Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”

On Influence: Robert Hayden in Dakar

After having a conversation about a novel I’ve since forgotten, my undergraduate literature professor at the University of Michigan gave me a paperback copy of Robert Hayden’s Collected Poems.  Perhaps this gesture was to end our conversation as he had a flight to catch or, more effectively, optimistically, this was to preface another: one that would extend more than an hour in an office?  I hadn’t heard of Hayden or his poetry, so I was curious, especially since my professor gave me the book and said, “read” before leading me outside the office, locking the door and exiting the building.

There I was in front of the building, in front of the heavy oak and glass doors waving to a swiftly- moving-wrinkled trench coat and holding that gray book thinking it matched the sky’s grayness, the pavement’s grayness, the grayness of my sweater, the grayness I felt.  My professor didn’t even say, I think you’ll like it.  Or this is a necessary poet, or by reading these poems your poetry may deepen.  I was uncertain he knew I actually wrote, attempted to write, hoped to write.

I went to the café on State Street, ordered a green tea and began reading that book.  There was a progression, a movement in those poems, in myself as I read.  Those stark-glimmering short lines, the longer lines that seemed to float from the page, absorb into the air like sandalwood or the oily spray of clementine peels.  His poems speak to beauty, tragedy, Americanness, African-Americanness, myths both African and Western, the natural world, the personal, urbanity and rurality.  All of these strands stitched into poems where the stitching is invisible, where I surrendered to that language and craft.  I had found a poet to follow, to aspire association.  I had found an imagination to step within, believe, one that would magnify my own. 

I didn’t read the whole book in that café but did in my dorm room that evening.  For a couple of days around campus and to my classes, I wore a silk bowtie in his honor— it ended up not being my style or rather, due to peer pressure, I stopped.  However, I kept the loosened tie on top of my dresser just to remember, to ponder Hayden.

In the following two weeks, I thanked my professor for the book.  He nodded and from there we talked about the poems, specifically their breadth and keen structures.  We talked about Hayden’s beautiful imagination despite his devastating childhood.  He wrote a poem in the voice of an extraterrestrial giving an eyewitness report of America.  What? I said.  My professor responded, “I see you.”  There was silence, a good silence.  He knew I needed those poems.  He knew I needed that book.  He knew I needed to know Hayden. 

He broke the silence to say Hayden had taught at the University for several years, before my time, our time.  But what mattered was he’d been there, and his presence, his energy remained.   

Hayden heightened my sense of possibility as a poet.  That wide imagination could live in the poems I would write.

Years later, I read of Hayden garnering the grand prize for poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966.  A year later, he attended the ceremony in New York City to receive the award from Senegal’s first president Leopold Senghor.  Langston Hughes was at that ceremony and there asked Hayden to autograph his Selected Poems

I don’t believe Hayden was in Dakar when his award was announced in 1966.  When I traveled to Dakar in 2014, I thought of Hayden.  I wondered how he would have absorbed that city.  How he would have walked in the sun with all of that pink sand on the ground, the light dusting of it on roofs and windshields of parked cars.  I wondered what poems he would have made if he’d see the hustle of that city, the beauty of it and its people, its pace.  I wondered what meal he and Senghor would have had together.  And if, after the tea was poured, they’d read each other’s new poems pulled, simultaneously, from the hidden pockets of their linen blazers. 

But this is just me wondering, imagining.  These poems may be the ones I will, at some point write with my eyes closed to the sun. 

Myronn Hardy is the author of four previous books of poems: Approaching the Center, winner of the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize; The Headless Saints, winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Catastrophic Bliss, winner of the Griot-Stadler Award for Poetry; and, most recently, Kingdom. He divides his time between Morocco and New York City.

Browse our 2019 Art Catalog

We are pleased to announce our new Art catalog for 2019! Among the exciting new titles are an exploration of how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped artists’ careers, a unique companion to the Tale of Genji featuring paintings and calligraphy from the Genji Album, and a pathbreaking book about Joris Hoefnagel’s stunning and eccentric Four Elements  manuscripts.

You can find these titles and more at Booth 508 at CAA this week. On Friday, February 15, at 4:30 p.m., we’ll be celebrating this year’s new books and authors with a reception at the booth. All are welcome.

 

Crow Restoration cover

As the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas.

 

McCormick Tale of Genji cover

Written in the eleventh century by the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece of prose and poetry that is widely considered the world’s first novel. Melissa McCormick provides a unique companion to Murasaki’s tale that combines discussions of all fifty-four of its chapters with paintings and calligraphy from the Genji Album (1510) in the Harvard Art Museums, the oldest dated set of Genji illustrations known to exist. In this book, the album’s colorful painting and calligraphy leaves are fully reproduced for the first time, followed by McCormick’s insightful essays that analyze the Genji story and the album’s unique combinations of word and image.

 

Bass Insect Artifice cover

Insect Artifice explores the moment when the seismic forces of the Dutch Revolt wreaked havoc on the region’s creative and intellectual community, compelling its members to seek solace in intimate exchanges of art and knowledge. At its center is a neglected treasure of the late Renaissance: the Four Elements manuscripts of Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600), a learned Netherlandish merchant, miniaturist, and itinerant draftsman who turned to the study of nature in this era of political and spiritual upheaval. Presented here for the first time are more than eighty pages in color facsimile of Hoefnagel’s encyclopedic masterwork, which showcase both the splendor and eccentricity of its meticulously painted animals, insects, and botanical specimens.

