Posts Tagged ‘Martin Heidegger’

Robert Harrison in NZZ on quarantines, language, literature: “The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again.”

Monday, April 13th, 2020
Share

The brigata gather to hear the tales of “The Decameron” (Painting by John William Waterhouse)

René Scheu, editor of the eminent Neue Zürcher Zeitung, recently  interviewed Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison for Switzerland’s eminent German-language daily. Read it in German here. An excerpt in English below:

Mr. Harrison, we are having this conversation via Skype. This is due to the situation we both currently live in. I see you are sitting in your study in your wonderful house on the Stanford campus, which I know is surrounded by nature and trees. Your books can be seen in the background of the room. . .

… yes, my private library, my books! They are my friends, in times of crisis and in normal times.

So, to be perfectly honest, how is your life in quarantine?

My life in quarantine is undoubtedly less dramatic than that of my relatives and friends in Italy. They are no longer allowed to leave the house, and the state intervenes drastically in their private lives–this put pressure not only on liberal minds. In California, we are required to stay indoors whenever possible, but we are not legally required to do so. So I feel restricted, but I don’t feel like a prisoner in my own house.

It sounds almost like you save yourself for your new position as a dedicated observer. Is that impression right – or are you constantly rubbing your eyes hoping to wake up from this surreal nightmare at some point?

Harrison on language: “we use it to shape ourselves.”

I feel–as others do these days–a constant mental and emotional tension that is paralyzing in the long run. It stems from a basic mood of angst–and I think we should use the German word in an existentialist sense here. On the one hand, we feel angst very concretely, so to speak in every waking second of this crazy time, and at the same time it remains–in contrast to angst–very diffuse. What are we afraid of? Well, in fear we get the world as such, the being as a whole, is lost. Martin Heidegger says that the big picture is slipping away from us.

***

In order not to go crazy, you held a semi-public seminar about Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the quarantine book par excellence, above all.

I agree . . .

Briefly, pro memoria: It is about the Black Plague in 1348, which wiped out half of the European population. Seven women and three men retire to an estate and tell 100 stories to celebrate human life. They all survive.

No question: Boccaccio’s masterpiece is the book of the hour. And although some now quote it, it’s not only literary, but also its practical relevance is wide and still underestimated. It doesn’t celebrate escapism or pleasure in the face of catastrophe, no, it celebrates prudence in life, which is prudent for survival.

Boccaccio is relentless in his introduction, in which he describes the raging plague in Florence with unprecedented levels of detail. He differentiates between those who isolate themselves and renounce all social contact, those who live as if there is no tomorrow, and those who take flight. But nobody escapes the plague, it affects everyone.

Yes, the great Boccaccio provides a clinical sketch of life in the sign of black death. Those who only fight for survival will not survive. That is one of his cruel points.

When medicine and faith fail, only storytelling helps, according to Boccaccio.

Ten young people withdraw to the country, organize their lives, make every day precise, eat, drink, dance in a perfectly designed setting and tell ten stories in ten days, each in this environment. This storytelling is the human immune response to a physiological as well as a sociological crisis. Boccaccio focuses on this second meaning, and today, under the sign of the coronavirus, we think about it far too little.

***

In a comprehensive sense, the ten young people are rebuilding a world in their minds that is a substitute for the world they had previously lost through the plague.

Interlocutor René Scheu, editor-in-chief  of NZZ

I think now you’ve touch the heart of it. Institutions cannot revitalize them–but they regulate their days, make agreements, and adhere to them. And in their minds they create a new world into which they literally merge. It is a world with new, funny, and tragic protagonists with whom they can identify to a certain extent–because the center of every good story is always the same: being human. Sharing a common world helps them achieve mental stability and health. And this in turn ensures their survival. Narrative as a strong immune response: that’s what is at stake here.

The first tale is about a cheater and a sinner. Ser Ciappelletto lies so consistently and convincingly, even in the last hours of his life as he confesses, that he ends up going down in history as a saint. This novella is a story about the art of novellare itself, and it is as if Boccaccio told us that a good story need not necessarily be true. Or is it about a different, as it were poetic, truth?

The story of Ser Ciappelletto is about falsehood and lies, of course. But this mafioso was a first-rate cheater, and in the end, in the face of death, he was even able to convince the priest of his goodness. Ser Ciappelletto was a fantastic narrator before the Lord. As soon as the story about him goes viral and people continue to talk about what a pious and godly person this man was, it has an all-round positive effect: the listeners want to emulate Ser Ciappelletto’s example. They also want to become such a charitable and godly person, as he was supposed to be. It is here that history has proven itself on a higher level. To put it in a nutshell: only a really good story is true in the sense that it has a productive effect and that it helps people to advance in their own lives. It becomes true by making it true.

So Boccaccio was an incorrigible optimist because he shows how the worst person can make a story that inspires other contemporaries.

On the one hand, Boccaccio shows us how a bad cheater makes other people stronger in their belief–and on the other hand, he lifts the veil and lets us see how we indulge in fictions. But we need these fictions to outgrow ourselves in life. So for Boccaccio there are only stories that help us live better and stories that help us live worse. That is its form of radicalism.

Storytelling is a pretty dangerous thing.

Storytelling is not the pleasure of a few privileged people who escape the plague, no, storytelling is at the heart of our social life. Every institution, every religion, every civilization is based on a good story. Let us  think of our founding stories – those of Western Christian culture, our state, our age. All of these stories – which are somehow true, but never quite and literally – all of these stories strengthen our identity, and nothing man-made could exist without them. But as powerful as stories are, fake news can also be dangerous. They are highly contagious, infect our minds, and make us sick.

The good news is that really good stories go more viral than fake ones. They help to increase mental fitness. Boccaccio provides a lot of such stories in his Decameron. In this respect, he actually left us a kind of survival guide that we can use at any time.

Good stories strengthen the immune defense of the symbolic being that we humans are. Bare life is not a purpose in life, even if the plague or the corona virus is raging, although the latter is rather mild in comparison.

Pampinea speaks of the ben viver d’ogni mortale, of the good life worth living of every mortal.

The story of Ciappelletto (Vatican Library)

If you ignore the shape and the culture, you may survive biologically, but not as a person. We becomes an animals – Boccaccio compares uomini with capre in his description of the raven in Florence, he speaks of bestialità. Anyone who behaves like an animal will eventually become an animal.

So is Boccaccio the discoverer of what psychologists today call self-efficacy?

In a way, yes. Depending on how I present myself, I can influence the behavior of others–and these others in turn affect me. So in the end, whatever you say, think or do, it affects your fellow human beings and yourself. On the sixth day in the Decameron, there are some stories that deal with that. Male protagonists behave in rough and vulgar ways towards women. But women react with elegance, and men are ashamed of themselves and change their behavior by showing themselves at their best. It’s as if  women increase men’s self-esteem. So I think you are absolutely right with your inspiration: Boccaccio is a real humanist in that he constantly wonders how we can do it.

Boccaccio sees man as a being that forms itself. Almost 150 years later, Pico della Mirandola will deliver the programmatic text for this new, modern anthropology with his Speech on Human Dignity: God has created an unfinished creature that is not fixed and therefore called to form itself.

Boccaccio’s heroes are never passive victims of circumstances or fate, but are always creative actors. They take the initiative and show imagination, sensitivity, or quick comprehension to achieve their goals, be they noble, or profane, or sexual in nature. So you can say: the protagonists always make the best of themselves and the situation they are in, they learn and improve constantly. Their behavior is not set in stone, but adapts to the circumstances–and that is what makes Boccaccio so fascinating for us modern people.

***

Our whole social life is inconceivable without using our language. Through it, we become the beings that we are. We use it to shape ourselves every day. Depending on how we speak of ourselves, we act accordingly. In this respect, the language has a domesticating and ennobling function. We must never forget that!

Are the tech geniuses populating Silicon Valley aware of this?

I’m less optimistic on this front. The Valley is full of extremely intelligent people who articulate themselves artfully, but in a very prosaic, technical way. They are only interested in an understanding of problems and content, not the form, the beauty, the punchline. Let’s take the handwriting. When I attended school, the essay was graded according to two criteria: content and form, because both together make up the beauty of the story. And take a look at the handwriting of our tech geniuses today, if they even pick up a pen–they remind you of children’s handwriting.

Now you sound like a harsh cultural critic. Most people use a keyboard anyway or speak to their smartphone–this is easier and more efficient.

Yes, of course. But if you can no longer write, you may not be able to speak well. The social conversations of educated, successful people in Silicon Valley are of a poverty that frightens me again and again. Of course, when it comes to closing a deal, no novellare is required, although it certainly has a positive effect on sales. But the same poor language that applies in business has long shaped everyday social life. And this makes us poorer. When I go out to eat with a tech entrepreneur and we talk about where we’re from and what we’re doing here, I want to hear a story from him. What fascinates us about people is not the facts of their life, it is the stories they tell about themselves!

And the stories are dying out?

No. It’s just that they have been outsourced to only some of us. They watch fantastic Netflix series because they satisfy this basic human need. These are professionals at work, no question, and they know how to tell a good story well. The art of novellare has not changed since Boccaccio. So now people sit in front of the screen and consume stories, but they no longer work on their stories themselves. And that’s guaranteed to make your own life poorer.

If we look at the same Netflix series, we can at least talk about it and form a community.

Naturally. But we also have to do this with eloquence and elegance–we ourselves have to become storytellers, no one can do this work for us. But it is the most beautiful job I know.

We learn to tell stories when we read stories.

Read! Read! Read! Read Boccaccio. It will change your life. For Boccaccio, generosity and gratitude are the two greatest virtues: be grateful for what you have received. And pass it on with the same generosity. And that’s exactly how it is: literature is a gift that never ceases to give itself. Why shouldn’t we, now in quarantine, be so wise to accept this gift and become a giver ourselves?

“Gelassenheit”: what the world needs now

Sunday, August 12th, 2018
Share

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!