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.
On the occasion of the publication of All That Is, James Salter’s latest novel, the author is interviewed by Jonathan Lee. Lee notes that Salter seems to have toned down his sentences for the new book which, it turns out, was a deliberate stylistic choice. Salter elaborates: “I suppose the truth is I became a little self-conscious about people telling me how much they loved my sentences. They’d come up and say, “You know what, I’ve memorized lines from Light Years.” At book signings you’d see them with the corners of pages turned down, particular pages they’d loved and sentences they’d underlined. It’s flattering, but it seemed to me that this love of sentences was in some sense getting in the way of the book itself.”
David Rieff writes in Foreign Policy about the unbelievable optimism of techno-utopianism. Rieff is biting and also thoughtful as he marshals enormous resources to show how uniform and repetitive the claims are about our coming perfection. “To me, though, what is most striking about the claims made by techno-utopians (though most, including Kurzweil and Zuckerman, reject the label) is the way assertions about the inevitability of unstoppable, exponential technological progress are combined with claims that human beings can, for the first time in history, take their fate into their own hands — or even defy mortality itself. As Morozov remarks tartly, “Silicon Valley is guilty of many sins, but lack of ambition is not one of them.””
Nicholas Carr worries about the effect our growing use of machines has on how we think about thinking: “I think we begin to believe that thinking is always just a matter of a kind of rapid problem-solving and exchanging information in a very utilitarian conception of how we should use our mind. And what gets devalued is those kind of more contemplative, more solitary modes of thought that in the past anyway, were considered central to the experience of life, to the life of the mind certainly, and even to our social lives.”
Over at Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes writes about his experience debating Jeremy Waldron about drones at the Oxford Union. Wittes summarizes the sides: “Our side interpreted the resolution as a debate over the propriety of using drones in warfare-that is, as asking whether the use of drones is ethical end effective relative to alternative weapons systems given that one has decided to employ military force. This is actually an easy question, in my opinion, since drones clearly enable more discriminating and deliberative targeting than do alternative weapon systems. Our opponents, by contrast, saw the resolution as implicating the wider question of whether the United States should be resorting to force at all in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, they saw the question not merely as one of choice of weapon but as about whether the particular weapon enables military actions the United States would not otherwise take and of which one should disapprove either on ethical grounds, as counterproductive strategically, or both.”
Claire Barliant examines the book bloc, a D.I.Y defensive shield utilized during and after the Occupy Wall Street protests. Barliant finds resonances between the blocs and the declining states of both the book in general and of higher education; several of them, which had been on exhibit at Interference Archive in Gowanus, were supposed to appear at the May Day protest of Cooper Union’s decision to start charging its students fees in 2014.
Buy tickets and learn more here.
The Arendt Center hosted the Hudson Valley premiere of Margarethe von Trotta’s new movieHannah Arendt, which Natan Sznaider reviewed. Lyndsey Stonebridge explored the role of Shakespeare’s Richard III in Arendt’s thinking on thinking. And Roger Berkowitz looks at the brewing feud between the faculty and the MOOCs.
Marianne LeNabat from the New School for Social Research came to the Arendt Center last month to give a talk on Hannah Arendt and collective action. Her talk was based on her in-process dissertation “On Collective Action” as well as on her recent essay, “On Non-Violence: An Arendtian Perspective on Recent Political Movements.” She provocatively suggests that Arendt may be the only political theorist who paid meaningful attention to collective action.
LeNabat rightly sees that for Arendt collective action is at the very center of politics.
She cites Arendt’s On Violence where she writes: “What makes man a political being is his faculty of action; it enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises that would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift.” Against dominant ideas of politics based in rule, violence, force, or legitimacy, Arendt offers a vision of politics based in collective action.
LeNabat notes that Arendt was deeply interested in radical forms of democratically organized collective action. She argues that this radical side of Arendt has been overlooked and her project is an attempt to recuperate the radical side of Arendt’s idea of action. She focuses on the rise of spontaneous councils in Hungary, Soviet Russia, the November revolutions in Germany and Austria, Revolutionary France, and the United States. These councils, LeNabat argues, were the “lost treasure of the revolution;” they signified Arendt’s faith in the ability of the people to govern their own lives. What is needed, LeNabat suggests, is a renewed consideration of these councils as meaningful organs of collective action and self-government.
