"His pitch was pure. There was no meanness in him. He understood, and conveyed, the grain of America, in ways that may prove valuable in future to historians trying to understand what was decent about us as a nation. And I can’t help thinking that the novels he left us will continue to provide refuge and comfort for readers, perhaps in times even darker than our own."
But one reason for this is that China is in the midst of an unprecedented religious revival, involving hundreds of millions of people—best estimates put the figure at 300 million: 10 million Catholics, 20 million Muslims, 60 million Protestants, and up to 200 million followers of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions. This does not include the tens or even hundreds of millions of people who practice physical cultivation like Qigong or other forms of meditative-like practices.
The precise figures are often debated, but even a casual visitor to China cannot miss the signs: new churches dotting the countryside, temples being rebuilt or massively expanded, and new government policies that encourage traditional values. Progress is not linear—churches are demolished, temples run for tourism, and debates about morality manipulated for political gain—but the overall direction is clear. Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.
About a century ago, a 10-year-old girl named Jenny Cirone — the daughter of the lighthouse keeper on Little Nash Island — began raising sheep. She would go on to tend her flock for more than 80 years.
Thinking is the process that brings us back, time after time, to question our world. It avoids the authority of official fact. As such, it is the infinite and ongoing process of thought. In the first volume to The Life of the Mind, Arendt claims that thinking demands “a stop-and-think,” a search for meaning or wisdom that disrupts the thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Thinking without purpose provides the foundation of all art and “the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” For all these reasons, thinking is, for Arendt, fundamental to our responsibility as political beings.
Haste and thoughtlessness are not the same things, and yet under certain conditions the difference between them can be considerably relaxed. Thoughtlessness, and even at times the inability to think, coexists with movements such as Trump’s that play on constant motion and the speed of political theatre. Arendt refers to the “perpetual-motion mania” that sustains totalitarian movements, and it is tempting to think of Trump’s manic tweeting in this light. Here, an instant and thoughtless response stands in place of a considered and attentive engagement. Haste and thoughtlessness all too often ground this contemporary arena of political performance.
Margarethe von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt explores the question of time and its relation with thinking, depicting long sequences where Arendt smokes and nothing else appears to be happening. Arendt is thinking, and von Trotta risks the expectations of mainstream cinema to establish an unsettling sense that thought takes time. Of course, the frame of von Trotta’s film is Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann — the work she carries out initially for The New Yorker. This will, of course, become the basis of arguably her most controversial work: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s slowness in producing her account of the trial (and thinking through its complexity) infuriates those working on The New Yorker, and we as audience are caught in the tension between the demands of journalistic reality (deadlines and instant analysis) and the slow world of philosophical thought and judgment. Arendt’s work takes time. It is the kind of work that can’t be hurried.
Machen himself deeply admired the macabre work of Poe and Hawthorne and regarded Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as the finest of all ghost stories. Like these giants of American literature, he wouldn’t have labeled himself a “horror” writer, even if The Three Impostors, or The Transmutations (1895) could scare Arthur Conan Doyle, who called its author a “genius.” In The Great God Pan (1894) and a succession of short stories, Machen hinted at the continued power of pre-Christian deities—such as Nodens, the god of the abyss—or posited the survival of a primordial and malevolent race of hominids, now lurking in Welsh hills and caves. In his later work, however, he often set aside numinous dread to explore instead the spiritual and transcendental.* But whether focusing on the bestial or the beatific, Machen’s fiction always suggests that there’s more to reality than meets the eye, if we could just—to use a fin de siècle phrase—Rend the Veil.
Franz Boas fought his first duel in 1877, when he was nineteen. He was freshly arrived at the University of Heidelberg, where saber fencing over slights, known as Mensur, was ingrained in undergraduate culture. And the slight in question was, indeed, slight: Boas shared the rental payments on his piano with a classmate, who banged away for hours at a time. The students downstairs protested, Boas took offense. Words were exchanged, satisfaction demanded. Three weeks later, he and another student drew swords. The Mensur had its rules and conventions, which involved a stopwatch, a surgeon, an umpire, and, for the combatants, goggles and padded garments. You saved face by slashing at another’s.
“A piece four cm. long and one and one-half cm. wide was cut out of my scalp but I gave my opponent three cuts from ear to nose that required eight stitches,” Boas wrote to a friend, with a precision that presaged the anthropometric skills he would soon acquire. In the course of his college years, which brought him from Heidelberg to Bonn and then to Kiel, more duels ensued; every time he came home on vacation, his family noticed, he bore new scars. When the sculptor Jacob Epstein, visiting New York in 1927, went to work on a bust of Boas, he found his visage to be “scarred and criss-crossed with mementos of the many duels of his student days…but what was still left whole in his face was as spirited as a fighting cock.”
Boas was, by then, renowned as the father of American cultural anthropology and the scholar who taught generations how to think about human diversity without hierarchy. “Culture” was once regarded as something that one group might have more of than another. Boas and his students demonstrated how to use the word in the plural: different peoples had different cultures, and while the idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture were patent to us, we’d do well to recognize the arbitrary aspects of our own. For Boas, the contingencies of culture were written on his face. When, two decades after his dueling days, he detailed the techniques of face painting among Indian villagers in British Columbia, he must have been conscious that his own features bore the marks of similarly community-bound customs.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor