Post-Traumatic Stress

Post-Traumatic Stress

There’s a book I’m reading now titled In An Unspoken Voice by Peter A. Levine, a man who’s done research on the causes of trauma when it lasts well beyond the end of the stressful incident and currently gets the name of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He thinks many of us have some form of it and that it’s being approached in the wrong way.  Unlike most parlor Darwinians, he’s studied the behavior of actual animals to learn how they cope with stress.

Animals, as we who watch the National Geographic channel know, live in incessant stress.  If you’re prey, you’ve got to keep on high alert, for animals eager to kill and eat you!  Can you imagine?  The very idea would do me in.

But for the predator, things are not much better.  If you don’t make your kill, your adorable cubs will go hungry.  If you do, rivals could steal your dinner before you can drag it back to the lair.  Males of your species, who haven’t sired your cubs personally, will try to kill them so that they can mate with you and get cubs of their own.

It never stops.  And yet, as our researcher notes, among animals, PTSD is rare.  When we find it, usually it’s been induced by some ethologist doing research.

So what’s their secret, these animals who live in the easy flow of their muscles, nerves and functional responses to their world?

Or rather, what’s our secret, who so easily fall victim to stressful situations that live in our memories long after the original encounters are over?  What are we doing that we could do differently?  Or is our stress and anxiety simply a side-effect of our humanity, and nothing to get further stressed about?

The author thinks we could do better and he gives this explanation of trauma and how to handle it.  Trauma happens when we find ourselves in a situation where it would be most natural for us to flee or else to fight.  But for some reason we’re prevented from doing the one or the other.  Either physically prevented or socially inhibited.

We’re trapped.  So we go into a third escape mode.  We freeze.  For a mouse to freeze might persuade the cat to leave it alone.  She thinks it’s dead.  She can do something else and come back to eat it later.  While her back is turned, mousie can run.

In our human case, often we can’t break out and run.  We’re trapped, as a child is when held down and anaesthetized.  If the no-exit scene is imposed violently, or prolonged in some other way, the person targeted will have difficulty regaining the dynamic equilibrium of effective daily life.  You don’t get your story back.  They’ve taken it over.

I’d bet money that every single reader of this column can think of instances where this has happened to her or to him.

What’s the remedy?  Well, in the clinical cases Peter Levine describes, it must be administered carefully and gradually.  But it goes like this.

You must revisit (that is, vividly recall) the trauma scene and take the action, physical or other, that you were prevented from taking.

When I was a child, the Holocaust was still fresh.  My parents were involved in rescue work.  Survivors were often in our home.  It affected me in ways I can scarcely reckon.  I scarred up the faces of my dolls with a letter opener, “playing Hitler.”  Nobody seemed to think that was unusual.  Rescue work was playing cat and mouse with Hitler.

Of course, this is not the only situation one can think of where the targeted person can’t escape and no feasible action can remedy the wrong or remove the threat.  But this one extends so deep into the past of the culture, and returns under so many new names and guises, that it qualifies as an immobilizing trap.  This predator stalks the planet.   It evokes in me an underlying inclination to freeze.

I can’t kill it and I can’t cure it, though I’d dearly love to do one or the other.  What can I do, then?  What do I do?  If a case of injustice is in front of me – and has my name on it – I will fight it.

 It’s never enough but

 it’s all I can do.

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Overheard at the Café

“The Hangover”
1888, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Overheard at the Café

 Among the rewards of my composing this column at the café where I’m what the French call an habituée, is that I get to overhear scenes from other people’s real lives.  The café meets my need to be alone and in focus when I write, without leaving me isolated.  I get to look up from my writing notebook, from time to time, and consult other books in the library of life.

There is a stern rabbinic dictum against gossip, but none that I know of against overhearing what you can’t help overhearing.

Here’s what I overheard just a few days ago.

A couple was seated together in a shadowy corner of the cafe, wrapped in a conversation that appeared intense and consequential for them both.  From what she told him, the woman believed the man to outrank her socially.  Despite her modest social position, apparently she was sufficiently important for him to recruit her as the woman on whom he could pour out all his secret complaints about … his marriage.

I could not make out what was so wrong with his wife.  There seemed to be money involved, but it was hard to figure out who or what was being fleeced.  At any rate, the wife was so difficult that he would have left her a few years ago – most definitely he would have left her – had he not come down with a disabling medical affliction.  All the same, his nameless feeling for the younger woman seated beside him was something he could scarcely describe.  It was really something!

His approach was canny.  He did not say he was in love with her.  He struggled to say, the words bursting out unbidden, that he was greatly drawn toward her – held in her orbit by a powerful magnetism to which he could affix no accurate name.

The younger woman listened, holding nothing back in the way of warmth, compassion and concern, punctuated by allusions to her own more modest position and attainments, compared to his.

Presently the young woman got up to go to the restroom.  Meanwhile, I was assiduously continuing to take notes on several articles that I needed to read and I did not look up.

“You look like you’re working on the Red Sea Scrolls,” the man called out to me jovially, his voice projecting across several tables.

“You mean the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I said with a skeptical glance, shaking my head and returning to my articles.

My God, I thought.  She’s out of sight for a New York minute and he’s already working on Plan B!

Now I’m fully capable of taking a woman aside — even if she’s a perfect stranger to me — and telling her that one hour spent alone in her own solitary company would be better than a lifetime with this crumb!  However, for whatever reason, I felt that in this instance I should stay out of it.

Since then, I’ve thought about how this woman really saw her situation.  I suspect she saw it better than she let on.  What was really going on that night in the café?  Liberated or not, women still feel that we can’t get through our lives without a man, and that – if we are alone – the world is not on our side.  Better a losing situation — with a man — than accepting a Nobel prize on the world stage without a man.

When I was divorcing my first husband, I remember confiding my fears of the solitary future to a close woman friend, like me a philosopher.  I said that I would now be returning to the socially disadvantaged situation of the single woman.

No, she reassured me, with her keener ear for the rhythms of social life.  The situation of the woman who has been married is at least one or two rungs up from the bottom.

A few decades hence, when the story can be told more fully, what sort of a difference will feminism have made – against all this tide of history, biology and culture?  Against the whole erotic tidal wave?

I can’t make it better than it is.  Life for a woman without an accredited male protector has social costs.  Be it said too, life for anyone without a faithful and personal love has ramified costs.

So what’s the answer?  Is it all just a lottery, securing the conditions of personal happiness and social safety?  Or does God send the right person to each of us?  In Cool Tombs, Carl Sandburg, the poet, muses:

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries,

 cheering a hero or throwing confetti or blowing tin horns …

tell me if the lovers are losers …

 tell me if any get more than the lovers …

in the dust … in the cool tombs.

To me, the story of life is a romantic story.  But not every romantic story is a happy one.

There’s tragedy in that,

 but dignity in admitting —

 without censorship —

 the painful truths of our lives.

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The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

“The Chess Players”
Frederich August Moritz Retzsch, 1831

The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

This is about my return encounter with the dapper gentleman who first surfaced last May, when I gave a talk at California’s Claremont School of Theology, based on a chapter from my book, A Good Look at Evil.

Gentle Reader, may I give you some advice in this Non-Advice Column?  Don’t write a book about evil!  Not if you want a quiet, harmonious life.  The title alone alerts the powers of darkness.  They will come calling.

We go to California periodically for an experimental treatment available only at the Loma Linda Neuropathic Therapy Center.  It’s the sole treatment I’ve found that appears to be doing me some good.

Jerry has given several talks at the Claremont School of Theology, on the subfield of theology that he founded, Theology Without Walls.  The talk I gave there last May bore the title, “Evil Is Not Banal.”  In my talk, I disputed the claim of the “banality of evil,” a claim popularized by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

The attendees had been few last May, but they listened intelligently and asked good questions.  With one exception.  A dapper gentleman of middle years, wearing something subdued but in the best of taste, whose gestures were modulated, contained and precise, raised his hand.  He had not come to ask a question.  Nor did he say anything remotely related to my talk.  He had come to my talk to present a multi-point justification for the Holocaust.  Not, mind you, a denial.  A justification!

Among the millions whose annihilation he had come, in his own words, to “explain,” was of course this speaker.  I.  He had come to explain why it was okay to murder me.

I try not to get into a fight unless it has my name on it.  But there was no mistaking this one – or my name’s not Abigail L. Rosenthal.

Holy cow!  Speak of the devil! 

What do I do, Lord?

The instruction that came floating down to me was as plain as my name.

Don’t engage.

DENOUNCE.

So that’s what I did.  In absolute terms that I don’t recall ever having used prior to that incident.  Accordingly, the rest of the Q & A went back on track and resumed its normal academic tone.

