Woman’s Search for Meaning

“Blizzard”
Joseph Farquharson 1846-1935

Woman’s Search for Meaning

I’ve talked two friends out of committing suicide.  Don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do know what went into my general approach.  First, I ignored their existential/metaphysical pronouncements, eloquent as they were.  Life, they each said, had lost all meaning.  The world and everything in it was totally pointless.

Okay, okay, moving right along here … What precisely, I wanted to know, had gone wrong?  Details, please.

For the first friend, her publisher had dropped the contract for a book on which she’d already worked long and very hard.

The second friend, a proud and classy woman, had been seduced by a man in her consciousness-raising group, who advertised himself as a veteran – an advanced initiate — in the therapy offered by that group.

What was out of joint was not the cosmos.  Rather, it was each woman’s sense of what she represented to herself or to anyone else.  Neither woman wanted to survive as mediocre in her own eyes.

Did I offer a solution?  No.  Not at all.  The point was to call the precise trouble by its right name.  Then “the mind’s instinct for self-delight,” as Thomas Hardy calls it, was able to find its own way out of the labyrinth.

I do recall, though, that in the case of the seduction, I took absolutely seriously my friend’s sense of having been desecrated by someone unworthy of touching her — even if he wore ten gloves.  I did NOT say, “It’s not that big a deal.”  Maybe for someone else, it wouldn’t have been.  Someone more sportive, more disposed to say with a shrug, “win some, lose some.”  But such a woman would never have contemplated suicide in the first place.

These invisible crises can arise when, outwardly, we seem to be coping quite successfully.   We are more delicate than we look.  It’s not the apparent size of the defeat that undoes us.  It’s what, in us, has been defeated.  For that, the big picture might be beside the point.

Recently, I’ve been passing through a crisis of my own.  It started on My Worst Birthday, if you remember that column.  There I am, walking up the darkened, snow-covered footpath to our front door when – what d’ya know? – that patch of snow wasn’t the footpath and I slam down on the pavement about a foot below.  And the leg that thus collides with a hard surface for which it’s unprepared is the same one that’s been in treatment for neuropathy.  The first effective treatment I’ve encountered after years of vain searching.

As the diagnostic picture shifts, travel plans for resumed treatments shift too, and with them speaking engagements.  There are two and then three reschedulings.  Finally my travel plans are canceled altogether.  Jerry will go to give his papers without me and read my paper at one event.  The other talk I’ll simply have to miss, with apologies.  The neuropathy center was at first encouraging, then sharply discouraging, once the MRI’s (reporting a stress fracture) are read.  They don’t want to see me till the medical team here deems me completely healed.

In the midst of these dislocations and reorientations of projects, we’ve had to  relocate to hotels twice, dodging power outages, for two of the four great winter storms of March.  Moves possibly contra-indicated for a person whose walk is wobbly even with a nice black shiny walking stick and whose One Major Life Ambition has come down to Avoiding A Second Fall.

Oh, and one more thing.  During this time, someone I believed trustworthy volunteered to do a distance healing for me.  It would be some combination of prayer and unspecified other techniques.  The person making the offer claimed to be a gifted healer.  Since I’m trained in second degree Raiki healing and have done four such healings, one of which failed but three of which were deemed successful by the persons I did them for, I don’t find such claims particularly exotic or hard to believe.  I’ve done distance healings and received them, with different techniques.  Some of the purported healers I thought charlatans.  Some meant well but were ineffective.  Some were effective in some respects, but not in as many as they claimed.  But the same might be said for doctors I’ve known.  Since I’m not a materialist, the notion that the mind can act on the body doesn’t unsettle my intellectual conscience.  I didn’t know that my would-be healer would help, but hey, how bad could it be?

Well … I’ll just say that, had I not been philosophically trained, experienced in distance healing, and knowledgeable about mind control (there’s a chapter on spiritual seduction, “Going to the Bad,” in A Good Look at Evil) it could have been a damaging experience.

What’s the combined impact of all this?  It’s like being spun around so many times that one loses one’s sense of direction.  It’s what they call anomie.

