The Ex-Terrorist Comes to Town

Kasim Hafeez

The Ex-Terrorist Comes to Town

Yesterday our temple sponsored a lecture by Kasim Hafeez, a Brit of Pakistani origin who had seriously resolved to give his life for jihad and then changed his mind. Everybody on the planet has an interest in finding out whether that can happen, and if so, how. His talk was titled, “Hate to Hope: The Day I Stopped Hating Israel.”

With such a peace-loving title, I had rather hoped that our Friends from the Peace Center, who had carried placards in the town square vilifying Israel once a week for two years — rain and shine, winter and summer — would feel drawn (possibly even morally obligated) to attend, since surely they are against violence and hatred and in favor of love and peace.

Nah.

I had also hoped the local clergy, who conscientiously attend Yom ha Shoah, our yearly commemoration of the Holocaust, might show up for this talk. I was hoping especially for the Presbyterians, whose parent organization endorsed BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel as the sole bad guy among the nations. I thought they might be curious to hear a different point of view.

Nope.

Could it be that, for these ritual commemorators of Yom ha Shoah, the only good Jew is a dead Jew?

Um, that could be. There was a time when such a thought would have shocked me a whole lot but that time has passed.

Jerry and I picked up Kasim at the Historic Inn where he’d been booked and took him to dinner before his lecture. He’s urbane and has the self-containedness of a Brit, but offset by his warmer colors: of skin tone, emotional liquidity – perhaps spiritual quickness — a quality I’ve seen in other Muslims, some of them my students, whom I’ve liked instinctively.

We had applied for funding for Kasim’s talk from Jewish Federation but our application was denied on the ground that a talk from an ex-terrorist (who’d changed his mind) wouldn’t draw a wider crowd. We’d be “preaching to the choir” we were told, meaning, to other Jews. To my surprise, Federation was mostly right (though I did see a few Christian friends) but, as for Jews, they make up a rather cacophonous “choir.”

Over dinner, we touched on the topic of Jewish anti-Zionism. Kasim had been a student of Politics at his university before he was radicalized, and he voiced incomprehension at the stance of Jews who continue to think that real land should be traded for daydreams of peace. Had the IDF’s retreat from Lebanon or the pullout from Gaza been followed by peace, such a strategy would be understandable. But Hezbollah with its rockets replaced the Israeli forces in Lebanon and Hamas with its thousands of missiles took over in Gaza.

Why did people advocate policies for Israel whose track record consists of failure after failure? Why the Denial? To a student of political theory, it was incomprehensible.

I offered my hypothesis, starting with the two givens that seem to me to shape the situation: (1) Jews are incredibly outnumbered and (2) Jews are preposterously hated. There follow two perfectly natural responses. The first is to think we can fix the situation if we just behave better. This gives a delusive sense of control over what is actually uncontrollable. The second is to be scared witless. You close your eyes and you pretend it’s not there. I don’t recommend either response, but both are very natural.

A propos of being outnumbered, my favorite passage in scripture on that topic is where Elijah’s disciple Elisha points out to his master that they are completely surrounded: by Hittites, Perrizites, Jebusites, Canannites, Amalekites and so forth and it’s game over. Elijah says No no, the game’s not over. Look up! Looking skyward, Elisha exclaims, Hey!

The Chariots of Israel and the Horsemen thereof!

A good thing to have seen in the sky that time, but not a good idea to expect to see it every time in that form.

In his talk at the temple, Kasim was witty, vividly descriptive, with a great sense of drama and timing. He was the child of immigrants who’d never assimilated, uneasily wearing a British identity that the English don’t confirm if your skin color isn’t like theirs. He fell under the spell of agitators who take advantage of that identity crisis to urge young Muslims to see themselves as victims. Inundated with speeches and photos that depict Palestine as the prime locus of victimization, offered images of violent action as the best way to regain lost dignity, Kasim resolved to be a terrorist. But first, to disprove for himself a book he’d chanced to pick up, The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz, he decided to visit Israel before going on his killer mission. He’d read emotional rejoinders to Dershowitz by Muslim militants, but they did not satisfactorily refute the arguments laid out by this American Jewish lawyer.

Kasim’s first impressions in Israel, even of the Security officials who detained him for eight hours at Ben Gurion airport, were closer to Alan Dershowitz’s version of reality than to the jihadi narrative. He observed the phantasmagoria of human types waiting side by side at a bus stop in Jerusalem, conversed with Israeli Arabs, Druses and Jewish Israelis – took in the images, the vignettes – and they failed to fit the assumptions he’d brought to Israel. Could a purpose for which he’d been prepared to die and to kill, be wrong? Misguided? Misinformed? How many of us would even entertain such a question?

He decided to visit the Western Wall. Part of the anti-Israel “narrative” is that the Jewish state was allowed to come into being as the world’s gesture of compensation for the Holocaust. (Btw, the world “allowed” no such thing; every inch of ground was fought for, with weapons smuggled through an international arms embargo.) But of course the Western Wall can’t be fit into this narrative since it is not a modern “gesture.” It’s the Herodian retaining wall of the Second Temple, all that the Romans left standing when they destroyed the rest of the building that Josephus describes as a wonder of the world. It sits on the foundation of the First Temple, the one that King Solomon built.

The Western Wall is pregnant with memory and filled with Presence. A skeptical American philosopher once confided to Jerry that, when he touched the Wall, what he felt, suddenly and unexpectedly, was

He’s here.”

I would never give the philosopher’s name. He doesn’t advertise that experience.

Kasim walked up to The Wall, having no idea what one was supposed to do there. Looking left and right, he decided to imitate the others. So he leaned his forehead against the stone. And then it came to him. Why Israel exists. For self-defense! When evidence of the mass murder of Jews came to the attention of international bodies, these horrors were deplored. As genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia has since been deplored. But the expression “Never Again” has no effective instruments at its disposal. It’s a phrase. Of course it has happened since — again and again. But not to Jews. Not any more. Today they have a place to go, where they are actually wanted.

And then one thing more came to him. The connection was not exactly a logical one but it felt just as inexorable. This country — with its achievements out of all proportion to its population, its contributions on the score of health, technology, pure science, agriculture, desalization, its outreach even to enemy nations in times of disaster or sickness or injury, this place so uniquely singled out for condemnation – is at the foundation of the story of humanity. All the pieces of it – Christianity, Islam – are nonexistent without the Jewish foundation. The moralization of life – absent from the high civilizations of Greece and Rome – begins here.

Here. It begins here.

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Political Innocence

Statue of Justice

Political Innocence

If each of us were sure we were right, we would never quarrel with anyone – much less break with friends – over politics. The politically-triggered quarrels, friendship breakages, civil-society breakdowns, result from our insecurity over what we think true in the conflict zones of public life. If we were truly secure, intellectually and morally, we would simply state our views and the reasons for them, and hold them just as long we didn’t hear a better argument refuting them.

Of course there is one fashionable view of conflicts, political or other, which is that there is no truth of the matter. The only thing at stake – ever – is power. Which means, if you can control the mic and the public stage via ad hominem argument or by any other fallacious move, just do it! There is no truth anyway!

Really? There isn’t?

Then how did you know THAT’S true?

Jerry and I are both trained philosophers. So, when time allows, we enjoy seminars – extended philosophical discussions – over breakfast.

The true aim of marriage is liberty of mind.

Sometimes, teaching Modern Philosophy, I would read that line aloud, from Spinoza’s Ethics, and my students would snort audibly. But they should stop snorting.

Liberty of mind has become as hard to get as sex used to be.

Just think a moment about what would be required for Liberty of Mind to flower: emotional security, mutual space allotted for each participant to pause and silently regather the scattered threads of her thought, time reciprocally allowed to breathe deeply and wait till a train of argument comes together, allowances made for evidence admittedly fragmentary, for hypotheses tried out that might not explain all the evidence, for thought experiments whose outcome isn’t rigged in advance and so on.

Some of these features share a character with erotic life: intensely desired, longed for over numbers of years and vast distances – finally as hard to find as the elusive Beloved in the Biblical Song of Songs.

Briefly, for what were we longing? For the space of friendship, where two or more persons, more dedicated to seeking the truth than winning the argument, can share the search.

I’ll just recap some of the steps Jerry and I traced at breakfast, and you’ll see what you think.  I’d been reading a book on ethics by a philosopher I greatly respect. Telling Jerry about it, I said that, to my surprise, the philosopher offers an unexpected brief for the Marxian theory of surplus value, which is that the employer’s profit is an ill-gotten gain because it has been stolen from labor — labor being the only economic thing of inherent value. Taken literally, that means that if two farmers grow apples, and one eats all his apples while the second farmer eats just half and uses the profit to buy a cider press, in terms of the labor theory of value, the second farmer has made an unjustifiable use of “surplus value.” It’s an ill-gotten gain. If now our second farmer improves his cider press to the point where he can start a cider factory, which draws labor off the farms for miles around, the eventual outcome seems both better and worse.

Better because (generalizing over many varieties of production) goods will be cheaper, new devices will be invented that save labor or deliver other benefits, people will enjoy higher wages and more freedom of choice to do with their wages what they will, and so on. Worse because people will be pulled from lives where their crafts expressed their talents. They will fall into work where they cannot recognize themselves in what they produce, for example because they’re on an assembly line and only make one piece of the finished product. In addition, they will leave the farm and go where the factory is, also leaving communities where they were known and the values were stable, deriving from inherited ways of life. In anonymous city housing, workers will feel alienated, disconnected from their work, from each other, from themselves.

