My name Abigail means in Hebrew “father’s joy.” Which tells us that, at birth, I’d already received my assignment.
Since my father was considered, by a number of his classmates in Columbia University’s stellar class of 1925, their “genius” – yet remained relatively unknown – the task given me by my name was far from obvious.
Among his classmates were Lionel Trilling, Meyer Schapiro, Clifton Fadiman, Jacques Barzun, Whittaker Chambers, and a host of other once-glittering names that – unless you’re researching that period in American life and letters – you’re no longer likely to recognize.
Here’s what Jerry Martin, the far-in-the-future son-in-law he never met, has recently written about my father:
“He was the real article, deeply spiritual and something of a genius according to his much more famous contemporaries. No one who encountered him ever forgot it. There is a certain fragility or, if that is not quite the right word, an edge-of-the-precipice aspect to a man whose extraordinary penetration is almost beyond mortal reach.”
Meanwhile, as I came of age – with Jerry nowhere in sight – what was I supposed to do about “Abigail”? As a matter of course, a young Jewish virgin of my generation was expected to marry some promising young man of her own faith. That expectation was often voiced by my mother. So why didn’t that happen? For a bunch of reasons. My father had left mainstream Jewish life when he decided to quit the rabbinate – and he took us all out the door with him. He didn’t buy it. Why pretend we should?
On the one hand, that certainly deracinated us. On the other hand, in our home, there was no hypocritical disconnect between outward ritual observance and his authentic feeling that he’d “had enough.” But his decision took me out of contact with most Jewish boys of my own age.
Did all that leave me with what used to be called a “father fixation”? Not in my opinion. As a wife, my extraordinary mother would be quite enough for him. Pace Freud, my father really didn’t need me to play understudy to Rachelle. All that shadow-theatre from alt Wien, had nothing to do with fulfilling the assignment built into my name.
Nor did I feel any pressure from my father to study philosophy, the field in which he taught. In my youth, the pressure on girls would be not to go into any major requiring overt use of the intellect. Since I loved philosophy instinctively – and thought that even overhearing conversation in that language was heavenly – my father’s real contribution was to take for granted that immersion in philosophy would subtract nothing from my femininity. But I doubt if he cared whether I studied it or not.
Anyway, how did I manage it? Manage, that is, to earn my name? Well, it’s a far longer and more complex story than I have space to tell here.
So let me condense. There would be two paths to properly honoring my father. One was to divine how wholeheartedly to identify the terms of my own life – and live them out – rather than merely trail fascinated in his shadow. The other path would involve attending responsibly to his literary estate.
Regarding the first path, I have found out how to live my own life – romantically, blessed by a happy ending with Jerry – and also in the realm of work. Having discovered the philosophic themes that were urgent for me (rather than just fashionable), I published articles in well-regarded journals, some of which were anthologized or (in one case) used as one of the texts read at the faculty seminar of a respected American philosophy department. I’ve published A Good Look at Evil, recently reissued with new chapters and it’s still a useful guide through the darker labyrinths of life. My life work, Confessions of A Young Philosopher, is now being readied for publication, with illustrations. Here’s what a tough-minded materialist philosopher (whose contributions were at the opposite end of the spectrum from mine) said about it: comparing it to St. Augustine’s classic Confessions, he asked,
“Has any woman done this?”
On the second path, there were daunting obstacles. Nevertheless, I published and wrote the introductions for my father’s posthumous work, The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way. His published shorter pieces are now accessible on academia.edu.
A legal struggle was required to get possession of his papers, including correspondence, journals, and unpublished manuscripts, but I’ve now got them organized and safely archived at The American Jewish Historical Society in New York.
Let’s just say that I did it. I’ve done it. I brought it home. Now I can own my name.
*Abigail Rosenthal writes the Dear Abbie Non-Advice column.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More