saying intensely in a low voice,

“He was the only man I ever knew who was a genius.”

Years later, at the memorial for my father, Clifton Fadiman, a critic widely known at the time, said to the gathering,

“Of us all, he was the best talker.”

This in a circle of future opinion-shapers, all of whom prided themselves on talking well!

Although his published work included the posthumous, Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, I always had the suspicion that the secret of him – if he had a secret – awaited discovery in the journals (1925-1955) and his earlier work, published and unpublished.

My father began his working life as an ordained rabbi.  Eventually, he went into philosophy.  Although he certainly wasn’t in his element in the American rabbinate of the period, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in it by accident.  Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism (a branch of Reform Judaism) knew him at that time and, in a published piece, compared him to a Hasidic Master.

What was he, really?  And what – now that The Plague prevented me from advancing any other project – should I do about it?

Here’s where the bumpy bus ride comes in.  All the bright young men of the class of ‘25 defined themselves as “modern.”  To be modern meant, among other things, to subscribe to the iron certainties of Marx and Freud.  So, like his classmates, HMR descended into that long, underground tunnel that verbally flattened all the heights and depths of the life of the spirit.  Under those metallic constraints, his classmates could survive and even flourish.

Not him.  Not Henry.

As I turned the pages of the journals, I perceived his mounting anger and frustration within the worldview where he had caged his spirit and its genius.  He was not finding his way out and he had misconceived the problem.

The supreme ambition young men entertained back then was to write something they called “The Great American Novel.”  They all wanted to be the first to bring it out under the blue American skies.  Almost all of them felt like failures if they did not publish a novel or if they published one that was not deemed singularly great.  My father shared his classsmates’ ambition and did not grasp the fact that he was not a novelist at all.

Reading the journals, and tracing the vagaries of this misunderstanding, I began to think, well okay.  That’s that.  He never found the vehicle for his talent.  I’ll finish reading these documents and then, when The Plague recedes, convey them over to the archive that’s expecting to receive them.  I was saddened but – as it was not clear to me either what his vehicle should have been – I could accept the mismatch between a talent and a life, without imagining that I had any further role to play in the story.  The story was apparently over.

That was before I began to read through the articles and reviews.  They were exceptionally subtle, intense to the point of white heat, unconventional, powered solely by an inner summons.  I won’t try to quote from any of them here.  Reading them, I was absolutely knocked flat: surprised, overwhelmed – “flooded” (as in my dream) — by the authority and truthfulness manifest in each paragraph.

His actual focus was the Jewish spirit.  He was not looking at that phenomenon sociologically, historically, psychologically, or even through the lens of “tradition.”  What he saw directly — at first hand, as it were — was its ineluctable depth and reality.

To modern people, this had to be far from obvious.  In the twenties and thirties of the last century, neither the Holocaust nor the Jewish state had yet driven its tent pegs as deep into history’s shifting sands as they have now.  So you had to have the eyes of a Hebrew prophet to see how consequential Jews would prove to be on the sands of future time.

One of my father’s published pieces was a review of a book on ancient Israel.  In it a well-known scholar claimed, in the most careful and genteel way he could, that the providential role of Israel was to prepare the way for Christianity.  Perhaps, my father demurred gently, the part played by Christianity was rather to preserve the still-providential role of Israel.

A psychic once told me that she had a vision of my father in a past life.  He was, she saw, a member of the crowd that crossed the Reed Sea with Moses in the exodus from Egypt.

Of course, I won’t try to figure that one out.  But her picture corresponds to the feeling I get from the pieces I’ve been reading recently.  He had the intensity and inner accuracy that would, in other circumstances, have given him the ability to pass,

dryshod and sure-footed,

through many floodwaters.

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Another Door

“Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor”
Vilhelm Hammershoi, 1901

Another Door

After the death of my mother, I devoted long weeks to clearing my parents’ Manhattan apartment.  It seemed the bitterest of times.

All the tapestried layers, the complexities of them – the charm, the humor, the remarks that burst forth ex nihilo (out of mysterious nothingness) and the condensed insights that perhaps had piled up from lives that stretched back over many centuries – all that was to be packed into several large cardboard boxes containing … personal effects!

What insights do I have in mind? 

What remarks?

Here’s one of the insights.  After the Second World War, the nations of Eastern Europe came under the control of Soviet Russia and the communist regimes it imposed.  Under such regimes, religion was outlawed.  Despite this prohibition, when the Polish Pope came to Warsaw, television news showed him saying the mass publicly from his hotel balcony.  Under his balcony, the people of Warsaw filled the square and filled the streets beyond, as far as the eye could see.  Since the Russian occupation of Poland, no one had seen anything like this.  My mother and I were watching the news together.

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism,” she said without hesitation.

She was a few years ahead of the Sovietologists and the Cold War experts.  Sometimes, it helps if you understand people.

