“Even if all criticism of Plato is right, Plato may still be better company than his critics. At any rate, we may remember what the Romans…thought a cultivated person ought to be: one who knows how to choose his company among men, among things, among thoughts, in the present as well as in the past.”
Hannah Arendt-Between Past and Future
Cycles of falling stars are simultaneously bewildering unpredictable in the particular for modern astronomy, yet sufficiently regular and constant in general to form calendars and seasons of activity. This is equally, or perhaps more true of the psychic life of the American public space, and after a troubled political year, that season of falling stars that you always know will come seems to be upon us. Like Gloucesterians, we seem fond of winter in the United States: all three branches of the federal government, both major political parties, and the president have disapproval ratings that range from personal lows to ranking among the worst in the nation’s history. But this time has been no less filled with high profile cases in Western and Eastern Europe, South America, Central and North Africa, China, South Asia…the list could continue at will. I’m choosing not to dwell on the stories of particular politicians precisely because it is the trough of an ugly time, and it has been an ugly season for long enough that it’s worth thinking about not just where this particular cycle came from, but why we have them the way we do, and what it means to get out.
The newest issue of Interview Magazine is carrying a pretty extraordinary dialogue. That Steve McQueen – whose brilliant shorts established him as one of the brightest young directing talents of a generation well before the current run that culminated in last year’s shattering 12 Years a Slave – takes the role of interviewer rather than interviewee is enough to justify expecting something special. His subject (and that is the right term, in several senses) is Kanye West, perhaps the artist who most exemplifies in a single, still brief career the dizzying cycle of fall from grace and resurrection that defines the dramatic life of the modern public. Admittedly, the dialogue leans heavily toward a monologue, as you might expect given both the form and the figures. But it is also one of the most fascinating co-meditations I have ever read on what it means to strive and fail and thrive under the gaze of others, to actively confront the reality that the narrative of your life is only ever partially written by you. That neither artist would feign for a moment to be Everyman is paradoxically what gives the exchange such an incredible vibrancy, a resonance held open for any one precisely by refusing universality. Their crafting of West’s story comes out as two voices speaking through a bewildering tapestry of fragmented influences, pressures, and above all images of West both painted and defied. To a degree that only maybe his “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” also allows, there is just something in the collision between West’s intensely solipsistic artistic brilliance and his equally intense and utterly open social vulnerability that can’t help but grab and shake raw your sense of what it means to live and die – and fail – in public. Wrapped in the presence and influence of McQueen, it also manages to viscerally bring home one of Arendt’s most important thoughts: that those questions are, and must be, personal to each one of us, too.
I can’t speak well to the public humours outside of this country, but I know that the particular dynamics that McQueen draws West to describe reflect a pattern of the rise and fall of public lives in this country. The only way I can reach to describe that pattern is by grafting metaphors of love onto Arendt’s language for describing how we tell stories about a “who”, that precarious hybrid of a person and a narrative that none of us can escape being. In these scenes of disgrace, as we remold dramas in a matter of moments from adoration to utter disillusionment, we are depressingly adroit at ignoring a gap in our own passions between our reasons for falling so quickly in love, and our reasons for so quickly embracing its opposite. When a public embraces someone – politicians no less than cultural superstars – with that special fervor that marks our peculiar brand of messianism, it is never purely for the sake of what she has done. We admire the what, we respect the what, but when we love, publicly, we love the who in a way that no measure of what they’ve done could possibly justify. Maybe that is simply the nature of love, of a public or a person, because that is the nature of a who. Though we’re fond of decrying it when retrospect turns bitter, would we really want it to be otherwise? Wouldn’t there always have been a certain miserliness in trying to practice our story-building and our allegiances with dry lists of accomplishments, a certain desiccated frugality to our attachment to the public? I know of no one in my life who could say with real honesty that their public loves of choice – whether those were Barack Obama or Lance Armstrong, Chris Christie or Kanye West – ever resembled anything of the sort.
Yet when we cast these down, in that moment, that who we had been narrating with such care to ourselves and each other becomes utterly overtaken by a what, and not that figure’s whats taken together, but a what which simply becomes their disgraced who to us. Often, it becomes a pattern of whats. Often, it was always a pattern of whats that simply hadn’t made it into the story, either through deceptions by others or our own to ourselves. But it is always a what – a sin, a crime, an act, a betrayal – that turns the page.
There are times when that switch is justified. There are moments of whats so grave that they ought to come to dominate our vision of a who…that is what it means to reserve to ourselves the right not only to tell histories, but to judge them. There are times when this must be done. But in a season like this, we must judge, but we must also be honest with ourselves about what we are doing, to recognize…and taking care because of it…that we are exercising one of our most precious capacities, one that Arendt called in the quoted essay by a name now itself disgraced in some eyes: our humanism.
In her very Augustinian rendition, Arendt describes forgiveness as “an eminently personal…affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it”. Many have criticized the thought, but it seems worth returning to at least in the context of these so very public scenes. Forgiveness of this form is never a duty. Indeed, it may be a grace we want to use sparingly. It means even less the suspension of punishment. But it is first and foremost an exercise in that faculty Arendt described, in a way few had admitted since Cicero, as choosing with whom we will share our world. There will always be those who we decide we want to share our public world with because they retain some reason that drives us to. Though never, I think, so very terrible, West has done and said some things that others have found unforgivable; but I, for one, want the who in that interview to remain in my world, and in some part create that world.
There will also always be those who we decide, with justice, that we will not share our world with them. Some of those will be for trespasses no greater than West’s, and where that hazy line lies might be the consistent thread in McQueen’s storytelling. Others will not be for trespasses, but for enormities that defy even the possibility of forgiveness for us. Arendt closed her report on the Eichmann trial with the judgment that she, and we, could not share a world with Eichmann. In the wake of those writings, there were many who decided that they could not share a world with her. It is not a process we can do with out, least of all in that most public of spheres, politics. But I also suspect that if we did it with a clearer eye on we were doing with our whos and our whats, and a less clouded memory, the discontent would not run so deep in our winters. At least, it could never be said that we know not what we do.
“Snow Fall” is an essay by John Branch that appeared on the NY Times online yesterday. It is, simply, gripping. I read it holding my small screen, shaking, and could not put it down.
Here is how Branch describes the internal life of Elyse Saugstad as she experienced beings swallowed up by an avalanche.
She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out.
Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.
At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.
I know the pressures and allure of back-country skiing. Fresh powder and immeasurable quiet beckon. So too do adventure and risk. The first time I hooked up with some off-duty ski-patrollers and went looking for powder outside of a ski-area was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing atop a huge mountain of snow and looking down into the gully below, we prepared our dynamite. They asked me to throw a charge. Reason kicked in a bit and I asked, “This is safe, right? You’re an expert.” The answer I received was direct: “All the experts are dead.”
Adrenaline and camaraderie bring one to the top of a risky and bountiful snowfield. Once fear and reason kick in, it is often too late. Or so it seems.
One of the skiers, Megan Michelson, recalls her misgivings, and how she suppressed them:
"If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people,” Michelson, the ESPN journalist, said. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss. And not to play the gender card, but there were 2 girls and 10 guys, and I didn’t want to be the whiny female figure, you know? So I just followed along.” Others suppressed reservations, too.
There is great writing in Branch’s essay. And many life lessons. How did 16 of the best, most knowledgeable back-country skiers in the country make such a colossal misjudgment? Why did they do so, even as some of them knew what they were doing was a mistake? How is technology making us feel safer and take ever-greater risks? What is the place and importance of risk in human life? Branch’s re-creation of the 24 hours bookending the fateful avalanche and the insightful reporting on the persons involved, makes this one of those rare essays appearing in the New York Times recently that should be a must read for all.
As the Arendt Center readies for its annual Winter relocation to the Colorado Rockies, I plan to be skiing on piste this year. I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday Season.
For now, wherever you are, cuddle up and enjoy Snow Fall. It is your holiday read.