The game of life is a game of boomerangs. Our thoughts, deeds and words return to us sooner or later with astounding accuracy.
--Florence Scovel Shinn
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.
Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is more important than the scandal. It raises fundamental questions about the democracy, race and the constitution. Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, writes: "And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man's view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman's sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'" John Roberts, in his concurring opinion, responds: "The dissent states that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race." And it urges that "[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'" But it is not "out of touch with reality" to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and-if so-that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent's views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to "wish away, rather than confront" racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate. Both opinions are worth reading. And read more about them in The Weekend Read.
Pope Francis I has declared two prior popes Saints. One is well known, Pope John Paul II. But Pope John XXIII is perhaps forgotten by many. As NPR reports, "John XXIII, also known as 'Good Pope John,' was nearly 77 at his coronation and, because of his advanced age, was widely regarded as a 'stopgap' pope who wasn't going to make waves. Instead, he called the Vatican II Council, which promulgated one of the most far-reaching and controversial reforms in the Roman Catholic Church's history." John XXIII also published a little book Journal of a Soul, which Hannah Arendt reviewed for the New York Review of Books. For the Jewish thinker, Good Pope John is a Christian Pope, one of the few. Arendt tells of a "Roman chambermaid" in a hotel who asked her, in all innocence: "Madam," she said, "this Pope was a real Christian. How could that be? And how could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter's chair? Didn't he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?" Arendt had a simple answer for the maid. "No." She writes that Pope John was largely unknown upon his selection and arrived as an outsider. He was, in the words of her title, a true Christian living in the spirit of Jesus Christ. In a sense, this was so surprising in the midst of the 20th century that no one had imagined it to be possible, and the Good Pope John was selected without anyone knowing who he was. On the day of Pope John XXIII's Sainthood, it is worth revisiting Arendt's full review.
Taking Hannah Arendt's quote, "There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous," as its starting point, the Canadian Public Radio show Ideas with Paul Kennedy explores Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. The program features Roger Berkowitz, Adam Gopnik, Adam Kirsch, and Rivka Galchen. The conversation was heated at times, but overall offers a good account of Arendt's book, her thoughts on thinking, and the reason her thought matters. Take some time to listen to program.
Patricia Lockwood, at the Poetry Foundation blog, seems to be tired of being asked if poetry is work: "IS it work, though? The question persists. Is a single muscle exerted during the process? Do you sweat at all, besides the weird thing that sometimes happens under your right arm because you haven't lifted it up for 8 hours? Do you get to retire after you work at it faithfully for 50 years? The answers are no, no, and no. Can anyone fire a poet? Only Death can fire a poet." She is, of course, making a joke. For Arendt, though, poetry, and art more generally, is in fact work. Indeed, making art may be the last vestige of work in a world where the primary activity of life has become the repetitive, never ending, activity of consumption, in which nothing is left behind and all labor seeks only to further the process of consumption. Poetry, and painting, and art are outliers in the modern world to the extent they leave something behind and resist the process of consumption.
"So far, the year 2014 has been a tumultuous one, as geopolitical rivalries have stormed back to center stage. Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China making aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan responding with an increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations." Walter Russell Mead believes that geopolitics, never really gone, is back for good: "Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it. That process will not be peaceful, and whether or not the revisionists succeed, their efforts have already shaken the balance of power and changed the dynamics of international politics.
On the occasion of the publication of a biography of the author, Hermione Lee describes what John Updike was up to: "As he said of himself... he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted 'to give the mundane its beautiful due.' For over half a century-even though his own life moved far away from 'middleness';-he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This-even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe-is his great signature tune. No wonder that some of the narrators in his stories are archaeologists, or that he's so interested in vanished cities, ancient civilizations, and extinct species."
On the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, Bob Duggan remembers that what are understood as his great contributions now were not his most well known plays during his life: "During Shakespeare's own lifetime he was known best as the "honey-tongued" poet of such works as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in which he used classical and ancient characters to his own artistic purposes as well as practical purposes of making money during the plague-forced theater closures of 1593-1594. Readers literally read published copies of these works to pieces, making surviving copies extremely rare today. People went to see the plays, of course, but the emphasis of the theaters was on making money as much as making art."
