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Vita Activa

If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth 
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (234)

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I took my twelve-year-old son to a college lecture last week called Creatures Who Create: Should We Bring Back Lost Species? given by Bruce Jennings the Director of Bioethics For Humans and Nature. He began the talk with a quote from Hannah Arendt. As it turns out it was from her book The Human Condition—a book that has been on what I call my “bbq” (beckoning books queue) for over a year. So it seemed time to read it.

To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an “objective” relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things, to be deprived of the possibility of achieving something more permanent than life itself (58).

Divided into five major parts: The Public and Private Realm, Labor, Work, Action, and The Vita Activa and the Modern Age, Arendt gives a deeply thoughtful and historical account of the permeating modern angst of alienation. I could hardly do it justice to it in this format—even pulling quotes seems a bit violent to the content. Overwhelmingly, though, I feel that quickening— my perspective, my ability to contemplate the nature of our “condition” has been cracked open that much more. An intellectual expansion brought about by respect for her method of inquiry, as well her sensitivity to her subject.

Man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity (121).

This false expectation of ever being free of labor which is a necessary child of necessity is key to Arendt’s thesis and a fascinating entré into how work differs from labor and ultimately how labor has been subsumed in our culture into a cult of productivity instead of a healthier recognition of  labor’s true status as a cycle, an unceasing necessity, as well as an appreciation of product-less work which has a permanence and immortality which humans need to feel connected to life.

Works of art are the most intensely worldly of all tangible things[…] they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed […] can only destroy them. […] It is as though worldly stability had become transparent in the permanence of art, so that a premonition of immortality, not the immortality of the soul or life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands, has become tangibly present, to shine and to be seen, to sound and to be heard, to speak and to be read” (167-8).

There is so much in the book my head is still in a stupor of reader’s gluttony. When my son and I left the lecture I asked him what he thought of it. Being a little contrarian, he said he had understood nothing. But as we discussed the topic I pointed out to him that his opinion of the matter aligned very nicely with what the speaker had presented. Yes, he was forced to admit, he had understood and thought about plenty. I told him even if 40 minutes of the 60 minute lecture was impenetrable to him I was not concerned, boredom is a good and profitable condition as far as intellectual and creative stimulation are concerned, and the 20 minutes that sunk in gave us an evening’s worth of contemplation together, and lifetime’s worth individually.

As Arendt points out, all action stems from contemplation and the lack of contemplation when considering actions which inevitably, indeed— ALWAYS have unforeseen consequences  is a vastly underused skill in our culture. We are all thrown into this world and we must, and can, forgive the others thrown-in before us for their actions which led to what looks like an environmental catastrophe in the making. That does not mean that we should withdraw into isolation, or give up on the only thing that gives our lives meaning—each other. We must profoundly, prudently, and compassionately contemplate the decisions that we make which impact our selves (which is always a plurality), our planetary cohabitants, and our world. And then we must act.

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Kicks and Starts

IMG_0978My shoe is in a sorry state
Inclement times have altered the gait.
The heel worn down and smoothed,
Careens and jerks: the awkward proved.

The seams and creases have exposed
A scarlet sock peeking through my toes.
The inner soul won’t stay put
Bunching ceaselessly about my foot.

The long miles took their due
But I wonder, if I asked,

Would you want it?
If I gave it to you?

– JR/2013

Under This Sun

It would flood her, steal her breath.
But then it would pass. The moment would pass. Leave her deflated, feeling nothing but a vague
restlessness.
-Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (168)

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I took a short break from reading Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily to read a book my daughter gave me, A Thousand Splendid Suns. It was after Verga’s Story of the Saint Joseph’s Ass, when there, written in faint cursive script, someone had written, “depressing.” I laughed out loud because this story fell in the middle of the book and to be honest, we were well beyond depressing. D.H. Lawrence translated the novel of the Sicilian novelist and playwright born in Catania in 1840. The stories are like parables, except there is no consolation of sorrows to be found, rather a confirmation of pities. Each story is a wry, subtle social criticism pointing out the grinding down of humanity under the hard stone of poverty.

However, wherever there is malaria there is earth blessed by God. – Little Novels of Sicily, Malaria (70)

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not exactly a cheerful romp however, the story of two women’s lives amidst the upheaval and cruelties of Afghanistan 1960-2003… you kind of know going in that it’s going to be heartbreaking.

And it is, but as my daughter said, “Keep reading.” Some days are more splendid than others, and there’s just no knowing.

The attachment to the land of one’s birth is a strong component in each book, and one that I have difficulty relating to. As far as I can tell, the sun shines with equal beauty in all directions. To me it seems just one more chain of self imposed rigidity. Nationality, race, religion, should not a man make. But we do so need to belong….if not to someone, than to something.

A striking difference between these two books  is that one, Hosseini’s, is ultimately a hopeful story, because where there is love, there is always hope. Signor Verga, on the other hand, tempts my cynical misanthropic side: the greedy folly of men, the slow but sure slide into a dust of nothingness, helplessness that sours into hopelessness over the centuries are the realities that he builds his tales upon. His characters, like many people’s actual lives, are sadly lacking in love, the pursuit of a piece of bread is all consuming. Ignorance is all damning. Mere existence is a kind of purgatory, where the shock of lovelessness has worn off. In Hosseini’s story the rays of love, even if they are intermittent shards reflecting bits of warmth in between the horrors, are all sustaining.

Hosseini’s redemptive tale, in the end, is beautifully heart warming. The appeal of the Verga tales, on the other hand, for me, and perhaps for Lawrence, (based on what I’ve read of his works) is the cautionary aspect, the dry humor, a kind-hearted condolence to the unfortunate, and angry outrage at those that abuse their power. Lawrence’s writing is full of a call to love, of finding the meaning and worth of our lives in the connections made to other people. Through Lawrence’s translation of Verga’s stories we see the alternative, we feel the chill of our inhumanity that has the power to blot out our shared sun.

My children’s Sicilian grandmother would sometimes wag her finger and say, “Shamey, shamey, shamey.” Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily is just such a pointing finger.