Healing at a Distance?

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky
“The Song and the Space,” Arthur Polonsky

Healing at a Distance?

The other day I had a distance healing.  Of what? you might ask. 

Was it a psychological problem?  That’s why we have therapists.  Was it a physical problem?  We have medically-approved treatments for those, backed by statistical studies.

Actually, I do have a physical problem, which interferes with one of my favorite, low-cost things to do: namely, walk.  In search of medically-approved treatments, I have trekked from one well-accredited New York neuropathist to the next, leaving his or her office with a diagnosis – hey, it’s neuropathy! – and a bill. 

In recent years, an improbable “accident” – a tip volunteered by a stranger at an airport — led us to an experimental treatment, from which I’ve noticed incremental improvements over time.   However, it is available at just one clinic in California.  That’s a long and expensive trip, which we take periodically.  This past year, the California trips were delayed by the pandemic.

That’s not my only reason to try a distance healing.  In addition to my impatience at the prolonged wait, I’m always curious to know the why of physical problems – the mental side – if there is one.

Though there’s often no getting around the physical approach to a physical problem, in my own case, I get around it whenever I can.  It’s my belief that I owe my relatively good long-term health to my policy of declining at least 60% of the medical tests and treatments urged on me through the years.  I’ll omit to list the side-effects of some of the treatments I’ve refused, damage discovered too late by those who surrendered to the importunings of the Oracles in white. 

My self-trust isn’t blind.  I eat rationally, exercise, do yoga, meditate and try my best to resolve my contradictions.  [Huh?  Contradiction?  What’s that?  It’s where I affirm and deny the same thing in the same respect or where I persist in a claim even when the evidence shows its falsity.  Contradictions have legs outside the classroom.  If, for example, a witness under cross-examination is led to say something and then to deny what she previously said, the jury will tend to discredit her testimony.  In personal life, if I endorse and also oppose the same action, my body will feel it and be unhappy.  So it’s prudent to overcome one’s contradictions.] 

Also, wherever feasible, I try to avoid toxic relationships. And, where holistic alternatives seem promising and harmless, I try them.

In the course of one such quest, I myself acquired a “second degree” in Reiki healing.  I gave four such healings, three of which were reported successful by the recipients.  The fourth was reported a flop, but it was in a domain (bankruptcy) of which I know little.  I stopped doing Reiki healings when my teacher insisted that I charge for them.  Since the recipients were all personal friends, that wasn’t possible for me.

Anyway, I know from experience that distance healing can work as advertised.  That doesn’t prevent charlatans from preying on the unwary. But it’s not all phoney.  Three out of four ain’t bad.

This time, I selected a healer whose video I found on a blog featuring reports of near-death-experiences, other paranormal phenomena, and scientists in panel discussions of theoretical anomalies.  The young woman stood out to me as honest and good-hearted.

The distance healing took place on Thursday the 25th of February and lasted about an hour. I was not on the phone with the healer during that time. My only instruction was to relax and be in a private space. It’s too soon to tell whether there will be any long-term physical improvement. 

That said, lying alone in my half-darkened, silent room, I certainly had an interesting train of experiences.  They were unexpected.  Not one was a recognizable “projection” coming from me.  I’ll try to describe them.

The experiences formed part of what is called a “life review” – but not the kind standardly reported by people revived after an NDE.  The episodes I saw were presented in reverse chronological order and all belonged to one category or type of event.  They were taken from the course of my romantic life. 

First, I perceived words in my mind, quite clear though soundless:

“Take off your shoes.

This is holy ground.”

A mental picture formed — of desert ground with red glowing embers underfoot – as I took off my sandals.  Because of my neuropathy, I no longer wear sandals and don’t ordinarily take my shoes off after I’ve put them on.  As to “holy ground,” the vision would allow me to revisit places of romantic failure.  What’s holy about that ground?  To my astonishment, each would be shown as a key juncture in a long but connected spiritual journey!

In bare feet, I was soon transported to Australia’s Blue Mountains, where, with my first husband and colleagues from Sydney University’s Department of General Philosophy, we used to go on bush walks.  Like the fauna DownUnder, the terrain looks prehistoric.  Back then, I used to clamber up those cliffs in sandals, though others wore their hiking shoes.

Because my first marriage had ended in divorce, I’ve remembered it as one of my life’s missteps.  Now, in the vision, I saw it quite differently.  A love can be real though the relationship fails.  The gift of John’s love had been — the vision showed — Australia!  A completely different culture and a reason-of-the-heart (which would have moved me as career advancement did not) to learn how the Brits-in-exile did philosophy and saw the world!  Before that, I’d worked with Merleau-Ponty and Hegel.  I didn’t even like England.  There’s no foreseeable way I would have come to this expansion of thought and sensibility.  Yet, since philosophy is the longest and most inclusive of conversations, for me it was of great importance to absorb this understanding.

Before now, I had never seen this as the gift of John’s love.  When we courted in New York, he had not yet been offered the job.  So he himself would not have seen it that way either.  The vision dealt in its own medium, not the language of cause-and-effect in any ordinary sense.

The vision now took me to an earlier candidate for my heart’s affections.  He’d been someone with whom I felt very much at home and comfortable – till a certain turn of events showed that he lacked backbone.  His gift to me (as the vision peculiarly presented it) was the knowledge that enduring love must include backbone.

The path finally stopped at my first love.  He’d been a communist, a devout Parisian atheist (that’s a religion too!) and a son of the violence that racked Europe in his Greek boyhood.  The vision did not pause to worry over his “unsuitability” for me but went directly to the “gift” that his improbable love delivered, the problematic of my work and life:

how to live in history.

Jerry, to whom I’m now married, puts legs under my romantic belief in happy endings.  From our union has come the courage to fill in the corners of my life, see the shards come together into a living whole and have a life that makes sense to me.

What did the vision tell me about the origins of my neuropathy?  Well, first it said that the path I’d traveled in my romantic life hadn’t been a series of missteps.  Where I had seen failure, the vision showed a succession of sure-footed forward phases.

Could it be that my walking difficulty originated in the belief that these had been mere stumbles?  Since the healing, my steps appear slightly more balanced.  But it’s too soon to tell if these improvements will continue, or stop, or even slide backward.

I haven’t solved the mind/body problem,

but I may have taken a step in that direction.

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How Did I Get To Be This Happy?

How Did I Get To Be This Happy?

If I put this question to an existentialist, the answer would be: “Because you’re inauthentic.  You walk around in bad faith.”  The human situation can be deemed absurd (if you’re feeling French) or productive of profound anxiety (if you’re feeling German).  But by no means can it be called a site of “happiness”!

Now let me ask a person from my native city.  From afar dimly, I can still make out that New York sound: 

“Puh-leese!  Don’t be disgusting.”

Okay.  Sorry.

Ah, here comes a postmodern person!  I’ll ask her how best to comprehend my present, unfamiliar state of happiness. 

         “You haven’t a clue about your actual state!  Your life is a fiction.  So, enjoy your self-report, so long as you don’t take it seriously!”

Well, canvassing the experts still leaves me in the dark.  Maybe my question is not one commonly asked.  I guess there’s no harm in asking myself this uncommon question.  I’m as good a detective as Nancy Drew and I’m reporting a change in how it feels to be me.  When did this change begin? asks the good detective.

We might start with what in my life has changed objectively during this year-of-the-pandemic.  For one thing, I’m running in the black at last with regard to three long-term debts of honor.  

First, the papers of my grandfather, whose pen name was Rav Tsair, have now been safely archived at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  He taught at HUC and is still studied and written about by Talmudic scholars, here and in Israel.  He was the towering figure of my childhood and I loved him.

Second, the pandemic opened a time window that allowed me to go through the materials of Henry M. Rosenthal, my father – a huge collection of letters, journals and manuscripts, thus coming to a better grasp of the enormously magnetic and gifted man he was.  His shorter pieces are being posted at https://independent.academia.edu/RosenthalHenry thus facilitating the next steps with respect to archiving.

Third, Elmer Sprague, my senior colleague and comrade-in-arms, died this year.  He was a man who went to every graduation, wedding, bar mitzvah and funeral belonging to his “station and duty.”  So I know he’d never forgive me if I failed to get a proper obit into the American Philosophical Association’s Proceedings and Addresses.  With the help of some faithful colleagues, and a few months of homework from me, we got it in.

So much for debts of honor.  Was there anything else on the “objective” side?  Well yes, one does work in the world and mine takes shape as writing.  What’s new in that realm?

Confessions of a Young Philosopher is now as good as I can make it and I expect its publication this year.  Since I believe stories and pictures belong together, it will include some very nice illustrations.  The kind that novels used to have, even though this is a true story.

A Good Look at Evil is now available on Amazon/Audible as an audiobook.  Having listened to Matthew Cohn’s inspired reading, I myself have come to think the book truthful, helpful, unpretentious and original.

Dear Abbie: the Non-Advice Column has become a way for me to reach out to more readers than I ever had within professional confines.  And people who know me, or care about my life, get the breaking news almost as soon as I live it.

We come now to the inner changes.  First, my relation to God has changed.  I don’t know why and don’t well understand it, but the God toward whom I’ve ordinarily turned my face upward to pray – as Someone at a distance – seems to have moved down and gotten closer to where I am.  At first, I found this quite disconcerting – regarding it almost as a loss.  But little by little I’ve gotten used to it and realized it doesn’t signify that God has merged with me — or that I’ve lost the God who is not me.  Just that it’s become a more synchronous interaction.

On the inward plane, another puzzle piece moved into place with my recent reading of Martin Buber’s hasidic tales.  The saints of that tradition made suggestions about forgiveness that I wrote about here last week.  Internalizing their cryptic hints has eased certain moral burdens.  Up till now, I’ve felt oddly responsible for those who had injured me.  I carried the memories they had conveniently repressed, against such time as they might return to claim (to face) those inflicted injuries and take them off my hands.  Now the zaddikim prescribed the following script and it seemed to work just about as they’d said:

Here, Lord, you take it —

along with the moral bookkeeping —

and I’ve felt noticeably lighter ever since.  It doesn’t mean I “forgive” someone’s injuries to another.  Or that I whitewash the memory of what happened.  Or that I don’t try to repair whatever’s reparable by me.  Only that I’ve shifted the spiritual burden over to the One better equipped to carry it.

I note one other inward change: from the horse.  Lately, I’ve been unable to ride California because a touch of chill (mine) was succeeded by lots of snow and ice, falling and whipping round the neighborhood.  In the interlude, a delayed-take revelation sank in: I’ve had a reunion with a horse who knows me as well as I can be known – not on all levels of course – but intimately and straight from the shoulder!

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking at videos of animal communicators.  It’s a new field with an international cast of practitioners.  Their human/animal interactions on film are quite readable, like human-to-human interactions when you turn off the sound.  Animals have deep emotional states and powers.  They bond with humans.  They can be offended – nay traumatized! – by humans.  Their complaints make sense.  Their personalities are distinct.

What change has this made in my awareness?  The natural world itself now seems good or at least filled with goodness.  The trees seem to send greetings and to get them in return.  The sky joins the chorus.  I no longer feel invaded by sorrow as if by a second nature.

My natural state

 of cheerfulness

reasserts itself –

 after so many years!

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A Good Look at Evil Is Now an Audio Book!

We meet with evil in the ordinary course of experience, as we try to live our life stories. It’s not a myth. It’s a mysterious but quite real phenomenon. How can we recognize it? How can we learn to resist it?

Amazingly, philosophers have not been much help. Despite the claim of classical rationalists that evil is “ignorance”, evil-doers can be extremely intelligent, showing an understanding of ourselves that surpasses our own self-understanding.

