George Prochnik, “The Philosopher in Dark Times”

George Prochnik has written an affecting and thoughtful review of a collection of essays by Hannah Arendt, Thinking without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975. He does not pull punches about the current situation. His first paragraph quotes Arendt to the effect of saying that totalitarianism takes hold when people are not “informed.” That in itself seems bland and uncontroversial, until Arendt is quoted again: “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” Taken to its full extent, this is not just an indictment of the President and his party, both overindulging delegitimization strategies to absurd extremes—don’t trust the former FBI director; don’t believe women; don’t trust people of other races; domestic politics is an extension of war; don’t trust the media, unless it’s the National Enquirer or Hannity. It’s an indictment of the way many in America engage politics, e.g. putting up Facebook posts with deliberately inflammatory commentary in order to get someone to respond and “own” them; attacking the documented, lived experience of others with innuendo, gossip, and anecdotes based only in bigotry. Forget the government—ours is a sick society with authoritarian desires, a complete lack of respect for the lives of fellow citizens for the sake of feeling empowered. Being “informed” has less to do with having a principle one always regards as true, and more to do with establishing and embracing credibility. Without a real desire to find trust, one can hardly call oneself educated, free, or a lover of freedom.

That’s how I believe this review starts. It continues operation on a plane of thoughtfulness few can appreciate. His second paragraph features Arendt weighing exile—expatriation—as possibly worse than being condemned to death by the state. Expatriation is the ultimate delegitimization strategy: the mere threat of it is prelude not just to violence against individuals, as it leads to sectarian hatred, mass deportation, and genocide. One has to wonder about a political climate where for years one party relentlessly accused the other of being treasonous without any consequence. One has to wonder when that same party commits itself to frequent and arbitrary deportations and building suspicion of anyone who might question that violence.

I don’t just want to lament. I do want to spend a little time outlining the conception of philosophy briefly put forth in “The Philosopher in Dark Times.” I feel it makes muted criticism of those of us who claim to be Straussians, who argue the history of ideas is more or less a debate about “natural right” (i.e. is there anything in the nature of things—perhaps in human nature—which advances a conception of justice?). To be sure, the criticism is thoughtful and worthwhile. The argument for “natural right” as a more or less universal concern entails two far more controversial propositions. First, since not every age had anything resembling our current climate where it seems freedom of expression is valued, some thinkers had to hide their more dangerous thoughts and practice esoteric writing. How one goes about “proving” authors wrote esoterically—if any proof can be had!—creates the second proposition. One typically has to treat an author’s corpus like a coherent, carefully designed whole, one meant to give one set of readers one impression, another a very different impression.

Arendt, in contrast to looking for coherent wholes, used a “technique of dismantling.” According to Prochnik, “she saw her task as plucking the precious bits from time’s waves and subjecting them to her critical thinking, without pretending they could be melded back into any grand, systemic whole.” This approach, this “pearl diving,” makes sense if one holds that the ideas philosophers advance are ultimately meant to impact history. Prochnik: “Arendt remained unabashedly enamored of Marx’s proposition that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world. … The point, however, is to change it.” One has to judge ideas by what actually results from them; one seems to be paying philosophy the highest compliment by holding it accountable. Accountability, however, occurs piecemeal. A debate exclusively focused on what a philosopher really meant tends to make that philosopher an abstraction, a ghost who did not think about the world as much as create another world that resembles the one in which we live.

I do not doubt the value of “pearl diving.” Anyone who has followed my thought over the years knows I eschew terms such as “Aristotleanism” in favor of taking one idea at a time and thinking through it as fully as possible. I hold those with grand, systemic theories are more interested in triumphing against others than seeing the truth, or more precisely, seeing what is most like the truth and understanding it on its own terms. However, there is value in trying to see a philosopher as a lover of wisdom, as someone trying to understand his time and explain himself to us. The imperative of changing the world, invoked too soon, can do injustice to an individual trying to wrestle with what he thinks truth and communicate it. Arendt thinks otherwise. “She relished his [Marx’s] determination to wrest higher thought from the supine realm of the Greek symposium and thrust it into the ring of political activism, challenging, as she wrote, “the philosophers’ resignation to do no more than find a place for themselves in the world, instead of changing the world and making it ‘philosophical.’”

Finding a place in the world for yourself is not simply “resignation,” as every persecuted minority, including those in the United States currently, can attest. On my reading, the philosophers, by defending themselves and dedicating themselves to their thought, did change the world and make it more philosophical with or without active political engagement. Underlying philosophy is a great humanism. Not everyone can be a lover of wisdom, but that’s not because of ability. It’s because dedication to wisdom requires an unyielding skepticism about one’s own motives. How does one know one loves wisdom? The only way is to declare that the only thing I know is that I know nothing, and then try to not let my life fall apart doubting the knowledge I do have. The “ability” in question is the desire to love wisdom, a love of love that is perhaps best rendered by the Greek term eros. Anyone can be a philosopher, but few will realize it, and most will fall into dogmatic traps. A very elite few will be recognized for their accomplishment, but it is not clear that accomplishment is the same as trying to live the most fully human life. Still, if you believe, as I do, that in no small part because of Socrates we ask serious questions about science and justice, that because of Machiavelli and Hobbes we wonder about power and the logic of incentives, that because of Bacon and Descartes we are more eager to benefit from medicine, then it would seem the world has changed because of philosophy quite often.

The funny thing about giving an honest account of your own thought, though, is that your honesty needs something to prevent it from being misinterpreted or dismissed outright. It is not enough to be honest—it is only enough to be heard and understood on the grounds upon which one wishes to be understood. Enter esoteric practice, meant to convey a message and prepare its receipt. Arendt is too glib in what I assume to be a dismissal of it: “For Arendt, thinking that helped advance the cause of human freedom entailed a form of relentlessly critical examination that imperiled “all creeds, convictions and opinions.” There could be no dangerous thoughts simply because thinking itself constituted so dangerous an enterprise.” The last sentence is the problem, as there clearly are dangerous thoughts throughout the ages. Try talking about secularism or privacy of conscience as a fundamental human right in the Middle Ages, or democracy in 18th century Russia. Try talking seriously about white nationalism on Fox News—maybe highlight Atomwaffen or that 7 year old girl separated by US authorities for months from her mother. Try talking seriously about whether the concept of freedom has changed because of the dawn of all-too-powerful mass surveillance. The questions that animate esoteric practice are right here, right in front of us. There are powerful entities that cannot be directly spoken against at all times. There are plenty of people who are trying to think for themselves, but haven’t seen everything a potential philosopher sees. There are many who would laugh at one’s attempt to raise critical issues and generate concern. Of course thinking itself is a dangerous enterprise, but some thoughts are more worthwhile than others. Some thoughts advance human freedom, while others destroy it.

I am very grateful to Prochnik’s review for raising the issue of accountability with regard to philosophy. It’s still amazing to me that everything responsible for “The Flight 93 Election” does not receive consistent and persistent shaming. It’s not the essay itself so much, which is batshit. It’s the hysterics from someone we know now to be privileged, who got to taste considerable power because of his raving. There are so many, who have so much less, who are being persecuted at this very moment and are consistently exhorted to quietly bear unjust burdens. Privilege does not begin to describe how despicable misuse of one’s pulpit is in this case. It’s the fact it was published as if it were on par with an analysis inspired by Tocqueville’s Ancien Regime, and received by a considerable number who are in charge of educating the future of America. While I will defend inquiry into the practice of esoteric writing, and while I have sentiments that might be considered conservative, I will not stand for the consistent devaluing of human rights and human life in the name of shameless ideological screeching with the thinnest of scholarly veneers. Right now, I don’t write esoterically—I know what’s right, and I need your help to make things better.

Bill Knott, “Painting vs. Poetry”

How do fantasy and reality relate? I know I leap from fantasy to fantasy without having the slightest clue about what I wanted in the first place.

Knott’s little poem brings us back to the older discussion. Whereas our subordination to fantasy might involve discussing addiction to love or anger at the smallest things, an older line of thinking wondered about the power of imagination itself. Our minds have an image-making faculty, and from that faculty, we don’t just feel or act, we create.

Knott starts with a bold claim: Painting is a person placed between the light and a canvas so that their shadow is cast on the canvas. There’s something like the shape of you on the canvas when a painting is made. Not merely fragments of you, but a semblance of a whole. He extends this claim into one about poetry:

Painting vs. Poetry (from
Bill Knott

Painting is a person placed
between the light and a
canvas so that their shadow
is cast on the canvas and
then the person signs their
name on it whereas poetry
is the shadow writing its
name upon the person.

You might argue that his notion of painting is too strong. I don’t know how possible it is for me to see something representing the whole artist when I view art. I don’t know that any productive discussion can result from my saying, say, that Mondrian “is” Composition with Red Blue and Yellow.

However, Knott focuses less on the product and more on making itself. The painting is made by the painter being between the light and the canvas. A shadow, then, holds within it the efforts constituting craft and the result of craft. Saying a painter signs this makes more sense upon this consideration. Efforts are joined to create a result, an identity emerges, but the actual interaction of effort and craft remains shadowy. Fine art is a process which should maximize difference, mirror the difficulty of human being in the world.

So what is poetry? Somewhat surprisingly, for a poem titled “Painting vs. Poetry,” painting is presented as prerequisite for poetry. Poetry is the shadow writing its name on the person. There’s still a canvas with a shadow upon it. Effort and result and their complex togetherness all sign their name upon you. A poem or painting taken as a poem are the shadow speaking, a part resembling a whole, reaching, wondering how it relates to the whole of an individual.

John Ashbery, “Pleasure Boats”

What does it mean to understand “Pleasure Boats?” Typically, the words of a poem allow reconstruction of a speaker and scenario, I derive a meaning from their interaction, and then I posit an interpretation.

Ashbery leaves me grasping at a scenario, so much so that I’m forming primitive theories of interpretation while digging through my own experience, all to simply understand what the words could mean. Assigning a voice to the speaker feels nearly pointless, at first. But what if we’re dealing with multiple experiences in a poem? Amy King in “And the Occasion Changed” writes the following about Ashbery’s corpus:

John wasn’t trying to show us “reality,” what is; he was showing us how to discover what else is beyond that shared social overlay. Ashbery pluralizes what is: the plurality of reality. The realities right under our noses. This is the spiritual for me…

I can’t help but feel that “the plurality of reality” is very much on display in “Pleasure Boats:”

Pleasure Boats
John Ashbery

Wash it again
and yet again.
The equation drifts.

Wallowing in penguins,
she was wallowing in penguins.

With fiendish cleverness
the foreground closes in.

The four-leaf clover loses.

“Wash it again / and yet again,” “penguins,” and “four-leaf clover” could conjure a child’s bathtime in a suburban home. Toy boats and toy penguins and no responsibility. Just drifting until bathtime’s over. However, one could also imagine oneself on a cruise, one of those heading, say, near Antarctica, washing oneself over and over in an anxious moment, aimless and out of luck. There are an infinite number of scenarios worth discussing, but strangely, they cohere based on the thinnest of threads: the unfocused and repetitive action, the wallowing with what almost seems absurd, the end of the time doing the action, and the sense that this involves being “out of luck” or beyond luck. Nostalgia and our supposedly refined, adult desires both meet on these grounds. I can say one thing for myself—I’ve never particularly wanted to be on a boat, though if the food is spectacular, sign me up. Still, maybe I should take a closer look at those times I’ve lingered at home too long, doing nothing before work. Why did my feeling of freedom depend so much on what I didn’t want to do?

Louise Glück, “Snowdrops”

The body, the body, the body. We are told it is ours because it is our property. But it can be said to claim us—its uniqueness entails our scars, our pain, our anxiety. It is ours because we are it.

So it almost seems our bodies cannot be communicated. That’s not quite right, as intimacy very much exists. Perhaps our bodies cannot be shared on a universal level? Glück invites us to a force that shaped years of her own life. Through “what I was,” “how I lived,” “despair,” the body makes itself known through history:

Snowdrops (h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Louise Glück

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring—

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

History, though, is an imperative. A question of urgency regarding another, a climate which must be acknowledged if we are of the same species. Do you know what I was, how I lived?—ask about me, if you understand anything. You know what despair is—all know despair. What constitutes understanding and unity is acknowledgment. Winter should have meaning for you.

Glück speaks an all-too-physical mixture of life and death, birth and rebirth, terror and sanity. Hopelessness does not do justice to the feeling of body overwhelming body, crushing soul—I did not expect to survive, earth suppressing me. To arise from being buried alive arouses powerful, delicate sentiments. Wonder at one’s own wonder is too weak a formulation. It’s more like shock one’s own body would even respond after everything experienced. I didn’t expect to waken again, to feel in damp earth my body able to respond again, remembering after so long how to open again. “Waken,” “respond,” “open”—on a much smaller scale than her trauma, I remember when I felt eczema would consume me a year ago. My face looked like it was beaten in, there were large itchy red patches all over my body, I felt I couldn’t control anything. I woke up miserable and in pain, stayed that way throughout the day with scratching fits not unlike panic attacks, and then would have trouble sleeping.

The gain of any measure of control, an ability to respond, not react, felt an unclean, uncomfortable mixture. Like damp earth falling away. Or an openness which wasn’t easy or familiar—how to open again in the cold light of earliest spring is just as much a question as an occurrence.

For me, things are much better now. I have my face back. The skin has calmed in large part. Treatments and medicines actually take effect. I give my health thought, and most importantly, thoughts don’t spiral into a complete loss of control. Still, things are not perfect. I want to have learned something, be better for experience, despite the hard truth that some experiences should not happen, that not all pain can be learned from. I don’t want to forget after years of misery. Yet that is possible, for so much is unknown: afraid, yes, but among you again / crying yes risk joy / in the raw wind of the new world.

Franz Wright, “P.S.”

I’ve written so many bad love letters that it’s hard not to read Franz Wright’s “P.S.” and count myself fortunate for having stopped. His is an intimidating poem about intimidating issues. How to deal with the absence of a beloved? How to love when a life together is not truly possible?

The majesty of Wright’s poem lies in its mere acknowledgment of overwhelming emotion. That acknowledgment depends on no other action or communication or thought. It’s only a statement, perhaps to oneself, that “this is how I feel:”

P.S. (h/t @themoneyiowe)
Franz Wright

I close my eyes and see
a seagull in the desert,
high, against unbearably blue sky.

There is hope in the past.

I am writing to you
all the time, I am writing

with both hands,
day and night.

I close my eyes and see a seagull in the desert, high, against unbearably blue sky—there has been correspondence, and at last, this image. Does the writer see his recipient as a seagull, far from beach and ocean, moving against heat through an empty sky? Or does he see himself that way? If there’s been a correspondence, then maybe the answer is both. You want someone you love to appreciate the way you feel about them. Strangely enough, this means if communication has been lost because they are not sure of where they are, you mirror that in not being sure about who you are.

Still, there’s hope, or more precisely, the memory of hope—there is hope in the past. The seagull may be in no man’s land now, but it remembers what it was like to be where it belongs. Similarly, we remember what it meant to be accepted and loved.

This thought makes time a creative agony. On the one hand, you have to let go completely. You’re not really writing to someone “all the time,” “with both hands, day and night.” That’s only your hope become time, your life seen as a clock: in time, you say to yourself, you’ll see that I did love. On the other hand, I am writing to you all the time, I am writing with both hands, day and night. It is possible to fall in love for trivial reasons, but only trivial people will let those reasons be. We want to know, at the least, why we felt the way we did. The hope, for the writer—or more precisely, the person authoring their own life—is the rediscovery of the original feeling, what it was that was seen that was truly valued.