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Book Review

From Place To Place. By Hannah Tillich. Stein and Day Publishers, 1976. 223 pages.

Reviews by JH, AT.

Review by AT

Hannah Tillich’s second autobiographical work, From Place to Place, published in 1976, is a whimsical compilation of vignettes and diary entries by both Hannah and Paul Tillich. This work, at times non sequitur in nature, gives us beautiful glimpses into the lives of two very complicated people. The subtitle to the book, “Travels with Paul Tillich/Travels without Paul Tillich,” hints at the complicated nature of Hannah and Paul’s marriage. After Paul’s death in 1965, Hannah found a freedom to express such feelings, a freedom she was not granted as the wife of a scholar in the middle of the 20th century. In the beginning of the book, she writes a short poem about the paradox of traveling with and without Paul. She finishes the poem with a positive affirmation of her new freedom. She writes, “But now I shed my skin / after eight years without / I am alone and my Self / without question” (18). But, like her life with Paul, this freedom was also complex.

For Paul, traveling was an educational, philosophical, and religious journey. He almost always had tour guides, art historians, translators, and a slew of other experts to increase his educational gain during his travels. Hannah, on the other hand, did not travel with this goal in mind. She traveled “…not so much because [she] was seeking faith but a way out of any faith and into what [she] call[s] freedom.” (19) This is not to say Hannah was not educated or interested in philosophy or spirituality. On the contrary, her diary writings are steeped in philosophical and even mystical language. Hannah seemed to find the mystical in more embodied experiences; experiences such as dancing, eating, sickness, interactions with people on the street, or even a protests at Columbia University.

The book begins with poetry and then moves into a vignette, in third person, titled “The Cathedral.” This is a telling of her trip to Europe after Paul’s death, a trip she took with her daughter and grandson, after some coaxing. This trip was shadowed by the reception of Hannah’s first book, From Time to Time, which her family and friends strongly encouraged her not to publish. While Hannah did not regret the book, because she believed it was a representation of the truth about her and Paul’s life together, she did not want it to come between herself and her family.

Paul’s first diary entry in the book concerns their trip to Egypt in 1963. At this point, Paul is seventy-six, but still fascinated by the world around him, receiving it with child-like wonder. From Egypt, Paul and Hannah traveled to Israel. In Israel, Paul writes that he is theologically unchanged as a result of his trip but is strengthened in his belief of a nonliteral understanding of the Bible. Paul writes, “From now on, when I speak of ‘Jesus walking with his disciples on the dusty road of Israel,’ I shall know with visual intensity what that means. But the question of what to think about him has not been brought nearer to an answer by this knowledge” (59). Israel brought no significant change in Paul’s theology but their trip to Japan, discussed later, influenced him greatly.

There is a brief interlude of a Greek play by Hannah, titled “The Misfit,” about the child, Ledinah, of Leda and Zeus (75-84). Hannah explores the themes of belonging and abandonment throughout this short play. This is juxtaposed with a speech delivered by Paul on Socrates. In this speech Paul discusses Socrates’ “ethical action.” Having these two pieces side by side is an ingenious decision on Hannah’s part. It paints the perfect picture of these two as a couple. Both use Greek philosophy and myth to discuss their opinions, but they are completely different in their approaches. Hannah wants to mingle in the mess of metaphor and mysticism, while Paul tries to keep everything in a system. This is not the last time we get to see this dichotomy.

The next section covers Paul and Hannah’s trip to Japan in 1960 and highlights the dichotomy mentioned earlier. Paul had a rigorous schedule involving lectures and numerous visits to temples and with spiritual leaders (99). The difference between Paul and Hannah is perhaps most poignant in their trip to the seven-hundred year old Zen rock garden of Zen Master Hismatsu, who Paul knew from Harvard (99). At the rock garden, Hismatsu argued that the garden and the universe were identical and Paul argued with him that they were not identical but united by participation (99). Hannah, on the other hand, not prone to philosophical arguments, adopted a more poetic and contemplative approach and “dream[ed] along with them and apart from them, visualizing an old wall with little green moss pillows between its cracks, where I played as a child” (118). Perhaps there is a deeply personal wisdom in Hannah’s likening the rock garden to her own experiences. For Paul, however, Japan was an eye-opening experience that brought inter-religious dialogue fully into his theology. Paul writes in his journal, almost hesitantly, “It seems to me that, although the principles are mutually exclusive, the actual life of both Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, and Buddhism, especially in its monastic form, could receive elements from each other without losing their basic character” (105). Unfortunately, this breakthrough came almost too late for Paul to act on these instincts within his own systematic theology. Only in his final volume, published three years after this trip, was he able to include some of these ideas.

