Saturday, July 18, 2009


Last week, we spoke about the Hollywood version of the Cult of Personality. This week, however, the focus of all yentas has turned to Washington, D.C. and our newest celebrity, Sonia Sotomayor.

I may be the only person I know – or at least the only lawyer – who hasn’t been riveted by the drama unfolding on Capitol Hill. It’s the same drama we get every time a Supreme Court nominee comes before the Senate. Members of the President’s party serve as defense counsel, members of the Opposition behave like prosecutors, and the nominee does his or her best imitation of Muhammad Ali without the punching – bob and weave, bob and weave … smile, joke, and then bob and weave some more.

Somehow, this is supposed to reveal what kind of person the nominee is and what kind of a judge s/he will be. Personally, I’d rather watch paint dry.

Admittedly, though, I found the Clarence Thomas hearings to be compelling TV. And why not? Instead of hearing questions like “Did you think Roe v. Wade was properly decided?” we were treated to “Who has put pubic hair in my coke?” You know something, that’s a hell of a good question. Too bad, like most of the queries asked at these hearings, we never did get an answer.

Unfortunately for all comedy fans – but fortunately for Sonia Sotomayor – these latest hearings have been unexceptional. It’s true that they’ve generated some material for Jon Stewart, who managed to get a photo of Lindsay Graham truly looking like an “Old Lesbian.” But they haven’t taught us squadoosh about Ms. Sotomayor. You know what that means: she’s as good as on the Court. And once appointed Associate Justice, she’ll still remain an enigma, like 90+ percent of her predecessors. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a great job. Not only do you get power, nor only do you get to play “philosopher-king,” but for the most part, you keep your privacy … once you take your seat. I bet you Ms. Sotomayor is counting the seconds before the Senators stop bloviating and start voting. Then she can live a normal life, and we can all move on to the next mega-star.

… Like perhaps … Tom Watson? Yeah, I know, I’m probably getting ahead of myself. As of right now, my fellow Stanford Cardinal – or Stanford “Indian” when he went there – has the 54 hole lead at the most prestigious golf tournament in the world. But lots of underdogs have 54 hole leads at major tournaments, only to make fools of themselves in the final round. In the case of Watson, he would hardly look foolish if he blew it tomorrow. Who would expect a man two months from his 60th birthday to play lights-out golf four days in a row? Nobody. And yet, if he did manage to hold on to his lead and win, how high would that rank among the greatest performances of any athlete in any sport? As of now, no golfer or tennis player has won a major at age 49. Watson is 59. I say that a victory at the British Open – aka THE Open – would be right up there with the Americans beating the Russians at Lake Placid.

Unfortunately, if it does happen, I won’t be there to watch. Tomorrow, I head down to Blacksburg, Virginia to teach my third annual workshop on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. For me, Spinoza remains the celebrity of celebrities – the one man from history (excluding my relatives) who I’d most like to meet if given the chance. I’ve got a portrait of the man on my living room wall and drive a car with license plates bearing his name. But the beauty of his work is that no matter how many times I read his philosophy, I still question whether I truly understand it. And what I never question is that even what I do understand about his philosophy, I don’t necessarily apply in my life. Some Spinozist, huh?

The other night, I went to the theatre and met an actor who will have the privilege of playing the young Baruch Spinoza in a play next summer. How, I wondered, should he portray my hero? As loquacious or quiet? Intense or relaxed? Empathic or detached?

The fact is, I’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours thinking about Spinoza’s philosophy, reading biographies about the man, and trying to craft just the right words to convey his brilliance to my own contemporaries. But do I REALLY know this man, who died nearly 300 years before I was born? And if I don’t, how is this young actor supposed to play him? Armed with speculation, that’s how. As Kierkegaard might say, whether you’re playing the man at a theatre or teaching a workshop about his profound and often inscrutable ideas, you take a leap of faith that your instincts are right, and go with it. It’s not like your audience or your class is likely to have any better ideas.

Sonia Sotomayor and Tom Watson aren’t nearly as mysterious as Spinoza. For that matter, neither are the other celebrities who’ve been on our mind lately, like Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett or the great Walter Cronkite. They share our world – our time, our culture, our language, our sense of science, perhaps even our perspective on history. And yet, do we really know them either? If we were advising an actor on how to play them in a scene when they are alone in their bedroom and delivering a monologue, would we really have a clue what to say?

So maybe our favorite celebrities, dead or alive, must always remain enigmas to us. Maybe we portray these people in our minds more in terms of our own ideals than our knowledge of their essences. But that realization won’t stop us from caring about them, drawing inspiration from them, and pondering the significance of their art or their teachings.

Spinoza once wrote that “All happiness or unhappiness depends on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.” I may not fully understand the writer of those words, but I have faith that insofar as I am bound to him – and to other philosophers who have followed in his footsteps – I can only increase my happiness.

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