Meanwhile, contemporary philosophers, in the English-speaking world and on the Continent, portray good and evil as social constructs, which leaves us puzzled and powerless when we have to face the real thing.

Thinkers like Hannah Arendt have construed evil as blind conformity to institutional roles – hence “banal” – but evil-doers have shown exceptional creativity in bending and reshaping institutions to conform to their will. Theologians have assigned evil the role of adversary to the divine script, but professing religionists are fully capable of evil, while atheists have been known to mount effective resistance.

More than broad-brush conceptual distinctions are needed. A Good look at Evil maps the actual terrain – of lived ideas and situations – showing how to recognize evil for what it is: The perennial and present threat to a good life.

To get your copy, click here!

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Forgiveness Revisited

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Forgiveness Revisited

Lately I’ve come to a new attitude toward forgiveness and, for me, it’s a really great change.  You might say, it’s a move closer to the Christian view, but that would be misleading.  The change was prompted by reading Martin Buber’s hasidic tales that give precise and detailed views of zaddikim (saints) in that tradition as they move through the world.

What had my previous attitude been?  Here’s an illustrative incident that happened a few years ago.  I wrote about it here right after it occurred.

It was at a restaurant where I was having lunch and writing in my journal.  The place was almost empty save for another lady having her lunch in animated conversation with the owner.  Presently, the words “Jews,” “Jewish,” “Israel” and “Jewish lobby” pierced my writerly bubble and they were not said in any flattering style.

Now I suppose I could be taken for Italian but the chances of that mistake were diminishing once I began raising my head as if struck by lightning every time the J word ricoched round the restaurant.

I don’t care for scenes in restaurants, so I waited till her conversation partner had gone back to the kitchen before walking up to her table and handing her a note.  It said that her exercise in classic anti-semitism (I think I wrote “classic” rather than “genteel” – a fine point) had gone far toward spoiling my lunch.

She spoke up across the empty tables then, indignantly denying that she’d said anything anti-semitic.

         “I think,” she began, when I interrupted her as follows:

I KNOW what you think.

I don’t want to hear it.

Your freedom to talk this way in a restaurant

is MENACING to me!

I’d gone back to writing in my journal when, to my surprise, I noticed her standing over my table, asking me (almost tearfully) to forgive her.  She didn’t know what had come over her.  She was, she said, especially sorry that she’d “spoiled [my] lunch.”

I was not much tempted to forgive her.  She had not squarely faced the wrong, which was not just a breach of restaurant protocol.  Her words gave me no assurance that she’d renounced her views and wouldn’t be voicing them in future, when she deemed it safer to do that.

The rabbinic view, as I understood it, is that forgiveness of wrongs done to persons is obligatory if three conditions are met: first, the transgressor shows that she has understood the wrong she did; second, she is sorry for that very wrong; third, she thereby provides the basis for trust that, when tempted in the future, she won’t repeat the injury.  In this tradition, the interaction called “forgiveness” is a humanly grounded one.  It doesn’t flutter aloft on angel’s wings.

At the same time, I was well aware that the lady in the restaurant was going by a different playbook.  I sensed her puzzlement at my refusal to repeat the magic “I forgive you” mantra.  Maybe I was giving her new grounds for theological anti-semitism!  Jesus, after all, had said to forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22).  So why did I hold back from saying the three words that would tidy up the situation for this normally polite lady?

There’s a story about forgiveness that some of my Christian friends have shared with me.  After World War II, a certain Dutch woman who had saved Jews from the Holocaust encountered a fellow who had informed on his Jewish neighbors in Amsterdam, causing their discovery by the Nazis, deportation and death in concentration camps.  Unless memory fails me, he was the very neighbor who had informed on the family of Anne Frank.  Anyway, whatever his exact misdeeds, the good lady who had saved so many Jews told this remorseful collaborator that he was now “forgiven.”

This story, when I first heard it, had not warmed my heart.  It still doesn’t.  Instead, the expression used by Dietrich Bonhoffeur, the Lutheran martyr to Nazism, comes to mind:

“Cheap grace.”

Let Anne Frank forgive him before you do.

I tell these stories to sketch for you the view I held prior to the recent personal change that I’ll try to describe now.  It’s prompted by the hasidic saints I’ve been reading about.  They showed enormous life experience, an unfettered love of God and a refusal of self-righteousness that

 I found stunning to behold.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Here’s one of them on the topic of evil.  The zaddik reported studying the military tactics of King Frederick of Prussia!  The king did not attack frontally but would fall back, drawing his enemy forward and then launching a surprise attack from the rear.

“What is needed is not to strike straight at Evil

but to withdraw to the sources of divine power,

and from there to circle around Evil,

bend it, and transform it into its opposite.”

The other night I had a dream.  A woman appeared who in real life had done me a long series of grave injuries, among other things managing to end friendships dear to me and vital to my personal and professional life.  In the dream, she was young and pretty again and came over to kiss my cheek.  In view of our history, I shrank away.  In response she stepped back to express a brief, straightforward apology for all the harms she had done to me.  The dream included a back scene signifying that, although the lost years we might have shared could no longer be restored, the future would not be weighted down by what had been lost.

         “What do you think it means?” I asked Jerry over brunch the next morning.

         “It was a visit from her soul.”

It was?  So, at least on the level of her soul, she acknowledged the many harms and was now free to go?  On the one hand, her defamatory fictions would remain where she’d put them because it was much too late to fix all that now.  On the other hand, I could feel lighter.  And I did!  As if I no longer had to carry her moral burdens against some distant day when she could lift them off my shoulders.

I could release her.  I could let her go.  She’d be all right now!

So I think I see what Jesus may have been getting at.  He wasn’t distributing a get-out-of-jail-free card or promising “cheap grace,” as I’d thought.  It was more like hygiene for the soul.

I don’t see forgiveness as a cure-all.  One of the hasidic masters said he could only forgive a person if he had something in common with him.  If he had nothing in common, he would stay as far away as possible – lest the perpetrator drag him down.

My own recent experience confirms the hasidic warning.  Delighted with the newly-discovered power of forgiveness to lighten my own life’s weight – I began eagerly to review the many kinds of release it might bring to different recollected situations.  Till I came to one individual whose diablerie had proved too much for me in the past.  Whew!  It was still way too much!  Mentally I careened away – as if escaping a powerful vortex.

Our modern sophisticates have failed utterly to describe a key feature in the geography of experience: 

The moral landscape is

ripe with opportunities

and

pitted with dangers.

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Proceedings and Addresses

“The School of Athens”
Raphael, 1509-11

Proceedings and Addresses

Proceedings is the shared forum, like the Athenian agora, where American philosophers who have managed to command the attention of their colleagues publish their invited addresses.

Since 2000, I’ve stepped down from active faculty status (though not from publishing or giving occasional papers).  So I went through some of these addresses today to see where the latest stuff is headed.  The question is always, what’s living and what has been deemed dead?

Also, of course, who’s dead?   Anyone I know?  Yes, one woman philosopher who – to a degree I hadn’t realized – subordinated a potentially high-level career in the field to a husband whose eminence went pretty much uncontested.  When, for reasons that were never explained to me, her highest-power husband decided to “cut” me (which doesn’t work unless the person targeted sees it like a deer-in-the-headlights and doesn’t expect it), she went to the strenuously wifely lengths of attempting to cut me too.  (It was strenuous because I had to walk far out of her and my way to avoid the necessary eye contact.)  When I saw her again a few years later, she was widowed.  By then cutting was inexpedient and she greeted me.  What the heck.  No hard feelings.

It brought to mind the adage that a family friend told me she got from her mother:

Don’t be mean to anyone.

You never know when you’ll need them.

At a New York diner I used to frequent, a waiter once leaned across the counter and confided to me that he really should have become a football player.

         “The football field was the only place where I felt safe.  I never found myself.”

Just so.  Although philosophy’s a rather cut-throat business, it’s the only field where I ever felt safe.  What can be safer than companionship in the search for truth?  And what can be more natural?

Them’s high-flown sentiments, of course, and they do not necessarily mirror life on the ground, where the arguments rage and reputations are always at risk.  You don’t want to give a paper to philosophers unless you’ve anticipated every way they can cut you down.  Before giving a paper, I’d sometimes stay up till the dawn’s early light trying to foresee the attacks.

So I thought I’d give over a Sunday afternoon to reading some of the philosophic arguments on display in Proceedings.

Julia Driver, whom I’d known at Brooklyn College, delivered the Presidential Address of the Central Division meeting in Chicago in February of 2020.  Her topic was an interesting one: should one consult moral criteria that are universal and impartial before deciding whether to rescue a spouse before a stranger?  Or is it a betrayal of the intimate bond even to deliberate on that question?  (One may stipulate that time is not of the essence.)  In considering hard cases and borderline cases, Driver’s reasoning was as careful and thorough as one could wish.

Finally, she concludes that the personal claims do take priority, but a sense of decency should at least prompt regret that one couldn’t attend to other claimants in equal measure.

Another woman philosopher, Penelope Maddy, gave the Presidential Address for the Pacific Division in April of 2020.  Her quest was to discover how and when epistemology (theory of knowledge) took shape as a separate branch of philosophy.  She traced it to the 17th century, when the scientific method came into its own as a way of discovering the contours of nature and our place in it.  Since the natural sciences probed everything insofar as it was measurable, what about features of experience that can’t be captured by measurement?  Such as the color blue.  Is the sky blue?  Are bluejeans blue?  Or are these “blues” merely subjective, found only in our consciousness – not in the world out there?

Her paper was serious and canvassed a number of ways these concerns have been handled, from the 17th century to the present.  However, to my mind it left untouched the more fundamental question: how does the world of human experience, purpose and action fit into any schema whose dimensions are confined to the measurable?  And, if the human realm doesn’t fit into the measurable realm, how should we understand ourselves in the midst of the measurables?  Her formulation satisfied her but didn’t seem to reckon with this larger question behind the question.

And so on.  I won’t go through them all.  You didn’t come here for that.  So what’s my impressionistic sense of American philosophy as a field or profession today?

To address one’s deeper concerns reasonably, with an argument process that can take into account relevant earlier layers of thought on these topics, seems to me a project of the highest kind.

Some would seek to discredit reasoning itself on the grounds of its purported misuse in this or that instance.  That seems to me corrupt and question-begging.  If you can’t give a reason for discrediting reason itself, why should I believe you?  If you can give a reason, then you contradict yourself. 

Is it not a project of human trust and a sign of trustworthiness to be willing to subject our opinions and their implications to a shared reasoning process?

So, here ‘s the good news:

The longest conversation

still goes on.

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The Baal Shem Tov

“Isaiah” (The Prophets)
Marc Chagall, 1956

The Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) is the preeminent Hassidic master, the 18th-century founder (1700-1760) and prototype of any follower who practices in that tradition.  His very presence was said to be a teaching – though not for the unreceptive, of course.

I’ve been reading about him in a collection put together by Martin Buber.  The Hassidim were (and still are) a sect within Judaism that emphasizes personal devotion and piety over scholarly and intellectual attainments.  (I have an 18th-century ancestor, renowned for his scholarly eminence, who drove the Hassidim out of Vilna, but that’s just an aside.)

Until recently, I’d been more interested in Christian saints than in Jewish holy persons.  The Christian ones seemed to soar toward certain peaks of experience – such as powers to endure abuse without losing poise, or healing powers, or fearlessness – that very much attracted me.  Of course, they got a better press, at least in retrospect, than the Jewish ones did, and that may have played a part in their appeal.  The Jewish ones seemed to get, and to give, mixed reviews.  They didn’t strive for perfection and that disappointed me.

