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Between the World and Us: Hannah Arendt on Outsiderdom, the Power and Privilege of Being a Pariah, and How We Humanize Each Other

“We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.”

Between the World and Us: Hannah Arendt on Outsiderdom, the Power and Privilege of Being a Pariah, and How We Humanize Each Other

“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being,” Carl Jung wrote as he contemplated life and death. And the most astonishing part of it all is just how resourceful we can be in kindling that flame even amid the most oxygen-deprived and suffocating of circumstances — a kind of spiritual survival instinct the vitalizing beauty of which only the oppressed, the marginalized, and the otherwise banished from mainstream society have the painful privilege of knowing.

This painful privilege is what the great German writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) explores in Men in Dark Times (public library) — a 1968 collection of essays that have grown all the more timely and radiant in the half-century since. (The book’s title, it bears pointing with a mixture of lamentation and delight, comes from an era when a great woman was a “he” — a paradox of which Arendt herself, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures, was the epitome.)

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

A generation after Viktor Frankl penned his timeless treatise on how the darkest of circumstances illuminate the human search for meaning, Arendt writes:

Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth… Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.

From our vantage point as Arendt’s posterity, one thing is certain — her own ideas about freedom and justice and human nature are more blazing than ever. Half a century before Rebecca Solnit’s lucid and luminous case for hope in the dark, Arendt writes:

The world lies between people, and this in-between … is today the object of the greatest concern and the most obvious upheaval in almost all the countries of the globe.

Arendt argues that in dark times — times of injustice, when certain groups are oppressed by certain other groups and personal liberty is imperiled — something magical happens to this in-between space, “a special kind of humanity develops,” a fierce fellowship between and among the oppressed. More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority, she writes:

Humanity manifests itself in such brotherhood most frequently in “dark times.” This kind of humanity actually becomes inevitable when the times become so extremely dark for certain groups of people that it is no longer up to them, their insight or choice, to withdraw from the world. Humanity in the form of fraternity invariably appears historically among persecuted peoples and enslaved groups… This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that the pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others.

Art from Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a modern fable of paraihdom and acceptance

Arendt herself, in addition to being a female intellectual in a almost entirely male realm, belongs to one such pariah population — the group of Jews expelled from Germany by Hitler at an early age — and it is from this meeting point of the personal and the political that she adds:

The privilege is dearly bought; it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world, so fearful an atrophy of all the organs with which we respond to it — starting with the common sense with which we orient ourselves in a world common to ourselves and others and going on to the sense of beauty, or taste, with which we love the world — that in extreme cases, in which pariahdom has persisted for centuries, we can speak of real worldlessness.

But out of this worldless in-betweenness, Arendt observes, something else is born — a new sort of kindred humanism, which can’t be replicated or manufactured under any other circumstances:

It is as if under the pressure of persecution the persecuted have moved so closely together that the interspace which we have called world (and which of course existed between them before the persecution, keeping them at a distance from one another) has simply disappeared. This produces a warmth of human relationships which may strike those who have had some experience with such groups as an almost physical phenomenon… In its full development it can breed a kindliness and sheer goodness of which human beings are otherwise scarcely capable. Frequently it is also the source of a vitality, a joy in the simple fact of being alive, rather suggesting that life comes fully into its own only among those who are, in worldly terms, the insulted and injured.

[…]

But … this kind of humanitarianism, whose purest form is a privilege of the pariah, is not transmissible and cannot be easily acquired by those who do not belong among the pariahs. Neither compassion nor actual sharing of suffering is enough.

There is something larger and more expansive at the heart of the matter, Arendt argues — “the question of selflessness, or rather the question of openness to others, which in fact is the precondition for ‘humanity’ in every sense of that word” — and this openness, in its highest form, is an openness to each other’s joy rather than only each other’s suffering:

It seems evident that sharing joy is absolutely superior in this respect to sharing suffering. Gladness, not sadness, is talkative, and truly human dialogue differs from mere talk or even discussion in that it is entirely permeated by pleasure in the other person and what he says. It is tuned to the key of gladness, we might say. What stands in the way of this gladness is envy, which in the sphere of humanity is the worst vice…

This sharing of gladness, Arendt notes with an eye to Aristotle’s ideas about friendship, is the glue for the most powerful of human bonds:

The ancients thought friends indispensable to human life, indeed that a life without friends was not really worth living. In holding this view they gave little consideration to the idea that we need the help of friends in misfortune; on the contrary, they rather thought that there can be no happiness or good fortune for anyone unless a friend shares in the joy of it. Of course there is something to the maxim that only in misfortune do we find out who our true friends are; but those whom we regard as our true friends without such proof are usually those to whom we unhesitatingly reveal happiness and whom we count on to share our rejoicing.

[…]

Humanity is exemplified not in fraternity but in friendship.

Therein lies Arendt’s most salient, most beautiful point — it is in this act of connecting that we create the world:

The world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse. However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows… We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human.

Complement the thoroughly invigorating Men in Dark Times with Rebecca Solnit on finding hope amid despair and Albert Camus on how to ennoble our minds in difficult times, then revisit Arendt on time, space, and the thinking ego, the crucial difference between truth and meaning, our impulse for self-display, and what free will really means.

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Amanda Palmer on Art, Love, Loneliness, Motherhood, Vulnerability, Trust, and Our Lifelong Quest to Feel Real

“Maybe we’ve constructed culture in a way that people are not feeling recognized, loved, accepted, happy with their place in society.”

