Sunday, January 11, 2009

Readings: Why I Read - part 2

Since I’m on record as an enthusiastic admirer of characteristically Jewish feminine beauty, it's not surprising that, as I was leafing through the January 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker looking for the cartoons, I was arrested by the picture on page 64 of the German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt. (She looks to be slightly pained by my appreciative gaze.) The portrait adorns an article entitled “Beware of Pity” by critic-at-large, Adam Kirsch, which I went on to read. It is an interesting article, and I urge you to read it here. What I will discuss below are a couple of things in the piece that resonated with me: the first is a discussion of elitism; the second is an occurrence of a phenomenon about which I have written previously, and which I shall here dub “Textual Synchronicity.”

I have been accused in the comboxes of several discussion threads over the years of being an elitist—either political, or cultural, or both. Except in instances where this charge was made out of context, I haven’t bothered to deny it, since, as is the case with growing old—of which I’ve also been rightly accused—it seems to me that it beats all hell out of the alternative. So if from your perspective I look like an elitist, well, what the hey—to paraphrase Chevy Chase: I am. And you’re not. Congrats, all around.

I have often contrasted “the elite” with what I’ve called “bleating merinos.” The Kirsch article discloses that Arendt contrasted the self-designated elite to the shlemihl, which I take to be Yiddish for “bleating merino.” Arendt is quoted as characterizing this category of loser as “the hapless human being, the shlemihl, who has anticipated nothing.” An example of this, for Arendt, were those European Jews who waited and did nothing during the rise of National Socialism, until it was too late and they were swept up by the killing machine. My comparison to these would be those middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who allow their buttons to be pushed by neocon political propaganda, issued by “conservative” pols, for whom they subsequently vote, and by whom they are inevitably screwed.

Below is a discussion of what Arendt believed fires the ambition to be one of the political elite:

Still more revealing than Arendt’s definition of politics is her explanation of why people are drawn to it in the first place. We do not enter the political world to pursue justice or to create a better world. No, human beings love politics because they love to excel, and a political career is the best way to win the world’s respect. In ancient Greece, she writes, “the polis was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all. The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.” Arendt recognizes that most of the people of Athens, including all women and slaves, were shut out from this arena, but she accepts that her kind of politics is necessarily an aristocratic pursuit. In yet another instance of her favorite metaphor, she defends “the bitter need of the few to protect themselves against the many, or rather to protect the island of freedom they have come to inhabit against the surrounding sea of necessity.”

To be of the hoi polloi, a lesser creature that exists at the moral-intellectual mercy of contingency, to be blindly, easily, led towards destruction—a bleating merino—is to be in a bad place:

Avoiding that helpless “place” became the goal of Arendt’s life and thought. The categorical imperative of her political theory might be phrased: Thou shalt not be a shlemihl.

Right. Or a bleating merino. Now here comes the instance of “Textual Synchronicity.” I have previously written of a tendency for the serious reader to choose, simultaneously, but unintentionally, completely at random, various texts that contain identical and/or complementary ideas, which reinforce each other, with significantly enhanced impact on the reader. Towards the end of the Kirsch article, then, we read:

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” [Arendt] points out that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews was to make them stateless, in the knowledge that people with no stake in a political community have no claim on the protection of its laws. [emphasis added]


This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and what is happening now in Darfur.

So I finished that article and was putting the magazine aside with my right hand, in order to pick up Roberto Bolaño’s multi-volume, episodic, novel 2666—which I got for Christmas—with my left. Now for the occurrence (edited for brevity) of a synchronicity:

Upon opening the novel to p.266 of the first volume, where I had it bookmarked, I read, in the very first section—or episode—the following recitation of a newly introduced character:

The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all….It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then….Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale….And that didn’t get anyone upset….But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor, and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total…the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. [emphasis added]

Greeks. Elites. Dark-skinned people. Stateless persons. I get it. But go figure.