World History and Me

Lascaux Cave Paintings
c. 17,000 BCE

World History and Me

Last night I watched a documentary about the “discovery” by Europeans of the Western Hemisphere – that vast tract of land between Europe and the India that the spice-hunters sought.

In my childhood, that discovery was chronicled without scare quotes, as the collected tales of intrepid adventurers and pioneers who stepped onto the shores of a virgin continent, and whose courage and future-directed hopes made it possible for my immediate forebears to live and be well in America. America! Where the government did not organize pogroms! Where the Good Guys won and the Nazis lost!

Anyway, that’s no longer quite the received view of how to tell this story. For example, the documentary I watched explained that the Western Hemisphere had been thickly populated from North to South. Millions of people had once lived here.

So how did it get to be a virgin continent? Where’d they all go? Even the most sweeping of massacres couldn’t kill millions with the weapons that 17th-century colonists carried.

What did most of the killing were the nice, well-meaning, soul-saving missionary monks who reached out and touched indigenous people with their Bibles, their crosses and their benedictory hands. Those open hands bore a host of European diseases to which their intended beneficiaries had no immunity.

“If you were the Queen of Spain,” I asked Jerry over breakfast, “and you knew in advance that the voyage of Columbus would open the process that would end up killing millions, would you still give him that charter?”

“No,” Jerry said immediately. He wouldn’t. But after a moment, he added that “they” (the Europeans) would have explored the New World at around that time anyway. Advances in ship-building, navigation and world trade would’ve sent others on the same voyage even if – in the thought-experiment I suggested – Columbus had been held back.

A recent book, whose name escapes me at the moment, has an even more horrific story, telling against our very species: homo sapiens sapiens. If we look at the fossil record, we see a succession of hominids looking more and more like us: the australopithecines, homo erectus, homo naledi, homo neanderthalensis et al. So where’d they all go? The hypothesis to which I refer offers an explanation for the absence of these close competitors. Our ancestors raped some and killed the rest.

A rival thesis, perhaps more generally accepted, it that our species survived because of its greater “adaptability” and the rival hominids obligingly died out without a struggle. On this view, wars of annihilation only began when homo sapiens developed sufficiently to have something to fight over.

In the Torah Study class I attend every Saturday morning, from time to time we read battle scenes, where God’s people are enjoined to slay them all (all the near competitors) lest their pagan ways prove contagious. If the Israelites were to fall back into idol worship, the whole demonstration of God’s sovereignty — over the empire of Egypt, over the sea and desert wilderness, and the scenes where divine power brings the moral basics down from Mt. Sinai and sets apart this people as the test case of His partnering with human beings in history – the whole long story recorded in the Pentateuch would come to nothing.

Whenever we come upon these battle scenes, my co-religionists express discomfort and unease. Are we content to say that my co-religionists are nicer than God? Or that God used to be rather brutal but that He’s gotten nicer? Or that none of this is true, that it’s a fable? If it’s a fable, and an unedifying fable at that, why are we reading it?

Were these ancient Israelites rather brutish while Jesus at least was much nicer? Jesus confined his ministry to the parts of the land where Jews lived. Judea had been reconquered by the Maccabees in some rather bloody engagements. And the Maccabees, or their descendants who ruled the reconquered land of Judea until the Roman takeover, were not particularly nice.

What is really going on here? If we attribute the emergence of complex cultures to the annihilation of their near rivals — or if we partly credit the emergence of states in the New World to the epidemics that accompanied European migration — it begins to look as if the “war of all against all” is the default position for the human race. The reasons may vary: defending a well, a territory, a culture, but violence seems to be the constant.

Hebrew Scripture suggests that God’s people would (at least temporarily) lose their Promised Land if they disobeyed the divine commandments. If, on the other hand, they had only followed God’s original blueprint, they would never have left their land. Theirs would be the oldest case of continuous occupation of a territory on record. Especially a territory with no natural borders, not mountainous like Switzerland nor an island like Great Britain!

(Here I think the rabbis would typically say, He offered it — the Chosen People-hood — to the Swiss and the Brits, but they didn’t want it!)

Be that as it may, even if the Israelites kept bungling their assignment, what did the indigenous peoples of New World do to merit smallpox and the other European diseases? And what did our hominid competitors do to deserve coming in second in the race for evolutionary survival?

