Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Shared here are my impressions of two books that I read recently.  Both were riveting, but in entirely different ways.

Bloomfield Avenue: A Jewish-Catholic Jersey Girl’s Spiritual Journey

by Linda Mercadante

Linda Mercadante is best known as the author of Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.  In this memoir, she has the rare gift of getting her personal importance entirely out of the way, so that readers are free to take in the story she tells.  She’s not asking us how we like her.

Newark was her hometown, a place that carried absolutely no cachet.  As she made her way through schools, a sorority, religious affiliations and jobs, her path was beset by a succession of social exclusions.  To begin with, in a milieu of Italian Catholics where her parents ran a bakery geared to the Catholic calendar, she had a Jewish mother.  Her mother didn’t seem to convey anything positive about being Jewish, but she didn’t want her daughter to wear a crucifix.  So home itself contained at its core the experience of nonbelonging that repeated itself in the world outside, where being Jewish was not an honor.

Nor did being a girl carry with it any invitation to explore one’s talents.  The purpose of education for a girl was to get a teaching job she would quit when she married the right husband and settled down.  At a succession of schools, and a sorority that didn’t know of her Jewish side, social exclusions continued to fix the boundaries of Mercadante’s experience.

She was obviously gifted.  The problems she encountered seem to have been external (in the sense of cultural) and arbitrary.  She was good at school learning, good at attracting dates once she was in co-ed surroundings, good at most things that test skills.  Social belonging (and beyond that, spiritual grounding) were harder to secure, but she was an earnest, energetic and realistic seeker.

She moved from airline stewardess — a job then considered glamorous for a woman – to a pathbreaking job as a journalist for a local Catholic paper.  That job gave her access to cynical parish insiders and clergy.  Institutional Catholicism, the religion to which she first attached her spiritual longings, proved so riddled with staffers who didn’t mean what they said that she became an atheist.

Traveling in Europe, she was referred by a friend to an evangelical community where, by stages, she took Jesus into her life.   But the evangelicals seemed to her narrow, especially in their views of women’s role in society.

Then she read Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful.  It was her first meeting with feminism.  It shed a dazzling light on the labyrinth of narrow options she’d been negotiating.   When she married a man who presented himself as a fellow evangelical, her theoretical feminism made shattering contact with male violence — the extreme end of the tunnels of coercive control through which she’d been trying painstakingly to find her way.

By this time, the reader is on the edge of her seat.  There’s been one surprise after another, some terrifying, some seeming providential.  I won’t give away the ending (don’t worry, it all works out!) but the book reads as a prooftext for feminism.  The problems of The Movement, its oversimplifications that are a concern for me, form no part of the experience she recalls here.  In this life story, intelligently told without affectation or pretense, feminism rides to the rescue – and we see why.


Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Jozef Czapski

by Eric Karpeles

Czapski is a painter little known here, but his creative talent is quite real, as the book’s color illustrations show.  The interest of this biography lies in the man, an aristocrat who would have been at home in every private palace in Europe, but nevertheless shared the blood-soaked history of Poland, his native country.  His life gives a point of entry into the history of Europe in the 20th century.

He’d been a young man in Tsarist Russia getting military training when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out.  In the period between the two World Wars, he formed part of the avant garde Polish painters in Paris.  As military conditions menaced Poland in the 1930’s, he saw the promised assurances of help from Britain and France recede and vanish. Then, as Poland was preparing its defenses against a Nazi invasion, his country suffered surprise occupation by the Russians — a seizure made possible by the secret terms of the pact between Hitler and Stalin.

Like other Polish officers, Czapski was held by the Russians as a prisoner of war.  Once released, he traveled from one high-ranking Soviet official to the next, trying to find out what happened to 15,000  Polish officers whom he’d seen deported from the P.O.W. camp.  Slowly, he began to suspect the unthinkable.  On Soviet orders, the Polish officers had all been shot dead with impersonal efficiency.

Everyone Czapski talked to in the official ranks of the USSR knew.  Everyone denied knowing.

After the War, Czapki returned to Paris where the trend-setting philosophers did not want to know what happened to 15,000 Polish officers.  France had lived through defeat and Nazi occupation.  After the War, she lay within reach of the Soviet armies that still occupied Eastern Europe.  Czapski attributed the defeatist character of post-War French philosophy to those grim military realities.  For himself meanwhile, he founded a journal around which the circle of Polish intellectuals in Paris were able to express their country’s integrity-in-exile.

