Have you never read?

They were indignant and asked him, ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do. Have you never read the text, “You have made children and babes at the breast sound your praise aloud”?’ – Matthew 21:15 – 16, REB

What haven’t I read this year? This year I never read Rhinoceros. I’ve thought about it — not about reading it, I mean.

But this year I read Matthew Fox’s account of reading Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros. Within minutes of reading it, I ordered Merton‘s Raids of the Unspeakable. I have now read Thomas Merton reading Rhinoceros for myself.

They [the Samaritans] told the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves.’ – John 4:42, REB

While we read John’s account of the Samaritans’ account.

Jesus wasn’t suggesting — he wasn’t even understood then and there, I don’t think, as suggesting – that his fellow rabbis had not read this or any the other texts he referred to. He was, though, implicitly challenging their notion of reading. Reading a book is no accomplishment, much less a credential.

Reading, in fact, may reduce me. In Bachelard’s poetics, for instance, “the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost.”1 I’m becoming my authors’ mirrors.

Maybe my writers are like the Old Testament’s heroes of faith, of whom the writer of Hebrews says, “only with us should they reach perfection” (Hebrews 11:40, REB). Is that what they see in me, and is that why they published? Are they watching me now?

And have you never read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — the novelist Silas Flannery watching through a spyglass a woman in a deck chair who is, in turn, reading his book?

Paul’s best stuff, he said, were his readers: “you are our epistles, known and read of all men.” Many writers are busy revising me.

To feel how impossible it is to finish a book, one must be read at least as much as one reads. John Climacus taught me that: “When you find satisfaction or compunction in a certain word of your prayer, stop at that point.”

So while reading a book may not be an accomplishment, reading a book may also be no small accomplishment. As Flannery says, “it is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible.” But this nonwritten stays nonwritten. It surfaces only through “the uncertainties of spellings, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen.”2 Do you hear what they are saying?

If you’ve finished If on a Winter’s Night, of course, you never finished ten books.

I’ve never actually read Climacus. Henri Nouwen quotes him, though, in a short book on meditation that I’ve read a dozen times, the last a dozen years ago.3

I won’t list most of the books I read from this year. But here are the books that were bad enough for me to finish:

  • 1 Samuel translated by Robert Alter
  • Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson
  • Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination by Joyce Appleby
  • The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt
  • On Revolution by Hannah Arendt (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (2nd reading)
  • Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
  • The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habernas by Lawrence Cahoone (2nd) (lecture series)
  • Metahuman by Deepak Chopra
  • The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark
  • Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (3rd & 4th readings)
  • Absalom, Abaslom! by William Faulkner (3rd reading)
  • The Wild Palms by William Faulkner (2nd reading)
  • Churches in the Modern State by John Neville Figgis
  • Radical Prayer: Love in Action by Matthew Fox (lecture series)
  • Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? by Robert Kuttner
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2nd & 3rd readings)
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of Western Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • The Prince by Niccolio Machiavelli (2nd reading)
  • Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • H.M.S. Surprise  by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Maritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian (5th reading)
  • The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Centuryby J. G. A. Pocock
  • Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.
  • The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation by Richard Rohr
  • Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down by Laura A. Sandefer
  • The Grammarians by Kathleen Schine
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare (2nd reading)
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (37th reading)
  • The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution by Ganesh Sitaraman
  • Prayer and Worship by Douglas Steere (4th reading)
  • Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Writing Across contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey
  • Medical Medium: Liver Rescue by Anthony William

This coming year, I’ll be thinking about Rhinoceros a lot.

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 11.
  2. Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 178.
  3. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 81.

Survivors

Alarums. We compared the sounds we use to move us from our dreams to the day to come.

And chimes. This morning’s wind, and we spoke of the high-hat cymbals crashing along suburban sidewalks. No low notes.

A teacher is a weather system, a symbol on a weather map. Students are the energy that activates him, that sends papers skittering across the linoleum. That came up, too.

Then this morning’s reading, taken from the prophet Isaias:

Israel’s watchmen are blind. . . . “Come,” says each of them, “let me fetch wine, strong drink, and we shall swill it down; tomorrow will be like today, or better still!”

The righteous perish, and no one is concerned; all who are loyal to their faith are swept away and no one gives it a thought. The righteous are swept away by the onset of evil . . . (56:10 – 57:1, REB)

I finished Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, written by Ariel Burger, a student. Wiesel talked warmly of his world before the camp:

We spoke of our love for the cadences of Talmud and the humor of Yiddish, the constant references to old texts and quotes from medieval commentators, the wordless melodies running through conversations. . . . I saw [Wiesel] as someone deeply connected to both the Old World and the New, and when he said, “We are here, after all, to build bridges between worlds,” this was a relief.

Wiesel’s death was a kind of rapture: one was taken, the other left.

From one of his pines hung my father’s wind chime. It clanked low like the steel buoys we’d sail to and climb as kids. It was a gull to the songbird-like wind chimes hanging from our neighbors’ porches. On windy nights the tidal James seemed to break its banks, and our house, now a hull, swam in it. Pop was its pilot.

Survivors die, eventually. Then what?

Identity and society

I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.

Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.

But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings.  It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.

To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.

I must love this author

I find most of my books while reading other books’ footnotes. Winton Solberg’s 1958 book The Federal Convention and the Formation of the Union, which came in the mail yesterday, is the latest example. I discovered it while rereading Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book On Revolution. Arendt cites Solberg’s book four times in her footnotes.

