Tales of My Mother

Abbie and her mother

Tales of My Mother

Only in Victorian novels do we find good women who are also universally beloved.  Here, from the annals of literary memoir, is the view of my mother taken by the well-known writer, Diana Trilling.  Diana was the wife of the even better known critic, Lionel Trilling.  Lionel and my father had been best friends in college.

“With her Europeanism and her obscure past,” Diana writes, “her redundant figure and her strangely accented name [pronounced Rachelle], Rachel was irremediably unlike the other wives of our acquaintance, and indeed both she and Henry regarded the rest of us as but poor specimens of our sex: thin-bodied, thin-blooded, deficient in physical and emotional substance .”  There is plenty more cutting and slashing, but I’ll omit it, if you don’t mind.

At the time Diana’s memoir was published, Lionel was gone and my parents were gone.  There are thirteen indexed references to my parents in her memoir, almost every one of them unflattering.  In consequence, I wrote a letter to Diana, whom I’d never met, correcting what I hoped were misunderstandings carried over from youthful days.  She never replied.

I used to think that, if I could only have lived the life of a traditional wife and mother, no one would have been mean to me.  But it isn’t so.  My mother spent her adult life inside that template, and did it so well that my oldest friend said of her, when I telephoned with the news of her death, 

She was a jewel of a human being.

However, a jewel of a human being can be hated because that’s what she is!  

I’d like to tell some of the stories that collected in her wake as she moved through her life.  Possibly some of them have been told in earlier columns.  Forgive me.  I just like to repeat them.  For me, the tales of my mother never grow old.

She was highly intuitive.  Not that she was always right, but she frequently detected features of a person or situation that others would overlook.  She was not afraid of people, nor to say what she saw.

“How your grandmother must have loved you!”  With these words, my mother greeted a young Moroccan artist, introduced to her by a girl I’d met in my travels.

“When she died, I left home,” he replied in a low tone, looking  directly at my mother.

“How do you feel about being in a house of Jews?” she said to two young German students brought to the apartment by another friend of mine.  Sorry, I don’t remember how they answered.  Probably with coughing politeness.

She and I had been watching television on the evening of the day the Polish Pope came to Warsaw.  At the time of his visit, as far as any pundit could tell, communism reigned in full strength.  The Pope stood on the balcony of his hotel to say the mass for people in the street below.  The crowd filled the square and stretched to the end of every street as far as the eye could scan.  Since the Russians took Poland at the end of World War II, and set up their communist puppet regime in that country, religion had been virtually outlawed.  No one could remember anything like this crowd.

“What do you think, mother?”

“It’s the end of communism.”

The sovietologists caught up with it later.  At the time of the Pope’s visit, none of them had made that prediction.  How did she do it?  My mother understood people.

During the War years, my family lived on the fourth floor of a walkup apartment at the corner of 86th and Park Avenue.  In those days, that part of town, Yorkville, was an ethnically German neighborhood.  Those old buildings were kept habitable by their superintendents and the tenants understood that.  One of the rules our super laid down was that tenants were not to carry their own trunks down the stairs to the lowest level.  Trunks were to be handed over to him for basement storage.  Nobody but my mother was given pause by that rule.

“It will be very good when Hitler gets here,” the super remarked offhandedly to my mother one day, as she stood watching while he repaired a radiator in our apartment.  It was a second clue.

A few days later, on her way downstairs, my mother noticed two unfamiliar, middle-aged German gentlemen pressing a doorbell on the second floor. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman whose hair was pulled tightly back in an old-fashioned dark bun.  

“Guten tag, grossmutter,” said her two visitors, with extra-wide courtly smiles.

She wasn’t old enough to be their grandmother.

The third clue.  My mother continued down the stairs to street level, saw their parked car, and repeated the license number to herself with every step she took climbing back up the four flights to our apartment.  Where she wrote it down.  Then she took the bus to FBI headquarters in midtown.  They made a raid on the building, found the shortwave radio setup in the basement that enabled our super to maintain contact with the U-boats in New York harbor.  He was packed off to what I suppose was Enemy Agent Summer Camp for the duration of the hostilities.  

I can’t say mother won the War, but it sure didn’t hurt the Allied efforts. After the War, she caught sight of him again walking down 87th and Park.  She said he gave her “a very sour look.”

Among the people my parents worked to save from the Holocaust was a French woman friend married to a Jewish scientist.  The State Department’s paper barriers were as long as your arm.  Till the last paper was signed, she did not tell anyone that she’d been hemorraging.  Then she went directly to the hospital, where the staff received her with shock.

She appears in a scene of womanly wisdom in my forthcoming book, Confessions of A Young Philosopher.

One of the last things my mother said to me was, “Don’t think you understand all about life because you are intelligent.

“It’s not enough

to be intelligent.”

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Closure

Abbie and her father

Closure

Whatever the world understands by “closure” – peace of mind after mental storms, acceptance after bitter loss, resetting of purposes after frustration, a body to bring home for burial after a shattering search – I mean something different and quite specific by that word.

I see the lives we live as story-like.  Nowadays many people would claim to agree with me.  However, the “stories” that I have in mind are not embroidered, artificially dramatized, or “creatively” invented.  Instead, in my view, we are living true stories whose meanings it is our business to discover.  The narratives of our lives unfold chronologically and, to find their meanings, we need to keep the “before” and “after” distinct and the original purposes clear.  That way, later modifications can be seen in terms of what they modified and why they did so.

