Grieving

With eyes closed, I am talking to a quite lively ghost.1

My father died the morning of December 1. He would have been 95 this Valentine’s Day. His poor health, unusual for him, to some extent prepared us for his death over the past six months. It’s all grief, whether it came before he died or whether it comes now.

The first time I missed him was that afternoon. I was talking on the phone to an old friend of his, and I wanted to repeat to him something she said, to say, “Hey, Pop!” The family was together; it was strange that he wasn’t there.

My father, 1924 – 2018

“Just tell him!” his friend suggested. She is the Episcopal deacon who would officiate at his memorial service the following week.

So I did, cupping the phone a bit. We laughed.

It’s funny what processes the emotions. I was touched by the viral cartoon of George H.W. Bush’s fighter plane landing in heaven and his reunion there with Barbara and Robin, who had predeceased him. I’ve tried to describe the cartoon to different people, and I can’t get through it.

Bush and my father were born the same year (the former on my birthday), and they died within hours of each other. While the country was mourning Bush, we were mourning my father. I texted to my family what I imagined to be Bush’s last words: “Warren Stephens survives.”

They were a lot alike — public men with reputations for integrity. My father’s public, of course, was local, his beloved Newport News, where he spent his entire life outside of college, the military, and his last year with my mother near my siblings in a Richmond retirement community. (Here’s the story of his death in the local paper.)

This morning I wept, too, through Mary McCarthy‘s postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. Arendt had finished the second section (“Willing”) of this trilogy a week before she suddenly died. Arendt had finished “Thinking” the year before, and her friends discovered a sheet of paper in her typewriter containing only the word “Judging” followed by two epigraphs after she died. I wonder what the epigraphs were, but McCarthy keeps them between Arendt and herself.

There’s a lot McCarthy doesn’t say, which makes her postface, like the process of grief, so interesting. She says that she had worked with Arendt to edit several of her most well-known works. When she collaborated with Arendt as her editor, they got to know each other’s minds. Arendt thought that McCarthy’s Catholicism, which McCarthy had disowned, had adequately prepared her for philosophy. She saw McCarthy as a perfectionist — I assume most authors understand their editors as such — and McCarthy knew she could outlast Arendt if they disagreed. “‘You fix it,’ she would say, finally, starting to cover a yawn.”

She describes how her editing felt like collaboration while Arendt was alive. Arendt was going through her “Englishing,” and McCarthy for her part learned enough German to better understand Arendt’s thought expressed in her syntax. German allowed McCarthy “to make out the original structure like a distant mountainous outline behind her English phrasing.” From then on, McCarthy would put Arendt’s prose “into German, where they became clear, and then do them back into English.”

After Arendt’s death, the editing got harder, of course. Death proved more formidable than a foreign tongue. McCarthy still engaged in dialogues with Arendt, “verging sometimes, as in life, on debate. Though in life it never came to that, now I reproach her, and vice versa.” McCarthy even describes her nightmares — lost or (worse) newly found manuscripts — missing Arendt or uncovered Arendt — that throw over everything. There is something here of the danger and frankness and the feeling of internal process that I found, as a teenager, in the talk among the dead in Our Town.

Why isn’t grief, when it comes, as frank as the grave? Maybe Arendt can help. She liked to distinguish between the inside and the outside of the human body, and she lumped our “passions and emotions” with the likes of or livers and kidneys. Compare our emotions’ “monotonous sameness” with what they lead to, i.e., the “enormous variety and richness of overt human conduct,” she suggested in “Thinking.” Grief, I’ve read, has predictable stages, rather like digestion. But grief, like a Program Era writer who shows without telling, also expresses itself with the outer life’s variety and richness.

Maybe grief’s dekes and indirection are invitations from the dead. Hey, Pop.

  1.  Mary McCarthy in the postface to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind

Arendt & this year’s reading

So far I’m finding The Life of the Mind to be a philosophical defense of some of Hannah Arendt’s big political science concepts. Her “it-seems-to-me,” for instance, reappears here, but not strictly as a celebration of plurality as it appears in, say, Between Past and Future. In The Life of the Mind, it-seems-to-me becomes the glory of “the inter-subjectivity of the world,” a world of appearances in which one’s solipsistic five senses are “remedied” by a sixth sense — common sense — which brings one’s observations into “a common world shared by others.”

I think Arendt’s “common world” is her beloved Greek polis, and so her public space in her political books becomes, in The Life of the Mind, all of what we hold in common as humans. The Life of the Mind is the last book Arendt ever wrote, and I find in it the fullest exploration of the problem she addressed when she first met us — totalitarianism. Here, and now with references to Kant and Merleau-Ponty, is the common sense that, she warned in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism aims to destroy:

[The masses] do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, with may be caught by anything that is at one universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all “the plausibility’s of the world” (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Schocken Books, 1951.