Anyway, that was back in May.  Now, in July, Jerry was to participate in a Trialogue on Theology Without Walls along with two accomplished young theologians from CST.  The event was notably well attended.  Every seat was filled around and behind the long conference table.

And lo!  There he was again, looking as dapper and civilized as ever, in his well-cut summer outfit, greeting the other attendees left and right, almost like a co-host.

I had been listed as a co-participant, which meant that at some point I would be expected to say something.  The man’s quite-at-ease demeanor disconcerted me.  If I did say something, would he then feel free to attack me?   Not being the speaker this time, I could not easily summon the one-pointed focus from which flowed the tactical skill I had shown last time.  Meanwhile, he looked like a man who was feeling fit and feisty.

As for me, I was scared.  Instinctively I wanted to say, “I pass,” with a demure little smile, when it came my turn to speak.  I wanted to hunker down, to lie low.  Not to give him a target.  But then I thought, oh gee:

doesn’t that leave the adversary

in possession of the field?

There are techniques I learned riding the New York subway.  If there was a guy sitting across from me, with knees apart and one thing on his mind, I would focus on mentally pushing him back into his own skin and his own subway seat.  Don’t ask me to explain it, but it worked more often than not.  You use what you can.

I decided to scan my adversary’s energy field insofar as I could, intuitively.  Holy cow!  He was all over me, from my head to my toes!  As far as I could sense his mode of being present, he had come to the conference with me on the brain, with Jews on the brain, and he was in attack mode.

Okay, I thought, I was right to be scared.  Now let’s try, mentally, to push him back, the way I did on the New York subway, to get him off me and back to his seat at the other end of the conference table.

Push, push, push.

I made all the mental efforts of which I was capable.  But it was no use.  I couldn’t budge him.  He was really dug in.

Hmn.  If I can’t do it, with all my will and mental focus, maybe God can do it for me?  I decided to ask God to lift the dapper guy’s energy off me and put it back in his well-tailored body, where he was seated, at the far end of the table.

Waddya know!  That did work!  A large, cooling distance opened between him and me.  At the same time, the participant seated on my left put a thermos of coffee on the table, to the right of her arm.  Listing just a little to my left, I could place my face behind the thermos, out of the Holocaust-justifier’s line of sight.

By the time I was called on to join the discussion, I could speak about how I had discovered that I was essentially Jewish (hint: in a good way) – without any spirit of defensiveness or inhibition.  My words and my attitude gave the adversary no openings.

After the discussion, Jerry and I had dinner with a lovely couple, who added one more detail to this story.  One member of the couple had been attentively watching the man who justified the Holocaust.  It seems that the man came with a pen and pad and, as the discussion went forward, he was scribbling furiously.  Until suddenly his pen ran out of ink and he could scribble no more.

He seemed extremely disconcerted and frustrated by this, as if some project for which his scribbled notes furnished the needed fuel had been unaccountably thwarted.

And some folks say

there ain’t a God.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

 These are some of the books I’ve been reading lately – that I can recommend.

A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson.

This book started out so fact-crammed and deadpan that I thought it would be a painful climb through the 976 pages before we get to the Notes and the Index.  (It’s 1088 pages all told.  I’m on page 475 now.)  By now, however, I’m fascinated.

I was reading Johnson partly to compare a British Conservative historian with Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States, which describes roughly the same events from the vantage point of an American Liberal.  Neither history is factually inaccurate, so far as I can tell.  They just foreground different facts, each leaving in shadow the data that don’t fit his or her narrative.  Historians seem to be rather like lawyers.  The good ones don’t lie, but they tell whatever part of the truth will help their client!

Whereas Jill Lepore has a striking gift for story-telling, getting the color into the anecdote and just writing well — Johnson writes in grey tones, without trying to be eloquent.  At first, it seems a rather dogged business, even to keep going with him.  He fills in the economic part of the story without moralizing: what life held out for those who weathered the trip and what you could expect if you stayed home in Britain or Continental Europe.  The economics of the human race is its inflow and outgo, its metabolism; so it’s informative to view it plain.

As for slavery, our great original sin, although at first Johnson appears to put it dismissively in the background while he sets up the rest of his story, fact by fact,  I learned more about its actual villainy from him than I did from Jill Lepore.  To me, the deepest horror of slavery lies in an aspect of which I did not know: the breeding of human beings for sale.

To treat the human eros that way is blasphemy.  It’s a crime against God.

