My friend Hans posted the song “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” on FB this morning. I adore this song but because I am younger than he, I associate it primarily with Woody Allen and Hannah and Her Sisters. I am quite sure I saw it in the theater in 1986 and I have a crystalline recollection of listening to the soundtrack on cassette on trains in NYC, Boston and Pennsylvania when I went to visit my second or third closest friend in high school, two years ahead of me, in her first year at Swarthmore.
Little did I know how important that school would become to me some eleven years later, as the home of the philosopher I asked–cold–to be on my Orals Committee for the dissertation after reading his On Moral Personhood: Philosophy, Literature, Criticism and Self-Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 1988). I have mentioned Richard Eldridge many times on Victorian Chick as you can see from the size of his name in the tags to the right side of the text. His name is not as big as “Yale” or “UCSB” or “depression” or “literary criticism” but he’s the most prominent academic I believe (along with a stunning and also brilliant college philosophy professor, now at Columbia, Carol Rovane, with whom I took three courses). Richard is one the most brilliant and spectacular human beings I have ever met in my life.
I had never been to New England until 1989, during my obligatory LA private school girl’s college trip, but I really missed Triana, who went on to a serious career in union advocacy. She was, I think I mentioned her, a well-to-do Jewish girl in Brentwood who hated the money, the glitz, the lifestyle of West LA and particularly hated Hollywood and the entertaiment industry. She was my debate buddy, two years older, the star of her year, as I was the star of mine. She was very liberal–I mean, CAL Pirg, Justice for Janitors and now, I see, SEIU (a union J absolutely despises because he basically had to join when working at the county). Triana was also Jewish, with absolutely genius IQ, like her big brother who went to Swarthmore before her, and her sweet, funny, smart sister who went to Penn but became a professional chef (come to think of it not unlike J’s sister, who was headed for Ph.D. in biology but elected to become a chef). I sent her a note on FB but never heard back. It’s been 12 years since we spoke .
I’ll write about that trip another time as there are incredibly vivid moments I remember, as cliched as it sounds, like they were yesterday. I only visited Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn with a view to going there, but I also visited Triana at Swarthmore and my other debate buddy Anna at BU. I didn’t like Harvard at all. Nothing about the tour, the campus, or Boston really drew me in. I loved Yale and New Haven the moment I got out of that cab at the train station by the projects! I truly think on some level this is just pre-ordained in some hard-wired way.
When I saw The Social Network in the theater, my friend in SB 20 years older than I, nudged me in the first five minutes–having heard me speak many times about how I just didn’t feel any draw at all to Harvard–and said, “I think it looks very nice.” This is no doubt true. It’s very pretty there, although I think Harvard is entirely too red. I like brick and I adore distressed brick of the sort visible from the apartment I stay on 62nd between Park and Lex. But I sort of felt the way Miranda Bailey feels about Derek Shephard’s hair on Grey’s Anatomywhen she tells Callie that Derek cannot be her “work husband”: “With all that hair? I can’t be looking at that hair all day long.” I confess I had a similar response to the sea of red. (The river is pretty, though.) Harvard is just too red. Yale has Gothic architecture dominated by gray and beige hues and is of course modeled on Oxford, while Harvard is modeled on Cambridge. I guess, were I English, I’d be an Oxford girl not a Cambridge one. However, I visited Oxford for about 4 hours in 1994 and I must say, Yale is cute and sweet by comparison. Oxford is majestic, imposing, impressive, and beautiful. It is not cuddly.
As for Princeton? Simply gorgeous. Pastoral perfection. But I could not live on what is more of a “farm” than Stanford, which I never considered as I never for a moment considered going anywhere on the West Coast. This is pretty typical. Top students back then anyway all planned to go back East. A few went up to the Bay Area, either to Berkeley or Stanford, and a few brave souls with no roots in the Midwest, would go to Chicago. But even if an Ivy wasn’t in the cards, girls at Westlake generally wanted to go back East. Princeton seemed like going to the country and the city, such as it is, makes New Haven look like Manhattan, Paris, and London rolled up into one.
Since the scene I wish to transcribe and comment upon involves a Jewish father with a quite similar perspective on religion, except that Dad didn’t raise me Jewish (if by that is mean any sort of religious anything, either affiliation with a temple or observance of holidays), I will retell the story I have told on Facebook many times of my father’s reaction to Princeton.
My friend Lindsey Kozberg was there and she was the polar opposite of Triana: Beverly Hills Jew with house on Linden Drive. She did not disdain money. I ran into her with her husband about 12 years ago in Montecito at Jeannine’s, where I never went, so it was very strange. She was the kind of Jewish which only marries “within the tribe,” as they say. (My father, as secular as it is possible to be, does not at all comprehend this and when I told him this neighbor was happy that her two children both married Jews, in a temple, and said, “We did good,” with great pride in her voice, he asked, “What did she do? Why is it good?”) Lindsey became a private practice attorney of some sort, though I have no idea the specialty. I’m sure she has the obligatory child or two which women who followed the “correct” path in affluent parts of LA did: Ivy, law school (or med school), marriage, children.
So I went to be with her for a few hours, go to a lecture and see her dorm. I remember joining up with my parents at some point and my father was essentially emotionally wrecked. Midway through the tour, he actually had to remove himself from the group and sit under a tree because he began to sob convulsively. My father doesn’t cry often but he has such profound and intense emotions, and the idea that a little girl of his would go to school at a place like this–that the child from the marriage to the woman he worshipped would end up producing a little girl scholar who would study literature and philosophy at a place which looked to him like heaven–was simply more than he could contain emotionally. It seemed to him the fairytale ending to a life full of angst, intense conflict and pain. (And even when I had what my mom euphemistically referred to as a “stress reaction” after my first term at Yale, it was in some ways a fairytale, my life, until UCSB for grad school. Then the fairtyale turned into an unadulterate fucking horror story.)
I will never forget that afternoon at Princeton and neither will he. He still mentions it once in a while and was in utter shock that I would have absolutely no intention of applying to Princeton at all, much less that I would prefer “seedy” New Haven and Yale and apply early action. As it turned, out I got in early so it was all a moot point. But neither Harvard nor Princeton were my second choices. To circle back to Swarthmore–and Philadelphia, even more strange given that my first writing “job” (no money of course) is for Philadelphia Junto–Penn was my second choice. I loved Columbia of course.
But I felt that NYC was too overwhelming for an undergraduate and also too expensive to live “in the manner to which I had become accustomed” in Los Angeles, a far cheaper place than Manhattan. But I did love Butler library when I studied there a few times in college while living on most weekends in 1992-3 with my friend on 62nd now, then on the Upper East Side on 88th between 2nd and 3rd. But even with unlimited funds, I thought NYC would be too distracting and I don’t regret not going to Columbia.
With unlimited funds, I would absolutely have applied for graduate school. I applied to Rutgers, got some money from them but not as much as UCSB gave me, and decided on UCSB over Rutgers. I also got a fellowship to SUNY Buffalo but when I realized how far it was from the city and also how much it fucking snowed, I dismissed SUNY from my mind! (Geography has never been my long suit–I recently told J I thought NOLA and Atlanta were pretty close to one another, much to his amusement as a UCSB geography major. So I knew it was upstate when I applied, just didn’t focus on how far upstate.)
With that by way of a typically long and circuitous preface, let me turn to the scene I watched when I posted the clip from YouTube from what remains one of my favorite Woody Allen movies. My dad loves this film too and we have discussed it countless times over the course of my life.
The dialogue is so perfect, I must transcribe it. Allen of course spends much of the movie pondering the meaning of life and religion. He finally decides to convert to Catholicism–”The Big Leap”–and when he tells his parents, his mother has an absolutely meltdown. My mother is not Jewish and she is a very mellow, easy-going, soft-spoken woman. My father is of course Jewish and none of these things, but I had enough Jewish girlfriends and knew enough Jewish mothers to smile in recognition at the authenticity of the Allen’s mother in the film.
Allen begins the scene, during which the mother is truly wailing, by saying that they should be happy because he never thought about God before and now was giving it serious consideration.
“How can we be happy? We raised you as a Jew!”
“Because I never thought about God and now I’m giving it serious thought.”
“But Catholicism? Why not your own religion?”
“Because I got off on the wrong foot with my own people.”
“So you’re going to believe in Jesus Christ?”
“I know it seems odd.”
“But why Jesus Christ? Why not Buddism?”
“That is totally alien to me.”
This is going nowhere, so Allen shifts gears and says to his father that he is getting on in years. He asks, “Aren’t you afraid of dying?” And then comes one of the greatest minute or two of dialogue in all of Allen’s ouvre.
“Why should I be afraid?”
“Because you won’t exist! Doesn’t that terrify you?”
“Now I’m alive. When I’m dead, I’ll be dead. Who thinks about that nonsense?”
“But aren’t you frightened?”
“Of what? I’ll be unconscious.”
“But never to exist again?”
“How do you know? I’ll either be unconscious or I won’t. If I’m not, I’ll deal with it then. I’m not going to worry now how it’s going to be then.”
This last segment of dialogue is, word for word, something I’ve heard my father say, though he is so thoroughly secular we don’t discuss it much. He went back to college in his 70s after he retired from law and got an honorary B.A. from UCLA, the school he only attended a year and a semester before WWII began. He never finished or graduated from college and went straight to USC Law on the GI Bill. He was an English major and I have written elsewhere that while my mother majored in English at UCLA, Dad is the scholarly one. (Mom taught one year at UCLA Law, her alma mater–we are a Bruin family through and through, my brother went there as well and so did I for a year in high school and a few summers–but Mom’s idea of fun is not writing papers. Dad loves it just like I do and I truly am my father’s daughter intellectually.)
Dad now knows a great deal about Judaism and Christianity. He can’t read anymore but he never stops buying the Bible CDs–both analyses of scripture and history of early Christianity, the Crusades and the Reformation. We talk now about religion a lot, though mostly about what to him is the utter incomprehensibility of believing in any of it, in any tradition. He doesn’t understand a belief in a Jewish god any more than a Christian one.
So while I have the scene–and the movie–committed almost to memory (how can one forget that necklace/shovel for blow that Dianne Wiest wears on the first date to the punk rock show), I just had to delay my drive a few moments (Victorian Chick time here) to commit these reflections to writing.
Of course, part of what makes the scene so powerful is that it dovetails to the scene in the Marx Brothers film when Woody Allen sums up my entire view about life’s meaning, or at least the afterlife: “What if the worst is true and you only go around once? Don’t you want to enjoy it? I mean, it’s not all a drag.” As one who was suicidally depressed for a number of years (though only actively suicidal for probably two six-month periods, but I thought about suicide quite a bit during the grad years), I absolutely understand Allen’s point. Of course, I was either born , or more likely raised, with such a fiercely athiestic view of life, never for a moment have I been disturbed–literally not for one second in my entire life–about my fate after death.
Apart from the fact that for many years death seemed like a blessing to me–which is not at all the same thing as suicidal intent, much less ideation–it has never once crossed my mind that the minute my brain dies, some part of me might live on in any way beyond the metaphorical. That is, whatever good I do in my life or whatever of value I write, will I hope survive in the lives of those I have touched, whether I know them personally or not. But the idea that some part of me–a soul, a spirit, an energy–will survive in any personified or specific way such that this lingering spiritual quality is recognizably “mine” (to put it in the terms of one of my very favorite thinkers of all time, William James) has never even entered the realm of my consciousness. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It does not strike me as rational. And certainly, as one who loves the Bible as a literary text only not a sacred text (for me there is no such thing), the idea of my survival after death has no textual basis or grounds.
Of course these views of mine were probably entrenched by about age 5. It is striking, now that I have a boyfriend with a 7.5-yr-old son, who has apparently asked his father about life/death stuff, I never once in my life wondered about what would happen after I died. I never asked either my mother or my father about any of it. This may of course had to do with the fact I had only secular or Jewish friends, so the whole topic of Christ just didn’t come up. And in fact, other than a few passages for English class in high school, I hardly knew the plot of Biblical narratives until college, when I took Bible as Literature (both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament).
I will be LA for three days or so and my friend Mark is going to come talk to my father about his WWII book and it should be a lovely few days.