It’s only lately that I’ve begun to be fascinated by the Jewish spirit itself.  What intrigues me is their balancing capacity – in the midst of life’s pounding waves.  Jews are in a virtually intolerable situation, which I’ll describe for you in a moment.  But it is this balance, maintained by those who have the art of being Jews — who are good at it — that fascinates me.

Jews have the strange fate of being hated, era after era, north and south, east and west, left and right.  They draw to themselves an oddly shaped hatred, inmixed with envy.  Jews are the target of what one might call

an insincere envy.

Why insincere?  Well, if those who struggle with this feeling think it’s such a privilege to be a Jew, why don’t they convert?  Hey, you too can be a Jew!  Come and get it!  Convert your envy into teeming self-satisfaction!  Get on the inside lookin’ out!

As soon as you extend the Big Opportunity, you’ll discover that, oh well, thanks but no thanks.  Lemme think about it.  I’ll be back.  Maybe next year, Jews will be more popular.  I’ll do it then, for sure!

About envy, I’m an expert.  Listen, I’ve got a long list of skills I don’t possess, and I envy every single person who possesses those skills.

On the cosmetic side, I can itemize each improvement from which I could benefit, and I envy all the women already endowed with the blessings of beauty in all its forms.

I also wish I didn’t carry Jewish fears, especially the realistic ones, and I envy all and sundry who have never suffered from those fears.

In reporting all those kinds of envy, I’m quite sincere.  The only reason I might refuse these benefits, if magically they were offered to me, is that I feel one thing more sincerely: curiosity about the story of my own life.  For a long time, I’ve been at work on the project of how-it-is-to-be-me.   Gifts magically bestowed might distract me from that task, to which I’m already deeply committed.  So my envy is entirely real.  It just gets trumped by a stronger passion.

Contrariwise, envy of Jews is demonstrably unreal and inauthentic.  People shouldn’t play around with it.  If they could stash it somewhere, their hatred would also deflate, I suspect, the way air goes out of a punctured balloon.  While thus distracted by pseudo-feelings, they’ve been cheating themselves out of their own intrinsically absorbing life stories.

What now fascinates me about the giants in Jewish spiritual history, of whom the Baal Shem Tov is certainly one?  It’s precisely their ability to live in the absence of peak experiences or happy endings.  They carry on without theatricality.  They really are who they say they are.

Here’s an anecdote about the Baal Shem Tov from Buber’s collection.  His disciples submitted a question to him: How do you recognize a zaddik (the Jewish equivalent of a saint)?

Here’s what he answered: If he gives you advice about how to overcome your bad inclinations, forget it.  Just leave.

For this is the service of men in the world

to the very hour of their death:

to struggle time after time with the extraneous,

and time after time to uplift and

fit it into the nature of the Divine Name.

Now what does that mean?  And doesn’t it sound mysterious?  As if you have to meditate for millenia on a mountain top before you can say something that sounds so remote and inspired.  But it’s not really a mystery at all.  In fact, it’s rather simple. 

What’s “the extraneous”?

The extraneous is the stuff, whatever it is, that we’d rather not talk about.  Many reformers try to defeat stuff in the world that they haven’t faced in themselves.  Unsurprisingly, all their busy-work-in-the-world can have the effect of reinforcing the very thing they were trying to overcome.

That’s why it’s more of an honor to be liked by a horse or a dog than to be cheered by adoring multitudes.  The animal can see what’s inside.  The crowd can’t.

If we can grant and give houseroom to the-stuff-we’d-rather-not-talk-about  then we are in a position of sincerity.  From that position –

God looks nearer than

 previously we had imagined

and we feel more able to ask

what God wants of us.

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Back by Popular Demand: It’s Hegel!

Back by Popular Demand:  It’s Hegel!

Hegel is one of the philosophers from whom I’ve learned a lot.  Though he was born and died in nineteenth-century Germany, he’s still timely.

In the Anglo-American sphere, the question I get is, “What’s a nice girl like you doing with him?”

As for the rest of the world, insofar as it feels accountable to post-modernism, I sense a belief that whatever is of value in Hegel was captured by Marx, and rest can be deposited in the dustbin of history.

Yet Hegel and Marx have very little to do with one another.  Marx is a materialist.  He holds that the moving forces of history can be comprehended in terms of mindless entities like the means of production (or, in post-modernist versions, the power to dominate and oppress).  Anyway, Marxian history is moved by powers beneath the conscious level.

Hegel does think the material side of history is real.  So he’s not what they call a metaphysical idealist.  But the decisive element is not merely material.  He thinks people live and die by ideas – by what they believe.

I think so too.

That doesn’t mean people’s beliefs can be understood as merely wrong or right.  It doesn’t mean you could perfect the world by putting correct beliefs into people’s heads.  People identify with their beliefs.  There is a lived connection between who I am and what I think.

Needless to say, ideas aren’t the only things to be discerned in history.  A lot of things go on: earthquakes, rock slides, plagues, droughts, ice ages and contests between groups for sheer brute domination.  However, in the midst of the big playing field, you will also find beliefs.

Take a play by Corneille or Shakespeare, or a novel by Jane Austen.  What do the characters believe?  That’s an important key to understanding what they do.  So it is, Hegel held, in real life too.

Given the choice, most of us would prefer to hold true beliefs rather than false ones.  So, why don’t we just … do that?  Well, as you won’t be surprised to learn, it’s not so easy.  Homo sapiens sapiens didn’t start out ignorant and then, step by step, acquire one true belief after another, layer on layer.  We put our beliefs, such as they are, inside big pictures of reality, our world views.

About our big pictures, we don’t just make mistakes.  We tend to make certain kinds of mistakes.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind notes some of these.  For instance, one of the errors he tries to expose is the error of thinking one can get at the truth directly, without setting it in the context of other things we know.  Thus the empiricists make this error when they believe “truth” to be just what we directly perceive, sense data for example, denuded of cultural interpretations.

