Amor Mundi 2/28/16

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upCould It Happen Here?

donald trumpIn an essay in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen invokes Hannah Arendt to suggest that we must speak out about the danger Donald Trump poses to constitutional democracy. “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country. To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as ‘just doing their job,’ yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called ‘Men in Dark Times.’ In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose ‘internal exile,’ or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.” Allen knows that Trump is not the same as Hitler. Hitler had written an ideological and racist book calling for the rise of an Aryan nation and the expulsion and murder of the Jews; Trump, on the other hand, is seemingly non-ideological. But Allen does rightly see that Trump is dangerous insofar as he seems to have no respect for limits to his power, whether those limits are civil or constitutional. “Donald Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of constitutional democracy, nor for the requirements of decency necessary to sustain democratic citizenship. Nor can any democracy survive without an expectation that the people require reasonable arguments that bring the truth to light, and Trump has nothing but contempt for our intelligence.” As first Chris Christie and now Maine Governor Paul LePage endorse Trump, it is clear that Trump is breaking down the resistance of the Republican establishment. While evangelical leaders are on record saying they will not support Trump if he is the nominee, establishment Republicans seem prepared to accept Trump as their standard-bearer.

Allen’s essay was met with a barrage of ugliness on social media. In an update Allen published, she reproduces dozens of tweets she received. Everyone should read these tweets simply to recognize the racist and anti-Semitic boorishness pulsing within Donald Trumps supporters–if not Trump himself. One tweet from DMT Trump Wizard goes “You cannot stop Donald Trump. White people are going to stop hating themselves and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” Another from War & Peace (an insult to Tolstoy) reads: “Jewish ancestry? 40%? 50%?” Another says, “You would be working a McDonalds if it wasn’t for affirmative action. What exactly are you bringing to the country?” The same person then attaches an anti-Semitic cartoon and writes, “I smell a jew.” Someone named Paul Harris asks, “why do third world people come to European ancestry countries to paracite of us? Why has the third world never created anything.” An exceedingly angry racist named Theodore Bundy sends multiple tweets including: “imagine, no more affirmative action. How will you get a job? This PC shit has destroyed a once great nation.” One writes, “My jewdar just went beep. Does the affirmative action negress have a bit of jew inside. No breaks on Trump train. Soz.” Aristides writes, “I can’t wait to see the look on your primitive monkey faces when the GOD-EMPEROR takes his throne. Go back to Africa posthaste.” And adds: “Wow, you are one butt-ugly n—er. Your face makes me sick to my stomach. Please gas yourself.” Ok, these tweets go on and on. Many are worse and call for Allen’s death. You should read them also to remind yourselves that speaking publicly takes courage.

Is Donald Trump racist and anti-Semitic? One can’t blame Trump or anyone for the opinions of his supporters. But when so many Trump supporters are so vocally racist and anti-Semitic, Trump owes it to himself and to the American people to publicly reject those vile opinions. That is a what someone must do if he aspires to be the leader of a multi-ethic and pluralistic democratic country. Not only has Trump not done so, but he has fanned the flames. Twice now he has retweeted tweets from members of white-supremacist groups, one of whose Twitter handle is @WhiteGenocideTM and whose profile tagline reads, “Get the f— out of my country.” Trump’s attacks on President Obama, his birther comments, his questioning of Ted Cruz’s citizenship, and his demonizing of Mexicans and Muslims have contributed to an atmosphere of hate that enables such racial attacks.

None of this means Trump himself is racist. He certainly does not pedal a consistent ideological racism of supremacy as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did. There is little to suggest that Trump would attack the laws guaranteeing equal voting rights or question the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Rather, Trump is responding at least in part to decades of repressed anger where many Americans have been told they can not speak their minds, express their feelings, or state their opinion. A dishonest and calculated political correctness has enabled Trump to appear as a liberator by unleashing a pent-up anger that is a result of a political culture that has prohibited people from saying what they believe. One real and meaningful attraction of Trump’s campaign is his refusal to self-censor and his embrace of an honest if also low-class and boorish racial anger. Trump as President would likely make the USA a less tolerant and more hateful and angry country. Such a cultural transformation very well could happen here, and it is, of course, dangerous.

But the real danger of a Trump presidency may lie elsewhere. After Trump’s victory in Nevada, he hammered home his main them: Grab as much as you can. “Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States we’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks we’re going to make America great again.” What Trump hates is politics, the collective striving after common ideals of democracy and justice. What he loves about America is simply its promise of abundance, not its tradition of self-government. Freedom for Trump is not the Arendtian freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter; it is the freedom to get rich and plaster one’s name on buildings and reality television shows.

Alongside Trump’s contempt for politics is his dismissal of the rule of law. He threatens to ban Muslims, to bring back water boarding, and to kill family members of the Islamic State, which are all violations of either international or U.S. Law. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the US military should and would refuse to carry out such illegal orders if Trump as Commander-in-Chief were to issue them. Trump’s contempt for the law and all political and civil limits is part and parcel of his disdain for politics and all limits on what works.

No doubt Trump’s pragmatic and greedy America is part of America. But it is not the whole or even the best of the American tradition, a tradition that has its roots in Alexander Hamilton’s expressed hope in the first of the Federalist Papers that the United States would stand not for economic liberty but for political freedom: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” As corrupt as our political system is, the answer cannot be to simply demean and dismiss the nobility of our democratic and constitutional traditions. The danger Trump truly poses is that he seems to care only about the idea of America as a land of milk and honey and to have forgotten or simply dismissed the idea of America as a land of political liberty. And he seems ready, able, and willing to tear down our corrupt political structures with no plan or idea of how they would be rebuilt or re-imagined. Creative destruction is a classic axiom of capitalist innovation, but it rarely works so well in democratic politics. –RB

