To Judge Timelessness


Nikita Nelin, associate fellow at the Center, writes this week's Quote.

“[T]he passion of thinking, like the other passions, seizes the person -- seizes those qualities of the individual of which the sum, when ordered by the will, amounts to what we commonly call ‘character’ -- possesses him and, as it were, annihilates his ‘character’ which cannot hold its own against this onslaught. The thinking ‘I,’  which stands within the raging storm, as Heidegger says, and for which time literally stands still, is not just ageless; it is also, although always specifically other, without qualities. The thinking ‘I’ is everything but the self of consciousness.”

--Hannah Arendt

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how our society judges value, specifically judges the value of originality. And originality is synonymous with the creative action of bringing into being something entirely new, something that was not previously imagined, ignited by passion and, at the apex of its potential to inspire us and help us transcend our sense of self, something beautiful. As a writer I can tell you that creating something beautiful is not easy. Its manifestation is rare, even for those who consider themselves professionals. Sometimes a single paragraph can take weeks, and when it’s done you can’t even tell why it’s beautiful or what it is exactly you did to make it so. The fact of its rarity testifies to its difference from the character that produced it, for if it was character that produced artistic beauty then artistic beauty would flow freely from each worthy character. The production would become formulaic. The rule of supply and demand would kick in and we would have an overabundance of artistic beauty, the vastness of which would bore us or make us dull. But that is not the case. The supply is low and beauty does not choose sides when picking which character is to be its caretaker.

This is why I am increasingly bothered by a rising trend in our culture, that of erasing creative work on the grounds of the moral shortcomings in the characters that produced it. I have on more than one occasion heard a friend say “I will not enjoy the work of someone who (fill in a moral depravity here).” And I can entirely understand not sanctioning an individual who has committed a vast error of character. I can entirely understand one wishing to not stand by that ‘character.’ But the work is something different. We do not choose what we like. We do not choose the rarity which speaks to us. When it does speak, we are enlivened and connected to some mystery that defies understanding and lies beyond wrong and right. But the taking of the position that one will not enjoy the creative work produced by a questionable character seems self-defeating, almost like a form of a cultural self-flagellation. If today I am to discover that a music artist whose productions I have enjoyed has errored morally, can I then erase the past experience of my enjoyment? Furthermore, what of my own work and thoughts that were inspired by that music? Do I now erase that too? I can certainly rethink the work, both the original and the inspiration, but the act of rethinking denotes a participation in, and an experiencing of, the work. In the words of our culture: to cease to consume something, is to erase it from being.

It is in consideration of this that I reference Hannah Arendt’s essay “Heidegger at Eighty,” from which I borrow the above quote. It is widely known that Martin Heidegger was a key influence on Arendt, that they had a romantic involvement, and that as rector of the University of Freiburg Heidegger joined the Nazi party. His critics use this to signal a flaw in his philosophy. His defenders, of whom Arendt was one, label it a personal “error.” But it remains impossible to erase what he birthed into the world, because in part this would mean to erase his philosophical offsprings.

In the essay Arendt describes the unique space of his philosophy: “Heidegger never thinks ‘about’ something. He thinks something.” It seems to me that here she is positioning a soft signpost, leading us to consider that his work was experience rather than some definitive results of it. His students fell in love with the experience, which was the way he thought and the way he made them think, rather than the final product these thoughts produced. Judgement can only be put upon a product, not the experience of inspiration itself, because the goal of experience is experience and no thing beyond it, whereas erasure can only come to a thing. Even once you have erased a thing, your experience of it remains, coupled with the experience of erasing it. But the wave of erasure upon moral grounds wishes to make a void of history; no conversation, just gone, burned out from being.

When we condemn the work through the artist, we are reforming the work through the everchanging body of character that delivered it rather than experiencing the work, which — if it is any good — in the experiencing of it alone, is timeless. Your experience is the judgement upon the work. To change your judgement after the experience is still to continue to participate in the work. But to erase the work is to erase your own experience, and, by proxy, dimensions of yourself.

Arendt adds that thinking “can no more have a final goal -- cognition or knowledge – than can life itself.” Similar can be said about art and the experiencing of art for that is the realm where we experience the imperceptible and unquantifiable.

I can stand in moral judgement of the character but to stand in moral judgement of the work that character produced, because of the flaws of the character and not the experience of the work, is like condemning a child for the faults of its parents. In doing so you erase the future, for the basic character of the future is unknowable because it is built out from forces the interaction of which we do not control and can’t predict. But erasure, even upon moral grounds, assumes the rigid automation of social engineering. Ironically, exactly the principle that is so profane in Totalitarian logic.

Morality presupposes a sort of order, that the good makes beautiful because they are worthy due to their being good. But if this is true than we have nothing left to discover about our nature. Or more so, in the examination of our nature, we are no longer driven by the act of discovery – which requires us always going into the unbeaten woods – but by the institution built from our own orders. In this way we create our own jailcell. Morality is an established geography. But an established geography has no unbeaten woods.

Arendt confidently states of her mentor: “No one before Heidegger saw how essentially the will stands opposed to thinking and affects it destructively.” I sense this too as an address to the primacy of experiencing to the realm of being human. She describes Heidegger’s art of thinking as existing within a special state of stillness, a recess to the will and its object of power, a “disposition that ‘let’s be.’” In this special state, this “thinker’s residence,” we encounter everything that is timeless, and for artists, if we are lucky, we bring a small piece of it back to share. But back is the real world, that of action and judgement and power and offence, and the shifting tides of morality. But how rude it would be, for us all, to pass judgement along those shifting tides against timelessness itself.