She sites him enough to tell me that she’s a magpie of a researcher. A main point here, an inference Solberg never made there, and an overall appreciation for the writer in all four notes. Her sources seem fewer and better considered than most academics’ sources. Her appreciation reminds me that all books are commonplace books; some are just better footnoted.

As I thumbed through this first-edition Solberg, which I got for pennies over the Internet (plus shipping), I thought about Arendt’s reading of Solberg. It occurred to me, pacing in my little library, that I was holding a copy of the very edition Arendt had held. And in a sudden bout of reverence, I almost dropped the book.

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.

Hero time

Some specialists are rushing to hold the republic together. I’m reading two more books that recast two lifetimes of research and thought as efforts to chip away at the thickening wall between left and right. One book’s approach is psychological; the other’s is philosophical. The first book, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, admits this rush:

People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.

Friends of friends of mine, prophets, came to town years ago and asked me point blank what made me tick. “I want to save the world,” I admitted rather sheepishly under some questioning that seemed intense, given the social context. They shook their heads sadly.

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

I told that story to a friend of mine. “Saving the world is something people give up in their teens,” she reflected. Yes, well, that’s because most people spend their youth testing their limits. I spent mine balancing my idealism by reading a lot, first Mad Magazine and later the Bible, both of which helped me develop a greater sense of irony. (Reinhold Niebuhr also learned his irony from the Bible: The Irony of American History is based on the Bible’s ironic worldview.)

Haidt’s ironic statement, evincing both self-deprecation and purpose, probably will lead to a lot of head-shaking. But it’s an idealistic age, even if some idealists, like me, wish to help talk some part of the world off the high ledge of political idealism.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we walked through the lit, empty outdoor mall by our condo to see Thor:Ragnarok. After long captivity, Thor tries to escape by throwing a large red ball through a window. He’s halfway through a refrain — an inspirational and idealistic proclamation about heroism — when the ball bounces off the glass, hits him in the head, and floors him. The motivational, non-diegetic music that accompanies the proclamation stops, too. But the music resumes as Thor gets up, completes his statement, and files through the window thanks to the crack the ball has made.

Today’s comic-book heroes enjoy irony, which separates these movies from the dark-and-light banality of their comic-book predecessors. But Thor:Ragnarok could be the marriage of comic-book Thor and Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad, whose satirical comic stories featured antiheroes and loads of prepubescent irony.

Our ideals, Thor: Ragnarok seems to suggest, must grow to accommodate irony and to encounter setbacks and even self-understanding. We cannot become like Thor’s trickster brother Loki or his captor Valkyrie, who let their experiences and cynicism trap them in selfishness in the universe’s hour of peril.

The second book, the philosophical one? American Covenant: A History of Civl Religion from he Puritans to the Present by Philip Gorski. Both books start with what we know: the country is divided, hopelessly so. Seemingly hopelessly. Both, then, start like comic-book movies.

Each of us, having dedicated our lives to something we now understand can save the republic, must come to understand that we are only one of those so dedicated and so motivated. And we must admit that we may have missed out on some normal stage of development.

Folds

There’s a book I loved as a child in which every turn of the boy’s sheet and blanket became a mountain range, a series of waterfalls, an army, or a field of cows or stars. A cloud of witnesses. I don’t think the boy himself was pictured. Was he sick that morning? Or an invalid, and never left his bed? Were the blanket’s folds the way from sleep – the pages of a devotional, as it were – and the bed made up on his rising?

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Wang Bi on Charles Wright

Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles, / still liquid and loose in the trees.
The world is a desolate garden . . .

– Charles Wright, “Images from the Kingdom of Things” (2006)

The dawn of tribalism is both a force (“blowing”) and a movement (“westward”). Its effect on the West (the western meadow) is as involuntary and disorienting as synesthesia (“sunlight is blowing”). An intellectual understanding of tribalism (seeing sunlight) misleads democrats and republicans: they assume tribalism’s dangers are evident to all, even to those who feel a primal attraction to its force (“blowing”).

In tribalism’s brief dawn, the three branches of government, understood here as light’s three primary colors, converge and pan like a searchlight. They discover Western democracy, like the passing night, holed up in the “shallow puddles,” that is, ironically, in the least democratic of institutions: the “trees” of the federal bureaucracy and the various intelligence communities.

chinese art photo
Photo by Naomi Chung’s Daydream Art

“. . . Wang Bi was acutely aware that he lived in dangerous times, and it is quite possible to read his commentary to the Laozi, on one level at least, as a strategy for survival.” — Richard John Lynn, The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi

Feature image photo by Internet Archive Book Images

The James

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When home, I walk along a beach or seawall and sometimes think of a conch shell. I hear the Atlantic’s breakers in the James’s soft laps, and I know the river hears the same thing.

Faulkner’s father once offered him a cigar. A teen at the time, Faulkner thought about it, accepted it, broke it open, dumped its contents into his pipe, lit the pipe, and, puffing, thanked him. Faulkner never outgrew his delight at telling this story.

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

Against my ruins

Our cars at 10, 1, and 5.

430. V. Gerard de Nerval, Sonnet El Desdichado.


432. V. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

 434. Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. “The peace which passeth understanding” is our equivalent to this word.