 

Cass Sunstein on On Freedom

SunsteinIn this pathbreaking book, New York Times bestselling author Cass Sunstein asks us to rethink freedom. He shows that freedom of choice isn’t nearly enough. To be free, we must also be able to navigate life. People often need something like a GPS device to help them get where they want to go—whether the issue involves health, money, jobs, children, or relationships. Accessible and lively, and drawing on perspectives from the humanities, religion, and the arts, as well as social science and the law, On Freedom explores a crucial dimension of the human condition that philosophers and economists have long missed—and shows what it would take to make freedom real.

How did you come to write this book?

The origin of the book might be foreign travel! When you don’t know how to get from one place to another, you feel lost, and in a way, in a kind of prison. It’s terrible. I realized recently that the problem is very general – a kind of metaphor. When people can’t navigate life, they are not free. All over the world, people can’t navigate life.

Can you give a summary of the main argument?

In short: we don’t focus nearly enough on how hard it is for people to get where they want to go. Freedom of choice is very important, but what if you don’t know how to find a doctor, a job, or job training? You might want to quit smoking or alcohol or opioids – but how? If there isn’t a good answer to that question, people are less free (and they might end up dead). Self-control problems are one of my central concerns. Take the case of an opioid addict. He wants to be free (a good word) of his addiction, but he needs some help in getting there. Or take people living under conditions of poverty. They might be free of mandates and bans. But how can they get what they need?

Can you provide a specific example of an individual having their freedom of choice hindered?

Suppose that your child is sick, and you are told that health care is available. Where do you go? What do you do? Or suppose that you have a serious legal problem. Maybe an employer has discriminated against you. You have freedom of choice. But how do you navigate the system? Or suppose that you suffer from depression or acute anxiety. What’s the solution? In particular: there is a lot of “sludge” out there – obstacles to navigability. Employers, governments, hospitals, schools, and more need to cut the sludge. It reduces freedom.

What are some practical solutions to the current limits on freedom of choice?

Give people a GPS device, or the equivalent, in many spheres of life. If, for example, people want to stop drinking, help them find a way out. Freedom-respecting nudges often make it a lot easier to navigate life, whether the goal is to be safe on the highways, to avoid unhealthy food, or to escape discrimination.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

A main goal is to get people to focus on the problem of navigability. It’s not a lovely word, but life is a lot lovelier when it is navigable. I hope also to spur some thinking about freedom and well-being – about what really matters in life. The tale of Adam and Eve makes several appearances, and its competing messages about the human condition – and what it means to fall – tell us a lot about what is to be human (There is also a fair bit about romance).

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, where he is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. From 2009 to 2012, he led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His many books include the New York Times bestsellers Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (with Richard H. Thaler) and The World According to Star Wars. The 2018 recipient of Norway’s Holberg Prize, he lives in Concord, Massachusetts. Twitter @CassSunstein

Jason Brennan: When the state is unjust, citizens may use justifiable violence

If you see police choking someone to death – such as Eric Garner, the 43-year-old black horticulturalist wrestled down on the streets of New York City in 2014 – you might choose to pepper-spray them and flee. You might even save an innocent life. But what ethical considerations justify such dangerous heroics? (After all, the cops might arrest or kill you.) More important: do we have the right to defend ourselves and others from government injustice when government agents are following an unjust law? I think the answer is yes. But that view needs defending. Under what circumstances might active self-defence, including possible violence, be justified, as opposed to the passive resistance of civil disobedience that Americans generally applaud?

Civil disobedience is a public act that aims to create social or legal change. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s arrest in 1846 for refusing to pay taxes to fund the colonial exploits of the United States, or Martin Luther King Jr courting the ire of the authorities in 1963 to shame white America into respecting black civil rights. In such cases, disobedient citizens visibly break the law and accept punishment, so as to draw attention to a cause. But justifiable resistance need not have a civic character. It need not aim at changing the law, reforming dysfunctional institutions or replacing bad leaders. Sometimes, it is simply about stopping an immediate injustice­. If you stop a mugging, you are trying to stop that mugging in that moment, not trying to end muggings everywhere. Indeed, had you pepper-sprayed the police officer Daniel Pantaleo while he choked Eric Garner, you’d have been trying to save Garner, not reform US policing.

Generally, we agree that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, deceive, manipulate, destroy property or attack people. But few of us think that the prohibitions against such actions are absolute. Commonsense morality holds that such actions are permissible in self-defence or in defence of others (even if the law doesn’t always agree). You may lie to the murderer at the door. You may smash the windows of the would-be kidnapper’s car. You may kill the would-be rapist.

Here’s a philosophical exercise. Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise. But it turns out that the leading arguments for special immunity are weak.

Some people say we may not defend ourselves against government injustice because governments and their agents have ‘authority’. (By definition, a government has authority over you if, and only if, it can oblige you to obey by fiat: you have to do what it says because it says so.) But the authority argument doesn’t work. It’s one thing to say that you have a duty to pay your taxes, show up for jury duty, or follow the speed limit. It is quite another to show that you are specifically bound to allow a government and its agents to use excessive violence and ignore your rights to due process. A central idea in liberalism is that whatever authority governments have is limited.

Others say that we should resist government injustice, but only through peaceful methods. Indeed, we should, but that doesn’t differentiate between self-defence against civilians or government. The common-law doctrine of self-defence is always governed by a necessity proviso: you may lie or use violence only if necessary, that is, only if peaceful actions are not as effective. But peaceful methods often fail to stop wrongdoing. Eric Garner peacefully complained: ‘I can’t breathe,’ until he drew his last breath.

