What are we fighting for?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t claim to be a philosopher, political or otherwise. I agree: no philosopher can be such a prose stylist. I read philosophy, too, but philosophy seems to be about tearing down and rebuilding foundations, and I stumble among all the forms and footers. I like the tone of Locke, Kant, and Hobbes, though. For all their precision and rhetorical rebar, I find a passion that gets below the frost line.

I’ve always read for tone even when comprehension escapes me. When I was thirteen, I read The Brothers Karamazov and Tom Jones for tone alone, I believe, because for years all I could remember of them was their respective tones. I liked the passion that pushed Dostoevsky’s tragic pen and Fielding’s comedic one, but I can’t say I could have analyzed them well, for what that would have been worth.

Arendt reads philosophers for tone, too. In a beautifully developed metaphor, she compares the tone in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and the rest of the big-name philosophers since Machiavelli to “children whistling louder and louder because they are whistling in the dark.” These men are a few steps ahead of us in this darkness, she believes: they understand before we do the ramifications of the loss of tradition and authority (the darkness is this loss) in Western politics due to the separation of church and state, itself due (in part) to the scientific revolution. (This separation ended a successful marriage of princely power and Papal authority that had begun in the fourth century. Of course, this marriage itself was one of convenience, coming as it did when Rome was losing its political authority, and I think for most of a millennium there were separate bedrooms.) In Arendt’s darkness metaphor, the break didn’t scare our big-name philosophers, but the darkness’s silence did. What will life be like when the silence gives way? We live after “the thunder of the eventual explosion” – Stalin and Hitler, presumably – so we can “hardly listen any longer to the overloud, ‘pathetic’ style” in the philosophers’ writing.1

What’s even more frightening for Arendt than Hitler and Stalin is what gives rise to them and what is still not addressed. She finishes her metaphor: the thunderous exigencies of the recent past – and of the present, we may now add – have “also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not ‘What are we fighting against’ but ‘What are we fighting for?’”2 We are against bureaucracy, white supremacy, and plutocracy, nationalism and fascism, but confusion reigns whenever we ask ourselves the latter question, as we must. We have quick answers, but they’re the stuff of coalitions, not of foundations. To read Arendt is to join her in exploring the silence.

Arendt has taught me not to blame the philosophers, with the possible exception of Plato. (More on him, perhaps, in another post.) These men intuited the problem and explored solutions, all of which Arendt believes failed. But if one views their proposals as theories, and if one further defines “theories” as that term was understood before the scientific revolution (“a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had been not made but given to reason and the senses,” and not the later “working hypothesis, changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it ‘reveals’ but on whether it ‘works’”3), then the philosophers are helpful. I can’t blame Hegel for Hitler or Marx for Lenin and Stalin.

Nor can I blame Ivan on Smerdyakov, much as I still love The Brothers Karamazov. And I no longer blame Smerdiakov on German historicism, bad as it is. Arendt is a better political theorist than Dostoyevsky.

Arendt – not a philosopher but a political theorist – is the philosophers’ supporter and friend. (She was also, of course, for four years Martin Heidegger’s lover.) She takes in centuries of philosophy – and history and literature, concerning which she’s also no slouch – and explains how the philosophers call and answer one another over time and space. I would be as good at understanding these communications as I would be at decrypting whale talk. She may touch on current events – she may write a book on German and Soviet totalitarianism and another on Eichmann – but all of her books, topical or otherwise, synthesize theory and history and speak to our present political predicament better than do our own commentators.

Our news commentary is, of course, shallow and divided, and it’s worse for having for its never-changing subject such a figure as our president. If today’s political climate were as funny as those desperate sketches on SNL insist it is, I’d read Fielding again. Tom Jones, a protean force, illegally shoots a partridge in one chapter, and the entire next chapter is given over to Tom’s schoolmaster and his family’s friend contextualizing the killing within their narrow, longstanding, competing, and futile political worldviews. In the succeeding chapters, of course, Jones, oblivious to the subtleties of such debates, is off on more misadventures.

William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Fielding’s two commentators, “Mr. Thwackum the Divine” and “Mr. Square the Philosopher,” roughly represent the views of today’s two-party system. One could read Tom Jones as an early warning about what Arendt calls “the rise of political movements intent upon replacing the party system.”4 And one can read Thwackum and Squire any time on any number of news outlets, left and right.

Arendt is above – or, rather, beneath – all that. She writes in the spirit of Goethe, who compared the West’s political world to a big city:

Like a big city, our moral and political world is undermined with subterranean roads, cellars, and sewers, about whose connection and dwelling conditions nobody seems to reflect or think; but those who know something of this will find it much more understandable if here or there, now or then, the earth crumbles away, smoke rises out of a crack, and strange voices are heard.5

If political philosophers create foundations, then Arendt inspects them. She nods when we’re together and I see more smoke.