As a proud Englishman, Johnson occasionally betrays just a smidgeon of British contempt for us that is interesting.  I had no idea we had put up such a poor show in the War of 1812.  Not so bad on the water, from which Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem, but pretty sorry on land.

All this compiling of fact, economic, legal, and political, suddenly is seen to provide the groundwork for a part of the story that I didn’t see coming.  Among the “facts” of the American story is the verbal blossoming of New England.  Suddenly, our raw country springs into literature!  An American voice, a new sound, is heard.  First, there is Emerson.  He works, consciously and deliberately, to create, embody and justify the American character.  No longer cringing before its more mature and cultivated European models, the American is his own man or woman, shaped by original experiences — not a hand-me-down copy of long-established beliefs and attitudes.  Then we find Thoreau, paring his life down to essentials, trying to pay as he goes, in real sympathy with the woods around Walden pond.  There is Longfellow.  Nobody talks of an upright, unproblematic fellow like Longfellow any more, but Johnson makes clear his poetic reach and power.  And then there is Longfellow’s opposite, Edgar Allen Poe, who inhabits the other side of our vast, seemingly vacant spaces: the scary side.  There is Walt Whitman — gay and in the closet — the first American literary self-promoter.  He collected photographs of himself and designed his own tomb, anticipating the genius for self-invention of “Papa” Hemingway a century later.  Finally, outselling them all, is Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was translated and read all over the world.  As a girl, my mother must have read it in French.  Or in Russian.  It was her favorite novel.  It kept Britain from taking the Southern side.  It excited the first world-wide wave of anti-Americanism.  As Lincoln said, when he met Mrs. Stowe, it “started this great war.”

And now — what I am reading now — the extraordinary American epic: the Civil War.  It was bound to come.  Everything in our contradictory history explained and incentivized it.  Johnson’s picture of Lincoln is utterly riveting and stunning.  He thought long and deeply about the morally corrupting realities of slavery.  He had the mind of a good logician, the rough and ready, variegated, first-hand experiences of life that Emerson and Thoreau found marking the American Character.  He had a wide-angled view of the political forces in play, military good judgment, the tragic sense and the humor – above all the freedom from ego – to fit him for the task of leading America through it.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.


Love in the Western World

by Denis de Rougemont

This is another book that I started out disliking, but have come to find fascinating. (In quite a different way of course.)

D de R begins by making clear his opposition to Romantic Love as he understands it.  His purpose, stated at the outset, is to discourage readers from nourishing romantic delusions.  D de R wants us to get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family and not make trouble dreaming wild dreams of great love.  He associates the romance delusion with what Freud called the Death Wish, which is an erotic yearning capable of breaking through all the bonds that hold society together.  He holds, reasonably enough, that pursuing such a course can only end in self-destruction.

Since I am not a great fan of Sigmund Freud – neither his ego, his id, nor his Death Wish — I was finding D de R tiresome before he even got going.

It was a while before I began to see that he was pointing out something real.

When I lived in Paris, I couldn’t help noticing – none of us Americans could help noticing – that the couples strolling in the streets, the statues decorating the public squares, the artistic films, the popular songs, the classics of French literature, all described a type of romantic intertwining that we Americans had never seen.   Purportedly, it was irresistible, enveloping, complete in its choreography – and yet self-terminating.  That is, everyone agreed that l’amour was all in all, a world of its own and at the same time, doomed to end.  As one famous song, Les feuilles mortes, had it,

 the sea erases on the sand

 the footsteps of disunited lovers.

There were many such songs.

I did not know where and how this strange thought-form originated.  I thought it was mistaken — not because romantic love is delusive — but because the idea that it has to end is false.  Why should it end?  And yet, the citizens of France seemed to think it did.  It shaped their youth.  It reshaped their later years.  Where did they get such an idea?

D de R tells us.  At least, he makes out a persuasive case that it originated in a certain gnostic heresy that spread like wildfire through Europe from about the 10th century through the 13th: the Cathar heresy.

This heresy was brutally stamped out by Christian orthodoxy, its adherents killed and its attitudes driven underground.

What makes it “gnostic” and what does that mean?  Gnosticism has many varieties and is found in all kinds of circumstances around the globe.  It may represent a universal human tendency:

the desire to get the hell out of this world.

Typically, gnostic religions or cults have held that the empirical world is bad, a fallen or delusive realm, and its established divinities must be bad too.  The aim of the gnostic is to rise into a higher, purer, “more truly real” sphere by renouncing the world’s practices and acquiring – by some secret method – the knowledge (gnosis) that forever frees one from the world’s fetters.

For the Cathars who were “Pure” – the ones at the “Perfect” level — that meant renouncing marriage.  For Believers who could not attain the highest level, marriage was permitted but disvalued.

As de Rougemont tells it, underground Cathari ideals influenced the medieval troubadours and the ideal of courtly love that their lyric songs and poems championed.  At its inception, the idealized “Lady” of courtly love was code for the gnostic ideal.  She was to be adored but not carnally embraced, because she represented the hidden realm of pure Spirit.  The medieval romances, above all the story of Tristan and Iseult, should be read in this light: as encoded representations of the Cathari message.  As secret Cathars must do, Tristan and Iseult violate all the official protocols and obligations: Iseult’s arranged marriage to King Mark, Tristan’s required fealty to Mark, his feudal lord.  Their love has no means of actualizing itself in the empirical world.  For that reason, the fabled romance has “Death” inbuilt, as its telos or goal.

D de R shows – to my mind, persuasively – how this version of the romantic ideal is carried forward into post-medieval times, forgetting its origin but reappearing in attenuated form in many of the great classics of literature, in France and elsewhere.

Look at Romeo and Juliette, Dante and Beatrice – none of them can live together in the real world!  There are people who believe that these idealized couples must cover the whole spectrum of romantic possibilities.  Such is the entrancing power of ideas – even false ones – when they are beautifully expressed!

Though he has persuaded me that this gnostic thought-form, carried through the centuries, can still distort the lives of modern people, Denis de Rougemont’s conclusion — that romance itself is fatally misguided — does not follow from the evidence he traces.

In my experience, romantic love can give courage and sustenance for life within the real world.

You don’t have to die

to find something desirable

that you can trust.

Posted in book reviews, books, Culture, Desire, History, Love, Reading | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Acting the Part

“The Embarkation of Cythera”
Antoine Watteau, 1717

Acting the Part

 When I was newly arrived in Paris as a young Fulbright Scholar, I was invited to have lunch at the home of the Israeli ambassador to France.  He was my mother’s first cousin.  Hence the invitation.  We had already met at the embassy.  Before we could exchange a cousinly kiss on both cheeks in the French style, I walked down a long red carpet to where he waited, standing in front of his desk.

I was eager for lunch, having not yet received the student card that would admit us Fulbrights to the student restaurants.  As a result, during that time, my midday meals were restricted to eggs, the cheapest item you could order at the cafes of the Latin Quarter.  It was a bit monotonous, but better than feeling pangs of hunger during our first weeks of orientation.

At the residence, I greeted him again and then turned to meet Mme. Ambassador and their daughter, my second cousin.  The exchange of courtesies completed, we convened at what turned out to be the Ceremony of Lunch.

I believe it was Stendahl who wrote that — if you’re unable to survive the pitiless gaze of the servants in Paris – then you can’t pass inspection in Paris.  Since the question is simply whether to be or not to be – socially, you won’t be.  You’ll be a zero.

Unfortunately, since I was the guest at the luncheon, I would be the first one served, for every course.  Before long the servant (whom I’ll call the footman, having never learned his proper title in French), appeared noiselessly at my left, bearing the first course on a silver platter.  It was a white pyramid.   I had never seen anything like it.  Feeling more flustered than I ever had in my life, before or since, I attempted to attack it from the bottom.  Had I succeeded, the whole edifice might have toppled catastrophically.  My efforts went on for a while before Mme. Ambassador suggested quietly that I start at the apex.  Following her advice, I finally managed to secure a portion – of something, I knew not what.

It was eggs, cleverly disguised.  By the time the footman had circumnavigated the long table, I had figured that out.  I was eating the very thing I’d hoped to escape.

After an interval, the footman appeared at my left once again.  By this time, I’d learned what was comme il faut.  I knew how to behave.  I secured it, whatever it was, at the apex and got it safely to my plate.

Cracky!  It was eggs again.  A second helping!  I’d been too flustered to look.

In the Annals of Contempt, secretly kept by the servants of Paris, there must be an entire page reserved for Abigail alone.

Jean-Paul Sartre has a discussion of the French waiter in Being and Nothingness, his major philosophic work.  Sociological note: the French waiter is not an actor between gigs or a college student working his way through.  He is so quintessentially a French waiter that it’s impossible to imagine him being anything else.

This being the phenomenon that presents itself, you can see that Sartre was breaking new ground in France when he contended that the waiter who brought the philosopher his coffee at Les Deux Magots — the café where he hung out at the corner of Saint Germain des Pres – that waiter was not really the role that he played.  Rather, he was acting the part of a waiter.  Sartre portrayed him as a person pretending to be the role that he played in society.  For the philosopher, he illustrated what Sartre called “bad faith,” mauvaise foi.

Sartre’s point is that none of us is the role he or she plays.  To pretend otherwise is bad faith.

Maybe so, but I sure would’ve liked to be better at the role I was invited to play, in one of the beaux quartiers of Paris,

so long ago,

on that bright afternoon,

at the ambassadorial residence,

under the watchful gaze of the footman. 

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The Family Laundry

Henry Ossawa Tanner – Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. Circa 1885

A cousin just told me that the Israeli branch of the family is putting out a book that she has seen in advance of publication.  It’s about the immediate forebears of that branch, who are people of large consequence in Israel: equivalent to the Adams family in the early decades of America’s political life.

Naturally, I am aware of this high-prestige branch of the family tree.  Some years ago, it fell to me to reprove a transgression of which I learned, hidden at one node in that lineage.  In consequence, I lost access to the whole kit and caboodle, with all its illustriousness, and had to manage my life without whatever joys or privileges might have come my way had I passed the buck on this one.

Of course, I would have been more than happy to pass the buck, had there been anyone to pass it to.  However, as it happened, I was standing there alone and didn’t see anyone within buck-passing range.  So it was left to me to pen the note of condemnation, sent just to the ones I thought needed it — which cut me off from further contact with the illustrious branch.

Now the children of that generation have put out a gorgeous volume commemorating their people and it looks as if I’d be welcomed back.  Or would be if I spoke Hebrew and had plans to visit Israel any time soon.

I don’t have such plans, being very busy with three book projects, this column and the manifold summonses of my present, over-full life.

Like most of the combats of my life that cost more than I ever wanted to pay, what I feel about this one is simple:

even had I known the full cost,

I would do it again.

In the Bible, the Family Laundry has often been washed in public and the cost of that has been high.

The first time I saw Israel, I was on an El Al flight, circling in the air.  Looking down from high above it, a thought came unbidden:

There it is AGAIN. 

How nice!

They’ve put cities down this time!

So it seems the connection runs pretty deep with me.  To illustrate: it’s only when I’m in Israel that I use the objective case competently.  Grammatical security seems a side-effect of being centered.

I do think the medievals were right about Jerusalem.  It is the navel of the world.  There was an energy I felt there that made my home town of New York seem sleepy by contrast.

On one of my visits, I went with Israeli cousins to a wedding on the Jordan.  Once we were inside the kibbutz, we left our car and switched to a jeep driven by a young kibbutznik.  He spoke an Israeli-accented English.  I sat beside him in the front seat.

“Your kibbutz seems very well located.  You’re on the only fertile stretch in this region,” said I.  “When we were coming to the kibbutz, we saw only desert for miles around.”

“It was desert,” shrugged our driver, gesturing laconically at the soil beneath his wheels.

When we arrived at the outdoor wedding, they were playing rock music on a loud speaker under the stars.  Despite my meager Hebrew, even I could make out the refrain.

Lech lecha!

Those words, sung to a rock beat, were the first God spoke, in Ur of the Chaldees, to Abraham.

Get thee up and

get thee out …

to a Land

 that I will show thee.

Some of the outstanding best and some of the deeply flawed are found on my family tree.  Should any of that cause pride?  Is it a cause for shame?  For both?  Both in what mixture?  I suppose it’s not a question of what I should feel.  I do feel both, though not all the time and not in equal measure.

My misgivings have nothing to do with the selectively-edited narrative being woven into now-fashionable “anti-Zionism.”  Still less have they to do with the default-position anti-Semitism that hangs over mankind like a Jungian thought-form, ready-to-wear by anyone who has given up on the effort to live a personal life truthfully.

In what context should my misgivings be viewed, then?  They don’t seem to undermine my sense of identity.  Our identities are, in varying degrees, flexible.  It’s legitimate, I believe, to feel what one great Christian theologian has called “holy envy”: the awareness that no one faith exhausts the spiritual riches available to humankind.  Empathy, imagination, curiosity – intellectual, personal or spiritual – can take us far from home, without suffering corrupt betrayal of our origins.