Was this uprooting all tragic loss? Even fervent communitarians are often reluctant actually to go back, themselves, to traditional communities, and their fenced-in worlds of tyrannical gossip, their suppression of originality and difference — their inherited consensus from which there was no appeal. Women like me would be burned as witches in “traditional communities” (supposing they hadn’t already been burned as Jews).

I’ll take alienation, thanks anyway.

These travels through the economic hills and valleys brought Jerry and me to modern times and its unsatisfactory array of political/economic choices. Some politico-economic solutions are intolerable, others merely dubious. We went on, exploring some of the political and economic theories, for more time than I have space. For once, it was a Sunday morning that continued into Sunday afternoon. And every “solution” we came upon in thought ran into just the kinds of trouble that such purported solutions have actually run into in the real, recent history of humankind.

In my Reform Temple, one of the mantras often repeated is that our purpose as Jews is to “make the world a better place.”   Usually particular policies are being referenced. If the policies favored are implemented, they will greatly improve the world. And let’s not canvass unintended consequences. Let those be a surprise. Every time.

I’ll be glad if the world is no worse a place because of anything I do, but even that I can’t be sure of.

A few columns back, I mentioned a book I’ve run across, which purports to contain an “after life journal” by William James, the late nineteenth-century American philosopher. Since the voice sounds like James and is also very interesting, I’d like to cite it from time to time, but to do so would violate all the accepted scholarly protocols. I hesitate to risk it. (I don’t like trouble any more than anybody else.) Anyway, one of the things “James” reports from the afterlife is that, wherever he goes, he feels buoyed up by a sense of optimism and safety.

And well he might! He IS safe. They can’t kill you when you’re already dead!

Down here, we feel pretty unsafe, in this-world spaces and times, and that’s an accurate feeling. So what are we to do? I used to think, if I could only be bathed in Love – exuding Love from every pore – I’d be safe. Nobody would hurt me because they’d feel the waves of goodness emanating from me. They’d be disarmed, without thinking about it or realizing why.

One of the defects of utopian schemes is the belief that, if only the world were rearranged to suit the idealist’s blueprint, everyone would start exuding Love and Peace and we’d all be safe with each other.

What then would drive us to write novels or poems, to invent solutions for our impasses, to try to fathom ourselves and the depths of others, to know history, to know anything, to make our particular and irreplaceable friends?

Without the evil impulse

Nothing would get done.

So said the rabbis. If we can forgive ourselves, for who and what we really are, maybe we can get on with it – the job of living our true stories in this imperfect but real world.

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The Blame Game

Rosalie Crutchley as Madame Defarge in “A Tale of Two Cities,” 1958

The Blame Game

We don’t start life with a clean slate. Childhood is the time we spend figuring out what kind of a hand of cards we’ve been dealt and how to start playing it. What happens to us – inside ourselves – when we embark on the project of blaming others (or accepting blame) for the original hand that they, or we, were dealt?

My mind goes back to a column I wrote some months ago about a girl who looked to be middle class and white and who strolled — preceded at every step by a male colleague with a camera attached to his backpack — the streets of Manhattan clad in a black, long-sleeved, long-legged leotard. She walked the East Side, the West Side, the Village, Upper Broadway and so on.

Now I would no more do that than I would hitchhike to Khartoum. But okay. We are all amateur social scientists. It’s field work. Let the cameras roll.

And roll they did. Film footage that went viral. I even saw it on the evening news. Comments from the male animal dogged her every step. Every man in New York felt the heat of the Blame.

At first, the indignant outcry went all in favor of the walker, our heroine (or hero, if you prefer). But then there was a follow-up outcry, a sort of moral whiplash effect. Soon the outcry went the other way.

It was perceived that the wolf whistles and calls of “Hey, beautiful!” to our leotard-clad walker came mainly from young men who tended to hang out on the street because that hanging out was what they did. The catcallers tended not to hold steady jobs that would have kept them safe indoors in their offices. Surprise! What’s more, their styles of hanging out encouraged overt displays of male sexual desire? Had our walker shown Class or Cultural Bias?

Now we don’t want to say, of a woman who is treated so shamelessly by men on the street that she was “asking for it.” That’s Blaming the Victim and we’ve all signed the pledge never to do that. So her Sisterly defenders quickly spoke up for the walker, explaining that she wasn’t asking for it: first, because she wasn’t that pretty, second, because the leotard was black and therefore hard to see on a bright street, and third, because it was cut up to here. Fortunately, footage of the view from the back, which might been more luscious, was not provided by the Sisterhood.

Myself, I thought she was fetching enough, and went so far as to explain my sisterly thoughts in my column. But then, a day or two after my column was posted, a still more damaging discovery was made by a third or fourth row of Defenders of the Defenseless: the whistlers and makers of remarks tended not to be particularly white! They were the people-of-color, not the people-of-no-color.