Another argument is that we shouldn’t act as vigilantes. But invoking this point here misunderstands the antivigilante principle, which says that when there exists a workable public system of justice, you should defer to public agents trying, in good faith, to administer justice. So if cops attempt to stop a mugging, you shouldn’t insert yourself. But if they ignore or can’t stop a mugging, you may intervene. If the police themselves are the muggers – as in unjust civil forfeiture – the antivigilante principle does not forbid you from defending yourself. It insists you defer to more competent government agents when they administer justice, not that you must let them commit injustice.

Some people find my thesis too dangerous. They claim that it’s hard to know exactly when self-defence is justified; that people make mistakes, resisting when they should not. Perhaps. But that’s true of self-defence against civilians, too. No one says we lack a right of self-defence against each other because applying the principle is hard. Rather, some moral principles are hard to apply.

However, this objection gets the problem exactly backwards. In real life, people are too deferential and conformist in the face of government authority. They are all-too-willing to electrocute experimental subjects, gas Jews or bomb civilians when ordered to, and reluctant to stand up to political injustice. If anything, the dangerous thesis – the thesis that most people will mistakenly misapply – is that we should defer to government agents when they seem to act unjustly. Remember, self-defence against the state is about stopping an immediate injustice, not fixing broken rules.

Of course, strategic nonviolence is usually the most effective way to induce lasting social change. But we should not assume that strategic nonviolence of the sort that King practised always works alone. Two recent books – Charles Cobb Jr’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed (2014) and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back (2013) – show that the later ‘nonviolent’ phase of US civil rights activism succeeded (in so far as it has) only because, in earlier phases, black people armed themselves and shot back in self-defence. Once murderous mobs and white police learned that black people would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and black people in turn began using nonviolent tactics. Defensive subterfuge, deceit and violence are rarely first resorts, but that doesn’t mean they are never justified.

When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2018) by Jason Brennan is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Thomas Crow on Restoration

Crow_Restoration book coverAs the French Empire collapsed between 1812 and 1815, artists throughout Europe were left uncertain and adrift. The final abdication of Emperor Napoleon, clearing the way for a restored monarchy, profoundly unsettled prevailing national, religious, and social boundaries. In Restoration, Thomas Crow combines a sweeping view of European art centers—Rome, Paris, London, Madrid, Brussels, and Vienna—with a close-up look at pivotal artists, including Antonio Canova, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Thomas Lawrence, and forgotten but meteoric painters François-Joseph Navez and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas. Crow explores how cataclysmic social and political transformations in nineteenth-century Europe reshaped these artists’ lives and careers with far-reaching consequences.

You say in your introduction, by positing that the essential subject of history is change, that periods of exceptionally rapid change contain a greater quantity of history than others.  Do you mean that a few years of upheaval might be equivalent in their historical density to a much longer epoch of more gradual transition?

The interval between my giving the Andrew Mellon Lectures at the Washington National Gallery in 2015 and their publication in this book strikes me as just such a period, in a way that few would have anticipated. The apartment provided by the Gallery in downtown Washington is only a few blocks from the White House, and it was always heartening to walk in that direction and think about the Obama family being inside. I wasn’t thinking much about the ominous portent in the signs across the street announcing the future Trump International Hotel hollowing out the gray stone of the old D.C. Post Office building.

Less than four years later, the dizzying reversals symbolized by the changed state of those landmarks hardly needs describing, and my proposition about the exceptional density of history between 1812 and 1820 may carry more intuitive resonance for everyone who has seen the most trusted form of order in domestic and international politics suddenly exposed as fragile or obsolescent.

Much the same can be said about the catastrophic effects of the Brexit referendum in the UK. In both societies, people share a pervasive anxiety over where these processes of history are taking us and what a suddenly uncertain future will be like.  Such were the states of mind among the artists whose personal stories make up this book. A friend (and former Mellon Lecturer) just wrote me and gratifyingly called Restoration “politically prescient for these dark times when all sorts of stuff we hoped had gone away seems to be restoring itself in unwanted ways.”

Paging through the book, with all of its splendid color illustrations, a reader wouldn’t immediately think of dark themes.

Firstly, I have the combined efforts of the National Gallery and Princeton University Press to thank for the number and wonderful quality of all those images. My hope for the book was that reading it would be as close as possible to being in the hall for the talks. I wanted the quickness of vivid images arriving just at the point they apply to the words. And the words would have as much of the immediacy of speech as possible, not slowing down or impeding the sense of rapid change and surprising innovation that Restoration tries to bring alive.

I think you can imagine, alongside all the devastation left by two decades of war, the wave of relief that swept across Europe at the apparent end of conflict. Rome, in particular, became the prime scene for this emotional release. Movements of armies and militarized borders had made normal travel in Europe nearly impossible. The British in particular had been shut out, and Rome became a magnet destination for them. The brilliant society painter Thomas Lawrence made the journey and created two of his most compelling portraits—one of the Pope himself and the other of his right-hand man, Cardinal Consalvi. The very fact that an artist from a deeply anti-Catholic society would undertake these at all speaks to the startling alterations of customary behavior engendered by Napoleon’s fall.

Lawrence was only one among an influx of artists from elsewhere, among them the brightest talents of the age. Théodore Géricault arrived in 1816, eager to absorb the lessons of Roman greatness in the arts. But his attention quickly wandered to the life of the city’s inhabitants, especially the rituals, ceremonies, and carnival celebrations that seemed to dominate their lives. And he had a companion in his artistic explorations of these exotic forms of life, a former Parisian rival named Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas, who left the most astonishing, up-close visual record of the teeming Roman streets.