Forty years removed from her incarceration in Nazi Germany, Arendt does not mention totalitarianism in The Life of the Mind. Her final decade, the 1970s, is proving to be a high mark between two eras in which common sense, and “the whole sector of communal relationship in whose framework common sense makes sense,” are under deliberate attack. Arendt deserves the era of relative peace in which she last wrote.

• • •

I dipped in and out of lots of books this year. But here are books and Great Courses series that I read and/or listened to from cover to cover in 2018. I list them in the order I finished them. A hyperlinked title leads to a post discussing it.

  • On Revolution by Hannah Arendt (read twice)
  • Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage
  • The Enlightenment Invention of the Modern Self by Leo Damrosch (Great Courses series)
  • The Republic by Plato
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann
  • The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno deMesquita and Alastair Smith
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (23rd reading)
  • Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (read four times)
  • The Life of Greece (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 2) by Will Durant
  • The Promise of Politics by Hannah Arendt
  • Public Freedom by Dana Villa
  • America’s Founding Fathers by Allen C. Guelzo (Great Courses series)
  • The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
  • The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology by Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
  • Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by Garry Wills
  • Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Caesar and Christ (The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3) by Will Durant
  • Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama
  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (second reading)
  • Revolution (The History of England, Vol. 4) by Peter Ackroyd
  • Common Law and Liberal Theory by James R. Stoner, Jr.

Because my list includes only books I read completely, some writers I read a good deal of this year aren’t represented in it. Sheldon S. Wolin is the writer in whose books I dipped the most.

Start writing

When I teach writing as thinking, I describe a mind slowly leaving its brain. The mind travels down the arm to the hand and pen. After a five- or ten-minute session of sustained writing, I ask students to circle the best — the most interesting or energetic — of what is, from a communications standpoint, admittedly mostly bad writing.

Then I have them categorize this “best.” Is it something they had thought to write before writing or something they thought of as they were writing? If the latter, then they experienced a successful mind transplant.

Not everyone likes this transplant. One may be, more or less, a think-before-you-write writer. But this transplant activity helps a lot of people discover themselves to be think-as-you-write writers. If you’re the former, you may have put up no resistance to your grade-school teachers’ insistence on “prewriting” — graphic organizers and outlines. If you’re the latter, you may have found prewriting unfit for prehensile creation.

What’s your favorite pen? People who like to think before they write sometimes prefer fountain pens. This is writing as presentation, from which, I guess, comes calligraphy. People who like to think as they write sometimes prefer a pen that won’t let their writing lag too far behind their thinking — the smoother ball points or rollerballs, for instance. And their journals are a glorious, circuitous mess.

Start writing, WordPress 5.0’s editor advises. And it’s hard not to, given the space’s layout and typography. For me, writing is mostly driving. It’s getting behind the wheel and hitting the gas. Thoughts come and go like scenery. Turns of phrase are twists of two-lane highway. My father, who I think planned out every word his fountain pen ever scratched, loved to take a spin in his Continental convertible, particularly if he had nowhere to go.

Your faithful servant N.

People die; maybe that’s why the world never seems to get out of first gear. A friend of mine, the older he gets, finds life’s meaning more and more in the coming millennium of Christ. We’ll return with Him and have the time, this time, to get things done.

To those like him, who plot their rest in growth, speaks the Book of Common Prayer: “. . . we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive him more and more into your joyful service . . .” For “your faithful servant N.,” what could heaven be but greater service? What is heaven but one’s twenties – the deeds with death a thousand years away?

According to Edward Coke, Thomas Littleton’s Tenures is “the most perfect and absolute Worke that euer was written in any humane Science.” But as good as it is, “Certain it is that when a great learned man (who is long in the making) dyeth, much learning dyeth with him.” Coke named his own writings Institutes “because my desire is, they should institute, and instruct the studious, and guid him in a readie way to the knowledge of the national Lawes of England.”

Coke’s contemporary, John Donne, said that “Any man’s death diminishes me”; to “instruct the studious” is a fittingly small consolation.

While He tarries, teach.

How important is the Supreme Court?

In 1831, two young Frenchmen visited America, charged by their government with investigating the American prison system. They finished in nine months. They also spent those months months investigating “all the mechanisms of this vast American society,” as the leader of the pair, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it (Tocqueville vi). The result is Democracy in America, a book that implicitly critiques the French government and society of Tocqueville’s time through its largely favorable review of American government and society.

