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.

Error is in control

Error is in control

The mind errs. My mind errs.

The mind slips from its own grasp.

The mind believes the clouds that surround it are summoned by its will.

The mind, my errant mind, your proud mind, the mind we share in confusion lives by one illusion.

The mind calls this illusion, control.

Knowledge does not dispel this illusion.

Even though it claims to.

There is no enlightenment from this illusion.

Except in madness.

Kindness too, the humble gift of the unhinged, dissolves the clouds.

Then, in the time left to us, we see the madness of the day.

Its beauty. Its fear.

In that final abandon, we forgive control.

We stoop.

We live in a freedom we can never control.

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,

Leiris.jpg

and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.

 

Dream Life

I

In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.

II

Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.

III

Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.

IV

But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?

V

A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.

VI

This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo

 

Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”

Metamorphosis

You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Strange salt

Strange salt

All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat VIII: involved in what I know

VIII

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

It was Mario Cuomo, now dead former liberal democrat, governor of New York, who first said that “you campaign in poetry, and govern in prose.” It is a phrase that has become a licence for political deceit. After all, poetry is grand, and prose is dull, are they not? So surely the public must understand that the political vaudeville is compressed and imaginative words that carry us away from the hard and prosaic accounting of compromised governing?

There is a misunderstanding in Cuomo’s words, that is never questioned when this licence to deceive is repeated to excuse every broken promise, every disappointing decision. Poetry and prose overlap; they are not separate realms. Poetry can be beautiful, and it can have a terrible new beauty. Poetry can be like God-given speech and it can be machine-written. Prose can be exquisite, of some other world, like Thomas Browne or his modern echo Max Sebald,; and prose can be execrable, unintelligible, devoid of all sense and purpose and beauty.

I have known moments of lucid inescapable rhythms in my working life as a bureaucrat. Once indeed I was called upon to write some poems. The Cardinal once decided that the Australia Day oath was not to his liking. A talk back host had objected to its corny lines, and the Cardinal wanted to impress his master with a better result. So he asked me to write some alternative poems to replace the oath. I wrote three. The one I liked best, which lilted to a Presley song and conjured toes curling in the sand of a summer beach, was rejected, and another took the place of the doggerel oath.

Other times, action has had noble accents. I have stood vulnerable before drug users and wanted to make changes to how we treat addiction to consecrate their pain. I have stood in a life and been confronted with the deepest questions – what is culture? And how do we change it – and gone on to answer the call responsibly as best I could.

In all these moments, the bureaucrat has been involved too. Beans have had to be counted. Forms filled out. Commands obeyed. Details checked. Poetry and prose intermingle in the culture of governing.

13 Ways of looking at a bureaucrat VI: through barbaric glass darkly

13 Ways of looking at a bureaucrat VI: through barbaric glass darkly

VI

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
However much I may wish to make the figure of the bureaucrat familiar, for many people the way of seeing the bureaucrat will be, as in Stevens’ poem, like a shadow moving inexplicably and ominously behind a frozen screen of barbaric glass.
In ordinary life we see only tightly framed glimpses of the bureaucrat in action. They are not one of the professions known to every schoolchild – a doctor, nurse, lawyer, scientist, teacher – whose role in making our shared life is immediately clear. Nor do they tend to the daily domestic needs like the trades – baker, builder, cobbler, candlestick maker – we learn in rhymes. Bureaucrats serve hidden, more abstract purposes, shadows of an indecipherable cause.
Through this small window we see flittering from side to side that is seemingly busy yet meaningless. There is always paperwork to complete, processes to follow, protocols to complete, budget bids to make, risks to manage, and reform projects to make believe in, even when they never quite find the articulate voice who can define their purpose. They fly from side to side, reinventing titles, and changing the structures of their organisations according to the latest pedantic cries of fashionable madmen, and so create a maze of ever greater impenetrability.
We see only their shadows through that glass, and do not hear their songs. The rules of the republic demand they act as dumb mimes. We do not know the chatter that occurs about the deeper things in many office cubicles, when forced to confront our shared lives’ most difficult corners – containing the mad, bad and dangerous to know, consoling the broken, the addicted,  the frail and the traumatised, corralling the corrupt, the ambitious, the conceited and the grandiose – bureaucrats turn to each other to find comfort that someone else knows how it really is.
Those conversations, as between two prisoners condemned for their insight into the illusions of the outer world, can provide comfort, but can never proceed in full freedom. They can provide epiphanies, as when a lowly under-castellan will speak truths about human frailty or or the compassion required to endure a long life in institutions or the limits of that ruthless modern deity, change. But these whispered truths are not known by the frenetic grand blackbirds above, who fly energetically from one banality to another trite lie, checking their phones, exchanging their ill-informed positions, and perfecting their gestures at court. These whispered truths endure for the survivors in the institutions, the practitioners of the ordinary virtues. They provide moments of dignity that can create little acts of freedom and small thoughts of kindness. These moments of dignity establish a survivors’ code that is the hidden poetry of our troubled modern polities.
But these conversations in the dark can also turn sour. Sure in the world’s misunderstanding, the insiders begin to resent always doing the dirty work that the great actors, the good and the great, the rich and the famous do not acknowledge and will not do. This is the way of dark brotherhoods and dark sisterhoods who say: it is we who make your damned stupid laws work; it is we who cop the blame when others do wrong; it is we who need to mop up each and every social disaster, whether they be insolvent businesses or troubled families, violent youths or criminal minds, failing schools or mismanaged trains, escaped lunatics or rogue justices, drunken crowds or corrupted councillors. Behind their frozen trap, the dark brotherhoods and sisterhoods ruminate on their captive, poisoned state, and make of their resentment a virtue. They forget that the end of the voyager through the underworld, who carries his lyre among shadows, is to find his or her way back to infinite praise.
Surely though, as there is a season for all things, a time will come when the icicles on this frozen trap will melt away? Summer will come, and thaw away the barbaric ice,  the shackles of our modern, decaying political institutions. These icicles have formed over the last 30 years, as the state has been colonised by party political marketing machines. A change in the way of governing has frosted the glass. Hard, obscure icicles have appeared: talking points, numberless witless advisers, a loss of capability in political leadership, the rise of the merchant elite and its fawning companions, the consultocrats, the cannibalisation of the university, the impoverishment of public debate in turns through panel shows, shock jocks and the abandonment of intellectual culture by political leaders and senior bureaucrats themselves…. The list of woe could go on, but that is a work for another day.
Still if winter has come, can spring be far behind?