“Thankfulness”

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914).

Abbie is unable to write a new column this week because she and her husband, Jerry Martin, are stuck in Denver, CO, where a succession of flights home have been canceled. She and Jerry were in Denver for a fascinating “Theology Without Walls” conference. TWW is a growing subfield (founded by Jerry) within the American Academy of Religion. So, with fervent apologies and best Thanksgiving wishes to her beautiful readers, here she is, posting one of her favorite reruns.

The other day, in the Saturday morning Torah Study class at my Reform temple, we were studying the verses on the ancient temple cultus detailed – and I mean detailed – in the Book of Leviticus. My patience with these Memory Layers of My People does not extend quite to the recall of all this ritual punctiliousness – but nobody said being a Jew was going to be joy unalloyed.

Anyway, some of the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus express gratitude or thankfulness. I remarked that thankfulness had always been hard for me. I mean, I can say “thanks!” to my Creator, just as I can thank a hostess for a pleasant evening, even if every minute of it was spent longing for the exits.

But God is not flattered by my politeness.

After the study hour, several co-religionists came up to me to tell what sorts of things they’d been grateful for in their lives and how many blessings I could count on my own.

I can count as well as the next lady, but that wasn’t what I was talking about.

In my remarks, I’d also noted that one could “take it from the bottom,” as it were, and –starting from zero – reckon up the ingredients that go into the lives we get to live. Doing that can give rise to a certain cosmic awe.

That satisfied some of the parishioners but did not get to the quick of the deficiency I was confessing. I was talking about personal sincerity – not awe at things everybody sees and shares. If somebody gives you a present, which he gives to no one else, and your thanks are just generic – the kind the postman deserves for delivering the mail to everyone in your district – there’s something missing in your gratitude.

The personal stamp.

It seemed to me that, if I were to get to real thankfulness, a kind of archeological dig would be needed, digging down to some original layer of self. The over-layers must be where the “politeness” resides: the person who’s not-really-me offering tribute To Whom It May Concern.

If thankfulness has got to come from the authentic self – well, who am I? Recently I got a clue.

Last Saturday, in Torah Study, I was really teed off about a theme that seemed to be settling like a miasma over the discussion. I was steaming, and the odd thing was, my guidance was for letting the anger show – rather than trying to keep the polish on the façade. Since this sort of prayer guidance seldom leads me astray, when it came my turn to speak, I pretty much said what I’d been thinking. I didn’t say it in a polished way. As recapped below, it sounds like a coherent thesis. But in fact it was fairly raw and broken.

What made me so angry was the seemingly benign theme of oneness and unity. If God is a unity, then the Jewish people – or people in general – should likewise put aside all selfishness and try to meld into a seamless whole. The example given was the kibbutz, the voluntary collective community typical of Israel’s pioneering days.

“I have to dissent from the consensus,” I said. “In the entirety of Hebrew Scripture, nowhere is that kind of collective idealized. What God asks of us is to become ourselves, not dissolve into the One. The uniqueness of the God of Israel calls forth our personal distinctiveness. The unity of the kibbutz — or of the covenant sign-up moment at Mt. Sinai — is freely given but also summoned by exceptional circumstances. There’s great danger in trying to extend such moments by remaking the entire political realm after that pattern. Individuality will keep breaking through and the only way to maintain the ”ideal” of unity is by terrorizing the population. During the French Revolution, any outbreak of personal freedom risked denunciation, generally followed by decapitation — your real head getting chopped off.

“Today, unguarded outbreaks of candor risk social and professional decapitation. Unlike the French prototype, we have no official Committee of Public Safety. But a similar instrument, Political Correctness, does the work of Denunciation – for racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia and whatever other Thought Crimes will be invented tomorrow. The hapless target is ostracized as “insensitive.” What is at work is not sensitivity but the power of The Denouncers to exercise control – over language and therefore over thought.”

Sometimes, when I’ve dissented from a group consensus, people have come over to thank me for my honesty. This time, not so much – though the rabbi’s response was pure grace. With a couple of exceptions, people looked away and stole away.

Lord, I thought, there goes the old popularity!

I felt that what I’d said was truthful and that the other students were grownups, who shared the real world with me and were not in need of soft soap. Still, I felt spooked.

Back home, I took out my tools for psychic “archeology” and dug down through the layers. What really had moved me to talk like that?

All I could see, at the bottom of my anger, was a loving regard for my co-religionists – and a quasi-erotic elan toward the God who had put me in that place and nourished such feelings in my heart till they became full and real.

So that’s who I am?

The thankfulness came in the same cloudburst of discovery. 

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Incredulity

Francisco de Goya: Boys Climbing A Tree
ca. 1791

The incredulity I’m talking about doesn’t concern entities like the Loch Ness monster. If that creature could be caught, dragged ashore, and the body sent to an appropriate laboratory that later issued a report detailing the evidence for its reality, our Loch Ness skeptic could become a believer with no strain at all. That’s because the Loch Ness question can be settled empirically.

But the Body of God can’t be dragged into a lab for authentication. It’s just not that kind of entity. Nor can the question of God’s existence be settled by a debate. The only thing at issue in such a forum is, who won? The better debater has no need to defend the truer view.