One American institution that struck the twenty-five-year-old de Tocqueville as quite different from anything in Europe was the United States Supreme Court. He was amazed: the Supreme Court can tell the rest of the American government what to do. By contrast, all European governments, no matter their form, show “the greatest repugnance to allow the cases to which it was itself a party to be decided by the ordinary course of justice” (123). He pointed out that, unlike European tribunals, when the Supreme Court hears cases between, say, New York and Ohio, it “summons sovereign powers to its bar.” And although Tocqueville didn’t mention it, he might have added that the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison settled early on that the Supreme Court has the authority to declare acts of Congress invalid if it finds that they are without Constitutional basis. In Tocqueville’s time, this kind of authority in the hands of an independent judiciary was unknown in other modern societies.

Tocqueville was so taken with the Supreme Court’s role that he felt that its reputation and preservation were more important than that of the other two federal branches of government, the presidency and Congress. Yet, more than the other two branches, the court was also more subject to injury from popular disdain. The justices are the “all-powerful guardians of a people which respects law; but they would be impotent against popular neglect or popular contempt,” he claimed, pointing out that the Supreme Court must act consistently with the nation’s understanding of the rule of law (124). We, on the other hand, often see our Supreme Court as the least important of the three branches and, because of the justices’ lifetime appointments, the least subject to adverse popular opinion.

We have some good authority to support our view. Tocqueville’s equally famous countryman, the political philosopher Montesquieu who lived a century before Tocqueville, thought courts were inherently powerless. Montesquieu influenced the framers of the American Constitution by updating the Roman notion of separation of powers, giving us the executive, judicial, and bicameral legislative branches we recognize today. In so doing, however, Montesquieu claimed that the the judicial branch is “in some measure next to nothing” (Huntington 392). After all, nobody (we would say today) comes to a game to see the umps.

Which Frenchman is right? Is the United States Supreme Court the most or least important branch of American government?

In exploring this question, it may be helpful to make two distinctions. The first is between power and function, and the second is between power and authority. Clarifying those three terms may suggest how the framers understood sovereignty and the rule of law as well as the Supreme Court’s role in maintaining this understanding.

We generally think of the Constitution as balancing three primary governmental functions. The Constitution separates functions, however, only to the extent that such a balance of functions achieves the document’s greater goal — a separation and balance of powers. The Constitution is designed to keep sovereignty away from any single part of government, whether it be a branch of the federal government or whether it be the states vis-a-vis the federal government. For instance, as American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington pointed out, “the judicial power to declare what law is became the mixed judicial-legislative power to tell the legislature what the law cannot be” (393 – 394). The Supreme Court also has a quasi-executive role since it can pass on the constitutionality of many executive decisions, such as the suspension of habeas corpus or the issuance of executive orders. The Constitution gives the court more than a judicial function in order to balance some of the powers the Constitution acknowledges.

This sharing of functions to create a true balance of power isn’t a modern invention. In fact, Huntington argued that the American government’s separation of powers is a holdover from the late medieval period before the rule of law began to be replaced by the rule of men. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the nations of continental Europe placed their sovereignty in kings while the English Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution eventually caused sovereignty to be placed in Parliament. The American colonists, however, kept to Tudor-era notions of the supremacy of common and natural law. As British historian Albert Pollard pointed out, “Americans instinctively revolted against the doctrine of the sovereignty of the State” (Huntington 388). At the time of the American Revolution, Americans were still resisting the modern “tendencies toward the substitution of sovereignty for law,” as Huntington put it (386). Americans kept Elizabethan notions of law, just as the the residents of the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island retain certain Elizabethan speech patterns.

It would be helpful to define both sovereignty and the rule of law. Sovereignty, the jurist Jean Bodin says, is the notion that there is “a supreme power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law” (Huntington 384). Sovereignty, then, is the assertion of power over others, a concept that political theorist Hannah Arendt said hinders freedom: “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce” (Arendt, Between, 163). The rule of law, however, is the opposite of sovereignty. The rule of law is not to be confused with “law and order”; indeed, the significance of rule of law is in its scope and not its force or strength. Political Theorist Francis Fukuyama defines the rule of law as “rules that are binding even on the most politically powerful actors in a given society” (11). In other words, the scope of law must bind even kings and Parliaments. The American founders held to notions of natural law — law that is discovered by man but not generated by him — precisely to counter modern notions of sovereignty.

