Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Guardian is asking writers and critics to choose the book that changed them. Rafael Behr answers Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. It is a good choice. Behr writes: "When I went to university I was only tangentially interested in politics. Then, during the summer holiday at the end of the first year, driving across France, I borrowed Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon from a friend. He was studying philosophy and had been ordered to read it. I was studying languages and was avoiding some untranslated set text. I had never been gripped by anything so theoretical before. The story is sparse. Rubashov, an ageing first-generation revolutionary, is imprisoned and interrogated by an ambitious thug from the steelier, younger generation. Execution is certain. Pacing his cell, Rubashov recalls his past work for the party abroad, manipulating and ultimately destroying idealistic but dispensable foreign communist agents. He composes a tract on 'the relative maturity of the masses' which submerges his personal dilemma - to die in silence or serve the party one last time by submitting to a show trial - in a sweeping quasi-Marxist rumination on history and destiny. The drama is not contained in the action. What excited 19-year-old me was the guided tour of a totalitarian mind." Rightly, Behr sets Darkness at Noon next to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, as "companion volumes in my imagination." Both Koestler and Arendt are spurs against the seductions of totalitarian rationalism. For more on Darkness at Noon, take a look at Roger Berkowitz's essay Approaching Infinity: Dignity in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon.
David Bornstein asks, "How can we repair our public discourse?" And in a recent essay he answers that we need to re-learn how to listen and have meaningful conversations, which is the goal of the initiative "Ask Big Questions." Bornstein writes: "Imagine that you're among a group of college students who want to discuss the big issues of the day. What can be done to bring peace to the Middle East? How can we reduce sexual assaults on campuses? What should be done about immigration? These questions have the potential to produce rich explorations. But they're equally likely to devolve into shouting matches that increase anger and mistrust. Is there a way to frame conversations so that people actually listen to one another?... Ask Big Questions helps students discover how to establish a foundation of trust and confidentiality in a group, invite contributions from everyone, and guide others into deeper learning by interpreting the meaning of poems, texts or images, reflecting on their lives and the implications for action. The interpretive part of the discussion is essential, says Feigelson: 'If you don't have some sort of a text or interpretive object, the conversation can easily veer off into bad group therapy.'" The initiative teaches students how to think and speak about hard questions by seeking to understand opposing views and imagining that the truth might have various shades. This is, of course, one premise of a liberal arts education, which makes one wonder why the lessons from the classroom are not being translated to the dining room.
Adam Gopnick takes on the old adage about those who don't learn from history, suggesting that repetition is even more likely when the history being read is a self serving one: "Studying history doesn't argue for nothing-ism, but it makes a very good case for minimalism: for doing the least violent thing possible that might help prevent more violence from happening... The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been-and, thus, than they really are-or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling-even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse...Those of us who obsess, for instance, particularly in this centennial year, on the tragedy of August, 1914-on how an optimistic and largely prosperous civilization could commit suicide-don't believe that the trouble then was that nobody read history. The trouble was that they were reading the wrong history, a make-believe history of grand designs and chess-master-like wisdom. History, well read, is simply humility well told, in many manners. And a few sessions of humility can often prevent a series of humiliations."
Molly Crabapple tries to think of an ethical response to the horror and violence of the last few months. One response, to affirm her complicity as a white woman for the police violence in Ferguson, evidences a basic fallacy of collective guilt. Crabapple is not guilty of killing Michael Brown. And if someone is guilty, her musings about her own guilt minimizes his guilt. But Crabapple's second response is infinitely more moving: to affirm the beauty of the world: "Power seeks to enclose beauty-to make it scarce, controlled. There is scant beauty in militarized zones or prisons. But beauty keeps breaking out anyway, like the roses on that Ferguson street. The world is connected now. Where it breaks, we all break. But it is our world, to love as it burns around us. Jack Gilbert is right. 'We must risk delight' in the summer of monsters. Beauty is survival, not distraction. Beauty is a way of fighting. Beauty is a reason to fight." Crabapple's musings on beauty in dark times call to mind Berthold Brecht's poem"To Posterity":
Truly, I live in dark times!
An artless word is foolish. A smooth forehead
Points to insensitivity. He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.
What times are these, in which
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing!
And he who walks quietly across the street,
Passes out of the reach of his friends
Who are in danger?
Joseph Luzzi suggests a reason why some books remain important long after their original place and time, attempting to rehabilitate the idea of the universality of literature in the process: "This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work's ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what's supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time-that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind."
Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United and a Democratic Primary Candidate in the upcoming Gubernatorial Election, will be visiting Bard College to address students, staff and community members.
Friday, September 5th, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 3:00-4:00 pm
For more information about this event, please click here.
Details soon to follow.
Wednesday, September 17h, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm
Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Roger Berkowitz emphasizes the need to restore spaces where freedom can be enjoyed in the Quote of the Week. American poet and writer Sylvia Plath provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a lecture by Philippe Nonet on the history of metaphysical freedom in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz remarks on the needlessly specialized nature of modern humanities scholarship in the Weekend Read.
Louis Pasteur once wrote:
I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.
To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.
It can lead to unbearable obligation and even to martyrdom. And, if the god is a muse, it can lead to the travails of the artist.
All great art and all great artists are consumed by the infinite. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.” Those are the artists, the ones who amidst the muck feel part of something higher, something everlasting, the infinite.
The great enemy of the infinite is reason. Reason is calculating. It is rational. It is logical. It insists that everything is knowable and comprehensible. Ends justify means. And means can achieve ends. Reason insists on explanation. The self—the mystery—must be made knowable.
David Brooks in the NY Times today lauds the entry of behavioral psychology into politics and policy. We want to know, he writes, how to get people to vote and how to get congress to cut the deficit. If science can tell us how what to put in their drinking water, how to frame the question, what books to read to them in vitro, or how to rewire their brains to be rational, wouldn’t that make policy all the more reasonable? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
Science can make us more rational. That of course is the dream of people like Ray Kurzweil as well as the social scientists who insist that humans can be studied like rats. Let’s not object to the fact. We can be studied like rats and that is what university social science departments around the country and the world are doing everyday. This research is eminently useful, as Brooks rightly remarks. If we employ it, we can be made to be more reasonable.
What the rationalization of humanity means, however, is not a question science can answer. Max Weber began the study of the rationalization of mankind when he proposed that the rise of the enlightenment and the age of reason was bringing about an “Entzauberung” or a “de-magicification” of the world. Capitalism emerged at this time for a number of reasons, but one main reason, Weber understood, was that capitalism provided in the profit motive rational and objective criteria for measuring human endeavors. The problem, as Weber so well understood, is that the elevation of reason and rationality brought about the devaluation of all highest values—what Nietzsche would call nihilism. This is because reason, derived from ratio, is always a relation. All values are relative. In such a world, nothing is infinite. Stuck amidst the relations of means and ends, everything is a calculation. All is a game. There is no purpose or meaning to the game of life. As we become more rational, we also become less consumed by the infinite. That is the true danger of the rise of the social sciences and our rationality-consumed culture that insists that all human behavior be made understandable so that it can be made better.
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt is concerned with the way that the rise of reason and rationality is challenging the quintessence of the human condition—at least as that human condition has been experienced and known since the dawn of humanity. The rise of the social sciences, she writes over and over, are subjecting the mystery and fecundity of human action to the law of large numbers. While each and every human action may in itself be surprising and mysterious, it is nevertheless true that studied in groups and analyzed over time, human action does fall into comprehensible patterns. The more we study and know these patterns, the more we come to think of humans as predictable animals rather than surprising and spontaneous selves. This sociological and psychological reduction of man to animal is very much at the heart of what Arendt is opposing in her book.
Nowhere is the rationality of our times more visible than in the victory of labor and the marginalization of art. We are, all of us, laborers today. That is why the first question we ask others we meet is: What do you do? Our labor defines us. It gives our lives meaning in that it assigns us a use and a value. Even professors, judges, and presidents now say regularly: this is my job. By which we mean, don’t blame us for what we do. Don’t hold me to some higher standard. Don’t expect miracles. It is our job to do this. We do this to make a living.
The one group in society who is at times excepted from this reduction to labor is artists. But even the artist is today is taken less and less seriously. Insofar as artists are enthusiasts consumed with the infinite, they are ignored or viewed as marginal. Art is reduced to playfulness. A hobby. “From the standpoint of “making a living,” every activity unconnected with labor becomes a “hobby.”” And those artists who are taken seriously, whose work is bought and sold on the art market, turn artistic work into the job of making a living.
Art, Arendt writes, is a process of magic. Citing a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, she insists that the magic of art is the artist’s transfiguration of something ordinary—the canvas, clay or word—into something extraordinary, an expression of the infinite in the finite world of things.
Because art figures the infinite, poetry is the “most human” of the arts and the art that “remains closest to the thought that inspired it.” The poem, of all artworks, is the most lasting because its medium is the least subject to decay. It is the closest expression of the infinite we humans possess.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose resonance with Arendt in so many things has been too infrequently remarked, agrees that poetry is the art form in which the individual artist can access and figure in the world a public and common truth. In “The Poet,” Emerson writes:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself ), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught up into the life of the universe; his speech is thunder; his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ but with the intellect released from all service…inebriated by nectar. As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on his horse’s neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers, and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, wars, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
I take this quotation from Emerson’s “The Poet” from an exceptional recent essay by Sven Birkirts. The essay appears in the latest edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, an entire issue focusing on the merits and need for inebriation.
As Birkirts writes:
For Emerson, the intoxication is not escape but access, a means of getting closer to “the fact,” which might, with heartfelt imprecision, be called life itself. What he means by “public power,” I think, is something like what Carl Jung and others later meant by the phrase collective unconscious, the emphasis falling on the unconscious, that posited reservoir of our shared archetypes and primordial associations—that which reason by itself cannot fathom, for it is, in essence, antithetical to reason.
Birkirt’s reflects not only on the need for inebriation in the pursuit of artistic infinity, but also on the decreasing potency of intoxicants today. For him, the rise of the mass market in art, the globalization of experience, the accessibility of all information all have made the world smaller, knowable, and accountable. What is lost in such access is precisely the portal to the infinite.
Artistically and in almost every other way ours has become a culture of proliferation. Information, perspectives, as well as the hypercharged clips and images of our global experience are within the radius of the keystroke. Nothing is unspoken, nothing is unaccounted. Every taste is given a niche and every niche is catered to. Here, one might argue, is more material than ever; here are opportunities for even greater acts of synthesis. But I am skeptical. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The temptation is to invert the phrases and ascribe causality: where everything is permitted, nothing is true. Where nothing is true, where is the Emersonian fact to be found? This bears directly on the artist’s task. The idea that writers can keep producing grandly synthesizing or totalizing work—that has the ring of truth, of mattering—is debatable.
Birkirt’s essay may not be the intoxicant of your choice this weekend, but it should be. It is your weekend read. And you might check out the surprising selection at the bar at Lapham’s Quarterly as well.
And for those with time to spare: Arthur Koestler, from whom I first learned of the Louis Pasteur quote at the top of this essay, was consumed with the connection between intoxication and the infinite. I have discussed Koestler’s pursuit of the infinite at length. You can read that discussion here.