Nothing sounds too dark so far, rather the opposite.

In the street-level studies by both Géricault and Thomas, the costumes, Baroque church liturgy, and exuberant festivity are shadowed by events like public beheadings, which were clustered at the opening of the carnival season. Both artists drew analogies between cruel punishments of human beings and the agonies of animals led to torture and slaughter, which they witnessed in the bullring (installed inside the ruined mausoleum of Augustus) and the meat markets that surrounded it. Géricault’s drawings of these subjects are relatively well known, but you can’t really get the measure of them unless they’re seen side by side with the astonishingly vibrant watercolors of the same subjects by Thomas. I only had the rather pallid prints done after them when I gave the Mellon Lectures, but discovered the unpublished studies in Rome afterwards, and they make some of the most spectacular illustrations in the book, including some great two-page spreads.

What would be an example?

Both Géricault and Thomas were fascinated by the races of riderless horses, careening along the Corso, right down the central axis of the city, as a prime spectacle of carnival season since the Middle Ages. Géricault even planned to make a monumental painting out of the maddened animals held back by their handlers. But Thomas reveals the excruciating goads and fireworks in their bridles that induced these specially-bred Barbary horses to complete the course.

Did Géricault ever produce that painting?

He never did, but he carried back an imagination of endurance in the face of suffering, both animal and human, that then motivated a series of extraordinary, monumental canvases.

The Raft of the Medusa, you mean?

Yes, that would be its ultimate expression, the bare collection of decimated shipwreck survivors, summoning their last strength to attract their rescuers, which everyone knows from the Louvre—and it is truly one of the greatest paintings in art history. I try to put it in that light, but also bring out some less familiar, but astonishing work that also subsumes what he’d witnessed by going to Rome, and participates just as much in the upheavals of the time.

Immediately on his return to Paris, he set about painting three gigantic landscapes in an ostensibly classical vein, but their desperate and dejected inhabitants seem to traverse gloomy stretches of devastated terrain. Nothing obviously topical there, unless you’re aware of the catastrophic changes in the climate that struck Europe during exactly the period that Géricault was traversing northern France and the Alpine region on his way to and from Rome. The cause, which no one could grasp, was the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago. Its spreading plume of high-altitude ash cut sunlight to the point that 1816 in much of Europe was called “the year without a summer.” Widespread crop failures, famine, and vagabondage continued though the next summer as he was returning home. It would have seemed that the cosmos itself had been warped by the enormous social and political upheavals of the moment. No evidence survives of any commission or exhibition of the works during the artist’s lifetime, making them in all likelihood a compulsive effort to reconcile the traumatized, post-Tambora condition of rural Europe with his drive to make major art.

A last question: can you say something about the title of your book?  Is it just about the crowned heads of Europe putting the French monarch back on the throne?

More than that, I hope. That’s the technical meaning of the word, but it contains an irony, in that nothing so momentously altered can ever be restored as it was. The artists, from the finest grain of their work to their frequently towering themes, speak most eloquently to that existential reality.

And art itself became a prime object of restoration, in that the period saw the first major controversy about the return of works looted or otherwise displaced from their place of origin. The Pope dispatched the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova as his ambassador to broker the return of the Vatican antiquities and major paintings like Raphael’s Transfiguration, which the French had appropriated for the future Musée Napoléon in Paris. But it was no forgone conclusion that they would go back; when they did, Thomas Lawrence celebrated by placing key antiquities like the Vatican Apollo and Laocoön at the right hand of Pius VII in his portrait, as if the pontiff again commanded their mythical might as a boost to his own.

The paradox of Canova’s embassy was that, when traveling to London to secure British support, he publicly endorsed the recent looting of the Parthenon sculptures by Lord Elgin, and there they remain in the British Museum, still the object of impassioned but unrequited pleas for their restoration to Athens.

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His many books include Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary FranceThe Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995; and No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art.

Browse Our Literature Catalog 2019

Our new Literature catalog includes one of Jane Austen’s most charming youthful “novels”-in-miniature, a look at how New York’s Lower East Side inspired new ways of seeing America, a compelling history of the national conflicts that resulted from efforts to produce the first definitive American dictionary of English, and much more.

If you’ll be at MLA 2019 in Chicago this weekend, stop by Booths 220-222 to see our full range of recent literature titles.

Most people think Jane Austen wrote only six novels. Fortunately for us, she wrote several others, though very short ones, while still a young girl.

Austen was only twelve or thirteen when she wrote The Beautifull Cassandra, an irreverent and humorous little masterpiece. Weighing in at 465 occasionally misspelled words, it is a complete and perfect novel-in-miniature, made up of a dedication to her older sister Cassandra and twelve chapters, each consisting of a sentence or two. This charming edition features elegant and edgy watercolor drawings by Leon Steinmetz and is edited by leading Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson.

New York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. This book takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures.

How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

In The Dictionary Wars, Peter Martin recounts the patriotic fervor in the early American republic to produce a definitive national dictionary that would rival Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. But what began as a cultural war of independence from Britain devolved into a battle among lexicographers, authors, scholars, and publishers, all vying for dictionary supremacy and shattering forever the dream of a unified American language.

Gift Guide: Biographies and Memoirs!

Not sure what to give the reader who’s read it all? Biographies, with their fascinating protagonists, historical analyses, and stranger-than-fiction narratives, make great gifts for lovers of nonfiction and fiction alike! These biographies and memoirs provide glimpses into the lives of people both famous and forgotten:

Galawdewos Life of Walatta-Petros book coverThe radical saint: Walatta-Petros

Walatta-Petros was an Ethiopian saint who lived from 1592 to 1642 and led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. Written by her disciple Galawdewos in 1672, after Walatta-Petros’s death, and translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, The Life of Walatta-Petros praises her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader, providing a rare picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans—especially women—before the modern era.

This is the oldest-known book-length biography of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence. This concise edition, which omits the notes and scholarly apparatus of the hardcover, features a new introduction aimed at students and general readers.

 

Devlin_Finding Fibonacci book coverThe forgotten mathematician: Fibonacci

The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent. But Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, his book Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death.

Finding Fibonacci is Keith Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks.

 

The college president: Hanna Gray Gray_Academic Life book cover

Hanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education.

Gray’s memoir An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers.

 

The medieval historian: Ibn Khaldun Irwin_Ibn Khaldun book cover

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death.

Ibn Khaldun was a major political player in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, as well as a teacher and writer. Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life.

 

The novelist and philosopher: Iris Murdoch Murdoch_Living on Paper book cover

Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed novelist and groundbreaking philosopher whose life reflected her unconventional beliefs and values. Living on Paper—the first major collection of Murdoch’s most compelling and interesting personal letters—gives, for the first time, a rounded self-portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers. With more than 760 letters, fewer than forty of which have been published before, the book provides a unique chronicle of Murdoch’s life from her days as a schoolgirl to her last years.

The letters show a great mind at work—struggling with philosophical problems, trying to bring a difficult novel together, exploring spirituality, and responding pointedly to world events. We witness Murdoch’s emotional hunger, her tendency to live on the edge of what was socially acceptable, and her irreverence and sharp sense of humor. Direct and intimate, these letters bring us closer than ever before to Iris Murdoch as a person.

Jason Brennan on When All Else Fails

Brennan When All Else FailsThe economist Albert O. Hirschman famously argued that citizens of democracies have only three possible responses to injustice or wrongdoing by their governments: we may leave, complain, or comply. But in When All Else Fails, Jason Brennan argues that there is a fourth option. When governments violate our rights, we may resist. We may even have a moral duty to do so. The result is a provocative challenge to long-held beliefs about how citizens may respond when government officials behave unjustly or abuse their power.

What led you to write this book?

Almost daily for the past year, I have come across news stories about police officers using excessive violence against civilians, or about people being arrested and having their lives ruined over things that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place. I watched the Black Lives Matter protests and started reading histories of armed resistance. I watched as president after president killed innocent civilians while pursuing the “War on Terror.” I see people’s lives destroyed by the “War on Drugs,” which continues on the same course even though we have strong evidence it makes things worse, not better. Every day, government agents acting ex officio are committing severe injustices. 

I ascertained that contemporary philosophy was largely impotent to analyze or deal with these problems. Most political philosophy is about trying to construct a theory of an ideal, perfectly just society, which means philosophers usually imagine away the hard problems rather than consider how to deal with those problems. Philosophers often try to justify the government’s right to commit injustice, but they often rely upon irrelevant or incoherent models of what governments and their agents are like. For example, Suzanne Dovi’s theory of political representation is grounded in a false theory of voter behavior, while John Rawls’s argument for government simultaneously assumes people are too selfish to pay for public goods, and government agents are too angelic to abuse their power. I saw an opening not only to do original philosophy, but to do work that bears on the pressing events of our times.

You can see that in the book. The “thought experiments” I use are all based on actual cases, including police officers beating up black men who did nothing more than roll slightly past a stop sign; officers shooting unarmed, subdued men; governments spying on and wiretapping ordinary citizens; drone strikes on innocent civilians; throwing people in jail for smoking marijuana or snorting cocaine; judges having to enforce absurd sentences or unjust laws; and so on.

Can you give a summary of your argument?

The thesis is very simple: the conditions under which you may exercise the right of self-defense or the right to defend others against civilians and government agents are the same. If it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a civilian committing an act, then it is permissible to defend yourself or others against a government agent committing that same act. For instance, if I wanted to lock you in my basement for a year for smoking pot, you’d feel no compunction in defending yourself against me. My thesis is that you should treat government agents the same way.

My main argument is also simple: Both laypeople and philosophers have offered a few dozen arguments trying to defend the opposite conclusion: the view that government agents have a kind of special immunity against defensive resistance. But upon closer examination, we’ll see each of the arguments are bad. So, we should conclude instead that our rights of self-defense or to defend others against injustice do not simply disappear by government fiat. On closer inspection, there turns out to be no significant moral difference between the Commonwealth of Virginia imprisoning you for owning pot and me imprisoning you in my basement for the same thing.

To be clear,  I am not arguing that you may resist government whenever you disagree with a law. Just as I reject voluntarism on the part of government—I don’t think governments can simply decide right and wrong—so I reject voluntarism on the part of individuals. Rather, I’m arguing that you may resist when governments in fact violate people’s rights or in fact cause unjust harm.

Some will no doubt complain this thesis is dangerous. In some ways it is, and I take care to highlight how to be careful about it in the book. But on the other hand, the opposite thesis—that we must defer to government injustice—is no doubt even more dangerous. People tend to be deferential and conformist. Most people will stand by and do nothing while armed officers send people to death camps. Stanley Milgram showed most people will electrocute another person to death because a man in a white lab coat told them to. If anything, defenders of the other side—of the view that we should defer to government injustice—have a duty to be cautious pushing their dangerous view.

Can you talk a bit about the meaning behind the title? What exactly has to fail in order to justify the actions you describe?

Usually, lying, stealing, destroying property, hurting others, or killing others is wrong. However, you may sometimes perform such actions in self-defense or in defense of others. The basic principle of defense, codified in both common law and commonsense morality, is this: you may use a defensive action (such as sabotage, subterfuge, deceit, or violence) against someone else when they are initiating a severe enough injustice or harm, but only if it is necessary to defend yourself. Here, “necessary” means that you cannot use violence if a nonviolent means of defense is equally effective; you cannot use deceit if a non-deceitful means of defense is equally effective. So, the title is meant to signal that defensive actions—such as deceit or violence—are, if not quite last resorts, not first resorts either. 

What is the place of uncivil disobedience within a peaceful and successful polity?

What we call “civil disobedience” is a form of public protest. In civil disobedience, people publicly and explicitly break the law for the purpose of trying to have the law changed. They will often accept legal punishment, not necessarily because they think punishment is warranted and that even bad laws must be respected, but because it is strategic to do so to garner sympathy for their cause. Civil disobedience is about social change.

But self-defense is not about social change. If I kill a would-be mugger, I’m not trying to reduce crime or change gun policy. I’m trying to stop myself from being the victim of that particular injustice. Similarly, if you had been present and had acted in defense of Eric Garner, you would not necessarily have been trying to fix American policing—you would have just been trying to save Garner’s life. Defensive actions—or uncivil disobedience—are about stopping particular wrongdoers from committing particular harms or violating particular people’s rights. 

What are your thoughts on recent protests and movements such as Take a Knee, Me Too, and March for our Lives?

Globally, US policing and US criminal policy are outliers. American criminal justice is unusually punitive and harsh. We have 4.4% of the world’s population but around 25% of the world’s prisoners. We give longer, harsher sentences than illiberal countries such as Russia or China. Our police are unusually violent, even to the most privileged in our society. I applaud movements that bring attention to these facts.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s, though the US had a higher than normal crime rate, its sentence lengths, imprisonment rate, and so on, were on the high end but similar to those of other liberal, rich, democratic countries. But starting in the 1970s, things got worse. 

Right now, Chris Surprenant and I are writing a book called Injustice for All explaining why this happened and offering some ideas about how to fix it. We argue that the problem is not explained by racism (as leftists argue), the War on Drugs (as libertarians argue), or crime and family collapse (as conservatives argue), though these things are each important factors. Rather, the US criminal justice system became dysfunctional because nearly every person involved—from voters to cops to judges to politicians—faces bad incentives created by bad rules.

Are there examples from history of individuals or groups following your philosophy with success?

Two recent books, Charles Cobb Jr.’s This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back provide strong evidence that the later “nonviolent” phase of civil rights activism succeeded (as much as it has) only because in earlier phases, black Americans involved in protest armed themselves in self-defense. Once murderous mobs and law enforcement learned that they would fight back, they turned to less violent forms of oppression, and activists in turn began using the nonviolent tactics with which we are familiar.

Do you think there are changes that can be made that would lessen instances in which uncivil disobedience is justified?

A facile answer: all governments have to do is respect citizens’ rights.

More realistically: we need to train police differently, change recruitment tactics, and stop using SWAT teams so often. We should decriminalize many behaviors that are currently criminalized. We need to change tax codes so that poor localities are not dependent upon law enforcement issuing tickets to gain revenue. We need Congress to rein in the executive branch’s war and surveillance powers.

But even these kinds of ideas are too facile, because there is no willpower to make such improvements. Consider an example: violent crime in the US has been dropping since 1994 (and no, it’s not because we keep locking up all the violent criminals). Yet most Americans mistakenly believe, year after year, that crime is rising. They feel scared and vote for politicians who promise to be tough on crime. The politicians in turn support more confrontational, occupying-force style methods of policing. Here, we know what the problem is, but to fix the system we need to fix the voters, and we don’t know how to do that. To be clear, When All Else Fails is not a theory of social change, and not a prescription for fixing persistent or systematic social problems. As I often tell my political economy students, while we may know which institutions work better than others, no one yet has a good account of how to move from bad institutions to good.

Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. His many books include Against Democracy and The Ethics of Voting.

Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

Kieran Setiya: Idleness as Flourishing

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”[1.Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4.] As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”[2.Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11.]

This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.

Why idleness now? Because we are too busy, too frantic; because of the felt acceleration of time. Lightman supplies a measure. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication.”

When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.

We are in principle accessible anywhere, at any time; we can be texted, emailed, tagged: “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public.” There is not enough downtime. So Lightman argues in his brisk, persuasive essay. His snapshots of the relevant social science portray the grim effects of over-connection in our digital age: young people are more stressed, more prone to depression, less creative, more lonely but never really alone. Our time is ruthlessly graphed into efficient units. The walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

With its brief chapters and bright illustrations, Lightman’s book is itself well-designed for the attention deficits of the internet era, perfect for the postliterate teenager or the busy executive with only an hour to spare. It makes an elegant case for downtime: unstructured and undistracted, time to experiment and introspect. For Lightman, this is the kind of time-wasting that is not a waste of time. It augments creativity, which draws on undirected or “divergent” thinking. It replenishes and repairs us. And it gives us space in which to find ourselves.