Take Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, for example.  They set out from St. Louis, hoping to travel from the Missouri river to the Pacific Ocean by an unbroken water route.  It turned out that there was no such Northwest Passage as they had supposed.  Instead, they discovered peoples, places and species of life that they would never have encountered were it not for their original purpose.  This truth of the matter brought “closure” to their search.  Nobody thinks of their journey as a made up story or a failure.

Likewise, we too should keep in view the terms in which our earliest quest was set.  Otherwise, we could miss the point of our story.

For me, one lifelong quest came to closure this week.  The question I had to resolve was, how to be the daughter of my father.  (The name “Abigail” actually means “father’s joy” in Hebrew.)  In 1925, my father was an undergraduate at Columbia University.  Classmates who went on to prominence as public intellectuals rated Henry M. Rosenthal their class “genius.”  In their minds, I think that word referred to his ability to live a first-hand life, as contrasted with their own, possibly more derivative, lives.

By a life at first hand, I don’t mean a life at the social margins.  One meets bohemians, hippies, people in the arts, who are explicitly committed to escaping social conventions.  They travel the well-worn grooves of the bohemian life, which of course has its own conventions.

My father was never a bohemian.  When — in his youth — he was a rabbi, he did not comfortably fit that template.  Nor, when he became a professor of philosophy, was he an easily recognizable type.

What he was … was a man burdened with a gift of living at a certain depth that others could not picture and an ability to hear summonses that others – his brilliant peers included – could not hear.  Whether and to what extent he figured out what to do about all this it is not my purpose to explore right now.  

The problem for me was to figure out how to be his daughter.  There were two obvious ways to do it, both perfectly feasible, both unacceptable.  

The first way was for me to live in his shadow, never finding a life of my own.  Since he was fascinating, extremely funny and unlike anyone else, that might have been the path of least resistance for an impressionable daughter who loved him and shared her father’s academic metier.

However, filial piety itself told me that a choice like that would tarnish his reputation, announcing to the world that he’d been irresponsibly possessive as a father.  So I had a filial obligation to work out my own life course, independent of his.

The second way would be to gain “escape velocity” by interpreting him as a smaller character than in fact he was.  One might call that the psychoanalytic stratagem.  Start with emotional parricide; then climb out the window.  One of my professors in grad school actually advised me to do that.  “You have to kill your father!” he said grandly.  But I didn’t think filial impiety was truthful.  Internalized defamation is not the same as liberation.

When he was dying, I leaned over his hospital bed, sobbed as if tears were words, and laid a hand on his chest.  A speaking current then manifested itself and ran along the length of my arm into my heart.  Of what did the current speak?  It spoke of metaphysical things, of the four physical forces that run the cosmos, but underscored a fifth cosmic force, which it said was stronger than the other four.  It was Love, the Love that Dante said “moves the sun and the other stars.”

This was the message that he left me, unforgettable but still – once its vividness faded — rather lofty and general.  At the time, I did not quite realize that it would set me on a life journey whose goal was concreteness: how in real terms to be the daughter who would live out the love that honored her father.  To read the message rightly would not require any wide understanding of the sun and the stars.  

I needed to figure out

what I owed him.

I pass over my struggles to gain control of the evidence: to work through journals, correspondence, published material and manuscripts.  At the outset, my aim was to write an intellectual memoir that would make known his gift and share my understanding of it.

That task turned out beyond my powers!  At the end of all my reading, I still did not know where he got his epiphanies, his penetrating humor — that went considerably beyond cleverness or irony — or the boundaries of his talent.  The shorter pieces, I’ve posted on his site at https://independent.academia.edu/RosenthalHenry.  The rest has now been made ready for the work of archivists and future researchers less close to him than I am.

Last Tuesday, I posted here parts of a column I wrote the week after September 11, 2001, interwoven with an essay, “Prayer and Its Power,” which he wrote in January of 1945.  Oddly enough, his essay of half a century earlier shed light on those world-blasting events that ushered in the present century.  I felt that the column put a kind of seal on my filial journey.  

Till I see him in eternity,

I can now let us go our separate ways.

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Days of Awe

“September Skyline” Todd Stone

Days of Awe

On the anniversary of September 11, I often rerun the column that I posted here in September 2001, after my visit to the City, a week later.  Like many people, I’d felt shattered by the attack on Manhattan, which is my home town.  

This week, however, that sad anniversary overlaps what are called in Jewish experience the ten Days of Awe.  They run from Rosh ha Shana, New Year’s Day, the anniversary of the world’s creation 5782 years ago — I know, I know, let’s call it a metaphor — to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  That’s the single holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  It’s when you ask forgivenesss from anyone you may have harmed or offended – a forgiveness that your victim has an obligation to grant, if you show that you understand the nature of the injury and resolve not to do it again.  Insofar as you have offended God, on that day you ask forgiveness from God directly.  If God sees that your petition is sincere, there is mercy from On High as well.

It’s impossible for me to overlook this odd fact: these two anniversaries overlap and therefore ought to be acknowledged together.  But I can’t see how in the world to do this.  Perhaps my father can help.  He was Henry M. Rosenthal (1906-1977), a rabbi in his youth, though later he became a philosophy professor.  In January 1945, HMR wrote an essay titled “Prayer and Its Power”.  Maybe it can provide some guidance.  It begins like this:

“Man has been defined as a tool-making creature, and by some as the creature that speaks.  He could also be defined as the creature that prays.  Prayer is one of the activities that give man a status in the natural order that is incommensurate with the rest of it. … But prayer is a faculty that goes to the heart of the matter.  If it is a faculty at all, it is one that touches the innermost reality of things, the secret stuff out of which the universe is built.”