Make ’em Laugh

trump protestersMark Steyn comes as close to anyone in understanding both the appeal and the danger Trump represents. In a long and rambling account of his experience attending a Trump rally in Burlington, Vermont, Steyn writes: “And then the announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Donald J Trump…’ ~THE SHOW: He’s very good at this. Very good. On the same day as Trump’s speech, Peter Shumlin, the colorless dullard serving as Vermont’s governor, came to the State House in Montpelier to deliver his ‘State of the State’ address. He required two prompters so he could do the Obama swivel-head like a guy with good seats at Wimbledon following the world’s slowest centre-court rally. Two prompters! In the Vermont legislature! And for the same old generic boilerplate you forget as soon as you’ve heard it. Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever’s on his mind. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions: One minute he’s talking about the Iran deal, the next he detours into how Macy’s stock is in the toilet since they dumped Trump ties. But in a strange way it all hangs together: It’s both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign. It’s also hilarious. I’ve seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night’s entertainment I’ve had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He’s way funnier than half the stand-up acts I’ve seen at the Juste pour rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing. Just to be non-partisan about this, the other day I was listening to Obama’s gun-control photo-op at the White House, and he thanked Gabby Giffords, by explaining that her husband Mark’s brother is an astronaut in outer space and he’d called just before Mark’s last meeting at the White House but, not wishing to disturb the President, Mark didn’t pick up. ‘Which made me feel kind of bad,’ said the President. ‘That’s a long-distance call.’ As I was driving along, I remember thinking how brilliantly Obama delivered that line. He’s not usually generous to others and he’s too thin-skinned to be self-deprecating with respect to himself, but, when he wants to get laughs, he knows how to do it. Trump’s is a different style: He’s looser, and more freewheeling. He’s not like Jeb – he doesn’t need writers, and scripted lines; he has a natural instinct for where the comedy lies. He has a zest for the comedy of life. To be sure, some of the gags can be a little – what’s the word? – mean-spirited. The performance was interrupted by knots of protesters. ‘Throw ’em out!’ barked Trump, after the first chants broke out. The second time it happened, he watched one of the security guys carefully picking up the heckler’s coat. ‘Confiscate their coats,’ deadpanned Trump. ‘It’s ten below zero outside.’ Third time it happened, he extended his coat riff: ‘We’ll mail them back to them in a couple of weeks.’ On MSNBC, they apparently had a discussion on how Trump could be so outrageous as to demand the confiscation of private property. But in showbusiness this is what is known as a ‘joke’. And in the theatre it lands: everyone’s laughing and having a ball. That’s the point. I think it would help if every member of the pundit class had to attend a Trump rally before cranking out the usual shtick about how he’s tapping into what Jeb called ‘angst and anger’. Yes, Trump supporters are indignant (and right to be) about the bipartisan cartel’s erasure of the southern border and their preference for unskilled Third World labor over their own citizenry, but ‘anger’ is not the defining quality of a Trump night out. The candidate is clearly having the time of his life, and that’s infectious, which is why his supporters are having a good time, too. Had Mitt campaigned like this, he’d be president. But he had no ability to connect with voters. Nor does Jeb (‘I’ve been endorsed by another 27 has-beens’) Bush.”

Brace Yourselves, America. It’s Really Happening.

donald trumpMatt Taibbi sees the appeal and the danger in Trump and worries he may well win. “In Manchester, a protester barely even manages to say a word before disappearing under a blanket of angry boos: ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ It’s a scene straight out of Freaks. In a Trump presidency, there will be free tar and feathers provided at the executive’s every public address. It’s a few minutes after that when a woman in the crowd shouts that Ted Cruz is a p-ssy. She will later tell a journalist she supports Trump because his balls are the size of ‘watermelons,’ while his opponents’ balls are more like ‘grapes’ or ‘raisins.’ Trump’s balls are unaware of this, but he instinctively likes her comment and decides to go into headline-making mode. ‘I never expect to hear that from you again!’ he says, grinning. ‘She said he’s a p-ssy. That’s terrible.” Then, theatrically, he turns his back to the crowd. As the 500 or so reporters in attendance scramble to instantly make this the most important piece of news in the world–in less than a year Trump has succeeded in turning the USA into a massive high school–the candidate beams. What’s he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower. In person, you can’t miss it: The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald on the stump can see his future. The pundits don’t want to admit it, but it’s sitting there in plain view, 12 moves ahead, like a chess game already won: President Donald Trump. A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events–an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc.–this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised. It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go. And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average. His pitch is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people. He talks, for instance, about the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by insurance companies, an atrocity dating back more than half a century, to the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945. This law, sponsored by one of the most notorious legislators in our history (Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran was thought to be the inspiration for the corrupt Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather II), allows insurance companies to share information and collude to divvy up markets. Trump may travel to campaign stops on his own plane, but his speeches are increasingly populist as he rails against money in politics, big pharma and insurance companies. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats made a serious effort to overturn this indefensible loophole during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Trump pounds home this theme in his speeches, explaining things from his perspective as an employer. ‘The insurance companies,’ he says, ‘they’d rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding … It’s so hard for me to make deals … because I can’t get bids.’ He goes on to explain that prices would go down if the state-by-state insurance fiefdoms were eliminated, but that’s impossible because of the influence of the industry. ‘I’m the only one that’s self-funding … Everyone else is taking money from, I call them the bloodsuckers.’ Trump isn’t lying about any of this.”


