Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman

by Stefan Zweig.

It’s impossible to write a more definitive biography of Marie Antoinette, the unluckiest Queen of France, than the one by Stefan Zweig.  The biography combines the objectivity of a historian, the curiosity of a psychologist, and a novelist’s sympathy for his heroine.

She loved life’s pleasures, knew the art of pleasing, and — because of these personal flaws — went far toward putting the budget of France in the red.  She was excoriated in terms that expressed all the hatred that can befall a woman: as a she-wolf, a whore, the emblem of all the vices of her sex, a debauched female, a criminal mother, and on and on. At an earlier phase, anyone at court who won her favor was envied and the public went wild for her when she appeared in Paris.

 She had been the toast of the old regime.

 She became the she-devil of the new.

Her particular flaws were not uncommon ones, but they went unchecked under the regime of which she was the Queen. The consequences were such as to give her a starring role in the world-historical event that changed the political order of Europe: the French Revolution.

She was unlucky and did not know how to be lucky. The impotence of her bridegroom lasted seven years, by which time the young couple had attracted the voyeuristic attention and coarse humor of the whole nation. Though his condition was eventually corrected by surgery, the psychological effects were lasting. He could not play the man with her, nor with his realm when he had to. Erotically, they never became a couple, nor a good team when external threats swirled around them.

The famous “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” is too bizarre and improbable for me to comprehend, even after I read Zweig’s lucid explanation. She’d been the target of a pair of grifters who pretended that she’d ordered a staggeringly costly piece of jewelry. They implicated high-placed others in their scheme, by prevailing on them to advance the price of the necklace, supposedly on the Queen’s behalf. When the female swindler finally made her escape to England, she targeted Marie Antoinette with lurid pamphlets purporting to expose the Queen’s vices. Marie Antoinette was innocent of all the accusations connected with the necklace, but guilty of having lived so improvidently as to make them plausible to her ever-growing public of detractors.

She had one true love, and it wasn’t Louis XVI. Zweig, who assembles the evidence that this clandestine affair was consummated, argues in her defense that her marriage had been a contract of state between a girl of fifteen and the undeveloped, teenage Dauphin, for which union she had at length produced two children, thereby fulfilling her duties under the contract. Be that as it may, her lover, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen, adored her to the end, and beyond, as no one else did.

As her fortunes declined, the escape plan engineered by Count Fersen was thwarted at Varennes. She was confined, first to the palace in Paris and finally to a dark and comfortless cell. She had many chances to escape that last ride in the tumbril (the open cart) to the guillotine. She and Louis XVI bungled every one of them. Time was of the essence and they missed their moments almost unerringly.

Her case grew hopeless but she seldom failed to captivate those who were her captors – most especially the humble poor who saw a woman in misfortune – but sometimes even committed revolutionaries. By what were they captivated?

She was not a religious woman. By stages, she lost her reputation, her youth, her beauty. Even her children were taken from her. What then did she keep? She never failed in her invincible belief that she was the queen. It was a belief she shared with those who hated her the most — and with those who tried in vain to save her. Had she not embodied this queen-ness in every molecule of her being, and held fast to it through all the storms of that time, how could there have been so profound a reversal of a nation’s habits of chivalry and scorn as the French Revolution?

The crowned heads of Europe did little or nothing to save her, mourned her execution pro forma, and busied themselves with their king business: realpolitik and the securing of their own necks.

The bodies of the royals were thrown into a mass grave pit, covered in quicklime and, a few years later, no one knew where the Queen of France was buried.

Only one man poured into his memory all the ardor and devotion to which Marie Antoinette believed she had title by virtue of her queenship. To the end of his days, Count Fersen reproached himself for his failure to risk all and ride with her on the unsuccessful flight to Varennes in 1791. Even had the mob torn him to pieces, he reproached himself again and again in his journal: “Why, ah why, did I not die for her on the twentieth of June?” Strangely, on that very date nineteen years later, Fersen was torn to pieces by a Swedish mob, who hated him for many reasons, among them his unrepentant royalism.

It was only decades after the death of Marie Antoinette, when it was finally safe to remember her, that innumerable false memoires and forged letters began to appear, catering to a reborn taste for the unluckiest Queen of France.

By what were they captivated?

She seems to me to embody the predicament of being a woman: loved and hated, admired and scorned, for the very same qualities, forced to be Queen of France, forced to be the target of the French as they overthrew the monarchy. The bare-breasted woman in Delacroix’s painting, “Liberty at the Barricades,” is not a real person. She is a symbol. Marie Antoinette was not a symbol. She was a real person, who was regarded as a symbol, excoriated or adored depending on how one valued the symbol.

Most of us have a symbolic life and a real life. We are what we represent and what we really are. The problematic of our lives is to keep them in a prudent and credible balance. One could say that Marie Antoinette failed to keep that balance.

But perhaps she did not fail.

Perhaps she was a perfect Marie Antoinette.

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A Moral Crisis

Dante and Virgil
Gustave Doré’s illustration for The Divine Comedy, 1866

A Moral Crisis

In A Good Look at Evil, I portray a moral crisis as a time when one’s story comes to a stop.  The halt isn’t called because of an external obstacle.  It comes from within.

What causes this Full Stop?  It occurs when one can make no sense of one’s life story.

What’s a life story?

We land here, born with certain propensities, talents and vulnerabilities.  The place where, at birth, we arrive, is not a vacuum.  It’s full of physical and behavioral requirements.  Those who raise and care for us have their own trajectories, rhythms and beliefs.   They are also the filters through which we first meet the currents and views held within the wider culture.  More pressures and perspectives arrive with the other people and things we meet as we go along.  We absorb delights, shocks and threats, see vistas and project possibilities.

We have to navigate our way through all this, trying our best to preserve our felt sense of who we were at the start — while we learn the ropes.  Reality has many dimensions, so we have to keep correcting course as we search for the path that suits us best and can be achieved in real time.  With increasing maturity, we can articulate our purposes, share common tasks, and honor the reciprocities by which we live.

What all this adds up to is

our story.

Though it’s something like living a novel, our story can’t be called a fiction.  If (as is sometimes fashionably maintained nowadays) what we’re living were really a fiction, then we’d be nuts.  Since we’re not nuts, our real lives are nonfiction stories.

What can bring us to Full Stop is meeting something or someone that critically undercuts the story we’ve been living.  It can be an enemy who sees what we’re about and figures out where our vulnerabilities lie.  (Yes, there are such people.  It’s not all sugar and spice.  Sorry!)  Or it can be some mischance that upsets the delicate balance of our projects.  Or a loss of trust, or self-trust, or honor, that we didn’t even realize we needed.  Like as not, the people who stand nearby do not perceive how dark – for us — is the shadow that has fallen across our path.

Perhaps because I know that the scripts we actually follow might be invisible to others, I could talk two women friends out of committing suicide.  Though I heard them out patiently, I did not take at face value the reasons they gave for their despair.  Instead I looked for the invisible script behind their stated reasons.  The invisible script is not generic.  It’s different for each one of us.

In my life, right now,

I’m passing through a moral crisis.

As I wrote in last week’s column, I’d believed that my book had at last found its ideal publisher.  The signs and signals all seemed to promote this expectation.  My manuscript was submitted with an unusual degree of well-thought-out support from quarters this editor could not casually ignore.  The reasons she set down in her rejection letter were oddly inconclusive.  They were unlikely to have been her real reasons.

Meanwhile, during that very week, I was getting emails from people responding to the excerpts from Confessions of a Young Philosopher that I’d read at the Voegelin Society.  Academics don’t normally send high praise to relative strangers.  Yet here were eloquent emails, unsolicited.  To my mind, it was as if the puzzle pieces of protracted effort were coming together, after persistent waiting and working — and retaining intelligent hope.

A word about Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It’s not a book about my life.  It’s not an anemic young girl’s private diary.

It’s more like

a life about a book.

The hills and valleys of the life described in Confessions can only be understood as calling forth the book that now deciphers them.  What I lived makes sense only in terms of the lessons I drew and can in turn show others.  I was utterly resolved on drawing this sense out of two youthful episodes of my life’s story.  And I have no doubt that the book succeeds in doing what it set out to do.

Prior to the rejection letter, the favorable portents that appeared to surround this manuscript submission were quite striking.  Though I did not speak about it, I could scarcely help believing that Providence had waited for a moment that was exactly right before taking a hand.  My trust in the Unseen was being vindicated in a way better than anything I could have imagined.

As I described to Jerry the kind of blow this was, I realized that … the setback I was describing was precisely what A Good Look at Evil says that “evil” does: it finds the invisible script that supports the visible one.  It knocks that down.  It knows its target.  It controls its aim.

Confessions draws out the inner sense of the hills and valleys I’ve traversed.  It caters to nobody and to nothing.

How could I imagine that —

 in trying to make this book known — 

I could escape blows?

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Rejection Letters

Rejection Letters

It’s been quite a week.  After our time at the Eric Voegelin Society conference in Washington, which was satisfying both humanly and intellectually, one thing after another went bust.

First, on the Sunday train back to Trenton, my watch went bust.  I know, I know, you all get the time from your smartphones.  I get as little as I can from my smartphone.  Don’t want to walk around with a crick in my neck from being all bent over.  Don’t want to miss the world with its sights and sounds.

That makes my wristwatch an important prop.  Since I lack a good spatial sense, I never know quite where I am.  If my watch gives me the time, then at least I can know when I am.  Sadly, the Labor Day weekend meant I would be stuck with the crick-in-the-neck contraption until Tuesday.

On Monday, the “broiler element” in our oven went bust.  It gave off sparks and tongues of fire.  Should we call the Fire Department?  No, it subsided and then went dark.  We called the Appliance Man.  He ordered a new whatchamacallit.  It would arrive by the end of the week.

Next, my printer went bust.  Nowadays you can’t be a starving writer in a garret.  The ink cartridges alone cost too much.  You need a day job.  Negotiating the new printer, black like the old one, took several days and multiple stages.

But all this is background music, the kind they used to play in old movies whenever the killer walked on set, be the set a drawing room, a train or a box at the opera.   That way you knew he was around.  In those days, people needed a lot of mood setting.

The main events were yet to come:

THE REJECTION LETTERS.

The first email came on Monday.  It was from the respected editor of a review magazine for which I have high regard.  This same editor had recently published an essay of his own in another magazine – one that was lucid, plainspoken and brave.  What is more, he had earlier expressed a direct and personal interest in the article I proposed to write.  There would be no chain of command to climb.  The head man would be reading it and deciding the matter.

So … no and nyet and nadaDas Nichts nichtet, as Heidegger would say.  The Nothing nothings.

But (I was urged by the editor) stay in touch.  I write well and what I have to say is new and one learns from it.  “This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.”  [I am quoting.]

Meantime, for the past three or so weeks, Confessions of a Young Philosopher has been in the hands of the most suitable editor I could imagine for it.  Not only that.  The MS had the backing of one of her authors, who quotes liberally from Confessions and makes it the focus of one of his chapters, in a book this editor is currently publishing.  Confessions was also submitted accompanied by strong endorsement from the most justly admired and accoladed figure at that publisher’s hierarchy.  If ever I had reason to expect an acceptance, it was here and now, at long last.  Instead,

“Dear Abigail L Rosenthal,

Thank you so much and, by the way,

NO.”

How intensely and recognizably human — this cascading series of let-downs!  In other words,

I could make no sense of it at all.

The time had come to visit my equine friends.  Horses are four-legged, with big brown eyes, and unequivocally normal.  They send no rejection letters.

They accept me.

After a little time in the saddle, I settled into a more relaxed and rhythmic walk.  Serena, my trainer, asked me what this rejection meant to me.  I said it felt like a physical blow, but that I always persist in an effort to realize a reasonable purpose unless and until I learn – with no misunderstanding possible – that I’ve exhausted all the possibilities.

Cali (short for “California”), the horse under my saddle, twitched one large brown ear.

Serena, who can “talk horse,” said that Cali thinks I haven’t yet run through all the possibilities.  I tend to take Cali’s opinion to heart.

“Are you religious?” Serena asked me.

“Yes.”

Earlier this week, Serena said, she’d copied down a verse from Second Corinthians.  This is what she read me, as near as I can remember.

We are afflicted in every way, 

but we are not crushed;

 perplexed, but not driven to despair;

persecuted but not forsaken;

struck down,  

but not without a way out.

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Womanly Arts

“A Woman at Her Toilet”
Titian, circa 1515

Womanly Arts

At the Eric Voegelin Society conference we attended this week in D.C., Jerry and I were on a panel entitled “Life as a Spiritual Journey.”  They went awfully well — both of our (totally different) presentations.

For the record, I should note that I am always half-sick before these things.  On the roster of experiences that induce high anxiety, speaking in public is generally ranked near the top.  Right up there with divorce, getting fired and life-threatening medical diagnoses.

Nevertheless, two people thanked me feelingly afterward, and two others said they wanted to read the rest of the story.  What I’d read was a distillation of “Paris without End,” one of the early chapters from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It told what Paris signaled to me when I was a young Fulbright grantee, away from home for the first time.

Among the impressions: the American effort to maintain integrity over/against the seductions of Paris – the most beautiful city in the world; the shakeout from the German Occupation of Paris, seen in the “existentialist” belief that values – if they could be so overturned and inverted – must be arbitrary or “absurd”; the marxist proposed cure for the fragility of values, which was to set them aside entirely, until they could be founded anew on a new and purified economic basis.  (As we say in Brooklyn: believe that and I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.)