The betrayers – who join the abuse of their own people – are another matter. They can take us still farther from home.  And that kind of trip is a great temptation: to get in step, to join the parade, to echo the faint – or not so faint – contempt, often the default position when Jews are the topic.  Jews themselves are hardly immune from it.  That’s why I call it the default position.  To avoid it, you have to focus, and watch your footing.

By contrast, betrayal comes easy.  It arrives decorated with many social and professional advantages.  People readily approve, mistaking opportunism for moral courage.  Hell, I too coulda been a contender.  I coulda written best sellers, read by all the beautiful people.  It would have been so easy.

That said, I do see one problem with betrayal:

you lose the objective case.

 

 

 

 

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Love Stories

Love Stories

Just now I am reading a book Jerry got me, titled, Love in the Western World.  Translated from the French, it’s by a guy named Denis de Rougement.  With a name like that, and a title like that, who can resist?

Actually, that very same book sat on my parents’ bookshelves where, from time time, I would pluck it off its shelf, in youthful anticipation of the romantic peaks that might be found in a book.  After a time, I would put the book back, never able to figure out what he was talking about.  So here it is again, and now’s my big chance to fathom the depths and scan the heights of what the French call la carte de tendre, the map of love.

Except that it turns out de Rougement is against romantic love.   So it’s like reading a book about religious experience where the author is on hand to explain how unbalanced that experience must be, from a chemical standpoint.

Denis de Rougement is not a chemist.  His case is more literary than that.  I can only tell you what I’ve learned so far.  The Western Tradition is contaminated, he argues, by the legend of Tristan and Iseult.  As the thirteenth-century poets tell the story, Tristan is a knight sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch Iseult, the king’s intended bride.  On their way back to Cornwall, they accidentally drink a magic potion meant only for the bride and groom.  The potion causes them to come down with a fatal passion for each other.  Under its influence, they betray their every feudal obligation, till at last only death can claim them for its own.

From this tale, de Rougement infers that, in the unconscious, the force of eros is linked with a death wish; these combined forces tear the web of loyalties and obligations that secure personal and social life.  Only by controlling and sublimating the erotic urges can one achieve good citizenship and marriages that last.

This is Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud, unadulterated.  Nowadays, it’s not often served up as neat as this, but the view continues to undergird most modern and post-modern attitudes.

I think it’s hooey.

I see no necessary link — experiential or conceptual — between romantic love and an unconscious death-wish or anti-social behavior.  Neither nature nor history supports this theory.  It’s the opiate of the intellectuals.

There are ways to test whether an animal is acting under unconscious programming or is figuring things out consciously.  The tests are called “deprivation experiments.”  When you take away some feature of the environment on which the animal normally depends, if the animal can’t cope with the change but continues to react as if the missing feature were still present, then his behavior is deemed unconscious or innate.  If, on the other hand, the animal figures out how to attain his objective in the new circumstances, then he’s a conscious actor.

Animals can’t afford the dark urges of nineteen-century German philosophy.  They can’t get professorships.  They have to manage their lives!

Romantic love is not a threat to personal or social survival.  Nor did it arise for the first time in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France.   We find it in the Bible, which is a quite different site, culturally.   Although the theological glosses on the Song of Songs may have their claims, on its face that book is about the longing — the world-enveloping desire — of true lovers for one another.  The way the very landscape is encompassed by their yearning is indicative of the romantic way of being alive.

Its intensities don’t require artificial barriers, as Stendahl thought.  The experience doesn’t depend on bad faith, as Sartre thought.

Ladies, don’t take advice

on personal relations

from bad lovers.

If the presence or absence of romantic love turned out to make the strongest difference in human life, I would not be surprised.

How does that personal force appear in history?  We’ve just finished watching Franz, a film set in Germany and France in the year 1919.  Its protagonists are a young German woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I, and a young Frenchman afflicted by guilt over a German soldier he met in a trench and killed, face to face.

Will these two appealing young people discover their love for each other in time to save it from a past they cannot share and the looming future that, fourteen years hence (in the Nazi era), might present still darker obstacles?

What gives the story its strange grip — its fascination — is not only the near-genius with which Director Francois Ozon has recreated the vanished worlds of Germany and France at that more innocent time.  It’s also the way the tie that binds the lovers allows us to see how tragic was and will be the history that even now threatens their silent yearning.

Perhaps history itself

is a long,

broken,

unspoken romance.

 

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