On the God question, the only debate that’s near and dear is the one being conducted in a person’s own private mind. That one doesn’t stop when the bell rings. It can go on over a lifetime.

Take my own case. At the time when I began teaching philosophy, I described myself as an atheist. There were a couple of other views I then held that probably provided support for my unbelief with regard to God.

One such view was that, in order for anything definite to enter our conscious awareness, it had to enter in words. Outside of language, I believed, nothing distinct could become conscious. (This opinion was one I had drawn from a humanistic reading of Hegel, but never mind that now.)

“That’s not true,” objected my then colleague David Massie. “Animals are conscious.”

I pondered that one for about a minute and decided that he was obviously right. So … I gave up my previous view. Why walk around burdened with a view that’s not true? Put that suitcase-full-of-rocks down and travel lighter!  

What part of me was changed, as a result of this argument with my colleague? I now counted myself included in a wider domain of conscious awareness. After that, as far as I can recall, when I’d be by myself in wild nature, I’d feel less inclined to think myself all alone. To me, the silences became more populated and friendly.

The second view I gave up concerned determinism. While I didn’t think that every cause had to be material (ideas could act on other ideas, I thought, and emotions on other emotions), I did not see how to break out of the entire realm of criss-crossing causal chains without making the world unintelligible. (I was a Spinozist, but never mind that now.)

My change of view came about after a long argument with the philosopher John Bacon, my first husband. At this point, I can’t clearly recall how that argument went, but my guess is that John would have pointed out how much of common usage (expressions like, “That’s an outrage!” or “What a fine thing to do!”) would have to be discarded if there were no actual free agents to do the outrages or the fine deeds. Since I had in mind to write something on the topic of evil – because I had met with evil in my experience and hadn’t been able to find anything useful on that topic among the philosophers I’d read – I had to either give up the project or concede that it had moral freedom as its implication.

Did all this have anything to do with belief in God? It cleared away some roadblocks. Since, if there is divine consciousness, it would be manifest in many ways besides audible words, and since, if divine judgments are to be fair, they would require the commended or condemned to have been able to act otherwise, the two changes of view described above paved the way for my theistic turn. But I did not start believing in the God I now pray to because of a philosophical argument!

That turn occurred in my life when I was real scared and needed help from Someone close enough to see my problem, but see it a lot better than I could, and knowing enough to convey very precise instructions to me. In other words, I needed advice – badly! I mean on things like when to leave the apartment, which direction to take walking – that kind of advice! Not the kind you get from a competent therapist, a good woman friend, or even a great philosopher.  

I’m talking real 

minute-by-minute 

advice!

What I suspect happened was that certain experiences suffered in my twenties had knocked the pins out from under an earlier, more primal, non-creedal sense of cosmic trust.   

In what had I trusted, in childhood and adolescence? In an Unseen – but helping – Hand. I’d had loving parents and a Jewish inheritance that simply took for granted its intelligent awareness of life’s transcendent openness.

Thus God,

when it came down to it.

By the time I really needed a Hand, the barriers had been cleared away dialectically. So I simply reached up and took the Hand I needed.

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Fine Tuning and Blunt Retooling

Horses, soldiers, mechanics, and the Angel of Annunciation
Leonardo da Vinci ca.1503

Lately I’ve been reading a lovely little book by Owen Gingerich, Harvard Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science. It’s titled God’s Universe, and – as you can guess – its aim is to make clear that faith and science, rightly understood, need not be enemies.

On the basis of what we now know about statistics and probability, Gingerich argues (here citing Pierre Lecomte du Nouy) that, were life and the formation of DNA on our planet to have come about by chance, “‘an infinitely longer time than the estimated duration of the earth’” would be required “‘in order to have one chance … to manifest themselves’” and the origin of life by chance should therefore “‘be considered as impossible in the human sense.‘”

Furthermore, there are “incredible odds … against the chance formation of a protein molecule.” To overcome those odds, we would have to postulate “the catalysts and unknown pathways that enable the formation of life… . But is not the [hypothetical] existence of such pathways also evidence of design?”

Long ago, Plato colorfully called the ancient war between contenders for a divine reality and the materialists as “the battle of the gods and the giants.”

The warriors haven’t changed much, but are we sure that the battle lines are rightly drawn at present? In the Gingerich version, we have the materialists on one side attributing all we see and are to the operations of impersonal (“blind”) forces plus chance. Whereas, on the opposing (providential) side, we suppose an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (O-O-O) God whose eye is on the subatomic particles, on all the molecules, on every organ of every living body, on the sparrow, and you and me – everywhere with the same intensity and care.

Would there be any other way to analyze the battle?

Well, we could relax some of the claims of Providential control. Mark Twain depicts Noah’s Ark riding over the bounding waves while, behind the Ark, a dinosaur paddles desperately, having learned of the Flood too late to haul its huge body up the gangplank in time.

Doesn’t it rather seem as if God proceeds somewhat the way we do — by trial and error? If not, why create a planet populated with gigantic, terrifying reptiles and then — perhaps with a well-aimed asteroid? — consign that entire species to the dustbin of pre-history?