“A society must assume that it is stable,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb 1962 meditation on the creative process, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

I’ve met no artist who inhabits that vital instability more willingly and transmutes it into grounding, elevating assurance more masterfully than Amanda Palmer. She discusses how and why she does what she does with uncommon sincerity in her wide-ranging Design Matters interview about art, music, money, love, loneliness, grief, and trust; about the sometimes difficult, sometimes seemingly choiceless choices one must make in order to be an artist; about what motherhood and marriage taught her about the inevitability of imperfection; about the gyrating vulnerability inherent to every creative endeavor, whether its audience is a stranger on the sidewalk or ten thousand fans at a stadium.

Amanda Palmer and baby Ash at the Design Matters recording studio at the School of Visual Arts, New York, April 2016 (Photograph: Maria Popova)
Amanda Palmer and baby Ash at the Design Matters recording studio at the School of Visual Arts, New York, April 2016 (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Having listened both to every single interview in the eleven-year archive of Design Matters and to a great many interviews Amanda has done over the years (in addition to having conducted a few myself), I unambivalently consider this conversation an absolute pinnacle in both classes — 80 minutes of life-force to sustain you for years to come. Please enjoy.

We think that we’re all very connected, we think that we’re all very communicative. But when you actually strip it down, there’s a lot wrong. And the proof is in the pudding — you have a whole society of people who are depressed and insecure and anxious and paranoid and worried … and, fundamentally, feeling very unseen… Maybe we’ve constructed culture in a way that people are not feeling recognized, loved, accepted, happy with their place in society… What have we done to create such unhappiness?

What art does to and for us: Amanda Palmer performs "Bigger on the Inside" at the Design Matters recording studio as host Debbie Millman cries. (Photograph: Maria Popova)
What art does to and for us: Amanda Palmer performs “Bigger on the Inside” at the Design Matters recording studio as host Debbie Millman cries. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Complement with Amanda on the art of asking, art as non-ownable nourishment, and her terrific BBC open letter on the choice to have a child as a working artist, and join me in supporting her art — because, after all, we can choose to prefer the absurdity of supporting artists over the absurdity of not supporting artists.

Revisit more of my favorite Design Matters episodes and be sure to subscribe to the show for a steady feed of enlivening conversations with creative people about how they became who they are.

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A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.”

A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in recounting the sublime epiphany in which she knew she was an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography (public library) — a fine addition to these favorite illustrated biographies of luminaries and one of four wonderful picture-books about the creative life I recently reviewed for The New York Times — writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford pull back the cotton wool of Woolf’s own remarkable life and explore the thing itself with equal parts concision, compassion, and unsentimental reverence.

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From her childhood, marked by literature and loss from an early age — the two great constants of her life — to her emergence as one of the most singular and significant artistic voices of the past century, the story follows Woolf’s creative development and unearths the building blocks of her formidable legacy.

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While her brothers were away at school, Virginia would read and write obsessively. Her older sister Vanessa spent hours at her easel.

They went on to devote their lives to each other.

Woven into the story are unforgettably electrifying lines from Woolf’s books, journals, and letters. Woolf writes in her diary in October of 1933:

I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.

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We meet Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, and their Bloomsbury posse of artists and intellectuals; Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and their pet marmoset Mitz, a mascot of the Bloomsbury group; her beloved nephews, Quentin and Julian, with whom she collaborated on a humorous family newspaper; her lover Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Woolf’s gender-bending, genre-bending, groundbreaking novel Orlando, which Sackville-West’s son rightly called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

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Leonard had spent seven years working for the Colonial Civil Service in Ceylon. He was a writer, an intellectual, and a perfectionist.

He was also tall and dark with blue eyes and trembling hands.

[…]

Leonard would call her “mandrill.” Virginia would call him “mongoose.”

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While enjoying London’s party scene, Virginia met the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West.

Vita’s life was scandalous. She had an open marriage, passionate lesbian affairs, and a penchant for cross-dressing. She was also a mother, a writer, and a poet.

As their relationship bubbled and fizzled, Virginia wrote To the Lighthouse. It was an ode to her parents.

There is struggle — it takes fifteen years for Woolf’s debut novel to sell 2,000 copies, and in those years she survives a World War and a severe bout of depression that nearly takes her life. There is also joy — the seemingly idyllic Charleston retreat of the Bloomsbury set, and the simple joys of dogs and gardening and the ocean.

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Every great biography, in telling the story of a particular personhood, recreates the texture of the era in which that personhood unfolded. Intersecting the line of Woolf’s life are cultural milestones, events both triumphant and tragic.

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The suffrage movement paves the way for women’s intellectual, creative, and sexual emancipation as young Virginia is finding that room of her own.

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When the war comes, we see Virginia and Leonard crouching in their coal cellar, where they take shelter night after nightmarish night.

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On March 28, 1941, Virginia fills her overcoat pockets with rocks, leaves Leonard a poignant farewell letter, walks into the River Ouse behind their house, and drowns. Measured by its end, her life is undeniably tragic. Measured by its substance, a sort of creative aliveness which few artists have matched in the entire history of humanity, it is undeniably triumphant. The book is a reminder — perhaps uncomfortable, but very much necessary and ultimately jubilant — that complexity and contradiction are the raw material of life, and that an extraordinary life contains an extraordinary dosage of both.

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Complement Alkayat and Cosford’s marvelous Virginia Woolf, which is part of their series of illustrated biographies of exceptional women, with notable picture-books celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Woolf on how to read a book, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, the paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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