The political mistake that accompanied the French revolution was of the same kind.  A passionate desire to get rid of inherited privileges drove the mistake that one could get to freedom directly, without having to go through channels of any kind.  The layered institutions of society were associated with the privileges inherited by office-holders.  So the aim of the revolution became to clear all that away.  Power would then be swept — clean and instantaneous — into the hands of the people. 

(Analogously in our country, we have all kinds of structures that channel our freedom: at the level of towns, counties, states, the federal level, administrative regulations, as well as voluntary associations that form structured webs within civil society.  Although hereditary castes are not legal entities in our system, all these structures give lots of scope for human unfairness, voluntary and involuntary.  And scope for fairness as well.)

For the French revolutionaries, the aim was to let nothing stand between the whole people acting as one and its unfettered will.  The result, possibly unforeseen at the outset, was that virtually any expression of will or desire – coming from an individual — could be deemed deviant from the General Will.  The deviant person could then be denounced as an enemy of the people.  And the guillotine followed, “logically.”

The ensuing orgy of suspicion and denunciation was brought to a close when its chief perpetrators found themselves denounced in their turn, just as they had denounced others.

The lesson Hegel draws from this (oft-since-repeated) experience called the Reign of Terror is that there is no getting away from mediating institutions in human governance.  The notion of unqualified freedom seems a harmless and appealing ideal.  In practice, however … .

Of course, things are much better now.  We don’t chop heads.  The knitting women (les tricoteuses) don’t sit in front of the guillotine counting stitches as heads drop.  That’s not done.

Here’s an example of what we do now.  I have a collegial friend, a nice guy and a clear thinker, whom I’ve known for many years.  He has only one trait that might be called “odd.”  He won’t lie.  I’ve never seen him tell even a diplomatic fib.  It’s not that he tries to be embarrassing or tactless.  It’s only that, if asked point blank whether x is true or false, he’ll answer that it’s true, if he thinks it is, or false if that’s what he thinks.

Now it happened that my friend had a colleague who was also a philosopher and had gotten himself into a damn-fool scrape with a woman.  Although he was married at the time, and the woman was his graduate student, he decided to embark on a peculiar sort of shared fantasy with this woman.  So far as I know, he never laid so much as a glove on her. At least, that was his version of the events.   (My own view is that, fantasy schmantasy, you don’t fool around with students, though it does happen — sometimes initiated by the professor and sometimes by the student.  Come to think of it, I’ve had more students than professors come on to me.  In case you were worried, I said no.)

So what happened to the errant professor?  What happened was everything that can befall someone professionally and socially, short of the guillotine.

Now what happened to my friend?  He was asked point blank: Is Professor X a good philosopher?  Given that my friend, along with many other colleagues, did think that Prof X was a good philosopher, how did he reply?  Well, you already know.

My friend said yes.

Professor X is a good philosopher.

After which he too was ostracized, saw his graduate courses taken away, etc. etc. etc.  You know the drill.  Now for the big question:

What would Hegel say?

Like their eighteenth-century French forerunners, the tricoteuses of today also believe that they serve the interests of the oppressed, which is to say, le peuple, the downtrodden.  For them, whether Prof X is or isn’t a good philosopher is beside the point.  Likewise, who seduced whom (the boy or the girl) is beside the point.  The only question is, who has le pouvoir — the power?  The fact that Prof X has been deprived of quite a good hefty chunk of power — professional and social standing, his position and the credit for a lifetime’s achievement – is not the point.  To allow him even a reasoned assessment of his achievements is to make oneself an enemy of the people.  To react that way is not felt as joining a mob of merciless bullies.  It’s felt as being carried aloft by a Rushing Wind of Freedom Unalloyed.  One has joined the Gnostic Elect, the Companions of The Pure.

Hey guys, how can I say this?  There’s no such thing as freedom unalloyed.  When we come, as we all do, to die, we won’t regret our failure to join a bullying mob.  What we might regret is any mercy we might have shown, or understanding we might have allowed ourselves to feel, but failed to show or to feel. 

If we have been bullies, and the wind turns, and they turn on us, for little or for much, we will regret that we stand on no high ground when they come.

All that protects any of us finally

is our hold —

and it’s always a qualified hold —

on truth.

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Getting Airier

“Shrike on Dead Tree”
Niten, (Edo period, 17th century)

Getting Airier

A funny thing happened while I was riding California, the horse that’s smarter than I am.  I’d been telling my trainer the various things I’d managed to get done while the pandemic had placed us all under house arrest.  Prominent on the list was my complete review of the voluminous papers of my late father.  

         “It’s been a karmic burden of many years,“ I said to Serena.  No sooner had I uttered those words, when California stood stock still and shook so hard that my hat would’ve fallen off had it not been for the buckle on the chin strap.  Her shaking went from top to bottom, the way a dog shakes when it comes in from the rain.

That’s odd, I thought.  I wonder what she has in mind.  You may think it’s pretty obvious, but this is one smart horse.  She doesn’t conform to cultural fads. 

One of our present-day fads is to flatten parental standing.  Our  culture tends to champion the young rebel who defies authority and tramples on traditional values.  I’ve rarely heard modern persons speak approvingly of filial piety. 

For instance, when I was giving a paper in England, my philosopher host whispered, shaking his head apologetically, “My mother is here!” 

         “I like mothers,” I said promptly, getting the sense that this might be atypical for philosophers.

Hebrew Scripture groups the commandment to honor your parents among the first five, concerning our relation to the divine.  (The other five are about human relations.)

Likewise, the epics of classical Greece and Rome make filial piety a foundational virtue, for the hero and the political order.

Hence my puzzlement.  Since I don’t share the flattened views of parent/child relations, why would California want me to shake off the filial burden so vigorously?  Surely she can’t mean that I ought to have left undone all the tasks that duty called for: care of the inherited house in Maine, publication – with biographical and philosophical introductions – of my father’s posthumous book, and now at last the proper disposition of his papers?  Surely a right-thinking horse wouldn’t regret those tasks getting done?

My array of questions got a simple answer the next morning.  Sitting for meditation, I noticed an inner shift.  It was dramatic.  Picture influence as having a definite color and rhythm.  Picture this as a sort of cloud.  It’s inside you but you never noticed it before now.  Suddenly it’s gone.  That’s why you notice it for the first time.  Golly!  A piece of me had been owned by my parents.  Now it was returned.  I had graduated – from Filial Piety School!

Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, wrote of womanly virtues in her book, many of which she may have embodied.  She had been a devoted daughter and died a day or two after the death of her father.  My guess is that she never graduated from the FP School.

Now it occurred to me to look through my own papers, to see how far they might be pared down.  My files hold about six years of correspondence with my late, first husband.  Since he was teaching philosophy in Sydney, Australia, and I at Brooklyn College in New York City, ours had been a largely epistolary marriage.  This was before the age of email, so we would number our dated letters and answer referring to paragraphs (e.g. “letter 26, 3rd para. down”) on specified pages.  In Sydney, they said it held the record for epistolary academic marriages. 

I know, I know.  It’s hilarious.  In Sydney it broke them up, at the Staff Club luncheons.

Since our divorce, I’d never gone through the letters but kept the thought that, some day, I would.  But I had a different outlook now.  It’s a heavy collection, especially if you are loading the whole thing into the largest plastic bags you can find.   I did glance at two letters, one from our courtship days and another when things between us were already fraying.  Each sentence I read was articulated in segmented parts aiming explicitly at an end-in-view.

The sentences reminded me of Zeno’s paradox.  Swift Achilles, racing a tortoise, will never overtake him.  Why not?  Because first he must traverse the distance between him and the tortoise.  And before that, he must traverse half the distance.  And before that, half of the half.  And so on.  So it was with this collection of letters between two philosophers working on their marriage.  First they had to cross half the distance between them.  Then half of the half.  It never quite added up to a marriage.

I threw them out.  What happened next was astonishing.  The most pleasing and favorable memories of times with John came floating into my mind.  You may think, so what?, but the phenomenon was unprecedented. Ordinarily, either I never think of him or else some oppressive and discouraging moment comes to mind.  Now, without trying, all that weight of tired memory had lifted!  I was recalling him fondly and our sunlit days in Sydney.

I have no idea why these disburdenings happened to me now and probably could not have happened sooner.  I do believe in living a thing out, not forcing willed closures before the time is ripe.  Often we don’t have a choice.  We have a timetable imposed on us; being on time becomes our  responsibility. 

However, it may be the case too that, in our lives, there are invisible seasons governing our relationships and endeavors.  If this is true, we might want to develop the sense of recognition alluded to in Proverbs 3:1:

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under heaven.

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Who Can You Believe?

Who Can You Believe?

Since I don’t ask questions like the one above just to answer them with an urbane shoulder shrug, I’ll be glad to tell you.  About a week ago, I received a call from someone I really trust.

She’s a horse.

It was California, whom I used to ride back before the pandemic.  She’d been sending intuitive reminders of me simultaneously to Serena, my trainer, and to Mary who owns a stableful of highly evolved Arabians.  It was Mary who telephoned.  It would be hard to describe the horse place she runs, since I know of nothing like it on this planet.

First, they assume that horses are at least as smart as we are or, in some cases, smarter.  Mary’s stable is like the last land discovered in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Gulliver’s voyage takes him to a land where the people are too little, then to a country where they are grotesquely oversized, till he finally lands at a place where the people, called Houyhnhnms, are normal and know how to behave.  That’s because they are horses.

In a better world, people would not be allowed to own horses if they can’t listen, or are neurotic, or need to prove how tough they are.  One would have to pass a multi-layered competency test, much more challenging than our test for a driver’s license.

Let me try to describe the riding lesson at Mary’s stable.  Somehow, the trainer gets the horse to tell her what the rider needs to learn today.  I don’t know how the horse knows that or how she tells the trainer.  Does she speak English?  There must be something communicated behind the words since the rider normally hasn’t a clue and can’t help.

Once mounted, if the rider starts saying something false, a horse like California will stop and simply stand there.  Between people, a lie might have tremendous persuasive power.  But not with a horse.

What did Mary say to me when she called?

         “California’s been worried about you!”

         “How amazing that you called!  I’ve just been having a crisis of meaning!”  The particulars I had in mind are a bit complicated and I didn’t try to spell them out then and there.  Crises of that kind are familiar to philosophers.  In case you’re curious, I’ll explain it here.

John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century philosopher, had a crisis of meaning in his youth.  He’d inherited his philosophic- and life-purposes from his father’s mentor Jeremy Bentham, the Utilitarian.  (I’ve seen Bentham, where he sat embalmed in London’s University College.  He looked rather small in his period costume.)  In life, Bentham’s stated aim had been to bring about “the greatest happiness for the greatest number, each man [person] to count for one.”  

One day, it occurred to Mill to ask himself, Suppose the Utilitarian goal were actually and fully achieved?  After that, what purpose would my life have?  Picturing such a fulfillment, Mill felt deflated and went into a depression.  He was able to cure himself only by modifying Bentham’s ideal, which had put all pleasures, whether crude or refined, on one level.  In Mill’s revision, the refined pleasures, like that of poetry, gained higher rank.

My own crisis of meaning had come about in similar fashion.  I happened to ask myself, Suppose my goal — of persuading people to live dialectically self-corrective, truthful life stories (and, not incidentally, drop their life-distorting projections about Jews) — were finally and universally realized? Would I too, like Mill, feel deflated and purposeless?