All over the planet, Jewish Torah Study classes are now rereading the Book of Genesis. It sure looks as if God starts the human story with Plan A, in a Garden where we’re practically on first-name terms with our Creator, run around naked and haven’t a care in the world.

And then somehow (never mind how, that would take too long) Plan A does not work out.

With Plan B in effect after that, God gives us scope to work, procreate, have sibling rivalry and lots of sexual sin. (At least, that seems to be how the rabbis interpreted the excesses of the generation before the Flood.) Plan B concludes with God’s promise to Noah not to wipe us out again despite our regrettable flaws. At this point, certain basic rules are laid down for the human race: the Noachide commandments. Don’t murder, steal, and so forth. You can look ’em up.

After the Flood, we’re on Plan C. Soon enough, human beings feel sufficiently revved up to combine their skills and speech into a human-engineered, piled-up superstructure — where elites can strut around like gods — in a system controlled and unified from the top down. With the aim of pulling down this political ziggurat — by generating diverse languages and cultures — God does what God can to prevent that delusive utopia from disfiguring the ancient world.

Where does that leave us and God? This is the moment when God calls out an individual — and descended from that individual a people – focusing the divine purpose on one singular pilot project. When Abram hears the Lech Lecha — “Get thee up and get thee out!” – he obeys it with what you might call discerning wholeheartedness. He fights when he has to, divvies up the spoils of war and later, disputed land use, with impartial fairness. He seems altogether a higher-order sort of man. And yet, when the ruler of Egypt covets his beautiful wife, Abram passes her off as his sister so as not to get killed on her account.

“Why,” asked one student, “didn’t God protect Sarai from Pharoah?”

“Because,” another student suggested, “God doesn’t solve all our problems for us. If God did, we’d have no need for our freedom.” 

In sum, if we credit the record in the Book of Genesis, we and God both proceed by trial and error. We and God have — 

a joint work-in-progress.

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Friendship’s End

Attic funerary stele ca. 380 BCE.
 Archeological Museum of Piraeus (Athens).

What else is there to record in a life except its possibilities for friendship? With what else could the political art be concerned? How else to measure a society or its relations between the sexes?

I am in the midst of facing a fact about a lifelong human relationship that is about as heavy, sad and undesirable as such a fact can get: 

a friendship’s end.

She doesn’t read this column, so I think I can write candidly about it here without making it any worse. There is nothing else so much on my mind as this: at the forefront and in the deep background as well.

We were that momentous combination: a lifelong friendship between two women. It began when we were young Fulbright scholars in Paris, standing in solidarity at the brink of womanhood. In those days, we called each other “girlfriends.” Woman friends would have sounded to our ears as if we’d stumbled into adulthood prematurely. It would have had the ring of a demotion.

We believed in feminine happiness. It wasn’t well defined. How could it be? It was the horizon of radiant possibility. True love was part of it but not the whole story. An element of transcendence seemed to us inseparable from the vector of the feminine. Being a music major, she had a pure singing voice and she taught me a song that began, “There’s a golden harp up in heaven for me,” and affirmed, in the final stanza, 

Well you touch one string

and the whole heavens ring …

Girls can hardly help shaping their lives contrapuntally to the lives of their mothers. In Paris, my friend did not tell me much about her mother; only that she was “a southern lady” — which was why my friend had early resolved never to become that. By which she meant starchy, artificial and dominated by mindless group mores.

Once we were back in the American setting, the rather brutal newly- wedded state she’d gone home to, and the self-concealments I went home to, made us almost unrecognizable to each other. We broke it off for some years. By the time we regathered our love for each other, she was single again, as I still was, both of us having outlived the earliest crystallizations of our youthful hopes. By then, we might even have admitted to being “women friends.”  

Our revived friendship still contained its original essence: whatever had happened to each of us, whatever we had done or suffered, we could still reach back and touch that “one string”… .

When she married again, she and her second husband spent their honeymoon driving from New Orleans north to the little town in Downeast Maine where my first husband and I were taking care of the house I’d inherited. So, quite an expenditure of gasoline, romantic longing and hope of reunion! Say what you like – at least it’s not cynical.

Bit by bit, I came to learn that her mother had not just been a Southern lady. That was the least of it. She’d been a living, moving tower of hatred! I met that mother only one time, but she was the coldest being I’d ever come into proximity with that was still organic. She’d hated my friend while still in the womb and beat her in infancy.

My friend’s second husband turned out a devout atheist — an outlook that seemed almost hygienic, compared with the bullying religiosity of her mother and sister. His atheism, which she came to share, was accompanied by certain shifts in focus: the vertical vector – her youthful upward look – was traded for gourmet cooking, skillful foreign travel down the rivers of Europe in his boat, and civic engagement when they were home.

I paid little attention to these minute shifts. Am I my woman-friend’s keeper?

Our second breakup came, at her instigating, when I deeply and truly married again, to Jerry, at long last. Never mind what the prompt was. Ostensibly, political differences. We flew to visit her, in the city where she and her husband then lived, pursuing my vain hope of resolving these differences. Their reception had a chilled formality about it. They described their current projects but asked nothing about our lives.