It’s become a crisis of meaning.  At first, I was too busy coping with one rapidly changing circumstance after another to notice the underlying loss of grip.  But I could feel that my world had changed imperceptibly into something that felt rough and indifferent to me.  It felt meaningless.  But why should it feel that way?  After all, nothing cosmic had changed.  Only a lot of what are called “little things.”  By this time, however, I know enough about these crises to stop still in my tracks, drop whatever else I’m doing, turn and take it very seriously.

Time to quiet my mind, 

to focus,

to get a sense of true north.

The last chapter in A Good Look at Evil is called “God and the Care for One’s Story.” It tells of a sequence of happenings that intervened in my life to “save the story,” as it were.  In that chapter, I make the case for viewing these events as providential, though, as I readily admit, they can reasonably be viewed as chance happenings.  I merely argue that it’s a better explanation – more illuminating overall — to see them as divine interventions.

Nevertheless, even though I’m prepared to say that miracles happen, now it comes back to me that they don’t happen predictably.  For much of the time covered in that chapter, what I was going through was pretty near intolerable.  It seemed absurd.  It seemed meaningless when I was in the middle of it.  Only, every time I was ready to give it up and pack it in, something would happen, some little coincidence or oddly hopeful signal, that would tell me to keep on keeping on.   Despair was tempting but always premature.  I didn’t know the ending yet and therefore shouldn’t pretend to know it.

It’s quite true that at present I don’t know what part of my story this is.  Though I’m home, making my way cautious step by cautious step, I don’t have the comfortable sense of living in familiar surroundings.  The landmarks have been subtly altered, expectations thwarted, plans frustrated.  But, if I remember rightly, that’s exactly what it’s like when you live a new chapter.

Precognition and

living one’s story

are incompatible.

It would be like flipping to the next page in a novel before one has read the page that’s open now.  Recent happenings have made a heretofore familiar landscape seem unfamiliar to me.  My surroundings suddenly look uncharted.

At such moments, one can only look for clues to the unknown plot as it unfolds – to listen for

hints

from the Great Co-Author.

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“How I Got to be a Person Whose Whole Life is Lived in Cliches”

“How I Got to be a Person Whose Whole Life is Lived in Cliches” 

The Rabbis inveigh against gossip.  Since a lost reputation is almost as hard to recover as a lost life, they deem it equivalent to a capital crime.

On the other hand, there is usually an other hand.  Literary and philosophical gossip can shed light – unexpected and instructive – on an influential figure.  To philosopher Hans Jonas’s Memoirs, I owe the datum about Leo Strauss that, on Jewish High Holidays, Strauss felt tormented by the consciousness that he was not in synagogue – where he felt he should be.  Since Strauss was a political philosopher who drew a thick and rigid line between philosophy and religion, it is interesting – even revealing – that he had to struggle to maintain this line.

In my own view, our actual lives are much more like interesting and suspenseful novels – much more story-like – than is generally acknowledged.  Accordingly, what is called “gossip” seems to me a natural part of real talk.  I don’t mean breaking a confidence or malicious tale-bearing.  But one can hardly talk interestingly about anything without bringing in people and what they do and say.

That said, ordinarily when I tell a story in this column about something that really happened, I leave off the names.  In the story I’m about to recount, however, I’ve decided to retain the names.  By now the main participants have gone to feminist heaven.  In my opinion, the time has come to tell all.

It was some years ago.  A leading feminist of the day, Barbara Seaman, author of The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill and Free and Female, was the star of a birthday party at the New York restaurant, “Top of the Sixes,” to which 500 of her most intimate friends had been invited.  Her then husband was hosting the event.

Having known Barbara almost since childhood, I was one of the guests.  She was a very kind woman, almost naïve as well as munificent.  Lots of people liked or loved Barbara.

At my table, the dinner plates had been cleared away when a late guest arrived, taking the seat next to mine.  It was Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that had virtually launched “Second Wave Feminism” in the USA!  What an honor, to be seated next to one of feminism’s Founding Mothers!  But good grief!  For her to arrive at our table and go hungry was simply unthinkable!