What, to cite Homer, did the Trojans do to deserve to perish, with their Bronze Age city?

To broaden the question: Are the Darwinians right? Can we think of world history on any terms other than survival of the strong and conquest of the weak? Those are the terms that the Nazis used, but likewise many “advanced” thinkers of our own day, who echo Darwin or Nietzsche in scanning the human scene and finding there only variations on the will to power.

Rather inconsistently, some of these latter-day Nietzscheans and Darwinians, who claim to see the human being as just another species of predator, red of tooth and claw, are to be found wallowing in a sea of self-lacerating guilt!

“We built our country on the backs of slaves and the burial grounds of Native Americans … “ they repeat, like an incantation. “We are boundlessly guilty! guilty! guilty! We must begin to face it. We must begin to atone. We can only do penance. Did you hear me? We are infinitely undeserving. Getting to the bottom of our foulness would be an impossible dig!”

Their penitence is quite fetching. It’s a luxury wrap. They get to enfold themselves in the opportunities and goods they most desire and in their moral posturing too! Nice work if you can get it.

I don’t have a political theory wide enough to cover all these cases. Any political theory I know of sheds some light but leaves other features in shadow.

In my personal life, however, I have a somewhat surer sense of the terrain. I’ve seen people falsely accuse me with the aim of playing on a sensitive conscience in order to gain interpersonal power that they then misused. At first, agreeing to their accusations seemed the path of least resistance for me. But it left me open to abuse and tempted my accusers to become worse people than they were before I agreed to be as “guilty” as they claimed I was. Furthermore, my surrender wasn’t sincere. My trouble was that their accusations shocked me, numbing my natural defenses so that I could no longer find the words to fend off their condemnations. In light of that experience, I don’t send other people on a trip I would not take again myself.

So what about world history? So help me, I can’t get to the bottom of it and I don’t know anyone who can. It’s all we can do to untangle the threads that belong to our own lifelines and the plotlines of those whose lives become enthreaded with ours.

We don’t begin our lives at the beginning of world history. 

We begin where we are,

in the middle of it all.

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Death, Dying, and Heroes

L.B. Martin
1921-2017

Death, Dying, and Heroes

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear people say that they’re not afraid of death, just of dying. I think this is heard more frequently than it used to be. The news that consciousness does survive the destruction of the organism that houses the brain, and survives the brain’s demise, has spilled into public awareness. The last ones to get the news will be the professional opinion-shapers: the philosophers, theologians, social scientists, academics in the humanities and writers of reviews.

The rest of us have got the news: in death we leave the body, go through a tunnel toward the Light or, in the less desirable cases, toward the nether regions with clusters of demons nipping at our disembodied heels. So, for ordinary people, there’s less fear of death than there used to be in earlier eras — the “heavier” eras — as I call them.

So, if death is ordinarily not that bad – a big relief, even – why the dread of dying?

Ah, that’s another matter. When, some years ago, I was told I had cancer, I was not – so far as I could tell – afraid of death; I was mortally afraid of doctors. In retrospect, though I didn’t die, I was right about what to fear.

My father-in-law died September 16, 2017. Yesterday, as of this writing. The time he spent dying, like the time he put into living, was the biggest success of its kind I know of. Only my own father’s dying matches it, in my experience.

L.B. Martin was a man whose words didn’t outreach his actions, whose aims didn’t outreach his efforts to achieve them, whose hopes matched his resources. Jerry tells his father’s story and I won’t try to match a son’s recollections. The girl he first loved at age 19 is the one of whom he said, “We were married 67 years and it was not nearly long enough!” People seldom fooled him and he didn’t try to fool them either. He had the picturesque speech of his Texas youth: intelligent, wry and unembellished.   A good teller of stories with a beat to them, he didn’t try to know less than he could or more than he needed to.

When the love of his life died, he went into as deep a depression as he was capable of, but did not take offers of hospitality and cheering-up from people he deemed “her friends.” Bit by bit he formed his own more modest network, of people he walked with or met at tai chi class. He was gracious to people who helped him in the retirement facility and became popular with the staff. He resisted more intrusive care as long as he could, but was genuinely fond of and grateful to most of the care-givers on which he came to depend.

We don’t sing of the heroism required for navigating old age. Unlike the courage of which we do sometimes sing, it’s not a tale of powers won but of powers lost, little by little, till the losses start to cascade. The men and women who keep their balance on an ever-shrinking terrain have learned to respect natural force – not just as it surges but also as it ebbs. What subtle realism is mastered there!

Last week, we were getting word from his care-givers of a succession of bodily disfunctions that finally came to call for hospitalization for L. B. Was the trouble in the gall bladder? An infection that could be drained? A stone that could be cut out? Was it in the lungs? Was it in the heart?

The trouble was not in any of those organs. As Tolstoy wrote about Ivan Ilyich, the trouble was Death. Fortunately, Americans have learned, with hospice care, to allow nature to take its course.

We flew out on Friday the 15th, his first full day of hospice care in his room in the retirement facility. What happens with hospice care is that the struggles of a dying system are eased, so that one doesn’t fight despairingly for breath, or choke on bodily fluids or wait miserably for hygienic helps that wound the dignity. The care arrives in rhythm with the needs.

Saturday morning one of the care-givers said that the dying will hang on till something they are waiting to hear is said or someone they wait for arrives. So, she advised, say what you haven’t said or tell him that all is well. Then he can let go and pass away.

We tried that sort of thing for a while, but it did not seem to fit the case before us. He was not waiting for any word or sign from outside. He was an athlete who knew his body well and had the patience to allow it to take the time it needed to shut down.

He lay there, in unreserved surrender, all the cares of householder, provider, husband and father washed from his face.

He looked like he really was,

a young prince.

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September 11, A Week Later

This post, written the week after September 11, 2011, is dedicated to Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz. Starting at the 88th floor on the North Tower, they went from floor to floor calling out to people who crouched in debris and darkness, without a clue as to what to do or where to go. “Is anybody there?” they called, gathering and shepherding people to hold on to each other and make their way down the stairs to the street below before the building fell. They are said to have saved 77 lives and inspired others to do the same. Their bodies were never found.

September 11, 2001, A Week Later

Since vacating my East Side studio apartment in June 2001, I’d visited the City almost weekly, but had not got to town last week. The initial numbness of the week of September 11 had eventually given way to tears that seemed to have no natural term. But on Tuesday the 18th I was able to get into the City, and would like to tell what I saw.

I arrived in Penn Station around 11:30 in the morning. Exiting the New Jersey train, I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled. By the same token, no one was rowdy or obnoxious. People kept a space between themselves and other people. In fact, as I went up to the concourse, emptier by far than usual, and watched the walkers, what was striking to me was the return of a talent for walking intelligently, with the radar out, so as not to obtrude into the next person’s walking space, the gifted urbanity whose loss I had lamented in recent decades. The smart walkers of New York were back in motion.

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. I’d thought just to do some errands, talk to a few people, and then stop at my Museum (the Met) and my Japanese tea house. But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.

Wasn’t sure how to get downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway from Penn Station, but I asked a middle-aged, portly Irish cop behind a wooden enclosure on my way to the 7th Avenue escalators. He gave me his hypothesis (it was only roughly right), but gave it with such a direct look of kindness — like a warm gust, close and family-like.

Out on the street, heavy sadness in the air. New York of late has come to seem to me an inner place, more than the site of its artefacts — more than the artefact it itself IS. In the sad, sober, realistic faces of my City, in the snappily dressed young businessman on 34th and Park, directing me to the Downtown local, “Be careful of that corner with construction; it’s tricky,” with that same direct look of human kindness and care, there was love-laden sorrow.

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives.

The train was rather empty, its passengers disciplined and self-contained. The #6 local goes only as far as Brooklyn Bridge. One has to change there for the express. The express now skips Wall Street but stops at Fulton Street. Stepping onto the express, I asked a woman whether this train stopped at Fulton. New Yorkers are notoriously inaccurate or vague when answering such queries. But she said it did, enunciating clearly and quickly. My intention had been to walk around Wall Street. I supposed that, if the brokers could go to work, those streets at least would be accessible and I could get some feeling of how the streets had changed, closer to the crisis center.

Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street, that expectation faltered. The air was acrid, even inside the station. At least half the people I saw had suddenly equipped themselves with paper masks to filter the polluted air. “Where did you get the mask?” I asked a young black girl. “At the hospital,” she said, puzzlingly. I didn’t think she was a nurse. They couldn’t all be nurses. It must be part of the urban equipment now. One had the sense that it was dangerous even to be in that vicinity. Air that thick and scratchy shouldn’t be allowed into one’s lungs.

Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off (though you could elbow your way through if you had business, for example, if you had to do the trading on the floor of the bourse), National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work (as we see on TV) without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone. As when Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, writes, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”

Uptown in my neighborhood, I stopped at the “Allure” lingerie shop to pick up some camisoles. Janice, who owns the shop, said that her sister-in-law had begged her to spend some nights at her home in Connecticut, out of this scene. But Janice feels that to leave town is to betray our City. She couldn’t leave.

I stopped at my old building on 90th Street to talk to the doormen. Marcos was there and kissed me (now that our relations are no longer professional and I’m “Abigail,” not Mrs. Martin or “Doctor”). They’ve seen nothing, he and Manuel. They’ve been on duty at our door. But Marcos lives downtown in Brooklyn where there is a great view of lower Manhattan. Now he doesn’t like to look at the view. He said we have nothing to do but keep going, keep on with our lives. I asked him to give my fond greetings to Manuel.

Stopped in to Food Liberation, my health food store and social club. John Miklatek, the young owner, was there and said he’d often thought about me this week. He asked what I thought of these events, and I told him, more or less. That I had not been able to pray or find guidance in meditation all week. There’d been only tears. That I had to be here. That I felt a tremendous spirit in the town. That I felt God was not above, not a transcendent Being in this story, not mere Spirit. That God was in the rubble, broken but unimpaired, in it. Not in the pure air, but in the acrid air — not where people have no cause to fear, but here where they have cause. Where they rightly fear. He said the spirit of the City has been tremendously upgraded. He felt this a defining event for his generation, and that it would lead either to World War III or perhaps a better world. I said, a little of both. We kissed hello and goodbye.

Very hungry by then, I thought I’d taxi to the Met and have lunch there. Flagged a cab with a driver with an Islamic name, the cab flying two small flags at half staff. But then I remembered that I’d wanted to stop at the local fire station with a donation, so I paid the driver and got out at 86th Street. Walked to 85th between Lex and Third with a hundred dollar check in hand made out to Engine 22 / Ladder 13 Firefighter Family Fund. The sidewalk round the fire station was forested with flowers. Not simple bouquets that you can pick up for $6.50 at a neighborhood grocer and lay against the wall, but flower pots of some size, expensive floral and garden offerings from the wall to the curb, and on the wall papers hung with messages of the God bless America and You Are Our Heroes kind. The fireman who took my check when it came my turn in the queue waited till my hand was free, then took the time to shake it warmly in personal thanks. I said nothing, just looked at him and nodded, but felt another gust of kindness.

The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.

I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” I added, “Your wife must have been so worried while you were gone,” picturing a young Latin wife with apron tied in back, desperate in a small kitchen.

“Yes she worried while I was gone,” Alfonso said. “She’s a dispatcher for the Transit Police. These days she works 16 hour shifts at the crisis center.”

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

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September 11, A Week Later –

This post, written the week after September 11, 2011, is dedicated to Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz. Starting at the 88th floor on the North Tower, they went from floor to floor calling out to people who crouched in debris and darkness, without a clue as to what to do or where to go. “Is anybody there?” they called, gathering and shepherding people to hold on to each other and make their way down the stairs to the street below before the building fell. They are said to have saved 77 lives and inspired others to do the same. Their bodies were never found.

September 11, 2001, A Week Later

Since vacating my East Side studio apartment in June 2001, I’d visited the City almost weekly, but had not got to town last week. The initial numbness of the week of September 11 had eventually given way to tears that seemed to have no natural term. But on Tuesday the 18th I was able to get into the City, and would like to tell what I saw.

I arrived in Penn Station around 11:30 in the morning. Exiting the New Jersey train, I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled. By the same token, no one was rowdy or obnoxious. People kept a space between themselves and other people. In fact, as I went up to the concourse, emptier by far than usual, and watched the walkers, what was striking to me was the return of a talent for walking intelligently, with the radar out, so as not to obtrude into the next person’s walking space, the gifted urbanity whose loss I had lamented in recent decades. The smart walkers of New York were back in motion.

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. I’d thought just to do some errands, talk to a few people, and then stop at my Museum (the Met) and my Japanese tea house. But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.