Contemplating that imagined happy ending for a long moment, I looked it up and down and sidewise.  At length I saw that I would NOT feel at all deflated or purposeless.  I would feel just fine!  Although I do have a purpose, I don’t have it in bad faith – just to be distracted from that abyss of absurdity that some philosophers claim to perceive whenever they look down.  Nope.  If my overarching aim in life were attained, I’d be delighted.

So the crisis of meaning passed while I was at home, but I thought I should still go see California.  It’s the dead of winter, but Mary’s new ring is heated and the new mounting block higher for my out-of-practice legs. My winter riding britches, that I haven’t pulled on in years, are warm enough.  Everyone but the horses wears masks, and one needn’t get too close to anybody.

At the stable, I was also greeted by a shaggy dog of uncertain breed named Legend.  To my immense gratification, he seemed to take to me and allowed me to stroke his wooly grey face all over.

California was undemonstrative but wholly in tune with me, eliciting reports from me to Serena on my inward and outward states as we circled back and forth in unpredictable patterns.

What is it about our four-footed friends that we so need and value?  They know who we are.  They can’t be fooled.  It’s like a mother nursing a child.  In such relations, there are no circumlocutions, no pretending.  So far as I can tell,

that’s precious and rare.

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New Year Retrospective

“The Music Lesson”
Johannes Vermeer, 1662-65

New Year Retrospective

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.  If they had any force for me, I might.  First, you gotta believe in those things.

But I do find living force in going back over the path recently trodden, to see how it looks from here, now.  And there’s no harm in letting the passing of a calendar year mark off the time set aside for review.

On January 1st, I did this in my journal.  So I’ll lift key scenes to share with you.

If I ask myself, What has changed for me in 2020?, personal changes are somewhat angled off from what’s been plowing through our planet: the pandemic and its costs.

In my part of this time opened up by the shutdown of everything else, I’ve finally gone all the way through the papers of my father, Henry M. Rosenthal. 

Here’s what the theologian Thomas Altizer wrote about my father.  He “was the center of a brilliant group of young New York intellectuals, including Meyer Schapiro and Lionel Trilling, and while he was the only believing and practicing Jew within this group, in their early days he commanded their moral center of gravity.” 

Clifton Fadiman, a well-known graduate of Columbia’s stellar class of 1925 said, “I thought Henry was a kind of genius,” in terms of “intensity, adherence to a code of feeling which was higher than that which the rest of us adhered to, and a constant satiric sense. … He seemed to be able, at that very early age, to detect in anyone dishonesty or disloyalty to truth … .”

My original purpose in reviewing his papers, had been to serve up his talent and uniqueness within the confines of a daughter’s intellectual memoir.  After a number of attempts, I “failed.”  He escaped any grasp of which I was capable.  Finally, I concluded that such a project had never been among my possibilities.

Taking the steps that followed from this realization, I have been readying the materials for their eventual archiving.  I have also been posting the shorter pieces, philosophic or theologic, on academia.edu here.

Filial piety is not a popular – not even a respected! – emotion today.  However, it should be.  It has power.

With regard to Confessions of a Young Philosopher — my memoir of a youth spent dialectically testing out certain erroneous ideas – I’d long held the view that

real stories and good pictures

go together. 

This past year, I found a wonderful illustrator and her pictures are being roughed into reality as we speak.

What about A Good Look at Evil?  The first edition, published by Temple University Press, was nominated for a Pulitzer.  Back when I wrote it, nobody talked about “narratives.”  My colleagues at the Brooklyn College Philosophy Department scoffed at me: I was importing novelistic themes into philosophy and that was mixing apples and oranges.  Now everybody talks about narrative but they mean fictional tales that everybody spins because the underlying truth is unconscious and no woman or man can get at it unassisted. 

In contrast, here’s what I mean by narrative:

the consciously true story of one’s life.

By “evil,” I mean the conscious effort by ill-wishers to spoil one’s true story.  (And of course, one can be one’s own story-spoiler.)  Anyway, although the present reissued edition contains two new chapters, the original chapters still seem to me timely, breaking new ground.

In 2020, a young relative of the book’s original editor did an extraordinary job of recording it as an audiobook.  It has all the tensions, the pushes and pulls of a stage play.  If, as I believe, good stories should be illustrated, it now seems obvious that

philosophy should be dramatized.

That’s how philosophy began, with Plato writing immortal dialogues between Socrates and his fellow Athenians.

Come to think of it, there was another avenue that Confessions of a Young Philosopher traversed while still in manuscript.  It’s quoted liberally in a philosophical book, published in 2020 by Indiana University Press, titled Blaming the Jews: Politics and Delusion, by Bernard Harrison, a well-regarded British philosopher.

This means that things I say about Jews in a personal memoir have found their way into a philosophic book on the subject of anti-semitism.  But why do I talk about Jews at all?  Doesn’t everybody suffer?  What am I trying to do?  Get blood out of a stone?

Everybody suffers and that’s not news.  What is news is that the most unlikely people often have a complaint I call

Jews-on-the-brain.

Often they exhibit this complaint negatively, with a violently dismissive shrug.  Or by iterating a purportedly universal list of the world’s religions, with only one missing: the Mastadon in the Room.

What’s my point?  What am I getting at?  My aim, boys and girls, is to have fun!  To have many playmates with whom to run and play, climb trees and laugh a lot. 

If a morbid, historically deep-seated and deeply distorting relation to Jews (and/or to being oneself Jewish) undermines the good times and the fun, well boys and girls, I feel I can help.  If I can help, I will.

What else was new in my year 2020?  Some measure of dynamic rebalancing was going on.  Physically, my neuropathy treatments with Mark Bussell at the Loma Linda clinic in California have started to show symptomatic progress. 

Alongside that, do I find any signs of rebalancing inwardly?  There is one sign, but I hesitate to talk about it.  In New York, where I come from, it would be considered rude even to mention it.  So, with reluctance, I have to admit that I’m feeling, uh …

more happiness.

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