The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. The duration of the documentary is 2h 5m
Another On Being conversation for you to listen to. This time it’s one from 2014, and features Nathan Schneider (b. 1984) reflecting on “the wisdom of millennials”. What really struck me was Tippett’s wondering about whether it might be those who have, what my good friend Alan Jamieson calls, “a churchless faith” might prove to be a significant force that will renew religion. I’ve often wondered that. Will there come a time when the institution starts to take seriously the experiences, resources, and wisdom of those who have continued to grow and explore and learnt to resource themselves beyond the walls and forms of traditional (and oftentimes slowly dying) church belonging. Or, maybe the “force for renewal” will create and shape well beyond the institutional church.
Here’s the excerpts I found evocative:
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with writer and millennial generation public intellectual, Nathan Schneider. We spoke in a live event in the outdoor Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution.
Ms. Tippett: So, sometimes I think about Bonhoeffer’s phrase, religionless Christianity, which he didn’t really live to develop. You know, he wrote in his letters and papers from prison where he died — the Nazi prison where he died. But, he, in his era, and a very different set of circumstances, but in his circumstances, where the church was completely co-opted by an — a corrupt state, he came to believe that the essential truths and the essential impulses of Christianity would survive even in the absence of religion.
And, sometimes, I feel like you know, what you’re describing is, uh, you know, whether you agree with the politics of Occupy or not, that passion for social justice, which has been carried across time in a lot of our religious institutions, alive and vibrant and actually, uh, making a practical difference in the lives of these young people who define themselves outside the walls of these institutions.
Ms. Tippett: It’s not an ending point. Right. And — so what this makes me wonder is if the “None’s” [a term for those who say they have “no religion” in polls and census’] , and again, I just find language so awful in so many ways, are actually, you know, like monastics in the early centuries of Christianity, these forces for spiritual renewal that actually collected outside the institutions. If the “None’s”, in fact, the new non-religious, um, may be the forces that will renew religion in this century, if it is to be renewed.
Mr. Schneider: You know, that’s a really — I think an important connection to draw. You know, the monastic movement formed in Christianity, at least, right about the moment when Christianity became the religion of empire. You know, it formed in response to the institutionalization of the faith of this recognition that there has to be something else, there’s another part here that we’re missing when we’re just doing the institution. Institutions will always fail us. And the institution they felt was failing them. And I think that’s something that every generation has to confront in new ways…”
David Whyte’s (b. Nov. 1955 / grew up in West Yorkshire) poems and ways of engaging the world have longed journeyed with me. Whyte has penned some of the most significant and needful poems in my life. I’ve listened to him and watched him, and hope one day he makes it to New Zealand (he’s in Australia soon) or I get to go on one of his tours to the West of Ireland.
I often find myself quoting to others the opening words of the interview (see the promo below) I want to highlight today. The interview / conversation was conducted by Krista Tippett on On Being (incidentally Tippett has a delightful new book out - Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living(pub. 5th April 2016. It comes highly recommended) and was recorded under the title of David Whyte and the Conversational Nature of Reality. Here’s the promo:
“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”
“David Whyte is a poet and philosopher who believes in the power of a “beautiful question” amidst the drama of work as well as the drama of life — amidst the ways the two overlap, whether we want them to or not. He shared a deep friendship with the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue. They were, David Whyte says, like “two bookends.” More recently, he’s written about the consolation, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday words.”
Jason Goroncy (Thanks Jason) put me onto a very moving conversation between 2014 Man Booker Prize winning Australian author Richard Flanagan (b.1961) (the Booker was won for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North(pub. 2013)).
Earlier this year Flanagan received a telephone call from World Vision Australia CEO Tim Costello. In that call, Costello invited him to Lebanon, Greece, and Serbia in order to engage, on the ground, with the realities and consequences of the Syrian Exodus.
I was struck that so often it’s easier to label and judge before actually entering into another person (or peoples) experiences, values, and perspectives. Flanagan does a wonderful job of communicating the stark, brutalizing and profoundly dehumanizing implications of the Syrian exodus, and I for one was grateful I both heard and read him.
Pulitzer Prize winning Annie Dillard (who has her 71st birthday later this month on the 30th) is a writer whose way with words is stunning; so rich, alive and evocative. For me, that’s especially the case in her narrative non-fiction essays (I’m not such a fan of her novels). My favourite collection is her 1977 publication Holy the Firmwhich was birthed in 1975 when she took up residence, following the end of her marriage, on Lummi island in the Puget Sound. Dillard has changed the way I see; has changed, in my better moments, how I engage the natural world around me, whether that be lake, mountain, forest, and especially coast. I’m fortunate enough to have long has a 1st edition copy of her award winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pub. 1975) but have yet to find the right reading space,the time, or to be in the right mood to really read and savour it.
In recognition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s long and lauded career as a master essayist, a landmark collection (The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New), including her most beloved pieces and some rarely seen work, has recently been published (15th March 2016 / 304 pages) by Ecco Press. It is introduced by Geoff Dyer. You'll find a review here.
“A writer who never seems tired, who has never plodded her way through a page or sentence, Dillard can only be enjoyed by a wide-awake reader,” warns Geoff Dyer in his introduction to this stellar collection. Carefully culled from her past work, The Abundance is quintessential Annie Dillard, delivered in her fierce and undeniably singular voice, filled with fascinating detail and metaphysical fact. The pieces within will exhilarate both admiring fans and a new generation of readers, having been “re-framed and re-hung,” with fresh editing and reordering by the author, to situate these now seminal works within her larger canon.
The Abundance reminds us that Dillard’s brand of “novelized nonfiction” pioneered the form long before it came to be widely appreciated. Intense, vivid, and fearless, her work endows the true and seemingly ordinary aspects of life—a commuter chases snowball-throwing children through neighborhood streets, a teenager memorizes Rimbaud’s poetry—with beauty and irony, inviting readers onto sweeping landscapes, to join her in exploring the complexities of time and death, with a sense of humor: on one page, an eagle falls from the sky with a weasel attached to its throat; on another, a man walks into a bar.
Reminding us of the indelible contributions of this formative figure in contemporary nonfiction, The Abundance exquisitely showcases Annie Dillard’s enigmatic, enduring genius, as Dillard herself wishes it to be marked…”
If you haven’t read Dillard, start with Holy the Firm (66 pages but it apparently took 14-months to complete the manuscript) and if you’re a Jesus-follower, track down a copy of Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church(pub. 2001). Chapter 10: The Splendour of the Ordinary focuses on Annie Dillard (while chapter 11 focuses on the similarly brilliant Frederick Buechner – Whispers from the Wings).
Anne Manne has written what friends tell me is a very helpful book on Narcissism. It’s titled The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism(pub. in July 2014 by Melbourne University Press) and is divided into two parts: narcissism as it manifests itself in individuals and narcissism as it manifests itself culturally. You can listen to downloadable conversations with Manne hereandhere.
I suspect a large number of us have had first hand experiences of narcissists. I certainly have and do. While narcissism exists along a continuum, many of our experiences of narcissists are deeply destructive, both at an individual level and relationally. In psychological terms it can be described as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.” From a psychoanalytical perspective it could be described as “self-centredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder (Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)).”
Narcissists have failed to develop an authentic, healthy, and durable sense of self.
“…Somewhere, most often in childhood, narcissists lost sight of who they really are. Usually, through no fault of their own, they failed to develop an authentic, durable sense of self. Instead, what they project is a false sense...[While] you see someone who is...self absorbed, self-obsessed, self-admiring, self-involved, self-ish...the real picture is this: the narcissist is someone who is consumed by a struggle to maintain an intact façade...It is a fundamental lack of self that drives the machine we call narcissism…” (Steven Carter and Julia Sokol, Help, I’m in Love with a Narcissist, p. 72).
Narcissists are profoundly exploitative and vengeful.
Narcissists live on the surface of life. The development of depth and any authentic growth in self-awareness is profoundly frightening. They are rarely what they seem, and you seldom see them, unless you see behind the masks (plural) or are somebody for whom the pretence is no longer advantageous to them, i.e. they don't care. Sometimes too, and its extremely rare, you get some genuine self-disclosure and awareness.
Narcissists can’t understand why people (who can see beyond the masks and personas) react to them the way they do. It really is nigh on impossible for them to truly see and experience themselves as others do.
Narcissists can change between, but can't differentiate their so-called true or authentic self, from their multiple masks, their multiple personas.
“The full humanization of man requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation, from selfishness and egotism to solidarity and altruism.”
So much resonates in this reflection penned by Maria Popova at brainpickings. Its been a helpful Easter message to read and juxtapose upon the gospel accounts of resurrection; and upon life and what’s most life-giving, especially in the face of those inevitable very human experiences of sadness, pain, and difficulty.
“A pioneer of what he called “radical-humanistic psychoanalysis,” the great German social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) was one of the most luminous minds of the twentieth century and a fountain of salve for the most abiding struggles of being human…”
After the news, in recent days, from Brussels, and having heard and read David Kilcullen several times over the last few years I’ve come to value his commentary and perspective on conflict in Iraq and Syria, and his understanding of ISIS, both its history and the possible ways in which the challenge that ISIS poses might be faced and addressed. Issue 58 of Quarterly Essay published in 2015 featured an extended essay by Kilcullen under the title: Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State.
This essay constitutes approximately the first half of Kilcullen’s latest book Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism(also published as Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror). I recommend both: the shorter (condensed) essay if you can get hold of a copy, or the larger book (which includes, as its epilogue, some helpful reflection on the 13th November 2015 Paris bombings). Both are very useful.
Dr. David Kilcullen is the Chairman of Caerus Associates. Before founding Caerus, Dave served 24 years as a soldier, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. He was Special Advisor to the Secretary of State from 2007-2009 and Senior Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007. He is the author of bestselling books The Accidental Guerrilla and Counterinsurgency; both are used worldwide by civilian government officials, policymakers, military and development professionals working in unstable and insecure environments.
You can listen to a recent RNZ interview with him here(23rd February 2016 / 26 mins), and an extended talk and conversation with him here(21st August 2015 / approx. 1 hour).
For fans of US author David Foster Wallace (21/02/62 to 12/09/08). I highly recommend this site, which collects a number of interviews with Wallace, but also has a number of audio recordings about Wallace, including Geoff Ward’s BBC audio documentary on DFW. I’d heard a number of the recordings over the years, but its nice to have them collected on one site.
Finally, DFW fans will enjoy this round-table conversation, which Melbourne’s Wheeler Institute staged and recorded 2nd September 2015. The title of the conversation was: No Relation: The Impact, Imitators and Legacy of David Foster Wallace. You’ll find the recording here.
“Is there any figure in the recent history of American literature who has generated as much cringe-inducing veneration – or as much dismay – as the late David Foster Wallace? During his lifetime, the author of Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and many celebrated essays and articles was a cult figure of soaring intellect, dizzying creative ambition and slightly questionable fashion sense. Many were frustrated by his work (New Yorker literary critic James Wood placed his work in the derogatory category of ‘hysterical realism’) while others saw him as a genius. His status as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century has only grown since his death in 2008.
In this special event, DFW acolytes Sam Cooney, Ronnie Scott, Melinda Houston and Steph Harmon explore Foster Wallace’s legacy for writers and artists. They discuss his impact on popular culture, the scourge of lesser imitators and how the film The End of the Tourcelebrates the work of this extraordinary writer.”
The trailer for the film can be seen here on YouTube. You can also listen to David Foster Wallace deliver his very thoughtful and thought-provoking Kenyon Commencement address, delivered in 2005. For more on education I recommend reading or listening to In Defence of a Liberal Educationby Fareed Zakaria.
My favorite Michael Leunig illustration – the most evocative for me – is his The Garden Gate. It accompanies his poem How to Get There:
Go to the end of the path until you get to the gate. Go through the gate and head straight out towards the horizon. Keep going towards the horizon. Sit down and have a rest every now and again, But keep on going, just keep on with it. Keep on going as far as you can. That’s how you get there.
However, in my mind I now also want to link the illustration to the following poem by Victoria Safford. I heard it read by Parker J. Palmer and it just so resonated for me.
The Gates of Hope
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
Not the prudent gates of Optimism,
Which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
Which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
Telling people what we are seeing
Asking people what they see.”
Victoria Safford, the minister of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, in Mahtomedi, Minnesota (www.unitarian.org/whitebear), is the author of Walking Toward Morning.