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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Alone Again, Naturally...

The world of pop does a real trick on us when it comes to the company of one.  From Eric Carmen's bleating "All by Myself, don't wanna be, all by myself, anymore," to Pink Floyd's haunting appeal from the abyss, "Is there anybody out there?", to Harry Nillson's plaintive assessment of the single life - "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do" - you don't have to know much about popular music to know that in the world of pop, going solo is the big no-no. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), as far as I know, never wrote any songs. But as we discovered last Thursday when we came together for the fourth evening in our current salon series revolving around The Traveller, this brilliant political thinker might have had a thing or two to say to Eric, Floyd and Harry. To Eric: The fact that you are by yourself only confirms that there is another self sitting there beside you, so regardless of what ya wanna be, fella, one thing ya ain't is all alone. To Pink Floyd: Forget the anybody out there, it's the anybody in here - right here inside of you, jumping up and down and trying to get your attention so as to engage you in scintillating "soundless dialogue" - who is going to provide you with the whatever to get you through the night. To Harry: One, in actual fact, is the one and only number that is never lonely and you would know this, Harry, if among the things you'd ever do was to think!

It is widely acknowledged that Hannah Arendt never minced her words. At the same time, her insistence that mere 'thoughtlessness' lay at the root of those catastrophic crimes committed against humanity within totalitarian regimes such as Nazism left people irate and divided: creating a storm of controversy that would have done Socrates, who likened the very activity of thinking to a 'subversive wind,' proud; scandalizing her friends and foe alike in an era where people were scrambling to make sense of the horrors of the holocaust. Nobody was in the mood for a reasoned argument that concluded in a 'banality of evil' verdict. What the situation demanded was a smoking gun - not the smoldering curl of grey emanating from the ponderous Arendt's ever-present cigarette. In short, a simple 'failure to think' struck many as a grossly inadequate explanation for the evil underlying those horrors, and for the men behind them. Not surprisingly, it is Arendt's 1963 study of one of the masterminds of the so-called Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, that has continued to preoccupy her critics and made her into the household name that few political theorists ever become - especially not female ones. The recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's film based on Arendt's coverage of Eichmann's trial, entitled Hannah Arendt (2013), has brought both Arendt and this particular episode in a lifetime's worth of stellar philosophical work back into focus yet again.

 Quite apart from this substantial body of work, what has perhaps been lost along the way - and this is something that von Trotta's film does, to its credit, emphasize - is just how seriously Arendt took thinking, and just how far she was from considering thoughtlessness to be something 'mere'...A failure to think something 'simple.' For Arendt, thinking was a dangerous activity - especially dangerous to totalitarian regimes, to the few violently enforcing those regimes, and to the masses silently going along with them. In thinking and thinking alone, for Arendt, lay the necessity to stand up, stand against, stand without others, when all of the rest of the world had gone mad. For thinking, in Arendt's book - and she wrote one specifically all about it - is the one activity where you have to go it alone but are always in good company. Which meant that some Arendt-style thinking seemed like a highly fitting place to begin our exploration of what it means to travel solo. 

We set off with a poem - Denise Levertov's A Woman Alone. Not so much food for thought, this, as a prompt to real-time thinking: 30 seconds...A minute...90 seconds...; and then, after this experience of the Arendtian "soundless dialogue," of the Socratic "travelling through words," a stint of auto-ethnography aimed at enhancing our understanding of ourselves as thinkers. What is thinking? we asked ourselves. What does thinking feel like? Where are we when we think? And, what makes for better thinking? - actually doing it or writing down our thoughts about it? Leaving behind Levertov's "Oh blessed Solitude" in order to share our observations first in pairs, and then as a larger group, we proceeded to trouble the idea of what we had previously taken to be a unity (me working by myself) and a duality (me working with another) in the context of a plurality (the group interacting as a whole).

Indeed, if we were to buy into Hannah Arendt's conception of the thinking ego and her contention that we only truly think when we are on our own, then the duality was actually me by myself - the "two-in-one," as Arendt terms it -  whereas the unity was the unthinking me, no longer by myself but plunked down among all those other unthinking unities in the realm of sociability, in the social whirl of Appearances. Suddenly, it seemed preferable to be a garrulous two-in-one than a member of the chattering classes. Suddenly, absent-mindedness was the new black : a quick absenting of the mind from the lonely crowd so that me and my old pal, Myself, could engage in some heavy duty dialogical reasoning; a totally cool respite, this absent-mindedness, from the cacophony of common-sense opinions and tired old cliches circulating out there when folks get together and exchange what they think are thoughts but in fact are only re-cycled knowledges; a kind of coffee break for the mind, this temporal absenting of one's One from all those other nattering Ones, only broken when somebody snaps their fingers, breaks into my "thinker's solitude" - into "the inner duality of my two-in-one" - and, as Arendt would have it, "Changes me back into a One again."

Much of Arendt's thinking around thinking is drawn from the ancients: from Socrates and Aristotle and Cicero, to name just a few. And some of it is drawn from 19th Century Kant: picking up on his distinction between an ability to reason or speculate (vernunft) and the application of intellect to the problem at hand (verstand); seeing in the former the impetus that results in thinking and with it, a search for meaning, and seeing in the latter an attachment to knowledge and with it, the evolution of common-sense notions and the affirmation of truths. If Arendt aligns herself firmly on the side of Kant's vernunft when it comes to the activity that not only enhances life (Aristotle) but without which, there is no life (Socrates), she also acknowledges that you need a busload of verstand to get by. At the same time, she considers the comfort Cicero finds in hopping aboard a "thought-train" in order to escape the harshness of the world that surrounds him only part of the equation. Thinking demands a withdrawal, yes, and is not in the business of producing what today we would call a 'deliverable' - this much Arendt knew. But what she also knew is that for all that thinking isn't concerned with leaving something tangible behind, and for all that yesterday's thought can and should be re-thunk today and tomorrow and forever after, thinking must still serve as a fertile training ground for that day when the harshness gets too much and a thoughtful response to a catastrophic situation is required. Arendt, after all, was a Jewish-German intellectual coming of age in precisely such a moment: taking up refugee status in Paris after fleeing from Germany in 1933; leaving France in 1941 and escaping to the US on an illegal visa.

And this, perhaps, is where Arendt succeeds best: catapulting the ideas of these wise old men into a very real and critical 20th century context; insisting that everyone, not just the "philosopher kings" (Plato) or "professional thinkers" (Kant), must be prepared to turn their minds to thinking, must apply themselves to an activity traditionally reserved for philosophers alone. For though the activity of thinking isn't a political action in itself, it is thinkers - walking one way while everybody else walks the other, finding themselves 'outed' by their very conspicuousness during unthinking times - who could make all the difference between 'the unthinkable' happening again, or not. 

This seemed like a good moment to introduce four intrepid women who emerged in the Modernist Moment around which this series has been organized, and who, by virtue of their inability to blend into the crowd - to just follow the rules and go with the flow - also became game-changers in their respective fields. Loners all in one way or another, and innovators too, we were curious to examine their lives and experiences in light of Arendt's "two-in-one" theory of aloneness, as well as to learn what we could from them about travelling not so much mindfully, as thoughtfully, around this lonely planet. To recap ever so briefly...

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane aka Nellie Bly (1864-1922) was an American journalist who, in her own words, "was too impatient to work at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers." This impatience drove Nellie to set off solo around the world in 1889, determined to beat the 80 day record for circling the globe set by Jules Verne's fictional character, Phileas Fogg. Nellie did it in 72, earning herself the title of "most famous woman in the world" for a fleeting 15 minutes of fame. 

Centenarian Freya Stark (1893-1993) was the sickly child of cosmopolitan European parents who traveled the world through books, exchanging the confines of her sick room for the life of an explorer of distant lands and a writer of exquisite travel prose when she struck adulthood. She embraced solitude, and was an aficionado of the unknown. In her own words: "To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea what is in store for you..." 

The name Hortense Powdermaker (1900-1970) is a marvelous one, though sadly the woman behind the name is not widely known today, and neither are the significant contributions that she made to the field of anthropology. A reading of Hortense's autobiographical account of her experiences in the field - Stranger and Friend (1966)- reveals a woman who was way ahead of her time when it came to reflecting on the role of the ethnographer engaged in field work in general, and on what it took to ride that tenuous line between participant and observer more specifically. What is clear is that this American-born academic who wrote eloquently about the sheer panic of finding herself alone in a hut on an island in the South Pacific, also marched to her own drum: "Long before I ever heard of anthropology, I was being conditioned for the role of stepping in and out of society...As a child, I did not accept the norms of my upper-middle and middle-class German-Jewish background."

Finally, there is Margaret Mead (1901-1978) - also an American anthropologist, though one who has stood the test of time and remains familiar to us. In her autobiography, she speaks of having been trained from a young age to observe: she was handed a pen and notebook and asked to keep a detailed account of her younger siblings' growth and progress. She also attracted a fair amount of attention in her life: in large part, because of her unconventional attitudes towards sexuality and relationships, and her openness about her non-conformist ways. She also knew what it was to be excluded, yet wisely transformed these setbacks into important learning experiences: "Knowing nothing of the concerns with dress and social success becoming standard for the American sorority girl of my generation, and considered unfit for membership in a sorority, I was a social outcast at DePaux...What particularly offended me as the year wore on was the lack of loyalty that rejection engendered among the unchosen." 

Suffice to say that when it came to reviewing the ins and outs of being a travelling 'two-in-one' in both the company of strangers and the company of one's self, the lives of these four remarkable women provided us with food for thought aplenty. Coming up next in the final session of this series: a poetic venture into unfettered travel as we cast ourselves Adrift.