I’ve had lots of literary companions over the years, mostly for my private sphere. Now that the night’s thunder is reverberating again in our public world, I’m finding new poets, historians, theorists, and spiritual writers to walk in the dark with me. My favorite literary companion, though, is Arendt.

If you take me up on reading Arendt – perhaps by giving up political commentary for Lent (and to that limited extent re-coupling church and state) – you might start with something more concrete and topical, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann on Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, and On Revolution (mostly about the United States, Arendt’s new home after escaping Nazi Germany). Then move to Between Past and Future, the scariest and most hopeful book I may have ever read outside of scripture. The chapter on education is hardly worth reading, but I’ve read much of the rest of it four or five times so far. I’ve started another collection of Arendt essays cobbled together twenty years ago by Jerome Kohn, Arendt’s literary trustee, entitled The Promise of Politics. Promise serves as an understudy for Between Past and Future, and it fills in a lot of the historical and philosophical blanks the more lively and daring Between Past and Future leaps over.

Finally, I can’t recommend Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? enough, though I’ve never read it. It won’t be released until June. But considering the title and the author, it should be good. At only 110 pages, Why Read will be on my nightstand, the Lord willing, with Timothy Snyder’s diminutive On Tyranny, not to mention Arendt’s Between Past and Future, the holy scriptures, and by then who knows what else.

[Featured image: “Storm” by rod amaru. Used by permission.]

  1. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future (1968), at 27.
  2. Id.
  3. Id. at 39.
  4. Id. at 91.
  5. Goethe, quoted in Arendt, Hanna, The Promise of Politics (2005), at 41.

Crime and Punishment / All the King’s Men

What’s a political novel? A novel with a political setting, or a novel that examines political theory? All the King’s Men is a political novel only in the first sense. Tom Jones is a political novel only in the second sense. Because this second sense of the term “political novel” goes more to an essence, for my money Tom Jones is more of a political novel than All the King’s Men.

People say All the King’s Men is about the rise and fall of Willie Starks, a state governor modeled after Louisiana’s Huey Long. There’s something to that: Starks’s turns away from his idealistic political start towards a cynical and corrupted governorship. But the novel doesn’t spend more than an episode or two fleshing out the change; it contrasts the change by flashback more than it examines it. Instead, the novel uses Starks and his change to examine human nature.

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Philosophy in fiction

Tolstoy or DostoevskyIt occurs to me, rereading Tom Jones, that a novel can get across the life of an idea better than a treatise or a tract.

It’s not just that a novelist can sell a reader on her idea better than a nonfiction writer can his.  It’s that the idea can come across more fully, more like what it is: an idea enjoyed, feared, implemented, resisted, expanded upon, corrupted, corrupting.  The idea as obsession, as communication, as liberator, as oppressor.

When I think about expressing ideas in fiction, though, I face facts. I’m not attracted to stories as much as I am to language and to ideas, to abstractions.  Here’s how I know.  I never read fiction for plot.  I wore out two Bibles by the time I was thirty, and in them, the law, the histories, and the gospels — basically, the narratives — show some modest wear.  The epistles, those redoubts of instruction and abstraction, are in tatters.

I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve never watched a minute of television drama made since 1970.  (That’s about the last year I watched a local news broadcast, too: local news has most of the news stories.)  I also don’t remember jokes, anecdotes, names, or faces.  I often tune out, and sometimes interrupt for the gist, when people start telling me stories.

One last piece of evidence.  We had to recite cases in law school.  I never got the facts straight.  My contracts professor once asked me, pointedly, in front of a hundred of my peers, “Have you read this case?”  I had — I really had — but it didn’t take.

Nevertheless, I’ve read a dozen books by novelists on how to write novels.  My friend Michael, who also never writes fiction but at least is an excellent raconteur, reads them and passes them on to me.

Get the idea?  I don’t do stories.  But I’m enamored of them, crazy about the idea of stories.

Here’s another obstacle.  Writing fiction about ideas is out of vogue.  It’s fine to have a theme and all, people feel, but any greater role for an idea makes the fiction seem enthusiastic or polemical.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think an aversion to overcrowding fiction with ham-handed, ideological agendas is a matter of the age we’re living in.  I find a universal truth in the notion that good fiction, even a good parable or fable, can’t be first and foremost a vehicle for its message. But we’ve taken that truth to an extreme, I think because we have so few universally held myths stout enough to hang our ideas from.  (Myths I can handle.  Tell me a story a thousand times, set it to liturgy and holidays and commentary, and I can remember it.  Hell, I’ll serve at its altar.)