Immediately I rose and pushed through the kitchen doors.

“We have a late guest,” I told the crew.  “She is one of feminism’s Founding Mothers.  We can’t let her go without dinner!”

They got the message and put together a plate for her with everything on it.  I carried the plate back to Betty Friedan, pleased to have done my small part for The Cause.

By that time, as I recall, the speeches and toasts had begun.  It was all very satisfying.  I turned to Betty Friedan and exclaimed, about this coming-together of devoted allies, long-time friends, and even a supportive husband, “It’s really ‘Feminism without Contradictions’!”

Actually, I was alluding to an article under that title that I’d published in The Monist, a well-regarded philosophical journal.  It was the first such journal to have devoted an entire issue to philosophical questions raised by feminism.

“Contradictions!” sniffed Betty Friedan.  “You don’t know what a contradiction is!”

Yes I do, I thought.  It’s a claim that something can both have and not have the same trait or property at the same time and in the same respect.  Aristotle’s Law of Contradiction is one of his three basic laws of thought.  The other two are Identity and Excluded Middle.  You can find the discussion in Book IV of The Metaphysics.  But of course I said none of the above.  I just looked at her, stupefied.

“You’re a person,” Betty Friedan went on, “whose whole life is lived in clichés.”

OMG.  I am?  It is?  But I got you dinner!  After a few moments,  I got up and started to walk aimlessly around the ballroom floor.  Along the way, I bumped into Peggy Brooks.  She had supported one of my manuscripts when she was editor at Dutton.  One time, when I was out of a job, we’d shared lunch during the very hour when a three-man panel was convening to consider my reinstatement at Brooklyn College.  At the same hour, Peggy had put money on a horse.  I came out ahead by a vote to 2 to 1, and her horse did as well by the same ratio.  Peggy is what used to be called a great lady.  She stands by her friends.  When I’m in New York, we still visit.

I told Peggy how I’d just been characterized and by whom.  She shook her head regretfully with a considering look.

“You are the last person of whom one would say that she lives in clichés.”

The glittering evening had an odd sequel.  The very next day, I’d been invited to a Bar Mitzvah at an orthodox synagogue.  The women sat upstairs in the balcony overlooking the sanctuary.

Perceiving that I knew very little of the Ancient Customs of My People, the other women in the balcony helped me adjust the black lacey hair covering, fixing it with a hair pin.  They made sure I had  the prayer book opened to the pages corresponding to the service below.   They did not look askance at the uninformed stranger but did what they could to make me feel at home.

So what’s the moral?  Is there any?

Hey, I dunno.  But it’s a datum.

Definitely a datum. 

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“The Man Behind the Curtain”

“The Man Behind the Curtain”

As a sometime student of the mechanics of mind control, I’ve been aware of the ways in which, nowadays, well-intentioned people of diverse climes and views must walk in fear of being denounced.  For what?  For bigotry and the whole parade of other bad names.  The denunciations are not precisely tailored to peoples’ actual intentions.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference what they meant or felt inwardly.  It’s as if – whatever they meant subjectively – they’re deemed bigots objectively.

To my knowledge, this marking out of guilt as something that can be incurred “objectively” – regardless of whether the accused had what is called in law a guilty mind – first came into use in the Vyshinsky Trials of the 1930’s.  Andrey Vyshinsky was the prosecutor.  There was trial after trial of old communists who’d been in the forefront of the Revolution that brought the communist party to power in Russia.

My parents who, like many intellectuals of the period, had been initially sympathetic to the Great Soviet Experiment — which was to bring into being an ideal society of universal brotherhood, equality and justice — were appalled by the Vyshinsky Trials.  Assuming the defendants were telling the truth, and really had betrayed their own child, the Revolution, why had they all done so?  And if they’d been forced to “confess” and were not guilty, what did that say about the regime that had been the great hope of the future?

