Putting Puzzle Pieces Together

“The Wailing Wall”
Marc Chagall, 1932

 Putting Puzzle Pieces Together

Suppose you thought that you had a past life in which you perished, by one of the methods in the Nazi repertoire, during the run-up years that culminated in the Holocaust.  I mean, suppose you entertained the possibility seriously — not as a mere thought experiment or mind game.

That’s what I do think, but why should I think it seriously?  What could that mean?  Especially since there are excellent reasons to dismiss my thought as a projection or morbid fancy.  For one thing, unlike the purported “nonsurvivors” whose stories were collected by Sara Rigler in her recent book, I’ve Been Here Before: When Souls of the Holocaust Return, I am pursued by no vivid nightmares or daytime flashbacks.  Though I researched the Shoah when I wrote A Good Look at Evil, I never had the “fascination” with it reported by Rigler’s subjects.  The hypothesis that my memories are “real” would account for some incidents of my life, but so would naturalistic explanations.  And for physicalists, who adopt the mainstream view that we die when our bodies do, extra-physical hypotheses would be dismissed out of hand.

What tips it to the side of crediting these putative memories, for me?  Just this thought experiment: I reviewed the linear series of memories of my present life as well as I could, but this time fitting them to the episodes remembered from the previous life. In the ensuing lengthened life review, I treated the episodes from a previous life as scene #1.  Following that, I treated the childhood and adult scenes from my present life as scenes #2 and #3 of the same continuous narrative.

Immediately, without exercise of will or interpretation, the memory series from this life seemed to lock into the series from the previous life-like links that form the same continuous chain.  It was like hearing the click of the lock.  I had the sense — 

that fits, 

that’s mine.

Is that dispositive?  Not in any court of law I know of, nor case history from the annals of experimental psychology.  Does it lay any burden on me?  If peaked curiosity were my biggest reaction, I don’t have the data that would allow me to take that curiosity any further.  And the phenomenon itself would ask nothing further from me.

However, no such luck.  What I next felt was a surge of anguish nearly intolerable.  Followed by a sudden drop in energy.  Right away, I was very tired.  The symptoms of an incipient cold set in, which were treated with home remedies and gone a day later.  I used the new home kit to test for covid but tested negative.  I still feel quite weak.

To me, this all has the look and feel of a spiritual crisis.  When they happen, they feel unprecedented, but I’ve lived through them before.  The clergy are trained to deal with those things.  I made an appointment to talk to my Reform rabbi.  In the nineteenth century, the Reform movement set out to be modern but did leave room for the mystical strands in Judaism.

Meanwhile, in the last few years, a Chabad group has set up a synagogue with related activities in our town.  Sara Rigler’s book made clear that the orthodox have no trouble with phenomena suggestive of reincarnation.  It’s not dogma, but Judaism has little of that anyway.  Law (halakha) is obligatory, but dissenting opinions are preserved even there, leaving space for argument.  Otherworldly things would be in the domain of haggadah and midrash: teachings illustrative and edifying, but speculative.  

I got a call back from the Chabad rabbi and made an appointment with him before the nice email came from my Reform rabbi.  So I saw him first.

He was a nice-looking man in his early forties with a normal-looking rounded beard — no long earlocks or hanging fringes — and the regulation black suit with very white shirt.  I felt quite at ease with him.  He introduced no extraneous, over-educated complexities to show how smart he was.  Our conversation was simple and straightforward.

I described my past life memory without trying to get him to believe that it really happened.  Next, I described the anguish that ensued when I fitted it into my present life’s memories as the preceding scene in a continuous narrative.  The worst feature of this retro-fit involved a recent memory, which I tried to describe as generically as I could, so as to avoid inter-denominational rivalries.  I had fought successfully to oust a predator from my temple.  In the final stages of that battle, I was treated with a degree of disrespect that shocked me deeply.  When I fitted that into a continuous life narrative, beginning with the past-life memory of dying in the run-up to the Holocaust, the whole story took on the character of a personal crisis.

From a Chabad rabbi, you don’t hear any Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault,  Heidegger, Bernard Williams, Lionel Trilling, or Documentary Hypothesis.

He simply listened, without displaced excitement or unseemly curiosity.  He looked me in the eye the way a child might, the whole time I was talking.  I don’t look at anybody that way.  From time to time he responded, without hocus pocus.

First, he disclaimed any special power to divine whether this was a memory of something that really happened to me, or not.  For me, it was real.  That was enough.  It was the given.

Second, he explained how the orthodox view the Jewish soul.  It comes from the divine, directly from its home with God.  To be a Christian, you must believe what a Christian believes.  But being Jewish is not like that.  It doesn’t depend on the person’s beliefs.  It’s ontological — a matter of one’s being.  The Jewish soul comes into the body of a Jewish man or woman to repair it and make it whole.

Third, if a Jew does something wrong, think how his or her soul (neshama) must suffer!  By loving the person’s soul, and focusing on that, you’ll be able to love your neighbor as yourself.

Fourth, take your suffering as “an opportunity” — to do whatever good comes your way.

Fifth, if you get into a conflict of that kind with the others around you, you must be doing something right!  People who tolerate wrongdoing, or get into the swim of it, never suffer conflict.  They don’t get hurt.

What struck me, with surprise and the deepest respect, was that he offered no ritual cures, claimed no mystical insight, recommended no depth-psychological digging and took utterly for granted the fact that the righteous suffer.

How about that?

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Did My Story Just Get Longer?

Abbie as a little girl

Did My Story Just Get Longer?

In recent days, I’ve felt that it’s time for philosophy — the discipline, with its history and skills — to step up, as it did in days past.  To identify and negotiate the great conflicts within our culture, and the conflicts with cultures that contest the claims of ours.  I’ve supposed that this has been philosophy’s office since its early beginnings.

In that connection, I thought to reread my book, A Good Look at Evil, to see whether I found contributions to that task in it.  Since I don’t carry around a mental credit card backed by reserves of self-congratulation, it was rather a surprise for me to find the book’s claims still persuasive.  