The most recent book Michael gave me was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  (A dozen books on writing fiction, and I’m only now reading Dillard’s classic?)  She says:

People love pretty much the same things best.  A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree. . . .

Why do you never find anything about the idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Dillard asks.  Because (she answers) it is up to you. (67)

But does Dillard confuse wood for spark, or purpose for fillip?  As a college writer-in-residence, Faulkner tells that story about Caddy’s underwear, but I don’t think it’s why he took up writing fiction.  The vision of Caddy climbing a tree just got him going, to hear him talk about it.

But what if it’s an idea I want to burn?  I could find a spark anywhere for writing about it, but do ideas legitimately burn in fiction anymore?  And the kind of fiction I’m thinking of doesn’t have ideas as mere theme or adornment.  These ideas are the work’s backdrop and its reason for being.  (You probably have clicked around this site enough to get some idea of my ideas.  It doesn’t take many clicks to do so.)

George Steiner thinks Dostoevsky’s characters burn ideas:

Dostoevsky’s heroes are intoxicated with ideas and consumed by the fires of language.  This does not man that they are allegoric types or personifications.  No one, with the exception of Shakespeare, has more fully represented the complex energies of life.  It means simply that characters such as Raskolnikov, Muishkin, Kirillov, Versilov, and Ivan Karamazov feed on thought as other human beings feed on love or hatred.  Where other men burn oxygen, they burn ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism 289)

Intoxicated with ideas and consumed with language?  Maybe I’ll give up the thought of writing and become a Dostoevskian character.

But Dostoevsky, and not just his characters, burned ideas, particularly one:

Writing to Maikov in 1870, with reference to the projected Life of a Great Sinner, the novelist confessed: “The fundamental idea, which will run through each of the parts, is one that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long: it is the question of the existence of God.”  This torment was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s genius; his secular instincts – the power of the story-teller, the inborn sense of drama, his fascination with politics – were profoundly conditioned by the religious cast of his mind and by the essentially religious quality of his imagination. . . . Around “the question of the existence of God,” Dostoevsky’s novels elaborate their special vision and their dialectic.  They raise it now by affirmation and now by denial.  The problem of God was the constant impulse behind Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and ultra-nationalist theories of history; it made moral discriminations of the utmost insight a necessary art; it gave the activities of intellect their pivot and tradition. (287 – 288)

Even if I had a fraction of Dostoevsky’s talent, are we in an age where our novelists or their characters can burn ideas like oxygen?  Here’s where the idea of the idea-as-backdrop comes in.  Steiner feels like Dostoevsky’s generation of Russians had a rendezvous with destiny:

The contemporaneity of religious fervor and poetic imagination in nineteenth-century Russia, the dialectical relationship between prayer and poetry, was a specific historical circumstance.  It was no less rooted in a moment of time than was that coalescence of occasion and genius which made possible Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. (321)

Our mythologies, which Steiner believes “can be of diverse orders: political, philosophic, psychological, economic, historical, or religious” (232), aren’t as deeply rooted as those in nineteenth century Russia (319).

That may be why some English and American writers are skittish about ideas in literature.  We’re diverse and disconnected, and while we’ll scream about politics, we rarely talk about it in the context of great ideas.  There’s little mythological (in Steiner’s broad sense of the word) bottom in our literature, so our literature can’t hold ideas. It’s like variations on a musical theme when the theme’s gone.  The variations clash, and everyone sounds insensitive to how the others are playing.

Rebecca West considered “a failure to recognize the dynamism of ideas” as the chief flaw in English literature.  Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to John Berger’s Selected Essays, takes issue with Craig Raine’s notion, which Dyer feels is prevalent in England today, that “We need ideas, but not in our art.”  “This belief,” Dyer responds, “is a serous blot on the English literary landscape” (xii).

Steiner feels a need to reorient us to the notion of ideas in novels before he examines Dostoevsky’s:

In suggesting that a novel may be a façade or a mask for a philosophic doctrine, we involve ourselves in error.  The relationship between thought and expression is at all times reciprocal and dynamic. (232)

Tom Jones and The Brothers Karamazov have been the chief pillars of my novel reading from high school on.  Tom Jones is a comedy set over a wide period of time with a friendly narrator; Karamazov is a tragedy in compressed time with a hidden narrator, a kind of stage director.  The books are so different.

But Tom Jones and Karamazov are both about ideas.  They’re both political and religious novels, though not in the sense of All the King’s Men (political setting) or the Left Behind series (religious indoctrination).  They both examine political theory and religious doctrine without falling into tract or allegory (despite Tom Jones’s “Allworthy” and “Thwackum”).  They extend beyond their ideas to touch something universal, something that readers who aren’t enamored with their ideas – indeed, readers who reject them – may still draw life from. In other words, while the novel serves the idea, the idea serves the novel more.

