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Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity

“Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminded us in her fascinating treatise on the science of dreams. “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true,” Jonah Lehrer wrote shortly before being engulfed in a maelstrom of escalating accusations of autoplagiarism and outright fabulation. Yet while we already know that memory is not a recording device, the exact extent of its fallibility eludes — often, quite conveniently — most of us.

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks tackles precisely that, exposing the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated:

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism:

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Citing a number of case studies where false memories of fictitious events were “implanted” in people’s minds, Sacks explores unconscious plagiarism, something Henry Miller poetically probed and Mark Twain eloquently, if unscientifically, addressed in his famous letter to Helen Keller. Sacks writes:

What is clear in all these cases — whether of imagined or real abuse in childhood, of genuine or experimentally implanted memories, of misled witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, of unconscious plagiarism, and of the false memories we probably all have based on misattribution or source confusion — is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’

[…]

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks concludes:

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

In a rare act of defiant reliability, my own memory brought to mind a footnoted passage in Sacks’s mind-bendingly excellent recent book, Hallucinations, where he explores memory further:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

In a footnote, he adds:

For [researchers] in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax) — imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection. It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that the classical view could be disputed. Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory — how many digits could be remembered, for instance — Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering. These experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called ‘memory,’ but rather a dynamic process of ‘remembering.’ He wrote:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. . . . It is thus hardly ever really exact.

Could it be, then, that the very fallibility of memory is essential to our combinatorial creativity and to the mechanics of the slot machine of ideation? To steal like an artist might be, after all, the default setting of the brain.

Oliver Sacks portrait by John Midgley via Wired

BP

A Different Kind of Progress: The Poetry and Philosophy of Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Tagore, Set to Song

A beautiful musical homage to the eternal dance of life and death.

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed in a letter. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in contemplating the singular power of music. Given this aesthetic envy, how befitting and redemptive that some of history’s greatest poetry and philosophy should become the creative seed for beautiful music in singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley’s debut album, A Different Kind of Progress — an exquisite thirteen-song cycle, five years in the making, inspired by the poetry and philosophy of beloved writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Tagore.

“Rainer’s Song (The World You Carry Within You)” is based on Rilke’s timeless clarion call for embracing uncertainty and living the questions — one of the wisest things a human being could live by, which penetrates the psyche all the more deeply as Hawley fuses Rilke’s appeal to the mind with music’s enchantment of the heart, embodying Oliver Sacks’s assertion that “music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation”:

Another track, “Mollusk and Slug Interlude,” was sparked by Rilke’s abiding wisdom on love:

“Kidnapping a tree” is based on a poem of Tagore’s, celebrating trees, those perennial poetic muses:

“How Real” is based on Rumi’s poem “Float, Trust, Enjoy,” found in The Soul of Rumi:

FLOAT, TRUST, ENJOY

Muhammad said no one looks
back and regrets leaving this
world. What’s regretted

is how real we thought it was!
How much we worried about
phenomena and how little

we considered what moves
through form. “Why did I spend
my life denying death? Death

is the key to truth!” When you
hear lamenting like that, say,
not out loud, but
inwardly, “What moved you
then still moves you, the same
energy. But you understand

perfectly now that you are not
essentially a body, tissue, bone,
brain, and muscle. Dissolve

in the clear vision. Instead of
looking down at the six feet of
road immediately

ahead, look up: see both worlds,
the face of the king, the ocean
shaping and carrying

you along. You’ve heard
descriptions of that sea. Now
float, trust, enjoy the motion.”

“Winter’s White Owl” is inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” found in her New and Selected Poems, Volume One — an immensely enlivening perspective on death:

WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Complement A Different Kind of Progress, also available on CD Baby, with Jack Kerouac set to song by Patti Smith, E.E. Cummings set to song by Tin Hat, William Blake set to song by The Wraiths, W.B. Yeats set to song by Christine Tobin, Allen Ginsberg’s musical adaptation of Blake, and Natalie Merchant’s songs based on Victorian nursery rhymes.

BP

Great Writers on the Power of Music

Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (a remark often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul,” the wise and wonderful Morley observed. Psychologists have studied why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity and how listening to music enraptures the brain. But, more than that, music works over the human spirit and stands as a supreme manifestation of our very humanity — something Carl Sagan knew when he sent the Golden Record into the cosmos as a representation of the most universal truths of our civilization.