That evening, a subconjunctival hemorrhage struck one eye. We got emergency treatment for me at a facility near our hotel. I was just stepping out of that urgent care center and onto the night street when, by bizarre chance, we bumped into philosophical friends — from Australia! It was almost impossible but there was David M. Armstrong and his wife Jenny! We hadn’t even realized that there was a philosophical conference in town. Standing together on the night street, I told David and Jenny the story. 

“Will you ever see her again?” Armstrong asked sympathetically.

“Well, I won’t chase her.” I did however send a follow-up letter, reproaching my woman friend for letting differences resolvable in discussion do such personal damage, but saying I would always stand ready to rekindle our friendship. She did not reply.

Despite what I said to Armstrong, some years later I gave the lifelong friendship my third try. By then, her second husband had died and she was glad to resume our old connection. But there were odd roadblocks. She was not willing to meet in person, despite many opportunities. She seemed peculiarly indifferent to her adult daughter, in a way certainly not hateful, but uncomfortably reminiscent of her mother’s coldness. She seemed to ride blithely roughshod over the reasonable expectations of others in her life. She remembered more details of our Parisian year than I did, but showed little interest in my present life. I was just relieved to have our old connection back – the unbroken string – and did my best to make inward room for all these modifications.

My friend now lived in an urban environment where anti-semitism had become part of activist politics. Not only did she feel no objection to these new norms, but repeatedly tested my tolerance for them. Thus, over time, she became the only friend I had who I believed would rationalize a pogrom – though of course she would never participate in one physically. I wondered if she had finally become her mother. I noticed that, when I considered sharing these misgivings with her, I was scared! 

I felt that the worst mistake I could make as a friend would be to try to “help” her. She had shut down the vertical dimension. The best I could do for her was not to pretend it hadn’t happened but to notice that turn in her story and move away – to where I could still 

discern my own sky.

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Ancestors

My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.
My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.

How odd of God

To choose the Jews.

So goes the old rhyming joke, from I dunno who. Some Englishman perhaps.

But allow me to step in, on behalf of God, to explain why God did that. My explanation may count as an exercise in theodicy, the justification of the ways of God to humankind.

Put yourself in God’s sandals. The deity had already established a vast variety of relationships with our species, mediated by countless cultures. Prior to God’s call to Abraham, bonds with the divine could already be discovered in nature, in meditative practices, in chanting, rituals and extraordinary connections of countless kinds.

However, there remained one kind of divine-to-human relationship that God still needed to delineate, if a willing partner could be found. It’s the one between God and human beings in history: in the setting of real time and space, giving room for consequential actions affecting past, present and future. History includes not just the doing of deeds but the recording of them. And not only between people. God too leaves footprints in history. To keep the record of such interactions, the Creator needed the resources of an entire memory-ridden, write-it-down people, who would consent to do God’s bidding at least some of the time and – when they hadn’t – to record that too!

So there you have it. The Jews and their special assignment. For which they are hated — unnecessarily but quite predictably.

My first cousin died last Sunday. Though Nomi was my senior by some years, we occupied the same generational plane. Our mothers were sisters. We both remember our grandfather, who was once the chief rabbi of Odessa. There is a street in Jerusalem named after him and a neighborhood in Jerusalem named after Nomi’s father.

We met when I was still a child and she a young woman with tanned legs, vibrant black hair and overflowing youthful vitality. She was the first Sabra (native-born Israeli) I’d ever seen and I loved her on sight. I think the bond between us was instant and real, though life never gave us enough time together to figure it out. My recent trips to California for neuropathy treatments gave us a chance to meet in the final years, and to share with Jerry this life-spanning friendship.

Today I telephoned Orna, her daughter on the East coast, now back from the week of mourning in California. As our conversation lengthened, I decided to share with her some of the puzzle pieces of the family saga. I figured, for whom would I be saving them now – these precious secrets, this hidden epic?  Her mother and I had known them, turning them over and back in our conversations of the last years.  Now, “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” [Job 1:15-19].

The family saga shows a recurrent theme: when family figures in leadership roles come to the love-or-duty fork in the road, private preference submits to the demands of duty. They don’t marry their heart’s choice; they marry — or stay married — to the person with whom they can best carry out the role in which Jewish history has previously placed them. My mother was an exception: she did live her heart’s first choice, but others consequentially did not — and the personal costs are still detectable down each rung of the generational ladder.

I compare my own Jewish family epic with the two described in a recently recorded conversation between playwright Tom Stoppard, author of the much acclaimed “Leopoldstadt,” and Edmund de Waal, whose book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, was earlier reviewed here. Stoppard, born Tomáš Sträussler, left Europe in 1939 – an infant in the arms of his fleeing family. He was 56 years old before he found out he was Jewish. De Waal, his interlocutor, is only one quarter Jewish, though that fraction occupies a disproportionately large space in his mind. 

Both writers had roots in Vienna, where their families had lived the precarious drama of assimilation, the effort “to continue as a Jew without insult.” At one point, the writers’ conversation turned to the Wittgensteins, who walked the same tightrope in Vienna, but believed that – with the insulation of great wealth and the family’s huge service to the state – they’d be exempt from the Nazi liquidation policy.  One day, one of them (not the philosopher) “came into that home, pale with shock,” saying, “we count as Jews!” The chosen people bears this special insignia of their chosenness:

they can’t be above it.

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God’s Orders

Detail from “Creation of Adam”
Michelangelo, c 1512

God’s Orders

In the past fortnight, I did something whose consequence makes it possible for me to return to the temple from which I’d walked away last March.  I had private zoom conversations with two temple leaders who had, I believed, unjustly diverted blame to me in a case where I’d been a persistent, and finally effective, whistle-blower in defense of women congregants and the temple’s reputation. 

Never mind what was said or not said in those two private conversations. Some misunderstandings have been clarified.  Some accountability more rightly directed.  Suffice it to say that I am a woman as concerned for her honor as dueling men were at one time said to be, and that I deem my honor now satisfied.

Prior to these recent conversations, I’d made a separate peace with the after-shocks of that fight to oust the bad actor.  It seemed to me that self-repair demanded withdrawal from the site of so much suffering.  I had walked away and my private wounds now seemed about as healed as they would ever be.  I seldom thought of it.  Meanwhile, at the local Chabad, I’d found comfort in their pre-modern purity of spirit — balm in Gilead for the weary wanderer.

So now my connection to my temple is repaired and all’s well that ends well.  That said, do I have any lingering concerns at this point?  Well, only that having those two restorative zoom conversations had not been my idea.  Then whose idea were they?  Please don’t think I’m nuts but they were – to the best of my knowledge and belief — 

divine commands.

It’s not the first time that I’ve acted on what I have deemed prayer guidance.  After all, that’s what I did when, reluctantly, I first got into the long fight at the temple.  But the recent instance included a new feature.  There did not seem to be any space reserved for me to step back and say, “Yes, I consent.  I freely choose to do what I believe You are asking me to do.”

It felt as if

I had no choice!

At breakfast, I shared my latest concern with Jerry.  He asked, “What was it that disturbed or disconcerted you about that?”

I took some time during the day to ponder Jerry’s question.  It seemed to me that I was mainly concerned to know if I’d stepped outside my own nature.  Had I done something not native to me — eccentric or bizarre for Abbie?  Was I now like Charlton Heston playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” who comes back from the burning bush encounter, newly coiffed, with stand-up blue-grey hair, looking and talking more like a mechanized prop than the nice Israelite/Egyptian boy-on-the-run whose adventures we’d been watching up to now.  

If the command I’d received was not mediated through me, with time included for me to make my own decision pro or con, then who was the person who’d carried out the command?  Was she still Abbie, the girl I’d been before? 

Philosophically, there seemed to be two well-trodden approaches to this kind of question: the Aristotelian and the Kantian.  Let’s take Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) first.  For him, right action is the expression of one’s nature at its best.  The Greek term for virtue is arete, excellence.  To act virtuously is to apply the action called for.  The virtuous person habitually acts so as to bring about the best feasible outcome, choosing the best means.  To do so is to be in character, undistorted, as nature intended one to be.  It takes practice, training, and good models to get to the point where one is oneself, but the Aristotelian aim is achievable.

But I was not exercising arete.  What I did, in holding the two conversations, was not an expression of personal virtue.  It was a response – I daresay a scared response – to a divine command.  The framework was theistic – not naturalistic.  So I was not exactly “being myself.”   Aristotle might have thought Abbie had gone round the bend.

What would Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804) say?  His view gives all the more credit to persons who act under duty’s stern command, even when their nature pulls the opposite way.  This “all the more” approves the reluctantly dutiful act because it best exhibits the will’s freedom to choose.

But the odd thing, about my obedience to the divine command, was that I did not feel as if I had any choice!  So this was not a case of obedience to duty, freely self-imposed in the Kantian sense.  Nor, as we have seen, was it an expression of natural excellence in the Aristotelian sense.

It was more like feeling God’s hamsin – hot desert wind — at one’s back.  To resist the hamsin is not merely unwise.  It’s closer to unthinkable.

To return to Jerry’s question, what is it that disturbs me about that?  Is it a worry about my freedom, my autonomy?  Or is it something else?

It doesn’t feel as if my personal boundaries are being broken down so that I actually become another character — like Charlton Heston in the movie.  It doesn’t even feel “authoritarian.“  Rather it seems closer to intimate.  But not like the old married couple who’ve been in each other’s company so long that they can finish each other’s anecdotes.

It’s a very odd sort of intimacy – as if you can be fully close with something 

— a Being,

Someone –

rightly instructing me what I must do.

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Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

“The Golden Calf”
Vida Khadem, 2016

Does Anti-Semitism Have Sex Appeal?

Is it sexy to be anti-semitic?  Well, it must be, since it’s a mode of organizing human desire that just won’t quit.

In bygone times, when distaste for all-things-Jewish was naively proud of itself, it was taken as both normative and decorative – even in deep bohemian circles.  Nobody who counted took offense when Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century novelist, or Edgar Degas, the great painter of that era, expressed antipathies that related to Jews.  No fragment of glory got scraped off the monumental Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Dickens because they depicted Jews prejudicially.

At the same era, since opposites sometimes attract, the acceptable antipathies didn’t necessarily bar a person from passionate attachment to some singular exception, if she or he was so inclined.  Exceptions were tolerated, along with the prejudices. 

The news about the Holocaust did somewhat affect the naïve anti-semitism of pre-War days.  It had roughly the same impact that is said to follow when a mirror is put within view of the wino face down in the gutter.  Golly! says the wino.  If that’s how I look, it might be a good time to clean up!

Since I came to girlhood and young womanhood during that – wino in the mirror — pause in history, I mistook the pause for the play.

However, even back then I do recall reading about a conversation between two Jewish intellectuals as together (both looking like skeletons) they walked out through the newly-liberated gate of one of the death camps.

“Now,” said the first Jewish survivor to his friend, “the anti-semites will quit what they do.  After this at least, they’ll have to feel a bit embarrassed.”

“No,” replied the other, shaking his head.  “They’ll find a way to blame us for this too.” 

As I understand it, the Jewish vocation is to live – to suffer (in the sense of endure) and sustain – the covenant.  To keep it going as something actual.  It involves keeping and extending the continuous record of efforts to partner with God in history.  The Bible begins, but did not end, that record.  It can of course be betrayed or mismanaged, like any trust.  But an effort that shows such atypical persistence over millennia can’t accurately be defined by its failures. 

Is the Jewish vocation sexy?  Well, it can provide the setting for erotic relations of the most sustained, deep, and interesting kind. 

But back to our opening question: is anti-semitism sexy?  Since it’s coming back in style, it’s surely gaining in sex appeal.   So what is the eros of anti-semitism?  What makes it seem attractive, and the wearer seem desirable? 

I’ve heard more than one non-Jewish tinkerer with anti-semitic postures express low-boil frustration at the Election of the Jews.  However, I’ve never felt that such seeming envy is sincere.  After all, if one takes Jewish “chosenness” to be delusive, then it’s pitiable.  And if one takes it at face value, to be serious and real, one can convert.  Conversion is challenging, but not beyond reach.  It’s still an option.

So envy can’t by itself sufficiently explain the newly a la mode anti-semite, nor furnish the necessary erotic draw.  Whence its renewed appeal?  Wherefore its sexiness?

Sorry, but I’m kinda stumped.  Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with.  You know those orgiastic scenes in the technicolor Bible movies of yore?  Recall Charlton Heston up on the mountain getting the ten commandments on the two stone tablets from God?  And meanwhile the Israelites wax doubt-filled and impatient as they wait for him at the foot of the mountain?

The best I can offer is borrowed from the Hollywood choreographers who had to show what betraying the covenant looks like when you’re disclosing its hot side only: the bewitched leaping in the air, the bedazzled shinnying on the ground, and the inexhaustible dancing, dancing and dancing round and round and round the uh, er … golden calf ?

The golden calf?  But that’s not a real god.  The calf’s an obviously contrived prop-room gizmo, hurriedly put together out of earrings (Exodus 32) that the dancers donated!  Why deploy the vast scenario, the gyrating, leaping orgy, around a prop like that?

Well, the real mountain is a tough climb.  Those two Mt Sinai tablets are made of heavy stone.   Actual reality’s kinda uncomfortable.

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What a Woman Needs is Philosophy

Illustration from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology

What a Woman Needs is Philosophy

Let’s say there is some connection between how you live and what you think.  And let’s say philosophy, which in Greek means love of wisdom, gives you the chance to see how your own thinking process might relate to the recorded history of the best (or most influential) thinkers who tried to connect their thinking with how we do conduct our lives or how we ought to live.  And let’s say you’re a woman, trying to do that philosophic relating.  How does that go?

Well, I can’t speak for other women, but I can report on how it’s gone for me.  

In the beginner’s classes that I took as an undergraduate, philosophy was dazzling but also thoroughly disorienting.  It was like walking into a play in the middle of Act 2 or 3.  I had no idea why the players were arguing with each other on some points, while taking others for granted – or even why they were agreeing with each other at interludes in the play.

What’s at stake here?  What set the terms (the “problematic,” as they say in creative writing courses)?  Had a player suddenly leaned down and told me to get up on stage to do an improv, would mine fit into the script smoothly — or seem wildly inappropriate?

Perhaps an ideal prof would have clued me in by saying that I needed to figure out how my personal life problematic might fit in with that of these characters who seem already caught up in the thick of their drama.  But even if I’d got such an advance briefing, I’d still be thinking, hey thanks, but I’m too young to know what my “life problematic” is, or if I even have one.   What I really, — I mean sincerely — wanna do is survive!  I don’t wanna end up on the street shaking a tin cup at the people hurrying by.

Well, Philosophy (personified here as a statuesque woman in classical garb) now gives her response: you aren’t living in vacant space inhabited just by crashing billiard balls of microscopic size, and restricted only by the laws of physics.  You are a human being living in a human culture, — actually a pretty complex one with its own many-layered history – in which many other (previous or exterior) cultures, with their belief systems, are embedded.  What with global communications and history’s upheavals and disruptions, the discontinuous civilizational layers that have survived are here in fractured or upended form.  

