Success in San Francisco
Jerry and I spent the last three days (plus two for travel) in San Francisco. The trip wasn’t exactly a willing one on my part because my spouse had talked me into giving a paper at the conference where he was to chair a panel and present his own paper. I hadn’t given any philosophical papers since taking early retirement at Brooklyn College. I’d forgotten how to breathe when you read something you wrote. The topic I’d written about might prove very unpopular. And, like many (but not all) women, invisibility is my preferred state. Finally, except for the little town in Maine where we have friends, I don’t like to go anywhere.
I should explain what this conference was about. It was the “33rd International Meeting of the Eric Voegelin Society.” Eric Voegelin was one of the intellectual heroes of our time. He tried to fathom why so many of the finest minds of the last century rushed to embrace the ideologies of Nazism and Communism. He saw that it’s hard to endure the uncertainties of the human condition. To be human is to perch uncomfortably between a divine dimension that we can’t see and the animality that is only a part of us. The totalitarian temptation offers a pretended escape from the difficulties of living between these two poles. It’s the delusion that we can pull heaven down to our level and become self-appointed gods or messiahs, overriding the limits of our real life. The totalitarians would rather liquidate the evidence that their theories are false than admit their all-too-human mistake. And of course the evidence includes people, so they do a lot of killing. Voegelin is read by men and women who helped to overthrow totalitarian regimes or hope to stave them off when they threaten to return.
My paper, “Spoiling One’s Story: The Case of Hannah Arendt,” dealt with a political thinker and philosopher who is widely admired today but whom I have reason to regard as a spoiler. She spoiled her own life story and spoiled the stories of many other people by the way she misrepresented them.
The fellow presenter who sat next to me saw whom I was to speak about and said that Arendt was the thinker most widely admired nowadays. It used to be John Rawls, he told me, but now it’s Arendt.
“Why,” I asked him, “is Rawls now passé?”
He explained that Rawls dealt with the question of how to distribute the fruits of a prosperous economy fairly, asking his reader to consider how they would want a redistribution of goods to be conducted if they did not know ahead of time what sector of society they would occupy.
“So why has that question gone out of favor?”
My colleague explained that the growth rate has stagnated for so long that the young are no longer concerned with Rawls’s problem: how to redistribute the excess fairly. They don’t see any excess to redistribute. Meanwhile, Arendt has come to seem relevant because she writes about the real threats she herself narrowly escaped, like the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, and evil. That seems more current.
“Yes,” I agreed with my fellow panelist. “Hannah Arendt is practically an industry. There are Arendt name professorships, Arendt centers, fellowships, internships, new articles and books every year. For a public intellectual, it’s a nearly unprecedented case of posthumous glory.”
Then, with the sinking feeling that this paper would sink me, I walked up to the podium to read it. As I began, I noticed that I was not having trouble with the breathing or the pacing. My voice was filling out the syllables. My empathy with the woman philosopher I was criticizing did not desert me (or her). My conviction that this was too serious a matter for me to hold back the relevant truths I knew lent me the needed courage.
When it was done and I’d resumed my seat at the panelists’ long table, the colleague with whom I’d been speaking earlier leaned over and whispered, “Remarkable!” He said a chill went through the room when I finished. He was going to redesign his reading list for fall term courses. An illusion had crumbled. Several seasoned Voegelinians came up asking to be sent the long version of my paper. Later, one young man told me that, while I was telling the story, he was struck by its similarity to events in his own life.
* * *
I have to tell you: nothing like this has ever happened to me. What does it mean? How should I take it? When I pray for Guidance, all I can hear is …
Take it on the chin.