Wasn’t sure how to get downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway from Penn Station, but I asked a middle-aged, portly Irish cop behind a wooden enclosure on my way to the 7th Avenue escalators. He gave me his hypothesis (it was only roughly right), but gave it with such a direct look of kindness — like a warm gust, close and family-like.

Out on the street, heavy sadness in the air. New York of late has come to seem to me an inner place, more than the site of its artefacts — more than the artefact it itself IS. In the sad, sober, realistic faces of my City, in the snappily dressed young businessman on 34th and Park, directing me to the Downtown local, “Be careful of that corner with construction; it’s tricky,” with that same direct look of human kindness and care, there was love-laden sorrow.

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives.

The train was rather empty, its passengers disciplined and self-contained. The #6 local goes only as far as Brooklyn Bridge. One has to change there for the express. The express now skips Wall Street but stops at Fulton Street. Stepping onto the express, I asked a woman whether this train stopped at Fulton. New Yorkers are notoriously inaccurate or vague when answering such queries. But she said it did, enunciating clearly and quickly. My intention had been to walk around Wall Street. I supposed that, if the brokers could go to work, those streets at least would be accessible and I could get some feeling of how the streets had changed, closer to the crisis center.

Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street, that expectation faltered. The air was acrid, even inside the station. At least half the people I saw had suddenly equipped themselves with paper masks to filter the polluted air. “Where did you get the mask?” I asked a young black girl. “At the hospital,” she said, puzzlingly. I didn’t think she was a nurse. They couldn’t all be nurses. It must be part of the urban equipment now. One had the sense that it was dangerous even to be in that vicinity. Air that thick and scratchy shouldn’t be allowed into one’s lungs.

Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off (though you could elbow your way through if you had business, for example, if you had to do the trading on the floor of the bourse), National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work (as we see on TV) without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone. As when Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, writes, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”

Uptown in my neighborhood, I stopped at the “Allure” lingerie shop to pick up some camisoles. Janice, who owns the shop, said that her sister-in-law had begged her to spend some nights at her home in Connecticut, out of this scene. But Janice feels that to leave town is to betray our City. She couldn’t leave.

I stopped at my old building on 90th Street to talk to the doormen. Marcos was there and kissed me (now that our relations are no longer professional and I’m “Abigail,” not Mrs. Martin or “Doctor”). They’ve seen nothing, he and Manuel. They’ve been on duty at our door. But Marcos lives downtown in Brooklyn where there is a great view of lower Manhattan. Now he doesn’t like to look at the view. He said we have nothing to do but keep going, keep on with our lives. I asked him to give my fond greetings to Manuel.

Stopped in to Food Liberation, my health food store and social club. John Miklatek, the young owner, was there and said he’d often thought about me this week. He asked what I thought of these events, and I told him, more or less. That I had not been able to pray or find guidance in meditation all week. There’d been only tears. That I had to be here. That I felt a tremendous spirit in the town. That I felt God was not above, not a transcendent Being in this story, not mere Spirit. That God was in the rubble, broken but unimpaired, in it. Not in the pure air, but in the acrid air — not where people have no cause to fear, but here where they have cause. Where they rightly fear. He said the spirit of the City has been tremendously upgraded. He felt this a defining event for his generation, and that it would lead either to World War III or perhaps a better world. I said, a little of both. We kissed hello and goodbye.

Very hungry by then, I thought I’d taxi to the Met and have lunch there. Flagged a cab with a driver with an Islamic name, the cab flying two small flags at half staff. But then I remembered that I’d wanted to stop at the local fire station with a donation, so I paid the driver and got out at 86th Street. Walked to 85th between Lex and Third with a hundred dollar check in hand made out to Engine 22 / Ladder 13 Firefighter Family Fund. The sidewalk round the fire station was forested with flowers. Not simple bouquets that you can pick up for $6.50 at a neighborhood grocer and lay against the wall, but flower pots of some size, expensive floral and garden offerings from the wall to the curb, and on the wall papers hung with messages of the God bless America and You Are Our Heroes kind. The fireman who took my check when it came my turn in the queue waited till my hand was free, then took the time to shake it warmly in personal thanks. I said nothing, just looked at him and nodded, but felt another gust of kindness.

The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.

I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” I added, “Your wife must have been so worried while you were gone,” picturing a young Latin wife with apron tied in back, desperate in a small kitchen.

“Yes she worried while I was gone,” Alfonso said. “She’s a dispatcher for the Transit Police. These days she works 16 hour shifts at the crisis center.”

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

 

 

 

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Success in San Francisco

Success in San Francisco

Jerry and I spent the last three days (plus two for travel) in San Francisco. The trip wasn’t exactly a willing one on my part because my spouse had talked me into giving a paper at the conference where he was to chair a panel and present his own paper. I hadn’t given any philosophical papers since taking early retirement at Brooklyn College. I’d forgotten how to breathe when you read something you wrote. The topic I’d written about might prove very unpopular. And, like many (but not all) women, invisibility is my preferred state. Finally, except for the little town in Maine where we have friends, I don’t like to go anywhere.

I should explain what this conference was about. It was the “33rd International Meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society.” Eric Voegelin was one of the intellectual heroes of our time. He tried to fathom why so many of the finest minds of the last century rushed to embrace the ideologies of Nazism and Communism. He saw that it’s hard to endure the uncertainties of the human condition. To be human is to perch uncomfortably between a divine dimension that we can’t see and the animality that is only a part of us. The totalitarian temptation offers a pretended escape from the difficulties of living between these two poles. It’s the delusion that we can pull heaven down to our level and become self-appointed gods or messiahs, overriding the limits of our real life. The totalitarians would rather liquidate the evidence that their theories are false than admit their all-too-human mistake. And of course the evidence includes people, so they do a lot of killing. Voegelin is read by men and women who helped to overthrow totalitarian regimes or hope to stave them off when they threaten to return.

My paper, “Spoiling One’s Story: The Case of Hannah Arendt,” dealt with a political thinker and philosopher who is widely admired today but whom I have reason to regard as a spoiler. She spoiled her own life story and spoiled the stories of many other people by the way she misrepresented them.

The fellow presenter who sat next to me saw whom I was to speak about and said that Arendt was the thinker most widely admired nowadays. It used to be John Rawls, he told me, but now it’s Arendt.

“Why,” I asked him, “is Rawls now passé?”

He explained that Rawls dealt with the question of how to distribute the fruits of a prosperous economy fairly, asking his reader to consider how they would want a redistribution of goods to be conducted if they did not know ahead of time what sector of society they would occupy.

“So why has that question gone out of favor?”

My colleague explained that the growth rate has stagnated for so long that the young are no longer concerned with Rawls’s problem: how to redistribute the excess fairly. They don’t see any excess to redistribute. Meanwhile, Arendt has come to seem relevant because she writes about the real threats she herself narrowly escaped, like the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, and evil. That seems more current.

“Yes,” I agreed with my fellow panelist. “Hannah Arendt is practically an industry. There are Arendt name professorships, Arendt centers, fellowships, internships, new articles and books every year. For a public intellectual, it’s a nearly unprecedented case of posthumous glory.”

Then, with the sinking feeling that this paper would sink me, I walked up to the podium to read it. As I began, I noticed that I was not having trouble with the breathing or the pacing. My voice was filling out the syllables. My empathy with the woman philosopher I was criticizing did not desert me (or her). My conviction that this was too serious a matter for me to hold back the relevant truths I knew lent me the needed courage.

When it was done and I’d resumed my seat at the panelists’ long table, the colleague with whom I’d been speaking earlier leaned over and whispered, “Remarkable!” He said a chill went through the room when I finished. He was going to redesign his reading list for fall term courses. An illusion had crumbled. Several seasoned Voegelinians came up asking to be sent the long version of my paper. Later, one young man told me that, while I was telling the story, he was struck by its similarity to events in his own life.

*         *         *

I have to tell you: nothing like this has ever happened to me. What does it mean? How should I take it? When I pray for Guidance, all I can hear is …

Take it on the chin.

 

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Léo

Léo Bronstein

Léo

A few days ago I took a trip to Manhattan, formerly my home town, to visit old friends. One friend was Laurin Raikin, a founder of NYU’s Gallatin Division. We’ve known each other for many years and among the ties that bind us is a shared love for Léo Bronstein. Léo was Laurin’s philosophy of art teacher at Brandeis University. He was also my father’s closest friend and a sort of godfather to me, from my earliest days and continuing into adult life.

As we talked in a Brazilian café on sixth avenue, way downtown, Laurin shared a story about Léo. I have heard him tell it before. I’ve never understood why it has such an effect on me. Maybe if I tell it here, I’ll know its meaning better or someone who reads this can explain it to me.

In his youth, Léo was very handsome and, as long as I knew him, he had a dashing Catalan style. How he acquired the Catalan style is a story in itself. Léo had gone from Russia/Poland to Paris, eventually to study there with Henri Bergson and Henri Foçillon, among others.

His student sojourn did not begin well, however. Soon after arriving in The City of Lights, Léo found himself cut off without a ruble by the Russian Revolution and additionally burdened with the original name (Lev Bronshtein) of a leading revolutionary who is known to history by his nom de guerre: Leon Trotsky.

Léo was down to his last few francs and faced an existential choice: should he eat for a week or spend it all at an expensive concert? The young think they will never die. Léo went to the concert.

At intermission, he got into conversation with a middle-aged Spanish gentleman who was there to soothe the pangs of a last unhappy love affair and noticed a hungry-looking boy in the seat next to him.

As things turned out, Narcis Serradel I Pascual, became Léo’s “foster father in name and deed,” supervising his education all the way through and taking him home to Catalonia on vacation breaks.   In return, Léo would take care of Mr. Serradel to the end of his days, even seeing to the last rites requested somewhat embarrassedly by this typically anti-clerical, Spanish free thinker.

Léo was extraordinarily cosmopolitan. He had intuitive depth, a lyrical species of objectivity, a tenderness rare in grownups and an understanding of evil-doers that was not seduced or fooled by them. He simply saw what they prefer to hide but decided not to pull moral rank — even on the worst of us. It was not for nothing that, when he retired, his students at Brandeis named a celebratory weekend after him.

Here is the story Laurin told. In the last year of his life, Léo was diagnosed with leukemia. He was dying. He did not tell our family. We knew nothing of it. In this condition, one day he was walking about Lower Manhattan, accompanied by a middle-aged lawyer friend. Partway through the planned walk, he felt intolerably weary and had to step in to rest at the nearest refuge, a shtibl, one of those obscure and shabby halls where poor Jews go to pray together. There was no Technicolor musical “Fiddler on the Roof” atmosphere about it. It was a hole in the wall.

Without speaking or moving, he sat in one of the darkened pews. Presently a boy of about 15 years of age, assigned to sweep the place, came up and told him to get out. They were getting it ready for Shabbos, the Sabbath, and the stranger couldn’t stay there. He was in the way. Léo did not move and did not reply, so the boy went over to tell Léo’s companion to please get his friend to leave.

“Yes,” said the lawyer friend. “I’ll tell him. Soon it’ll be Friday night. I suppose you want to prepare the challah (sabbath bread), candles and wine.”

“What challah, candles, wine? We can’t afford any of that! We have no money.”

Overhearing this, Léo called the boy over and gave him a sum of money that was more than enough to cover the requirements.

”Who shall I say gave this?” asked the amazed boy.

“No one.” Léo shook his head.

“But I have to tell the congregants to whom we owe this generosity!”

“Tell them …

an old Jew.”

In the aftermath of this incident, Laurin told me, Léo roused himself from his mortal faiblesse. With his new-found energy, he repaired to the New York Public Library daily and began to read and read, everything he could get hold of, about Kabbalah, which is the mystical vein in Judaism. He discovered that all that he’d been trying to teach as the message delivered by art was also the message of Kabbalah. On the basis of this research, he wrote Kabbalah and Art, his last book. At his final medical exam before he left for Europe, all traces of the leukemia were gone.

He traveled to Europe chiefly to see the Gruenewald “Crucifixion” in Colmar in Alsace. Exiting from the cathedral, as he started across the street, the light changed. A motorcyclist speeding across the intersection crashed into Léo and killed him. The summer before his trip, Leo had been puzzled by a recurrent dream in which death was represented as a boy on a motorcycle.

This story of Léo’s last year is very striking to me. Perhaps some reader can tell me the answer to my question.

What does it mean?

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Zeitgeist

 Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia, central Italy. c. 470 BCE.

Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia, central Italy. c. 470 BCE.

Zeitgeist

It’s a German word for the “spirit of the times.”  The historian Norman Stone gives an example of a moment when the Zeitgeist changed:

  • “Dangerfield had it right when he observed how, in the cartoons of Punch, there was a sudden leap out of the Victorian world in 1912.  Quite suddenly, different things became funny; and the figures in the cartoons were dressed differently.  It is probably not too much to claim that, before 1914, a new irrationalism had gained currency.”

What is it about the Zeitgeist?  It’s never quite feasible to pretend it’s not real or to dodge it completely – unless you’ve managed to carve out an existence on an uninhabited Pacific island or a solitary mountain peak.  It’s hard to define it and harder to explain it satisfactorily, but you know it when you see it.

In my childhood, one of the main halls of the Metropolitan Museum boasted a giant statue of an Etruscan Warrior.  His skin was the antique terra cotta red, his helmet ferociously convincing and he was not detected to be a forgery by any of the expert curators at the Met.  Not until, with the passing of the decades, even non-experts could see that he was born in a twentieth-century forger’s studio – not the Italy of the first millennium BCE.  The Zeitgeist had changed and what had been invisible heretofore was now obvious.

So the Zeitgeist does change.  Which means, we don’t want to get left behind when it changes.  Nor do we want to adhere to it so closely that we become narrowly provincial, a mere echo of the times we happen to live in today.

Attributed to the late nineteenth-century American philosopher Williams James is the view that the time for a novelist or thinker to die is when her identification with a past era becomes painfully clear.  That sounds like straight talk that pulls no punches about the Zeitgeist.  Go fight City Hall.  If you missed the train because it’s left the station, it’s time to die already!

But then there are the artists and thinkers whose influence starts to deepen after their deaths.  So how should we reckon with the Zeitgeist?  You can’t define it.  You can’t exactly explain how it got here.  You can’t pretend to rise above it.  (Everybody can see through that.)  Yet you’d be well advised not to put all your eggs in the Basket of the Zeitgeist.

Let’s try to get a fix on how It looks nowadays.  What are its components?  If you were staging it for anthropologists on another planet, what would you need to put in the script?  Hard to say.  But let’s give it a shot.

For one thing, there’s the claim that all truth is relative.  But if that’s always true, then at least one truth holds universally.  And if one truth is universal, why should we believe that’s the only universal truth?

Then we have the claim that all human relations are about Power – to dominate and oppress or be dominated and oppressed.  But if they’re all and only about that, then why get angry and indignant over it?  We don’t get mad at the rain when it pours.  The rain can’t help doing that.  Our anger says that we really think people can change if they will.  If our anger is to be believed, and we do have the freedom to choose, then we would profit from chances to study the widest range of options and see which ones might best explain and resolve the problems we face.

It’s curious, now that I canvass the Zeitgeist, to notice that things previously thought hardwired, like maleness and femaleness, are now being reconfigured as matters of choice.  On the one hand, we are believed to be confined to the oppressor/oppressed syndrome, whether we will or no, but on the other hand anatomy itself is not destiny any longer.  We can now redefine its significance at will.

The Zeitgeist is starting to look like a collection of inconsistencies piling up and up.  Should we try to overcome these contradictions by the Socratic method of dialectic: keep going in your search for true explanation till you can get one that’s free of contradiction and covers the evidence relevant to the topic you are trying to explain?  Hey, how about that?  It was good enough for Socrates!  Why not every woman?

No no, says the Zeitgeist!  The dialectical method and its purported search for truth is the mask worn by Dominant Power.  But wait a minute!  Didn’t we recently refute a claim like that by showing it to be self-contradictory?  We thought we did.  But now we see that our very refutation made use of the instrument of dialectic, whose power is just one more weapon in the dominant group’s repertoire.  Why should I believe that, just because you can out-argue me, you’re better than I am or more entitled to the perks?

Here I must respectfully step back from the Zeitgeist.  A scene comes to mind that I witnessed years ago on a New York subway.  A little girl shared a seat with her tall, drunken father.  A cop was kneeling beside her, trying to cheer her up.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps she had begun to cry.  Perhaps she had tried to escape to another car.  The cop had no authority to take her away from her father so he was trying to jolly her into a more accepting frame of mind – a childlike cheerfulness.  The look of sheer disdain and disgust on her little face was unforgettable.  The cop was trying to get her to believe a lie.

The scene told me that we human beings are born knowing the difference between truth and a lie.  Not in every case of course.  But that there is a great big difference – that we do know.

So what conclusion do I come to about our Zeitgeist?  I don’t seem to belong to it, yet I don’t feel out of step with the times.

There must be more to the times than I’ve said here.

 

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