croissantsAdam Gopnik mourns the crescent croissant: “Why is a croissant shaped that way, anyway? The first truth is that they are not, necessarily. As veteran visitors to Parisian bakeries know, the superior, all-butter croissants are already commonly articulated as straight pastries–or, at least, as gently sloping ones–while the inferior oil or margarine ones must, by law, be neatly turned in. This sometimes leads those who expect clarity and logic, rather than complexity and self-cancelling entrapment, from French laws to think that the straight croissants are all butter and the curved ones are reliably not. The truth is that a butter croissant can be any shape it chooses, on the general atavistic aristocratic principle that, butter being better, it creates its own realm of privilege. One only wishes that Umberto Eco, whom we sadly lost last week, was still around to parse this issue, because Eco, long before he was king of the airport bookstore, was an emperor of signs, one of the world’s leading linguists and semioticians. The underlying logic for the croissant being a crescent, one suspects he would have said, is ‘Saussurean,’ after the great early-twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who glimpsed the truth that linguistic signs are arbitrary and find their meaning only by being clearly distinguished from other opposing signs. We know ‘Monday’ only because it doesn’t sound or look like ‘Sunday.’ P. G. Wodehouse, not surprisingly, showed his grasp of this rule when he had one of the Drones, on holiday in France, point out that he had been given a Continental breakfast consisting of ‘a roll shaped like a crescent and a roll shaped like a roll.’ Without the standard accompanying brioche, there would be no need for the curve; a roll-shaped roll produces a curved one, as ‘Sunday’ makes ‘Monday.’ The croissant, in this view, is curved in order to make plain what it isn’t as much as what it is. Murkier depths of meaning surely reside here, too, which would have taken Eco’s eye to plumb. Doubtless some social historian, a century or so hence, will get a thesis out of examining how, on the very verge of the threatened ‘Brexit’–the exit of England, at least, from the European Community–the mass marketers of Britain ostentatiously rejected a form seen as so clearly French that it is a regular part of that ominously named ‘Continental’ breakfast. Adding an arbitrary national shape to an established one to attempt an entirely English croissant, that future scholar will argue, is an affirmation of refusing to be one with Europe. (The crescent, moreover, is the sign of the Islamic empire, and some damp, suspicious kinds will see meaning in that, too.)”

amor_mundi_sign-upBad Habits

habitsJennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen reads the contemporary literature on habituation–that is, self-help achieved by the ritualisation of certain kinds of virtuous praxis. The topic goes back to Aristotle, and perhaps even farther, but Ratner-Rosenhagen thinks it’s missing something these days: “Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote–and unhealthy habits undermine–self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’–those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping–were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace. As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.”

Aristotelian Safe Spaces

teamworkCharles Duhigg writes about Google’s Project Aristotle seeking to understand why some corporate teams work better than others. The answer, it seems, has less to do with intelligence, leadership, or structure and more to do with psychological safety, or what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘”shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.'” Psychological safety in the new corporate lingo “‘…describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’ When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘team leader has poor emotional control.’ He added: ‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well. Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’ Rozovsky said. ‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms–the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique–put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team–enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun–allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized. For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well–like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. ‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘People here are really busy,’ she said. ‘We needed clear guidelines.'” Duhigg writes that the rise of group work in Silicon Valley is driven by research showing that profitability and worker satisfaction increase when workers collaborate. What is unremarked is the confluence between the demand for safe spaces in universities and in corporations, which offers a whole new take on the corporatization of the university. –RB

Uncomfortable Learning

adam falkWilliams College has a student organization that sponsors an “Uncomfortable Learning” lecture series that brings speakers to campus whose views are out of step with the majority opinion on campus. The group made news back in October when it first invited and then–in response to campus opposition–disinvited Suzanne Venker–a conservative woman and author of The War Against Men. Now Robby Soave reports that the group has made news again after a speaker it invited was prohibited from giving his speech by Williams’ President Adam Falk. In a statement to campus, Falk writes: “‘Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him. Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it. We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community. We respect–and expect–our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.'” Zach Wood, a Williams student who helps run the “Uncomfortable Learning” series, explained his disagreement with Falk: “‘I think that President Falk is an analytic and deliberative leader and I respect his decision; however, I sharply disagree with his decision and if I could challenge it, I certainly would. I think his decision to cancel the speaker not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This decision is evidence of the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. I radically disagree with John Derybshire. And he has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things that I have a problem with. That is precisely why I was looking forward to taking him to task. If every student does not desire that kind of intellectual challenge, that is perfectly okay. But for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity, I believe, is not merely injudicious, but undemocratic and irresponsible.'” As I write this, I am in Saratoga Springs at a two-day retreat on how to talk about difficult questions like race and sex on campus. The conversations here are inspiring. Students come from communities all over the world with meaningfully different values and traditions, and they arrive on campus and have to figure out how to live with and talk to people whose worldviews challenge them. The students I speak with are genuinely curious and want to hear what others have to say. In most cases, then, there is a false debate between hate speech and free speech. It is not the students at Yale or the students at Williams who shut down speech. When free speech is sacrificed, it is not done by students. Rather it is cowardly administrators who fear criticism and don’t trust their students. –RB

Our Devices, Our Selves

iphone 6Cypress Marrs takes a second to think about what Apple’s devices are: “This campaign, like so much of Apple’s marketing, attempts to render potential anxieties about new computing devices irrelevant. The customer has questions, gut level concerns–how will this device impact their privacy? Their political life? How they interact with other people? How they experience their life? Apple responds to these reservations with a nod and a wink. Its marketing campaigns show individuals using Apple’s technologies toward ends that stand in contrast to the reality that consumers fear the devices will bring into being. The devices are not marketed through a catalogue of their functions but rather by conflating their functions with what they may facilitate. To do this, Apple employs our shared symbolic language… As imprecise use of these symbols spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to think acutely about the world around them. Likewise, Apple ads are attempts to radically reshape the ways–the symbolic tools–which individuals use to comprehend the world. As personal computing devices become increasingly intimate–as they move from the desk to the book bag, from the pants pocket to the wrist–the symbolic fun-house of Apple’s marketing continues to conflate what a device does with what it might do–the device becomes the time taken for a kiss, the appreciation of the skyline, and the revolutionary impulse in an authoritarian state. Such conflations in conjunction with the constant and intimate presence of telecommunication has shrunk the distance between the personal and the public–between an experience and the image of that experience. Taken together, all of this makes it difficult to conceive of ourselves–or even conceive of conceiving of ourselves–in relation to a large and symbolically complex whole.”

Setting the Bar Low

collegeStephen J. Rose defends residential colleges against the threat of MOOCs and online education. But in so doing, Rose makes an argument for what colleges do best that is hardly inspiring and that certainly abandons any notion that college education is about learning to think with and against a tradition of intellectual, scientific, artistic, and humanist inquiry. “Higher education essentially has two functions: First, for those who reside on or near campus, it provides a period of semi-independence and autonomy in a protected environment with many social interactions; and second, it develops the workplace skills of general cognition, ability to learn, task completion, group and organizational skills, and, for many students, a field-specific knowledge base. While Carey does show the limitations of the current system, he falls very short in showing how a MOOC-based system can be scaled up and produce better results in preparing young people to enter and succeed in the labor force…. [I]n virtually all modern, industrialized societies, higher education has become the main path for preparing workers for the new service economy based in offices, health care, and education. The costs of such education in dollars and time are indeed immense–but there is a large payoff for the economy as a whole.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

Friday, March 4, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Joyce Dalsheim: Cultural Anthropologist Researching Nationalism, Religion, and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

joyce dalsheimOn Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty

In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the “abstract” human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt’s political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.

BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Celebrating the Complete Works of Primo Levi

primo leviToni Morrison described Primo Levi’s writing as a “triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction.” Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.

For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.

Primo Levi, (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 pm

Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through at: with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Vita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusOn OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand discusses why Bernie Sanders’ appeal illustrates how widespread the political sentiments that Hannah Arendt identified as the causes of revolution are in both parties in the Quote of the Week. Marshall McLuhan comments on the power of critical thinking against automatic movement in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the first issue of AJPA News, the official newsletter of the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA). Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws” in this week’s Library feature.

pope francis u.s. visit

Pope Francis and Humility Before God

By Dawn Herrara Helphand

“The reluctance of the Church to appoint to high office those few whose sole ambition was to imitate Jesus of Nazareth is not difficult to understand. There might have been a time when people in the ecclesiastical hierarchy thought along the lines of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, fearing that, in Luther’s words, ‘the most permanent fate of God’s word is that for its sake the world is put into uproar. For the sermon of God comes in order to change and revive the whole earth to the extent that it reaches it.’ But such times were long past. They had forgotten that ‘to be gentle and humble…is not the same think as being weak and easygoing’ as Roncalli once jotted down. This is precisely what they were going to find out, that humility before God and meekness before men are not the same…”

— Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Included among the biographical essays in Arendt’s Men in Dark Times is a 1965 review of the memoir of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, better known as Pope John XXIII. The review largely neglects the content of Roncalli’s book, serving instead as an occasion for Arendt to reflect on the “strangely fascinating” facts of his tenure, that a Pope so fully invested in the world to come would be elected at all, much less make such a revolutionary impact on the ecclesiastical order or such a striking appearance on the world stage. The obstinate literalism of his faith and humility as a follower of Christ belies the confidence with which he acted, both within and against the institutions of the human world. Continue reading


Human Life and Politics in Arendt

By Kazue Koishikawa

“Without repeating life in imagination, you can never be fully alive. ‘Lack of imagination’ prevents people from ‘existing’… Be loyal to life, don’t create fiction but accept what life is giving you, show yourself worthy of whatever it may be by recollecting and pondering over it, thus repeating it in imagination; this is the way to remain alive.”

—Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Karen Blixen (1885-1962), better known by her penname Isak Dinesen, was a Danish writer whose life in Kenya was related in the film, “Out of Africa” (1985). She was a matriarch of her beloved beautiful coffee farm 9000 feet above sea level outside of Nairobi where she was called “Titania” after the Queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Partly due to her desire to “design” or “create” her life, she experienced a number of failures over her many years. Her business failed, she lost both her kingdom and her lover, and she ultimately left , at which point she became a true storyteller. Continue reading


Arendt on Humanity

Source: Globe Jotters

By Kazue Koishikawa

“[T]he public realm has lost the power of illumination which was originally part of its very nature.—[W]hat is lost is the specific and usually irreplaceable in-between which should have formed between this individual and his fellow men.”

— Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times

Arendt often points out that we live in a dark time in which the public realm is deteriorating. To be sure, the primal meaning of the public realm isn’t a town, city, state, or nation for her. Rather, it is a space that emerges and is sustained only when we express our opinions, views, and concerns and share them with others. It exists between us. Our sense of reality owes to such in-betweeness, and that is the reason why Arendt puts so much emphasis on the importance of the political life. In other words, “politics” and the “political” have a much wider meaning for Arendt than what we usually understand in our daily lives. Continue reading


Understanding, Ethics, and Love of the World

Recently, we received this photograph from Rita Novo, one of our Twitter followers, of her lovely personal Arendtian library.

love of the world

Commenting on the photograph, Rita had this to say:

With no particular order in mind, here is a photo of my Arendt collection. Towards the left side of the image, you can see the reference works of Simona Forti and Margaret Canovan, “Correspondance” with Karl Jaspers, and Jaspers’ “Die Schuldfrage” in a Spanish edition. Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is next, flanked by biographies such as the remarkable work of Elizabeth Young Bruehl. “The Life of Spirit” and “The Human Condition” follow after, as well as some Spanish collections of Arendt’s articles on responsibility and politics. I also have “Men in Dark Times” and the first Spanish edition of her “Rahel Varnhagen”, one of my favorites. Towards the right edge of the photo, we have “Essays in Understanding,” “The Jewish Writings,” and “Between Past and Future” in Spanish. All order aside, each of these works supports her main interest, namely the ethical imperative of understanding with regards to our love of the world.

About Rita Novo

Rita is a professor at the Philosophy Department at National University in Mar del Plata, Argentina. She serves as the Chair of Philosophy of History, a program in which Hannah Arendt’s works function as one of the main subjects.

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library? Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at, and we might feature them on our blog!