Czapsky was an aristocrat.  It’s a fate like any other, neither a fault nor a merit.  If you will, we are all of noble birth — but some men and women know it and act up to their station.

The life story of the painter Jozef Czapski is a roadmap of noblesse oblige.

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The Big City and Me

The Big City and Me

I went to New York for an overnight last Thursday.  This trip had been postponed for at least a year, during which I was dealing with one huge difficulty after another.

Through the times and troubles since my last birthday, I hadn’t found an interval cleared for a visit to The City, the town where I grew up and navigated some of the shaping adventures of my earlier life.

It is the town where my mother captured the Nazi spy ring being run out of the basement of the walkup apartment on 86th and Park where our family lived during the War years.  My mother wondered why our superintendent did not allow suitcases to be stored in the basement.  As she discovered, the basement was where he kept a shortwave radio from which he sent signals to the German U-boats floating off New York harbor.  After my mother alerted the FBI, it raided the basement and closed down the operation, packing him off to Foreign Spy Volley Ball Camp for the duration of the War.  When mother saw our super again on 87th Street after the War, he gave her, she said, “a very sour look.”

What the hell, it was home.  My schedule of reunions for the overnight was impossibly full, for a person of even rudimentary sensibility.

First, Frank and Ada Graham at the Viennese cafe attached to the Neue Gallerie, the German/Austrian 20th-century art museum on 86th off Fifth.  When I first knew Ada, she was the most beautiful girl in New York.  So far as I’m concerned, she still is.  Why not?  Frank and Ada have published landmark work on saving wild nature.  Together, they have an instinctive — almost Chinese — understanding of how to fit inside space or place.  Wherever it’s good to be located is where they are.   Most of the year, they live in Maine, which is why my family had a house there.

We have known each other since my teens, when Ada was my father’s student.  Now I shared with them vignettes from the combats of the past year.  Frank commended me for what he called my unselfishness.  I disagreed.  If you write, I said, your words must be backed by what you do.  Otherwise, they are hollow and you have nothing to say.  The combats I fought were so that I would be able to continue to write, which was my work — work being a central feature of self.  Frank, a writer too, nodded agreement.

In the afternoon, I visited an esteemed friend, the feminist activist, Phyllis Chesler.  Though continuously active, she has every variety of physical affliction, most of them painful.  No mitzvah (righteous action) goes unpunished.  The Established Sisterhood read her out of Their Club after she wrote The New Anti-Semitism.  Not done, my dears.  She’s also the only American feminist I know who openly defends Muslim women who are either trying to prevent Female Genital Mutilation or under threat, themselves, of being Honor Killed.  Now that’s really not done.  She has a tender heart and God-given courage.  As you might expect, her recent memoir is titled A Politically Incorrect Feminist.

Next, at Alice’s Teacup, 64th and Lexington, I met Barbara Fisher who is writing a biography of Lionel Trilling.  He is generally considered the most influential critic and public intellectual of the twentieth century in America.  In recent years, I’ve been contacted by writers dealing with Trilling and his wife Diana, because Lionel and my father were best friends as young men.

My father, who initiated the breakup of their friendship, got over it and got himself another best friend.  My father never achieved Trilling’s truly remarkable success as an opinion-shaper in culture.  He did, however, achieve becoming and remaining himself which, the biographer suspects, Lionel Trilling never did.

What broke them up?  Meyer Schapiro, the art historian and classmate in the stellar Columbia University class of 1925, once said to me that he believed it was the women (the wives) who did not get along.  That seems to me a bit simple, for men as bonded as these two were.  They wrote matching short stories about each other.  They formed each other’s opinions.   Over tea, Barbara and I tried to fathom this interesting mystery concerning authenticity, success and male friendship.

Friday morning, I met Laurin Raiken for breakfast at the hotel where I was staying, affiliated with Barnard College.  Laurin is a surprising mix of naivete and tough street smarts.  Years ago he was the victim of a con artist who embezzled his life savings.  Believe it or not, the embezzler had a day job connected to a prestigious philosophical journal!  When Laurin realized what was afoot, he creatively plotted a sting operation that got the embezzler sent up the river to the Federal penitentiary or, as Laurin called it, Club Fed.

