25 July 2016

Inspired by Tonight's Playlist

The Rolling Stones sing,
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, you just might find,
You get what you need.
     I have always taken that sentiment to heart (even for myself at times), espoused the admonition as if it were gospel to any number of people who bemoaned their unfulfilled longings, and tried to manage my wants and desires so that when I might try, sometimes I could get what I needed.
     We educate our children for what they need, and for some time I thought I knew of what that might consist. I offered the classics as classics. Knowledge of these was a necessity and was what was needed. I was passionate and adamant. About some of these classics I probably still am so. Just ask my long-suffering, usually patient children for whom I continue to purchase the books and music they absolutely must know and even learn. But over the years in my public classrooms I have ceased advocating a pedagogy of need because I no longer presume to know what that might ever be for others. I do think that my students, if they try sometimes, well, they get what they need, but I’m never sure what that might be for any one of them at any one time.
     And whenever I hear the Rolling Stones sing “You can’t Always Get What You Want” I inevitably recall the earlier statement by Bob Dylan in "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again). He sings,
When Ruthie says come see her
In her honky-tonk lagoon
Where I can watch her waltz for free
’Neath her Panamanian moon
An’ I say, “Aw come on now
You must know about my debutante”
An’ she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want”
     And I wonder how Dylan’s invitation differs from that of the Stones. And I think Dylan’s Ruthie offers fulfillment of Desire—what I want. What I need represents only what I know, but what I want satisfies my sense of Being. This private Self, which Winnicott says is the ultimate source of all creativity, must be retained and kept personal and secret; it is revealed only in action: in the use of objects created because they are there to be created. That private self must remain always unseen¾completely concealed¾ though I think it is always available to be witnessed in play: the experience of all imaginative living. Winnicott says “It is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found” (1990, 186). What I need is discoverable but what I want is forever hidden. Terry Eagleton argues that “Desire makes us what we are;” and this desire,  Eagleton adds, after St. Thomas and Jacques Lacan, “acts as the organizing principle of all our actions,” and is the yearning for happiness. However, as humans we cannot achieve happiness because we live in this world that demands self-contradiction and compromise. What we want derives from our True Self, our Core Self, that must be protected and kept isolate by the necessary false selves that develop to protect that Core. None of us live in Eden and we all drape ourselves with leaves. Our False Selves¾that polite and socialized selves¾are inevitable and exist to defend our True Selves. Adam Phillips argues that “Obedience is the unforbidden pleasure that gives us something by forbidding us something else¾something of ultimate value.” Obedience facilitates getting what we need, but cannot fulfill what we want. We derive our earthly pleasures—our needs--by creating a forbidden world that has its source in our Core Self—that part that remains omnipotent, free, and out of communication with the rest of the external world. It might be realized in our creativity but must never be seen in itself for fear of its corruption.  In his essay. “On Communication,” Winnicott theorizes that that Core is forever isolate. Winnicott suggests that, “In health there is a core to the personality that corresponds to the true self of the split personality; I suggest this core never communicates with the world of perceived objects, and that the individual person knows that it must never be communicated with or be influenced by external reality.” This core self may address subjective objects¾those it has found [even created] wholly within¾but it may not be communicated with by external objects at risk of its being altered. “Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.” One defends, Winnicott says, against communication in order to protect the core (True) self. He says, “I am postulating that in the healthy (mature, that is, in respect of the development of object-relating) person that there is a need for something that corresponds to the state of the split person in whom one part of the split communicates silently with subjective objects” (184). That split part is the True Self and it must be carefully defended to remain True.
     Ruthie knows me because she knows herself. But she doesn’t really know what I want: she knows that I, like everyone else, wants.  

11 July 2016


Apophasis: a rhetorical device by which the speaker refers to something by denying that it will be mentioned. Antigone says to Creon, “If you were not my father, I would say you were perverse.Note how Antigone calls her father ‘perverse’ by claiming she will not call him perverse. In his “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift proposes that to resolve the seemingly insoluble problem of the poor in Ireland, their children should be offered and sold as food to those who could best afford such exotic culinary fare. He says, “Therefore, let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees . . . of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming of learning to love our country” Note how these other options for dealing with the problem of poverty are raised even though the author says they should not be mentioned.
Writer’s block is supposed to be a condition in which a person who writes regularly, whether or not for publication, suddenly finds him/herself incapable of putting ink to paper or fingers to the keys. The causes of writer’s block are numerous, I suspect, and I don’t have any intention of exploring them here.
     But I have not posted regularly to the blog in some time, and I would like to offer here an explanation for the silence. It is not that I have ceased to write: indeed, even as I here write to the blog I have thousands of words on other paper concerning a variety of issues that interest me intimately and intellectually. As my dear children know, I rarely have nothing to say, and unfailingly they are the belabored listeners.
     Rather, my silence derives from the nature of the news of which I would not speak.  And this is because the news of which I would speak is too unspeakable; and to avoid the use of apophasis I will not mention the news of which I would not speak though in this mention I have engaged in apophasis. The craven, heartless, ignorant actions of the United States Congress and the absurdity (and danger) of a Trump candidacy renders me speechless
what response can be made to such idiocies.
But response must be made. Father Paneloux’s second sermon in Camus’ The Plague is delivered after his having been present at the slow and painful death of a young child from the plague. In his talk Paneloux tries to make sense—to comprehend—the death of the child, but finally he cannot do so. The sufferings of the child are incomprehensible to him. Nevertheless, Paneloux must somehow accept this reality or abandon his faith in God. The event must be not meaningless but accepted as incomprehensible. As with Job, Paneloux must learn to accept without comprehension. When he, too, becomes sick, he refuses the doctor’s aid because he places his faith in the workings of the Divine. Paneloux will not struggle against what appears God’s will. There might be strength in this response, but I find it a result of weakness.
     I will not speak the unspeakable, but I will speak.
     In this second sermon Paneloux also addresses the fate of the eight-seven monks of Marseille who experienced an earlier manifestation of the plague. Eighty-three of the monks died of the disease and three survived, but only by escaping the town. But the last monk stayed. His decision gives evidence of his faith and his strength. I don’t know what this last monk did while he waited. Perhaps, like Paneloux he merely lingered until the plague reached him. But I am reminded of the monks of Tibhirine who refused to abandon the town for which they had cared despite the extreme personal danger with which they were threatened. They stayed. “The plague, what is it? It’s life.” But these monks in the face of ‘plague’ continued to engage in their work in the monastery, to give service to their faith and to the people whom they loved and who loved them. Finally, they were victims of plague: they were assassinated brutally. But they had stayed.
     At the end of his sermon Paneloux insists, “We must all be the one who stays.” It is a remarkable statement. Confronted by plague, we must all be the one who stays! I read the papers. I despair. When Dr. Rieux asks Jean Tarrou why he has stayed and joined in the struggle, Tarrou answers that it is because of his moral code. “Your moral code? What code,” the doctor asks, and Tarrou responds in a single word: “Comprehension.” Tarrou, I think, is committed to engagement in life that must end in death sooner (by plague) or later (ultimately) because he wants only better to understand life. Or maybe because he understands better reality: the ever presence of Plague.
     I am here. I’m staying. I just won’t speak of it.

08 July 2016

On "Shylock is My Name"

I realize that if I don’t take notes and then think about through the notes about what I have  reading reading, the novel (or any reading) passes from my mind and though it may not be lost, certainly gets buried somewhere until there appears some need of something I almost recall. Winnicott says something like this in his essay [‘Primitive Emotional Development (1945!): “What happens is that I gather this and that, here and there, settle down to clinical experience, form my own theories and then, last of all, interest myself in looking to see where I stole what. Perhaps this is as good a method as any.” So might it be for me.  
            Such was certainly the case with Howard Jacobson’s retelling of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the latter certainly for Jews one of the most troubling of narratives. I remember dear Dr. Wise trying to explain away the anti-Semitic nature of the play be declaring it a comedy and describing Shylock as a comic figure because he would not change! In the process dear Dr. Wise glossed over the insidious references throughout the play to Jews and Judaism. I thought then it was a bold attempt but I had my doubts. Roger Simon once wrote an essay addressing a Yiddish version of the play that succeeds in raising Shylock from his degradation to some triumph.
            For me at this point Jacobson’s book accomplished at least three extraordinary things that I have been considering for years. The first concerns the implicit anti-Semitism that pervades society, in the case of this book, of British society, Shylock says, “the individual Jew brings the collective Jew that Christians see. Person to person they can be very nice . . . A German apologized to me in a cemetery once. But when I extended my hand he seemed afraid to take it. Why? Because at that moment it wasn’t the individual Shylock’s hand, it was the hand of the collective Jew.” Shylock is, as he tells his deceased wife, “all lesson,” even to his foil, Simon Strulovich, into whose house and problems Shylock enters. Admittedly, throughout the novel I was not always certain that Shylock was not merely an aspect of Strulovitch’s imagination as he wrestled with the issues that The Merchant of Venice had raised: the place of Jews and Jewish thought in a Christian world; of the debts owed to Judaism by Christianity (and even the world) to Jewish thought; and even the meaning of the central stories to Jews. I think these issues surround the nature and identity of the Jew both to him/herself and to the world. For Shylock, the Jew to a large extent is what definition the Christian world assigns to the Jew. When Shylock demands his bond of Antonio, he says, it is because “I am become the embodiment of [your] contempt. Prepare, then, to face the consequences not of who I am but of who you are. It is as the bond and only the bond that I speak. The villainy you teach me I will execute,” he declares. “I will be who you have made me.”
     A second aspect of this novel by which I am intrigued concerns the conversations that take place between Strulovitch and Shylock (or within Strulovich’s consciousness with Shylock of The Merchant of Venice) as his foil. Judaism has long been considered a patriarchal religion and its story told through the sons. For the entire history of Judaism in this novel is retold through the concern the fathers have with their daughters, Beatrice and Jesssica. Though Abraham’s binding of Isaac becomes important in the discussion, the issue is raised to address whether Abraham was truly willing to sacrifice his son even as Strulovitch is prepared to exact his bond to ‘save’ his daughter. The question concerns what actually means when Strulovitch requires his bond: his pound of flesh in the shape of a circumcision. To Strulovitch’s question about Abraham’s willingness to kill his son even though there is nothing in his character that would suggest his ability to do so, Shylock answers, “A particular precipitating circumstance led him so afar on the road to murder, is all one can say. But did he have murder in his heart, even then? We cannot know. He cannot know himself. The story stops, and will remain stopped for all eternity.” And Strulovitch responds that Abraham’s precipitating circumstance for his action was not a murderous intention but God, and Shylock answers that his precipitating circumstance for demanding his bond was the same: God.  Strulovitch has demanded his bond the pound of flesh--for his daughter’s hand, but whether he actually means to exact that bond remains a question, even as whether Abraham would have finally sacrificed his son. As Abraham’s binding of Isaac figures centrally in Jewish thought, so that same event is now reconsidered through the daughters and inspires discussion on the nature of God and human from the perspective of Judaism and the Christian view of the Jews from Christianity’s hateful prejudiced position.
     Finally, for now, when Strulovitch wonders to Shylock why he shouldn’t exact his bond, Shylock ironically offers Portia’s famous response from The Merchant of Venice and identifies it as implicitly Jewish:  Shylock says:
You ask on what compulsion you should be merciful, you who have received no mercy yourself from him I ask you to show mercy to--you ask why you should requite what you have not received--and I say to you: Be an exemplary of mercy; give not in expectation of receiving mercy back-for mercy is not a transaction-but give it for what it constitutes in itself. Show pity for pity’s sake and not for the profit of your soul. Eyes without pity will become blind, but it is not only in order that you may see that you should practice it. Pity is not compromised by profit or deserts, it does not minister to self-love, it is not a substitute for forgiveness, but builds its modest house wherever there is need of it. And what need is there of it here, you ask, where justice alone cries out for what is owing to it. The need is this: God asks it. What pertains to him, must pertain to you, otherwise you cannot claim that you are acting justly in His name. And will God love the sinner more than the sinned against? No he will love you equally. No man can love as God loves, and it is profane of any man to try. But you can act in the spirit of God’s love, show charity, give though it is gall and wormwood to give, spare the undeserving, love those who do not love you-for what is the virtue merely in returning love?-give to those who would take from you and and, where they have taken, do not recompense them in kind, for the greater the offense the greater the merit in refusing to be offended. Who shows rachmones [compassion, mercy, empathy] does not diminish justice. Who shows rachmones acknowledges the just but exacting law under which we were created. And so worships God.”
I find this beautiful.