Posts Tagged ‘Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’

“Gelassenheit”: what the world needs now

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
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Brazil’s João Cezar de Castro Rocha: an interpreter of “Gelassenheit”

I know what you’re thinking. Back at at the “Sepp Fest” last February for Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (a.k.a. Sepp), I promised a third installment after “Public intellectuals, private intellectuals, and a professor of football” and  “’My weight is my love’: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht”.  But what did you get from me? Silence.

Until now.

Sepp: More intense ’cause he’s more serene? (Photo: Reto Klar)

Here is the third post on the celebration from two-day retirement party for Sepp, and it comes all the way from Brazil. João Cezar de Castro Rocha of the State University of Rio de Janeiro gave a talk in February on “Gelassenheit.” The term became an important analytic tool for Sepp as he studied the life of Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western LiteratureBut the term has a long history, not only in Martin Heidegger but going all the way back to Meister Eckhart. When I interviewed Sepp, he used the term to describe René Girard, and defined it as a “Let-It-Be-ness,” or as I eventually described in Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, “accepting things in their uncertainty and their mystery.” But it isn’t that simple.

João notes that Sepp’s initial translation of the world was composure:

On the one hand, it signals Sepp’s initial engagement with Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. To put it more precisely: with an intense reading of Sein und Zeit; as a matter of fact and above all with Heidegger’s phenomenological descriptions of everyday life. Sepp’s 1998 book In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time is a first and robust outcome of this specific concern, which is related to lived experience as such, attributing to it, let us say, an intellectual dignity, which resembles Auerbach’s reconstruction of Western literary experience, and its serious and potentially tragic understanding of ordinary, everyday life.

On the other hand, it should be highlighted that from the very beginning of his engagement with the concept, and even in its translation as composure, Gelassenheit never meant to Sepp acceptance, resignation, in one word: quietude. Rather, I propose the following rendering of Sepp’s translation: composure implies a particularly active relationship with current events, in which the present is projected into a much wider chain of events, and going back and forth different historical periods is the trademark of Gelassenheit understood as composure – a trademark also of Erich Auerbach’s masterpiece, Mimesis.

Auerbach’s Mimesis, he pointed out, is “an impressive narrative of a failure” of Western culture, and can even be read as a powerful anti-Nazi statement.  “You see my point: composure has nothing to do with acceptance of a present filled with tragic happenings, but rather it entails an active withdrawal from the, let us say, tyranny of the present; withdrawal which enlightens the relativity of any given historical time.”

Then João cut to the chase: “I’ll now propose that from 1995 onwards Sepp’s understanding of Gelassenheit started to change slowly but steadily, and as time went by the change became so radical that it opened up a new path in Sepp’s work.”

Then he told a story:

In 1995 Sepp Gumbrecht, along with Jeffrey Schnapp, Ted Leland, Bill Egginton and Rich Schavone, organized what, with hindsight, can be seen as a breakthrough event, bringing together athletes and academics. I’m referring to the conference “The Athletes’s Body.”

In the Q&A session, the three-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Pablo Morales was asked what he missed the most of his life as a top athlete. Morales’s answer was in itself eventful. He did not exactly miss the exhaustive training routine, although the discipline required by it can be fully appreciated. Indeed, almost all top athletes have impose on their bodies such stress throughout their careers that the most common outcome is a series of injuries they have to endure their entire lives. Nor even gold medals and world records were what Morales missed the most; after all a top athlete is obsessed with improving her performance, therefore, any victory may be clouded by the seemingly inescapable question: could I have done it any better?

So what was it that Morales really missed from his athlete’s life?

Pablo Morales told us that above all he longed for the moment immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in a day of an important competition just like the Olympic Games. Then, Morales felt the world to be a blank page, an untouched canvas, where everything is possible, and the best performance ever is at hand. In his own words, in this very moment he felt “lost in focused intensity”.

Being lost in focused intensity, I propose, has triggered Sepp’s new understanding of Gelassenheit, and it is not a coincidence that at the same time Sepp was engaging ever more intensely with a highly personal reading of Heidegger’s philosophy. The process was not without hindrances, and in 2003 Sepp published Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey, providing the basis for a theoretical framework of his own, which enabled him to turn intensity, that is, his new translation of Gelassenheit into a form of thinking. Intensity as a special form of Gelassenheit has become not only Sepp’s own Gedankenexperiment but also an everyday aesthetics – as you already know, no ethics should be attached to Sepp’s works.

After all, what is a seminar taught by Sepp if not an immersion in Gelassenheit? It is not the case with Sepp’s wrap-up of a panel – be it surprisingly good or merely mediocre? In both cases, while rendering more complex the ideas espoused by the speakers, Sepp is creating an environment where it becomes possible, almost at hand, to find themselves lost in focused intensity.

João concluded that Sepp’s most recent work redefines Gelassenheit, and perhaps we should, too. “I suggest that we move from composure to serenity.” He continued:

However, as we did with the notion of composure, we have to enrich our understanding of serenity. It should not be seen either as calmness or as quietude. I propose we equate serenity with stillness, but only insofar as the absence of motion, implied in the meaning of stillness, resonates Pablo Morales’s experience of being lost in focused intensity. In other words, in Sepp’s work, stillness means to be in absolute concentration immediately before jumping into the swimming pool in an Olympic Game or, for that matter, immediately before delivering a thought-provoking lecture. After all, academics also perform their intellect, even if they are not aware of it.

Then, to conclude I believe that we can pinpoint two or three definitions of Gelassenheit that may enlighten Sepp’s current work.

First: Gelassenheit demands a Messianic time, in the sense put forward by Walter Benjamin, but as long as the Messiah is not expected to come, so time remains open to the openness of time.

Second: Gelassenheit as serenity is the form of emergence, in the sense developed by Umberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, notion that along with autopoiesis were important in the unfolding of the theoretical framework of the materialities of communication paradigm.

Finally, as serenity, Gelassenheit is the emergence of form; form, in the sense developed by George Spencer Brown, as the difference between in and out, interior and exterior, propitiating what could be called the aesthetics of Sepp’s thought experiments.

If the ideas I proposed here are good to think with – as the myths are for Claude Lévi-Strauss – I may now conclude by suggesting that, as time goes by, Sepp becomes ever more intense because at last he has learned to be a bit more serene.

Well, I lost whatever small measure of Gelassenheit I have when João told me the eminent house É Realizações Editora in São Paulo would be translating and publishing Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in Portuguese for a Brazilian translation. Wheee! Uncork the champagne!

Public intellectuals, private intellectuals, and a professor of football

Saturday, February 17th, 2018
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Preach it, Miguel!

Public intellectual? The word gets bandied about a good deal, but generally the standards are low. Most wannabes fall on one side or the other. The celebrities who are merely public loudmouths flatter themselves with the tag “intellectual.” The hermits squirreled away in the PF-PN stacks of the graduate library call themselves “public” because they appear occasionally at conferences and “read” (yawn) papers.

I wasn’t around for all two days of the Sepp Fest last weekend. But one of the best-received talks during my long Saturday at the Stanford Humanities Center was given by a literary theorist from the University of Lisbon. He was praising Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (a.k.a. Sepp), who really is a public intellectual, and who shows how high the standard can be. And here’s the bad news: they’ve been disappearing from academia for quite some time. And with Sepp’s retirement, we’re short one at Stanford now, too. (We wrote about him a few days ago here, too.)

“What is disquieting is that many of the people whom we may recognize as our intellectual heroes would not be offered the sorts of jobs, thanks to which they once came to be recognized as such,” said Miguel Tamen of the University of Lisbon, who gave the keynote lecture. “Very few if any of the greatest literary scholars of the 20th century would now stand a chance at the merest MLA.”

“We know that what follows from what we write, on either side of the Atlantic, is very little,” he continued. “As little indeed as if we were in Pyongyang – and a few of us are even glad for that.”

Then there’s Sepp Gumbrecht. He’s given countless lectures, and published books galore. “Sepp has literally published many hundreds of articles, essays and reviews, at least one a week, in dozens of newspapers: in Germany, in Switzerland, in France, in Brazil, only to name a few countries. To these one would have to add the interviews. Given that most of these also have online versions, it is possible to say without exaggeration that Sepp is read every week by tens of thousands of people.”

An excerpt from Tamen’s talk:

“Let me provide you with a sampler. I began timidly thinking about this paper in mid-December. Since then I only managed to come up with a paltry under-4,000 word middlebrow keynote, whereas Sepp has published at least:

  • Installments # 266, 267, 268, 269 and 270 of his bimonthly blog column in the FAZ, respectively on the survival of humankind, on anti-Semitism in contemporary Germany, on happiness rankings, on Mr. Trump, and on long books
  • An article on the future of culture or on whether Bildung is still to be saved
  • A piece in Die Zeit on a fictional football player
  • An obituary of a Brazilian colleague
  • A 5,000 word response to a number of interview questions by Brazilian and European colleagues
  • An article on temporality for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Professor of Football

Sepp has often praised what he calls riskful, risky thinking. The concept had long eluded me, but now I believe I understand it at last. What is really risky about risky thinking is not that by such thinking you put yourself in any life-threatening situations; it is instead that our friends from the schools would no longer recognize what we do as thinking at all. Nowhere is thinking more risky that when it becomes something else.

If so, there is a likely connection between risky thinking and something that Sepp has been doing for the past twenty years. Take for instance Sepp’s open interest in sports, most prominently football (Engl.) and football (U.S.). As such his interest would be unremarkable. Many of us have comparable interests. However there is no in-principle reason why our private interests should be declared; we mostly assume they would not be interesting enough; and do so mostly with good reason. In the case of Sepp the test is how interesting his interests have become to people who otherwise care little about Heidegger, Niklas Luhmann, and Diderot. In Europe and South America, at least, the group includes most sports journalists. None that I know of would contemplate sampling out the first part of Sein und Zeit, let alone the second. And yet they merrily devour Sein und Sepp.

Football? We think not.

In an interview to the otherwise obscure Westfälische Nachrichten (November 2015), in the World Sports section, Sepp is matter-of-factly introduced as “the football expert Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.” To get a sense of the situation consider the unattested phrase “*the football expert Erich Auerbach.” Granted, Sepp has also written about “the existential beauty of football.” This sounds philosophical enough, and perhaps even Heideggerian. It appeared in one of his columns, in the opinion pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. And yet his series was presented there as “Gumbrecht on the ball” (pun intended). A third example: the page of the German Football Museum, mostly not known for its contributions to philosophy, has recently reported on a public debate between Sepp and the Borussia Dortmund former football coach Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel is a remarkable coach and clearly a very clever man. The headlines however do not suggest Hegel, Husserl or Hölderlin: “Football-talk: Tuchel and Gumbrecht shine.” “The German Football league debate,” they add, “went on for 2 x 45 minutes and was as exciting as any top game.” …

I suppose that what I mean is that Sepp is listened to by people who wouldn’t dream setting foot on conferences such as this one. And this raises the question: could Sepp be both one of us and one of them? Could this be a case of intellectual schizophrenia? I don’t think so. There are, to be sure, many connections between what Sepp does in class and what he does outside. He always remained and after all is the same person. However, the attempt to engage vast unknown audiences is something that after all defines his difference vis-à-vis most of us. It is a difference that many of us would quickly grant is a measure of Sepp’s trademark as an intellectual, both public and private, and intellectual for whom the private/public distinction does not obtain. In claiming that Sepp is an intellectual public and private I am thus claiming that he is unlike most of us. …  This is very high compliment indeed.

“My weight is my love”: on Augustine, Calvino, and Sepp Gumbrecht

Monday, February 12th, 2018
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One of the weightiest minds at Stanford.

Over the weekend, more than forty speakers from Europe, Latin America, and the United States addressed the state of literary studies after 1967, its methods and moods. The reason for the fête: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, a.k.a. “Sepp.” At Stanford, he is also known as the “Albert Guérard Professor in Literature in the Departments of Comparative Literature and of French & Italian and by courtesy, he is affiliated with the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, the Department of German Studies, and the Program in Modern Thought & Literature.” The reason for the fête: we were celebrating 50 years of his life as a thinker, mentor, and indefatigable writer. It doubled as a splendid retirement party.

Heavy, man.

All that gives you an idea of his weight – but not of his lightness. He is one of the gentlest and pleasantest personalities at the whole university – as well as one of the most brilliant. And he also possesses one of the most memorable and remarkable faces on campus. (See photo.)

One of the most impressive and moving talks was given by Robert Pogue Harrison, who discussed “Pondus Amoris,” taken from Augustine‘s “my weight is my love [pondus meum amor meus].” Robert has often spoken of Italo Calvino‘s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, published in 1986, which identified six literary qualities, or values, that he believed would enable literature to survive into the next millennium – “that is to say, our millennium,” he added. Those qualities are lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. (He died before he finished describing his final one – consistency.) 

But because he often references the Six Memos (and I have come to, as well) I assumed  that Robert was on the side of lightness. Not so. From Robert’s talk:

I admire Calvino greatly, yet here too, as with Augustine, my sensibilities lean in another direction. If I had to choose, I would opt for slowness, heaviness, and vagueness over quickness, lightness and exactitude in literature. Be that as it may, in his lightness memo Calvino claims that we live in a leaden age, an age that would petrify us with its Medusa head:

Petrifying.

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals…. To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.”

I’m sorry to be so contrarian today, but I don’t agree with Calvino on this score. I believe that our age is in fact determined by free-floating bits and bites of information, and by the aerial vectors of telecommunications. The massive mainframe computers that Atlas himself couldn’t lift a few decades ago have become so light and fast that nowadays we carry them around in our shirt pockets. Modernity is an ongoing striving for lightness, and our world today is threatened not so much by the petrifying weight of reality but by the photoelectric pulsations of the virtual. Our Medusa head is the cell phone screen. We need a new kind of shield to protect us against the miniaturization of reality – a heavy, non-reflective Realometer, to borrow a term from Thoreau, to counter the increasing rarefaction of lived experience.

Did Augustine get it right?

In his memo, Calvino exalts Shakespeare’s character Mercutio, from Romeo and Juliet, as a hero of lightness.  … I would also like Mercutio’s dancing gait to come along with us across the threshold of the new millennium.

Calvino quotes only five lines from Mercutio’s long speech in Act One of Romeo and Juliet. It’s the scene when a group of Montague youngsters are heading toward the Capulet’s costume ball, where Romeo and Juliette will meet for the first time. What Calvino doesn’t mention is that Mercutio’s speech is over ninety lines long. By the end of it, the metaphors and conceits are spinning out of control, and his rave comes dangerously close to leaving the earth’s orbit altogether. It takes Romeo to bring Mercutio back down to earth: “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!” Romeo says as he grabs hold of his friend. “Peace, peace, Mercutio, thou talkst of nothing.”

That’s the trouble with lightness, it can easily wisp away into nothing.

More in the coming days from Stanford’s celebration for one of its most eminent professors.

Another Look spotlights Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude on Feb. 6: “a 98-page, lightning strike of a novel”

Friday, January 13th, 2017
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“If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.” (Photo: Hana Hamplová)

Over the years, Bohumil Hrabal‘s Too Loud a Solitude has had its fans. Peter Orner is one of them. Writing in “Night Train to Split” in Guernica (an excerpt from his new book Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult):
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“The first time I finished Too Loud a Solitude, I was up in Letná Park, and I remember leaping off the bench and running around in circles, holding the book above my head and shouting because I believed I’d experienced some religious illumination. A brief, ninety-eight-page, lightning strike of a novel, the book is about a man named Haňťa who has been crushing paper beneath a street in Prague for the last thirty-five years. People throw paper and books, books by the barrelful, down Haňťa’s hole in the pavement. Before he crushes them, Haňťa reads. The book of Ecclesiastes, the Talmud, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant’s Theory of the Heavens. Kant, who argues that the heavens are not humane, nor is life above or below.”
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.At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6, at the Bechtel Conference Center, the Another Look book club will discuss Czech author Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a dystopian novella on the indestructibility of the written word.
Too Loud a Solitude is an elegy for literacy. It is also about how worship of unfettered technological progress invariably results in a trouncing of the human spirit. And it is about how only individual human memory has the unique power to redeem us,” Orner writes (read the whole thing here).
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Hrabal’s novella was published in a samizdat edition in Prague in 1976, and later published more widely after Communist rule ended in 1989. Its aging narrator runs a hydraulic press that crushes books and paper into bales. He rescues the best volumes for himself, and over time his thoughts and feelings merge with the treasures from the past – Hegel and the Talmud, Lao-Tze and Kant. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Hrabal’s is a cry of expiring humanism, and Too Loud a Solitude is a book to salvage from the deadly indifference that is more effective in killing the letter than the most sophisticated compacting machine.” You can read the New York Times review here.
Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor who is Another Look’s director writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He will be joined by Stanford Prof. Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, a European public intellectual and a prolific author, and German Prof. Karen Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, whose research explores the nexus between literature and philosophy.
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Another Look is a seasonal book club that draws together Stanford’s top writers and scholars with distinguished figures from the Bay Area and beyond. The books are Stanford’s picks for short masterpieces you may not have read before. The events are free and open to the public.

Too Loud a Solitude is available at Stanford Bookstore, and also will stocked at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.
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Stanford says farewell to French theorist René Girard on Jan. 19

Monday, December 14th, 2015
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Memchu

Meet you there. (Photo: King of Hearts/Wikipedia)

A memorial service will be held Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Stanford Memorial Church for the renowned French theorist René Girard, who died in November at age 91. We have written about him so many places on the Book Haven, it is hard to know where to begin, but you might try here and here and here and here. He was one of the 40 immortels of the prestigious Académie Française, and one of the leading thinkers of our era – a provocative sage who bypassed prevailing orthodoxies and “isms” to offer a bold, sweeping vision of human nature, human history and human destiny. According to Stanford’s Hans Ulrich “Sepp” Gumbrecht, “Despite the intellectual structures built around him, he’s a solitaire. His work has a steel-like quality – strong, contoured, clear. It’s like a rock. It will be there and it will last.” We couldn’t agree more.

rene-girard

Au revoir, René.

He will be missed by many – in fact, already is missed by many. It’s bound to be a crowded event, but there is always room for one more. The Stanford Memorial Church is one of the easiest places to find on the Stanford campus – you can see it as you drive down the campus’s landmark Palm Drive. The century-old building has been called “the University’s architectural crown jewel.”

Parking? That’s another matter. Arrive early.

Read his full obituary here.