The Story of Reconciliation

**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

“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 Continue reading

Some Thoughts on the Importance of Personality


Action is “the miracle that saves the world from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

“I mentioned the quality of being a person as distinguished from being mere human…, and I said that to speak about a moral personality is almost redundancy…In the process of thought in which I actualize the specifically human difference of speech I explicitly constitute myself a person, and I shall remain one to the extent that I am capable of such constitution ever again and anew.”

-Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”


We are used to finding in Arendt’s work a clear distinction between action and speech on the one hand and thinking and judging on the other. But here in the second quote, Arendt declares that only this thinking through and – qualified – speech can transform a mere human being into a personality.

Now, when, as Arendt writes in the first quote, the miracle of action saves the world from its normal‚ ‘natural’ ruin, defining nature as non-civilization, as barbarity, then this means that such an action is insolubly connected to the question of the personality of those who act. Who are those who acted in Occupy Now! or joined Los Indignados in Spain: were they individuals in the literal sense of independent human beings as the smallest units, which change sometimes rapidly into parts of masses, or were they persons, personalities? This question is much more important than the question of political goals or theoretical programs. Because it depends on those, who act, whether the world can be saved from its neo-liberal ruin and if yes, how.


The distinction between individuals and personalities always has an elitist appearance. But it is evident that we find personalities independent of their social status among workers, academics and politicians. A personality is not formed by its social origin or intellectual Bildung, but by a practical everyday education of citizens. This education is not based on the separation of reason and emotion, but on that what Arendt referred to as the “understanding heart” of the biblical King Solomon, which comprises equally heart and mind. The European 18th century, facing a secular society increasingly oriented towards an open freedom, searched for the possibility of a self-bound orientation in judgment. It discussed taste as a power of cognition. Melchior Grimm for example, a more or less forgotten German illustrator, essayist and diplomat, wrote: “The condition of a pronounced and perfect taste is to have a sharp intellect, a sensitive soul and a righteous heart.” Here taste does not only mean the aesthetic but also the moral judgment. In Grimm’s trilogy all three elements are indispensible in their mutual conditionality: reason can become inhuman without soul and heart; the sensitive soul apolitical due to an unchecked compassion; the righteous heart confused without reason.

Back then there was a prevailing understanding that moral and artistic quality rest in equal measure on independent thinking and on independent judgment. This is still visible in our everyday use of language whenever we speak of a “beautiful” or “ugly” gesture or figure of speech or of the “inner beauty” which a person possessing integrity shows by that integrity. These examples are, according to Kant, expressions of the harmony of the different powers of cognition both in regards to their inner proportions and in respect to the free coexistence of these powers and their mutual influence on one another. It is a harmony which occurs between form and content as well as between “an enlarged mentality” and reason, it differs from purely rational judgment.

Therefore, it is not the reason, which we are proud of because it distinguishes us from animals, but rather what Arendt calls an enlarged mentality which is of decisive political importance. In her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) she wrote: “Because of the fact that not self-bound reason but only an enlarged mentality makes it possible ‘to think in the place of another’, it is not reason, but the enlarged mentality which forms the link between human beings. Against the sense of self fueled by reason, by the I-think, one finds a sense for the world, fueled by the others as common-sense (passive) and the enlarged mentality (active.)”

From this interpersonal perspective follows the aspect that freedom is to be understood as “freedom for,” as inter-subjective, common freedom, which is inseparably bound to the responsibility for everything that happens in the political community. This responsibility does not deal with moral or juridical guilt for one’s own actions but instead with the responsibility of someone who is “a responder,” who understands that the actions of all decide whether or not we live in a decent society.

Though with Kant the era of investigations into the conditions for an independent judgment ended and the Kantian “capacity to judge” was replaced during the 19th and 20th centuries by logic, ideologies and theoretical systems, there were still some ambassadors of the 18th century left – Arendt of course, and her contemporaries like George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell’s works are marked by a hypothesis; namely, that the decency inherent in the everyday life of normal people can resist the general loss of orientation in an age of ideology. “It looks like a platitude,” he wrote, but his message was nothing more than: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” He tried to interpret what he called the “common decency” as a compass not only of single persons but also of the social and political life of citizens. According to Orwell this common decency rests on general, practical everyday moral norms and habits. Common decency differs from explicit and rigid moral prescriptions of “the good human being” by its openness and flexibility. For Orwell it was not human dignity in an abstract way that had to be protected but the behaviour to which a society commits itself that was in need of defending. The decent life affords social regulations that consist of respect for others, the absence of domination or humiliation, and social, economic or cultural equality. The highest income should not be ten times higher than the lowest. All laws should respect or support a decent life and include all citizens in the “pouvoir constituant des vie ordinaries.” Orwell was against the socialism of his time as an oligarchic collectivism, which attracted only the socially marginalized and intellectuals. “In our country,” he wrote, “the liberals fear freedom and the intellectuals are ready for any sort of ignominy against thinking.” That means: “The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”

This aspect of decency refers to what for Arendt is the basis of all political action and independent judgment; the effort to recover in a political community the right middle ground and human scale that marks the place where civilization ends.

Like Arendt and Orwell, Albert Camus stressed the importance of moderation while he observed excess among Marxist intellectuals after WW II, described in his most provocative book The Rebel. Revolutionary errors, he declared, disregarded natural limits and in so doing betrayed human inviolability. The experience of modern revolutions shows that “revolutions when they have no limits other than historical effectiveness, means endless slavery.” For Camus it is the task of revolt to redefine the place of the right middle and human scale in a permanent critical confrontation with present conditions.

Herein lays the actuality of these three authors, Arendt, Orwell and Camus: writing about totalitarianism, they described the conditions of a decent society, which was menaced then by revolutionary dogmatism and ideological mass-movements, and which is menaced today – not by revolts, or mass protests – but quite the contrary, by the destruction of politics and the common good by neo-liberalism.