The central claim is that a good life will try to find and enact the purposes that belong to it uniquely.  Since people are rarely born knowing those are, it’s a sign of good purpose to try to locate the aims and methods that seem closest to one’s native grain, and then adjust them self-correctively, as one goes along.  If one’s aim turns out unfeasible, find the one nearest that’s achievable.  If one’s method turns out to undercut the aim, adjust the method.  Keep track of these unfoldings as they follow one after the other in linear time.  That track is one’s story.  It’s not fictional.

In Plato’s dialogues, each speaker embodies his one aim and the method he thinks goes with it.  That aim and method will be found contradicted by other aims the speaker also holds, or by the results achieved when it’s enacted.  Usually the refuted speaker then bows out of the argument.  In my sense of living one’s story, the same person doesn’t back out but goes through a succession of aims and methods, overcoming, revising, keeping track and self-correcting.  This is living dialectically.  One can learn from such a life and become more securely who one is at the end of it than one was at its beginning.   

On these terms, how do I understand evil?  A deliberately evil person is someone who tries, often with cunning and skill, to sabotage another’s good life.

Since the culture in which we live furnishes or forecloses many of our personal options, that’s where philosophy can step in, to clarify and revise the concepts the culture has made available.

Reading the conceptual foundations of A Good Look at Evil, I found its argument still persuasive.  My own life could be deciphered in the terms laid out in my book.  But I was also struck by a sense of dislocation in my own story.  I felt the intrusion of a seeming-memory of a different order.

It was the memory of a past life.  Though I’d already tried past life regression once many years before, a more recent attempt had been tried while we lived here, in hopes of learning why I had peripheral neuropathy.  I don’t think the regression answered that question and it sure didn’t cure my neuropathy.  But it was information … of a certain kind.  It was a clue.  There had been other clues.  But first, I’ll report what I saw in the more recent past life regression.

I was a young woman, living in the 1930’s, crowded with other adults into a single ground-level apartment in a German town.  We were Jews, so we tried not to venture out into the street.  However, an unfriendly neighbor informed on us.  Germans in uniform came and pounded on our door.  They directed us to climb into the back of a truck parked further up the street where we lived.  Once we were all inside, the back of the truck was sealed.  Carbon monoxide was then pumped in, to kill us all.

As I left my body, I remember feeling that the murder was wholly and arbitrarily evil.  Nothing explained it away.  No rationale excused it.  It never should have happened.

I rose higher in the space above my body, trying to see the scope of what had happened.  I saw that it was very wide in scope.  Almost global, this project of erasing the Jews.  I believe that I formed a resolve at that moment, to try to fight it, the next time round, if and when I lived again.

Although I’d done a lot of reading about the Holocaust when I was researching A Good Look at Evil, at the time of this regression I hadn’t known about the sealed truck method, which was used for small scale killing before the machinery of mass death was set up in the concentration camps.  I learned about the trucks only after I had the past life regression.  That was one, possibly confirming clue.  

I put it together with an earlier clue: the complaint I’d made to Edith Wyschogrod, a philosopher friend, about the strange experience of smelling car exhaust after the first day of my radiation treatment for breast cancer.  The day included receiving tiny tattoo marks that encircled the area designated for radiation.  Edith reminded me that Jewish women were tattooed in the death camps prior to being gassed.  Her explanation puzzled me, because I did not think car exhaust smelled like Zyklon B, the gas used for killing in the death camps.  The past life memory, coupled with the information I later learned about the use of carbon monoxide in sealed trucks, might better explain the odd sensation I had in the hospital.

Another clue: as a very small child, I scarred the faces of my dolls with a letter opener, “playing Hitler.”  I was not otherwise a sadistic or mean little kid.  I’ve been told that it’s quite an unusual thing to have done.  It’s explicable if I was registering the truth of the way my previous life ended.  I was not a little girl with unmarred dolls of her own.  That little girl, that newcomer to life, had arrived already scarred.  The faces of the dolls represented my face.

Another clue: when I was quite small, the war was going on.  Although my father, then a rabbi, had access to more information than most about the mass slaughter of the Jews of Europe, I have no memory of my parents discussing such a thing where I could hear them.  And yet I remember feeling doubtful that my parents would know how to conduct themselves when Hitler got here!  So I held them in a perspective different from their own, as if I were the older one!

I am not asking anyone to believe that such my “remembered” past life was real, certainly not on the evidence of those few clues.  Real or not, what does it mean to me?  How do I string it together with the present life I’ve lived?  It does seem to me like an awareness that belongs to me and to my beginnings.  Let me restate the question of its meaning in more general terms.

A God determined to be a player in history would need to form a covenant with a people whose task was to interact with Him and record the whole story of that interaction — its failures and successes alike.  And how could the people who lived that story and retained the record of it not be targeted for annihilation?  Nobody would want to kill Jews — in the way that desire has played out, wearing its succession of masks to fit each zeitgeist but keeping the same intention over millennia — were the killers not profoundly convinced that the covenant was real.  This is no ordinary brand of hatred.

And what are the implications for my personal life?  My life has been full of adventures — filled with many lives, as it were.  But the string on which they all hang, the narrative continuity, has led me to the point where I almost come to understand this.

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Philosophy and Me

Athena the Defender and Socrates
Modeled by Drosis, Executed in marble by Picarelli, Installed in front of The Academy of Athens, 1885

Philosophy and Me

Goodness, who cares! you might well think, seeing the title of this column.  But isn’t that what concerns each of us, whenever we’ve been required or drawn to read some philosophy?  What about me?  How does this way of writing or talking affect me?  Who needs it?  I mean seriously.

So let me get right at it, the way everybody does.  What is philosophy to me?  It’s listed as a credential, but I’ve risked the credential to serve something that represented philosophy to me substantively.

