Posts Tagged ‘“Hannah Arendt”’

Question for the coronavirus era: What’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s not company.

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Arendt had the best company: herself

The business of being a writer is necessarily solitary. I’m used to it. In fact, with the current coronavirus “shelter in place” in  California and elsewhere in the country, little has changed in my work routine. One good adjustment: the rest of the world is on “pause,” so I don’t have the usual intrusion of emails, phone calls, and other interruptions.

Nevertheless, should all those fail, I have shelves of books I’ve never read. And it’s always a good day when you can reread Jane Austen, or explore The Divine Comedy again. Revisit Proust, or Stanisław Barańczak. Or finally get around to reading something by Michel Houellebecq, or the unopened novel by Ismail Kadare.

Yet all over the social media I hear complaints about loneliness and boredom during the coronavirus crisis. But the antidote to loneliness isn’t society – it’s solitude.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ability to tolerate the solitariness of an internal space, in which one can commune with oneself and think for oneself, is central to personal responsibility. In an essay on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” she argued such “being-with-oneself” is connected with the sustained practice of examining issues, weighing contradictory thoughts, making up one’s own mind. She observed that those who resisted the Nazi call had the habit and experience of daring to judge for themselves:

“The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking.”

It’s what  Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison said a decade ago at a Stanford conference on Arendt, when he made the event’s most spirited remarks in a talk on “passionate thinking.” Read the whole article here. A relevant excerpt:

Stanford’s Gerhard Casper, Robert Harrison at back (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

[Harrison] considered Arendt’s notion of friendship and thought as rooted in solitude and the ability to commune with oneself – that “plurality begins with the individual.”

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is: “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

So do take some time to talk internally with yourself during this unusual time. We hope it will be over soon! And if you want to read what Arendt wrote to James Baldwingo here.

Postscript from George Dunn of Zhejiang University: Ursula LeGuin has a powerful story that addresses issues of injustice and scapegoating, titled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I’ve used it in my Ethics class more times than I can count. The title refers to the very small minority of citizens in the imaginary city of Omelas who walk away from the hedonic paradise this city represents because they are unwilling to partake of a joy that’s purchased through the torture of a child. There is one line in the story had that always struck me as somehow key to what LeGuin wants us to understand, though it is spoken so causally that its import can easily be missed. Most of the citizens of Omelas are reconciled to the horror on which their happiness is built, though some leave in their youth the moment they come face to face with that horror. Yet, reports LeGuin, “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” The phrase “falls silent” stands out for me, indicating as it does a retreat into deep introspection. Such a retreat into silence would be quite conspicuous in Omelas, whose citizens are depicted by LeGuin as highly gregarious. LeGuin then recounts how these few leave the city, three times using the word “alone” to underscore the solitude of those who walk away. Reading these passages always puts me in mind of Arendt’s essay on “Responsibility,” also assigned a few times, with its reminder that ethics is predicated on our ability to resist the crowd, which in turn depends on having cultivated an inner space for reflection. Being highly intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted in debate is no guarantee of a capacity for reflection. To the contrary, as we’ve both seen, those with the greatest intellectual gifts will also often display the greatest ingenuity in making excuses for themselves.

The meaning of love in politics: What Hannah Arendt wrote to James Baldwin

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Today is James Baldwin‘s birthday. To celebrate, here’s a portion of “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 17, 1962 – and then Hannah Arendt‘s reply. In his essay, Baldwin concluded: 

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s – or Allah’s – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable – a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Here’s what Hannah Arendt, who knew him slightly, replied in a letter that is now at the Library of Congress:

November 21, 1962

Dear Mr. Baldwin:

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

In sincere admiration,

cordially (that is, in case you remember that we know each other slightly) yours,

Hannah Arendt remembers W.H. Auden: “an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love”

Friday, December 7th, 2018

The one thing he knew well…

I was unaware the philosopher Hannah Arendt knew the poet W.H. Auden, and I certainly didn’t know that she had left a memoir of the poet. She did, and The New Yorker, which first published the piece in 1975, has republished it here. It’s a gem. A must-read. 

A few excerpts:

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable.


If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when, to all appearances, he could not cope anymore, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes, so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.


The sad wisdom of remembrance…

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.


It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in his beautiful joke beyond the grave—that for more than one reason, as Spender said, “his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying.” The wisdom to know “when to live and when to die” is not given to mortals, but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.

Read the whole thing here.

Is evil really banal? Why Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem shocked the world.

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Both sides now.