Gathered here are uncommonly beautiful reflections on the singular power of music by some of humanity’s greatest writers, collected over years of reading — please enjoy.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag spent the majority of her adult life reading between eight and ten hours a day, and never fewer than four. Her intense love of literature was paralleled by a commensurate love of music. In a diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the spectacular volume that gave us young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something — she writes at age 15:

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.

KURT VONNEGUT

In his final essay collection, A Man Without a Country (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the shapes of storiesKurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. He synthesized the sentiment in an extra-concentrated dose of his wry irreverence:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay makes a similar point via counterpoint. In a beautiful 1920 letter to a friend, found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us the beloved poet on what it really means to be an anarchist, her touching appreciation of her mother, and her exquisite love letters — 28-year-old Millay writes:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

No one has illustrated the vitalizing power of music with more marvelous morbidity than Friedrich Nietzsche. In an aphorism from his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (public library), he proclaims:

Without music life would be a mistake.

The point of this morbidity, of course, is to convey the infinitely enlivening power of music — something Nietzsche elaborated on in an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library):

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Arthur Schopenhauer was a major influence on his compatriot of Nietzsche. In his extensive inquiry into the power of music, found in the first volume of his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library), Schopenhauer writes:

Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself, that in it we certainly have to look for more than that exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [“an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”] which Leibniz took it to be… We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

More of Schopenhauer’s ideas about music can be found here.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf found a very different kind of exaltation in music. In a lengthy 1903 diary entry titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” from A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library), the 21-year-old writer recounts the particularly intoxicating effect of dance music (which, at the time, involved violins) during a wild night on the town:

That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music.

VICTOR HUGO

The great French Romantic poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo extolled music’s singular potency with sublime succinctness. In the preface to his 1864 study of those he considered to be “the greatest geniuses of all time,” somewhat deceptively titled William Shakespeare (public library), he writes:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley takes a complementary perspective in a beautiful essay titled The Rest Is Silence (on which Alex Ross’s excellent The Rest Is Noise is a play), found in the altogether terrific 1931 collection Music at Night and Other Essays (public library):

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.

[…]

When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.

ANAÏS NIN

Perhaps the most dedicated and prolific diarist of all time, French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and continued until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse and timeless subjects as love, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In an entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (public library) — which also gave us Nin’s sublime meditation on embracing the unfamiliar — she writes:

Jazz is the music of the body. The breath comes through brass. It is the body’s breath, and the strings’ wails and moans are echoes of the body’s music. It is the body’s vibrations which ripple from the fingers. And the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life. We give to others only peripheral improvisations.

WALT WHITMAN

In his timeless and tremendously timely 1860s essay Democratic Vistas, found in the Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library), Walt Whitman writes:

Music, the combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human, advances, prevails, holds highest place; supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.

OLIVER SACKS

Nearly a century and a half later, Oliver Sacks captured this supreme spiritual sustenance of music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), which remains the most stimulating inquiry into the source of music’s power ever written. Reflecting on a particularly trying moment for the human spirit — the days following the September 11 attacks — Dr. Sacks writes:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement with Anthony Burgess’s account of the magical moment he fell in love with music as a little boy and this wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music, then revisit similar collections of great writers’ reflections on New York City, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the importance of boredom, and how creativity works.

BP

The Antidote to the Irreversibility of Life: Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means

“Forgiving… is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”

The Antidote to the Irreversibility of Life: Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means

“To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed as he dove for the deeper meanings of our commonest concepts. But, as James Baldwin and Margaret Mead demonstrated in their historic conversation about forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Western culture has a confused understanding of what forgiveness really requires of us and what it really gives us — a confusion tangled in the conflicting legacies of Ancient Greek culture, that primordial womb of drama and democracy, with its politically immature notions of justice, and Christian dogma, with its incomplete and psychologically puerile conceptions of love.

To disentangle this cultural confusion into a lucid and luminous understanding of forgiveness demands an uncommon largeness of spirit and depth of intellect, an uncommon breadth of erudition and historical knowledge, and an uncommon sensitivity to what it means to be human. That is what the uncommon Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) accomplishes throughout The Human Condition (public library) — the superb 1958 book that gave us her insight into how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world.

