Amor Mundi 04/03/1604-03-2016
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Moises Velasquez-Manoff explores the controversy around “Proper Cloth,” an on-line company that customizes shirts to body type. The problem “Proper Cloth” faced was that its customers were unreliable reporters of their body types and sizes. In search of the perfect fit, the company began experimenting with different questions that would could be connected by algorithm with the given measurements to yield a properly fitting shirt. What the company found is that by asking their customer’s race and ethnicity, it could dramatically improve the fit...
Interviewed in the Paris Review, Robert Caro—nearing the completion of his fifth and final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson—says that the search for truth is based upon facts: “There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.” One of the insights of modern science and modern historiography is that facts are hardly objective. Werner Heisenberg knew that even experimental truths are framed by the questions asked and the position of the observer. The question for modern historians and politicians is how to live in a world of facts absent the claim to objectivity. This seems to be where Caro excels: “I spent a large part of these last decades trying to see Johnson. It’s a product of hundreds and hundreds of interviews. But then there has to be something more than facts. You know, I used to be a judge for one prize or another, and you’d get two hundred books or something in the mail, and you’d go through them, and often it would only take a few pages to realize that the writer of this book thinks the only thing that matters is getting the facts down, not letting the reader see the place. Now, if you let the reader see the place—if you do it well enough and have shown the character of your protagonist well enough, so that the reader can see the scene and be involved in the scene—then the reader can see things, sense things, understand things about your protagonist that the writer doesn’t have to tell him, that the reader can grasp for himself. When you’re in a place, it evokes emotions in you. So, therefore, place evokes emotions in the man, let’s say Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson. And if you show the place truly enough, then the reader can better understand the emotions evoked in that character. And if the place is important enough in the character’s life, if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it—was brought up in it or presided over it or exercised power in it—if the setting played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture.”
Jacques Rancière offers some thoughts on Alain Badiou’s Being and Event.
“One word runs throughout this book, summarising this gesture: loyalty. This word implies a dual rejection of the thought of our time. Firstly, it means refusing to settle into a position within the end of philosophy and the calamity of our time. It is a refusal of the manoeuvre by which philosophy — proclaiming its own end, and its double, the calamity of our time, its darkened face named metaphysics — still proves its own royalty, as it indefinitely re-exploits its own history in the figure of a heroic inheritance. Moreover, it is a refusal to follow the wave of the social, giving in to the dominant weight of statised thought — the thought for which nothing exists but states of affairs, combinations of properties, and which judges practices and discourses in terms of whether they reflect, contradict or are extraneous to these properties. In its most general expression, the epistemological figure of statised thought is the revisionism whose formula is to say — and this is, in all circumstances, an irrefutable formula — that things are not what we believe, or believed. Its ethical figure is renunciation, justified as follows: we have to have the courage to admit that things aren’t what we thought they were, and since it was what we believed that determined our discourses and actions, we have to be able to recognise the gap between our desires and the order of the world, even if purely for the sake of teaching the younger generations. The question of loyalty gets lost in each of these two dominant figures, either through its excess or its lack; either because it collapses into the oblivion of the antediluvian, or because it is called before the permanent tribunal of demystification by its properties. There is no event, only the long catastrophe, or little stirrings on the surface of things. As against this present configuration, Badiou’s oeuvre represents the most resolute attempt to construct a conceptual space of loyalty, in order to show that loyalty is necessary.”
Selin Göckesu reminisces about the time he spent in Ankara, Turkey, often at the very same spot where a bomb exploded last month: "It was Sunday, March 13, late afternoon in Ankara, midday in Brooklyn. The bomb went off right where you come out of the overpass, by the flower stands, only a few yards away from where I used to take the dolmu? to ODTÜ, my alma mater. It exploded right where I used to sit with my friend at dusk as she missed bus after bus. When the bomb exploded, I wasn’t there. Two ODTÜ students were there, perhaps headed to the dolmu? stop. My friend’s brother-in-law, a doctor, tried to save one’s life and failed. A famous football player’s father was there—luckily mine had just arrived home and was watching a football game. My cousin’s teacher lost her husband. College students were there, people visiting Ankara, people heading home. All in all, thirty-seven dead, right at the overpass. When I found out about it, from a newsfeed update, the only thing I felt was an intense desire to go home. The desire turned into an insatiable hunger for raw footage. For two days straight, I watched video after video of the explosion itself, broken glass carpeting the sidewalks, bloody people, charred benches, burned cars, a burning bus, crying people, eyewitness accounts, relatives searching for their missing relatives, families waiting at hospitals, protests, funerals, funerals, funerals. Sometimes I cried for something specific—I cried when I recognized the distinct cobblestone walkways of my college campus in a photograph showing the memorial held for two of the victims who were students there. Mostly, I cried out of unattached sorrow. Crying for a bomb that takes out a familiar place and strange people is not like crying at a funeral, for a breakup, or a sad movie. The tears are less predictable and less explicable. I cried for the dead, for their youth, for their parents, for broken glass, for familiar cobblestone, but the whole time, I suspected that I was just crying for myself because someone bombed the backdrop of my life."