In 2012, I eagerly, perhaps a bit worshipfully, attended Margarethe von Trotta‘s acclaimed film, Hannah Arendt, describing how the heroic philosopher came to be at the 1961 Jerusalem trial of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann. As everyone knows now, the German-Jewish thinker found no monstrous  incarnation of evil, but rather a banal bureaucrat following orders. And so she fell out with Jewish leaders, Israelis, much of New York’s intelligentsia, and writers like Saul Bellow, too.

Now I have a better idea of the other side, after reading Harvard Professor Ruth R. Wisse‘s”The Enduring Outrage of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’: Fifty-five years later, her book still has the power to shock—and disgust.” It was one of the thousand tabs on my browser, waiting to be read (in this case, waiting for three weeks), in another publication I rarely read, Commentary. (I’m a sucker for anything on Arendt – read her moving discussion of refugees here.)

The background: The international military tribunal in Nuremberg did not focus on the Jews, in part because Eichmann had never been caught. He had fled to Argentina with his family. According to Wisse, “It is now known that the Germans and the CIA were aware of Eichmann’s whereabouts and never acted on their information. When Fritz Bauer, a member of the German investigative commission, realized that his superiors were contriving not to go after Eichmann, he got the information to the Israelis, who captured him in Argentina and flew him to Jerusalem.”

Wisse continues: “The trial itself was without precedent or parallel. The Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote that it ‘would fill an eerie void that has been hidden somewhere in the soul of the Jewish people, in the history of its lives and deaths, ever since it went into exile.’ The void he referred to could not have been filled previously because the Jews had never been in a position to prosecute their murderers. Now they were. Given that this was the first and, as seemed likely, the only time that Jewish survivors would be able to confront one of the individuals responsible for the murder of their relatives, the event assumed outsized importance.”

“When it became known that Hannah Arendt would be covering the trial for the New Yorker, there was great anticipation. ‘A foolproof choice,’ wrote Marie Syrkin, one of American Jewry’s leading intellectuals. ‘Who better qualified to report on the trial in depth than Hannah Arendt, scholar, student of totalitarianism and of the human condition, and herself a German Jewish refugee who came to the United States after the rise of Hitler?’ wrote Wisse. “Indeed, of all the German refugees who had been admitted to America just before or at the start of the war, none was better known or more widely admired than Arendt, who had been accepted by the New York intelligentsia not merely as one of their own, but as prima inter pares. Hence the shock when her articles appeared in February and March 1963 and then in the expanded book later that year. Rather than report on the trial as a journalist or observer, Arendt used it as an occasion to expand her theory about totalitarianism—the subject of her most ambitious book.”

Enter Israeli poet Haim Gouri, who published daily dispatches in a left-labor newspaper, later published as, Facing the Glass Booth.

Like Arendt, Gouri is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s apparent impassivity and the evils he is known to have committed, and, like her, he too later becomes agitated when the witnesses for the prosecution describe Jews herded to their death “like sheep to the slaughter.” But the report tracks his evolution. “Like everyone else present, I felt close to the line separating sanity from madness, but in my case it was for the first time,” he writes. “I felt I was beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible, however wide the gulf separating me from those who were there for even a single day.” Gouri is humbled as he follows the proceedings: “[We] who were outside that circle of death have forgiveness to ask of the numberless dead whom we have judged in our hearts without asking ourselves what right we have.” To state only the obvious, Gouri came to gain understanding, Arendt to impose her understanding on the trial. Gouri’s account follows the sequence of developments. Arendt surmises, synthesizes, and summarizes.”

Gouri was writing for a Jewish readership in a Jewish language in a Jewish country, Arendt for the New Yorker. She did her research relating to the trial in Germany and most of the writing as a research scholar at Wellesley College. In her book on the Eichmann trial, the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out that Arendt left Jerusalem on May 10 and missed five weeks of witness testimony; she was also absent for the prosecution’s cross-examination when Eichmann was at his sharpest.

In short, “The mass murderer who wanted to persuade the court that he was not the agent of his crimes found an ally in a philosopher who, to make her thesis work, needed to prove he lacked moral agency.”

It’s a controversial, passionately argued article. Whether you agree or disagree with Prof. Wisse, it’s worth a look here. Trailer of the movie below.

Arendt: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.”

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Immigration is much in the news, and will be for some time to come. Hence, philosopher Hannah Arendt‘s important and apparently little-known 1943 essay, “We Refugees” is very timely. The Book Haven has occasionally posted about one of the last century’s most famous immigrants: Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva and then France, where she was placed in an internment camp. She finally made a home in the U.S. in 1941. Although, of course, she was writing with the Jews and the Holocaust in mind, the reader may substitute the term “Islamic refugees” or “Christian minorities in the Middle East” for up-to-date applications. Her conclusion is all the more stunning for that reason. The piece in its entirety is too good for excerpting, really – you can read the whole thing here – but I’ll do my best:


“A new kind of human beings…”

Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved – and most of us had to be saved several times – we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in France or six weeks in America, we pretended to be Frenchmen or Americans. The more optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. …

In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries – it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends. …

I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved. I could even understand how our friends of the West coast, during the curfew, should have had such curious notions as to believe that we are not only ‘prospective citizens’ but present ‘enemy aliens.’ In daylight, of course, we become only ‘technically’ enemy aliens – all refugees know this. But when technical reasons prevented you from leaving your home during the dark hours, it certainly was not easy to avoid some dark speculations about the relation between technicality and reality.

arendt3No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. … Instead of fighting – or thinking about how to become able to fight back – refugees have got used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we cheerfully imagine all the trouble he has been saved. Finally many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly.

She concludes that, for the Jews:

…history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of the Gentiles. They know the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

Again, read the whole thing here.

New short biography of Hannah Arendt: “Her hope for the world lay in ‘natality.'”

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

A photo from before the dark times.

I don’t follow publishing news very closely (I know I should), but I was disappointed when the Penguin Lives series, edited by James Atlas, disappeared shortly after I became aware of it. In the olden days, before I became a blogger, I used to gulp down biographies like dark chocolate, and the short format (about 200 pages) made these books bite-sized. According to the Observer:

The Penguin Lives boutique biography series – a collaboration between Viking publishing, former New York Times Magazine editor James Atlas and former deputy mayor and financier Kenneth Lipper – is kaput.

Mr. Atlas, the general editor for Penguin Lives, told Off the Record that after publishing 22 of the diminutive, handsomely designed hardcover books pairing noted authors with an eclectic range of subjects ranging from Napoleon to Rosa Parks, Viking – a division of Penguin-Putnam – has decided to pull out of the venture.

“They’re closing it down. No real explanation was given,” Mr. Atlas said. “It was a question of its place in the corporate structure. It fit well, but it didn’t always fit well.”

Well, there you have it. That was a dozen years ago. Shows how up-to-date I am. Cut away to a few weeks ago when I received a notice of a package at the Stanford Post office. I tore open the package on my way to a meeting. A book by Hannah Arendt about “dark times.” I assumed it was a fancy new reissue of her Men in Dark Times – I wrote about that here, and assumed it would return me to that time “when there was only wrong and no outrage.” I figured my earlier post and been flagged by some ‘bot for a publishers’ mailing list. So I added the book to a tall pile for future perusal.

Wrong! The book is a short (134 pages) new biography of the philosopher by Anne C. HellerA Life in Dark TimesIt’s one of the short biographies issued in a new Amazon Publishing series called “Icons” (more here.) Seven of the eleven “inaugural” titles have already been published. Next on the list: Karen Armstrong takes on St. Paul, and Brooke Allen writes about Benazir Bhutto. What a good idea this is! It is still a good idea! And the Arendt book had a release date of only four days ago, so I’m just in time!

According to Adam Kirsch (we’ve written about him here and here), “Hannah Arendt was one of the most compelling and provocative thinkers of her time, and she remains indispensable today. In this lucid, accessible biography, Anne Heller shows how Arendt’s eventful life – shaped by war and exile, love and friendship – gave rise to her most important insights into politics and the nature of evil.”

I found this passage in the last chapter, at the end of her life. It is not about dark times – I hear enough about those already in the news – but rather about miracles. And couldn’t we all use one about now?

Arendt-KellerHer hope for the world lay in “natality,” “the miracle that saves the world,” she wrote, by which she meant the unimaginable possibilities that attend every human birth and must be safeguarded until they can reach full flower. “The beginning is also a god; so long as he dwells among men, he saves all things,” she noted, quoting Plato in her 1971 tribute to Martin Heidegger upon his eightieth birthday. And as she would write poignantly in her last book, The Life of the Mind, published after her death in 1978:

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide. … Seen from the viewpoint of the spectators to whom [a human life] appears and from whose view it finally disappears, each individual life, its growth and decline, is a developmental process in which an entity unfolds itself in an upward movement until all its properties are fully exposed; this phase is followed by a period of standstill – its bloom or epiphany, as it were – which in turn is succeeded by the downward movement of disintegration that is terminated by complete disappearance.

The human soul is born to make an appearance on a public stage, Arendt seemed to have concluded in her later years, and to become most vibrantly itself in a shared world. For her, authenticity did not require withdrawal from noisy modernity into the solitude of Being, as it did for Heidegger, but neither did it permit taking action without standing back and thinking about “what is.” And in her later years what is always encompassed the point of view of people different, even alien, from oneself.

Hannah Arendt: thinking vs. evil

Friday, May 1st, 2015

arendt3In her last, unfinished book, The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt returned to the subject of her earlier Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. She concluded that the besetting sin of Eichmann “was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.”

In the Time Higher Education Supplement, Jon Nixon discusses Arendt, the role of universities, “worldly thinking,” and amor mundi:

The Eichmann case raised a crucial question for Arendt: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?” Arendt’s question arose in large part from her experience of totalitarianism, but also from her experience of political oppression under 1950s McCarthyism in the US and more generally from the ideological battle lines that defined the Cold War. She also viewed with increasing concern the unthinking consumerism and the assumption of ever increasing affluence that fuelled the American Dream prior to the stock market crash of 1973 and the oil crisis that followed later that year. Neither Hitler’s Nazism nor Stalin’s communism had, it would seem, exhausted the full potential of totalitarianism. So, the question remained urgent and pressing even within the heartlands of the democratic superpower of which she was now a citizen.

The Life of the Mind provides a tentatively affirmative response to that question: in so far as the activity of thinking requires us “to stop and think”, it may condition us against evil-doing. But this last work also raises – by implication at least – a more difficult question: could the activity of thinking not only condition us against evil-doing but predispose us towards right action? Here Arendt’s response is less clear, partly because it hinges on her suspicion of “pure thought” and partly because the final and crucial section of The Life of the Mind remained unwritten. What is clear is her insistence that without thinking that reaches out in dialogue to others there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care for the world”.

Education was, for Arendt, an expression of that care – “the point at which”, as she wrote in her 1954 essay on “The Crisis in Education”, “we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”. Education provides us with a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”. She had observed at first hand how such opinion can solidify into ideology. For her, thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education – and therefore of the university – to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.

Read the whole thing here. It’s worth thinking about as we redefine education and the humanities in collective and consumeristic ways. It’s also worth pondering as we head inexorably into an election season already riddled with clichés, banality, repetition, and derivative thinking.

Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

pregnantPregnancy brings unaccustomed insight. For instance, I used to look around me and realize that everyone, including the dirty drunk on a park bench, required someone to go through hours of agonizing labor to bring him into the sunlight. Some woman, whether she consciously helped or hindered, nurtured the new being for nine months, offering the best of her body’s resources to a  tenant who would never be able to repay the rent – true whether the mom is a doctor or a drug addict. The fragility of the whole human endeavor, and the perishability of the robust daughter I eventually bore, used to bring me almost to the point of tears – also unaccustomed.

I realized that a huge amount of what we call “civilization” goes into maintenance. I estimated about a third of an individual’s lifetime, and about the same percentage of a society’s resources, goes into rearing and educating the next generation – whether, for an individual, it’s teaching kids to refrain from punching a pal in the sandbox, to eat with a fork, and to appreciate the finepoints of Bellini, or, on a societal level, building a school, funding studies on infant mortality, kicking a few bucks to the old alma mater, or supporting neighborhood basketball court.

Now, however, we’ve become a society “where children, metaphorically speaking, believe that adults need their guidance and tutelage,” according to the latest from Robert Pogue Harrison. It’s not so metaphorical, actually. I’ve often considered that our technological world is being driven faster, ever faster, by 15-year-olds with time on their hands to text hundreds of messages a day, to tweet their most trivial and transcient feelings to the world. Those who hold jobs, have children to feed and clean up after, math homework to correct, or a subpoena to respond to, don’t have time to fiddle with their smartphones or figure out Pinterest. And yet we must keep up, keep up, keep up – or lose our jobs and our social connections, lose our “relevance” and fall hopelessly behind.

Robert is on the same wavelength. In “The Children of Silicon Valley,” a strong and scathing essay on the New York Review of Books blog, he begins:

Harrison as DJ

Harrison as radio host. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the “dark times” of the first half of the twentieth century, “with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,” Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption “The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs—which are the needs of mortals—when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.”


She knew.

We purchase connectivity at the price of solitude, and, as I’ve written before, the very essence of the humanities is to teach one to be alone. Many of us have forgotten how to read, as opposed to scanning. Books are mere sources of data, not keys to meaning, clues to understanding another time, another place, another human being.  Quoting Thoreau – “Be it life or death, we crave only reality” – Robert adds, “Alas, Silicon Valley has enriched its coffers thanks largely to a contrary craving in us—the craving to trade in reality for the miniature screen of the cell phone.” He writes:

With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

Silicon Valley, and everything it stands for metonymically in our culture, has indeed affected billions of people around the planet. The innovations have come fast and furious, turning the past four decades into a series of “before and after” divides: before and after personal computers, before and after Google, before and after Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, and so forth. In the silicon age, ‘changing the world’ means at bottom finding new and more ingenious ways to turn my computer or smart phone into my primary—and eventually my only—access to ‘reality.’

Read Robert’s essay here. Okay, okay, it’s a little bit of a rant at points, but Robert is an intelligent and provocative Jeremiah, and his words are worth a large audience. Another one of the skills that has gotten lost in our times is the ability to consider different points of view impartially – to be able to rub elbows with strangers who are not like-minded, not in one’s Twittersphere or Facebook circle. You don’t have to buy his whole argument – but you can, at least, look at it. It’s easier than being pregnant. Trust me on that one.

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014

piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.


He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.

Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem turns 50 – and it’s still controversial

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

eichmannHannah Arendt‘s Eichmann in Jerusalem was published fifty years ago, in 1963, and it’s still provoking controversy.  The New York Times offers two interesting takes: one from poet-critic Adam Kirsch, the other from author Rivka Galchen, who incidentally, was a recipient of the William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction (we wrote about the prize here). Both focus on the use of language.

Kirsch argues that she’s misunderstood. Many objected to the inflammatory tone, but for Arendt, the medium is the message: “It’s not hard to see that for Arendt, this stringency was a form of respect. By holding Jews to what she conceived to be the highest professional and personal standards, she was treating them as full moral persons. For Eichmann, on the other hand, she had only contempt, refusing even to dignify him with hatred: He appears in the book only as a bumbling mediocrity, ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.’ But it’s also easy to understand how this tactic could appear, to readers still traumatized by the Holocaust, as an arrogant inversion placing blame on the victim while minimizing the criminality of the criminal. Eichmann would be a better book, perhaps, if Arendt were not so intent on demonstrating mastery over her material, and could admit that at times the only adequate response to the Holocaust was mute pity and terror.'”

Kirsch points out that the book has been, at times, a litmus test for gentile and Jewish sensibilities. Arendt’s chum Mary McCarthy characterized the book as “a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah“; Saul Bellow accused Arendt of “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”  Well, as we pointed out earlier, he didn’t like her much.


She fled the Nazis twice, in 1933 and 1940.

Galchen writes that “Eichmann spoke in a mix of canned speech, officialese and repetitions of his own formulations. Arendt sees this as a symptom and an abettor of his variety of evil. ‘The longer one listened to him,’ she wrote, ‘the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’”

She continued: “Nearly 15 years after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt wrote another long essay for The New Yorker, ‘Thinking,’ in which she tried to clarify and further analyze the ‘thoughtlessness’ of Eichmann. ‘Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality; that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts make by virtue of their existence,’ she wrote. ‘If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that clearly he knew of no such claim at all.'”

Buried in the comments section is an unusual reminiscence from Rudy Wein: “I had lunch with Hannah Arendt not all that long after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I had read the New Yorker article, but was completely ignorant of the controversy. I was no doubt a soothing lunch companion, since I told her that I understood what she had in mind with ‘the banality of evil’ and agreed with her. So let me say, as no one really does in the above, what I think she meant by the banality of evil – that is the banality of Eichmann’s doing evil. And let me do so by pointing to the doing of evil that is not banal. Start with fiction: the baddies in the film Metropolis are explicitly, consciously aiming to kill, maim, undo those underground workers. Not banal. Himmler aimed at rounding up Jews, starving and killing them. Yes, he did what Hitler wanted done, but he was not following orders first and doing evil as a result; he aimed at doing that evil because he wanted it to happen. Eichmann, on the other hand, if anything like Arendt’s depiction is correct, followed orders first or, worse, induced what his superiors wanted done, for the sake of being the kind of bureaucrat that would be praised and, above all, be promoted. If doing good deeds would have accomplished that goal, Eichmann would have done good deeds. The fact of his evil’s banality doesn’t make it less evil or excuse it and, as I recall, Arendt agreed that Eichmann’s death sentence was fully justified.”

Read the whole thing here. And below, Margarethe von Trotta‘s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, starring Barbara Sukowa, pretty much makes the case for Galchen and Kirsch: