- A Conversation with Lore Segal
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Lore Segal, born Lore Groszmann in Vienna, March 8, 1928, escaped the Nazis when she was ten years old with five hundred other children on an experimental transport to test whether the Nazis would allow a trainful of Jewish children to cross the border. In England, Lore was placed [End Page 53] in a succession of foster homes. The author of Shakespeare's Kitchen, Her First American and Other People's Houses, she talks here with Mary L. Tabor on thinking about questions of goodness and virtue, a conversation that began ten years ago while Segal was working on Shakespeare's Kitchen. That book was published in April 2007. In October 2006, Segal was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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MLT: Lore, let's talk goodness, once again, now that your new book, Shakespeare's Kitchen, is out. I know from talking with you that it gives you some anxiety to talk about goodness, but that's my subject for you. You recall your "Hers" column in the New York Times, which hit the subject dead on?
SEGAL: I wonder why the very words goodness and virtue embarrass us.
MLT: In the "Hers" column you said, "To be good, sane, happy is simple only if you subscribe to the Eden theory of original goodness, original sanity and original happiness, which humankind subverted into a fascinating rottenness. Observation would suggest that we come by our rottenness aboriginally and that goodness, like any other accomplishment, is something achieved." This essay raised for me a fundamental question about your work: Do you perceive that humankind is fundamentally evil or prone to evil?
SEGAL: I'm going to give you such a boring answer. I don't see one as stronger than the other. One of my favorite images comes from Aldous Huxley in The Devils of Loudun. And I don't know if I'm quoting it correctly. Huxley says there is about the same amount of good and evil in the moral economy of the world. There is a certain quantity of each, but once in a while all the evil seems to collect in one place and settle there for a time. This is the world as I understand it.
MLT: What then would be the keys to achieving goodness?
SEGAL: I have a suspicion that goodness, like cleverness, like being good at writing, is a talent, which can and must then be educated and trained. I imagine that we might be born with a tendency to violence that can be encouraged or discouraged. I remember in Chicago, in a 7-Eleven, watching a young, overworked black mother with a little kid, and she was shopping. She was nervous and harassed, and when the little kid put out his hand to a stand of women's stockings—I think he must have been some three years old—she hit him on the side of the head. Now, I cannot imagine, unless that child is [End Page 54] a saint, that he will have a friendly attitude toward the world. If, despite my experience of the Holocaust and having to leave my family at ten, my assumption is that this is not a basically violent world, it might have something to do with having been treated kindly and with respect and with affection by the first people around me in my childhood.
MLT: Aristotle says in The Nichomachean Ethics, "It is a difficult business to be good; because in any given case it is difficult to find the midpoint—for instance, not everyone can find the centre of a circle; only the man who knows how." Would you agree with that?
SEGAL: Yes, I would. What my "Hers" column on goodness meant to say, along with my sense that our genes tend us toward the good or the bad, is that meaning well is a complication. I think Tolstoy is wrong in his oft-quoted opening sentence of Anna Karenina: All happy families—and by happy I mean sane and good—are not the same...