In his Humanism and Terror, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty explored this very question.  Although at the time, Merleau-Ponty did not oppose the Trials as such, he held out for preserving the subjective zone, for recognizing that the accused had not meant to become a counter-revolutionary.  In Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty thought that Vyshinsky was wrong not to at least recognize the zone of intentions as a reality.

Our current style of denunciation recognizes no such distinction as the one between subjective and objective zones.  One can even be oneself a member of an oppressed group.  No matter.  One is just as eligible to be nailed as an oppressor and one’s intentions – the subjective side –- simply edited out.  There is no subjective side.  One is a “hater” even if one hates no one and is not even angry at anyone!

What’s the game here?  What are the stakes?  How does one win or lose at this game?  Who’s in charge and who or what can stop it?

The topic is on my mind because I’m beginning my Long March through the three-volume, best available edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.  I haven’t gotten into the actual text yet, but have finished the editor’s lengthy introduction, which includes many quotes and what look like clear explanations of Gramsci’s thought.

G. W. F. Hegel, the great nineteenth-century philosopher of history, wrote that the solitary thinker in his tower can make more of an impact on history than the world-historical figure on horseback (like Napoleon). In Gramsci’s case, that certainly seems to be true. So what’s he saying?

He’s saying that all the putatively objective intellectual disciplines, such as the natural and social sciences, should be subordinated to something he calls “the philosophy of praxis.” By that, he means revolutionary activity.  If we do this strategic subordination of the disciplines, then there will be no objective psychology and therefore no such thing as “human nature.”  A human being will be, from back to front and top to bottom, only a changing ensemble of social relations.

Of course, if one aims to harness human beings in the service of revolutionary activity, it is better not to have to figure out what to do with their actual intentions, desires and proclivities.  The inner life, like the outward life, will be of interest only insofar as it has revolutionary potential.  If we learn that the established academic and research disciplines have rules or laws, we should break them — if that turns out useful for the revolutionary activity.

How does this trace back to the Vyshinsky Trials and the current style of denunciation?  Gramsci, of course, bears no responsibility for the Moscow Trials, being far away and behind bars.  He died in 1937 while the trials were still going on.   Nevertheless, connections can be discerned.  In the current case, as in the earlier cases, anything that has an existence or form of life separate from the approved attitudes – for example a personal intention, a style, a quality of experience, an achievement, an attachment, a tradition, a habit – can be unplugged from the social circuitry and deprived of its life energy and legitimacy.  Why?  On what grounds?  Because it stands out as insubordinate to the activities and styles approved by the denouncers.

The odd thing is that nowadays the approved activities and styles are not usually referred to as “revolutionary.”  They might be called that, but it’s optional and is sometimes avoided.  Why avoided?  Ordinarily, a revolution has an aim.  It might be well-guided or misguided but the aim is there, open to evaluation as to its objective and its methods.  About a revolution, one can ask, has this sort of effort ever worked out as planned?  What should count as evidence?  Writing in the 1930’s in his Italian prison, Gramsci could be thought honestly to envision a regime in which human liberation might flower in some never-before-seen way.

Today, however, one hears little talk of a future state of things.  No such picture is filled in or, in most cases, even referred to.  The preparations for the revolution seem to have replaced the revolution itself.

Long ago, Richard Wright, the black-American expatriate writer, was one of the contributors to a volume titled The God That Failed.  It was a collection in which writers and other public intellectuals described the experience of becoming believing communists but eventually feeling morally obligated to leave the camp of the believers.

In Paris, Wright and I were, I think, friends.  Aware of my then love for a young communist, Wright quoted to me a relevant remark by Albert Camus, the French existentialist:

I refuse to kill my brother

For an unreal city in the future. 

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“Ideas and Real People”

 

Caryatids on The Erechtheum

“Ideas and Real People”

When I need consolation, when sorrow exerts its hard claims, I turn instinctively to what Plato would call the realm of forms: beautiful things and ideas that are clear and significant.

