All That Glitters


“My uncle wants to come,” Jasmin announced as she sat in the hard wooden chair by my desk, looking worried. She was almost due, and as her obstetrician, I was seeing her for what she hoped might be her final prenatal visit. She wanted to know how many people could be present in the delivery room at the hospital for the birth.

I nodded encouragingly -so far, only her husband and mother were expected to be present.

“Uncle Jonathan used to be one of my favourites when I was younger.” She smiled at the memory. “He was so smart!” She sighed and looked down at her lap. “He was –is,” she corrected herself, “a professor of Philosophy at the university.” She stared at something behind me for a moment. “I was so impressed that he had even published a book… I remember trying to read it,” she added, rolling her eyes for effect, “but it was too abstruse for me in those days.”

I smiled at the idea of anything being too difficult for her -she was a PhD candidate herself, although not in Philosophy like her uncle. “You seem a bit concerned that he wants to be present for the birth, Jasmin.”

She shrugged and glanced nervously at her lap again. “I haven’t seen him for a while,” she admitted. “We… we kind of fell out a few years ago.”

I sat quietly and waited to see if she wanted to explain.

“He… I mean, I don’t like the way he treats his wife –treated…” she qualified her tenses again. Then she sent her eyes over to explore my face to see if she should explain further. “Even Mom was upset with her brother…”

I tried to keep my expression neutral, but I suppose she could see my curiosity.

“He expected her to have a meal ready for him when he came home…” Her eyes never left my face, but had perched on my cheeks as if they were resting. Waiting. “She had to do all the work around the house, you know. He always said he was exhausted from lecturing and writing at work.”

I nodded again, but she could sense I was trying not to judge.

“Mom said it was abusive…” she said in answer to my unasked question. “I… I refused to believe her at first. I always knew he was arrogant, but if anybody deserved to be arrogant, it was him. He was such a brilliant thinker… is, I mean…”

Jasmin seemed genuinely conflicted. I could see it was difficult for her to accept what she saw as imperfections in a childhood hero.

And yet, any hero-worshipping can be fraught, can’t it? I discussed some of the ramifications of this in a previous essay entitled Life’s Fitful Fever https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/?p=10396 , but I continue to be intrigued by the subject…

We all have subsurface faults that could weaken our glossy reputations if exposed. After all, each of us is a book of stories, only some of which we prefer to read -even those exemplary figures we choose to pedestalize.

None of this is a surprise, of course, but it is sometimes important that it be reconsidered in times like this when we are busy tearing down statues of people whose past is not as monolithic as we once assumed -or, at least, not as we wanted to remember it. An essay by the British philosopher Julian Baggini in Aeon provided an interesting counterbalance to our resurgent iconoclasm: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-sexist-and-racist-philosophers-might-still-be-admirable

‘Praise Immanuel Kant, and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites,’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’. Laud Aristotle, and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject’.

‘We seem to be caught in a dilemma. We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant. But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader, then there’s hardly anyone from history left… However, the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are.’

Historical revisionism is an interesting phenomenon: the belief -no, the assumption– that our present day ethos is, by default, the gold standard against which to compare all other eras, and all other societies. But, ‘why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment… The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.’

‘Accepting this does not mean glossing over the prejudices of the past. Becoming aware that even the likes of Kant and Hume were products of their times is a humbling reminder that the greatest minds can still be blind to mistakes and evils, if they are widespread enough. It should also prompt us to question whether the prejudices that rudely erupt to the surface in their most infamous remarks might also be lurking in the background elsewhere in their thinking.’ And yet, ‘Many blindspots are remarkably local, leaving the general field of vision perfectly clear. The classicist Edith Hall’s defence of Aristotle’s misogyny is a paradigm of how to save a philosopher from his worst self. Rather than judge him by today’s standards, she argues that a better test is to ask whether the fundamentals of his way of thinking would lead him to be prejudiced today… But there is a very important difference between the living and the dead. The living can come to see how their actions were wrong, acknowledge that, and show remorse. When their acts were crimes, they can also face justice.’

But, as Baggini summarizes in his essay, ‘The dead do not have such an opportunity, and so to waste anger chastising them is pointless. We are right to lament the iniquities of the past, but to blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today is too harsh.’

Memories of that visit with Jasmin re-surfaced after I read the article.

“Is Jonathan’s wife going to come to the birth as well?” I remember asking.

She stared at her lap briefly. “No, unfortunately she passed away last year.”

I could see it really bothered her, but I sat in silence for a moment. “Were you two… close?”

She nodded and then sighed as she looked at me again. “I just don’t understand, though,” she suddenly blurted out. “The two of them seemed happy, you know… Happy. Content with each other…” She took a deep breath as she tried to expunge the thought. “I suppose he was just a man of his time –is, I mean: his attitude is fairly typical of that era, I think…” Then, after she considered it briefly, she added “But I don’t know how she could stand it: being a slave in the house, I mean.”

She kept scanning my face to see if I agreed -after all, I was probably the same age as Jonathan. Subject to the same biases, the same unrealistic expectations of a wife.

It was my turn to sigh. “You said the two of them seemed happy…”

She nodded. “They loved each other.”

I smiled. “Then perhaps she, too, was a woman of her time, Jasmin.”

She thought about that for a while and then her whole demeanour changed. “I… I hadn’t thought of it that way.” She smiled and sent her eyes to my face to thank me. “I’ll introduce you two in the delivery room. I think you’ll like him,” she said and winked at me as she stood to leave.

 

 

 

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