Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

 

 

 

Impermanence

Impermanence

There are fragments of songs from my youth stirring.

Not lyrics, but angry frustrated declamations.

No madness lasts forever.

Time, the avenger.

We are time. We are the last

Life is short, after all and full of stuff.

We are searching for a way to break you, time. To break you, mind.

Some new kind of kick.

Temporary

All will be now, dreams are too fast

You are the first

We are the last

Are the last

Black letter lies

Credits to the pop group and the cramps.

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time?

Vaclav Havel

A premonition of blogging? No, but part of a profound essay on culture as the freedom of the human spirit.

Read more at http://wp.me/p6tMLx-Dx

(I am experimenting with curating my own material here. I hope readers don’t mind)

The recurring reproach to reason

Today, I finished reading Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity, which has prompted a few posts here and here. The book ends with a series of falls from grace of modern ways of thinking about madness; psychoanalysis becomes stranded with its limitation to a small elite, only to find itself as defined as irrelevant to the great suffering of the most severely mentally ill; then the great disappointments of the evacuation of the asylum, seen as the great enemies of freedom, the great bankrupting social shames, but without any conscientious attention to the community care of the most unwell; and finally, the descent into confusion and denial of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual itself, which in its fifth edition, was abjured by Robert Spitzer and Allen Frances, the architects of its earlier editions.

Out of the collapse of the great encyclopaedia of the disordered mind, there emerged a new project – to fix all mental illness to single biological causes. Led by the Institute of Mental Health in the USA the new scientists of the brain disavowed the DSM’s study of symptoms to search for a more fundamental biological mechanism. Thomas Insel said  “As long as the research community takes the DSM to be a bible, we’ll never make progress. People think everything has to match DSM criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book” (quoted Scull, p 408).

Rather than a descriptive symptomatology, the new neuroscience believed they could build a diagnostic system on firm biological foundations. But they were to be disappointed. Despite the flashy images of the brain in action, they came no closer to really understanding the mysteries of the disordered mind or much beyond the routines of the ordered mind. And the reason is in part at least that the human mind, and madness as among the most potent expressions of that mind, is one part biology, two parts culture.

So Scull notes that the metaphysical wager that madness is an illness explicable by the body alone has not paid off. Our cures can be neither solely mental nor merely medical. They must embrace the cultures that temper, limit and excite the voices of madness within us. It is not that the pills or biological explanations will not play some role. “But will madness, that most solitary of afflictions and social of maladies, be reducible at last to biology and nothing but biology?” (p 411)

No, Scull replies:

The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness in civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or prove to be nothing more than epiphenomenal features of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been. It remains a fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself. (Scull, p 411)

 

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.

 

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XIII: the long waits of winter

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XIII: the long waits of winter
XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
Our working lives are long, and yet our culture’s celebration of youth is so strong: the energetic, the passionate, the believers and the ambitious displace those who know better, and who are resented for knowing better. After a certain time, all bureaucrats are passed over, treated like yesterday’s failed lieutenants, and pushed into some dark corner where they wait out the evening all afternoon long.
There they sit in the cedar-limbs, bristling against the snow. Cold, alone, forgotten, the despised part of their accursed kind.
How many years might this long winter snow continue? I ask myself this question since surely this is now my fate. But am I not the same blackbird whose mobile eye chased down the still world? Am I not the same blackbird who performed his cameo parts perfectly in the theatre of power? Do I not still have visions? Can I not still sing of innuendoes and inflections? Can I not be one with any man or any woman? Fly in green light, or swoop behind a glass coach in Connecticut?
I am. And the long years that I have to wait still in these cedar-limbs will be as truthfully, beautifully the way of a bureaucrat as the other 12, or as many more as you might imagine, manifestations. If the snow that I know will be coming does not kill me, it will make my winter’s mind stronger.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat XII: the thaw, the flight

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
I dwell in a land where the rivers are always moving, except when they dry out, when they would be called dry creek beds, not rivers. To imagine a place where a river is not moving is to imagine a place without life.
I have travelled to lands where rivers do not move because they freeze, and so, I read, Stevens’ mind of winter has stopped life, time, flight for this moment before the thaw.
But in my world the river never stops moving. Some call it change. Some call it events. Some call it power. Some call it culture. If the river stopped moving, the sun would parch us to death. The river is always moving. The sun always rises in the morning.
And so too the bureaucrat is always in flight. Never still. Always scanning the world. Always swooping by the water. Bound to the flowing river until exhausted the blackbird falls from the sky, and a new blackbird begins to singest of summer in full-throated ease.