Eric Hoover, in an essay about the ways that colleges and universities may begin to evaluate students, describes one measure designed to quantify the information in a recommendation: "Motivated by such findings, the Educational Training Service developed an online rating tool called the Personal Potential Index. Designed to quantify what's conveyed in a recommendation, it asks past instructors to rate students on a five-point scale in six categories: communication skills, ethics and integrity, knowledge and creativity, planning and organization, resilience, and teamwork. To gauge resilience, for instance, respondents are asked to what extent a student 'accepts feedback without getting defensive; works well under stress; can overcome challenges and setbacks; works extremely hard'. Recommenders can type in comments to elaborate on their ratings, if they choose." Adding comments, of course, is not the same thing as real qualitative assessment; perhaps, instead of attempting to replace the tests, institutions of higher education should abandon that requirement altogether, and instead evaluate students as students, rather than as data.
This week on the blog we revisit Tracy Strong’s Quote of the Week on “Thinking Without Bannisters.” And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the relation of race, democracy, and the constitution in Schuette decision.
"Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare the truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare."
Those who don't like thinking should at least rearrange their prejudices from time to time.
- Luther Burbank
One of my favorite images in Arendt's writings comes not from Arendt herself, but her citation of the poem "Magic" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke's poem reads (in an approximate translation):
From indescribable transformation originate
Amazing shapes. Feel! Trust!
We suffer often: To ashes turn our flames;
Yet art can set on fire the dust.
Magic is here. In the realm of enchantment
The ordinary word appears elevated
But sounds as real as if the dove called
To seek its invisible mate.
Arendt cites Rilke's poem in the final section of the chapter of the Human Condition on Work. It is part of her discussion of art and her claim that "the immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought."
Art, Arendt writes, has its foundation in thinking. Works of art, she writes, are "thought things." They are thingifications of thoughts, or to use a word that is so often abused, they are reifications of thoughts—The making of thoughts into things. It is this process of transformation and transfiguration that Rilke captures in "Magic": To "set fire to the dust" and bring beauty and truth to the real world. That is what art does.
My mind turned to Rilke's poem as I watched the great South African artist William Kentridge deliver the first of his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University.
Kentridge spoke in praise of shadows, and situated his talk within a reading of Plato's allegory of the Cave in Book VII of the Republic. The story of the cave begins with prisoners shackled and unmovable who see shadows along a wall projected by a fire. First one sets himself free and climbs out into the light of the sun and, slowly, painfully, comes to recognize in the light of the sun that the shadows were indeed shadows, untrue. The parable illustrates the error of sensible things and is one part of Plato's illustration of his theory of ideas. The ideas, supersensible truths of reason and logic, do not deceive and change like the shadowy things of the world. Only what lasts eternally is true; all that is sensible and fleeting is false.
Kentridge tells the story of Plato's cave to explain why he sees art, and especially his art, in opposition to the Platonic idea of truth. If Plato celebrates the primacy of the eternally true over the shadows, Kentridge argues that art elevates the image above the truth. For this reason, at least in part, Kentridge's art works with shadows. Shadow figures and shadow puppets.
Kentridge lauds shadows. In the very limitations of the shadows, in the gaps, in the gaps that inspire in us leaps to complete an image, that is where we think and learn. The leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition. It is in shadows that we find our agency in apprehending the world.
Shadow art is, for Kentridge, political. Plato's politics depends on a truth known and understood by the few and then imposed on the many. In this sense philosophy is, in Arendt's words, opposed to politics, and the philosopher either must seek merely to be left alone by the people (which is difficult because philosophers are dangerous), or they will always seek to dominate and tyrannize the polity with their reason. Arendt's lifelong battle is to free politics from the certainty of rational and philosophical truth, to open us to a politics of opinion and openness.
Knowledge is power and there is, in Kentridge's words, a relation between knowledge and violence. Kentridge embraces shadows and silhouettes to oppose the philosophical and Platonic tyranny of reason. He writes elsewhere:
I am interested in a political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending - an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.
Optimism must be kept in check since any certainty about the destination can underwrite the need for violence to bring others to that end. For Kentridge, "There is no destination. all destinations, all bright lights, arouse our mistrust."
Kentridge offers us an image of the artist. He speaks from the studio and from his notebook to emphasize the source of artistic truth in the thought image rather than the logical word. An artist thinks. He sees. He makes art. He makes things that reflect not truth and certainty but gaps, misgivings, and questions. Kentridge gives reality to the questionability of the world in his shadow art. In this way his art reminds us of the magic of Rilke's fire that transfigures dust into flame.
Few modern artists work magic like William Kentridge. His Norton Lectures are a great introduction to his art and the thinking behind his art. If you are not graduating this weekend, take the time to hear and look at what Kentridge says and makes.
You can view Kentridge's First Norton Lecture here. Consider it your visual weekend read.
"Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."