Eventually, the statuesque woman continues, the study of philosophy will help you recognize the element in the mixture that was predominant in your personal formation and what part it plays in the whole civilizational mix.  And meanwhile, as you learn to survive and cope with your own challenges, philosophy will help you to recognize the degree to which the people you deal with are acting and reacting in terms of the beliefs made available to them by their own formation and position within the larger cultural complex.  

Back to your main concern: to deal with people and things in a way that helps you survive.  It’s important to understand that people will respond to you from within their own cultural locales, which are partly constituted by beliefs.

When you get to the point where you better understand the grounds on which your particular beliefs have been held, you’ll be in a position to revise them if you think another belief more reasonable or truer.  Or to retain them if the competitors seem to you less defensible.  At such junctures, you are less passively “along for the ride” in the history of you – and more free.

Well, you might say, thank you, Philosophy Personified, for your advice – it’s commendable — but now do please tell me what any of it has to do with women!  Why should I, as a woman, care about any of this?  I don’t even know if I can pay for college or, if I do go to college, pay the debts that will put me in or – considering the financial burden – major in any but the most vocational subjects.  Even if I could afford a major in Women’s Studies, it wouldn’t in any way resemble what you’ve just described and recommended.

Ah, so glad you asked!  Allow me to take you on a time-travel trip through Abbie’s life.  When Abbie is ten, she’s a happy kid.  Philosophy, shmosophy, she couldn’t care less.  Just see for yourself.  She could run and play, cross swords (or anyway dead branches) with girls or boys her own age and all the kids could adopt any good idea for what to play next, no matter where it came from.  Girls, boys, who cares?  Life was simple and life was good!  Let’s let Abbie tell it.

*

That first moment of sobering realization is bound to come, though to each of us it comes in different ways.  Here’s how it came to me.  A boy named Chuck, who was 12, two years older than the rest of us, came to visit his folks for a few days and Chuck joined our games.  Of course, he and I got to arm wrestling.  How else does one make friends?  Except that this time his two-year age advantage made a world of difference!  It was just no contest.  He was the stronger, indisputably, and by any measure you could name.

Instantly I drew certain inferences.  Uh oh, I said to myself.   We’re gonna have to rethink this lifemanship thing.  I’ll wager there are plenty more where he came from, some of them even more damagingly strong than Chuck, or than I will ever be, no matter what I do, hand to hand.   It follows that — if I ever get in a tight spot — 

I’m gonna have to

think my way out of it.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

By Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

This is an important book, not only for the problem it identifies and the experimental therapies it recommends but for its overview of what it takes to be a human being.

A word about my own vantage point.  In A Good Look at Evil, I argued that a good life is one that lives its own nonfiction story — conscious of what one’s aim was at particular points on one’s timeline, keeping in mind what happened first and what happened next, what went wrong and how it was (or still needed to be) self-corrected.  Such, I held, would be the human norm.  The evil-doer I took to be an agent who sees the victim’s story and does what that mischief-maker can do to spoil it.

But there is another way a person’s story can be lost, which I did not consider in my book; it’s the way of trauma.  Although, as the author finds, beneath the symptoms of trauma “there exists an undamaged essence, a Self,” trauma blocks the sufferer’s view of it.  

How does trauma do that?  It does it by interfering with the tenses of the person’s story.  The traumatic memory refuses to take its chronological place in the past.  Instead, it gets in front of experiences that are occurring right now.  This skewing of the tenses has its physiological counterpart in the disorienting of the area of the brain that normally integrates experience, providing “a sense of time and perspective, which makes it possible to know that ‘that was then but I am safe now,’” and “another area that integrates the images, sounds and sensations of trauma into a coherent story.”

What’s the cure?  A number of promising, experimental therapies are described.  All offer ways of getting sufferers to feel sufficiently safe in their bodies and emotional states to be able, by degrees, to visit buried memories.  Methods that work with one patient might not work with another.   Effective therapies give the adult self the time and leeway to reassemble its own narrative chronology.  No “transference” to the therapist of early angers or authority is required in every case, nor is recourse to some favored psychological theory.  What is needed is for the terrible event – whether battlefield horror, car accident, or childhood abuse – to be recollected in full and then safely restored by the adult to its place in the past

A talking cure alone — begun without these preliminaries designed to restore a sense of present-day safety — won’t deliver that restoration of the “exiled” fragments of memory to the adult whose entire story this still is.  Nor can drugs, which are currently prescribed for a multitude of symptoms – each one still mislabeled as a distinct dysfunction — do more than mask the trauma underneath the symptoms.  

The story has heroes, chief among them our self-effacing, persistent, and courageous author, Van der Kolk who, with his colleagues, undertook a long struggle to gather the probative studies and treatments chronicled here, along with the evidence, both clinical and coming from brain studies.

The tale has villains too: among them psychiatric associations that repeatedly refused to simplify their current smorgasbord of separate illness categories and instead consider which of these might be trackable to traumatic occurrences in their patients’ histories.

One such eminent professional mislabeler is mentioned in passing whom I’d like to single out for special attention.  “In 1896 Freud boldly claimed that ‘the ultimate cause of hysteria is always the seduction of the child by an adult.’  Then, faced with his own evidence of abuse in the best families of Vienna – one, he noted, that would implicate his own father—he quickly began to retreat.”  