When our friend Leo Bronstein was killed by a motorcyclist in Strasbourg (where he had gone to see the Grunewald Crucifixion), I found myself drawn ineluctably to the classical rooms in the Metropolitan Museum.  The statues, the bas reliefs, their serenity, their quality of completeness, of something forever achieved, I don’t know why, but they soothed me.  I even took to wearing a paisley scarf, since the ancients used paisley decoratively.

These days I’m reading two books that delve into the influence of ideas on culture.  By “culture” I mean the mean the matrix of beliefs, practices and traditions within which we conduct our personal lives.  

The two books are very different.  One, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff, is a first rate biography of someone who was one of the voices of twentieth century intellectual culture.  His insights don’t seem to me dated. His personal interactions take one through a vivid succession of scenes that marked turning points in the century just past, whose reverberations are with us still.

The other book, which I’m just starting, is the recently published Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist whose intellectual blueprint for getting the Revolution up and going again through methods of which he was the discoverer, had a large – hard-to-measure-how-large – influence on our culture today.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia in 1910.   He was a small boy during the initial phases of the revolution that overthrew the Tsar and brought the communist party to power in Russia.  He had seen the nascent tyranny in its first days, and later revisited Soviet Russia right after World War II, where the intellectuals he met lived in fear of being denounced and executed – or in shame at having denounced others to buy an extra span of years for themselves and their families.  So it was impossible for Isaiah to embrace the Utopian delusions of a workers’ paradise in the USSR. While these delusions gave shape and purpose to his fellow intellectuals in the 1930’s and later, Isaiah simply held his own. He resisted the sirens and kept to a moderate, middle course. It’s no simple accomplishment.

I never had thought so till I read this book, but Isaiah Berlin was an interesting man.  He had a facility for getting to know people — such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, English author Virginia Woolf, English poet Stephen Spender, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, philosophers Stuart Hampshire, J. L. Austin and A. J. Ayer, newspaper editorialists Drew Pearson and Walter Lippman, first president of Israel Chaim Weizman, diplomat George Kennan — whose actions were, in some cases, of historic consequence.  He had a first class Oxford education, including a philosophic education, and was on terms of intellectual friendship with major philosophers of the day. He was fluent in Russian and won the confidence of writers who’d kept alive the flame of “the Russian soul” when tyranny’s deadly combination of fear and shame had all-but-extinguished it. He carried the manuscript of Dr. Zhivago from Boris Pasternak’s hands to its publication in the West.  During the War, when he was attached to the British embassy in Washington as an aid to Lord Halifax, he was the eyes and ears of the British Foreign Office in Washington, though his widely read dispatches went out under Halifax’s signature.  In that position, it took intelligent self-mastery to walk the delicate line between his inward support for a future Jewish state and his duties under a decidedly ambivalent British foreign office.

Although he professed no interest in that side of his family tree, he was heir to a lineage that amounted to Hassidic royalty.  He did not embrace it (that was not his calling) but surely bore some traces of its imprint. His discernment was delicate and keen.  His mind was sturdy and strategic. I’m reading with ongoing fascination of encounters where he made a nuanced but beneficial difference to people who in turn made a difference to the culture we share.

Gramsci is quite a different figure in the culture.  Imprisoned as a communist and anti-fascist during the dictatorship of Mussolini, he used his time of incarceration to work out a strategy for bringing the culture that had formed him to its knees.  His scholarly discipline appears (from what the editor is telling in the Introduction) to have been impeccable.

His aim, as I take it, was to find the threads that held the culture together as a single weave – in order to pull down and unravel the whole fabric!   Not the fabric of the fascist culture that had imprisoned him. Rather, if I understand it correctly, the high culture of his native Italy — humanistic, literate and liberal!  That culture.  What he thought would replace it, I can’t tell.  Maybe I’ll find out by the time I get through Volumes I – III.  Or maybe I never will. Maybe there’s no answer to that one. Anyway, it’s a stunning case of a man who uses the tools forged by the civilization that formed him to bring down that very civilization.  I shall read it with interest and hope I learn something.