HMR then lifts out three distinctive features belonging to prayer.  First, prayer discovers us to be alive in the wide setting of the universe, “as the stage or the battle-ground on which the issues of life and death, of joy and sorrow, of truth and falsehood, of love and hate, of victory and defeat are fought out.” In this setting, prayer allows us to “enter a plea or an argument or to lend a hand to one or another of the contestants in these great issues.”  So we pray to live, in order that we may take a hand in this contest, even though we know that “the law of average is, in the long run or the short run, against us. … Nevertheless, in peacetime, as in war, men have prayed for life.  They have not had any sense of absurdity about it either.  Life still seemed to them a good thing, whatever happened.”

In my column, I wrote this: I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled.

Beyond prayer’s being a petition for life, HMR sees sincerity as its second feature.  “For sincerity, in the deeper sense, is one of the fundamental things, that one does not carry in one’s pocket.  Sincerity, in this deeper sense, is a quality of the universe, as accuracy is a quality of a watch.  We may go so far as to say that sincerity is the ‘purpose’ of the universe, as telling the time is the purpose of a watch.  … This is perhaps the only true sense in which the universe is properly analogous to a watch: the moral direction of the universe is absolutely irreversible in the same way that time is.  The sincerity of the universe consists in the fact that, morally speaking, it points in one direction only; and that is the direction of more life and greater love.

“Now, when we say prayer has to do with sincerity, what we mean is that when we pray we are seeking the direction of the universe.  We are seeking the direction in which more life and greater love truly lie.  That is what we are trying to do when we pray sincerely.  In the deeper sense, we are making the effort to be sincere; we are seeking sincerity.”

I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. … But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.… Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street … the air was acrid, even inside the station.Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off … National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work …  without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone.

“The third principle of prayer is concentration.

“We are a very scattered people, on the whole; and the thing to do when we pray is to concentrate.  Reality is a fragmentation bomb, is continuous detonation, and the present (and constant) state of our souls is the result.  We are pretty much fragmentized.  There is a fragment of suffering, a fragment of anxiety, a fragment of courage, and a fragment of hope; besides many other fragments, too numerous to mention; and some of them unmentionable in their own right.  What we try to do when we pray is to concentrate.  For ordinary human beings this is a very hard thing to do.  We say, for ordinary human beings, because for fanatics it may be relatively easy.  ‘Their minds are but a single thought.’  If it comes to that, the same may be true of the devil: his mind is but a single thought to do evil, but most of us are compounded of good and bad impulses.  We are even compounded of different selves: there is the hopeful self, and the fearful self, the anxious self, the generous self, the mean self, the hateful self, and the loving self.  They are at war with one another.  With which one of these selves shall we pray?  Which shall rule over the others?

“A man’s prayer will thus reflect his ‘dominant self,’ the part of him which is really ‘at the controls’ in the attempted take-off and flight of his spirit.  It is a matter of coordination, but it is a matter of subordination too; and this double principle of co-ordination and subordination is what is called concentration.”

On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives. … The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.

I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.

“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.  … I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” 

I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”

The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.

The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.

Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.

On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.

So much for my day in the Big City.

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Afghan Hope

Aphrodite Rising from the Sea, c. 460 BCE

Afghan Hope

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York.  She is a veteran of many feminist combats, has blazed trails where colleagues feared to venture, and authored many brave, clear and well-informed books.

In 1961, her life had a different look.  She was a young girl on a whirlwind European tour with her first lover and new husband, a dashing fellow student whose native land was the exotic country of Afghanistan.  In their courtship days, they’d shared bohemian views and pictured joint creative projects, with all the airy sophistication of the young.  Their honeymoon tour was to take in a brief stop in Kabul where she would meet her new in-laws.

When they landed in Kabul, her American passport was confiscated, her father-in-law turned out to have plural wives, her mother-in-law to hate her son’s Jewish bride, and the trap closed.  She was an Afghan wife.

She had no rights.

Philosophers can debate the concept of human rights, and what it means exactly.  If you’ve lost yours, it’s no longer a conceptual problem.

The story of her life inside that trap, and how she finally managed to escape, is told unforgettably in An American Bride in Kabul, the memoir of her experience.

I take seriously the romantic notions that led an intelligent, sophisticated young woman to “blunder” in this way.  A first love is a life-imprinting thing, even if it should turn out to lead “nowhere.”  In her lifelong battle for the safety, dignity and freedom of women, I see Chesler as faithful to the promise implicit in her first love.  That “first, fine, careless rapture” pictures a world where the fervor of discovery can extend itself into the future.  

Love needs to find itself out.

What would it have meant, if it could have survived?  How might it have survived?  I don’t believe in just shrugging off the questions, pulling up one’s socks and chugging on.  These questions lie at the very heart of life.  They demand answers.

It is now August of 2021.  Phyllis Chesler is part of a superb international team of feminists working together to rescue Afghan women.  They include “anti sex-slavery activists, honor killing experts .. a brilliant legal team …”  and they focus particularly on women whose stand for women’s rights has made them Taliban targets.  One of these desperate Afghan feminists, “Aisha,” is an experienced researcher, journalist and lecturer with a degree in medical science.  She contacted Chesler with this simple request: 

Save my life!

Working for a month round the clock, with her team, Chesler succeeded.

My parents rescued ten families, whom they did not know, from the Holocaust.  I know what such work is.  I may sleep better tonight, knowing that Phyllis Chesler has won this round.  What a triumph!  No Nobel Prize is better than this!

It is also, as I see it, a womanly victory.  The safety and support that her first love, the Afghan boy, should have brought her, she has secured, in some measure, for other women.

This is the eternal feminine

in action.

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Death Be Not Proud

Adams Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1891

Death Be Not Proud

We think of our life stories as headed toward a concluding sentence, after which, if they were novels, we would see written: “The End.”

Not that everyone conceives this “end” the same way.  Take Heidegger, the 20th-century German existentialist.  He holds that we should think of ourselves as headed-toward-death from the get-go.  By looking death in the eye, we fortify ourselves to become resolute and brave – getting way beyond conventional people who live by evasion and denial.

Sartre, the 20th-century French existentialist, thinks the very fact of death – along with the other contingencies in our bodies and the natural environment – combine to show that our purposes are unsupported.  Not supported by God and not by nature.  Rather, by nothing at all!  To face this honestly and recognize that we make up our purposes and self-definitions is “authenticity.”  To try to pretend otherwise is mauvaise foi, bad faith.

The various figures in post-modernism tend to view reality, whether natural or cultural, as a social construct. It’s still made up, but not by individuals.  Rather by social groups, identified by their position on a scale of dominance and subordination.  However, they too go to the dentist.  And they can tell the difference between a dentist who knows his craft and one merely flexing his credentials.  One day, a social constructivist I knew told me that he was dying of cancer.  Tactfully, I did not ask if he thought death too was a social construct.

On the Anglo-American side of the channel and “the pond,” it’s typical to see life as ending when the senses and bodily functions shut down.  One time I asked David Armstrong, a leading Australian materialist, whether he’d read my article, “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead.”  He said he hadn’t (and presumably wouldn’t) because “Freddie” (A. J. Ayer) had evidently confused real oxygen deprivation with fantasized other-worldly visions and thereby “lost his cool.”

Need I go on?  Speaking personally, for better or worse, I am encumbered by no such intellectual constraints.  Like many people, I’ve had pre-cognitive dreams and waking visions, significant coincidences, some of which I think it reasonable to construe as signs of providential intervention.  I’ve even argued to this effect in the final chapter of A Good Look at Evil.

That said, I would have thought that admission of such phenomena into the domain of scientific investigation would be a thing for the distant future.  So far as I knew, any scientist who wanted to conduct that kind of inquiry would be risking his or her career.

I was mistaken.  Apparently, the future is already here.  The August 20th edition of Victor Zammit’s blog includes a video on methodic, scientific investigations of near-death experiences (NDE’s) that were conducted or are now being conducted in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA. In such cases, a patient, who has been deemed clinically dead and then revived, reports continuous conscious experience during that interval.  If, as most moderns hold, the brain is what produces consciousness, that should be impossible.

Dr. Francois Lallier, a general practitioner in Reims, France, wrote a well-received medical thesis on such experiences de mort imminente, holding that they need to be “de-dramatized” and studied, rather than explained away.  He found that NDE’s are reported by 5% of patients who survive clinical death in the US and by 4% of such survivors in France and Germany.  These recollections have similar features: seeing a light that is very bright but not over-dazzling, seeing one’s body from the outside, meeting deceased relatives, losing the sense of time, feeling limitlessly loved, undergoing a life review in which one sees how one’s actions have affected others, and entering a domain of universal harmony and knowledge.  Among the after-effects are the persistence of intense, full recollection of this experience and the loss of the fear of death.

Lallier found no correlation of NDE’s with psychiatric disturbances, hallucinogenic medication, epilepsy or neurological problems.  Meanwhile, in 2001, Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel had published a study of NDE’s in Lancet, the well-regarded medical journal.  He found no correlation of these experiences with the duration of the cardiac arrest, the presence or absence of medications or the lack of oxygen.  Van Lommel mentions a recent book containing accounts of 100 cases of NDE’s where the patient, at the time lying “dead” on the operating table, reported observations while out of the body that were veridical (corroborated by witnesses to the events observed).  Steven Laurey of the Coma Science Group in Liege, Belgium, is currently undertaking a study of the brain effects in patients who have had NDE’s.  As yet, he has not come to any conclusions but considers it a field ripe for scientific investigation.

What follows, for you or me?  Certain beliefs collapse.  We are not just dependent on our perishable brains.  Rather, life goes on, with new levels of understanding.  Life is not meaningless and we don’t fabricate its meaning.  Such skills and talents as we have developed don’t reduce to mere devices for dominating other people.  Our lives can be evaluated in terms of the degree of compassionate concern we have shown for other people.  Turns out the golden rule is not reserved for Hallmark cards.  It’s a serious measure of the worthiness of the life one has lived.

There’s one tendency I’ve noticed among the scientists, philosophers, and religionists who are willing to look at these studies.  I call it upward reductionism.  It’s the rush to suppose that — since everything is really Lovewe can look forward to melting like little raindrops into the great Ocean of Oneness.  Nothing is actually separate.  Nothing is really individual.  We are all … just … LOVE and more LOVE.  Quantum entanglement is love in another guise.  You are love.  I am love.  Blur, blur, blur.

I take that to reflect the very early stage, the woo woo stage, of the work ahead of us. What work is that?  It will surely involve the revising, at least in part, of most of our present, modern-day scientific and cultural assumptions.

It promises to be

very interesting.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

By David McCullough

I’d like to see Paris before I die.”

That’s how W. C. Fields, about to be hanged in “My Little Chickadee,” answers when he’s asked if he has any last wish.

Jacob Taubes, when he chaired Columbia University’s Religion Department, produced this version.  One member of a married pair says to the other, “If one of us dies first, I will go to Paris.”

Anyway, Americans have been feeling that way for about 200 years.  The phases that were played out in the nineteenth century have been expertly evoked by the great David McCullough.  At first the book goes along anecdotally, at a low and even tempo.  Later, it heats up dramatically.

From the 1830’s onward, Americans went to Paris for training of various kinds. The best medical training was to be found there.  You got to watch surgeries performed on poor wretches without anaesthetics.  Afterward, the patient usually died.  But the professor’s technique and autocratic assurance were brilliant.  Would-be artists went there to learn their craft.  In those days, painting was not about self-expression.  Daylight hours were spent on high ladders in the Louvre, copying the great masters.  Promising young artists could gain admission to courses taught by the masters of the day, where they learned how to draw the human figure and how to produce a painting from the canvass on up.

Meanwhile, New England puritans were stunned to discover how exquisite food could be, how inimitable a fashionable Parisian woman could be – and how many arts a civilized life could comport.  They had never seen a city so charming, so capable of flooding the senses!  They hoped earnestly to return home without losing their purity.  They  wondered, shyly, if some of these civilized arts might be exported to the new American Republic without sacrificing its innocent austerities.

Everyone went to Paris, sooner or later: Emerson, Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Morse, Charles Sumner, Henry Adams, Henry James, Whistler, Saint-Gaudens, John Singer Sargent, the list goes on and on.  Only Thoreau stayed home, as we might expect.

The earlier chapters reminded me astonishingly of the initial impressions of Paris that I and my fellow American Fulbright scholars shared in the following century.  We were stunned.  We talked about it endlessly – and in much the same terms!

In the course of the nineteenth-century, this serenely urbane setting erupts several times, each time with more bloodshed and pitiless destruction of its landmarks.  In 1848, Louis-Philippe, the last king of France, is forced to abdicate and flee.  His successor, Louis Napoleon, has time to superintend the reconfiguring of Paris into a splendid seat of empire before he finds himself in an ill-fated war with the Prussia of Otto von Bismark.  

I could have told him not to do that.  His ministers — perhaps carried away by France’s architectural glory – may have mistaken that kind of superiority for triumph on the battlefield.  One has to keep these categories distinct.

The disaster of the Franco-Prussian war is followed by the strange and bloody uprising known as the Commune.

Till finally, it all settles down again, to an even-tempered finale marked by the advent of a new generation of American artists whose talent has developed to such a point of assurance, beauty and originality, that they are even competitive with their young French counterparts.  

With the nineteenth century drawing to a close, we can serenely bring down the curtain on the first century of our compatriots in Paris.

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The Meanings of Our Lives

“The Kremlin,” Dmitry Nalbandyan

The Meanings of Our Lives

People commit suicide when their lives seem to them meaningless.  At least, that’s been my experience, which I’ll share with you.

I’ve talked two women friends out of killing themselves, which they seemed quite serious about doing.  I’m not a professional at this kind of thing, but it might be worth revisiting the incidents to see what I did.

They were both women I knew from a twelve-step program, whose meetings I attended during the period when there was “someone in my life whose drinking bothered me.”  After I left that group, the friendships attenuated too, so I don’t know how their lives turned out later.

The first friend was a wholesome American girl with normal ambitions and skills.  Bright, not intellectual, but good at many things.  A book contract had been dropped that seemed indispensable to her ideal picture of herself.  Perhaps the market had changed.  Or the publisher’s priorities.  You enter the realm of book proposals at your peril.  It’s well known that people don’t read as much as they used to.

What did I contribute?  On the advice of a friend who’d lost a daughter to suicide, I arrived with a musical teddy bear, the announcement that dinner was to be on me, and a readiness to listen quietly to everything she had to say.

Just be there.

Finally, when she was clearly talked out, I offered two reasons not to do it.  First, if you think you don’t look good without a book contact, how good will you look as a dead body found in a hotel room?  Second, drawing without apology on occult lore – this wasn’t a talk at an academic conference – you’ll only have to go through the same challenge again in your next life and it’s reported to be harder the second time.

I don’t know which reason she found more convincing.  She wasn’t much for occult lore, so probably the first.

The other suicidal woman friend had a much darker and more complicated background.  She was Latin, with an aristocratic bearing and name.  As I recall, her father had killed himself and that sort of thing is contagious.  She came from one of those countries south of the border where the life of women is dominated by other women’s talk – always teetering on the brink of malice.  They see you as you walk toward them and as you walk away.  In her particular case, she was darker skinned than the other women of her family and, when they took a look at this newborn, that was not a plus.  I had lived in Iberia and I knew what she was talking about.

Here is what pushed her to the brink: She’d been seduced by one of those guys who prey on good-looking newcomers to twelve-step programs.

So what? you might be inclined to protest.  We’re all modern people.

No, we’re not.

I knew exactly how she felt.  How profoundly offended.  How outraged.  How insulted.  And his cover story, that we’re uninhibited modern people, only made it worse.

So what magic philtre did I offer, to offset this injury to her feminine pride? 

Just this: I accepted her view that it was a profound injury.  I did not come rushing over to apply scraps of modernity with its psychologies.  I didn’t “make it better.”  I didn’t erase the eternal feminine in her.

And that was enough.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning.   It recorded the time he spent as a prisoner in Nazi death camps.  He was young and did his skeletal best to appear fit for slave labor so they wouldn’t send him to the crematoria right away.  He managed to stay alive in the filth and the terror.  His book is really a handbook on how to live through your Holocaust.  You need to find meaning and keep your mind on the plane of meaning.  Whether it’s a sunset, the remembered face of your wife, the decision to care for another’s life more than for your own – these preserved your will to live and, in cases he recounts, sometimes saved life itself.

All very well, you may want to rejoin.  But what if the entire culture in which you find yourself appears to have lost its sense of meaning?  It’s quite a trick to confer meaning on one’s own singular, individual life while all about you are finding their lives absurd.  In that circumstance, is there any balm in Gilead?

Relevant to this question is an essay I’ve just read in a collection titled Russian Philosophy in the Twenty-First Century.  The writer is Igor Kliamkin.  He’s lectured internationally, survived the Soviet era and has a lot to say about Russia as a problem culture.

Here’s the story he tells.  In 1453, the Byzantine empire fell to the Ottoman Turks.  Constantinople became Istanbul.  A great part of Christendom fell under Muslim rule and what was left unconquered became the Russian Orthodox Church.  Suddenly, the remainder of Christian Rome had to account for a defeat of that size.  The reason it found was that the Greek Orthodox Church had looked to heaven overmuch.  Christians had to fight!  Accordingly, Tsars like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great ruled a militarized state.

And what did the Russian people, especially the lower classes, think of this?  They accepted it!  The unity of the Tsar with the militarized nobility that served him, and the classes beneath that served the nobility, gave to the Russian people a sense that their lives were parts of a meaningful whole, a melding together of faith and force.

What is astounding to western eyes is that, the more the Tsar limited his own power, and freed the nobility from compulsory military service – the less faith the people had in their rulers.  When, in the twentieth century, the communists seized power, the state was expressly placed on a war footing and – as long as that regime remained viable – its communist ideology (its “faith”) revived the allegiance of its people.  Only now, when the state has decayed to the point of economic and social failure, has the people’s faith in its ideology been lost too.  Life in Russia has become meaningless.

Kliamkin’s proposed solution?  The Russian nation must now learn to be governed by law.  Where law is respected, absolutist solutions have been laid aside.  Legal verdicts are approximative – sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes beside the point entirely.  Such is the human condition.  We aren’t perfect.  We need to allow ourselves space for compromise.

What for any of us, is the meaning of life?  One can proclaim a principle – even a true and just principle – but a meaningful life isn’t done with abstract proclamations.  It’s achieved by careful watching of the changing clues as to who one now is, what one is to aim for, and what means will serve one’s chosen ends.

God is not flattered by our faking it.

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The Eternal Feminine

“Mona Lisa,” Leonardo da Vinci

The Eternal Feminine

The other night I had a dream where some medical expert was examining me for breast cancer.  He seemed properly qualified to do this and the examination did not in the least bother me.  Then I noticed a second man, wearing a brown three-piece suit, standing beside the medical one and looking on with total fascination.  It didn’t take me long to realize that neither he nor his fascination had any business being there.  I stood up, shaking with rage and demanded his ouster.  He complied, going out by the exit with bent back.

In the morning, it came to me what the dream had been about.  A few years ago, I’d had a lengthy combat, involving the leadership of an organization to which I belonged, to bring about the ouster of a predator who’d been harassing the women.  Although my fight had been ultimately successful, I’d been treated by the leadership without any of  

the deference due to me

as a woman.

What Goethe called “the eternal feminine” is what he claimed “leads us above.”  How often such talk has been decried!  And decried most often by women active and effective in the century-long fights to liberate women!  Women in the vanguard of those combats continuously emphasized how appeals to women to “be women” were tactics that masked the unjust bullying and deprivation of redress being brought about with all the legal, social and brute-physical means at men’s disposal. 

But weren’t these feminists, who attacked words like “femininity,” picking out distorted misuses of language, rather than the use of words to express some underlying reality?

One time, I took at course in Self Defense for Women at the 92nd Street Y.  Our instructor was a young woman with a beautifully compact and disciplined body.  In Lesson One, she told us that women are not as physically strong as men, so they have to fight dirty.  Though I followed the course to the end, did the practices faithfully and found her instructions interesting, I came to realize that I was never going to stick my keys in a bad guy’s eye.  So I went back to the strategic use of prayer on the IRT.  That I knew how to do.  (Maybe I should give a course!)

The crime-fighting TV shows I watch on Hallmark generally end with the girl detective throwing the villain off the roof and rescuing her male colleague with her one fell swoop from the martial arts.  Perhaps I took my self-defense course at the Y with the idea of performing similar feats.  Anyway, during that time, I met a buddy of mine for coffee.  He was a New York City fireman and had been a cop.  He commented that criminals don’t spend all their time committing crimes.  Like many working people, they’re specialists.  So they put in time at the gym.  Best not to go mano a mano with a criminal.

One time, during an American Philosophical Association meeting, I joined some former colleagues for dinner at a restaurant.  It was at the invitation of one of the colleagues — an old friend who was, as he and I both knew, initiating a courtship.  A topic was raised at the table about which I voiced an opinion considered impolitic.  It expressed a reservation about a prestigious philosopher whom the others present held to be above criticism.  My reservation pertained to the quality he was then and there being held up as exemplifying, so my criticism was not gratuitous.  Moreover, the defect was public knowledge so I was not breaking a confidence.

Instead of offering a counter-argument, one of the colleagues started mimicking me in a mocking “female” voice.  Groupthink being powerful, that started the others snickering too.  As I voiced indignation, the would-be suitor at my side said, sotto voce, “Don’t argue!  You’ll only make it worse.”

In the days that followed, I took steps to ensure that nothing like that would happen to me again, but I won’t go into that.  What I want to lift out here was the excuse my would-be suitor offered in our subsequent emails back and forth.

I was a feminist, he wrote, and therefore should be given space to fight for myself.  He really didn’t want to get in Wonder Woman’s way.

I pointed out that he hadn’t even got out of my way.  He’d actively discouraged me from defending myself!  I noted too that one defends a buddy who’s being ganged up on, regardless of sex.

But neither of us was talking about the real issue.  I was talking code, and he was talking code back.  The reality was that a group of men had dropped the role of colleagues and taken advantage of the vulnerability of a woman — qua woman — treating her in a bullying fashion.  Instead of acknowledging her vulnerability the way a man should: with due deference.  With honor.  With gallantry that is normal and second nature to a man who has his own sense of honor.

Everybody knows this.  Nobody will say it in mixed company, though women will sometimes admit this – but note that it’s an admission! – privately with each other.  Not every truth is fashionable.

What about the vulnerability of women?  It becomes apparent when, for example, a biological male claims to be a woman trapped in a man’s body and runs away with all the trophies in a women’s athletic event.  

Insofar as vulnerability means relative physical weakness, it’s an objective condition calling for identification and appropriate legal protections.  But why should mere weakness summon the deference that I maintain an honorable man will normally pay a decent woman?  What justifies the extra claim?  Is it just a matter of sportsmanship?  The way boys are taught that you don’t hit a girl?  Well, you don’t, but that doesn’t disclose what I’m trying to get at here.

There is something else to be safeguarded.  There is an invisible core in the depth of women’s vulnerability.  A yielding, a caressing, an empathic understanding that is a power in its own right.

Everyone

everywhere

knows this.

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Explain This.

“The Embarkation for Cythera,” Antoine Watteau, 1718-19

Explain This.

If the roof falls in or the ship is taking water, I’m the teammate you’ll want to have around.  I’ll do anything that seems to need doing and I won’t try to be important while I’m about it.  Tragedies?  Catastrophes?  I know about that.  What I don’t know much about is things going quite outstandingly well.  So here’s a whole week like that and I don’t know what to think.

For example: a colleague for whom I have a good deal of respect, human, writerly and intellectual, has just sent an email about my book, A Good Look at Evil.  He commends it in a way that’s both detailed and deep, actually reading it as I intended for it to be read.  

Again, remember the woman friend about whom I wrote in a previous column that our life-long communion seemed on the brink of foundering?  She has written back in an email that doesn’t deal directly with the barriers between us now.  These she leaves where they were.  But she lifts out elements from my Jewish origins that she deems eternal and inspiring.  Her words don’t name abstractions; they’re about my mother, the building with turrets along the roof – 1245 Madison – where we lived, but it’s clear to me what they stand for.  She won’t be treating who I am with moral or social condescension.  

The opinions she held that can rationalize the next Shoah?  Yes, perhaps she still holds them.  She was my woman friend when I most needed one.  I can’t clean the whole attic.

This week I met with an Israeli cousin for lunch at a restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking the Delaware river and a cluster of ducks.  We haven’t met since before the pandemic.  Years ago, I had stepped into a family situation in her defense.  I didn’t want to do it.  The family I risked offending was (as an Israeli colleague once described it) one key to the power structure of Israel.  Well, that’s a colorful exaggeration, but they were extraordinary people and certainly not connections I would toss away willingly.  Particularly since my parents had died and I was pretty much alone in the world.  

Had there been others to do it, I would gladly have stepped back and let them do it.  But there was no one behind me, no one to my left or my right.  I was it.  So I did what seemed called for and a whole network of valued connections fell away.  Nor was a friction-free bond with my cousin the compensating result.  No, our relations still harbored all the passionate, difficult fervor of our family and its part in history.  The renewal of our face-to-face relation was something I anticipated with unease.  

Yet, in the interval, we had attained a new level of mutual comprehension and fondness.  All that history — the cost of it through three generations – mutually acknowledged!  You might characterize our lunch as a covenantal reunion.

Also this week, Jerry and I visited a woman friend and colleague of mine, now recovering from surgery in our very good local hospital.  Although it had been two days since her four-hour surgery, she looked astonishingly “ready to meet her public,” as they say.  Despite the scary occasion for our visit, our chattering was filled with the reciprocities of a life-long friendship.  After about an hour, her husband walked in and joined in the same spirit.  We were enjoying an earned familiarity.  Nothing false there.

Continuing my report: with the aid of our omni-competent assistant, I have started doing podcasts of “Dear Abbie,” recording this column from its earliest days.  The first columns turn out more subtle than I remembered, and I read them with fresh discovery that shows through in my voice and tone.  I think they fill one of the cracks in the conventional understanding of real life –- for women particularly.  We are not churning out half-chewed platitudes here. 

This morning brought an email commenting on last week’s column, “Light on the Longest Hatred.” From a colleague who is also a comrade-in-arms, it expresses moral solidarity on the most essential level.

Confessions of A Young Philosopher, my forthcoming book, will be published with illustrations.  Nineteenth-century novels frequently included illustrations.  Not artsy abstract forms for sophisticates.  Pictures showing what’s happening in the story.  To me, that’s how a book should look, if it tells a story. 

Compare a novel that tells a story to a nineteenth-century painting of a landscape.  More keenly than most, the painter has seen what’s already there and lifted it out, thereby helping us to see it too.  Likewise, a gifted novelist has seen the invisible structure of the situation and lifted it out for our mental picturing.  This helps us to reinforce a sense of reality that’s already ours, but so far unconfirmed.  This week, my English illustrator has emailed the “rough” of the most hard-to-picture scene in Confessions, showing that she has thoroughly understood it.  

Now we will too.

So, it’s been one darned good thing after another!  

“Why don’t you buy a lottery ticket?” commented my acupuncturist, who has the qualities of a sage, only less pretentious.

Seriously, what should I make of such a string of supportive, favorable happenings?  It feels as if I don’t have the neurons for it.  Where should I situate it?

You might say, and I hesitate to talk like this in our tragic age, everything’s

normal for a change.

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Light on the Longest Hatred

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

Light on the Longest Hatred

I’d intended to devote this column to leisurely reflections on what I sometimes term “the Jewish assignment” in history.  Reflections prompted by a biography I’m now reading, with the title, Rabbi Leo Baeck: Living a Religious Imperative in Troubled Times.  The author is Michael A. Meyer and he writes very intelligently about his subject.

Before starting this book, I knew almost nothing about Leo Baeck save for a vague recollection that he’d been criticized for his role during the Holocaust – was it for not spelling out to Jews what awaited them at the terminus of their train trip to the killing grounds?  

Since I’m not a big fan of armchair moralists who know exactly how other people should have acted during those other people’s mass slaughter, I’d not formed prior judgments about Leo Baeck.  As of now, in the biography, it’s still the 1920’s, he’s rabbi of an important congregation in Berlin and the Nazi period hasn’t yet begun.

However, what I learned from the Preface has put me very much on his side.  During the thirties, when he worked to assist emigration from Germany, Baeck was repeatedly offered asylum and even a favorable teaching position in England.  These offers he refused, choosing rather to give what consolation and assistance he could to Jews who remained trapped in Germany – either by lack of means or because they’d realized too late what Hitlerism portended. 

Hey, armchair moralists,

that’s good enough for me.

My anticipated hour for writerly reflection has meanwhile collided with an online news item that just came to my attention.  The Professional Staff Congress, the academic union of the City University of New York — to which I belong, which in the past helped me in a job fight and supplies part of my pension – has just passed a resolution about Israel.  The language of the resolution describes Israel as a colonial-settler-apartheid state without a right-to-exist.  

Usually such resolutions are passed by a minority that has nothing better to do.  Everybody else goes home to have dinner with their friends or families and get their work done.  Only the extremists stay up late to get their resolutions through.  By morning, when ordinary people wake up, it’s a done deal.

I am not an effective debater and try my best to “stay out of politics,” since it interferes with my ability to sleep at night.  Nor am I a political theorist.   Therefore, bracketing the string of false claims in the PSC resolution, let me just summarize briefly what gives Israel a better right to exist than any other state on the planet.

What, ordinarily, gives a state its “right” to exist?  Three things: (1) victory in battle, (2) international treaties, (3) productive use of the territory with which its people have mixed their labor.  Israel meets all three of these “ordinary” criteria.  

She meets two further criteria, which are non-ordinary.  (4) Her people have been persecuted for 2000 years in every country where they sought to live outside the land of Israel – their martyrdom culminating in the wickedest collective deed of persecution in recorded history. (5) They lived,  recorded, and remembered their experiences in their land in such a way as to make it a holy land for many peoples besides themselves, thus fulfilling a promise that their record attributes to God: “In your name will all the peoples of the world be blessed.”

Now back to my original question: What was Leo Baeck’s contribution to the thinking-through of the Jewish assignment — the covenant between God and the Jews — as something ongoing?  

The biographer contrasts it with the thought of two of his German-Jewish contemporaries: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.  Buber seems more individual: the communion between you and me extends from the two personal I’s, converging toward the divine Thou.  For Rosenzweig, it is experienced in the revelation of God’s love, which calls forth from ourselves the reciprocal response of lovers of God.

Unlike these thinkers, whom he knew and corresponded with, Baeck feels a rabbi’s responsibility toward the Jewish people as an entire community.  He seems to have had a talent for finding ways to give Jews of conflicting opinions some unifying thread or sense of communion with each other.  He was gifted with benevolence and a great sense of responsibility.  He emphasized the moral element in divine commandments but did not discard the external rituals that also tied his people together.  

I haven’t read far enough into this account to say more, but it seems that his thinking evolved to allow room for God’s unpredictable, incalculable presence – the mysterious side of the divine – visiting a people whose vocation would be to partner with God in tying past to future.  That vocation would never be exhaustively disclosed by what happens in the historical here and now.  

As a thinker, Baeck interests me particularly because he’ll be put to the terrible tests of real life in the worst of circumstances.  What will he think, and what will he do, then?

And, speaking of such things, what do I make of the unprecedented hatred that now emanates from so many corners of the academic and opinion-shaping world?  There’s no mistaking it.  It provides the advance rationale for genocide — for the next Shoah.

What I make of it is that it also provides evidence – uncanny empirical evidence if ever there was such a thing – for the place of the Jews in history  spiritually understood.  The Jews remind people of the God whose record in history they first knew and preserved.

What else would prompt so much hatred?

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