This idea of rule of law as exercising something like sovereignty points to the distinction alluded to earlier between power and authority. Power includes coercion, but Arendt said that authority cannot be equated with or rely on coercion — or, for that matter, even persuasion. In fact, she said that “practically as well as theoretically, we are no longer in a position to know what authority really is” (Arendt, Between, 92 – 93). She described where the political idea of authority came from — the founding of Rome — and she described also how the Roman Senate, even when it had no power, was consulted by Rome’s powerful rulers for its blessing on legislative or executive measures. The Roman Senate was the guardian of Rome’s founding, and its task was to measure every governmental action against that founding (120 – 122). That gives us some notion of what authority is even if the West no longer generally experiences it, as Arendt suggested.

Where, then, did authority in the West go when Rome fell? The Catholic Church took on the Roman Senate’s role; Arendt was fond of quoting a pope writing to an emperor at the end of the fifth century: “Two are the things by which this world is chiefly ruled: the sacred authority of the Popes and the royal power” (126). This pope-king tandem lasted in the West for over a thousand years, Arendt asserted, but it collapsed during the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. One can infer this collapse in the preoccupation with governmental legitimacy in the writings of the period’s political thinkers. Political theorist Alexander S. Rosenthal pointed out that Richard Hooker’s question “‘what conditions make the power to rule legitimate?’ became particularly important in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (107). Arendt believed that governments since then have frequently resorted to force — to power — as a tragic means of compensating for their lack of authority.

One modern institution attracted Arendt’s attention because of its authority, however — the American Supreme Court. Its lack of power and its lifetime appointments make it “the true seat of authority in the American Republic” (Arendt, Revolution, 192). She compared the Supreme Court directly with the Roman Senate, pointing out this small distinction: instead of giving political advice, the Supreme Court gives legal interpretations (193). She approved of Woodrow Wilson’s characterization of the court as “‘a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session’” (192). The Supreme Court, then, gives the government and statutes the authority generated by the Declaration of Independence’s signers and the Constitution’s framers at our nation’s founding.

The Supreme Court’s powerlessness and its authority mean, of course, that both Montesquieu and Tocqueville are right. To maintain its authority — and thereby to maintain the entire government’s authority — the Supreme Court must not make mistakes regarding fundamental law that would undermine its standing with the American people. As Tocqueville warned, “If the supreme court is ever composed of imprudent men or bad citizens, the Union may be plunged into anarchy or civil war” (124). He was right: within twenty years of Democracy in America’s publication, the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision helped to bring about the American Civil War.

When the Supreme Court adjudicates, it must consider its function as the source of our federal government’s authority. If it fails to rule in accordance with the Constitution and natural law — i.e., in accordance with the rule of law — it will cause a large segment of the American people to lose their trust not only in the judicial branch but in our entire system of government.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Penguins Books, 2006.

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. Penguin, 2009.

Fukuyama, Francis. Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Huntington, Samuel P. “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe.” World Politics, vol. 18, no. 3, 1966, pp. 378–414. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2009762.

Rosenthal, Alexander S. Crown Under Law. Lexington, 2008.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Edited by Isaac Kramnick, W.W. Norton, 2008.

The fallen sign

Looking out my window, I see a temporary sign face down on the traffic island between the east- and westbound traffic. In our suburban town, these islands themselves are signs. If a school bus stops in the opposite direction on a divided street (that is, a street with an island) to pick up children, you don’t stop. If the street isn’t divided, though, you must stop. The island creates a legal fiction: you don’t see the bus’s outstretched stop sign because of the island. The island, I suppose, suggests something about whether drivers along the road are expected to anticipate pedestrians.

There are islands like traffic islands along the Potomac where we live, above the falls.  (South of the Potomac, but above the falls.) You’d paddle or sail across the river, portage your boat across the narrow island, and paddle or sail again. And you’d be in Maryland. (“Mainland” Maryland, I suppose, since the the islands themselves, like the river, are in Maryland. Borders are fictions, too, and sometimes they are also invisible.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, my latest live-in author, never associates civilization with civility. Here’s an example of how he uses “civilization” from Democracy in America:

The celebrated communities of antiquity were all founded in the midst of hostile nations, which they were obliged to subjugate before they could flourish in their place. Even the moderns have found, in some parts of South America, vast regions inhabited by a people of inferior civilization, but which occupied and cultivated the soil. To found their new states it was necessary to extirpate or to subdue a numerous population, until civilization has been made to blush for their success.1

I ask for greater civic life, but I’m not asking for greater civilization or even greater civility. I ask that we act, and in acting we challenge our assumptions about public life and our own being. We act, and we discover new thoughts and words commensurate with the act. Our hands and our feet teach us, much as they did when we were young.

Philip Kenicott has a nice piece in today’s Post on the Glenstone Museum’s new facility in Potomac. The Glenstone hopes to make interacting with art more contemplative. In the process of describing how it navigates the museum-as-temple and the museum-as-civic-center tension, Kenicott discusses the slow art movement. The movement considers not only the sign (the art) and the signified (the eternal, the meaning, the feeling, the transcendent, what have you) but also the soul.

Our signs — our means of policing ourselves in our positivistic, malum prohibitum society — rarely involve an interpretant. They don’t rise to the level of malum in se, which would require conscience and a notion of right and wrong that transcends law and even society. Cars move too fast for the moral judgment democracy craves.

 

  1.  de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America (Kindle Locations 4641-4645). Packard Technologies. Kindle Edition.

If memory serves, Mr. Trump shouldn’t

I remember. I supported Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and, once he was impeached, I wanted him removed from office. It wasn’t only the perjury, after all; it was also the obstruction of justice.

The case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment is exponentially stronger than the one that persuaded me twenty years ago. While Mr. Clinton’s actions diminished his office, Mr. Trump’s actions threaten our republic’s existence.  Tom Steyer puts the case for Mr. Trump’s impeachment into eight categories, and I incorporate his summary herein by reference thereto. However, this week alone merits the president’s immediate removal from office. In his continuing effort to make our nation’s intelligence apparatus his own, he forcefully denigrated our intelligence services before a hostile, foreign power.  He also expressed his willingness to hand over American citizens to a foreign adversary for questioning regarding vengeful, trumped-up charges. We learned this week also that Mr. Trump had clear evidence of Mr. Putin’s direct involvement in the 2016 presidential election scandal even before Mr. Trump was inaugurated the following January. Mr. Trump’s many statements exculpating Mr. Putin and the Russians since then — statements we now know to be disingenuous — deaden any political will to defend ourselves from a like attack on our elections this year or two years hence. His preference for the Russian dictator over his own intelligence services suggest that our executive branch is being undermined by a resourceful enemy. Mr. Trump is an existential threat to our country.

We shouldn’t wait to learn from the Mueller investigation why Mr. Trump puts our enemy’s interests ahead of our own. We must act now to remove him from office on the clear evidence that he does put our enemy’s interest ahead of our own. Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Russian government is demonstrably a clear and present danger.

Yet the political, social, and financial dynamics that led to Mr. Trump’s election remain with us, and they make it difficult to discuss impeachment with about half the country. How can we reach people like me, who supported Clinton’s impeachment, with the argument for Mr. Trump’s?

One step toward reaching them would be to separate the issue of impeachment from our longstanding, divisive policy issues.

The day after Helsinki, I participated in a rally outside the White House gates. All of the speakers mentioned Mr. Trump’s craven actions before Mr. Putin. But two of the three speakers spent most of their time talking about the kind of issues that have been knocked about left and right for the past thirty years. These issues are important, but they don’t represent immediate dangers to the republic.

Listening to the usual liberal rhetoric, most open-minded conservative listeners at such a rally would find themselves re-riveted to their one-dimensional, left-right framework that they share with most liberals, and these conservatives would become effectively powerless to hear the argument for impeachment. Put another way, if they hear most voices for impeachment link the issue with the liberal side of well-worn unraveling-era issues (campaign finance, gun control, tax cuts, etc.), they’ll consider the call for impeachment merely the desperate scream of a political party currently shut out of power.

In one respect, at least, Mr. Trump is like the Apostle Paul: he can count on a crowd’s divisions to get out of hot water:

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (Acts 23:6)

Paul’s accusers then began bickering over the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul ended up with the backing of half the crowd, which had forgotten why Paul was before the Roman counsel in the first place. The captain removed him before things really got out of hand. The genre here is almost comic.

Paul later expressed regret for his role in the incident — read Acts 24:21 — but I doubt Mr. Trump will ever regret using such a tactic. He retreats to unravelling-era issues to make an implicit claim to half of us. “You need me to win the issues for which you’ve fought so hard for a generation,” he seems to say. “Your part in this bargain is to ignore the clear evidence that I’m undermining our nation’s security.”

To remove the president, we — liberals, conservatives, and centrists — must focus on the arguments and evidence for removing him and not remain distracted by what divides us. To avoid this distraction, we need to discover life outside of the one-dimensional, left-right framework that cramps our public space. We need to remember not only Mr. Clinton’s crimes and punishment but also the restorative principles, perspectives, and experiences of our nation’s founding. We need to start to read and talk about those principles, and we need to act according to them, too. The Declaration of Independence might be a good place to start.

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.

Displacement

We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.

– Henri Nouwen

When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.

There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.

We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.

I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.

We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.

Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, p. 145.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, pp. 166 – 167.