Cuddling

**

I remember reading a biography of Gandhi years ago and pausing with the news that in his old age he would share his bed with half a dozen young ladies. There was nothing ‘off-color,’ sexual, or scandalous in the tone of this reported habit. Gandhi, of course, was a saint.

I have thought of it off and on many times since. And after much puzzling, I’ve come to shelve it, at first somewhat tentatively, in the category of “innocent cuddling.”

All this came to mind recently with the report of women in covid 19 hospital seclusion dying — sometimes through overt suicide, other times through loss of an elemental “will to live.” And it seems these deaths can be attributed to lack of touch.

Social distancing meant relatives and friends were unable to visit. They could not bring a comforting caress to the arm or hand — a comforting hug, or a kiss to the forehead.

Sometime in the 50’s, in a now famous (and infamous) lab experiment, young chimps were intentionally deprived of their mother’s embrace. Deprived of cuddling, they died off like flies.

A masculine drive for physical contact is usually tagged (covertly or overtly) as sexual. But as male sexual desire and prowess diminish, say in a man’s 70s, 80s, or 90s, we can doubt that a desire for physical contact also declines.

Think of the comfort cats and dogs bestow — curled up at the foot of the bed or on it, and ever so happy to be petted and cuddled, any time of the day or night.

I have no idea how old Gandhi was when he shared his mattress with young girls. But I don’t sense anything salacious or untoward about this. I now see it as expressing a natural and universal need, among men and women alike, and a need also among cats and dogs, for contact and simple cuddling.

**

Being Religious

**

I’ve been reading a fascinating book, Sacred Journey, a Memoir of Early Days, by Fredrick Buechner. The writer has published a string of novels and is also pastor to a Christian congregation. The writing is seamless and alluring, as if one were being carried along in a gentle stream.

It’s natural to be pleased if a narration flows gently. Often that feeling is post-facto. One exclaims at the end, “That was a smooth journey!

But the sensation of “smooth journey” in this case is not applause at the final page. It comes with each arising and receding sentence, ripple by ripple. The sense of being carried along never leaves.

I find this unique. For example, the title, “Sacred Journey, a Memoir of Early Days.” This means one thing as we begin reading. And we’re “carried along” to a new meaning. The title means something else after reading. It’s as if those words of the title were in motion.

Our fingers can’t quite grasp the title, for we end up grasping nothing. There’s only openness to a beckoning future yet to be filled.

Meaning is “on the go.” It hasn’t arrived. The title streams on rather than holds still. I undergo a journey throughout the narration and undergo one even in reading these simple words: Sacred Journey, a Memoir of Early Days.

I’m promised a memoir; it will focus on childhood and youth, on “early days.” Mid-way through the book I realize that it is not a story of childhood in the usual sense — say, life from infancy through adolescence. We come to see that all of our days are “early days.” Each day opens to a beckoning future. We are forever in childhood. We are forever wonderfully open to endless tomorrows yet to be told.

The sub-title, “Early Days,” is dynamic. It shifts, exhibiting transformative openness of meaning, away from a a simple biological stage of development: early days. The sub-title quietly asks us to believe that a sacred journey is narration on narration, narration without end — always beginning, and then beginning again. There are sights en route but never the sense of “having arrived.”

Something wonderful is happening in this title. And I overcome the thought that a pastor is duty-bound to simply proclaim that something has in fact arrived. The Christian Good News doesn’t end with rest from endless journeys.

**

Being Silenced

**

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the U.S. political scene right now VERY depressing. In a strange way it’s a scene that silences me. Protesting Vietnam, or more recently, approving “Black Lives Matter,”  didn’t deprive me of voice.  I could lay out a forceful case.  But the present slide into Autocracy does deprive me of voice.  How?

Well, my mind screams, but incoherently. My soul gets run over and deflated. I may manage to distract myself with other things for a bit. But then the specter of the Autocrat  intrudes.

I know what it’s like to hate POLICIES (to speak against the Vietnam War). And I know what  it’s like to speak in approval of PROGRAMS, say, in defense  of Black Lives Matter.  But my depth of revulsion at the inescapable daily  sight and voice of the idiot loudmouth and attention-grabber is new and paralyzing.  It shuts me down.

It’s like hearing hate-filled rants from a drunk leaving a saloon. I just want to block my ears and get away.

But T keeps hogging the news. Of course, CNN, NBC, ABC all hate him. But why am I forced to hear yet another day’s chronicle of what to hate?

If we turned off the news would T disappear? Maybe all we can say to ourselves and each other, is “Hang In There!”

Further words would only be helpless stammering — or screaming!

**

And yet there are heartening moments unrelated to T.  The sports boycotts in reaction to senseless killings, the continuing mass demonstrations in city after city — “The Wall of Moms” in Oregon, the nightly crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem . . . .

**

Depicting Sustained Evil

*

I should explain that it all began with the hauntingly beautiful theme song from Schindler’s List. I’ve heard it performed by a number of violinists — and even by a pair of cellists — and I fell in love, ordering the sheet music so I could  play it myself on the violin.

At some point I decided I should see the well-received film, Schindler’s List, famously produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. Critics rank it in the top ten films of all time. I confess I couldn’t see the film through.

There were disturbingly vivid scenes in black and white of the Nazi round up and forced evacuation of Jews, and no lack of on-the-spot executions.  But I began to wonder what was to be gained — artistically or morally — by immersing a viewer over so many minutes and quarter-hours of sustained atrocity.

I wondered if a scene of torture and murder, acceptable as a momentary and horrible incident interrupting normal life became emptied of gravitas if repeated over and over.

We might be titillated by a moment of porn in an otherwise decent film.  But if the porn is not momentary but becomes a sustained theme, doesn’t it lose its allure?  Especially if we didn’t sign up for a full-length porn-film?

Torture, killing, and dehumanization are familiar elements in otherwise decent cop shows. But if it were to be sustained, murder after murder, torture-scene after torture-scene, doesn’t it begin to lose, through sheer repetition, some of its repulsiveness?

What  if the holocaust is — and remains — unrepresentable (as a whole)? What if art and movie-making should just lay cameras aside and retreat before sustained horror? Can’t representation become a kind of taming? A kind of packaging for easier consumption?

In bits and pieces we perhaps ought to be subjected to evil’s representation. Certainly nothing is gained by a blanket shut-down of knowledge or memory of evil. But to create a monumental film that seems to aim at total encompassing of a monstrous evil — that seems to me to be ill-conceived.  And because it potentially reduces evil to  rhythms of “same-old-same-old,” in my view it’s also morally offensive.

Evil should strike us blow by blow — not in endless ocean waves that can become monotonous or sedating, losing rough impact.

*

 

The White Ribbon & Evil

*

This film, The White Ribbon,  is something of a dark masterpiece, a black and white, slow moving episodic study of the roots of evil in a small, and we might say, quite ordinary German village just before the outbreak of World War One.

It weaves in and out of the suppression of kids, who look half defeated and cowed. We meet them one by one, some quite young, some in their late teens. They have the withdrawn, slightly fearful look of undergoing sustained violence at home. There are slaps, bedroom rope restraints, beatings, caneings. We hear cries of pain behind closed doors and are never quite sure of the precipitating infraction.

The father who administers the pain, in one early case, is, ironically, a pastor. In this case, the beatings are delayed after sentencing for a day to instill prolonged fear and guilt. During the day before whipping, the white ribbon on the sleeve foretells the punishment to come and broadcasts the guilt of the offender.

The episodes of quite ordinary evil are narrated in the soft voice of the young village school teacher, whose home town is nearby.  He seems graciously free from any taint of evil. He is sympathetic with the kids and young adults, falls in love with an older teen, proposes marriage, and is told by the father that he must wait a year. He’s kind, sensitive, and wears glasses. There’s an inkling of pain in his voice as he narrates the cold world harboring pervasive variations of subtle and not so subtle evil.

One source of the film‘s genius is the counterpoint of the narrator-teacher’s soft voice and the cold, heartless cruelties narrated. It’s as if the well-distributed upsurges of minor and major inexplicable evil have a root deep in the soil of the village and that that root will always remain hidden.

The film opens with  a village horseman returning to town and stripped from his galloping horse, garotted by an invisible wire. We see him thrown to the ground, his collarbone jolted up into his jaw, and see him carried off to the hospital to recover.

We never learn who strings the deadly wire, nor why this rider is targeted. The investigating policeman, in some incredulity, asks if there are witnesses to the trap-setting — if anyone has seen suspicious movement around the tree, or noticed the wire before it becomes set into near-deadly action. The investigating policeman can’t quite believe that nothing was seen before the horseman was stripped from his saddle.

In the subsequent course of the film the question of who set the trap — and why — is forgotten. It’s as if evil is mindless and arbitrary and no probing of its cause is possible or worthwhile.

Evil just IS! No one’s to blame!

It filters up in multiple forms to hurt and maim but it is in itself no more comprehensible or personal than the passing of night and day.  It’s a virus in every household, attacking all ages of any class-status.

To the perplexed yet transfixed viewer, the impersonal evil is obvious everywhere.

Those afflicted suffer the surface consequences in ignorance of any deep-roots of the invasions. Only the narrator is somehow exempt — both from personal affliction and from wracked suffering with the pain of others (though he evinces wonder and pity at the pain the villagers endure).

Is evil just a deep fact of life — neither to be combated, nor understood, nor forgiven?

Is it as neutrally blameless and inevitable as walking or talking?

The cast of village characters is wide and varied and the virus of evil spares no gender, no age, no social class. Only the narrator seems largely exempt.

It would be a mistake to frame this narration as an attempt to “explain” the German plunge unto the evils of the First World War. We’re meant to ponder the hidden, then virulent virus of an evil capable of erupting at any time, any place. It’s not — if I hear this film correctly — a specifically German phenomenon accounting for German aggression. Its eruption, we might think, is possible any time, any place, among any peoples.

These portraits  expose  inexplicable, pervasive, and viral evil. The effort is, in my judgment, staggeringly successful.

*

Global Conflagration

We’re inundated with hourly nearly minute by minute reports. The front page of the NYTimes gives us shifting screen shots, centered and vivid, of the look of masks and inoculations and cemeteries, of confusion, mourning, desperation, and hedonistic denial (Florid beach scenes, say),  from around the world, subjects in striking native dress and unfamiliar surroundings.

What experience do we have, directly or from history, to frame this sort of  calamity? Are these visitations, of biblical plague proportion, punishment for the arrogance of thinking we were in charge of normal happiness or the vast reach of meaning and suffocation?

The first dropping of an atomic weapon must have startled the world awake to calamity. But after all is said and done, it’s genesis is easily pinpointed and it’s destruction, the result of localized human intention.  Our present calamity feels more like the stealthy infiltration of unseen aliens, bent on sowing pain and random deadly confusion — random chaos, with no end in sight.

A stealth bomber makes sickening drops of contaminant from behind sweet clouds without message, purpose, or plan.  It’s the unleashing of a Biblical Plague. We draw back in fear, wondering how we have offended God. How can His Anger be appeased?  Whom among the unfaithful must be destroyed for appeasement? How can the divine visitations be cancelled?

**

From today’s Boston Herald:

In normal times, South Station would be bustling at 8:15 in the morning, with wave after wave of commuters pouring from the Red Line and commuter rail. Some would hurry over Fort Point Channel to the Seaport, while thousands of others headed for the thicket of office towers downtown.

On Thursday, at about the same time, just a handful of people got off when the Red Line rumbled into the basement of South Station. Upstairs, a commuter rail train from Plymouth, built to carry hundreds of passengers, discharged about 50. Masked and heads-down, they scattered across Dewey Square, past a papered-over coffee shop and the stub of a stalled-out skyscraper that not so long ago hummed with activity.

“It’s all just so weird,” said Walter Downey, an investment advisor who has worked downtown for decades, as he walked to his office on Federal Street. “It’s like you can hear the dogs barking out there.”

The human suffering and loss caused by the coronavirus outbreak and its economic fallout is most comparable to a major world war.

**

Protest

**

It’s impressive that “Black Lives Matter” flowed seamlessly into an extended weeks long eulogy for John Lewis. I’m old enough to remember first hand the violence on the bridge that brought him bloodied to the ground.

When was the last time we honored a patriot — never mind, a Black patriot — for such an extended stretch?

Then there are the Mom’s of Portland Oregon. When was the last time mothers joined, precisely as mothers, to protest both racism and the violent suppression of protests?

These were not unhinged idle youth. These were self-identified mothers.  If one responds to aggressively advancing troops by collapsing non-violently to the pavement, what self-respecting son, even if attired in military garb and wielding a baton, will easily take a swing. After all, that could be his Mom!

In Israel, protests at the Prime Minister’s residence have become evening dance parties, especially on weekends. A Jerusalem Trump is met with a celebratory, cheering, dancing rejection. This should defuse the hard-edge violence welcomed by police and military as an excuse for counter violence.

Can you really use batons against joyful dancers?

Macho egos spoil for a fight. The worst in Washington relish the opportunity to swagger with batons and unmarked cars, under the ruse of attacking “criminal anarchists.”

But criminal anarchists don’t sit passively on the pavement.  Nor do they call themselves Moms or dance.

**

Heather Cox Richardson writes, “with the removal of federal troops from active policing of the city, the protests have become quiet and largely peaceful. The sudden calm illustrates that Trump was ginning up trouble to get footage for campaign ads. And voters get it. They trust Biden over Trump to “maintain law and order” by a margin of 50% to 41%.”

**

What’s in a name?

*

It only grew on me gradually that to change one’s name to duck anti-semitism was such a widespread practice among men and women I admired.