Ideas are the formative features of our lives, something like the connective tissue.  This is as true for the culture we live in as for ourselves, who are its assenting or dissenting members.

Here is how the biographer sums up the maturing realizations of Isaiah Berlin:

“He was coming to see ideas … as what human beings lived for and by: ‘something wider and more intrinsic to the human beings who hold them than opinions or even principles … [they] are indeed the central complex of relations of a man towards himself and to the external world.’”

To my mind, the question that follows is of the most intimate urgency:

By what ideas are we living?

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My Worst Birthday

My Worst Birthday

If we hadn’t begun it the evening before, it would have been even more disastrous.  But I was scheduled to have an author photo taken by a professional photographer who does those things, and my dread of being photographed (in case the camera doesn’t lie) might be offset (we decided) if we reserved our birthday dinner at the fine French restaurant for Thursday the 1st of March, since it would be quieter on a Thursday.

Much to my amazement, the photos were not dogs.  I look like a reasonable, well-disposed female person who might well have sustained the purposiveness required to bring out A Good Look at Evil in its updated, expanded form.  Whew! I thanked the photographer profusely, in fact praised him to the skies!  He made me look recognizable. Fine job.

Over the French dinner, we discussed our marriage.  Why is it so right? Is that like a lottery somebody has to win?  Why do good things sometimes happen to good people?  Seems unfair, somehow.

I had always believed that true romantic love was a reality – a metric for the rest of life – but over the years my judgment had proved pretty terrible in picking out candidates for the job of Significant Other.  Jerry, on the other hand, had not credited romantic hopes. He’d thought modest compatibility was about the best you get. So our personal aims and thought-worlds had been quite different. Though we shared a profession, we’d never met.  And, had certain highly improbable circumstances not combined to put us into prolonged telephone contact, it’s unlikely we would have noticed the invisible strings tying us together.

Only one explanation (other than chance) occurred to us.  Neither had lowered the ceiling of his or her expectations in life.  We’d not been time-servers. We’d not lived for distraction rather than seriously sustained purposes.  So we’d lived fairly disciplined lives. And true love turns out a disciplined calling, in its own right.  Had we earned our miracle? Well, you never earn a miracle.  Let’s say we hadn’t refused it in advance.

If such was the evening before it, how bad could the actual birthday have been?   Good grief. As the Nor’easter blew ever-more-alarmingly outside the house, at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, the power went off.  The motels were either booked or dark and cold as our home had become. As we gave up the search for shelter elsewhere and were making our way back to our own now-forbidding residence, I stepped on what I thought was the footpath but was really snow piled up covering the parking lot pavement half a foot down.  Landing hard on the foot with the neuropathy.

We spent the next three days attending to consequences that looked both frustrating and frightening.  Would the immobility prescribed for the knee require me to stop the exercises linked to my neuropathy treatments – the first treatments I’d found effective in many years of shopping for a cure?  Would we need to cancel the trip to California for treatments and also a medley of speaking engagements connected to the reappearance of A Good Look at Evil?  How large a setback was in prospect here?

Let me note that I do not have anything like the generally-recommended good attitudes.  I don’t look on the sunny side, don’t find the silver lining, do see the tunnel, but not the light at its far end.  All you can say — in defense of my tendency to look down at the deep pit far below the daylight at ground level — is that it’s quite sincere.

Well, I realized, I can’t do that now.  My ability to project the worst case is a luxury I can’t afford.  I tried to pray. The Guidance was somewhat muffled (how does God get through to Abigail?) but consistent.  It said:

Stay in the present.

Don’t imagine a future

beyond the next hour and a half.

Notice and trust

the helps around you.

It was a taxing discipline.  But I really had no choice. Sometimes, sincerity can be overrated.  Nobody needed to hear me screaming.

As I talked with Jerry, what emerged was that all the frustration I felt focused on a projected set of plans: the neuropathy treatments to continue without interruption or backsliding and all the book-related assignments to be performed on the expected timetable.  As I looked at these expectations, arrayed before me, some lines came to mind from a country gospel hymn:

In this world of toil and snares,

if I falter, Lord, who cares?

My frustrations were all about my long efforts at recuperated health, the anticipated efforts with regard to my book, my expectations and everybody else’s imagined expectations.

About health, well one can’t do more than one’s best.  About my book, well, as Jerry reminded me, I’ve never understood why people I knew thought that their lives would be worthwhile if only their book came out!  I’d always felt that one’s life, not one’s book, was what was important. A book is, at best, one consequence of a life. It’s not the life itself.

As our conversation paused, I thought of the friendships I still have that I consider genuine.  I went through them, counting them off, one by one. They are very different friends, whose life circumstances and personalities do not resemble each other.  These bonds were more like the unaffected “best friends” one had in childhood and first youth, before prestige and status came in to spoil everything.

If I falter,

my real friends

would still care.

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Collegiality

 

“The Rowing Boat”
William Scott Hodgson, c. 1920

Collegiality

It’s one of the most precious chances life offers: to be a team player, a cooperator in a venture, a fellow worker in a joint work.  Nothing could be more fun than this sharing of skilled seriousness.

Student life was fun, and is remembered as a state-of-grace prior to full adulthood, because we were all striving to grasp difficult matters.  We weren’t trying to have fun.

Playing volleyball was like that too, in a different register.  You could either get the ball over the net for our side – or you couldn’t!  There was a lot of laughter but the game itself was no laughing matter.  It was a real-life scene, with objective rules of the game.

I’ve argued with colleagues whose philosophical views opposed mine, got fired together with colleagues who were allies in the same righteous combat, went together through weddings, divorces, frightening diagnoses from doctors, deaths of parents, the anguish of children in peril, and confided intellectual struggles where the work project of one was quite different from that of the other.

There have been irreparable quarrels too.  I remember once asking a senior colleague (and dear friend) whether, if he were to serve the eminent Professor X with a subpoena at my request, it could possibly damage departmental relations.

“My dear, it could only improve them,” my collegial friend said dryly.

By contrast, a rupture between colleagues who have been long-term friends is, for me, a wound that cuts deep.  One of the claims in my soon-to-appear book, A Good Look at Evil, is that people whose intentions are malevolent know the vulnerabilities of their designated victims — sometimes better than the victims themselves do.  So a determined enemy of Abbie would sense that one of the saddest losses she could suffer would be the loss of a collegial friend.

Here I think of one friend in particular.  Over a period of years, we had been very close. Her part of the field of philosophy spanned terrain very different from the ground where I stood.  Nonetheless, we seemed to complement each other intellectually and to enjoy our differences – of concept, temperament and taste.  

How could so good a friendship ever be lost?  By a very surprising turn of the plotline of our lives, she decided to believe defamatory fictions purveyed by someone who wanted to hurt me badly — and knew just where to strike.  At the time, it seemed as great a loss as any I’d suffered on the pathway where life and work come together.  To me, it’s still very serious.  There’s no smoothing it over.

Breakups negate friendship.  They don’t define it or set the standard.  Ideally, such losses should not happen.  

In the best sense, if nothing bad is allowed to break it up, what does it amount to, this collegiality?  My work – in the world and in my inmost self – is philosophical.  What then is a philosophical colleague?

Being one seems to fit into the very definition of friendship:

two people who can

search for truth together.

 

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A Good Look at Evil’s Second Edition

A Good Look at Evil’s Second Edition

The author’s advance copy of my expanded second edition of A Good Look at Evil, arrived Friday.  The look of it is entirely gorgeous.  To have such endorsements, from opinion-shapers of recognized importance — the well-regarded new literary critic Adam Kirsch, the tough-minded analytic philosopher William Lycan, the eloquent, seasoned, well-credentialed fighter for women’s rights Phyllis Chesler, and the gifted novelist Gail Godwin — is enormous.  If no one else should ever read the book, this is a tall mountain already climbed.

What is the meaning of an achievement like this in the course of a life?  Some time ago a colleague told me that the ancient Greeks would shout with one antique roar  – when an athlete had won an important race, or a wrestling match, and was at the top of his game —

Die now!