The fellow has since gone to his reward, the place where you don’t get to keep your ill-gotten gains.  When his apartment was raided by the Feds, Laurin now told me, his papers included a detailed blueprint for evil designs on future victims – the blueprint explicitly dependent on A Good Look at Evil, my book in its first edition!

Since the embezzler has departed this world, unfortunately, I can’t ask him to endorse the 2018 expanded edition.  But think what an endorsement from a guy like that would mean — someone who knows evil from inside!  I would’ve wanted it illustrated with the mug shot.

Laurin also told me that 51st Street, where my hotel was located, was the power center of … what?  Manhattan?  The USA?  The known world?  Anyway, some consequential terrain or other.  I had trouble taking it in.

Laurin is mystically sensitive, a friend – even a hub – of poets, writers, painters, a founder of NYU’s Gallatin Division.  He was a student, and now a trustee of the legacy of, Leo Bronstein, my father’s lifelong best friend, who replaced Lionel Trilling and was a kind of godfather to me.  Laurin and I go back a long ways.

What happened to me in New York?  I don’t generally live like that.

I had a feeling of – I know this sounds funny –

the enormous sweetness

 of my home town.

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Jewish Time

From The Exodus Series paintings
Maria Lago

Jewish Time 

Lately, I’ve had a growing sense of living my life on something I call “Jewish Time.”  Have I anything concrete in view?

In my childhood, when my parents were awaiting Israeli dinner guests, they expected them to be about an hour late.  They might have said their guests were due at six, “Israeli Time,” meaning seven.    If they did, that was then.  Israeli customs, like being unpunctual, probably changed when the culture got more cosmopolitan and worldly.

Aside from these random reflections, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the expression, “Jewish Time.”  To my knowledge, it originates with me.  What does it comport then, for me?

I would have thought I lost it, when I left New York City to live here in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  Or perhaps earlier, when my parents died.  Lost it without knowing I ever had it.  What did I feel I had lost whenever, subliminally, I felt that?  What is it I now believe has returned?

Let me try to picture Jewish Time.

There’s a kind of desert vista, a homelike plane of existence and experience.  It’s an unspoiled landscape, completely open and uncrowded under the overarching skies.  It’s the place from which the meaningful timeline starts.  It underlies all the palpable things in their visible spaces.  The furniture of empirical life rests on it.

It’s the place and time where we first signed up for our covenant with the Other Signer.  That odd contract – the same one for which we are hated and perhaps loved at the same time — even by the very people who hate us.  But all those reactive, second-order feelings (felt by those who think of themselves as neutral onlookers) are absent from the original scene.  That scene held only those who voluntarily signed on the indicated line, standing at the place where Jewish Time begins.

Is it a geographical place?  Am I thinking, for instance, of the Holy Land?  The question reminds me of an incident that happened years ago.  I was teaching an Intro class in Philosophy, which included a week or two set aside for Philosophy of Religion.  As we turned to religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, I muttered under my breath what a relief it was to deal with spiritual systems free of implicit references to the geography and the boundary disputes of the real world.

As I muttered this, a rainfall we could see outside the tall windows of the classroom suddenly became a downpour.  The skies darkened.  A dramatic clap of thunder was heard.

Though I am a philosophe, my head whipped around automatically and I drew a sharp breath before pulling myself together and resuming the lecture.

Meanwhile, the skies grew darker yet and a second thunderclap was heard.  I looked round at the window once more, before collecting myself and again picking up the thread of what I’d been saying.

The third thunderclap was louder than my voice.  I put down my notes, faced the window and said –

I’m sorry!  I take it back!

I swear to you, I am not making this up.  The storm settled back into the pitter patter of an ordinary rainy afternoon.  Not threatening.  I resumed my introductory account of the religions of the East.

When the class hour ended, a Modern Orthodox girl, seated demurely in the front row, came up to my desk and said reassuringly,

I think you fixed it.

What would we, who live on earth, expect of a place we could call Home?  We would expect it to have real boundary stones and to exist in real time.

When I try to act as if I’m exempt from human history and have my essential being sub specie aeternitatis

 the wind and the weather,

the storms at sea

and the words I can utter sincerely …

all give the lie to any pretense of being above all that.  I exist, take my bearings and set my course in life,

on Jewish Time.