I only learned gradually of this survival tactic.

Herbert Fingarette was a national figure in academic philosophy and was my dissertation advisor. He died in his nineties a few years ago.  At some point, mid-career, I began to suspect “Fingarette” was an adopted last name.  It turned out — so I learned only weeks ago — that he was born Herbert Borenstein.

I had always been awestruck by the prodigious American philosopher, Stanley Cavell — perhaps the most talented American philosopher of the past half-century.  He was born Stanley Goldstein.

To be born Jewish was (and still is?) to be handicapped.

Will we ever have a Jewish president?

My voice teacher in my 30’s was Lillian Loren.  She toured Europe and the States as an opera singer and concert performer.  I never learned her Jewish birth name.

Or take Kurt Douglas (Issur Danielovitch, Izzy Demsky), one among hundreds of Hollywood stars. To be American meant erasing Jewish roots.

*

 

Ocasio-Cortez takes the Floor

**

On the subject of misogyny, her Thursday address was the speech of a lifetime.

“You can be a powerful man and accost women,” said the New York Democrat. “You can have daughters and accost women, without remorse. You can be married and accost women. You can take photos, and project an image to the world of being a family man, and accost women, without remorse, and with a sense of impunity. It happens every day in this country.”

Rep. Yoho (R-Fla.) had called her “disgusting, out of [her] freaking mind,” called her a  “f—ing b—h.”

Ocasio-Cortez planned to ignore the insult. Being a woman had required a lifetime of ignoring such insults. She changed her mind after Yoho brought up the matter in his own speech in the House.

“Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language,” Yoho said, insisting he hadn’t used the pejorative phrase that a reporter overheard.

(The implication was that he could not or would not behave misogynistically because, after all, he had a wife and daughters.)

“I am someone’s daughter, too,” she said. “Thankfully, my father is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of this House, on television. I am here to show my parents that I am their daughter, and they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”

“This harm that Mr. Yoho tried to levy was not directed only at me. When you do that to any woman, you give permission to other men to do that to other daughters. . . . I am here to say, that is not acceptable.”

She addressed the ludicrous concept that sexist men listing their female family members is a defense against charges of sexism — as if Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump haven’t had wives and daughters.

Women are not harmed as wives or daughters; they are harmed as humans. Their pain exists regardless of whether the men in their life can see or imagine it. Their value does not come from their relationships to husbands and fathers, but from their own individual personhood. People are people whether you personally know them or not.

Most important, her grievance was not with a profane sentence, but with the story it appeared in. Rep. Yoho presented his own explosive emotions as righteous, while casting Ocasio-Cortez as the b—- who made him explode.

Ocasio-Cortez lays all this out in a tone of voice that never veers above mild irritation. She never raises her voice or resorts to calling names. She is exactly as measured as women are always expected to be, and as men are always assumed to be. And she made it clear that, to her, none of this was personal.

“I do not need Rep. Yoho to apologize to me; clearly he does not want to,” she said.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about her nieces, and about all of the women who might have witnessed the exchange, and the accumulation of casual, tossed-off misogynist epithets that women absorb day after day, decade after decade.

“Having daughters is not what makes someone a decent man,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he apologizes. Not to save face. Not to win a vote. He apologizes, genuinely, to repair and acknowledge the harm done, so that we can all move on.”

 

Moral Uplift in Schubert

*

Can we find gentle moral uplift in Schubert? I find it now in a wonderfully innocent, lilting Rondo.

In a late Sonata (960) we hear dark tolls of doom interrupting joyous dance steps. That’s not exactly moral uplift. It’s moral courage in affirming joys even given sharp awareness of impending death.  He writes with full knowledge that his days are numbered.

I ask myself about gentle moral uplift because I catch a sprightly affirmation infusing the Rondo in A major, D 438 — its gentle unfolding uplifts. And if we grant that joy is a moral virtue — and blanket hatred, a vice — we should welcome this moral uplift.

Schubert’s late 960 has dance-like passages of joy suddenly interrupted by harsh tolls of doom.  He knew death was at his doorstep, and also that his life had been wonderfully full, full of innocent joy.  This is courageous moral realism; we can be haunted by impending death even as we continue the innocent dance of life.

Moral life is not just do’s and don’ts or the seventeen commandments.  Among other things, it’s recognition of the goodness of joy and the evil of capricious despair. It’s recognition of the goodness of beauty or the gorgeous sublime and of the horror of capricious, wilful ugliness.

To find moral uplift in Schubert is to find the goodness of dance, smiles, and song — and the goodness of performers who bring this pulsingly to life for us in the moment.

*