And thus, ladies and gentlemen, by a slight sleight of hand, was born the so-called Oedipus Complex!  Good grief!  Whole phases of culture — distorting otherwise wholesome parent/child relationships, skewing the self-assessment of persons — were bent out of shape by Freud’s cover story!  

When I wrote “The Filial Art,” really written in tribute to my mother, it would be returned unread by editors of American philosophy journals who explained, in their rejection letters, that thanks, but they’d already done their piece on child abuse!  Finally, I submitted it in England and got it published — but not without first ascertaining (from an English philosopher friend) that the editor of that journal actually did love his mother!

Look how consequential one small lie can be!

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As If We Were Free

“The Execution of Emperor Maximilian”
Edouard Manet, 1867

As If We Were Free

We are just back from the pleasant French city of Montreal in Canada, where Jerry and I gave papers and attended the presentations of others at the meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society, a group affiliated with the American Political Science Association.

Who and what was Eric Voegelin?  He was a political and philosophical contributor to European and American intellectual culture.   His life overlapped the high tide of the two ideology-driven, soul-destroying totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century: Nazism, from which he narrowly escaped, and communism.

You and I — each of us — has a life assignment that we try to figure out.  His became to understand how some of the first-rate intellectuals of his day could have embraced ideologies that hacked a path so deep, wide, and destructive through the times of their lives.

As he saw it, these ideologues were attempting to dodge the difficulty of being human!  He defined that as a rather precise difficulty: not deprivation or inequalities of various degrees.  Some of the prominent ideologues had enjoyed high social standing before joining their personal fates to these new, world-reshaping political aims.  So their shape-change must have had some deeper motivation.  What was it?

As any one of us can testify, it’s rather a hardship to be human.  Our questions – who are we?  how’d we get here? where are we going? — are real.  Our answers often less so.

We have longings – to be better than we are, to know more than we can, to escape the ruinous deformations of our birth, early circumstances, health (precarious or worse), and our desires.  We each wish we could escape everything about ourselves that’s too late to mend.  Each of us lives in-between worse and better; unfinished and unfixable.  We don’t want to kill ourselves, but we do want OUT.    

Two deceptive paths promise escape.  The reductionist path leads downward, enfolding us under biological, chemical, and physical laws that cynically discount the creative spirit, deny the possibility of moral integrity, love and truth, or else pretend to explain away all these divine sparks.  What the contrasting ideological path does is over-simplify the human situation in what looks like an upward direction, advocating a world remade in the image of their futuristic, end-of-history fantasy.  Once they gain power, the inevitable human resistance to their top-down totalizing programs will be crushed by mock trials, coerced confessions, mass executions, and imprisonments, with personal ties subordinated to the ideologue’s newly-contrived, officially mandated loyalties.  

Nevertheless, human reality is more complex than either reductionism or ideology admits. There is a spiritual component in it that both over-simplifications deny.

The conference in Montreal included speakers who’d escaped from current ideology-driven regimes.  They are still intimately connected to struggles for freedom in which they and their friends are now engaged.  So their voices and reports had real blood and real tears on them.  They were not the paler reflections of political theorists and philosophers who come on stage after the fact.

At the Q & A of one panel, I asked a question.  It had hovered over me, preventing sleep, for most of the previous night.  It was not concerned with twentieth-century Czech or Hungarian experiences under communism nor with regimes of present-day Venezuela or Cuba about which others had spoken.  My question shifted attention to us here in the USA. 

In our country today, I said, we who are academics and communicators find ourselves in situations that share some features with the regimes described by our panelists – but not all of those features.  Thus, we don’t meet with ideologues armored with steely, all-encompassing theories of history.   We don’t suffer under one-man rule or massive, single-party police control.  We look and behave as if we are free.  

But, the boundaries of the no-longer-sayable keep expanding. When we get together in small groups, among the friends and colleagues we trust, almost every one of us has horror stories to share.  We are more conforming outwardly than we think ideally we should be.  Like survivors living under totalitarian regimes, we are aware of a penumbra of fear.  We are fearful of being denounced anonymously.  Our confinement does not need prison walls.  It lies in moral habituation to not saying all that we think relevant to say, and finally trying not to think it either.  

One doesn’t know where, personally, to draw the line and refuse to go along.  It may always seem that the current case is too trivial compared to the social or professional risks.  It lacks the big picture.  If one draws the line too soon, it may do no good; one could become just one more indiscernible cipher – alone, defeated, evicted from social space. 

After the panel where I asked that question, several battered veterans of such struggles on foreign shores thanked me – for bringing the problem home to our present localities.  The point, as one of them said to me, is that 

no one is safe.

The denouncer of today is tomorrow’s denouncee.  The small conformer of today becomes tomorrow’s plastic person, exteriorized, having nothing inward left to defend.

Another veteran said that the mass executions and gulags of yesterday are no longer needed.  They were the last century’s cruder tools.  Today’s tyrants need only summon the moving finger of anonymous denunciation.  The pretexts are unpredictable and nothing high or low – no prominence, no obscurity – can keep one protected.

Shared social space disappears,

and with it the precious fellowship

of those who won’t lie.

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