Then there were the thoroughly unofficial concerns of my American women friends.  We were full of surface idealism and subsurface fears.  Of what were we afraid?  We feared (though we were too scared to spell it out in plain words) that, when and as time chipped away at our youth – and with it our power to attract – our vaunted ideals would begin to seem mere phrases, without substantive heft or appeal.  High-sounding, empty words.  On paper, we could make a case for the coinciding of our values and our feminine reality.  But …

we weren’t living on paper. 

At the Q & A, one of the questions prompted me to reflect on the difference that feminism had made to this predicament.

“On the one hand,” I said, “feminism has given us years.  You don’t have to feel it’s all over, once you’re past 23” – as we all had felt or feared.

On the debit side: feminism has denied that there is such a thing as femininity, or that the two sexes are different in any important respect.

“That means,” I concluded incautiously, “if I have a problem as a woman, I would never go to a Public Feminist.”  I would find a woman friend – a civilian!

One of the people who thanked me afterwards was a man who had two daughters, one on the brink of adolescence.  He hadn’t a clue how to guide or protect them, in the face of the culture’s denial that there is, or could be, any problem.  He has two sons as well, and he doesn’t know what to tell them either, now that the traditional masculine virtues are being treated as flaws.

“Femininity,” I responded, “is an art.  So is masculinity.  To master an art, you need models who have themselves mastered it.  Also, as with painting in oils, you need to know the medium, what it can and cannot do.”

Simone de Beauvoir begins volume II of her brilliant and courageous book, Le Deuxieme sexe, the book that, with its publication in 1949, launched the feminist movement in the twentieth century, with this sentence:

On ne nait pas femme: on le devient.

“One is not born a woman.  One becomes it.”  That is true.  Femininity is, at least in its social component, the result of an acculturation.  And it was de Beauvoir’s great contribution to show how this “becoming,” this acculturation, was shot through with features that diminished the women who emerged at the end of the process.

One learns it, this womanization process.  But one also learns every function we have that is not autonomic: the prehensile thumb and how to use it; language; upright bipedal carriage; one’s name, and many more etceteras.  Nor are we the only species that requires acculturation.  Animals of many other species need to learn how to function effectively within their species constraints, inherited and environmental.  It doesn’t follow that what they learn is arbitrary in the sense of “made up” out of whole cloth.  If it were, the young ones would not survive to adulthood.

Every woman knows that you can bungle your professional life and that you can also bungle your womanly life.  In either case, you might fail to gain your objective because of strategic mistakes or because of circumstances beyond your control.  The failure could be remediable in the former case, tragic in the latter case.

That said, the method that conducts to success on the professional track is separate and distinct from the art that will work in the case of womanly fulfillment.

That is so obvious as not to need saying.  Except that today, as we’re told,

you can’t say it.

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Is Beauty for the Birds?

Is Beauty for the Birds?

We set up our deck fountain fairly late this summer and — as a result, it seemed – no birds came.  For weeks, they just stayed away.  This was very disappointing, since we watch them while we talk about deep things over breakfast.

We reasoned that, when they saw no fountain in June or July, they formed other habits, collected around other water coolers for their gossipy bird socializing, and that birds – like the rest of us – are much inclined to groupthink. The word must have got out not to come here.

So imagine our untrammeled delight when, after many featherless weeks, one and then another began to visit our fountain!  At first, there were only wrens or sparrows.  Little pale, unpretentious things.  They didn’t “flock” to our fountain.  A lone bird would poke a wary little beak in the water, turn and look scared, and fly fast away.

But little by little, bird by bird, they began to congregate.  Even lordly cardinals have now joined, in their elitist style — squawking indignantly and lashing out with beaks aggressively when the lesser wrens and sparrows presume to share the space of the fountain.

It doesn’t seem fair to me — since there’s surely room on the rim for all — but beauty has its own preeminence.

Last night, I just finished a book with the title, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, by a writer on aesthetic subjects named Roger Scruton.  I’ve not done work in aesthetics as a philosophical field. I did used to paint, when we owned the house on Bayview Street, setting up my easel in the attic of the barn overlooking Narraguagus Bay.  When I look up now from my computer, one of those scenes of the bay is on the wall above my head, smiling down.

So why am I not interested in aesthetics?  I’ve sensed that, to discuss topics like taste, beauty, art – what are they? – you need to maintain a certain distance from the phenomena.  I’ve got no distance.  For example, it’s said that, to fully appreciate fictional narratives, you’ve got to “suspend disbelief.”  I’ve got no disbelief to suspend.

Scruton raises the question of whether “beauty” is entirely subjective, or actually has certain objective features.  His question reminded me of something I’ve long believed:

people can’t live without beauty.

If everything around them is ugly, people get hopeless.  Even the most relativistic sophisticates choose lovely environments for themselves to live in.  So it can’t be quite true that there is no disputing over taste, that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, or that there is nothing objective about beauty.

Tourists all over the world come to see the great monuments to artistic and architectural genius.  They come to see the Taj Mahal and the Sistine Chapel.  They don’t come to see housing projects or your average factory.

Scruton wants to account for this need, this responsiveness, this consensus.  There must be something real about beauty, something deep, something attached to the terra firma on which we stand by nature – not just by convention.

By the same token, we can generally sense that there is something ugly about rudeness, cynicism, pornography, or propaganda.

This isn’t something I’ve reflected about before now, or written about in any philosophical article.  Ordinarily, I don’t even like to think about it.  It’s too private, too personal, too precious and vulnerable a subject.

 Too sacred.

There.  I said it.  Beauty is a clue to the qualitative side of life.  The deepest truths of our lives are not quantifiable.  Rather, they express a certain natural fit between

the inwardness of things

and their outward form. 

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The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Pierrot by Jean-Antoine Watteau (circa 1718-1719)

I’m reading a book by a philosopher named Susan Wolf about the meaning of life.  Or rather, about the importance of meaning in a good life.

What prompts such a book? you may ask.  Susan Wolf explains that philosophers have been discussing, and differing over, whether it’s better to seek selfish happiness or some universal moral objective in one’s life.  Her contention is that there’s a third thing people seek, or should seek: meaning.

So what gives meaning to a human life?  She thinks two factors confer it.  First is pursuing one’s passion.  Second: one’s passion should be for something that’s got objective worth.

There is a wide range of desiderata that can meet these double requirements.  One can have a passion for philosophy, for example, or for making fine pastries.  Both have “objective worth” in that many people value them.

What concerned me, reading her book, was another matter.  What leads anyone to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”

Most people alive and literate today encounter claims that life is meaningless or absurd.  Different reasons are advanced to support this conclusion.  Here are some of them.

  • We die, all the people who know and care about us also die, and pretty soon no one will know we were ever here.
  • Compared to the size of the universe, or universes, we are but a speck. Too small to matter.
  • Compared to the timeline of this universe, our span of life is too short to matter.
  • All our deepest beliefs, our concepts of self and of value, are fabrications, constructed by the socially dominant group within our culture.

Had enough?  I think I’ll stop there.

Re #1, that’s an empirical question.  There’s a fact of the matter.  Either we die when our bodies die, or we don’t, because we aren’t identical with our bodies.  It’s a real question.  The answer isn’t self-evident.  There is relevant empirical evidence to consider.  I’ll bracket that question for now.

Have you noticed something about 2 – 4?  These next three reasons are highly generic and abstract.  They’ve been introduced into the culture by theorists.  If you’ve embraced them, you’ve pressed into your personal worldview theories that come from outside your experience.  I’ll just say a word or two about these broad claims.

About 2 and 3: why should our filling x amount of time or space decide our importance?  A poem can take less than five minutes to recite and yet be marvelous to hear.  A sympathetic pat on the hand can rebuild the whole world for someone who feels abandoned.

About 4: however derived, if our concepts don’t fit us, we will wear them as uneasily as a pair of shoes that’s the wrong size or shape for our feet.   If it doesn’t fit, we can keep trying till we get a concept that fits better.

Now for the real question:

when does this wondering

about the meaning of life

arise?

It arises naturally just when our own life seems meaningless to us.  When does that happen?

In my life, when suddenly all of it seems grey and pointless – the grey extending as far as the horizon — when I can’t find a reason to take another step, the most urgent thing is to find out why I suddenly feel this way.  It’s important to ask that question without delay, because the feeling itself seems quite cosmic, as if there’s no reason to seek its cause because it’s just the way things are.

The question to ask is, what was the trigger, or precipitating occasion?  Often it’s something very small, a sensation or an encounter that triggers a memory.  Something has bumped one’s functions or forces out of alignment.  We are more delicate, more easily disaligned than we realize.

What fashionable contemporary thinkers call the absurdity of life either reflects some personal quandary that they’ve not seen and resolved, or else some highly theoretic claim coming to them from opinion-shapers and embraced to show that they too are in the vanguard.

Life comes to us already purposive.  Every living thing has purposes.  Ours are more individuated, conscious, complex and adjustable, but

there is no purposive void.

 

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“Two Views”

“Two Views”

This is the aerial view of Narraguagus Bay and the same bay, painted as I saw it from the attic of our old barn.

We are back there this week, visiting old friends in Washington County, Downeast Maine. It’s good to be home again.

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