That settled it. The bold young woman who had fatigued herself and her film-shooting fellow fighter for the Wretched-of-the-Earth had been fighting against the Still-More-Wretched-of-the-Earth! The girl and her photographer friend were suddenly found in flagrante delicto disseminating a Racist film! Disavowals of responsibility for such a stinker of a film came pouring in from all over, and its creators fled for their socio-political lives.

In the hands of a writer of sufficient talent, this whole comedy could have played off-Broadway to side-splitting effect. Surely I was not alone in taking in the hypocrisy of this rush to fix Blame for real-life experiences shared by every condemner in cyberspace. Did they mean to suggest that a life purged of every asymmetry imaginable could dodge this kind of Blame Game?

Kids, believe me, nobody is immune. Nobody is safe. It doesn’t matter how many Blameworthies you believe you have nailed and brought down. Sooner or later, It will come for you. Ask Robespierre — who was called the French Revolution’s “Incorruptible,” having done his part to energize that orgiastic explosion of Blame-Gaming that was the Reign of Terror – ask Robespierre at the moment he mounted the scaffold to the Guillotine, the same French Head-Chopper to which he had sent so many others. Nobody is immune. Let loose the thought police and they will come for you.

What’s the cure for Blame Gaming, our new epidemic of social madness? The cure does not lie in establishing Safe Spaces, as is being tried on American campuses, where one’s identity can be protected from every perceived slight. If by now you’ve never defended your identity against all the threats the world brings — verbal, intellectual, moral and physical – then you have gained no identity in the only way that it’s gained, battle by battle. You’re like a person without skin. You never grew any. Having learned no defenses in the school of experience, no space can possibly feel safe to you. Get back in the womb. Out here, you need skin in the game.

But really, what’s the best strategy for a woman? After all, we are vulnerable. In hand-to-hand combat, we tend to lose. Hormonally, we tend to be less aggressive than men. Culturally, historically, we’ve been defined as the weaker sex – to be idealized, exploited or despised, as our definers decided. Until fairly recently, even in advanced societies, we couldn’t prevent pregnancy, vote, own property, become well-educated, professionally licensed, go anywhere on our own or quit intolerable marriages. We can still be impregnated against our will.  In much of the world, this is still true. Everyone knows all this. I don’t want to reinvent the a,b,c’s of feminism. It’s worth recalling that the women who, on behalf of other women, first articulated those a,b,c’s suffered cruel persecution and ridicule.

What’s wrong with appealing to the social consciences of men in cases where women’s complaints of unfairness are justified? In countries like the USA, men ordinarily want to be fair or at least to appear fair. Their consciences can be appealed to when we are victimized by some unjust dealings. Isn’t that appropriate?

We did that during the feminist revival that began in the late sixties of the last century and we made strides that once would have seemed unthinkable. Much has changed. So why not just keep on keeping on?

Let’s think about this. Since the civil rights and the feminist movements, the playing field has widened considerably. Victims have been disclosed, or claimants to that title have come forward, who were not noticed earlier. An unseemly – some might say comical – competition has opened between the would-be claimants to victim status.

Despite a newly stylish approach called Intersectionality, which misleadingly asserts an invisible bond linking all the Oppressed, in fact many who come under that head compete with each other for the title and oppress each other without mercy. Marx predicted that the contradictions in capitalism would broaden the ranks of the proletariat until all but a flimsy few were swallowed into the working class. Then the workers of the world would unite and a utopian Happy Ending to History would follow.

Has anyone noticed? That didn’t happen.

In the 1930’s, a diary entry by my father, at that time a Marxist, notes — his dry irony overlaying unspeakable anger — how the German workers were embracing Hitler and shrugging off the mounting Nazi attacks on German Jews.

“Intersectionality” is just the very latest reappearance of Marx’s never-confirmed but never-quite-discarded predictions about history. The Oppressed do not love the Rival Oppressed. They do not spontaneously bond, except when, for strategic reasons, it suits them. And only for so long as it suits them. The Oppressed are not different from you and me.

Meanwhile, in the real world, decisions as to who is more entitled to claim victimhood and who less entitled require a fact-based foundation. Very sorry. Neo-Marxian postulates won’t do. Evidence will be required. It will have to be evaluated in a cool hour. Preference given to one group can unfavorably affect another group. Fair claimants may be denied recognition or help for reasons that have more to do with fashion than with truth.

There were knitting women, called Les Tricoteuses, who sat at the foot of the guillotine while the heads of the hated aristocrats rolled. Don’t join them. It’s not attractive.

What’s a woman to do, who wants to play the game of life as ideally as it should be played by her? Well, we don’t give advice in this column, so I can’t answer that except over tea and a sweet. But I do want to put one more piece on the chess board. Here’s the name of the piece:

Eros. Desire. The Dance of Life.

Keep it in mind. There is a romantic truth about life that will outlast us all. It will even outlast the fantasies of the present hour.

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Getting to Objectivity

William Oliver II (1823-1901)

Getting to Objectivity

Lately I’ve been reading a book titled What is Fiction For? The British philosopher Bernard Harrison wrote it to defend novels – defend writing them and reading them – from the accusation that they don’t tell the truth!

I had no idea that anyone thought this was a serious charge to level against novels. That they’re fiction?   Duh.

In my teens, all my girlfriends read them, serious novels by gifted writers, and they contributed mightily to our girlish hopes and dreams.

We read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, taking at face value the report of Maria, war-battered guerrilla fighter for the doomed Spanish Republic, that when she connects (shall we say) with American volunteer Robert Jordan, “the earth moved.”

We read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and envied Constance Chatterly — lonely wife of an emotionally withdrawn English aristocrat who returned from the first world war shattered below the waist – who falls in love-and-lust with her husband’s gamekeeper. “You would have thought a woman would have died of shame. Instead of which, shame died.”

Like the girls in novels, we too wanted the earth to move and shame to die. There were veracity questions, of course: Does any woman ever feel that the earth moved? Does any woman get to experience shame dying (and with its death a new birth of womanly self-approval)? We did wonder how realistic these dreams were and whether they presented peak aims for a woman’s life.

Though I now think the earth can move without having first to get gang raped and then become a guerrilla fighter and also that shame can sweetly die without having first to cheat on your husband, I never found the erotic intensity of such novels false as such. That part seemed to me kinda true.

According to Bernard Harrison, the current attack on fiction has nothing to do with the folly of particular aims cherished by characters in novels. Rather, what the attackers underscore is the gap between any novel and truth. By definition, these critics say, there can’t be objective truth in a made-up story.

So what do such critics mean by “objective truth”? They mean that physical objects are the only things to count in an inventory of the things that are real. And the laws of physics supply the truest descriptions of physical objects. Make assertions that can’t be subsumed under physical law and you’ve left the realm of objective truth. Philosophers who think this way are called “physicalists” and they still dominate the tough-minded sectors of philosophy in the English-speaking world.

Science, of course, is not so much a domain of immovable conclusions as a method, a way of investigating the world. Much exploratory work is being done nowadays to try to pin down the notion of “scientific explanation.” Earlier definitions have been discredited, new ones are being tried, but everyone agrees that an explanation that is scientific must at least cover the relevant data.

More than one well-regarded physicalist has admitted that

well-confirmed evidence

of nonphysical causes would be

fatal to physicalism.

By now there is a towering pile of such evidence. One recent collection of well-confirmed cases is The Self Does Not Die, edited by Rivas, Dirven and Smit. People who are deemed clinically dead and lying on a gurney, give accurate reports of what their surgeons were doing, when the actions they describe could only have been perceived from the ceiling. Or patients report seeing what the nurses were doing in the corridor, during the time when the patients were flatlining.

In this collection, each report is confirmed by two or three competent observers. The collection also includes skeptics’ profferred physicalist explanations for the data. The latter turn out far more tortured and improbable than the observers’ conclusions: that here is evidence of effects that can’t be explained in any known physical terms. Much evidence of this kind is simply ignored by the physicalists. But it’s relevant data and it needs to be explained. If it’s well confirmed, it shouldn’t be “explained away.” Because, by now, there is too much of it.

What’s the upshot? There is more to “objectivity” than the description of physical objects. To refuse to concede this is unscientific. If we don’t yet have a satisfactory explanation of the data, we need to get one. That is very different from pretending that there is nothing to see here folks — nothing worth explaining. It’s also a far cry from claiming fraud in cases where all the usual markers of serious research are present and there is no evidence of fraud.

What does this tell us? A lot more than I can collect here. But I can tell you what it tells me now. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there’s been a vast human landscape that was left unsurveyed and undescribed because it could not be sufficiently measured by the physicalists. We have very good nineteenth-century novels, by writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James and Leo Tolstoy. They were written before the dark curtain of physicalism had descended over the intellectual landscape. The novels were nuanced, closely observed and intelligent. They dealt with full-bodied characters, people in the round. They actually told us what life is like.

But very few deep and talented novels have appeared since, to tell us what it’s like for people like us to be here now. Bracketing the talent of particular writers, it still seems to me that science fiction, horror novels, surrealist novels, zombie and pornographic fiction are last-ditch efforts to pole vault out of the dreary here-and-now of the physicalists. Novelists who want to avoid those genres have to make their way through the white water of theories: Freud’s, Marx’s, the Frankfurt School, post-modernist, et al. They seem varied but they all agree that nonphysical aims, hopes and dreams are “false consciousness.”

If there is more to the real than the physical – then

all these wise heads are wrong.

Meanwhile, the terrain we walk on has been filled with dramatic trials – tests of valor, goodness and wisdom — and the challenges of our days have gone largely unseen, unheard and unrecorded.  The sociopaths are in the foreground. The rest of us are somewhere in the background.

It’s time for novelists — unencumbered by the contrived pessimism of physicalist theory – to reacquaint us with the space where we live. Its actual pitfalls, its hidden delights, its ever-new surprises and perilous adventures have become unfamiliar to us. Eventually, scientific theory, improved and expanded, will have to catch up. But for now,

let the novelists light the way.

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Obsequies for Dennis Delcau

Obsequies for Dennis Delcau

Rabbi Mitchell Delcau’s father died. I went to the funeral this morning. Mitchell Delcau is our temple’s former rabbi, now based in Seattle. He was someone I had once worked hard to find, serving on the temple’s Search Committee. He had declined another offer to accept ours. Last spring, he was told that the temple could no longer afford to keep him on payroll.

For him to come back here, to a mother bereft of him and her daughter-in-law, her grandchildren and now her husband, and to face us all with what feelings I could only imagine, seemed to me a theater-in-the-round I had rather not attend.

Also, academics go to memorials – which are commemorations after the physical fact of death has been got past — more often than to funerals.

My own reluctance had another source as well. If you ask me why there should be an Israel on the face of the earth, my reflexive answer is instant: so there can be a patch of ground where headstones can be placed, bearing Jewish names and stars of David, which won’t be vandalized. Why won’t they be vandalized? Because in Israel there’s a Jewish army to defend the headstones. Personally, I’ve never wanted my Final Vulnerability placed under Jewish auspices in the diaspora.

Yet the funeral home looked to me spacious, dignified and authoritative. A large star of David, made of wood, took up most of the ceiling and stars of David adorned the outer arms of each pew.

I did not discern any awkwardness or doubleness of feeling in the faces of the congregants and temple officials who had decided to attend. We queued up to greet the family.

To Fran, the widow, I could say nothing. We just looked at each other, her eyes pools of grief.

“I hoped to see you again,” Rabbi Delcau said to me. “But not under these circumstances.”

“Because you were here,” I said, “now when people speak of God, they speak as if He’s real. And, when they speak of Israel, they speak as if it’s important.”

The officiating rabbi, along with a younger colleague, gave the comforting impression that they knew something about this man who now lay under a flag-draped coffin.

Rabbi Delcau began by saying he hadn’t planned to speak; he was here to mourn. However, some thoughts came. The thoughts were all new to me.

I had not known that Dennis Delcau was the son of two Holocaust survivors. I hadn’t known that his library of Judaica was extensive and he’d read every book in it. Nor that an especially dog-eared page from Maimonides contained the warning that people tend to take on the mores of their environment, so we should avoid the company of the unrighteous. It’s contagious. Also, one should be honorable. One should hold fast to the truth and not permit oneself to lie.

Dennis Delcau had had a supervisor in Houston who urged him not to tell the boss that he needed to be in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Just call in sick, the supervisor kindly advised. Instead Dennis Delcau told the boss the real reason for his absence. When he came to work the next day, the department had been “reorganized” and he was out of a job.

His next employer seemed determined to drive him away. It’s not clear why he’d hired Delcau at all, except that he had a certain amount of expertise that might be needed. At any rate, he was given the bathroom tiles to scrub. That was his job. He scrubbed them day after day, thoroughly.

In the Delcau family, one was likewise expected to work hard and avoid excuses. If you got a B on your report card instead of an A, you were asked to explain it.

When the Vietnam War broke out, being a family man, he could have got a deferment. But he went, in homage to the country that had offered refuge to his parents, the survivors.

The reunion of Rabbi Delcau with his former congregants could have been fraught with unwelcome layers of complex feeling, floating without anchorage.

Instead, the Rabbi’s openness to the truths of filial piety – out of which all other pieties grow – gave it simplicity.

If a situation is simple,

it’s not that hard to face.

 


 

Art Credit: Adams Memorial, Augustus Saint Gaudens, 1891
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Are the Stories We Live True?

Are_the_stories_we_live_true.jpeg

Are the Stories We Live True?

Good people try to live the sorts of stories that will solve the problems of their lives as reasonably and realistically as they can. Meanwhile, evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. When I first spoke in public about my view (later published in A Good Look at Evil) colleagues either treated it as a fantasy or as something a girl would like to think, poor dear.

Some years have passed and now everyone has what is called a “narrative view.” People who scorned it — and me with it back then — now act as if it’s what they always believed. I’ve been quoted and paraphrased, with and without attribution, and by now should at least have had an heroic statue or a city park dedicated in my name.

What went wrong? The later narrative-ites didn’t take over the key part of my narrative view. That we live stories, they agreed. That the stories we live are true stories? That not so much. That people of evil intent work hard to erase our stories? That not at all.

Why not? Why did the accepted view come to be that we do live “stories,” only they are fictions. Stuff we tell ourselves, stuff we make up, delusions we embrace, not true stories.

What I’m describing has been mostly the view of the intellectuals. Regular people don’t hold with this. If Sally says she found out her husband was cheating on her or Joe says his Daddy beat him – and neither is a notorious liar — Sally and Joe are believed. So what barrier do intellectuals bump up against that they think insulates them from the truth of such reports?

Coming and going and sideways, there’s still Freud’s notion of the unconscious. Freud still persuades the intellectuals that the real reasons they act or refrain from acting are “unconscious.” If you too think this, no one’s report will seem credible to you and you won’t be credible to yourself either. The quickest way to get out from under Freud’s long shadow and restore the self-trust needed for creative living is to see my column, “Freud and Fraudulence.” No charge for this therapy.

Besides Freud, there are additional reasons for the reluctance of the intellectuals to believe themselves or each other. Here I’m drawing on a book by Bernard Harrison, What Is Fiction For: Literary Humanism Restored, which sheds light on why it’s become hard for intellectuals even to read novels straightforwardly, if the novels include clear characters and legible plot lines. The English-speaking philosophers put up one sort of barrier and the Continental (i.e. French) philosophers put up a different sort.

In the English-speaking world, one kind of empiricism (associated with Bertrand Russell and the early Wittgenstein) held that a statement is true if and only if it refers to (or can be analyzed as referring to) discrete sense data like “red.” That highly abstract view of truth would regard the complex sentences of ordinary tales or novels as cluttered by countless, meaningless add-ons.

What about the Continentals? They refuse to credit meta-narratives (grand, unifying stories) and finally any narratives. Why? Here the reasons are plural and less clear. They dance away from the person trying to grasp them.

There is Gilles Deleuze, (Here I refresh my memory by drawing on Steven Smith’s recent account of Deleuze in Full History.) For Deleuze, all acts, past or future, appear outside of chronological order; we have the option of foregrounding any of them without regard to whether they have happened in the past or will happen in the future. They dazzle us and impinge on us in a “now” that is ever dancing, ever new.

Of course, in novels – as in the stories that occur in real life — there is a sequential plot line and it unfolds chronologically. When Sally married Joe, she did not know that he would cheat on her. She came to suspect it, the evidence built up, till finally it was all too clear. If everything occurs in a dancing “now,” then Sally’s story never occurred. Not the way she lived it.

Or take Michel Foucault, another French philosopher. He “deconstructs” any text into a center, where the narrative voice belongs to the powerful, while the powerless are found suppressed at the margin. Our task, when we approach a narrative, is to upend these unjust power relations. The manifest plot line merely furnishes a false consciousness, which awaits our saving inversions.

Does nothing happen in the world aside from crushing and being crushed? Same old same old? Is that your autobiography? Am I the only one here who’s had an interesting life?

Or take Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, who claim that no telling of a story can have a fixed meaning because virtually all the words combined in the telling are dependent, for their meaning, on relations with other words, which in turn depend on still further words. So any telling of a story becomes a hall of mirrors where we never see what seems to be on view, but instead see reflections of reflections.

What are all these men telling us? Are they of any help when we deal with real happenings?

Memory takes me back to an incident years ago. I was in conference with one of my professors. He was chair of the Religion Department at the university where I was a grad student.   “Abigail,” he said to me, “you and I have been here for almost an hour, all alone, talking together in a room with the door closed. This is adultery!”

What his approach lacked in subtlety it made up for in manipulativeness. He was saying to me – who had no such idea – you have gone too far to turn back now. You have nothing to lose so you had better continue in my direction.

Can I parse this with the aid of Bertrand Russell’s empiricism? I did experience a string of sense data, smells, sounds, visual patches, but taken in isolation they would have been entirely useless to me in that situation. Sure there are sense data but they are anchored in the reality of a married philosopher who enjoys institutional authority and is plotting to get a female grad student into his prurient clutches.

Looking across the channel, can the worldly French philosophers help in this situation? Let’s see.

“Adultery” is neighbor to “adulterate”which is proximate to “contaminate” which reminds me of … blah blah blah. It’s verbal vertigo and it doesn’t help.

Try again. The chair of department is in the central position. The grad student is at the margin. Okay. True enough. But I like the guy. I think he’s been clumsy and obvious, the opposite of the seductive devil he takes himself to be. My real chore at this point is to get past an awkward moment, where I am sincerely embarrassed for him, and get back to the real basis for our connection: institutional and philosophical.

There are real stories happening all about us. The best novels train us to notice them, as the best paintings train to see in the real world what they have captured on the painted world.

Ordinarily I stay away from ontology (the theory of being). And from metaphysics (the theory of the relations between whatever things have ultimate reality).

However, in this case, I venture into ontology or maybe metaphysics. Everything that is not a story is an abstraction – something lifted out of the richly textured story where originally it was found.

Our stories are the most real thing there is.

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Should the Dead Know Their Place?

Hamlet with Horatio and Marcellus being confronted by the ghost of Hamlet's father. Chromolithograph Illustration by Robert Dudley,1856-1858

Hamlet with Horatio and Marcellus being confronted by the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Chromolithograph Illustration by Robert Dudley,1856-1858

Should the Dead Know Their Place?

What are the dead up to? Are they just nonexistent? Many philosophers believe that and most would rather be annihilated than wrong.

Are they sleeping? After the great bloodbath of the American Civil War, in a poem called “The Blue and the Gray,” Francis Miles Finch wrote:

By the flow of the inland river,

Whence the fleets of iron have fled,

Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,

Asleep are the ranks of the dead …

One time, I began a class on Applied Ethics quoting these lines. We were going to discuss an essay titled “The Case of Ellen West.” It’s a case study in Existential Analysis by Ludwig Binswanger, who was reporting on his own purportedly successful treatment of a patient. His treatment had ended with her suicide, which Binswanger, her therapist, deemed a cure, in the sense that he had led her to a decision that showed praiseworthy authenticity!

So help me. I am not kidding. With the class, we went through each reported phase of his “treatment.” Under a different interpretation of her trouble, she could be seen as a woman who kept trying to free herself from confining stereotypes and whose therapist – instead of helping to find alternatives — kept reinforcing her sense of entrapment. Till finally she felt that there was no other way out.

When I began the hour with the line that said, “Asleep are the ranks of the dead,” I meant this ironically. I was really suggesting that Ellen West should not be kept safely tucked away among the sleepers. Because there was a terrible wrong to be righted, I wanted to say that she was still here among us. The case of Ellen West was not closed. This woman needed someone to speak for her!

It was night by the time the class ended. Our classroom was in an empty upper story of the building. We were shouldering bags and preparing to leave when one of the long, arched, many-paned windows blew open suddenly. Without thinking, I looked sharply toward the window, wondering automatically,

Is it Ellen?

As if he sensed the meaning of my look, one of the jocks walked – heavy step by skeptical step – toward the window and shut it firmly. As he turned to walk away, the window blew open again. Outside, it had not been particularly windy. The student looked over his shoulder briefly but did not attempt to shut the window a second time. So Ellen had got the last word – at last.

Recently, on C-span, I watched an author named Stephen F. Knott give a talk about his book, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. It’s a vindication of Hamilton, whose reputation never recovered from the defamatory fictions spread by Thomas Jefferson, his rival among the Founding Fathers of our republic. The musical, “Hamilton,” may have been influenced by Knott’s book, though Knott said it did not go far enough. There is also a Hamilton Awareness Society, formed in the belief that it is never too late to

speak truth

to the ruinous power of rumor.

All this – about our duties to the dead – brings me to my present problem. Most communications from the afterlife are pretty humdrum, of no interest except to immediate family. “Don’t feel bad that we never got to say goodbye.” “Glad you fixed the leak in the kitchen.”

You never read that a good philosopher died and is sending his latest philosophical views from the afterlife. The ones you hear about say things like, “Don’t be mean” and “God is love,” which you don’t have to study philosophy for thirty-five years to know.

So, when I happened to see a book title advertised, The After Death Journal of an American Philosopher: the World View of William James, I thought, oh well, let’s send for it and see.

The book arrived and, so help me, that’s William James! He was one of the best writers in the field of philosophy – ever. Lord [Bertrand] Russell is celebrated as a stylist, but his prose is rotund and purple compared to the lean, sinewy, American sounds of William James.

His brother was Henry James, the great novelist, so the family had talent to burn. The woman who claims to be transcribing the thoughts of William James is named Jane Roberts and she contributes her own Introduction and Epilogue. It’s plain that her prose has nothing like the fluency, philosophical continuity with his published work, and wide-angled view of his era and ours, which are displayed by her William James.

Here is James on the sheer awkwardness of his reappearance in print:

  • In so intruding upon your world and adopting such an unacademic method of expression, I am therefore dismissing as beneath my notice some very important psychological conventions. “Children should be seen and not heard.” The dead, it seems, are expected to remain unseen and unheard, polite enough not to intrude in the conversations of the living—who will only pretend not to hear, or at best try to find another “more logical” explanation. In this regard, I can be accused of having poor spiritual manners.

For my part, I long to cite this new-and-yet-recognizable James, whose opinions often seem to resemble views I’ve arrived at via trial and error, which he voices from what he terms his “seat in the balcony.”

But how would I do it? With a footnote that credits “James”? Without a book title, publisher, date of publication or city? Just “William James: You’ll Never Guess from Where”?

James exhibits clarity about the “poor spiritual manners” of his showing up at all. I wish I could be as clear about the “poor scholarly manners” of my citing him!

William James in Brazil, 1865

William James in Brazil, 1865

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