Therefore, it is not by chance that Arendt in her portraits of writers, politicians and thinkers, which she wrote on various occasions and published in her book Men in dark Times, always came to speak about their personal qualities. For example, Lessing’s critical mentality which could “never give rise to a definite worldview which, once adopted, is immune to further experiences in the world because it has hitched itself firmly to one possible perspective”; Rosa Luxemburg’s cultural background of an assimilated Jewish life in Poland characterized by excellent literary taste, independent moral concepts and the absence of social prejudices, and Waldemar Gurian’s independent judgment and non-conformism – he was her friend and the dean of the University of Notre Dame – who “was delighted when he could break down the(se) barriers of so-called civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.

-Wolfgang Heuer

Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice


“Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice”

Allen Speight, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115-130

Allen Speight, Director, Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, argues for Arendt’s place among theorists of narrative such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Talyor, and Paul Ricouer. While he does indicate contemporary questions in both the Anglo-American and continental traditions throughout the article, he delivers particularly rich insights into Arendt’s engagement with three canonical thinkers. Specifically, he highlights aspects of Arendt’s use of conceptions of narration in developing her ideas of action in The Human Condition. In each aspect, he sees Arendt drawing on a specific philosophical precursor—Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine in turn—but also diverging from them.


In relation to Aristotle, Speight focuses on how action reveals the “who,” how the actor emerges not from his intention but from his impact on the world. As does Aristotle, Arendt places a strong focus on drama. Aristotle and Arendt both hold that “dramatic actions” allow us to  “construe what sort of a character an agent has.” However, rather than focusing on the reception of the audience, Arendt links the spectator to the actor. Indeed, expanding from Speight’s interpretation, we might say Arendt opens another center in the actor himself with her idea of the daimon, who watches over one’s shoulder.

From Hegel, Speight sees Arendt picking up on the tragic nature of action and how this leads to a need for forgiveness. The agent will not get what he wants and indeed often perish due to effects that he cannot foresee. Speight makes a striking link to Hegel here:

“A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel liked to say: action by its nature is not something construable in given terms but is a kind of “stepping-forth” or opening up of the unexpected and unpredictable  (Elements of the Philosophy of Right.)  The classic, tragic examples of action in its openness—Antigone’s deed, for example, which both Hegel and Arendt were drawn to—present in an intensified way what is an underlying condition within ordinary action, one requiring the need for some means of reconciliation.

With the line “A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel lets the personified evil step in as a kind of holding place that opens the question of how the effect of action will change the actor. Unlike Hegel though, the ultimate judge is not institutionalized world history, but the world as the space in which the who is revealed.

Stepping back chronologically, Speight then turns to Augustine as a source of Arendt’s idea of  narrative rebirth. Here he picks up on an existentialist debate through Sartre: given that one’s account of one’s life can change it fundamentally, do we have a responsibility to an authentic narration? To what extent are we free when we tell our own stories? Arendt rejects the possibility that a life can simply me “made” in narrative. However:

for Arendt the distinction between a life that is “lived” and a story that is “made” involves two distinctly non-Sartrean consequences. The first we have already seen in her “daimõn thesis”: that precisely because we live rather than make a life, there is a privileged—but (pace Sartre) a not necessarily false—retrospective position from which we must view the “who,“ the daimõn, that is revealed in our lives. Thus, as we have seen, the “who” is visible “ex post facto through action and speech” (Arendt 1958, 186) and this retrospectivity in turn privileges the work of the discerning interpretive historian or storyteller. (121)


I find Speight’s repeated discussion of the daimon particularly relevant, since it offers an original way to talk about the belatedness of knowledge, of how it can comes later, or even from the side, without privileging an end position as Hegel does.

In the second half of his article, Speight offers a reading of Men in Dark Times that illustrates how Arendt uses these three aspects of her narrative theory in her own practice of narration. His reading the sections on Jaspers and Waldemar Gurian explicitly link the question of the daimon, biography, and how a person come to appearance in the public realm. Readers following the growing subsection of Arendt scholarship engaged with Arendt’s literary dimension will find an original effort here that offers a model for future work connecting Arendt’s theoretical articulations with her writing practice.

-Jeffrey Champlin

A Christian Pope?


The white smoke ushered in a Pope from the New World, but one firmly planted in the old one. Pope Francis I is from Argentina but descended from Italy. According to the Arch-Bishop of Paris, quoted in The New York Times, the Pope was not of the Curia and not part of the Italian system. At the same time, because of his “culture and background, he was Italo-compatible.” Straddling the new and the old, there is some glimmer of hope that Francis I will be able to reform the machinery of the ecclesiastical administration from the inside.

Amidst this tension, the new Pope signaled his desire to be seen as an outsider by choosing the name Francis I, aligning himself with St. Francis as protector of the poor and the downtrodden. At a time of near universal distrust in the ecclesiastical order, the Pope and his supporters present the choice of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio as an affirmation of simplicity and humility.


And in some respects the new Pope does appear to be a Pope for whom the life of Jesus and life of St. Francis serve as an example of humility and service. At least if such stories like this one told by Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter are to be credited:

In 2001 he surprised the staff of Muñiz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters that “society forgets the sick and the poor.” More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests at the time. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”

Some complain that the Pope abjures liberation theology for its connection to Marxism and rejects the using of the Gospel for political and economic transformation.  Nevertheless, stories like the one above are important and show an exemplary character in Pope Francis I.

Bigger questions arise about new Pope’s past connection to what is called the Dirty War in Argentina, the period from 1976-1983 in which a brutal dictatorship stole children from their communist parents and gave them to military families while also disappearing political and ideological opponents. As one of my colleagues wrote to me, “Almost alone among major Latin American Churches, the Argentine Church officially allied itself with the military in a campaign to eradicate political dissidents (mostly left-wingers).” Bergoglio was a Catholic Church official during this period and he has been accused by many in Argentina of either not doing enough to oppose the regime or, more scandalously, actively  collaborating with the dirty war. In 2005, a formal lawsuit claimed that that Bergoglio had been complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The priests were working in a poor barrio advocating against the dictatorship. Bergoglio insisted they stop and they were stripped from the Jesuit Order. They disappeared and months later they were found drugged and partially undressed, according to the reporting of Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter.

Margaret Hebbelthwaite, in the Guardian, defends Bergoglio, whom she knows and respects. “It was the kind of complex situation that is capable of multiple interpretations, but it is far more likely Bergoglio was trying to save their lives.” And this is the account Bergoglio gives himself, as Schmall and Rohter report:

In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.

I of course have no idea whether Bergoglio is the victim of baseless calumny, as he claims, or whether he actively or meekly collaborated with a ruthless dictatorship. What is clear, however, is that at the very least, Bergoglio and his colleagues in the Argentine Catholic Church over many years looked the other way and allowed a brutal government to terrorize its population without a word of opposition.

Flicker via Hamed Masouni

Flickr via Hamed Masouni

With that history in mind, it is worthwhile to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Christian Pope,” published in the New York Review of Books in 1965.  Arendt was reviewing Journal of a Soul, the spiritual diaries of Pope John XXIII, the former Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. The Jewish thinker has little patience for “endlessly repetitive devout outpourings and self-exhortation” that go on for “pages and pages” and read like “an elementary textbook on how to be good and avoid evil.” Arendt had little patience with such things and little hope that clichés, no matter how well meaning, would have much impact on the moral state of our time.

What did fascinate Arendt, however, were the anecdotes Pope John XXIII tells and the stories about him that she heard while traveling in Rome. She tells of a “Roman chambermaid” in her 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 Roncalli 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 Roncalli was selected without anyone knowing who he was.

Who he was Arendt found not in his book, but in the stories told about him. Whether the stories are authentic, she writes, is not so important, because “even if their authenticity were denied, their very invention would be characteristic enough for the man and for what people thought of him to make them worth telling.” One of these stories shows Roncalli’s common touch, something now being praised widely in Bergoglio.

The story tells that the plumbers had arrived for repairs in the Vatican. The Pope heard how one of them started swearing in the name of the whole Holy Family. He came out and asked politely: “Must you do this? Can’t you say merde as we do too?”

My favorite story tells of Roncalli’s meeting with Pope Pius XII in 1944 in Paris. Apparently Pius tells Roncalli that he is busy and has only 7 minutes to spare for their conversation. Roncalli then “took his leave with the words: “In that case, the remaining six minutes are superfluous.”

And then there is the story of Roncalli’s reaction when he was given Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which portrayed Pope Pius XII as silent and indifferent to the persecution and extermination of European Jews.  When Roncalli was asked what one could do against Hochhuth’s play, he responded: “’Do against it? What can you do against the truth?’”

These stories are essential, Arendt writes, because they

show the complete independence which comes from a true detachment from the things of this world, the splendid freedom from prejudice and convention which quite frequently could result in an almost Voltairean wit, an astounding quickness in turning the tables.

Arendt found in Roncalli the kind of independence and “self-thinking” she valued so highly and that unites all the persons she profiled in her book Men in Dark Times. For Roncalli, his “complete freedom from cares and worries was his form of humility; what set him free was that he could say without any reservation, mental or emotional: “Thy will be done.”” It was this humility that girded Roncalli’s faith and led to his being content to live from day to day and even hour to hour “like the lilies in the field” with “no concern for the future.”  It was, in other words, his faith—and not any theory or philosophy—that “guarded him against ‘in any way conniving with evil in the hope that by so doing [he] may be useful to someone.’” A true Christian in imitation of Jesus, Roncalli was one who “welcomed his painful and premature death as confirmation of his vocation: the “sacrifice” that was needed for the great enterprise he had to leave undone.”

There was one exception, however, to Roncalli’s sureness of his innocence, and that was his action and service during World War II. Here is Arendt’s account:

It is with respect to his work in Turkey, where, during the war, he came into contact with Jewish organizations (and, in one instance, prevented the Turkish government from shipping back to Germany some hundred Jewish children who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe) that he later raised one of the very rare serious reproaches against himself—for all “examinations of conscience” notwithstanding, he was not at all given to self-criticism. “Could I not,” he wrote, “should I not, have done more, have made a more decided effort and gone against the inclinations of my nature? Did the search for calm and peace, which I considered to be more in harmony with the Lord’s spirit, not perhaps mask a certain unwillingness to take up the sword?” At this time, however, he had permitted himself but one outburst. Upon the outbreak of the war with Russia, he was approached by the German Ambassador, Franz von Papen, who asked him to use his influence in Rome for outspoken support of Germany by the Pope. “And what shall I say about the millions of Jews your countrymen are murdering in Poland and in Germany?” This was in 1941, when the great massacre had just begun.

Even in his questioning of himself in his actions during the war, Roncalli shows himself to be a man of independence and faith. Yes, he might have done more. But unlike so many who did nothing, he made his dissent known, worked to do good where he could, and yet still fell short. And then struggled with his shortcomings.

Flickr via Konstantin Leonov

Flickr via Konstantin Leonov

These stories of the self-thinking independence of Pope John XXIII offer a revealing and humbling reflection in relation to the new Pope Francis I. Like Roncalli, Bergoglio is praised for his humility and his simple faith. And like Roncalli, Bergoglio served the Church through dark times, when secular authorities were engaging in untold evils and the Church remained silent if not complicit. But Roncalli not only did speak up and act to protect the persecuted and hopeless, he also worried that he had not done enough. He was right.

Many are accusing Pope Francis I of war crimes and complicity. I worry about jumping to conclusions when we do not know what happened. But the new Pope carries baggage Roncalli did not—formal accusations of complicity with terror and torture. It is human to respond with denials and anger. It would be befitting, however, if Pope Francis I would throw aside such defenses and let the truth come out. That would be an instance of leadership by example that might actually serve to cleanse the dirty laundry of the Catholic Church.