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

The very need for forgiveness, Arendt observes in a chapter titled “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive,” springs from “the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by acting” — a process fundamental to what it means to be alive. We act because we are, but we don’t always act along the axis of who we aspire to be. Aspiration is a sort of promise — a promise we make to ourselves and, sometimes, to the world. Forgiveness is only ever needed, and possible, because of the inherent tension between action and aspiration. Arendt writes:

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility — of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing — is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past… and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between [us].

To live in a world without forgiveness, she intimates, is to make of life an instant fossil record, each imperfect action instantly ossifying us into a failed promise of personhood:

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities — a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfills, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self.

Art from Cephalopod Atlas, the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

As a secular philosopher and one of the greatest champions of reason amid one of the most unreasonable epochs in the history of our civilization, Arendt observes:

The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense… Certain aspects of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth which are not primarily related to the Christian religious message but sprang from experiences in the small and closely knit community of his followers, bent on challenging the public authorities in Israel, certainly belong among them, even though they have been neglected because of their allegedly exclusively religious nature.

The capacity for forgiveness and the enactment of that capacity in the willingness to forgive is what holds the sphere of human experience together — the private sphere as much as the public sphere, for forgiveness is as vital in our deepest personal bonds as it is in the collective experience of public life. In a sentiment the great civil rights leader John Lewis would echo in his life-earned conviction that “forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life,” Arendt writes:

Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men* from what they have done unknowingly. Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s stirring first-hand lesson in choosing empathy over vengeance, she adds:

In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

Arendt observes that punishment is not the opposite of forgiveness but an alternative to it — one enfeebled by the paradox that human beings are “unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable.” (Yes, do read that again; turn it over in your mind like a Zen koan — I did — until it unfolds its subtle riches of profound wisdom.) She considers the complicated and often superficially understood relationship between forgiveness and love — the least public emotion upon which, somehow, the foundation of all public and political life rests:

Forgiving and the relationship it establishes is always an eminently personal (though not necessarily individual or private) affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it… It is the reason for the [Christian] conviction that only love has the power to forgive. For love, although it is one of the rarest occurrences in human lives, indeed possesses an unequaled power of self-revelation and an unequaled clarity of vision for the disclosure of who, precisely because it is unconcerned to the point of total unworldliness with what the loved person may be, with his qualities and shortcomings no less than with his achievements, failings, and transgressions. Love, by reason of its passion, destroys the in-between which relates us to and separates us from others… Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but antipolitical, perhaps the most powerful of all antipolitical human forces.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s radical 1893 illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

With one of her exquisite pirouettes of logic, Arendt thus delivers us at — and delivers us from — the most dangerous fault line in the Christian model, a fault line that must be sealed and healed before we can have a less confused, more complete and generative understanding of forgiveness: one based not on the emotionally intoxicating but unstable experience we call love but on the ethically and intellectually grounded orientation of respect. She writes:

If it were true, therefore, as Christianity assumed, that only love can forgive because only love is fully receptive to who somebody is, to the point of being always willing to forgive him whatever he may have done, forgiving would have to remain altogether outside our considerations. Yet what love is in its own, narrowly circumscribed sphere, respect is in the larger domain of human affairs. Respect, not unlike the Aristotelian philia politikē, is a kind of “friendship” without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us, and this regard is independent of qualities which we may admire or of achievements which we may highly esteem. Thus, the modern loss of respect, or rather the conviction that respect is due only where we admire or esteem, constitutes a clear symptom of the increasing depersonalization of public and social life.

Against this backdrop, forgiveness can only ever be a communal experience. More than half a century after Arendt, in a cultural moment so inflamed with reflexive indictment and so clouded with the saccharine delirium of self-righteousness, it is nothing less than an act of countercultural courage and resistance to regard this wisdom with unwincing receptivity. Such courage asks of us what Arendt terms “the good will to counter the enormous risks of action by readiness to forgive and to be forgiven, to make promises and to keep them.” There is, after all, nothing riskier than willingness, and nothing more rewarding.

Complement this fragment of Arendt’s enduringly illuminating The Human Condition with philosopher Martha Nussbaum — in many ways an intellectual heir of Arendt’s — on anger and forgiveness, then revisit Arendt herself on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.

BP

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