Hope & the photograph

John Berger considers Franz Hals “the only painter whose work was profoundly prophetic of the photograph.”  Hals’s paintings bear little resemblances to photographs, but what Berger means is that they think like cameras.  Like his contemporary Rembrandt, Hals paints his nude as she really looked, Berger says; neither painter painted a Platonic ideal of his subjects.  But Berger believes that Rembrandt achieved realism though his view of redemption, while Hals achieved his through a kind of desperation that Berger admires.  I’m not sure if Berger associates that desperation in any way with photography.

Berger’s view of Rembrandt mirrors mine of Dostoevsky, whom I consider a realist.  Rembrandt applies “a realist practice more radically than any other Dutch painter to the subject of individual experience.  It is not his choice of biblical subjects which matters here, but the fact that his religious view offered him the principle of redemption, and this enabled him to look unflinchingly at the ravages of experience with a minimal, tenuous hope.”

Dostoevsky’s characters are the most realistic I’ve ever encountered if, like Berger, one refers to the realism of “individual experience.”  I feel drawn to Dostoevsky’s Christianity because, unlike a lot of Christianity I’ve experienced in the West, it offers insight into the horrors of experience.  It is precisely Dostoevsky’s “minimal, tenuous hope” that permits him to sketch Dmitri and Ivan Karamazov.  Christians with little experience of redemption flinch, like Job’s friends, in the face of tragedy, unable to accept it in terms other than divine retribution.

Berger’s view of Hals as the only painter-prophet of the photograph stems from his observation that Hals was driven, unlike his predecessors, to paint a world with contingency and without conclusions.  This almost existentialist viewpoint Berger finds in Hals accounts for what Berger perceives as Hals’s desperation and impatience.  Hals’s naked woman on the bed  “does not, like [Rembrandt’s] Bathsheba, glow from the light of her being.  It is simply her flushed, perspiring skin that glows.  Hals did not believe in the principle of redemption.  There was nothing to counteract the realist practice, there was only his rashness and courage in pursuing it.”

But how closely does a photograph render experience as opposed to only appearance?  Because Berger goes on to say that Hals doesn’t get across merely his model’s glowing skin.  Hals’s practice “was not to reduce a bouquet of flowers to their appearance . . . it was to reduce closely observed experience to appearance.”  Most photography gets across only a subject’s appearance and not her experience, I think.  Translating experience to appearance seems like a worthy goal for photography, though Berger doesn’t say as much.

And is photography art enough or broad enough to distinguish between a Hals photograph and a Rembrandt one, if you will, excluding digital postproduction work, which can make a photograph into anything?  From the standpoint of composition, lighting, and the knack for, and skill of, capturing photographic images, can one distinguish between a Rembrandt realism and a Hals one in photography?

Finally, what is Hals’s – really, Berger’s version of Hals’s – equivalent in literature? Friar Lawrence-like, “I do spy a kind of hope” in the most seemingly-hope-forsaken literature.  I don’t find Faulkner’s novels and his Nobel proclamation that “man will prevail” to be contradictory.  Berger’s own Lucie Cabrol is one of my favorite characters in literature, and her third life suggests a “tenuous” silver lining to her tragedy.  Can a novel be at once bereft of hope and yet great?  Maybe Jude the Obscure, though its hopeless feel may stem more from its lack of comic relief than anything else.

I find even philosophically hope-forsaken literature (Sartre’s No Exit, Kafka’s The Penal Colony) to be oddly hopeful – hopeful, perhaps, at a spiritual level.

Can the same thing be said for Hals’s work or for photography at its essence?  Does Berger agree with Roland Barthes that photography’s power comes from its lack of artifice:

It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself.  The noeme of language is perhaps this impotence, or, to put it positively: language is, by nature, fictional; the attempt to render language unfictional requires an enormous appraratus of measurements: we convoke logic, or, lacking that, sworn oath; but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself; the (rare) artifices it permits are not probative; they are, on the contrary, trick pictures . . . (Camera Lucida 85, 87)

Is language by nature hopeful, and is that hope bound up with its essentially fictional nature?  And, given that fiction is often more spiritually accurate than fact is, is that so bad?

And now that digital postproduction – Photoshop and the like – has made photography’s artifices less “rare,” would Barthes find today’s photography less (Barthes’s word) astonishing, less (Berger’s word) despairing, more linguistic, fictional, hopeful?

[All Berger quotations and paraphrases are from his 1979 essay “The Hals Mystery” from The Selected Essays of John Berger.   If I had read more of Berger’s essays on art than I have, I might know more about his views on photography.  But my point here isn’t to figure that out.  All emphasis original.]