Here’s one of the remarks.  I remember my father voicing it when he was first admitted to the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine.  He would die a week later, though no illness was ever diagnosed.

The intelligent young physician had begun to give him oxygen.

“How do you feel?” he was asked.

“I feel REAL resuscitated.”

Later a philosopher colleague of mine who knew Wittgenstein told me, in that context, “real” means “not.” My father’s remark was funny and informative, but – like him — oblique.  It was the last complete sentence I ever heard him speak.

When both my parents were gone and I was kneeling in my blue jeans on the floor of my father’s study, sobbing, placing last little items inside the remaining cardboard boxes, I came across a small sheet of paper, with one sentence penned in my father’s clear and elegant hand.

“The future is the past 

entered through another door.”

Because our present time-out-of-time has blocked every one of my other pending projects, I’ve been spending these recent weeks reading through my father’s journals, which span the first three decades of his adult life.

He became at the end of his life (when he and I enjoyed an adult friendship) much more like the rather pure self that he had been at the beginning when, as a very young man, he’d just met my future mother.

All the way through, the journals will show him unpredictable, original, creative and elusive.  In the middle years, he will find life desperately frustrating and will have a tremendous struggle to gain the vantage point from where he will see its significance, for himself and for others.

At a certain point, I enter the story of course.  “Abigail is born” but, in the journals, she is never front and center.  He is the hero and my mother is too.  So what I am reading about is pre-history, which runs alongside my own for part of the track.  And yet, in the strangest way, I feel that — by reading about this part of the past, I am reentering my own future —

through a different door.

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Filial Piety

Funerary Relief, 4th Century BCE
Archaeological Museum of Athens

Filial Piety

I once wrote an article whose original title was “Filial Piety.”  That’s the category under which people used to cite the duties and types of honor that children were thought to owe their parents.  Every philosophical journal to which I submitted the article in America sent it back on the grounds that they had already published a piece on … child abuse!

Okay.  Finally I got it published in England, but not before I changed its title to “The Filial Art.”  In our time, nobody’s against art.

These days, I’ve been reading through my father’s unpublished materials: journals, correspondence, manuscripts, to see if anything there should be lifted out for publication – or not.

Henry M. Rosenthal was described by his peers in Columbia University’s illustrious class of 1925 as their “genius.”  Diana Trilling, writer and wife of the even-more-public-intellectual Lionel Trilling, wrote about him as a young writer, that “as we heard him, Lionel and I felt that we were listening to our American-Jewish Joyce … the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”  Clifton Fadiman, another of his well-known classmates, devoted much of his eulogy at my father’s memorial to reflecting on the meaning of genius.  He was uncompromising, Fadiman said.  The rest of us made compromises.  “Henry never did.”

Obviously, it’s something of a responsibility to be the child of such a man.  Since it’s no honor to one’s father to live a stunted life in his shadow, one needs to get enough “escape velocity” to discover one’s own story.  On the other hand, there is the danger of escaping so far and so violently that one fails truthfully to honor what is unique and irreplaceable about him.

I did manage to live my own life.  What I also did, in the years after his death, was complete the editing and introductions, biographical and philosophical, for his posthumous book, see it all the way through to publication and journal reviews, get their house in Maine sold, and take care of sundry other matters.  So it isn’t as if I’m running in the red with my father.  If I don’t succeed in finding something publishable in these materials, they will be archived for others to work on.  But if I do see stuff in them from which I believe others can profit, I intend to lift that out and get it published.

This final task was, however, one I had planned to leave for the last phase of my own working life.  But now, with our present days turning into The Year of the Planetary Plague, my own projects are – apart from this column — all on hold.  In consequence, figuring out what to do about the HMR papers moves suddenly to the head of the queue.

When one tries to understand someone who was a major life influence, it’s not only that person about whom one is inquiring.  The investigation is also, of course, about oneself.  In what way was I influenced?  How did it help or hurt me?  What did I make of it?

It’s too soon for answers.  However, these questions give my present effort to retrace his life its ineluctable fascination and surprise.   He had a quality of hiddenness about him that I may not ever succeed in decoding.

The end of his life came without any illness having been diagnosed.  It took him only a week to die.  When he had slipped into a coma, I voiced a lamentation to my mother, standing with her at the foot of his hospital bed.  My mother and I were very close.

“I left Pheidias [my first love, a Greek communist in Paris] for the values that my father represented, and now … he is leaving!”

It would have been said within earshot, had he not been in a coma.  Then I walked to the head of the bed where he lay dying.  Between him and me, a wordless final communication began.  It was transmitted along what I can only describe as an energy current, going from his heart along the length of my arm and right into my heart center.

Distinctly, though silently, it sent the following message:

Love

 is the strongest force

in the universe.

It’s more fundamental than the physical forces –  

than the strong force,

 the weak force,

electromagnetism

 and gravity.

He wasn’t preaching.

What he was telling me was descriptive, on the order of fact, not admonitory.  With this benediction, he was perhaps addressing my complaint to my mother and releasing me into my own life world —

where I’d be able

to observe this for myself.  

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What About the Plague?

Hands
Rodin, 1909

What About the Plague?

 I feel it’s a privilege to be alive at this time, 

as it is at all times.

It’s now being said that we can’t shake hands – perhaps ever again!  Henceforth, our hands will be condemned as bearers of lethality.

If we are to embrace our humanity again, it’s vital to get this one figured out.  It’s up to us (as human beings, some of whom do scientific research) to make it safe – or at least safer? — to shake hands.

We speak of people being out of touch, having lost touch, having the common touch, the human touch, staying in touch.  After infancy, we go beyond touch and learn to talk but — at the very start of our memories —

touch is the human norm.

It’s been reported that the present plague originated in the “wet markets” of Wuhan, where stuff like boiled bats gets added to the soup.  If that’s so, with global traffic carrying toxic practices to every latitude, we are going to have to figure out how to get these dictators

to clean up

their acts.

It’s speculated that further viral waves might follow in succession, in the wake of our present distress.

If so, then we as a human race will need to find more rapid methods for detecting infection and building remedies.

There is one affliction I sense besetting us all, whether or not we have personal losses to mourn: plague deaths can’t be honored by farewells or proper ceremony.  There are too many of them and the dying person may be contagious.

It seems to me, though I have no way of verifying this, that there is nonetheless

a great welling up

from all these frustrated farewells.

Even if they can’t now be exchanged face to face, they are still being experienced — in the collective silence.  We feel them.  We are not indifferent.

The policy decisions, about steps and stages of societal recovery, are beyond my competence or reach.  Different nations and, in our own country, states are experimenting with different strategies.  Perhaps one size won’t fit every circumstance.  It’s only retrospectively that we may get a rough idea of which regimen did the least harm, what trade-offs were better or worse.  At present, every plan must be educated guesswork.

Just as the farewells surround us with their muted fullness of feeling, so I have the sense, accurate or not, that many of the small businesses and services that humanize our days are not crushed yet — only on standby.

They are our reserves of activity, of creativity, of personal contact, of skill and practicality.  They address the needs of our complex human situation.  An important number will manage their necessary struggles to survive and welcome us back.

And we will be …

so very glad

to see them again.

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The Paranormal and Me

“The Fortune Teller”
Frederick Basile, 1869

The Paranormal and Me

If by “the paranormal” is meant the field of reality that comprises effects not linked to causes by any known physical laws — and if the missing links are likely found in consciousness – then the secrets of the paranormal might await discovery within our own consciousness.  After all, we don’t live in the regions described by present-day physics.  We don’t encounter micro-particles in our everyday experience.  But we do live in our own consciousness and we interact with other conscious beings all the time.  So research into the paranormal would be a study closer to home.

When my parents bought their house in Maine, it lacked water and electricity.  So they had to have a well dug.  Where on the property should the digging begin?  My father didn’t exactly disbelieve in dowsers, but he disapproved of using them.  So mother sent him away, since she was afraid his attitude could interfere with the work for which she had already hired the local dowser.   Clearly, she took for granted that one’s own consciousness could affect paranormal activity apparently centered in someone else.  The way the placebo effect, or the “nocebo” effect conveyed by the doctor can affect the patient, positively or negatively.  (If you’ve got a theory to explain that, I’d like to hear it.)

My mother described to me how the dowser had halted at a particular spot on our lawn, his arms visibly tugged downward by a force only he could feel.

“Dig here!” he said.

They did and soon found water not far down.  He was worth every penny.  I still have the forked stick he used.  It’s nailed to the wall of my office, among other souvenirs.

What other paranormal events have occurred in my personal experience?  Occasionally I’ve had a dream that was a premonition, usually of something negative, as if I were being alerted to brace myself in advance.

One time I dreamed that a colleague was telling me I was going to be fired.  In real life, this news-bearer happened to be someone I liked.  We’d been allies in the politics of the department, though he had the peculiar defect of being noticeably unsupportive. You didn’t want to be stranded in a storm with him.  He was competent, honest and good-humored, but emotionally absent.  In the dream, I reacted to the bad news – as I never would in real life – by emitting a staccato succession of high-pitched, wordless cries of anguished protest.

As it turned out, I did get news of my nonreappointment from that very colleague.  In our department, he had no special access to administrative decisions.  It was only by chance that he learned of the unfavorable decision.  Walking through campus, he happened to pass the college lawyer who, knowing that we were allies, looked at him intently and shook his head deliberately.

Although I didn’t emit staccato cries when he told me, I did feel again the dream’s double disappointment: the bad professional news plus the emotional let-down.

At present, I’m reading a book by a well-respected philosopher of science, Stephen Braude.   In it, he recounts some of his experiences researching the paranormal.  So far, the book has described only one case that was well-confirmed, occurring repeatedly with different investigators, seen in daylight or direct light, with every feasible precaution taken to prevent fraud.  Braude distinguishes this case from others he’s investigated, where the medium was cheating or the evidence ambiguous.  So it’s clear he knows the difference.

I doubt there is anyone reading this column who can’t recall a precognitive dream or highly improbable but personally significant coincidence.

What Braude also reports in his introduction is that colleagues, who had treated him with the mutual respect and deference normal among academic philosophers, suddenly shunned and ridiculed him once he told them that he’d undertaken a sustained, systematic inquiry into the paranormal.  Had he not had tenure, they would certainly have fired him.  Young applicants for positions in his department evinced curiosity about his researches – that is, until they were hired and hoped to get tenure.  Once they were safely on board but not yet sure of job security, they joined in the faint mockery, demonstrating that they too were “one of the boys.”

Tenure is supposed to confer freedom to do independent research.  It’s for that reason that professors, like judges, don’t get fired for making unpopular decisions.  Nevertheless, they risk social death, which is hard on the mind and on the body.  In pursuing a line of research that is simply not done, my dears, it’s clear that Braude has shown considerable courage and love for truth.

In a sense seldom discussed publicly, the reality of the paranormal is a truth “everybody knows.”  What does that signify – for the culture as a whole and for any of us as individuals?

For the culture, it signifies that, sooner or later, current paradigms in physics will need to be revised and replaced by a new paradigm, one that includes consciousness in its wide range of expressions and manifestations.  For that we may need a dramatic “refuting instance” of nonphysical causation — one important enough to shake present intellectual foundations. Or, barring a surprise of that kind, we will need research into the small instances on a statistically significant scale.   That requires major funding – so far unavailable.  Braude’s efforts always depend on private foundations and are constantly hampered by lack of money.  So, in the near term at least, the desired paradigm change is hard to foresee.

What then are we as individuals to make of the reality of the paranormal?  That’s a large topic and a speculative one.  The inferences for a person’s private life are, at this point, “anecdotal,” case by case.  I don’t think my mother was wrong to hire a douser.  I don’t think my father was wrong to leave the house.  For me, the paranormal is, in a sense, “normal.”  But it is to be treated with a certain caution, like anything we don’t well understand.  I’ll wind up with a story that illustrates at least one of my concerns.

I once had a young woman student from some Caribbean island who told me that her mother had been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to contact the dead.  My student reported telling her mother that she (the mother) lacked the psychic power to attempt such contacts, unlike her daughter, who could reach the dead without harm or difficulty.

Feeling that my student’s story was above my pay grade, I made no comment, merely listened.  At the same time, it crossed my mind that arrogant belief in one’s own superiority with respect to the paranormal was probably a bad idea.

A few weeks passed and I began to notice that my student was looking less and less vigorous, more drawn, thinner and more sickly.

 Uh oh.

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My Father’s Diaries

Henry M. Rosenthal

My Father’s Diaries

In the wake of the pandemic presently sweeping our small planet, the train of projects I had is now stalled.

As the fact of this frustration sank in, it came to me to turn to a task I’d previously resolved to put off till all else in the queue had been attended to: the HMR papers.

Henry M. Rosenthal, my late father, was an exceptionally brilliant yet enigmatic character.  Let me give you an illustration.  A friend, who had never met my father, did meet him one night in a dream.  I don’t know how she knew who he was, but she did.  Her own father having recently passed away, in her dream she asked my father,

“What is death?”

“He explained it [death] completedly,” she told me, “and I understood it all.  But when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a word he said.”

“Oh,” I laughed.  “That was Daddy all right!”

All his papers are now in my possession, destined for a reputable archive when I’ve done working with them.  Since he was a philosopher, and I a philosopher’s daughter, I would naturally expect to distill out of these materials a legible account of him: what the sources of his insight were, what was the recipe, what he was all about.

With most people, one can do this, in varying degrees.  With a philosopher, one imagines it even more feasible, since they dedicate themselves to making obscure matters clear and getting chaotic things rightly ordered.  I had managed to write the introductions for his Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way, a philosophic book that I saw through to posthumous publication.  So I’d not expected the private diaries to pose any harder problem.

In fact, they had become a problem I could not solve.  I had gone at them again and again, trying one angle, then trying another – always hoping to see how to pull the code of him out of his private reflections on himself and those around him.  It was tantalizing.  Some of the names in the diaries became eminent public intellectuals.  There they all were – the young men — with their gifted wives!

It was no use.  Nothing I had tried added up.  I could just quote him.  But not everything was quotable and I didn’t see how to choose.  It was failure after failure.  So I had given it up, pending further insight or new information.

Although others did ask me (till they stopped asking) how I was coming along with the HMR papers, I never felt inwardly called to go back to them.  Till this week.  One morning, in my prayer/meditation, there came an unmistakable message:

Go to origins,

get back to the beginning,

dig as deep down as it goes.

I checked with his photo, hanging on the wall of my room.  Ordinarily, he regards me with an enigmatic expression, fond but detached.  This time he looked determined and engaged as if he were throwing me a rope line and expected me to catch it.

At breakfast, Jerry said to me out of the blue, “Now that you have the time, why don’t you work on your father’s papers?”

Okay, okay.  I can take a hint.  No need to shout.  I took up Vol. I of the Diaries, 1927-29.   This time, I wasn’t looking for a handle, or a way to turn these materials into something like a book.  I wasn’t bringing expectations or an agenda.  I was just going to read through them all, to the last day of the last year, and then look at subsequent unfinished mss.  And letters.

Here is what I found.  For the first time, I was understanding him.  He had an extraordinarily sure and objective sense of who he was.  With faint distaste and solid awareness of his own worth – even superiority – he recognized himself.  This self-awareness was not boastful or overblown.  It was immovably factual.  Such a compound is not a familiar one.  Of what was it made?

The outstanding characters in the Bible are uniquely identifiable – not mere types or generic figures.  At the same time, they seem to have the gift of knowing how they fit in the Biblical frame.

Since the Biblical times have ended, a man or woman of Jewish identity has had to find that personal uniqueness and its frame within the larger world.  My father knew – perhaps better than most of the co-religionists I have met since – what that comprised:

the chosenness —

the hatred engendered by it – 

which, internalized, becomes self-distaste –

and withal, the self-trusting sure-footedness –

of a character in a story with God in it.

Picture that as a sense of himself

in the body – 

not in the abstract.

Some people, who went on to big reputations in the culture, called him “a genius.”  The intelligence he had was not a greater or lesser quantity of the stuff that went into the geniuses one has read about.  It was a kind of high moral and aesthetic intelligence, a bodily awareness of being precisely located — with a Jewish locatedness — in the eye of the storm of history.

His classmates, in Columbia University’s class of 1925, many of them Jews, went on to careers that achieved national recognition, which his did not.  But I never knew any who had, as he did,

 this utter

bodily at-one-ness

with the Jewish way of being chosen. 

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Comprehending the Fate of Women

Illustration from Jane Eyre by Edward A. Wilson

Comprehending the Fate of Women

Alfred de Muset, the romantic French writer, wrote a play with the title, On ne badine pas avec l’amour, or in English, One Doesn’t Kid Around with Love.  The heroine of this play speaks a line that’s since become classic:

Est-ce que vous ne plaignez pas

le sort des femmes?

Or, in English, do you not pity the lot of women?

With me, the lot of women is not a pity, but it is a concern.  My concern is not that our fates as women are pitiable.  It’s that our fates have not been successfully comprehended.  We don’t know when and what to pity, what the stakes are, how the losses and gains are to be reckoned.

Actual women make the private computations all the time, and share their accountings with trusted friends, most often other women.

But feminism, regarded as the theoretical account and proposed remedy for the plural predicaments of women, has neglected le sort des femmes – the lot of women – most especially the fate that concerns me as a friend to my own sex.

Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre portrays the situation I have in mind.  Jane, the book’s heroine, is employed by a certain Mr. Rochester, as governess to his ward.  They fall in love and are on the verge of marrying, when the disclosure of a mad wife now living saves her from bigamy.  So as not to be tempted to become his mistress, she flees, without resources or protections of any kind, to a far district where – in one of those coincidences of the 19th-century novel – the house on the moor that finally takes her in happens to contain three heretofore unknown cousins.  They are two pleasant young women and a handsome clergyman.  A lost legacy is found too and her life might attain safety at last, except that the clergyman, who plans to become a missionary in India, presses her – with all his personal force of will –to accompany him as his wife.

Jane describes his pressure:

I felt veneration for St. John [the clergyman]

 – veneration so strong that its impetus thrust me at once

to the point I had so long shunned.

I was tempted to cease struggling with him

—to rush down the torrent of his will

into the gulf of his existence

and there lose my own.

There are some women who have never had this experience, but I’ve not met too many.  There is a powerful feminine tendency to yield.  With sufficient force of will, or force of circumstance, or persuasive power, or power of groupthink, many a man can “have his way” with many a woman.

I don’t mean that any man can, with any woman.  Of course not.  But I do happen to know of more than one public feminist whose lover or husband beat her, browbeat her, or allowed her to be exposed to sustained insult.

Jane Eyre’s vulnerability, her temptation to yield to another’s aggressive and persistent will is — dare I say it? — natural.   I don’t care whether we attribute this naturalness to culture, evolution or providence.  It’s real and the default position in every culture I know of, from the stone age to our age.

In our age, refrigerators have allowed us to leave our cooking pots, contraceptives make it possible to pace our childbearing, contemporary clothes and gymnastic can give us more bodily self-command, armed constabulary can make it safer for us to take solitary walks, changes in legislation make it possible to vote, own property, acquire new capabilities and become financially self-supporting.

What has feminism contributed to the situation?  Hasn’t it changed what used to be the default position?  Yes, it certainly has, but one of the problems associated with this change is that women who still have to fight for recently acquired opportunities risk taking on a defensive aggressiveness that obliterates their underlying power of yielding.

On the other hand, if they yield imprudently to that very power of yielding, they can find themselves erased in the sense that threatens Jane Eyre as she resists the young clergyman’s force of will.

If she yields — to his egoistic willfulness — she may lose her own existence as a center of desire, thought and purpose.  And he, in conquering the woman he wants, will lose her just as much.

If she resists his power — with a brittleness originating out of fear — she may lose her own connection with the deep-based, feminine power-of-yielding.

The man who, out of egoistic weakness, abuses a woman backs her into this brittleness.  He thinks he is asserting his masculinity.  Rather, what he flaunts is an embarrassing unmanliness.  And yet, aggression belongs to the masculine nature.  It’s not per se toxic.  In many circumstances, it’s what real life requires.  Women don’t talk about that but they know it.

So here we are, in our advanced society, working on the precarious, ever-unstable ideal equilibrium between men and women.  The woman must preserve her power of judgment, her principles, her desires, her purposes – and with all these retain her power-of-yielding, which is the feminine power.  The man must preserve his mental and energetic forces together with sufficient self-command not to abuse but rather protect the dignity of women, and thus to be able to protect — in the singular woman he may find and love — her power of yielding.

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“Philosophy is Learning How to Die”

“The Death of Socrates”
Jacques- Louis David, 1787

“Philosophy is Learning How to Die” 

Socrates said that about philosophy, in front of his grieving student/disciples, at the hour when he was to down the lethal hemlock served him by the jailer.  Death was the sentence passed on him by the jury that had found him guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens.  Since Socrates was a man of noble character, who had certainly opposed the corruption of the youth, the offense for which they were condemning him was probably a different one: being a philosopher.

Philosophy was at that time (399 B.C.E.) a fairly new calling, but Socrates embodied it as much as anyone has, before or since.  What did he mean by calling it a study of how to die?  Was he just trying to console his students — apprentices in philosophy — assuring them that he was departing for a land they already knew?

If, on the other hand, he was not just offering a soothing placebo,

what did he think philosophers knew?

A few years ago, one of my colleagues was cut down suddenly, in the prime of his life, by an illness the doctors could not cure.  At the memorial service, his widow shared a comment he had made to her:

“Nothing in philosophy

prepared me for this.”

Of course, Socrates had in mind a way of life, not an academic discipline.

Lately, the urge has come upon me to get rid of a lot of things no longer needed in the life I live now.  Up to a certain time, I’d always made a point of traveling light.  In New York, I lived in a one-room apartment where every piece of furniture was in use; the paintings on the wall were by me; the closets held clothes I actually wore and I knew where, on my bookshelves, I could find any book I needed.  My motto was:

If I have to leave suddenly,

whatever I own should fit in a backpack.

Of course it didn’t quite, but that was the model.

It broke down after my parents died.  Though I gave away whatever I could, there were paintings, books and some heavy pieces of furniture that ended up in my space.  When I met and married Jerry, and we moved to our own place, the purgations were considerable but they didn’t keep up with the stuff that moved with each of us.  It was perhaps too soon for us to know what was really ours.

Then, a few weeks ago, I noticed in meditation that I felt “like a stranger” in our home.  Was this a case of the alienation that contemporary philosophers write about?

Further guidance came in these words:

Get rid of the baggage!

People write deep books on alienation.  It’s all the rage.  Instead of writing a deep book, I decided to go through my closets.  The effects were sudden and, to me, quite odd.  It was as if

the outer is the inner

and the inner is the outer.

With each bulging bag going to Goodwill, I felt more at home!

If the Existentialists had purged their closets, would they have written so eloquently about Thrownness, Angst and Alienation?

At around the same time, I had another thought – just as inspired.  Pardon my mentioning it, but some readers may remember that I survived a year-long struggle to get a predator who targeted women out of an institution that held great value to me.  It was by no means easy to do, nor was it clear that I would eventually succeed (which, however, I did, with the help of God and a few others).

Such “victories” are immensely costly.  Every day for about a year, feelings of outrage, anger, frustration, hurt and violation were mixed with my digestive juices.  The natural consequence was that a digestion I used jokingly to describe as “the best thing about me” became … well … certainly NOT the best thing about me.

Recently I discovered a facility, about a 40-minute drive from where I live, where highly competent staff know how to take a garden hose (so to speak) to one’s pipes, starting at the other end. “Hydrotherapy” is the genteel name they give to their treatment.  As the dysfunctional intestines gradually return to normal, interestingly, the corresponding emotions are also returning to their normal place in the present tense, with fewer involuntary revisits to a year of past suffering.

What’s all this got to do with learning how to die — or with philosophy, for that matter?

Well, when you die, you let go (perforce) of powers you won’t be needing anymore.  That way, you can travel lighter to your next appointment.

Something analogous happens when you disburden yourself of baggage no longer functional — including wounds left from bygone combats.  You get more accessible – to yourself and life’s still-undiscovered countries.

And philosophy?  It requires a disciplined commitment to love the truth and seek it – even at the cost of surrendering favorite beliefs when you discover them to be false.  If you live that way, whatever the pains — sooner or later, inevitably and naturally, you notice yourself —

meeting the life-adventure afresh.

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The Personal Meets the Political

Sartre, Boris and Michelle Vian, and Simone de Beauvoir at the Cafe Procope, 1951

The Personal Meets the Political

I’m still reading A Dangerous Liaison, the book by Carole Seymour-Jones, about the great twentieth-century power couple, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.  In my previous blog on them, I focused on the inconsistency between their philosophic claim that we invent ourselves, and the actual circumstances plus iron self-discipline that shaped the dazzling careers of these two writers.

Mine was a criticism from outside.  As I learn of the personal lives of these two shapers of the Zeitgeist, I want to know, what’s really in play here?

Seymour-Jones has read the letters, diaries, major philosophic and literary works, and she pairs their written words, private and public, with the real-life pathways of each writer.  Her take on these evidences seems to me intelligent and morally serious.  Of course, it’s not the last word but, for a human life, can there be a last word?  What we do have is relevant information on a question of wide concern: 

for these two opinion-shapers 

what was the connection 

 between the personal and the political

 and how did it influence the Zeitgeist?

First, let’s get into the evidence.  De Beauvoir and Sartre recruited favorite students as rotating sex partners for the two of them,  captivating young followers by their intellectual power and bohemian freedom.

When Nazi Germany conquered and occupied France, Jewish students and professionals they knew were under mortal threat, forced out of positions high and low, required to wear the yellow stars that made them easier to round up and kill, but also killed if they were discovered without the yellow stars.  Though their so-called “family” of students included one young Jewish woman named Bianca Bienenfeld, both Sartre and de Beauvoir maintained a tone of coolly satiric indifference to Bianca’s terror.

Sartre’s literary career continued and flourished under the Nazi Occupation.  He even took a post involuntarily “vacated” by a man named Dreyfus – the actual grandson of Alfonse Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused in France’s famous Dreyfus Case!

After the Liberation, Sartre managed, by his brilliance as a rhetorician and politician of ideas, to facilitate the confusion of his own border-line war-time record with that of a real resistant, the writer/philosopher Albert Camus.  Effectively, Sartre worked to create the myth of France as a nation that had collectively resisted the German Occupation — representing the existentialist as the archetypal hero of that resistance.  Sartre’s lifelong support for the Soviet Union may have been another instance of borrowed valor.  During the Occupation, communists had gained a special reputation for courage as resistants.

Is that all?  No, there is more.  In the waning days of the Occupation, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus met other Parisian intellectual swells in sumptuous apartments, brimming with champagne and delectables for the palate — for orgies that pagan Rome might have envied!

What are we to make of all this?  Well, first of all, nobody’s life will bear microscopic examination under white light.  Second, after the War, when news of the death camps and returning skeletal survivors filtered into common awareness, de Beauvoir felt that she and Sartre had to turn their concept of existentialism in a more morally responsible direction.  Personal self-invention had implications for others, who ought henceforth to be included in the existentialist theories.

It’s likely that the whip-lash effect of the War played some part in de Beauvoir’s eventual resolve to write The Second Sexa book so consequential for women globally.

In the final romance of her womanly life, with Claude Lanzmann,  producer of the documentary “Shoah,” she wanted him to believe that she’d had but a very few previous intimate encounters and he could trust her true-heartedness as a woman.  The perennial man/woman asymmetries reasserted themselves for the last time.

How should we regard this much-too-complex story?  These two defined the contemporary world, as much as any literary pair ever did.  In order to surmount very particular social obstacles, they resorted to the extreme theoretical claim that we can invent our purposes and personal characteristics wholesale.

That claim was psychologically understandable, rhetorically dramatic and professionally attention-getting.  They stuck by it, though their personal lives were not an advertisement for their theories.

They did retain two theoretical constants not deemed self-invented:

consciousness v. nature

It was left to the post-moderns to take the further steps:

 doubting that we have access

to our own consciousness,

and doubting that our words refer

to anything objectively out there.

Skepticism is thereby carried to its limit.

Perhaps a philosopher of history, Hegel, can help us decipher this story.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit shows the human mind refusing – in epoch after epoch — to find repose in skepticism.

The more extreme the doubt, the more the doubter will secretly crave certainty.  The more absolute the freedom claimed, the more tyrannical will be the restraints to which the claimant will surrender, body and soul.

You can pick your own examples.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Dust Tracks on a Road

by Zora Neal Hurston

This is the autobiography of the great Zora Neal Hurston, whom I first learned of when Jerry started reading aloud from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, at breakfast.  The novel was, to me, a totally astonishing book – perhaps the only book about romantic love written in English the 20th century that takes it entirely seriously and rings true.  With all the grit of the real thing.

If we want to know, who was this woman who wrote about that most enviable thing as if she knew it from the inside? — Dust Tracks on a Road gives some part of the answer.

Most of her childhood was passed in a Florida town inhabited and governed by black Americans, themselves a generation or two out of slavery.  So she grew up as free from internalized self-diminishment as it was possible to be in that era (or any era for a member of any group that the majority denigrates).

She rose to levels as high as a writer’s career can go: a peer of the best of her time (the 1930’s and 40’s) – recognized as an exciting, original talent.

Then she sank out of sight.  In my college days, I never heard of her.  Nobody I knew spoke of her.  The men were talked of – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison.  They were torch-bearers for the politics of race with the sharpened awareness accompanying that.

For her, the grants dried up, fellowships dried up and royalties had never been that royal.  She – who could charm a roomful of New York talent and grab hold of any nearby lifeline – was suddenly out of style, out of order, out of line.

From the fine Afterward by Henry Louis Gates, one gathers that the men wrote her out of the writer’s public space.  Particularly Wright (whom I knew in Paris and was a positive influence in my life).  She was not race-conscious enough or politically combative enough, perhaps.  She had another calling.

When black women writers discovered her, it had to do with recovering and honoring their own voices.  Alice Walker made her way through waist-high weeds and snake-haunted ground to the abandoned Jim Crow cemetery in Florida where Zora Neal Hurston lay in a grave almost unmarked.  Walker had a stone placed there with the writer’s name and the line that rightly identifies her:

Genius of the South.

Hurston’s writing is incandescent.  If I quoted any of it, you’d have no trouble seeing what I mean.

Inevitably, one sees another woman in the terms one sees oneself.  When I ask myself why this strangling of the voice and public presence of a woman writer as important as any in our time, I don’t buy Henry Louis Gates’s answer: “Put simply, Hurston wrote well when she was comfortable, wrote poorly when she was not.”  Maybe, but I see it another way.

Chapter 14 of Dust Tracks is titled “Love.”  It concerns a romantic encounter, a love affair that she says she mined to its very depths in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In real life, Hurston married and divorced twice, ending as she began: solo.  So this singular true love, of whom she writes in Dust Tracks, must either be a distillate of the best qualities she found in both husbands – or else a glimpse into her encounter with some other man whose existence and name is unknown to her biographers.

What she does tell is that, in her prefeminist era, the man she loved wanted her to give up her work for the life of a full-time wife to a man who wanted to take care of her.  Her work, however, was a calling that she could not dodge.

It is at this point that, for the first time and very oddly, Hurston actually tells the reader that she won’t tell what happened. “What I do know, I have no intention of putting but so much in the public ears.”

Of all true writing, it can be said that the public doesn’t need to know.  A writer makes herself liable to be, as it were, flayed alive.  Not because the public “needs to know,” but because

writing that rings true

 comes from the truth.

From that very place in the memoir where she informs the reader that she’s not obliged to make her personal life public, her writing changes.  The two chapters that follow read like spin-offs from discoveries she made in earlier chapters where they had appeared new and freshly earned.  Despite Gates, it’s unlikely that her economic circumstances changed between writing chapter 14 and 15.

Here I think of the choice I faced when I fell in love with Jerry.  I had a position in the world, an apartment and neighborhood to live in that many would have (as the saying goes) “killed for.”

Suppose I left all that to make a joint life and it turned out a mistake?  Suppose, deprived of the position that had supported my work, I simply dwindled in self-approval and effectiveness?  Jerry might still love the remains of me, but the life I had fought so hard to achieve would be pretty much ruined.  The risks I saw were enormous, the outcome far from guaranteed.

But there were risks on the other side too.  As a carpenter works with wood, I worked with words.  I spoke and wrote from a record of saying what I actually thought and doing what I said I would do.  If, playing it safe, I refused a personal summons so large — one in line with my lifelong trust that true love is real — could I ever trust my own words again?

According to her own memoir, Zora Neal Hurston had lived a life where, despite incredible risks, she’d been thrown one lifeline after another, time after time.

Could it be that, finally, she refused to take life’s largest risk: to put her immense talent into the project of integrating love and work?

Even in those days, there were happy marriages between creative people.  If she declined to take that risk, could it be that the lifelines previously thrown her way as if by chance now recoiled instead and rolled back to the Source from whence they came?  Of course, I could be wrong.  The explanation for the unmarked grave could be more probable and ordinary.

 But that’s what I wonder.

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