Lightman’s definition of “wasting time” as undirected introspection is deliberately tendentious. The phrase could just as well describe the smartphone addict playing Angry Birds. Ironically, one of the most intriguing studies in Lightman’s book concerns the positive impact of trivial games. Asked to come up with new business ideas, people who were forced to procrastinate with Minesweeper or Solitaire for several minutes were “noticeably more creative.” Lightman does not pause to ask whether this effect can be scaled up. (I pushed it pretty far myself in graduate school, with mixed results.) But he offers a suggestive catalog of artists and scientists whose best ideas arrived when they were staring at a wall.

Lightman ends with concrete, practical prescriptions: 10-minute silences during school days, “introspective” college courses that give students more time to reflect, electronics-free rooms at work, unplugged hours at home. The changes are not radical and leave intact the media ecology in which we are to live. “It is within the power of each of us as individuals,” Lightman writes, “to make changes in our way of living to restore our inner lives. … With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”

Perhaps it is modesty, or realism, that prevents Lightman from seeking social remedies for a social problem. In the short term, he suggests, we have to work on ourselves: a conservative therapy for what ails us. Lightman’s apology for wasting time is conservative in other ways, too. He celebrates not downtime itself but its instrumental value, its usefulness as a means to integrity and achievement. Lightman cites psychologist Abraham Maslow on two forms of creativity: the kind that involves an artistic escape from stress and the kind that fuels “‘self-actualization,’ the desire to become the best we can be.” For Lightman,

there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves.

If this is wasting time, who has the energy for it?

Not Brian O’Connor, who makes bolder, larger claims on behalf of being idle. Idleness flouts the prevailing social order and the conception of autonomy as arduous self-fashioning that Lightman and Maslow share. O’Connor traces the exhausting project of self-constitution to Kant and Hegel, through Karl Marx. What Lightman depicts as the ultimate purpose of wasting time, O’Connor sees as an alien imposition, an order issued without authority. Modern philosophy instructs us to make something of ourselves, but it has no right to tell us what to do, and its edicts are appropriated by societies that make exorbitant demands for work, tie recognition to material success, and exalt the individual at the cost of real community. For O’Connor, idleness is indifference to productive work and social prestige; it rejects the need for guiding purpose or self-formation. He adds to the acknowledged benefits of downtime its value as social critique.

Although O’Connor’s book has a guiding purpose, it nonetheless stays true to the ethos of idling. For the most part, O’Connor is content to answer the case against idleness made by its philosophical critics, not to argue for idleness itself. The burden of proof is placed on the opponents of being idle, who must work to convince the idler he is wrong. The idler’s objections are appropriately laconic.

O’Connor’s principal antagonist is Kant, who argues that we must make every choice as if we were legislating for all, and that we have a consequent duty to develop our talents. Scholars may query O’Connor’s interpretation of Kant as drawing on “that special feeling of worthiness” that comes from being useful to society. But even if he is wrong about this, O’Connor is right to find in Kant a vision of freedom as responsibility, of autonomy as work: the daunting project of determining how to be. For Kant, freedom requires one to live by principles one can will as laws for every rational being. One must bring this severe ambition to everything one does; only then is one entitled to be happy. “It is,” O’Connor writes, “a profound theoretical justification of an idea that has now become commonplace: that a life worth living is one marked by effort and achievement.” The idea that a good life calls for onerous self-creation fuels Nietzsche’s injunction to “become who you are” and Sartre’s existentialism.

Marx is a more difficult customer, since his emphasis on the alienation of labor under capitalism could easily be read as a critique of work. In fact, it is a call for the transformation of work into new, authentic forms. Marx’s idea of alienation was developed by Herbert Marcuse, the closest O’Connor gets to an intellectual ally. For Marcuse, alienation involves the internalization of goals that have nothing to do with what we really want. In order to function, contemporary society requires its members to be alienated in this way. What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place. Describing the conditions of work under communism, Marx writes: “What appears as a sacrifice of rest may also be called a sacrifice of idleness, of unfreedom, of unhappiness.” Marcuse strives instead for a synthesis of work and play.

O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap.[3.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.] Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle. Idleness is freedom not just from alienated labor, but from the pressures of autonomy and authenticity. It is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice.

What O’Connor’s provocations miss is that for Kant, and for Sartre, the responsibility for oneself that defines autonomy is at the same time a responsibility to others. It is one thing to slack off when I could develop my talents; that is no one’s problem but my own. It is another to be idle in the face of urgent need, and so to be indifferent to suffering. John Berger wrote: “On this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.”[4.John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), p. 102.] It has been an aspiration of philosophers since Plato to show that this is true. An adequate defense of idleness would have to address that aspiration, to assuage the idler’s guilt. I may not owe it to myself to strain and struggle, but don’t I owe it to you?

Ironically, the work that most directly confronts the tension between idleness and ethical responsibility is neither a manifesto nor a monograph, but an essay in the spirit of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Patricia Hampl is moved to reflect by grief and writes in conversation with someone she has lost. Like Montaigne, she rates description over narrative. And like Montaigne, she is willing to meander. Framed by a pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower near Bordeaux, Hampl’s book does not arrive at his estate for more than two hundred pages and stops at its destination for a perfunctory eight. On the way, it pays visits to the homes of authors, saints, and scientists who embraced idleness by retiring from the world.

The most memorable are two Anglo-Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who eloped together unsuccessfully, disguised as men, in 1778. Returned to their homes, they wore their families down and were permitted to leave together two months later, setting up a cottage in Llangollen, Wales, where they lived on their limited family income, reading books, writing letters, and tending their garden, “famous for wishing to be left alone.” They were visited by celebrities from Shelley and Byron to the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott.

What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself. This is what we see in the model their lives present even if, in the face of our obligations to others, it is not a model for us.

It may not even be a model for them. At the end of her book, Hampl quotes a passage from Montaigne: “We say; ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations … He says this in his Essai titled—what else?—‘On Idleness.’” Except he doesn’t. The quotation is from the sprawling essay “Of Experience,” with which the Essays close. “Of Idleness” is an earlier piece, a distillation of self-doubt in which Montaigne indicts his enterprise: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself.” If he commits his extravagances to paper, he writes, it is in order “to make my mind ashamed of itself.”[5.Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21.]

Like Montaigne, who played a diffident but competent role in politics—he was mayor of Bordeaux—most of us forge a rotten compromise between idleness and industry. What else can we do? We see the flourishing of life in the little moments, as we see the scale of its shirked responsibilities. To manage our ambivalence is necessary work.

  1. Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4. 
  2. Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11. 
  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185. 
  4. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear(Verso, 2007), p. 102. 
  5. Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21. 

Featured image: Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers (1900–1906). Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 7/8 inches × 8 feet 2 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton) and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son.

Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Connor is available here.

Rebecca Bedell on Moved to Tears

Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears book coverIn her new book Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell overturns received ideas about sentimental art, arguing that major American artists—from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the eighteenth century and Asher Durand and Winslow Homer in the nineteenth to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth—produced what was understood in their time as sentimental art. This was art intended to develop empathetic bonds and to express or elicit social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism. In this Q&A, she discusses the ways sentimental art has been misunderstood, and why it is important today.

What is new in the book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I hope both to uproot the still tenacious modernist prejudice against sentimental art and to transform our understanding of it. So many art critics, art historians, artists, and others regard “sentimental art” as a synonym for “bad art.” I want to redefine and complicate ideas about sentimental art: what it looks like, who made it, the cultural work it does.

Isn’t there bad sentimental art?

Yes, of course. There’s also bad abstract art, bad Impressionist art, bad portraits—but we don’t dismiss those entire categories of art because of that.

I associate sentimental art with Victorian genre painting. Is that what you focus on?

No. I do not associate sentimental art with particular subject matter, nor do I locate it in the Victorian era alone. I’ve tried to suggest in the book the extent to which the sentimental pervaded artistic production (and reception) from the later eighteenth century onward. It touched nearly all categories of subject matter: portraits, history painting, religious imagery, landscape, and so on. It affected the creation not only of painting, sculpture, prints, and photography, but also architecture, landscape design, and public spectacles.

Who are the key figures in the book?

The artists I address range from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the late eighteenth century, to Andrew Jackson Downing, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and others in the nineteenth, to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth.

So, what is sentimental art?

Sentimental art has fundamentally to do with connectedness, with our connectedness to others, to place, to the conditions of our existence. Sentimental art aims to develop empathetic bonds and to represent and elicit what were called in the eighteenth century the “social affections,” those emotions that bind us together, including tenderness, affection, sympathy, compassion, and patriotism.

I see sentimental art as part of the broader “sentimental project,” as historians have termed it, launched from Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Its ambition was to transform individuals and society through the cultivation of sympathy. Abolitionism, penal reform, child labor laws, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals were all, in some measure, parts of the project.

In working on the book, did you come upon anything that surprised you?

I began the project by combing through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books, newspapers, and magazines for the use of the word “sentimental” in relation to art. The first instance I found of this was a surprise to me. A writer for a Boston newspaper in the 1780s described John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings as sentimental, and in a very positive way. That was my first hint that sentimental art’s early associations were not with the feminine and the domestic, but with the masculine, the public, and the political.

Where did the book begin? What launched you on this project?

As an art historian and teacher, I have been thinking about these issues and themes for a long time. But in a way, this project began in a big way for me during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he was selecting a new Supreme Court justice. He said that one of the qualities that he valued in jurists was empathy. The backlash against that statement was so intense and powerful that it shocked me. To me, empathy, an ability to think oneself into the subject position of someone different from oneself, seems a critically important quality in a judge.  Where did this angry, visceral reaction against the connective emotions of the sentimental come from?

At the same time, in my readings in my field of American art, I was continually coming upon statements such as, “Winslow Homer was never sentimental,” “John Singer Sargent’s paintings of children are never sentimental.” Yet their works—at least some of them—looked sentimental to me.  Why this need to deny the presence of the sentimental in the works of artists we admire?

All of this came together to launch me on this project. I had become conscious of a broad societal aversion to and rejection of the sentimental in both art and public life, and I wanted to understand it historically. What caused this aversion? Where did it come from? When did it begin?

Is sentimental art still being made today?

Certainly.  Steven Spielberg is one of the great sentimental filmmakers of our time. Ken Burns too. Much of the environmental art being created today is deeply concerned with our connectedness to the natural world. Some of the most powerful art associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s recent work, is, in my understanding of the term, sentimental. In fact, I think it is difficult to identify any artists whose work excludes the sentimental completely. Its emotions—compassion, sympathy, affection, pity, concern—are fundamental to our human identities. I don’t think they can ever be wholly suppressed, and indeed one of my discoveries in my research and writing is that the sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most.

Rebecca Bedell is associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.