This section of Hannah’s diary also offers some insight into the caring side of her relationship with Paul. For example, in her Japanese diary, Hannah recounts a story of Paul that is quite loving, recalling a moment when Professor Mishitani and Paul were having a discussion around the act of prayer. Paul argued that, when we pray, God prays within us. Professor Mishitani poses the question, “Who is praying, then?” Hannah notes this was put forward as a Koan (119). She then recounts that he went silent and physically bowed his head. She writes, “Paul Tillich could not have answered the question in a more genuine way then by this silent, true testimony” (120). In the tender way Hannah recounts this moment, we can see her love and admiration for Paul despite their deep differences.

We see more of this compassion and forgiveness for Paul in the next section, which are the diaries of Hannah alone in India and Southeast Asia, a year after Paul’s death. She meets with the Dalai Lama, to whom she gives a small piece of bone from Paul’s ashes (132). She writes, “The Dalai Lama took the burden of my husband’s ashes from me, the burden of those aspects of his life in our life that I had not been able to take into the silence of my heart and dissolve by love” (132). Hannah realized that Paul and she were never able to overcome certain aspects of their relationship but, because of her love for him, Hannah no longer wanted to hold onto those things.

The next several passages deal with Hannah’s travels alone in the Caribbean Islands in 1967 and in Mexico in 1968. During both of these trips, Hannah encountered more of the real world outside of her bourgeois lifestyle. Incidents include witnessing racial tensions (154), police oppression, dumpster digging (158), and beggars (162).

These passages are followed directly by Paul’s diaries from 1936, the year the Axis Alliance was formed, when he traveled back to Europe. Paul visited friends and family in Holland, Paris, Switzerland, and London (167-177). The passages are filled with the dark reality of Nazism. The people he spoke with all suffered in some way because of the changes in Germany, and Hannah’s choice to put her own travels in a hostile and depressed Central America alongside Paul’s visit to a Europe on the brink of war is striking.

From this place of suffering, Hannah moves through several more diary entries focused on suffering and healing, ending with her diary entry from New Harmony, the Indiana park dedicated to Paul. In 1975, 10 years after Paul’s death, Hannah visits New Harmony, where his ashes are buried (216). She finishes her visit by walking a labyrinth and commenting on the landscape, again being whisked back to her childhood, similar to her dream in the rock garden in Japan.

Hannah Tillich’s book, From Place to Place, is a charming amalgamation of stories that pertain to her relationship and travels with Paul Tillich. Unlike Paul, Hannah does not expound on her musings or insights. She gives them to you as messy and human as they came to her. This book gives us a perspective on Paul Tillich we could get from no one else. A perspective that is raw and complicated, just like their marriage. It is clear that these are two very different people; Paul’s perspectives are analytical, heady, and philosophical attempts to develop his own thoughts, while Hannah’s thoughts focus on embodiment, memories, dreams, and glimpses, and she leaves them all in a pile for the reader to sift.

Review by JH

Shortly after her 80th birthday, Hannah Tillich’s second book found its way to bookstore shelves. She described the volume as an attempt toward “reconciliation” with those who had been hurt or offended by her first autobiography, From Time to Time, released three years prior and which detailed Hannah’s life and turbulent marriage to theologian Paul Tillich. Around that time The New York Times published an interview about Tillich’s “olive branch,” and in which she described her second biographical piece From Place to Place as a collection of saved travelogues, unpublished essays, a play, poems, and fragments from the family’s individual travel diaries. This was an effort to clarify, not mitigate, the previous work that was received by some as vengeful and even pornographic—the Tillichs’ daughter among those deeply offended.

It is difficult to be sure how literally to take Mrs. Tillich’s story. Everything signifies, but whether by interpretation of facts, metaphor, or through creative fabrication, remains unclear. In fact, there is very little clarity in this patchwork of travel reports and notes prepared by this skillful poet and deft playwright. However, these fragments lifted from the sedimental layers of Tillichian life found in these pages should either be carefully interpreted as intentionally arranged or placed back on the shelf amongst other, dustier esoterica. Happily, the dull prospect of leafing through an apparently simple but fragmented memoir need not be feared, and Tillich immediately prompts her readers to interpretation and participation with a few early signals. Why, for instance, does Tillich speak for nearly fifty of the opening pages in a (somewhat unsettling) third person voice? The awkward and artificial effect is spectral. Tillich’s stressed and frustrated attempt to repair relations with her daughter in this chapter is haunted by the voyeur readers as much as by Paulus’ ghost and her painful memories in From Time to Time. Here, she calls Paulus a cathedral, a gothic tomb in which no one could really live, fit only for ghosts. The reader is given secrets—not juicy gossip—the hard and painful realities of love. Hannah’s idiosyncratic opening reads with a cool detachment, as if the narrator exerted little or no influence at all on her story, a sensation which may have been channeled through the daughter who “felt she had taken no part in her life; it had simply occurred” (37). One wonders again if Hannah felt similarly when she writes, “she [Hannah] had somehow always just managed to come into her own, landing, after the fall, on her feet like a cat, bruised but surviving” (45).

One need only read her first book to know Tillich is partial to the concept of time. Here, though, she writes on space and place with styles suddenly passionate or detached. Without reading too much of Paulus into Hannah’s text, place has an estranged quality to it. Travels in Egypt, Israel, Mexico, India, and Japan among others mark very little time besides a few broad dates or the sometimes vague presence or absence of Paulus. In fragments by Paulus Hannah is sometimes missing from the story altogether. Even while in Egypt, Israel, and Japan, where the couple is most obviously present in the same place, they are mostly estranged from each other. In Israel, on Rosh Hashanah, the Tillichs visited a Caesarea kibbutz and its synagogue. There Hannah recalls Paulus’ dancing with the Chasidic Jews while she watched from behind the women’s cordon, clapping. In one moment, both are enraptured by the Jewish tradition and its passionate exercise. Later she would describe the Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem, “only [as] weird relics from a dead past” (72).

In Japan Paulus gave several lectures. During their travels the couple discussed with their hosts topics ranging from post-war politics to Zen Buddhism and its relationship with Christianity. They made time for good, traditional meals (Paulus was lousy with chopsticks) and for clubbing (Paulus was better with strippers than with chopsticks). In Egypt Hannah records she and Paulus attempted to keep cool while visiting the tombs of ancient kings, both of them entranced by the corpses as much as the Egyptian treasures. She writes of her travels, “it had all been in being there, standing and looking, following the prearranged path,” she says, a little cryptically. They were travels, especially the final trip with her daughter, “of not remembering and not forgetting; the short pause between inhaling and exhaling when all motion is suspended” (44). Indeed, travels and memories were time framed and punctuated by space and vise versa. This feeling reached an apogee following Paulus’ death and her encounters with Indira Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, “I experienced a great shock” she writes, “I was all in one piece and aware of it. My own being—my bones and flesh, eyes ears, mouth, and digestive system. It was all there and it was mine. My physical reactions had been haphazardly piecemeal, never as a unity. Now I was, all by myself, all in one piece and knowing it. I was scared” (132). Again, Tillich floods the text with seemingly irrelevant facts and items each, when taken as specifically chosen, becomes saturate with meaning. It is not for nothing, then, that following this experience she includes in her notes on the Indian temple sculptures that “I had no film left for the king putting his hand nonchalantly on the shoulder of his elected, while she looked up to him inflamed” (133).

Among the memories, journal entries, and lists of souvenirs chosen by the author is a peculiar play. Presumably penned by Hannah, she gives us a particularly terse and poignant rendering of the transition from paganism to Christianity with a cast of the Greek gods, their mortal lovers, and the metamorphoses of thanatos, eros, and philosophy under the new religion. The bizarre drama seems ambivalent about both the old and the new, pitting merciless Greek deities against a compassionate Christ who then seems to give false hope to the weak and broken. The play is worth reading on its own terms. Its placement, however, seems to prove the frustrating fact that although her buoyancy as an artist is strong, ballasted or not by her husband’s fame, neither Hannah nor we can say what her independence from Paulus would have yielded. The couple was a complex and dramatic tangle of strong identities.

When read alone From Place to Place is what it promises to be: travels with and without Paul Tillich, plain and simple, with poems and drama for flavor. When read with the depth and rage of From Time to Time in mind, one sees that even the most ecstatic of passions plateau after a few years. This is no secret to those who, driven by mad obsession, read, write and love with their chosen emotional poison tucked closely by the book the, pen, or the bed. Only on the best days can the passions be dealt with in due order. Thus, whereas the slow attrition of the marriage built by the Tillichs was tragic, Hannah’s mild ambivalence and resignation following his death seems even more troubling. It is as if a gradual transfusion after years of passion finally sapped the last of it and replaced some wild, bohemian blood type with the clear substance and temperature of tap water. Like the gray mummies that fascinated the couple on their Egyptian journey only a year before Paulus’ death— the glory fades, preserved, leaving only ruins. As Hannah said in India when offered massage to make her breasts more youthful, “I do not want to be loved any more, I am glad I am no longer young” (127).

In the end, this fragmented text leaves me asking what can generate a love so fierce with the feelings of time and space and death but not, I wonder, stronger than them? Hardly appropriate speculation I admit, but one called forth nonetheless by a narrative voice at times so acerbic that one detects a recent note of bile on its breath, while at other points, it is as kindly as one might imagine a devoted grandmother. The effect this textual ambiguity delivers transfers a sense of sorrow that would be incommunicable in direct, self-critical prose. This is especially true as she closes the book with a walk through Paul Tillich Park writing, “the Spirit would find new words to express the needs of the day; new words to guide us through the mazes everywhere” (223). Exiting with Hannah this labyrinth of travels, the reader, at least this young reader, couldn’t feel more in step with the narrator as she articulates both freedom and weariness, the wisdom of age and subtle forgiveness. Even so, although she chronicles journeys both with and without Paulus, I get the feeling that at least along the main roads of her life, this Tillich went mostly alone.

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