“It is perfectly true that ‘all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them,’ in the words of Isak Dinesen, who not only was one of the great storytellers of our time but also—and she was nearly unique in this respect—knew what she was doing.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics, p. 262
“‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them’ –Isak Dinesen” (The Human Condition, 175 [one of two mottos for Chapter 5: Action])
Arie Amaya-Akkermans has recently and beautifully used this space to reflect on the importance of Dinesen for Arendt, specifically in the way the latter relies on Dinesen for a notion of the praxis of storytelling that is central to Arendt’s conception of politics and of the life of the mind. In calling attention to these two moments where Arendt leans on Dinesen’s claim about life, loss and narrative, I hope to shed a different light on what it means (for Arendt) to quote another, and thus to reflect on the very praxis of this “quote of the week.” I want to reflect for a moment on the different ways in which Dinesen’s formula informs these two pieces, to what effects, and with what ends in mind. In this way, I suspect, we might discover something about why—in reading and writing for this initiative of the Center—we are engaging in something different from two other practices which this resembles, namely, academic commentary and “ordinary” blogging. Along the way, perhaps, we might learn together something that will provide further resonance to what Amaya-Akkermans has provided us.
In thinking about these two quotations of the same sentence, and how they might function differently—even before thinking about the broader context of the two pieces in which the sentence appears, and the argumentative goals thereof and so on—two things come to light. In the first instance, Arendt stresses that what she is quoting is true—perfectly true, even—and then goes on to tell us not only whose words they are, but also what is remarkable about that person (in the context of trying to think through the supposed opposition between truth and politics, an opposition complicated by the fact of Diensen as someone who speaks truth (“perfect truth” even) while engaging in a practice that is never free of the political. In the second, Arendt simply lets Dinesen speak for her by placing the latter’s words as an independent expression of what most needs to be said in what has to be concerned one of the most important moments in her whole body of work: the chapter in Human Condition where she makes a case for action as the true life of the human being, possible only in our spontaneous appearance to one another in our plurality.
These two gestures to Dinesen, diverging in intent and even as they respond to exactly the same content, point toward something I highlighted when I recently had the privilege to share some thoughts (on the practical and productive importance of rhetoric as the art of seeing what can be persuasive) with the Hannah Arendt Center in March: the importance of fabrication. What is crucial here is that while the one who would “think what we are doing” must always be insatiable in the search for what is, they must also be sensitive and crafty in articulating what they have found in their search: it is not enough to know how to discover truths—be they factual, rational, scientific, or moral; one must also share these with the others. And this requires storytelling, which (as Dinesen knew and lived) entails “knowing what one is doing” in the sense to which Arendt refers in her first quotation.
I take it that what we are trying to do here is very much like what Arendt was trying to do in addressing Dinesen. We want, that is, to engage with our own moment, with the world as it discloses itself to us here and now, but we also recognize that the only way in which that is possible is through a self-constituting practice of speaking aloud to those who might share the world in which we aim to live. We must fabricate, together with the others, the world that appears to, in us and through us.
Arendt sees, and shows us in the feature of her work as an exercise, that such joined creation, of humans in our plurality, best begins when the solitary thinker addresses the others by means of a shared other. That is, thinking does not begin or proceed in isolation, with the sage who withdraws into a cave, or climbs to a highest peak, or (say) retreats into the Black Forest. Rather, we think, as we act, in concert. Quotations serve a beautiful symbol of this fact, but also as a clever means by which to solicit the participation of the others who are needed for our own projects (of thinking, and of world-creation) to have any chance of succeeding.
Why “quote of the week,” then? I am sure that there are more reasons than one. But one, profoundly Arendtian, reason is that we are already halfway home to thinking and acting in Arendtian mode when we understand ourselves as truly beginning to speak only when we speak (in and through, with and against) the words of another, who—as far as we can tell—has told the truth, has fulfilled the demand: legein ta eonta.
"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”
Michael Weinman - "Pedagogy or demagogy: The dangerous dunamis of the rhetor's art."
Lecture presented by the Arendt Center on the evening of March 27, 2012
Michael Weinman from ECLA of Bard in Berlin spoke Tuesday night and began with a simple claim: "My subject is the power of composed speech." In order to work out the relationship between power and composition (or in other words between ordered discourse and binding force) he opened a trajectory from Aristotle's Rhetoric to Arendt's "Truth in Politics" to contemporary political rhetoric.
Weinman's reading of the Rhetoric focused on the books one and two. In the first book he placed particular emphasis on the role of enthymemes, which he provisionally defined as a kind of syllogism. Within the second book, he highlighted the example of anger as one pathe, one of the "sources of change on account of which people differ in accordance to their judgments." By appealing to common emotion, the speaker can establish a common ground for his argument. In his next step, Weinman developed a parallel between Aristotle and Arendt's idea of storytelling as a means of political narrative that maintains the "factual texture" of the world while still allowing for a limited type of lying that as a "little miracle" demonstrates our freedom in relation to automatic processes.
The third and final step of the talk affirmed a rhetorically committed political practice against purely rational discourse. In Weinman's view, following Aristotle and Arendt, rhetoric must be employed in order to ensure that discursive space "touches the world" (Weinman). In closing he replied to a news article referring to the anger of Americans in the current political situation. While the author suggested that this might not be such a bad thing, Weinman went a step further, saying that anger should be affirmed - not encouraged but recognized as a potential affective basis for discourse that might cut across ideological divides.
The audience posed questions related to Weinman's implicit conception of pedagogy, the specific spheres of relevance of different types of rhetoric for Aristotle, and the relationship between rhetoric and truth.
Recalling the Arendt Center’s conference last fall on the challenge of telling the truth in an age without facts, Weinman’s specification of the "miracle" of the small lie adds depth to the Arendt’s idea of storytelling that creates significance without abandoning greater factual context. In opening this perspective, however, it also raises the question of the precise relation between these necessary small lies and a dangerous greater disavowal of the world as it is.
Michael Weinman is presently a visiting academic at ECLA Bard. He has previously taught at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, and in the Department of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, Israel.
Weinman has published several books including the recently published, Language, Time and Identity in Woolf’s The Waves: The Subject in Empire’s Shadow and Pleasure in Aristotle’s Ethics.
Watch the lecture here.