On this first weekend of Pope Francis I new reign, it is well worth revisiting Hannah Arendt’s The Christian Pope. It is your weekend read.


Ned Curthoys’ Recovery of Arendt’s Intellectual Dialogue with Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were “present at the creation and end of the world”. In spite of Cassirer’s attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.

However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University’s School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.

Arendt’s vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer’s An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt’s personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer’s work. Although Arendt’s references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern” in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt’s postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?

From Arendt’s library at Bard College.

Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt’s philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys’ early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of “thought-figures,” like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt’s postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt’s status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.

More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, “The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer’s German-Jewish Historical Consciousness” (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys  explores Arendt’s philosophy of history, and argues that she found a “counter-history” in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt’s Ansatzpunkt, or starting point,  and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.

What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys’ claim that Arendt’s engagement with Cassirer’s “philosophy of symbolic forms” was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer’s defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt’s return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer’s approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.

Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, “Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology.” Curthoys argues that Arendt’s focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer’s work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt’s notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell’sArendt’s Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition” will recall his claim that “work” plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer’s notion of symbolic forms.

Curthoys’ investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys’ new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer’s and Hannah Arendt’s Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt’s creative development of Cassirer’s thought. Curthoys’ research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.

-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)

Remembrance and Gratitude

“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands…Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship…But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse…The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24

As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”

Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.

When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result…is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”

But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the  active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner–‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle…in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.

There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life–those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.

Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.

When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal…mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’–as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”

Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy

A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost…I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself–free like a leaf in the wind…And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere…Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten–And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’–In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”

“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”

-Kathleen B. Jones


The Marriage of Reason and Emotion

“We need to learn ‘simplicity’ and to unlearn ‘the simplification of abstract thinking’, to become fluent in the art and the language of ‘concrete’ thoughts and feelings, and thus to comprehend that both abstract notions and abstract emotions are not merely false to what actually happens but are viciously interconnected.”

-Hannah Arendt: Introduction to J. Glenn Gray: The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harcourt 1970, p. viii

This is not a declaration of intent: passions and emotions play an essential role in Arendt’s work.

In her book about totalitarianism Arendt described the “Eiseskälte”, the ice-cold reasoning  (Hitler), of the totalitarian ideology withdrawing itself from each concrete earthly world into the self-motion of the logic of abstract ideas, where no concrete feelings towards others existed anymore but only abstract feeling towards the own people, the nation or the enemy.

When there still existed any concrete feelings, then they were feelings of impotence, loneliness and of fear not to conform oneself in the right way to the coercive force of logicality but to contradict it. This fear according to Arendt can be compared with the fear of death.

The totalitarian ice-cold reasoning was already germinating in the early part of the 20th century after the catastrophe of WWI by “behavioral theories of coldness” (Helmuth Lethen), noticeable in the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (the New Objectivity) and the writings of Ernst Jünger, Gottfried Benn and Carl Schmitt, but also of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.

Hannah Arendt criticized the coldness and addressed the warmth. She spoke of the impartial but not indifferent spectator of our common world which only appears through interpersonal relationships, and of passions accompanying the right use of reason: the critical attitude to the world, laughter as an emotion of thinking and friendship being more important than truth. Reading the police interrogations of Eichmann, Arendt had to laugh several times, “but loud!”, because of the discrepancy between his words and deeds. At another occasion she highlighted Brecht’s remarks about Arturo Ui in 1948 portraying Hitler: “The great political criminals must certainly be exposed, and preferably through ridicule. Because above all, they are not great political criminals, but the perpetrators of great political crimes, which is something utterly different.” Very moved, in her book about the Eichmann trial, Arendt described the scene when the story of the rescuer Anton Schmidt was told: “A hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence … which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of the impenetrable, unfathomable darkness”.

In her sympathetic characterization of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing,  Arendt shows that critical thinking can go along with passions.

Lessing “never made his peace with the world in which he lived. He enjoyed  ‘challenging prejudices’ and ‘telling the truth to the court missions.’  Dearly though he paid for these pleasures, they were literally pleasures. Once when he was attempting to explain to himself the source of ‘tragic pleasure’,  he said that ‘all passions, even the most unpleasant, are as passions pleasant’ because, they make us … more conscious of our existence, they make us feel more real.”

More real were also the feelings of the French resistance fighters during WWII, the insurgents in Budapest in 1956 and all those spontaneously acting persons, whom Arendt always mentioned. To act, to dare the risk of entering the public space means to feel the reality more intensively, to be more alive. Her book Men in Dark Times deals with examples of this liveliness. In her ‘Thought Diaries’ Arendt wrote down: “An excess of reason is indifference: the created space makes an unbridgeable distance; the relation breaks off. An excess of feeling is destructiveness, together with the in-between, the object is being destroyed, even and particularly the loved object’.“ (1968)

In 1967 during the Vietnam War, Arendt wrote the introduction cited above for the new edition of her friend’s book, The Warrior.  Jesse Glenn Gray was a professor of philosophy at Colorado College and in 1957 published for the first time his memories of being a US agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII in Italy, France, and Germany. For Arendt it was a ”singularly earnest and beautiful book”, talking about “life and death, love, friendship, and comradeship, about courage and recklessness, about sensuality and the ‘surge of vitality’, about ‘inhuman cruelty’ and ‘superhuman kindness’, not as stereotypical opposites but as being simultaneously present in the same person.”  Especially moving, also for Arendt, is the description of the friendly encounter J. Glenn Gray had with an illiterate hermit in the Italian mountains who did not even know that there was a war going on.  Glenn Gray was dismayed with himself after the encounter, for though he held a PhD in philosophy, he was left wondering what he actually knew about life?

-Wolfgang Heuer

The Story of Reconciliation

“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.”

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans