Hannah Arendt On Our Creations’ Independent Lives

In ‘Remarks to the American Society of Christian Ethics’ (Library of Congress MSS Box 70, p. 011828)¹,   Hannah Arendt notes,

Each time you write something and send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking for yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.

In a post responding to David Simon‘s complaints about viewer’s ‘misinterpretations’ of his The Wire, I had written:

[T]here is something rather quaint and old-fashioned in the suggestion that viewers are getting it wrong, that they misconceived the show, that there is, so to speak, some sort of gap between their understanding and take on the show and the meaning that Simon intended, and that this is a crucial lacunae….once the show was made and released, any kind of control [Simon] might have exerted over its meaning was gone. The show doesn’t exist in some autonomous region of meaning that Simon controls access to; it is in a place where its meaning is constructed actively by its spectators and in many ways by the larger world that it is embedded in.

Arendt’s remarks obviously apply to the business of interpreting artistic works–just like they do to other creations of the human mind like philosophical theories of politics and morality. Once ‘made,’ once theorized, and sent ‘out there,’ they have a life of their own, now subject to the hermeneutical sensibilities and strategies of those who come into contact with them; these encounters are mediated by the interests and inclinations and prejudices of the work’s interpreters (as Gadamer would have noted), by the history of the world that has intervened in the period between the creation of the work and its reception by others. To attempt to reclaim the work, to insist on the primacy of the creator’s vision at the cost of others, to regulate how the work may be thought of and more ambitiously, modified to produce derivative works–these are acts of hubris, of vainglory. The openness of such works to a series of rebirths and reinvigorations prepares it for its encounter with greatness; its ability to entertain multiple ‘readings,’ to provide room for fertile exploration with every new generation, these mark a work out as a ‘classic’ one; indeed, such fecundity in the face of repeated exegesis is perhaps the most enduring condition of the ‘classic.’

Arendt’s remarks are cited by Margaret Conovan in her ‘Introduction’ in Arendt’s The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, p. xx) as he claims that this difficult but rich work will continue to endure precisely because it affords its readers so much opportunity for their own idiosyncratic encounters with the text and its theses. My discussions with my students this semester–as we read Arendt’s book together–will, I think, bolster Conovan’s assertions.

Max Weber On The Ubiquity Of ‘Meaning’ In ‘Social Life’ And ‘Nature’

In “The Concept of ‘Following a Rule'” (Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. W. G. Runciman, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107) Max Weber writes:

If we separate in our minds the ‘meaning’ which we find ‘expressed’ in an object or event from those elements in the object or event which are left over when we abstract precisely that ‘meaning,’ and if we call an enquiry which considers only these latter elements a ‘naturalistic’ one, then we get a broader concept of ‘nature,’ which is quite distinct from the previous one. Nature is what is ‘meaningless’ – or, more correctly, an event becomes part of ‘nature’ if we do not ask for its ‘meaning.’ But plainly in that case the opposite of ‘nature,’ in the sense of the ‘meaningless,’ is not ‘social life’ but just the ‘meaningful’ – that is, the ‘meaning’ which can be attached to, or ‘found in,’ an event or object, from the metaphysical ‘meaning’ given to the cosmos in a system of religious doctrine down to the ‘meaning’ which the baying of one of Robinson Crusoe’s hounds ‘has’ when a wolf is approaching.

In ‘The Concept of ‘Following A Rule’ Weber was concerned to provide an extended critique of the notion put forward by Rudolf Stammler that–roughly–‘social’ life could be demarcated from ‘nature’ on the basis of the criteria that social life was characterized by rule-following; it is this ‘following a rule’ which generates the meaning attached to social events; Robinson Crusoe, bound ‘only’ by nature and his own desires and constraints follows no such rules; his is not a social life; it is life lived in ‘nature.’ As Weber went on to argue, such a distinction was not enough; Crusoe’s existence on his isolated island could be interpreted to be bound by ‘rules’ too; the curious social scientist just had to look farther afield, perhaps at the laws of nature that Crusoe was bound by, perhaps the rhythms of a daily routine that best served his continued existence and survival. The boundaries between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ cannot be so easily drawn; the social cannot so easily be described by a logic different from that used to describe nature.

In the passage above, Weber notes that ‘meaning’ is far too loose a notion to do the work that such a distinction would seek to make it do; ‘meaning’ is ubiquitous depending on the perspectives and interpretations at play; we can read meaning into and out of natural events just as easily as we do with social ones. If we are determined to describe ‘nature’ as ‘meaningless’ we will not obtain ‘social life’ as its converse, but rather, just the ‘meaningful,’ which will not map on precisely to what we understand in normal practice by ‘nature.’ This is a point that should be familiar to those who struggle to provide theories of meaning in the philosophy of language; far too much is found ‘meaningful’–using explicitly linguistic units or otherwise–for one all-encompassing theory to do do justice to the concept.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Mountains Of The Mind

A few years ago, while visiting my brother in India, I browsed through his collection of mountaineering books (some of them purchased by me in the US and sent over to him.) In Robert MacFarlane‘s Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit, I found the following epigraph:

O the mind, mind has mountains  – Gerard Manley Hopkins c. 1880

It wasn’t the first time I had read Hopkins’ immortal line. And my first reaction to it, and its embedding in the poem in which it features made me question MacFarlane’s deployment of it as an epigraph to his book, and indeed, in its title.

MacFarlane’s book is, as an excellent critical review on Amazon notes, “a series of essays following the development and transitional phases of Western European conceptions of the “mountains” and exploring the mountains.” Man is fascinated by the mountains; bewitched and bewildered, we seek to climb them, hoping to find on their slopes and summits nothing less than our true selves, brought forth and revealed by adversity. Or perhaps mountains will grant us access to the key to this world’s mysteries; visions will be induced in our journeys that will pull back the curtains and reveal what lies beneath the surface and appearance of reality. Mountains have many roles to play in our projects of self-imagination and construction–in MacFarlane’s narrowly conceived Anglocentric sphere. (This last critical point is the primary focus of the review linked above.)

But what is Hopkins’ line doing, serving as an epigraph to such a book? Hopkins’ poem is about melancholia; indeed, it might be one of the most powerful and moving explorations of the mind’s travails. Here is how I read his line: our mind is capable of entertaining thoughts and feelings which contain within them chasms of despair, points at which we stare into a dark abyss, an unfathomable one, with invisible depths. These are our own private hells, glimpses of which we catch when we walk up to the edge and look. The effect on the reader–especially one who has been to the mountains–is dramatic; you are reminded of the frightening heights from which you can gaze down on seemingly endless icy and windswept slopes, the lower reaches of which are shrouded with their own mysterious darkness; and you are reminded too, of the darkest thoughts you have entertained in your most melancholic moments.

In MacFarlane’s book, the fear that mountains evoke in us is a prominent feature of man’s fascination with mountains (this suggests too, the interplay between terror and beauty that Rilke wrote about in the Duino Elegies.) But melancholia does not feature in MacFarlane’s analysis. MacFarlane seems to quote the line as saying that our fascination with mountains stems from the fact that our mind itself contains mountains, that some part of our primeval sense responds to them. This is not what Hopkins was writing about. He uses mountains as an image to convey the depths visible from their heights, as a symbol of how far we may fall in our melancholia. Fear is present for Hopkins but in a wholly different manner; we dread the depths to which we may sink in our ruminations. That is not the kind of fear MacFarlane addresses; it is related only peripherally.

What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (and Literature)

In ‘What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art‘ (New York Times, April 12, 2013), Eric R. Kandel writes:

Alois Riegl….understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture….In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

Kande’s focus in his article is on visual art, but these considerations apply equally to the printed word. Here are the passages excerpted above with very slight emendation:

Literature is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the reader  collaborate with the author in transforming two-dimensional printed words on a page into an imaginative depiction of the world, the reader interprets what he or she sees on the page canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the text….In addition to our acquired reading abilities, each of us brings to a work of literature our acquired memories: we remember other works of literature that we have seen. We remember scenes and people who have meaning to us and relate the work of literature to those memories. In order to read what is printed on a page on a page, we have to know beforehand what we might read in the text.

So, we get the collaborative theory of the reader: a literary work is brought to life by the reader, it acquires meaning in the act of reading.  This ensures that the work serves as raw material for an act of active engagement with the reader, who brings a history of reading, a corpus of memories, and thus, an inclination and disposition toward the text. The more you read, the more you bring to every subsequent act of reading; the more you engage with humans, the more varied the archetypes and templates of the human experience you have playing in your mind as you read.

The classic work then, which endures over time and acquires a new set of readers in each successive generation, becomes so because it remains reinterpretable on an ongoing basis; newer bodies of text and human histories surround it and it acquires new meanings from them.  We are still unable to analyze this phenomenon, to determine what makes a particular text receptive to such reimaginings over time; its success is the only indicator it has what it takes to acquire the status of a classic.