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Nibbles from the Tree of Knowledge

 

“Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer”
Rembrandt, 1653

Nibbles from the Tree of Knowledge

On my night table for last read of the evening is a book with the title, Forbidden Knowledge.  It concerns a topic that I’d never considered as such: whether there are, or ought to be, built-in limits to what we as human beings should seek to know.

Aristotle said,

“All men by nature desire to know.”

It’s the opening sentence of his Metaphysics.  I’ve always taken it as axiomatic, also as a noble truth.  Also as a fundamental value of the civilization that became known as Western, with its two great nourishing streams: the classical Greco-Roman source and the Hebraic-cum-Jesus-Following source.

So what could possibly be amiss?  What’s wrong with knowing, or trying to know?

However, as the book I’m now reading points out, not everyone feels that way.  To put it more pointedly, the classical and the Judeo-Christian worlds both contain warnings of the sharpest kind against this desire-to-know feature of our psyches.

The scene in the first chapters of Genesis, the opening Book of the Hebrew Bible is of course set by a divine prohibition against eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The first couple are warned that a single bite would be a deadly misstep.

Jews and Christians construe the consequences of (and remedy for) that bite differently.  I’ve read the story, of course, and discussed these theological differences with interested friends, but I never asked myself why it was so bad for Eve & Adam to gain the Knowledge that the Tree afforded them.  Was the gain of knowledge bad in itself, or just the violation of God’s command?  If He had said, “Don’t walk in the tall grass,” would that have been reckoned just as bad?

Meanwhile, I’d assumed that at least Greek culture and its Roman successor were open and eager for the acquisition of knowledge of the natural world.  Classical thinkers held that we, by nature, desire to know nature and nature is so shaped that she is fit to be known.  So I thought.  But this book points out that the Greek imagination includes the figure of Prometheus who stole fire (technology, artificial light) from heaven.  For his theft, the gods punished Prometheus in a terrible way.  They stretched him out on a rocky crag in the Caucasus where vultures could eat his liver endlessly!

So it seems that both the classical and the Judeo-Christian sources of our common culture contain warnings against knowing too much.

Even Plato, to whom we owe Western philosophy, warned that dialectic, philosophy’s prime tool, could lead the over-eager student toward cynicism, smart-aleckyness, and hollowness of soul.  If the new student lacked a teacher able, by his example, to model the difference between corrupting smarts and the earnest, never-complete striving toward truth, dialectic too could be dangerous.

Socrates, whom Plato deemed “the wisest and best man of his generation” was distinguished by his keen, educated awareness of one thing:

that he did not know.

So which is it?  Is knowledge and the desire for it natural and beneficial?  Or should it be checked by some external constraint?

The book pursues the course of this question through the centuries and the different answers given by the ancients, the medievals, the moderns, the Enlightenment, and secular science.

I’ve not gotten far enough along to see how the whole journey goes, though I can guess.  But for now, I’d like to look at my own experience with these questions.

There was a time when, for me as a young philosopher, my goal was to gain as complete an understanding of reality – reality from start to finish, from edge to edge – as could be found or (within my personal limitations) acquired.

I embraced philosophy’s goal as I conceived it: a complete logos of the cosmos, a coherent and comprehensive account of reality, a theory of everything.  Instinctively I was drawn toward the great rationalists: Aristotle, Spinoza, later Hegel, and those who worked in their lineage, who could produce calm clarity and could still the restless waters of my mind.

What changed that?  For there was a change and it was profound.

Certain experiences proved too hard for philosophy (as far as I understood it) to resolve.  What experiences?  Moral dangers intruded into my journey and they proved beyond the competence of the great rationalists to describe, much less defeat.  Also, the broken places in human relations and my failures to repair them, despite all the philosophy I had acquired over time.  Neither the great systems of the past, nor the fashionable, contemporary, absurdist philosophic claims, nor the contemporary scientism that leaves no place for consciousness, repaired the reversals or defeated the enemies of a meaningful life.

Don’t get me wrong.  Philosophic views, including wrong ones, are of the greatest consequence in culture.  Hegel was right when he said that the solitary thinker in his tower has more effect on history than the man on horseback (the world-historical hero).  It’s important to study philosophy, just to understand the Zeitgeist.  And the greatest philosophers are storehouses of human wisdom, not at all to be despised.

All the same: one has to be aware that there is much one does not know, much and much that one will never know, and that there will be times, many times in life, when –

the help one needs

does not come from the philosophers.

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“Evil is Really Not Banal”

“Evil is Really Not Banal”

This past week we’ve been in California, where I’ve resumed my treatments for neuropathy at the Loma Linda hospital.  The other event of the week, salient for me, was a talk at the Claremont School of Theology with the title,

“Evil Is Not Banal.”

There are two younger theologians who normally organize these events.  As it happened, one was on leave.  The other was home recovering from minor eye surgery and simultaneously tending to a gas leak.

Counting Jerry,

We had a total of five in the audience.

Was I rattled?  Well no.  I was focused on the business of the afternoon, which was explaining what evil is and is not.  But of course I did notice.

There’s a back story to my noticing.  From the moment of its appearance in February 2018, A Good Look at Evil has encountered an astonishing array of obstacles.  For example: it was published with the wrong pub date; the earlier edition was posted on Amazon in place of the expanded new edition; at one time the earlier preface was placed in the new edition instead of the new preface; customer reviews of the new edition were placed next to the earlier edition, and – there’s more, but I hope you get the idea.  Of course, all this while I was coping with a fractured knee.

Despite all of that, from the start the book has drawn attentive, serious and extremely favorable endorsements and reviews from highly regarded people you can’t buy for love or money.

But the feature of its publication that’s been noticed by me was the appearance of a character in my real life who paralleled the character of The Seducer portrayed in my book in the section called “The Rake’s Progress”!

Was this a coincidence?  After all, real life is filled with coincidences — events that seem to have a meaning but are merely the effect of chance.

But on the other hand: if we were to take the imaginative leap of picturing “evil” as a person, having personal intentions, wouldn’t such a person do his or her damnedest to test the ability of a writer to fight the real thing in a real-life setting, rather than just combat it with words on paper?  Was “evil” trying to find out if I really meant what I wrote?

Of course I don’t know … but I couldn’t help noticing.

Anyway, back to my talk at Claremont.  To my relief, I experienced no inward qualms about reading my paper to a small but – as it turned out – highly focused and intelligent group.

The aim of my paper was to show that it took conscious evil to bring about the Holocaust.  The perpetrators of the Holocaust were not mere bureaucrats acting by rote.  Hannah Arendt, who popularized this fiction, had been complicit in a kind of moral cover-up for reasons of her own.  Her reasons have come to light in the years since her vastly influential book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was first published. When, from time to time, I stopped reading and gave illustrations from real life, the audience seemed to “get it.”  So, no problem.

Time for Q & A.  There were several intelligent and responsive questions – prompts for further thought about these hard topics.

Then a quiet, decorous gentleman, who had a certain modest but elegant bearing, raised his hand.  It was not to ask a question.  It was to explain, “objectively,” as he said, that Jews had brought the Holocaust on themselves.

How did they do that?  He had a list of about five points.  As it happens, I recognized his points.  In researching A Good Look at Evil, I had read Nazi materials and was familiar with the language and its claims to “objectivity.”

Nevertheless, to hear it in an academic Q & A was a new experience for me.  I’d read about this stuff.  I’d never actually met it shorn of its usual disguises.  I looked at Jerry, seated in the front row.  He was, as he told me later, wondering what I would say. I was wondering too.

Looking upward, the guidance I got was unequivocal. What I said, following it, was this:

“I DENOUNCE YOU FROM FLOOR TO CEILING.

I WILL NOT ENTER A DISCUSSION

OF ANY OF THESE POINTS.

THESE ARE NOT ‘FACTS.’

THESE ARE NAZI CANARDS.”

Despite a few further attempts from the decorous gentleman to reassert his views and his topics, the Q & A got firmly removed from that terrain.  The remainder of the discussion was fruitful and interesting.

So what was happening here?  If “evil” – pictured by imaginative leap as a person — wanted to entrap me in its coils, how better to entice an academic than to draw her into hopeless counter-argument with someone who came to her talk for the sole purpose of excusing the Holocaust with a mindset lethally immune to argument?

This whole sequence of “coincidental” happenings has had the odd effect of firming my resolve with regard to A Good Look at Evil.  The life I prefer is quiet, recessive and harmonious.  I don’t relish a fight.  But if it has my name on it …

well, that’s different.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Here is my roundup of a couple of books that I’ve been reading, or finishing, lately. You’ll see what you think.

Why Religion? A Personal Story

by Elaine Pagels.

She’s the author of The Gnostic Gospels. That book made her a landmark figure. It came out when (as Pagels recalls) “women were starting to challenge traditional gender roles.” I didn’t pay much attention to it back then. Only later would I have occasion to think about gnosticism, its attractions and dangers.

Before she wrote the book that made her famous, Pagels had translated ancient materials newly unearthed that purported to give accounts of the secret teachings of gospel figures like Jesus and Paul. These were texts that had been rejected as heretical by the men who compiled the canonical gospels and epistles. The alleged secret teachings inverted the official stories. The Kingdom of God became a transformed inner state rather than a future historical condition. Women were viewed as equal in spiritual authority (or more advanced than men). The masculine God of Hebrew and Christian scripture was treated as the negative of the true God, who was divine Mother — at least as much as Father.

When, at a conference on women held at Barnard College, Pagels shared these gnostic teachings, “two thousand women … clapped and shouted … ”!

Why Religion? is Pagels’ personal memoir. Her story is real and serious. When she introduced the gnostic side of the Jesus movement, she was not trying to subvert the traditional doctrines. She was discovering a source from which she could counter the repressive contempt for the female sex that her parents had conveyed to her. As she discovered the gnostics, she also found that Church fathers like Tertullian and Irenaeus condemned women as a sex for causing humanity’s fall into sin.

There was one other thing she had in common with the gnostics: her paranormal receptivities. After enduring many failed treatments from approved fertility specialists, she let feminist friends persuade her to try an artistic fertility ritual. That treatment actually did work!

Her story includes shattering personal losses. I never read any report of grief as full and honest as the one she gives.

So she did what so many academics fail to do. She considered scholarly discoveries in their bearing on her own life experience. I admire in Elaine Pagels a life lived in the painstaking search for truth: intellectual and personal.

These Truths: a History of the United States

by Jill Lepore.

I wrote about this book earlier, but now I’m on p. 729. It ends on p. 782, not counting the Epilogue. So the end is in sight and I’m reporting back on a long journey.

This really is an extraordinary accomplishment! It revives and revitalizes narrative history, the big picture, rescuing her craft from colleagues who only want to see an era from the bottom up. Lepore has heroes and villains. She covers a huge amount of territory, yet manages to lift out the odd wisecrack, the private diary, the nasty rumor, the campaign slogan, or the line of poetry that sums up a historical moment. It’s an eagle’s eye view, vast and panoramic, but the eagle keeps landing, finding a juicy morsel here and a rocky crag there.

We start with the first European explorers and — as I’m careening toward the close – end with Donald Trump running for president. There’s a great deal of information here and some of the writing is wonderful.

What about the point of view? Description without a point of view is not possible. What’s hers? Broadly speaking, she takes three approaches to her material.

The first is absurdist. The canvass of America’s early years she treats as a medley of trivial accidents interwoven with blazing injustices. She cuts her figures down to size. This approach seems to me unduly selective and condescending.

Her second approach is more riveting. Taking as her metric the noble affirmations in the Declaration of Independence, she measures the shortfalls, betrayals and occasional heroic leaps forward. That’s fair enough. Once a person, or a nation, takes the risk of committing to high principles, a second risk follows: being judged in the light of those very principles. That is the American epic — tragic and significant.

Her final approach bears the burden of proximity to the events she reports. She writes about what’s been happening very recently. The eagle is flying so close to the ground that its feathers will be singed. Posterity’s view from high up is not accessible — not to Jill Lepore as historian nor to me as reader — yet.

Reading her closing pages, I am struck by the difficulty of holding opinions about current events that can be defended reasonably. A wide array of views can find factual support. It all looks a bit like lawyering. Each advocate will foreground one set of facts and shroud in deepest silence any data that would make the opposing side look good.

That said, I learned a lot from reading These Truths. Jill Lepore has given us a longitudinal and wide-angled view of our beleaguered Republic.

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Wickedness and Suffering

Wickedness and Suffering

Does that heading about cover it?  Eugene Ionesco, the brilliant Franco-Romanian playwright, wrote Tueur sans gages [Killer without wages], a play that opens with his characters marveling over the great neighborhood to which they feel fortunate to have been admitted.

Enfin, un beau quartier! they exclaim.  Finally, a beautiful neighborhood!  There’s only one trouble with it.  A mad killer is loose, right in the beautiful neighborhood!  He kills for no reason, unless wanting to kill is itself a reason.

While we’re on the subject of ideal places to live, we heard about an actual such place from our next-door neighbors.  They spend the winter months in a resort community that boasts interesting residents, a wonderful climate and facilities to accommodate every taste.  The manicured lawns are criss-crossed by walkways that run alongside tranquil lagoons.

Enfin, un beau quartier! one would think, no?  Well, not quite.  Last year, a nice young woman who lived around the block was out walking her dog when an alligator poked his snout out of the lagoon, ran across the lawn, grabbed her dog and – when she tried to defend it – grabbed her instead, dragging her down to the lagoon where – as our neighbors put it delicately – “she drowned.”

Sounds like a scene from Ionesco, but it actually happened, though our neighbors didn’t dwell on that one drawback.  Even a beau quartier isn’t perfect, apparently.

In this world of toil and snares, many sorts of unthinkables do occur.   Yesterday I was dutifully making my way through The New York Review of Books, which I do to keep up with what The Beautiful People are reading this week.  Naturally, I came across the obligatory anti-Israel book review.  Abuses perpetuated by settlers and Israeli military against Palestinians were excoriated in a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone of high heroic righteousness.  Though I’m no expert on the Middle East, I could have easily inserted the omitted parts of the reviewer’s narrative, parts that would have considerably altered his moral arithmetic.  As it reads now, his report invites the verdict that Israel exists without any moral right to continue to do so.  In the run-up to genocide, that’s precisely how the ground gets prepared.

I coulda been A Beautiful Jewish Person too.  Written books that were read and admired and translated everywhere.  Coulda been invited to dinners everywhere.  Including Tehran!  Darn!  Missed my chance!

Feeling fragile, I went downstairs to watch C-Span.  An author I did not know, Helen Zia, was talking about her new book, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao’s Revolution.  In a measured way, she described what happened to her own family.  She also called attention to the plight of refugees worldwide.

“No one wants refugees,” she reminded us.  “But people don’t leave their homes, carrying a suitcase, unless they are fleeing for their lives.”

I was reminded of a colleague who was forced to return to his home country, having been unable to renew his green card.  His job loss was a shake-out from Philosophy Department intrigues.  At the time, my mother, herself an immigrant said, shaking her head, “So they have taken America from him!”

For some reason, listening to Helen Zia’s story smoothed the frayed edges of tragic and permanent panic in my Jewish soul.

Suffering is worldwide.

Why that thought should be soothing, I don’t know.  But it was.

As if I were looking down from high above the earth, I tried to picture all its refugees.  On this big, round, blue planet, there are patches of territory with developed economies, degrees of legal protection for citizens, and ways they can realize their aspirations.  And the rest of the human population of the planet wants to get into those patches of territory.  Some come for the benefits and the opportunity to contribute to its flourishing.  Some want the chance to rip it off.  That’s human nature.  The obvious task would be to sort them out: the sheep from the wolves.  Between Fear and Denial, it’s not obvious that this job will get done.

Getting ready for bed, I thought of this vast sea of suffering.  I prayed to see it clear – to be shown its inner features and the size of it — relative to humanity as a whole.  In what world do we live?

These days, my bedtime reading is Why Religion? a book by Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels.  She’s a very interesting woman.  The story she tells is autobiographical, combining extraordinary successes and shocking losses: a bewitching (to judge by his photo) young son and a loved, wonderful husband – the right man for her.  Her son died of the fragile heart condition he had from birth.  In the wake of that loss, her husband, an experienced hiker who knew the trail, fell thousands of feet to his death when a patch of ground on the path gave way unexpectedly.

Pagels describes the world-shattering awfulness of this second grief.

To me as reader, it felt as if her single grief was equal to the whole world’s grief.  So perhaps my prayer — to see and know the world’s grief — was answered.  God must feel each singular grief in the world, for all creatures great and small, as I felt hers, only more so.

Theologians distinguish two types of evil: suffering in nature and wickedness in man.  It came to me that, in the flame-hot core of both —

suffering and malice –

 they feel the same!

Some believers contend that God has a Master Plan that will put all the moral equations in balance, some day and somewhere.

I don’t argue the point.  Down here the equations don’t balance.

It’s all I can do to know

 that God feels it too.

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