Wyatt Mason reviews Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart in the New York Review of Books and in doing so explores the challenges of literary style in an age of authenticity. “Since the appearance of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical narrative My Struggle, the subject of authenticity in literary enterprise has once again lurched out of its crypt to spook us to attention. This critical discussion—which bears on Maylis de Kerangal’s new novel The Heart—dates to Plato and Aristotle’s opinions on the stories we should tell and how we should tell them and involves matters of vitality and utility. What are the essential qualities of literary art, and what means should be brought to bear to achieve them? In the case of Knausgaard, to distill down a lot of gassy talk, the idea has been that his six-volume, 3,600-page account succeeds because of a method of radical inclusiveness that ratifies the truthfulness of his undertaking. Knausgaard takes as his project to write with the same tirelessness about everything, from child care to marital monogamy to forgotten bowls of corn flakes to remembered shits in the woods to unforgettable vomits in toilets to a range of inglorious sexual experiences—all the ejecta of the premodernist novel, stuff once thought so commonplace there’d be no point in including it. “In a novel, or a biography,” Ford Madox Ford’s narrator is given to say, in The Good Soldier (1915), “you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.” Contemporary novels now teem with characters having their meals, so to say, and Knausgaard’s newness has much to do with his focus on ejecta to the exclusion of more typical narrative concerns. “The only way I could trick myself into writing,” Knausgaard said, in an exchange with James Wood, “was by…setting myself the premise that I would write very quickly and not edit, that everything should be in it. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”1 Knausgaard’s ability to “do it,” to compose some 1.2 million publishable words in three years, was a result of his decision to write prose he didn’t edit, prose he doesn’t like: “The whole time I was writing these six books I felt, This is not good writing. What’s good, I think, is the opening five pages of Book One, the reflection on death. When we were publishing that first book, my editor asked me to remove those pages because they are so different from the rest, and he was right—he is right—it would have been better, but I needed one place in the book where the writing was good. I spent weeks and weeks on that passage, and I think it’s modernist, high-quality prose. The rest of the book is not to my standard. [Laughter from audience.] I’m not saying this as a joke. This is true.””
Katie Roiphe suggests that children's book author Maurice Sendak was successful not because he saw children as wild, but instead because he saw that, sometimes, they could be sad, or scared (just like Sendak himself), and he took those ugly feelings seriously: "All his life Maurice bristled at the idea of childhood innocence and at those who thought his books were offending or challenging it. In a comic Art Spiegelman did in The New Yorker of a conversation they had in the woods, Maurice says: “People say, ‘Oh, Mr. Sendak. I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!’ As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth! ... In reality, childhood is deep and rich ... I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things ... but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew ... it would scare them.” Maurice liked to tell the story of the daughter of a friend who was at school near the World Trade Center when the towers fell. She told her father that she saw butterflies on the building as the towers collapsed. Later she admitted that they weren’t butterflies, they were people jumping, but she didn’t want to upset her father by letting him know that she knew. Children protect their parents, which is the funny part of childhood that slips away from us, the awful knowledge it contains. The received wisdom is that it is not good to scare kids, but Sendak’s belief was that kids are already scared, that what they crave is seeing their anxieties thrillingly laid out. Much of Sendak’s work, then, exists between play and terror, that infinitely intriguing, purely fantastical place where you are joked out of your most serious fears. But those fears are also entertained on the most serious and high level in Sendak’s books; they are not dismissed but reveled in, romped through."
Joseph Freeman takes note of the preponderance of writers in Myanmar's new, democratically elected, government: "Times remain tough for Burmese writers. The introduction of new telecommunications networks in 2014—which provided Myanmar with the kind of smartphone access enjoyed by the rest of the world—has threatened to displace Myanmar’s rich literary culture, a trend Suu Kyi has publicly complained about. Books remain a hard way to make a living; no one I know can afford to write or translate full-time. And Myanmar’s literature has a small audience outside its borders; there’s a treasure trove of Burmese fiction that has yet to be translated into English. But for a certain kind of writer in Myanmar, the times couldn’t be better. The reason is political. After decades of playing the dissident or submitting to censorship, writers have the chance to play lawmaker, cabinet member, and even president. The historic elections in November that swept the NLD to a partial control of the government came five years after Myanmar’s military leaders launched a transition to civilian rule. This process resulted in the liberation of political prisoners who have long viewed the written word as a powerful means to register their dissent, and in the opening up of a new space for free expression and opinion for all members of society. The opposition, in large part, was characterized by its literary nature. And so a blogger was voted into Yangon’s regional legislature; 11 poets were elected to parliament. Myanmar’s new minister of information, Pe Myint, has written short stories and translated everything from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Chekhov and Turgenev. Myanmar’s new government may be the most literary-minded in Asia, if not the world."
With the first pitch of the 2016 baseball season to be thrown this evening, Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur wonder what caused last year's offensive explosion, and if the trend might continue into the new year: "On his first day in office, in January 2015, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced his interest in “inject[ing] additional offense into the game.” Over the previous several seasons, scoring in baseball had dropped to levels not seen since the mid-1970s, as an expanded strike zone, an increase in average pitch velocity, the rise of defensive shifts, and detailed data on batter tendencies had combined to keep runs scarce. Manfred mentioned banning the shift as a possible solution to the scoring decline, and he considered shrinking the strike zone and adding the designated hitter to the National League. But he decided to see whether the trend persisted before taking action. After the 2015 season, Manfred congratulated himself on his earlier restraint. “What I said at the beginning of the year was that, before we made a judgment and started to talk about changes, that we needed at least another year of data,” Manfred said. “Every once in awhile, even I get to be right.” He was right: Just as it began to seem certain that only a deus ex Manfred could rescue the sport from soccer-esque scores, baseball’s offense came back from the brink. The only problem is that no one knows why, or whether it will last. To unravel the mystery, we examined the most likely suspects — warmer weather, better rookie bats and bouncier baseballs — completing our investigation by shipping a bushel of balls to a laboratory for testing."