Posts Tagged ‘Piotr Nowak’

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.

Saul Bellow on Hannah Arendt: The upshot? He didn’t like her much

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Letters out this month

Viking is publishing Saul Bellow: Letters this month.  It’s excerpted in Salmagundis 45th anniversary issue (Fall 2010/Winter 2011), which arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Here’s an excerpt of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s March 12, 1982, letter to Leon Wieseltier. Clearly not a fan of political philosopher Hannah Arendt:

“The trouble is that her errors were far more extensive than her judgment.  That can be said of us all, but she was monumentally vain, and a rigid akshente [Yiddish: impossible woman, ballbuster] Much of her strength went into obstinacy, and she was the compleat intellectual – i.e. she went always and as rapidly as possible for the great synthesis and her human understanding, painfully limited, could not support the might of historical analysis, unacknowledged prejudices, frustrations of her German and European aspirations, etc. She could often think clearly, but to think simply was altogether beyond her, and her imaginative faculty was stunted.

German to the end?

“I once asked Alexander Donat, author of The Holocaust Kingdom, how it was that the Jews went down so quickly in Poland. He said something like this: ‘After three days in the ghetto, unable to wash and shave, without clean clothing, deprived of food, all utilities and municipal services cut off, your toilet habits humiliatingly disrupted, you are demoralized, confused, subject to panic. A life of austere discipline would have made it possible for me to keep my head, but how many civilized people lead such a life?’  Such simple facts – had Hannah had the imagination to see them – would have lowered the intellectual fever that vitiates her theories. Her standards were those of a ‘noble’ German intelligentsia trained in the classics and in European philosophy – what you call the ‘tradition of sweet thinking.’  Hannah not only loved it, she actively disliked those who didn’t share it, and she couldn’t acknowledge this dislike – which happened to be the dislike of those (so inconveniently) martyred by the Nazis.  The Eros of these cultures is irresistible.  At the same time assimilation is simply impossible – out of the question to reject one’s history. And insofar as the Israelis are secular, they are in it with the rest of us, fascinated and also eaten up by Greece, France, Russia, England.  It is impossible for advanced minds not to be so affected. …

“Anyway, your Arendt pieces are wonderful, even though the concluding sentence … but what else can one conclude but ‘on course; and ‘in the dark’? We mustn’t surrender the demonic to the demagogic academics.  Intellectual sobriety itself may have to take the powers of darkness into account.”

Casper discusses Arendt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In his book, Donat recounts the entrenched pro-German mindset of most Jews, who were looking backward to the heritage of the German Enlightenment: “For generations, East European Jews had looked to Berlin as the symbol of law, order, and culture. We could not now believe that the Third Reich was a government of gangsters embarked on a program of genocide ‘to solve the Jewish problem in Europe.’”

But I rather wonder at his characterization of “Jewish passivity,” remembering the doomed heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Only since the Fall of the Wall are some stories of Polish (Jewish and Christian) resistance coming to light.  History changes.

I attended a conference on Arendt last spring and was moved by Gerhard Casper’s tenacious loyalty to the friend he characterized as “a very private person”:   “She was forceful, opinionated, never had any doubts about her views,” he said. “In certain circumstances she was willing to listen carefully and be convinced she was wrong. Those were rare.”

Piotr Nowak recommended I read her pages on ineradicable evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism when we were at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen two years ago, while taking the “powers of darkness into account.”