Friday, February 27, 2015

Is Love an Art or a Craft?

Irving Singer was a philosopher whose Times obit (“Irving Singer, M.I.T. Professor Who Wrote ‘The Nature of Love,’ Dies at 89," NYT, 2/15/15) describes how he had written a three volume work devoted to one of the most over used words in the English language, one whose definition has stymied and challenged thinkers throughout history. The Times obit quotes Singer thusly, “This, like so many philosophical works, began as an attempt to understand my own inadequacies. Everyone in my family persuaded me that I ought to be more loving, which troubled me. So like most philosophers, I dealt with the criticism by constructing a theory and a philosophy which enabled me to dismiss their ideas.” Singer who according to the Times taught for many years at M.I.T. seems have had a sensibility that in many respects was closer to that of humanistic psychologists like Erich Fromm who wrote The Art of Loving, who also had a philosophical background (as a product of the Frankfurt school). On the basis of the obit, Singer did not appear to be a utilitarian or consequentialist like Peter Singer or Derek Parfitt. He was not concerned with the kind of ethical problems that bugged trolleyologists like Philippa Foot and the description of his work in the obit with its emphasis on emotion doesn’t seem to tie it to language philosophers or the work of phenomenologists like Husserl or Heidegger. But the very inception of Singer’s project makes one think about how other great works of philosophy might have come into being. Did Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason derive the fact that his family found him to be was unreasonable? Did Heidegger’s Being and Time result from the philosopher’s problems with lateness or in the case of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, a great mind’s inability to deal with varying kinds of absence (God, money, an empty cupboard). Could Sartre’s existentialism and his obsession with nothingness have derived from the fact that when he was was a little boy, he frequently came home to an empty refrigerator?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

How to Marry a Goy

“Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt  (1659)

What if you’re a Jewish fellow who wants to meet shiksas. Go to and “Find God’s Match for You"—only don’t let her know that that your name is Shapiro, Cohen, Levy or Horowitz. You don’t want to go to with a name like Hy or Shlomo or Abe even if your last name happens to be Rothchild. Or let’s say you’re a gal and you happen to have been born with the name Hadassah which is not only the Hebrew for Esther, but the name of a famous organization of Jewish women. You might not find yourself meeting "God’s Match forYou" on Christian, especially if you haven’t had a rhinoplasty. On the other hand you’re probably going to mingle better on ChristianMingle with a name like Yehudah HaLevi than Mahmoud Abbas or Benjamin Netanyahu. But let’s take the case of a nice Jewish boy by the name of Schmulka Bernstein, whose name once blessed the now defunct Lower East Side deli, and who wants to get on Christian so he can marry into a blue blooded WASP family and send his kids to private schools whose name begins with Saint. The Schmulka Bernsteins of the world, can easily find God’s match for them on if they go to a speech therapist (to stop talking a mile a minute), a plastic surgeon (who will raise their cheekbones), a hair stylist (who will change the curly dark hair to straight blond) and a lawyer (who specializes in identity theft and will sell them the person of someone with a surname like Knickerbocker and a first name like Will and introduce them to a trainer who will teach them to fish and hunt). They should also take the salamis out of their windows and stop sleeping with pieces of liver. Will Knickerbocker will thrive on ChristianMingle, with his flies and crossbow, even if he was brought up to be a Yeshiva bucher who was warned against the dangers of assimilation.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Zeno’s Conscience

When you see someone smoking the first impulse may be to shoot out a warning like “you shouldn’t smoke it will kill you” or simply the notice imprinted on packets, like this one, “ SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING. Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema And May Complicate Pregnancy."You might even offer the example of a person you have known, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer. Though the intentions of such jeremiads, which often result from fear of loss, are obviously good, the net effect might be to drive a smoker to drink or at the very least make him or her seek a safe hiding spot where they can further indulge their habit. The smoker may reach for a cigarette simply to quell the anxiety created by the urgency of the warning. Smokers, drinkers and drug addicts, who have incurred a variety of problems resulting from their addictions, have all been made to witness horrible documentaries in which the scourge of the poisons of nicotine, alcohol or opiates are dramatically presented. But how many are converted by these messages. The mind is a wonderful labyrinth of defenses that all conspire to allow stagnation and even deterioration if that is the  dominating drive, as it so often is in addictive personalities. The addiction itself is providing a function. So what to do when you see someone you care about bathed in a cloud of smoke, of booze, of opium? You might hand the smoker a copy of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience: A Novel, whose protagonist turns to psychoanalysis in his attempt to cure his smoking habit and a lifetime of other problems. The book is full of humor and irony and offers no practical answers to the problem. It's also guaranteed to lower rather than raise the adrenalin of its reader which, on a short term basis, might at least create one degree of separation between the urge and the compulsive need to satisfy it. If the problem is bad enough that the smoker is suffering from emphysema or the drinker from pancreatitis, it may be time for a so-called intervention. Or it might be time simply to step back and offer your prayers and thoughts. They’ll get you drunk before you get them sober is a popular AA expression. And if that smoker’s implacable urge to go up in smoke is going to drive you to drink then the best and only thing you can do is to practice that form of love which seeks no reward.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Conjuring Magnum Force

The reports of beheadings and other atrocities on the part of ISIS bring out the Dirty Harry in all of us. The outrageousness of the crime is directly proportional to the level of revenge— that was the formula for the immensely popular Clint Eastwood movies. Remember Harry Callahan’s famous lines, “But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya punk?” You may find yourself intoning them when you see one of those videos that you’ve had to go to the Fox News site to see (since CNN refuses to show them). Increased feelings of helplessness fueled by the Charlie Hebdo affair and the shootings in Denmark fuel further fantasies. How about releasing the most violent and unrepentant prisoners in maximum security prisons (providing they aren’t Jihadists) and setting them down on the border between Syria and Turkey with full license to wreak havoc. Or better yet, if we need boots on the ground, which is what we are constantly told is the only real way to defeat ISIS, how about a million man strong robot army, which is impervious to suicide bombers? Every robot would have it’s minder, safe and secure behind a control consul at say Strategic Air Command in Nebraska. Let the enemy fire all they want, these bullet and bomb proof robots won't be stopped. Only what happens when it turns out the robots have minds of their own and their artificial intelligences turned out to be real?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Can a Self-flagellator Enjoy Fine French Cheeses?

Can a self-flagellator enjoy fine French cheeses? Another way to put this would be to ask how anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure, can be equated with a facility for appreciating the finer things in life? The answer is that those whose need to punish themselves results in the countervailing inability to enjoy things must be content with processed cheeses such as Cheez Whiz or Velveeta. Let them eat Wonder Bread but definitely not brioche. However, there's a silver lining to everything and if you are one of those people who isn’t attuned to the finer things, you’re going to save a lot of time and money. You won’t need to find the cheese store with the right Reblochon, Saint-Andre or Vacherin and you can partake in the good deals on economy-sized jars and loaves of the processed stuff that are available in discount clubs like BJ’s. There's also something very cozy about living a life in which nothing is really pleasing. You go into diners where much of the food tastes the same and you learn to commiserate with other lost souls who are refuges from varying forms of haute cuisine, which, in fact, may have led to their downfall. In previous periods of their lives these one-time parvenus may have had pretensions to living the good life and aspired towards buying the right cheeses and naturally wines to accompany them and blown a wad attempting to gratify those appetites. The trophy husbands and wives who bleed you dry go along with all this cheese loving. Such social rising is where sexy photographic poses like the cheesecake derive from. Let’s say your self hatred has ratcheted up to the point that you've  lost everything and the only place you can afford to eat is a lousy diner which serves things like hamburgers and BLT’s. You’ll at least be able to thank the stars for one thing. You won’t end up cutting the cheese.