Turning then to Occupy Wall Street, LeNabat finds a ”yearning for political activity, for collective action in the way Arendt understands it” and a desire to “run one’s life collectively with others.” For LeNabat, OWS was not simply a protest, but a form of collective governance in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. As those of you who know my writings know, there was some push-back on this thesis, leading to an impassioned and interesting discussion touching on Occupy Wall Street, anarchism, revolution, collective action, Tahrir Square, and much else. We hope you enjoy the talk.
I received an email from an old friend this weekend. She has been deeply affected by the death of Ki Suck Han, the New York man who was pushed off a subway platform near Times Square—and abandoned by all his fellow passengers, before being run over by an oncoming train. She wrote:
The subway death was on my mind all day long yesterday, I was devastated about it. I once worked for the MTA Arts for Transit, maybe that’s why. Nobody stepped forth (the platform wasn’t empty before the guy fell on the tracks), at least moved forward, rather than back. In that photo the man is all alone facing that train, everyone has moved back and away to make space for the accident to unfold unhindered, out of the zone of implication. We’re all so afraid of danger, and even afraid of the fear itself.
Forty Seven people were killed after being hit by trains in 2011—I know this from the helpful signs in the subways that remind us to be careful.
We all know about Ki Suck Han because in the 22 seconds between when he was pushed on the tracks and when a train pinned him against the platform, a New York Post photographer snapped dozens of pictures of him. One of those pictures was then published on the front page of the NYC tabloid.
There has been near universal condemnation of the Post, with a few exceptions. The photographer too has been harangued, accused of taking pictures rather than running to save the man. But the platform had not been empty and another waiting rider actually filmed the argument Ki Suck Han had been having with the man who later pushed him to the tracks. All these passengers fled the scene, moved to the other end of the platform. No one went to help Ki Suck Han. In 22 seconds, no one acted the hero.
“What,” my friend asked, “might Hannah Arendt say about the fact that no one helped a person in need?”
I hazard to say or think I know what Hannah Arendt would have thought or said. I respond to all such queries simply: Hannah Arendt was nothing if not surprising and provocative and more brilliant than I am. I have no special insight into what she would have thought.
What I can do is try to think about how her thinking, her provocative and insistent determination to think what we are doing, helps us today to make sense of ethical and political events like this tragic death. Along those lines, here are a few thoughts.
First, we should not draw too many conclusions from one event. While no heroes showed themselves in this circumstance, there are unsung heroes every year who risk their lives to save people around the world, and even in New York Subways. In fact, just last weekend Doreen Winkler saved two people from an oncoming train in New York City. You can read about Winkler’s heroic acts here and here. And if you want to be inspired by truly heroic acts of daring subway rescues, watch this video from Korea.
Second, the unwillingness to play the hero in this situation reminds me of what Arendt names the loss of our sense of a common world. It is the common world—a world that used to be imagined and held together by tradition and authority—that provides a public space in which actions are remembered. Pericles could say with confidence that the Athenian polis would remember the deeds of its heroes, just as the American revolutionaries could hope that their heroic deeds would live on in monuments, song, and poetry.
Monuments in Washington and around the nation testify to the common world that shares in the memory of great acts—acts that strike people as both surprising and worthy of glory and support. It is the power and promise of memory in the common world that both holds out examples of the glory of heroism and also promises to bring the hero immortality, something more lasting than life and security. There is little faith today that someone who is a hero will be remembered longer than someone who cuts people to bits or dances naked on TV. Heroism is one of many avenues to 15 minutes of fame. So there is no strong sense of acting courageously getting you anything.
Third, the loss of the common world is part and parcel of the retreat into loneliness. I was having dinner with another friend recently who told me of his new resolution, to listen to more music on his Iphone on the way to and from work. I recall once reading Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s letters and being in awe of his reports to friends of the books he was reading, his continuing education as he put it. My friend saw his headphone-wearing study of music in the same vein. And yet, there is a difference. Walking with headphones, even more than reading in the subway or playing books on tape in the car, is a way of tuning out of the world around you. People get lost in their own world, ignoring the sights, sounds, and faces that pass them by.
My conversation with my music-studying friend also called to mind a recent email sent by the Bard College Rabbi. Rabbi David Nelson worried that more and more our young people, in the spirit of urban dwellers, “walk around campus much of the time avoiding eye contact, which is another way of saying that they avoid looking one another directly in the face.” For the rabbi, the loss of eye contact and real face-time is dangerous and corrupting. He writes:
Those who have spent time living in densely populated urban areas are accustomed to the polite avoidance of eye contact, in crowded elevators, crowded rush-hour subway trains, and similar crowded venues. This is a way to maintain separateness and privacy in an environment where the density of the population threatens our ability ever to feel alone and unobserved. This is exactly the behavior that we see on campus. But we are not an anonymous, densely populated urban tangle. We are–or we ought to be–an intentional, involved, caring community. And our students’ assiduous avoidance of one another’s faces is at least a sign of, and perhaps a cause of, the widespread sense that this is a place where it’s hard to really connect with others.
The proliferation of headphones began decades ago with the Sony Walkman craze and continues unabated with the Ipod and Iphone. People walk around listening to music or books or podcasts. And many are proud of this development, rationalizing their anti-social behavior by arguing to themselves that they are bettering themselves, learning, or expanding their minds. This may be true. But the retreat from personal contact and the eye contact with our fellow travelers must also weaken our connection to others. It is a cold and distant world, one in which we are less and less entangled with and personally related to those around us.
Our actions are ever more calculating and less instinctive. In such instances, calculation will stop you from acting. You need to feel it. It is no accident that nearly every subway hero who jumps on the tracts to rescue someone says that they didn’t think about it but simply acted.
Above all, the un-heroic action in the subway last week reminds us of the increasing rarity of action. Heroism is never normal. It is, by definition, extra-ordinary and surprising, which is why it is glorified and remembered. It thus thrives on a world that rewards and celebrates heroic acts. Hannah Arendt saw, however, that rare deeds would be ever rarer in the modern age. The primary reason for this is that in large societies, rare deeds lose their rarity and distinction. There are at least two reasons for this decline in great deeds.
First, the law of large numbers means that all action is predictable. We know that most people will not act spontaneously to save a passenger in need; but we also know that a certain percentage of people will. Actions of heroism are not mundane, but they are expected. That is why it was so shocking and surprising that no one acted. When someone does act heroically, like Doreen Winkler, few newspapers reported it. Heroism in the subway promises very little acclaim.
Second, heroism requires a common world in which one’s great deed will be remembered. Without the promise or the expectation that heroic acts will be immortalized, the risk of action is rarely balanced by the reward. In a calculating society, heroism rarely seems to justify the risk.
Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to these dispiriting trends. There are moments of unexpected heroism that do break through the standardization of our social expectations and become examples of heroic action. One recent example of this is Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s racing into a burning house to save his neighbor. At a time when we expect so little from our public figures who refuse to risk even bucking opinion polls, Booker’s public heroism was shocking. The power of his example, and of those who act as he does, keeps the ideal of heroism alive at a time when it is ever more rare and unexpected. Because action interrupts the everyday and the normal, it is, Arendt writes, the “one miracle-working faculty of man.” Action introduces greatness and glory into the world, makes us take notice, and calls us then to gather around the beauty of the glorious act; action, heroic action, is what constantly refreshes and re-orients us toward the common world that we share together.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a “love of the world.” When writing about education she argues that “education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen’s essay “House For Sale,” about his return to his mother’s house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother’s house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she’d grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item “Decide about the afterlife” and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as “Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever.” This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words “Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible,” and to which she’d returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn’t believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she’d loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother’s house. Later he writes that the house was “my mother’s novel, the concrete story she told about herself.” In this house she “pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas.” It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And “she wanted you to want to stay.”
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother’s house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with “sturdy and well made” furniture that “my brothers and I couldn’t make ourselves want.” He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen’s house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son’s house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else’s apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I’d spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy’s apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen’s essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play “House For Sale” is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen’s essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can’t recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can’t get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen’s book of essays in which “House For Sale” originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
One of the great surprises upon arriving at Bard College was meeting Norman Manea. Manea, who was born in Romania, spent four years as a child in a concentration camp, many more as a dissident, and finally relocated to NYC and Bard College. He is a prolific and exciting writer, the author of novels, memoirs and essays, and a generous colleague. The Hooligan’s Return tells the exciting story of his return to Romania with Bard President Leon Botstein and his reconnection with his homeland.
In 2009, Manea gave the Wyliam Philips Lecture at The New School for Social Research. The lecture, “20 Years After the Berlin Wall: Monuments of Shame,” which has only been published in Spanish as “Monuments de Vergonya.” The lecture judges the consequences and meanings of the revolutions of 1989. It is not a moral judgment, but rather a remembering of the lands, places, and languages from which Manea was exiled. At the end of his talk, Manea also makes a fascinating proposal.
Manea begins his lecture with reflections on the revolutions of 1989. For one thing, freedom is not the simple blessing it is often thought:
As slavery has to be learned, step by step, in order to survive its terror and tricks, freedom must also to be learned, step by step, in order to face its chances and competitions, its rewards and restrictions.
In his novels, Manea is ever alert to the way that bourgeois comforts offer a false sense that the freedom to choose amongst restaurants or living accommodations can actually deflect us from the experience of freedom. As have many who lived under the evils of totalitarianism, Manea recognizes that there is a kind of freedom in brutal societies as well:
My dream throughout my postwar life was to find an inner resistance against the ubiquitous external pressure.
Living within yourself, it turned out, was for me the mode of resistance; it formed a center for the moral being, a means of separating from a corrupt and corrupting environment, a hope, however uncertain, for maintaining your conscience with integrity. Reading and writing were a shelter, even if menaced, and the best therapy against the poisonous spread of lies and hypocrisy.
Manea saw also that the outbreak of freedom in 1989 was going to bring dangers as well as hopes.
In addition to a “cheap and manipulated populism,” that pervaded the public discourse of the new “democratic” politicians, there were of course the cheap freedoms of revenge, xenophobia, pornography and mass entertainment. This is to be taken in stride, and yet also not. We must always be alert to the morphing of freedom into its opposite:
One of the most outrageous examples of this sort of quick change act occurred in Romania, where a former court-poet of the Ceausescu clan, a fierce nationalist and anti-Semite, Comrade Corneliu Vadim Tudor became the leader of a new extreme right party called, no surprise, Great Romania. Changing only a bit the cosmetics of his old slogans, this noisy old-new agitator was elected a member of Romania’s Parliament, even becoming at one point a serious candidate for the Presidency. Today, comrade Corneliu is a member of the European Parliament. Nobody can say that afterlife isn’t interesting…
We don’t have “a real alternative to freedom.” We must make do with its defects and shortcomings, since the dangers of the “free system are as bad as the dogmatic remedies ranged against them. Indeed, in the end, the question always comes down to freedom – and it is right that it should.
In the interest of living with freedom, Manea closes his speech with an intriguing proposal, one that he argues would go a long way towards keeping the question of freedom present before our eyes. He writes:
Some ten years ago I proposed something very much non-utopian, and I would like to revisit that proposal. It was in an intervention I made to the famous Walser Debate of 1998 in Germany. As some of you may recall, the esteemed German writer Martin Walser, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of German Booksellers Association at the Frankfurt Book Fair warned against the “permanent representation” and the “monumentalizing of German shame.”
My response was to suggest that every country — and I emphasize again every country and every people — should complement its monuments of heroism with monuments of shame. This would mean recalling a nation’s wrong doings towards other countries, other people and also to its own people.
To love our neighbors as ourselves may also imply scrutinizing ourselves with the same objectivity as our neighbor and not to do to others what we don’t like to suffer ourselves. It is probably good therapy to look at ourselves with the same exigency as we look at others, to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand their otherness. Aren’t modesty and humility and self questioning a desirable and sound exercise for being truly human?
There are such monuments to shame. Some that I recall vividly are the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, two of the most extraordinary and provoking memorials I have ever encountered. I have no idea if it is good therapy, as Manea writes, to put ourselves in the shoes of others. But it does make for an exercise in being truly human.
For your weekend read, I recommend an excerpt from The Hooligan’s Return, available here.
Even better, order The Hooligan’s Return here.