So how did I get into it?  What does it mean to me now?  I got into it because I’ve always loved it.  Long before I knew what the words meant — the ones philosophers use — I would stop to listen to my father talking in a philosophical vein to a friend who also spoke that language … and would imagine I’d died and gone to heaven.

It seemed so safe, in the sense of carrying its own warrant for being, and so sublime!  To this day, when I hear philosophers talking, it strikes me as wonderful.  I mean, if they talk with any skill, training and seriousness.

But one doesn’t want to engage long-term in any activity that’s merely imitative.  So it would take a long, long time, and many preliminary efforts, before I could connect the questions discussed by contemporary philosophers with issues of direct and significant concern to me.  But doing that has been one of the major projects of my life.  

And that’s not just true of my life.  

Philosophers can be named

the Midwives of History.

Although the recent fashion has been to treat the belief-and-value systems of different cultures as mutually incommensurate — as hopelessly “other” to each other — in fact philosophers have often stepped in to bridge those human divides.  Thus figures like Augustine of Hippo (354-430) forged intellectual links between the pagan, Greco-Roman high culture of his birth and the newly consolidating Christian movement.  At a later hinge point, Rene Descartes (1516-1650) stepped in to try to make “the moderns” like Kepler and Galileo more palatable to the Jesuits of the College de Sorbonne.

In sum: philosophy gets in there, makes the inter-cultural quarrels intelligible — at least to the reasonable disputants — and that way it keeps the longest, pan-cultural human conversation going.

At this point, a question comes to mind: Why has philosophy stood silent lately?  Why hasn’t it stepped forward, out of the shadows, to offer its renowned talents in midwifery to a world that could use a little help?

My question simplifies the state of current intellectual life somewhat, but let’s not put the qualifying nuances back in just yet.

Wait a minute! you might object. Isn’t post-modernism a philosophy?  And hasn’t it swept across oceans to influence the profession of philosophy from pole to pole?

No to the first question and yes to the second.  Post-modernism has many authors and authorities, but its disparate sources come together in one credo: 

You can’t get at

the truth.

Even classical skepticism argued in its own defense.  Even nineteenth-century nihilism made the case for itself.  Post-modernism won’t stand still long enough, or cease its chatter long enough, to make space and time for its adversaries.  Insofar as it refuses common ground, it’s not a philosophical view.

Just as postmodernism vetoes the judgment that x is true, it rips the mask off the judgment that x is right or good (or wrong or bad).  No longer can you make the kinds of judgments that big players on the stage of history, characters in novels and plays, poets, lovers and ordinary people have made.  Why not?  Because these seemingly innocuous, everyday judgments, by people great and small, are really masked exercises of power — the power of the dominant social group over the group it dominates.

Suppose, for the moment, that view were correct.  Suppose that judgments concerning truth and falsity, right and wrong, really did conceal exercises of brute power and nothing beyond that.  What’s wrong with that?  Why condemn the domination of the weak by the powerful?  And what’s bad about hypocrisy or concealment?  Don’t such unmaskings presuppose that there is a truth being falsified and a sense of justice being violated?  It seems the condemners have their own masked view: some moralizing is quite all right and some truth claims really are true.  

The task of philosophy has not changed: to examine competing moral claims and competing truth claims to discover which can be maintained with greater consistency and explanatory power.  I go back to my original question.  Why has philosophy stood silent?  

Partly for a bunch of contravertible reasons.  If anyone cares to track them down and see them refuted one by one, I can recommend my book, reissued in 2018 with two new chapters, A Good Look at Evil.  Meanwhile, do I have a provisional answer to this large question about philosophy’s relative silence in recent decades?  

Yes, I do.

Guilt.

Philosophers have imbibed and themselves got a bit drunk on cultural guilt.  I won’t go into what educated people feel guilt about and whether this is the right medicine for the ills they regret.

I will say that if you drench a person in cascades of guilt and shame, you can control that person.

If an accuser can do that to you, your accuser can control you.

Is that really what we want?

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Zora Neale Hurston: American Talent

Zora Neale Hurston, November 1934
Carl Van Vechten

Zora Neale Hurston: American Talent

Lately, I’ve been reading You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston, Edited with an Introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West.  

This is a collection of essays by a woman who, in some respects at least, may be the greatest writer of modern times in America.  I formed that opinion about a year back when, at our brunch time, Jerry used to read aloud long passages from her beautiful novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.  It’s not usually worthwhile to try to draw these comparisons — major to minor talent, head of the queue to next in line.  Each writerly talent has its own reason for being, its own burden to carry and honor.  Nor am I such a connoisseur of literary production as to be entitled to pronounce any such verdicts.

We live in an age that is hyper-conscious of the debts owed by groups to other groups — having already collectively injured and deprived one another.  In our country’s case, once the Declaration of our independence from “our British brethren” had been drawn up and signed — as the justification for the self-separation of these United States — it began to seep into national consciousness that there were certain jagged gaps between the Declaration’s promise and its performance at ground level.

Now, 246 years later, these realizations are reaching paroxysmic force: the broken promise, the bad check, the negative of the photograph.

The power of Zora Neale Hurston goes another way.  If there has been a wound, must wholeness be reclaimed from outside — from the injuring party?  Or is the injured tissue capable of self-repair?  In our own time, have we any chance of seeing what the wholeness in question looks like?

That is where a talent like Zora Neale Hurston’s comes in.  She is capable of putting it — the wholeness — out there for the world to see and hear.  If, as she affirms, the suffering of slavery, Jim Crow, and other repressions can be summed up as coerced silence — hers is the talent that gives voice to that silence.  For example, by refusing to join the hand-me-down groupthink of sloganeering or the massive clumsiness of the protest novel.

Some years ago, I was taking a subway to Brooklyn College and, by mistake, got off at the wrong stop.  So I climbed on a bus that would get me to work on time.  Presently I perceived that I was the only person of no color in a bus filled exclusively with persons of color, the bus driver included.  The passengers and driver were engaged in a byplay, a back and forth, that I had never seen before.  They were funny, mutually teasing, absolutely surging with an internally encoded life system.  It was hilarious.  It was grand.  I thought to myself, no nationally famous comedian of color shows the half of what I’m seeing and hearing on this bus.

Another time, I went down to Manhattan in the thirties to buy an electric typewriter, in the days when writers used such things.  The store owner and employees were ritually observant, self-separated Jews.  They were earthy, super-smart, filled with spontaneous hilarity and self-assurance.  No Jewish comedian can show the half of this, I thought.

There is a wholeness quite untouched by all the persecutory maiming that the world can do.  

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Lionel and Henry: In Fact and Fiction

Henry M. Rosenthal and Lionel Trilling

There is just one case I know of where two brilliant young writers published dueling short stories about each other, in which each is the protagonist and his best friend the antagonist.  Who were the writers who would do such a thing?  One was the young Lionel Trilling, who was to become a professor of English, a leading critic, public intellectual and opinion-shaper in the culture of twentieth-century America and beyond.  The other was my father, Henry M. Rosenthal, in his youth a rabbi, later a philosophy professor, of whom Trilling said, “He was the only man I ever knew whom I would call a genius.”  Trilling described my father as “my closest friend at college.”  Yet they did not remain friends.

The breakup of their friendship occurred a few years after their graduation from Columbia University’s stellar class of 1925.  It was at my father’s initiative, though not precipitated by a quarrel.  Trilling biographer Barbara Fisher has shared with me her view that Trilling never got over the loss of that early friendship.  By contrast, neither from my father’s journal entries, read posthumously, nor from any attitudes toward Lionel that he expressed in my presence, did he appear to me to regret the breakup.

After his 1928 story, “Inventions,” my father never published anything more about Lionel, nor spoke in public about him.  Years later, when Henry learned of the death of his former friend, he said, in a tone mild and musing, “I have nothing against Lionel.”  (I doubt he’d read Lionel’s major novel.)  To my mother, he added, “Probably he died because his work was done.”

Lionel, by contrast, had not been not so reticent.  In 1972, he wrote about my father to John Vaughn, an English inquirer: “He [Henry Rosenthal] had what I have always thought of as nothing less than genius although a few years later something seems to have happened in his life which kept his extraordinary literary powers from developing.”

In the opinion of Henry’s daughter, that ain’t too nice. 

In Lionel’s 1925 story, “Impediments,” written when they were still close,  the fictional Henry character is depicted as almost cartoonishly awkward, intense, and decidedly the narrator’s inferior, sartorially and in his manner: thus, his “untidy blue serge gives him the look of a shop assistant.”

In a letter dated July, 1925, Henry wrote back, “What a really fine story you have written. … In short, your story is a thing of merit.  I resent only the excusions on shiny blue suits.  I own one myself, which I must occasionally wear.”  Seminary students are not normally fashion plates.

After the breakup, characters who seem to occupy the mental space previously held by my parents — resembling them in one trait or another — appear in Lionel’s fiction, always standing lower — socially and intellectually – than the first-person narrator.  Unlike the Lionel character in “Impediments,” in the later stories the narrator will never again be a Jew and never again condemn himself for masking his real views.  On the contrary, the later Lionel character is presented as entirely Anglo and honestly holding views — at the just mean — between extremes of the political left or the right as well as extremes of intensity.  In the later Lionel’s first-person narrator, we will meet the hero of moderation.

Since I’m slated to present a paper on Henry and Lionel’s dueling short stories at the Montreal meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society in September, I’ve set myself to read more of the mature Trilling: especially The Middle of the Journey, his major work of fiction.  I’d thumbed through it previously, but idly, only out of curiosity.  Now I’ve read the whole thing from front to back with purpose and attention.

The Middle of the Journey is a novel of ideas.  That’s a particular genre: its fictional characters don’t have to be fully fleshed-out human beings.  Rather, they embody and act out the logic of their beliefs.  Since that’s true of most of us to some extent (we are what we believe — even more than we are what we eat), I find such novels very interesting.  Of course, the ideas have to be portrayed credibly and the people can’t be puppets.  They too must be believable.

In my view, The Middle of the Journey is a brilliant novel of ideas.  At the time of its first publication in 1948, New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott complained that Trilling was a critic trying in vain to become a novelist.  I disagree.  Prescott didn’t grasp the genre.

Gifford Maxim is the novel’s most compelling character. His real-life counterpart was a man named Whittaker Chambers, who was a Columbia classmate of Henry and Lionel.  As a young man, Chambers had been an enormously magnetic communist party activist who drew people into his orbit.  Later he become an equally magnetic anti-communist activist and committed Christian, who testified against former comrades — especially in the “trial of the century,” where former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury. (Confirming Chambers’ testimony, KGB files ultimately revealed Hiss to have been a Soviet agent.) 

Trilling’s portrayal of Maxim (Chambers) in mid-skating from one power center on the left to another on the right, displays the imaginative force and adroitness of a Dostoevsky.  It’s dramatic, recognizable and riveting.  In the course of the narrative, the Trilling character discovers how to hold his own ground at the just mean — between the political extremes.

What riveted me, however, was a subplot within the main story line.  The narrator, standing in for Lionel, has a brief but soul-healing affair with a woman who is an obvious stand-in for my mother!

Help!

Rachelle had been a continental beauty.  I inherited a volume of Proust in French, which Lionel gave her with his inscription, in French.  In Diana Trilling’s memoir, published after Lionel’s death, his widow writes about my mother in terms so venomous that I will not quote them.  Good grief!  Was it possible?  After all, children don’t know everything about their parents.

It was time to stop whatever else I was doing and review in my mind everything I could recall about my parents — in their relation to each other and to the Trillings.  There isn’t space here to go through the whole list, item by item.  I’ll allow just one to stand in for the rest.  In Lionel’s novel, his stand-in is shown wooden bowls decoratively painted by the character who stands in for my mother.  The woman who paints bowls is portrayed pretentiously attaching outsized significance to her decorations — as if they represented a whole worldview meant for the Lionel character to admire.

Years back, when I thumbed through the novel, I asked my mother about the wooden bowls, some of which were still in my parents’ apartment.  Had they any such significance for my mother as Lionel claimed? 

“No,” Rachelle shook her head with a bored gesture.  “What significance?  I painted them to sell while I was pregnant and we were poor.”

Jerry, who understands the male mind better than I do, told me that a fictional portrayal of Lionel having an affair with Henry’s wife would be one more way for a guy to stick it to another guy. 

Oh.  Who knew?

The Jew that Lionel succeeded in erasing in himself appears in his fiction in the form of non-Jewish characters having some trait reminiscent of my father or my mother.  From my father, Lionel borrows a kind of intensity or sincerity that becomes crazy.  From my mother, painted bowls, and cultural aspirations that — impertinently! — he pictures as hopeless.  The characters in whom some distortion of my parents might be traced are mere pitiable splinters of the real and fascinating people that they were.

If that was Lionel’s psychological strategy for dealing with the memory of Henry and Rachelle — a couple for whom there was always a compelling truth in being openly Jewish — was there any motive besides male revenge for having the fictional Lionel sleep with the imaginary Rachelle?  In that part of the novel, her supposed cultural insufficiencies get bracketed and what comes through accurately enough is her recognizable womanly dignity and emotional wholeness.  Nothing in that scene is pornographic or indeed graphic at all.  The fictional Lionel enjoys a moment of harmony with a beautiful woman.

Why does the fictional Lionel sleep with the imaginary Rachelle?  Well, why give up all the joys of authenticity for careerism’s harsh daily demands?

Why not have your cake and eat it too —

at least in imagination?

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Incurable?

Detail of Painting by El Greco, 1590-95

 Incurable?

On the whole, I don’t hold a grudge.  If I’ve been injured in some way, but the wound is either cured — or else not the kind of thing that can be patched up — that ends the incident so far as I’m concerned.

Case in point: after fighting seven years to get my job back, I resumed teaching and thereafter enjoyed friendly relations with all the colleagues, former adversaries included.

Second case: I had a brilliant philosopher friend with whom I’d shared the deepest conversations, about the search for wisdom and similar topics.  One day, he borrowed five hundred dollars from me, on a post-dated check, and then kept putting off repayment.  Finally, just a few months before my eligibility to press a case at small claims court would expire, I got the money back with the aid of a lawyer cousin.  Of course, the friendship didn’t survive.  For my part, I was content to have prevented our wisdom-seeking conversations from finishing in a rip-off.

Naturally, I don’t win ‘em all.  If the cause was just, in my opinion, and I did all I could but lost anyway, I will let it go.  Likewise, if it looks like a righteous combat but doesn’t have my name on it, I don’t wade in.  A woman’s gotta know her limitations.

That said, there is one wound that’s continued to fester.  Readers who’ve followed this column over a few years may recall a successful battle I fought to oust a guy from my house of worship who behaved inappropriately with the women.  Since I won that fight, why am I still suffering?  Other whistleblowers will recognize the situation: I was treated disrespectfully by those whose institution benefitted hugely from my refusal to dodge this issue.  They accepted the benefits that accrued to the institution, but were unprotective toward their co-religionists who were women, and toward me — the only woman who had fought long and effectively enough to protect them!  I felt it as a shocking betrayal.  What else did it touch in me?

I have a past-life memory (veridical or not) of perishing in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.  When I first had the memory, I hadn’t previously heard or read of the method that was used: putting victims in the backs of sealed trucks and then pumping in carbon monoxide.  Later I did read that this piecemeal method was in use but abandoned when the vast killing camps were set up. 

Whether or not this actually happened to me in a life preceding my present one, it’s accurate to say that for me it’s a memory of something undeniably real and personal.

Suddenly, the other night, I decided to see how the two memories would look if I conflated them: the first memory of perishing in the sealed truck, conflated with the second, of winning that acrid “victory” at my temple.

To my surprise, this conflation plunged me into what felt like a crisis.  My muscles tightened so that sleep became impossible.  My insides stopped functioning in any normally healthy way.  For much of the day, I sobbed or felt on the verge of sobbing.

By evening I thought, I’ve found ways to cure other situations. This is just one more uncured situation.  Once I figure out how to cure it, I won’t suffer from it anymore.  At least not in this unbearable way.  Feeling more hopeful, I was able to relax and got more sleep that night.

In the morning, praying fervently, searchingly, earnestly, asking for answers, here are the responses that came to me.  

I asked, what about my dying that way, in my small corner of the Holocaust?  Does that call for a cure of some kind, for me?

Dying in that circumstance is called “Sanctification of the Name.  Kiddush Ha-Shem.”  Whether you volunteer or not, the rank is the same.

It’s not a cure, but it settles the question.  It means that, in God’s eyes, I’m whole.

Next question: what about my prolonged suffering as a result of my fight to clear God’s House of someone who should not have been there?  Does that call for a cure?

It’s also Sanctification of the NameAnd this time, you DID volunteer.

Finally, I had a third question.  What about the larger experience evoked — of being unprotected by my co-religionists?  How deep does that go?  If I go all the way back to the beginning, to Abraham, didn’t he say to Pharoah, when the king cast covetous eyes on his beautiful wife, “take her, take Sarah, she’s my sister”?  

Maybe God did smite Pharoah so that he couldn’t lay a glove on Sarah, blighting crops and flocks till he returned her to Abraham in pristine condition.  Maybe Genesis 12:10-20 got it right, or maybe the editors rewrote the script at that juncture.   Some of the medieval rabbis thought Abraham should have had more faith and not handed her over.  Easy for them to say.

Jews are God’s pilot project.  From the beginning, they’ve been heavily outnumbered.  That means, in history, always threatened with defilement and extermination.  As to the women of the covenant, the best men will act in a level-headed, reasonable, courteous and protective manner, when they can.  The mediocre will act out their mediocrity.  But the problem is built in.

How convenient it would have been, had the Jews been able to say to their Christian spiritual descendants, “Okay guys, we are stepping off the stage now; you can take it (the covenant) from here!”

But Jews received no such directive from the God of Israel.  They remain the evidence for God’s reality in history.  They are not perfectionists.  They are just real.  God is real.  And so are the Jews.

And so, ladies and gents, it’s incurable.

Having a credible answer,

I stopped worrying.

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Wedding Anniversary

Abbie and Jerry
January 20th, 1999

Wedding Anniversary

Thursday, January 20th, was the 23rd anniversary of the day Jerry and I got married.  In rabbinic tradition, God makes marriages.  In fact, that would be the chief thing He does.  

I certainly wasn’t looking for a husband when, from my Manhattan apartment, I telephoned Jerry’s office in Washington, D.C.  Jerry ran an organization championing excellence in higher education.  I telephoned because the then president of Brooklyn College (where I taught philosophy) had a terrible plan for revising downward the college’s award-winning liberal arts curriculum.

If the rabbis were right, God Himself must have put the terrible plan for revising the curriculum into the president’s head — so that Jerry and I could meet!  It hardly bears thinking about — the providential coincidences by which our lives can remain meaningful!

As Jerry and I plotted strategy over the months that followed, speaking daily by phone, working together effectively to help save the college’s liberal arts curriculum (see Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 17, 1997), Jerry realized that he was falling in love.  Sight unseen.  (In those days, we didn’t have Zoom.)

For my part, I was busy saving my beloved college, had put my entire personal life into cold storage for the duration of that fight, and had no idea that anything “personal” might be going on.  When I finally noticed that something of that sort could be underway, I thought I’d better take an objective look at the entire phenomenon.

Being a trained philosopher, I decided to apply philosopher Edmund Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” to whatever might be going on.  It’s a contemplative technique that involves “bracketing” what Husserl calls “the natural attitude.” Ordinarily, the experience we perceive comes embedded in its real-life implications and consequences.  For example, in the natural attitude, when I see a street, I start estimating whether it’s safe to cross it.  When I see an apple in my kitchen, I notice instinctively whether it’s a good time to eat it.  That’s experience as it arrives in the natural attitude.  

By contrast, in “bracketing,” I merely observe how the thing appears in consciousness.  Bracketing is a little like pretending you’re dead, and just taking a detached look at your life up to that point.  You unplug from your life in order to observe it.

So that’s what I did, but focusing on my mostly-by-telephone relationship with Jerry up to that point.  What happened next was quite unexpected.  I observed myself actually falling in love!  And I mean falling.  I felt like Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole.

Uh oh, I thought to myself.  This isn’t what I had in mind at all.  My intention was to get above it.  

This feels like falling

into a deep pit.

I’d better scramble out!  But oddly enough, the more I scrambled, the less I could find a handhold to grip and get myself back up to the rim.  It seemed easy to fall in, but beyond my power to fall up.  Well! I thought. This changes everything. 

I’m a serious romantic.  That means, I’ve long thought that the mutual falling-in-love of a man and a woman has the character of utmost seriousness.  Though many people do not think of the Bible as a romantic book, from childhood on, I had taken sober note of the fact, reported in Genesis, that the progenitors of the covenant had to get rightly situated, each with the right partner, before they could safely get on about their divine mission.

The marital relation — as I saw it exemplified in my parents’ marriage — combined elements often thought of as unrelated: the political, the erotic, and the irreplaceably personal.  Such relations seemed to me to constitute the nuclear center of a meaningful life in one’s time.

I had never written anything about my romantic view.  It seemed implausible to try to fit it into any topic with which philosophers were currently busy.  But for me it remained a defining intuition.

If that’s what was going on between Jerry and me (and further inquiry confirmed that it was) then it was of overriding importance.

When I began to tell colleagues, in my own and other departments, that I planned to take early retirement so that Jerry and I could start joining our lives, the comments from academics were uniformly negative.  This (romantic love) was an exhilarating delirium, I was told.  It was like being crazy, except that you snapped out of it when the spell broke and you awoke.  If I wanted to stretch out the time for the bloom to stay on the rose, I’d better confine the relationship to weekend trysts in my New York or his Washington D.C.  If, while the delirium lasted, I needed a Tuesday/Thursday schedule for the sake of longer weekends, my chair and the provost could arrange it.  And so on.  Now that I think of it, my colleagues really tried to save me.

I wasn’t sure that the nay-sayers were wrong.  All I knew was that, up to that time, my belief in the seriousness of love that was romantic, marital, and confirmed by the joining of lives, had been at the nuclear center of my other beliefs.  If, given the opportunity, I refused to take myself up on it, then I would be unable to take this, or my other beliefs — hence myself — seriously in the future.

Had I ever meant what I most deeply thought, and implicitly said?  

If so,

now was the time

to act on it.

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So How Was Our Trip to California?

Dante and Virgil Ferried Across The River Styx, Canto VIII, Dante’s Divine Comedy
Gustave Doré, c. 1857

So How Was Our Trip to California?

By now, we’ve been home from California for a week.  But what an odd five days we had there!  I’ll give you the condensed version.

For once, there were no missed connections between flights. Neither going nor coming home.  Besides that, we found a phenomenon that we’d not witnessed earlier: a gentle courtesy between the passengers, at the Gates and other collection points.  

It put me in mind of the scene in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, his novel of the French Revolution.  Charles Darnay has been put in the prison of La Force, where doomed aristocrats await their summons to the Guillotine.  He marvels at how, in that vestibule between our world and the next, the prisoners extend to each other all the exquisite politeness of the ancient regime.  In our present travel situation, the extreme contagiousness of the Omicron variant may be bringing out a similar degree of ceremoniously reciprocal considerateness.

I’ve mentioned that we fly to California periodically because the neuropathy clinic at the Loma Linda Hospital is the only place I’ve found able to lessen neuropathy’s grip on my physical system.  My local acupuncturist has worked previously as a physical therapist, and believes that I walk upwards of 65% better than I did before starting my neuropathy treatments at Loma Linda.  But I’ve been going there for about six years, so this improvement isn’t sudden or miraculous.  It proceeds inch by inch.

So why did we decide to make this trip now?  Travel sets us down amid crowds of strangers at what — since the pandemic began — may be the worst time yet even to step out of one’s own front door!  What’s our hurry?

The neuropathy regime has required very unwelcome dietary restrictions. In hopes of getting round these restrictions, I’d just completed a difficult course of treatments with my acupuncturist, using a system that, in his experience, has overcome food allergies of many kinds.  Now I was eager to find out whether the team at Loma Linda could confirm that these allergies had been overcome.

Well, had it worked?  Alas, crushingly, no.  That is, while the inflammatory response to prohibited foods was found to be about 75-85% improved, in practical terms (I won’t go into the symptoms) my body still refused to deal with glutens and dairy.

All right.  One has a duty to live as effectively on one’s timeline — which means as healthily — as one can.  When push comes to shove, I’m a grownup.

I guess.

A reluctant one, assuredly, but not a complete fool.

While this defeat was being absorbed, something else was going on, which I hesitate to discuss.  The Marriott supplies The Book of Mormon and the Gideon Bible as reading matter in one’s guest room.  Understand this as you will, and I’m reluctant to put any reader to the test, reading the gospel of Matthew, I was flooded with the sense that I understood Jesus.  Understood him closely.  Without the barrier of The Great Rift between Christian and Jew.

Don’t get me wrong.  It has nothing to do with becoming a Christian.  In the history of that genre, Jews who’ve decided to call themselves Christian converts have a very bad track record: leading hostile authorities to hidden Torah scrolls so that they can be burned, instigating staged public “debates” with rules favoring Christians and Jewish representatives coerced into participating.  And so on.  It’s a dishonorable history, a history of betrayals, carried out by insiders with turncoat expertise.

That being the history, I’ll say no more about my experience.  Except to note that it was real, personal, and very striking.

Meanwhile, the neuropathy treatments made a more noticeable difference than they had done up till now.  Also, this time my home exercises did more than prevent regression: I began the treatment week with measurable gains already delivered.

I approach most doctors with instinctive wariness.  In my experience, most have not been free of the muffled sadism that goes with their view of the human (and the female) body: as a mechanism composed of small parts that, like machine parts, are passive or inert.  I can speak from experience since I’ve been treated for cancer at three reputable New York City hospitals: the first under Protestant auspices, the second Catholic, and the third one Jewish.  Which is to say that I’ve been humiliated in three theologically distinct ways: the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Jewish way of humiliation.

If I were a sociologist, or a psychologist specializing in the psychology of humiliation, maybe I could get an article out of it.

Mark Bussell’s treatment protocol at Loma Linda is courageous, truthful, and absolutely devoid of implicit sadism.  I like and trust him, and look forward to our conversations during the treatment hours.  

That said, our strenuous efforts to get from the Philadelphia airport to The Marriott hotel in Riverside, California, and thence to Loma Linda Hospital’s neuropathy clinic, were one-fifth undercut by Mark’s having to cancel the last day of treatment.  He’d come down with a cold, which nowadays has to be regarded as a reason for self-quarantine, pending the test for covid.  Happily, as we learned once back in Pennsylvania, the test proved negative.

One rolls with

the blessings of life,

and with the punches too.

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It’s Not All About Psychology

“Young Girls By The Water,” Renoir, c. 1893

It’s Not All About Psychology

We were in Phoenix, waiting for the connecting flight to Philadelphia, when we noticed a young couple and their little girl on the seats across the aisle from us.

They were a charming sight.  The child was what in the nineteenth century, would’ve been called “golden-haired.”  With perfectly symmetrical little features and large, solemn eyes, she was clearly going to be a beauty.

Since I have no reason to think of myself as savvy with children, I was gratified to see her frequently turn those blue eyes in my direction, as if she were seeing something of interest to her.

The couple were in their twenties.  The father held her on his lap while the mother spoon-fed her some kind of baby goop from plastic containers, probably brought from home.  The young couple seemed very much on the same wave length.  Their child looked so loved, approved of, and entirely at home in her surroundings, that one watched her with a stifled sigh, thinking, nothing bad has ever happened to her.  

Yet.

Then, while we watched these adoring parents interact with their child-of-sunshine-and-light, something bad did happen.

Since others watching might not have noticed the event, I’ll try to make it as clear as I can.  Here’s what happened.  Lunch had gone on long enough. The child had been fed sufficiently.  But her adoring mother did not want to stop the delicious feeding-time interlude, so she kept on with it, popping what looked like raisins into her daughter’s no-longer-eager small mouth.

I saw what was going on.  This child – so accepted and made-much-of – did not want to spit out the raisins, gag, or make gestures of disgust.  She’d gotten into this dance partnership with her delighted mother and, out of tact, had decided not to break the spell.

For the first time, her smile looked false and was accompanied by little gestures of seemingly arbitrary irritation.

As I perceived it, she was exiting Eden and going to live henceforth in the Land of Nod [or Land of Lies at which We Nod] on the East of Eden.

As it happens, on the flight from Ontario to Phoenix, I’d been reading a book by Jonathan Culler, whose title is Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.  Published by Oxford Press, what it provides is a short course in post-modernism.  Rather than survey all the theorists with their distinct schools and movements, I can give you the gist right here:

It’s impossible

to get at the truth.

Now let’s go back to the choices faced by our little girl.  Either she disappoints the young parents who’ve been inundating her with their love and care, or she accepts their tokens of care, which are overloading her gut.  

She knows this

in her little gut.

So, she does know the truth.  Sorry, Jonathan Culler!  Sorry, Oxford Press!  And, at least for now, she has made the decision not to disappoint her adoring parents.  There will be others – grownups to begin with, peers later – who’ll be irresistibly attracted to the little beauty but, in exchange for their homage, may exact the following price: that she fit herself into their idea of her.

The post-moderns are wrong.  In many instances, the truth is not particularly hard to get at.  Only, there may be a cost.

Plato is not usually thought of as a psychologist but, in his way, he may be the greatest philosophical psychologist of them all.  The main thing about a person, for Plato, is not introversion, extroversion, sex drive, narcissism, phobias, and so on.  The deciding factor in personal makeup is whether or not the person will seek the truth. 

In dialogue after Platonic dialogue, the speakers who walk away when their favorite ideas are refuted are people who don’t want to know anything nontrivial beyond what they think they already know.  The dialogue itself culls the discussants.  The ones who stay the course are the lovers of wisdom.  For them, truth is the motivating factor — not their desires, fears, phobias, hopes or propensities.  They don’t want to believe what is not true.  And they don’t want to lie.

What does all this have to do with our little girl?  For me, she stands in for All Women and the Dilemmas of Women.  

The desire to attract and please is not a foible and is not found only in those women who suffer from character weakness.  It has to do with women’s biological and cultural situation.  Let me spell this out.

What does a pregnant woman face?  Before that happened, she was already vulnerable relative to men — in terms of musculature, hormones favoring aggression, impregnability, the monthly discharges in blood of unfertilized eggs, always inconvenient, sometimes embarrassing, lasting from puberty to middle age, attended by cramps, ending in middle age with embarrassingly visible hot flashes — and she has already been imprinted by whatever adjustments to this biological situation were approved by the culture.  Of course, once she’s pregnant, her vulnerability multiplies exponentially.

How much leeway does that woman have if she chooses to seek some further truth – much less to be a seeker of truth primarily – seeking it at the risk of alienating any of her present protectors?

The degree of truth-seeking that one does is the deciding factor in a human life.  This is as much the case in a woman’s life as in a man’s.  But the risks, for a woman, even in the most favorable circumstances, are so much higher than for a man!  

And the feasible stratagems — 

for coping effectively with those obstacles —

so much more subtle!

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

By Holly Ordway

This book was first brought to my attention by the writer Johan Herrenberg, who wondered whether it was another book by a woman in the “confession” genre of Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Having now read it, I think it belongs to a different genre: the conversion or paradigm-shift genre.  It describes the author’s mental/spiritual journey from one view of reality to its contradictory — with just two opposing views on offer.  Having myself shifted paradigms more than once, I read conversion stories – if they seem honest — with rapt attention.  This is an honest book.

As sympathetic witness to Ordway’s journey, I’d like to go through Ordway’s mental milestones, numbering them step by step, and then make note of how I might have experienced that same milestone.

1. Starting her journey as an intelligent atheist, Ordway must think that Life has no inherent meaning.  In her, that produces despair. Though some atheists find that they can still carry out meaningful tasks and activities — even if Life Itself is meaningless – she is unable to block off the meaninglessness looming in the background.

1a. Though I’ve been an atheist, I don’t recall feeling despair on that account.  For me, atheism didn’t drain the beauty from nature and art, nor take the fascination from friendship and philosophy.  There, she and I differed.

2. As atheist, Ordway still reserves a place of honor for truth and moral values.  She never thinks the latter are merely subjective or relative.

2a. In my atheist days, I also continued to prize truthfulness and trying to do the right thing.  But, for me, these values lived in the context of social, personal, and natural bonds.  They were woven into that web of relationships.  For whatever reason, Ordway writes as if she were making consequential decisions almost in a vacuum.

3.  Ordway gravitates toward (what I would call) zones of refuge from despair.  Thus, she loves poetry that gives spiritual insight, fantasy fiction where good combats evil – and fencing!  Take that, Wicked Knight!

3a.  Ordway herself notes that her zones of refuge enable her to enact a world of meaning.  To truly appreciate a poem, one must feel it anew as the poet felt it.  (When Aristotle describes the acquiring of a virtue, he says character is gained by habituation.  So, it really works to act as if we already had the character trait we want!)  I would say that Ordway is following a reliable method for acquiring the power to detect meaning in experience.

4.  Ordway enters into an intellectual argument with her fencing coach, who is a believing Christian.  He persuades her that the chain of causes in nature must end in an Uncaused Cause.  Otherwise, we get an infinite regress of explanatory principles, which is unacceptable to reason.

4a.  In some domains, an infinite regress is not a problem.  For example, you can always add #1 to a number series and reason will not be offended.  But if we are addressing those natural conditions that depend in turn on further conditions, explanations would hope to reach an unconditioned condition – something that encompasses totality – a “theory of everything.”

5.  At this point in her step-by-step argument, Ordway comes under the sway of an attractive force that feels more-than-intellectual.  Be it noted that the “everything” to be explained by her Unconditioned Condition has to include the beauty of poetry, the chivalric aspirations of fantasy fiction and fencing, and the objective character of righteous deeds.

5a.  I never became an atheist because of an argument nor a theist as a result of a philosophical argument.  

6.  At this point, Jesus steps into the realm of experience she’s entered.  The scholarly books she pours through persuade her that his resurrection is a historical fact.  Not a did-he-or-didn’t-he kind of fact.  Rather, to her, his resurrection meant “he had done something to death itself” (p.112). 

6a.  Years ago, I watched Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s presentation at the Rainbow Group, formed under the creative direction of philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod, for interfaith dialogue between professional religionists.  Greenberg said that, in the case of Jesus, there might have been a real resurrection.  Providence might even have seen to it that such a resurrection would be disbelieved or discounted by his fellow Jews.  Why?  Because God wanted both types of religion: the Jewish type that deals with life here in history, co-partnering with God in situations on the ground, and the Christian type, stressing the vertical dimension, pointing toward transcendence and an unearthly purity.

Under pressure from his peers, it’s been my impression that R. Greenberg eventually retracted most of what he said that afternoon.

But he might have been right.

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