WHO SAID LIFE WAS EASY?

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When Bill moved in with me fourteen years ago, his possessions moved in too. He had less “stuff” than I did (having left much of it behind in the house now belonging to his second former wife). So it was eventually possible, after some “friendly” dispute, to make room somewhere or other for what he had brought with him, even if it didn’t exactly “go” with what was already there.

However, one of his pictures I never had doubts about.  I was given no formal religious education and don’t know exactly who Rabbi Hillel was. Moreover, I have no religious beliefs whatsoever.  But there was no question in my mind that the saying attributed to the Rabbi which Bill had framed would come with us from Cambridge to Princeton. In fact, it currently hangs just outside the room that serves as my office, where it reminds me of life’s imperatives and conundrums whenever I pass it on my way to and from the computer.

In case the words aren’t easy to read in the uploaded photo of the picture, here they are again, writ clear:

“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me?

“If I am only for myself, what am I?

“If not now, when?”

Forthright, isn’t it?  You can’t really argue with any of it.  If you let yourself be put upon or walked on, you will be. But if you act only for yourself, if you’re a selfish shit — what kind of person are you?

“If not now, when?” may be easier to understand, if not always easy to put into practice, and has occasionally been helpful to a daydreamer like me. But the more you consider that those four words follow the two sentences preceding it, the less forthright and the more cryptic the whole thing becomes.  Do what now?  Take care of numero uno?  Give unto others? Suppose those two directives are in conflict. Then what?

I offer no suggestions as to what the good Rabbi may have meant, other than that what he meant can mean different things to different people at different times.  And probably has. Or different things to the same person at different times. Which is also probably true.

But it’s worth thinking about. Especially in connection with one’s own life.

What do you think?

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HOW TO WIGGLE OUT OF ARGUMENTS YOU’RE LOSING

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Some have a philosophizing bent.  Not me. I’m pragmatic.  I want to get on with whatever it is, not sit around considering it from one aspect and then another, possibly winding up in either a metaphysical tangle from which it’s impossible to extricate yourself or a shouting match with whoever was going to help you address the problem.

Given this mind set, I never took a straight philosophy course in college.  Perhaps I was also scared off by my first serious boyfriend pronouncing me illogical. Of course, the subtext of his pronouncement had to do with sex — he being all for it right away and me putting up multiple objections to such haste. On departing for a semester at his own remote college, he urged me to acquire a copy of Cohen & Nagel’s Introduction to Logic; it would help me think properly when he returned for Christmas break.  I hated Introduction to Logic from its very first page. Besides, it had nothing to do with sex.  I shut the book and never looked at it again.

However, I did take a great senior course called The Individual and History given by a lanky and charismatic professor named Charles Trinkaus who didn’t know how charming he was.  For him I turned the pages of the Bible and assorted works by, inter alia,  Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hegel, Engels, Marx and Freud — before forgetting most of what I had read.

With this sketchy training from boyfriend and professor, plus an unforgettably snotty remark from a first and early husband (but no other philosophic weapons at my command), I nevertheless entered adult life equipped with three magic bullets that fully resolved differences with another person, especially whenever I was feeling cornered — and permitted moving forward on whatever really mattered.  If you too are a pragmatist and find yourself not doing so well in a talk-fest, be my guest.

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1.  Snotty putdown.

(So that other guy should not gloat when you’re stuck.)

“Now that you’ve got the last word, what are you going to do with it?”

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2.  Too wise to nit-pick. 

(You said A; he or she said B; you’re not sure what to say next.)

 “What are we arguing for? As Hegel said, It’s all thesis, antithesis, synthesis anyway.”

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3.  Self-referential deconstructionist.

(My favorite. Justifies everything.  Best employed with Gallic shrug of shoulder and twinkling eye. Also from Hegel, via first serious boyfriend trying to impress me on the beach the summer we met. )

“The world is my idea.”   

How can anyone argue with that?

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MORE FROM MORGENBESSER

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Sidney Morgenbesser’s paradoxical words as he was dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) are not the only ones he’s known for.  Here, from Wikiquote, are some of his less bitter remarks. (Remember, he was a professor of philosophy.)

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During a lecture, the Oxford linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin made the claim that although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative.  To which Morgenbesser derisively called out from the audience, “Yeah, yeah.”

Asked by a student whether he agreed with Chairman Mao’s view that a statement can be both true and false at the same time, Morgenbesser replied, “Well, I do and I don’t.”

During campus protests of the 1960s, Morgenbesser was hit on the head by police. When asked whether he had been treated unfairly or unjustly, he responded that it was “unfair, but not unjust. It was unfair because they hit me over the head, but not unjust because they hit everyone else over the head.”

When challenged why he had written so little, Morgenbesser fired back: “Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?”

Morgenbesser described Gentile ethics as entailing “ought implies can,” while in Jewish ethics, “can implies don’t.”

When asked his opinion of pragmatism, Morgenbesser replied, “It’s all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”

Asked to prove a questioner’s existence, Morgenbesser shot back, “Who’s asking?”

A student once interrupted him to complain, “I just don’t understand!” He responded, “Why should you have the advantage over me?”

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What I take away from all this is that I think I wish I’d known Morgenbesser, but maybe it’s better that I didn’t.  I’d be afraid of what he’d say to me. I’m no philosopher, and I already don’t understand anything.

Is there anything more than anything for me not to understand? If there is, I’m sure Morgenbesser would have found it.  And then where would I be?

S. SHARES SOME FAMILY HISTORY

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[A story]

S.’s mother refused to marry his father unless her own mother could live with them. S.’s father must have wanted to marry S.’s mother very much, because he said yes.

S.’s mother was so attached to her own mother because she was all her mother had. When her mother arrived in the United States from Poland, she was already a widow with two very young children. S.’s mother was three. Her baby sister was less than a year old. S.’s mother’s mother, without husband or income, gave the baby up for adoption to a Jewish family from New Brunswick, Canada. After the sisters were grown, S.’s mother tried to get in touch, for her own sake as well as her mother’s. But the younger sister refused to have anything to do with her, and could not forgive their mother for having given her away.

S.’s father was not a religious man. His new mother-in-law was a very religious woman. Although she had lived in the United States since S.’s mother was three, the mother-in-law had never learned English. She communicated with the world, and with her new son-in-law, mainly through her daughter, his new wife. And only in Yiddish. S.’s mother, who S. suspects never cared much for religion herself, kept a kosher home for her mother’s sake. When S. was eight or nine, his father began taking him out to the fights on Friday nights (the holiest night of the week), where they would eat trafe hot dogs (unclean! unclean!) slathered in mustard and relish. “Don’t tell your mother,” his father would say.

S.’s father and S.’s mother’s mother hated each other. When he was really annoyed at her presence under his roof, he called her “KUR-veh.” It meant “whore.”  Nothing could have been farther from the truth, but it must have been the worst word for a woman in his vocabulary. He spoke English perfectly well; he used the Yiddish word so S.’s mother’s mother could understand it. For variety, he sometimes also wished cholera on her, also in Yiddish. Since he was the breadwinner, she had no recourse but to make herself scarce whenever he came home from work. S. cannot remember their having been in the same room together more than once or twice, and then never for long.

The family lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where S.’s father ran an Army-Navy store in a rundown neighborhood. The apartment had two bedrooms. S.’s father and mother took the bigger bedroom, and the mother’s mother the smaller bedroom. When S.’s sister was born, they set up a cot for her in her parents’ room. When S. was born three years later, he slept with his grandmother. In the same big bed. He slept there until he was eleven, when he woke one morning with an erection and refused ever to share a bed with her again. Another arrangement was then made for him: the living room couch.

S.’s grandmother adored him. He was the Boy. He was going to be a rabbi. Like her uncle. At least, those were her plans for him. She had a rabbinical school in Poland all picked out. (Had she succeeded in getting him a place there, he would have arrived in Poland just before Hitler’s armies marched in.)

When S.’s father was out of the house working, she would creep into the kitchen to do her own special cooking. (S.’s mother also worked during the day, helping his father out in the store.) He remembers his grandmother rendering chicken fat, to be used instead of butter for cooking fleisch (meat) meals, and giving him special treats of it, salted and smeared on rye bread. She also gave him the chicken necks rendered of their fat to chew on and then spit out. They were called gribenes. His sister didn’t get these treats. His grandmother said it was their secret together. The only other memorable aspect of her cuisine S. now recalls was the spaghetti — boiled and mixed with a can of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.

S. accepted the fact of his grandmother. But the woman he says he truly loved was his mother. “Tatele mein,” she called him when she got back from work in the evenings. “My little man.” But what did he love? He has few memories of her, other than her veneration for learning, her love of opera on the radio, her ardent support for FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, her rejection of makeup, her unending yearning to be reconciled with her little sister, and her great fondness for the state of Georgia, where she had apparently spent several happy years as a child after her mother found a second husband and lived for a time in Georgia with him.

Matters in the apartment came to a head shortly after S. began sleeping on the living room couch. S.’s father put his foot down; pre-marital promise or no, he wanted his mother-in-law out! By then he was able to pay rent for her on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Except how could she live alone? She couldn’t speak English. She was getting old. The solution S.’s parents devised was to send both of their children to live with her during the week. S.’s sister, by then fourteen, would do the shopping and help with the housework after school.

But why did S. have to go, too? To this day, he’s not sure. At eleven, he could have managed in Bridgeport until his parents came home in the evenings.  Was it so easy for his mother to part with her tatele mein, her little man? He thinks she simply deferred to her mother once again. There were better Hebrew schools on the lower East Side. And in one or two years, yeshiva — the equivalent of high school for the devout. A wonderful preparation for Poland!

From then on, S. and his sister saw their parents only on Sundays. S. did not do particularly well at the yeshiva. At sixteen, he even took a forbidden Saturday job as an usher at the movies, where he luxuriated in sinful appreciation of what was on the screen. But thanks to the hard work of their parents at the Army-Navy store, both he and his sister were able to go away to college, their tuitions and other expenses fully paid for.  (The Polish option was not considered.)

After earning an advanced degree in Spanish literature, his sister subsided into deferential marriage to a tall, well-spoken but extremely religious man who took her away to Canada, where she spent much of her life in motherhood of four children. S. says she was never a happy woman.

S. himself became an M.D. His parents were very proud. Afterwards, however, he married a lapsed Catholic. She was French and charming and had a cute behind. But although she made a nominal conversion to Judaism, when she came to meet the family bearing a dozen roses, S.’s grandmother flung the roses on the floor. S. does not comment further on this incident, or indicate whether his mother apologized for her mother to the bride.

When S. talks about these things, he says his mother, now long dead of Alzheimers, was an angel. But if asked what kind of angel would repeatedly choose her mother over her little son, he squirms. Then he adds that although he can remember very little about his mother as she was when he was growing up, his sister — who shared their parents’ bedroom until she was fourteen — always said she was an angel. Finally he asks, somewhat rhetorically: What choice did his mother have?

A hard question to answer. However, S.’s medical specialty is interesting. Even though he enjoyed radiology best during his medical training, he elected to do psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatry. We might also note that although he still understands some Hebrew and Yiddish, his ability to converse in either of these languages has faded. He hasn’t gone to synagogue or temple for years and does not associate with any Yiddish speakers. He calls himself a secular humanist.

One of S.’s sister’s four children was gay. (Her very religious husband never found out.) This son killed himself when he discovered he was sick. Two of her three other children have five children between them. However, her youngest daughter (the one without children) refuses to speak to the other two, and the oldest daughter is not on good terms with her own older daughter.

S. himself is the father of three children, by two wives. His  daughter, now in her forties, has many problems and gives him much heartache. She is unlikely ever to marry or have children of her own. The two sons each have a child apiece, but they are very far away and not particularly communicative, and he has very little opportunity to see them.

Although S. can only surmise the degree of torment his mother and father experienced in their marriage, he points out that from their torment came, after much perseverance and additional torment, seven great-grandchildren (and recently two baby great-great-grandchildren). Thus the generations succeed each other. However, what else we can make of what he has shared with us I cannot really say.

Is the pain and suffering of life tolerable because there are also movies, hot dogs with mustard and relish, gribenes and cute behinds along the way? That is a question each of us must answer for ourselves.

STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

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27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

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39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

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40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

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45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

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Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

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58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

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60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

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64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

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65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

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69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

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121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

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51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

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53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

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And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.