The Greeks believed that the aim of a life is glory.  Therefore, they thought it best to depart when one’s glory was at its peak, not yet surpassed or outlived.  In his elegiac poem,“To An Athlete Dying Young,” A. E. Housman celebrates their outlook.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory cannot stay.

Although I’m way past the hour for so fine-tuned an exit, anyone who has reached the top of a steep, steep climb can hear — behind today’s congratulations — antiquity’s more sincere advice: die now!

It happens that I’m not free to do that.  I have two more books to do. Confessions of a Young Philosopher still needs to find the right publisher and there is another book beyond Confessions.  In Columbia University’s celebrated class of 1925, from which so many public intellectuals emerged to shape America’s mind in the twentieth century, Henry M. Rosenthal, my father, was considered by his more famous classmates to be the one with the most “genius” and the most personal integrity.  He was enigmatic.  People pained him because he was burdened with a kind of moral x-ray vision.  He could see where they were going wrong, or where they would go wrong if they continued down the road they had chosen.   There were things he knew that I’ve always wanted to fathom – that I feel the wider world would benefit by knowing.  So I can’t “die now” – or die yet.

Besides, I’m not an ancient Greek.  Glory isn’t my aim in life.  Aristotle distinguished three types of life goal: pleasure, fame, and virtue (arête, excellence).  If you deliberately make pleasure your aim, it’s destabilizing and puts you at the mercy of stuff over which you have minimal control.  (In our day, it’s not hard to fill in the lurid details in living color.)  The quest for fame or glory (“celebrity”) puts you at the mercy of the public and its fleeting preferences.   Virtue or excellence (what we would call “being the best that you can be”) is obviously the noblest of the three aims but has its own fragility.  Circumstances can overwhelm your efforts: disease, extreme poverty, persecution, a disabling childhood, wars, earthquakes, plagues can all interrupt and thwart your efforts to be the best that you can be.  Aristotle admits this.  He’s a realistic philosopher.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, for Aristotle.

Okay, so much for our gifted cultural forebears on the pagan side, of whom Poe writes, in his poem dedicated to Helen of Troy:

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome.

Another strand finds its way into our common culture.  (There is wisdom to draw on, and much of it, from nonwestern sources, but I can’t make this post go on indefinitely.  It’ll soon be closing time at my café.)  What’s the other strand, having to do with the aims of life?

It’s the Bible of course.  There the whole scheme of life is depicted quite differently, but one of the prominent aims gave my book its theme: the struggle with evil.  In the Bible, that is, evil is an acknowledged reality.  The Greeks did not know that.  With glancing exceptions, in general the classical world attributed the vices to ignorance, to an uncultivated mind.

With all due regard for what the classical world knew and achieved, in this respect they were mistaken.  Evil is a power in its own right and has a cunning all its own.

People who have liberated themselves from stultifying, fundamentalist homes cringe when they hear that kind of talk.  They heard it all through their childhood from authority figures with narrow minds and inflated egos.  They saw it used to manipulate people and push them around.

The “God” word is often used like that too.  For manipulative purposes.  But let’s not rush to judgment here.  It’s the words for what is best, like “love,” “truth, “beauty,” “justice,” “brotherhood,” “peace,” that can be misused in this way.  Lies wear the look of truth — for ornamental purposes.  How else would wrong intentions make themselves appealing?  That doesn’t mean that true words were never spoken.

So the Biblical world shows us how it is when we encounter evil: the deliberate effort to sabotage our best selves.  In contemporary times, there is no avoiding the Biblical narratives.

And the classical world gives us philosophy: the longest conversation in history – international, inter-ethnic and interdenominational – about humanity’s most important concerns.  There is no avoiding philosophy.

What my book, A Good Look at Evil, tries to do is admit the Biblical awareness, that evil is real, and bring to bear the resources of philosophy to the understanding of it.

What’s my aim as the author, now?  It must be this:

to make that understanding more widely known.

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