Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and Love

This is the 19th Century. A waterfall gardened to be a little Africa in Devon, England, a beautiful nod to colonial power, wealth and Empire. Think of it as a living postcard, or a sublime painting of the Rocky Mountains that you could enter like the first man or woman in the world.

This is a kind of activity that merges disparate items together to fashion a new whole. They never really merge, but they do fill the space given to them and perpetuate the relationship. In Canadian terms, that is the impulse behind the settler colonialism that shaped the nation state, at least when seen in aesthetic terms. Canadians live today in such plantations, and are akin to this cycad, behind the waterfall given more than natural power by some rock work. Now, compare that to a little scene in Wales, where the seeping marshes have not been so reshaped. In this case, the artifice comes from isolating many square miles of water into a small frame. This shaping might be better called “noticing” or “choosing.”

It appears at first that nothing has been made of it, but that would only be so if we hadn’t had the 20th century and its totalitarian excesses, built out of the practical manipulations of the aesthetic in the waterfall above. In commenting on totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, one-time lover of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, noted that a human adult sense of self only comes when one recognizes, in one’s love for another, the presence of another person within one’s personal space, or “being”, if you are attuned to old words like that. It would destroy your self if you didn’t separate immediately and instead of saying “I”, you said “we” and dispelled the invasion in that way. To be fair, Arendt (a Jew) and Heidegger (soon to be a Nazi) worked these ideas out together, probably in bed, in the mid-1920s. They appear in Heidegger’s love letters to Hannah as well. Arendt noted further that failure to create this “we” prevents the formation of an adult self. One could, I think, fairly, call it a totalitarian self, and one quite susceptible to simple solutions based in single and possessive points of view, excluding others, whether those be German barbarism in the 1930s and 1940s, marching on the US Capitol and bashing a police officer with a fire extinguisher, parking one’s truck in a city street and demanding the government be removed, or Russia’s ongoing attempts to destroy Ukraine forever. Claims that the human social sphere mediates these stresses by allowing differing points of view to come into healthy contest with each other and deciding the outcome by popular opinion is not quite what Arendt was pointing out. She was showing a cause of adult behaviour. The contemporary Western model of political organization assumes it only. Now, let’s look a little downhill from our Welsh swamp.

This is the force of water tamed by cycad and artful stream at the beginning of this post, set here again for comparison:

See that? In the so-called “wild” stream, one’s body experiences the force of the water. In the artful image, one’s mind does. One’s body experience itself as the plant. And in the swamp? Ah, there’s Arendt’s world, but not with a human, but with the Earth entering one’s personal space. Here our choices are clear: we can form a “we” out of this encounter, as this world enters our personal space…

… or by manipulating it remove it from ourselves, and carry on as if the feelings it brought out of us, boredom perhaps, or “beauty” or chill fear, or joy, and so on, were not the result of the relationship but, rather, were formed out of ourselves alone. In that frame of mind, we can make the swamp into a coal mine, which was very much the Welsh way for a long, long time, or into a national park, or whiskey, which is the Welsh way now. In this state, the act of noticing becomes a living aesthetic. Even a near-dead tree becomes a part of one’s self.

Even a thread of ivy.

What one does with this gift of being everywhere, ah, now, that’s the question. One can, for instance, play at cycad-garden and remake a beach by moving sand from a breakwater, where the sea takes it, to the rocks a half kilometre south, where the ice cream stands and pubs of New Quay need tourists to play with their kids (and from which the sea will remove it by Autumn).

That, too, is a national park of sorts, and little different than Canada’s Okanagan, where the beaches are laid with trainloads of ground up granite and sand-stone, so tourists can, well, pretend they are on holiday on the British Coast in the 1890s, when the Okanagan was gentrified. And now, to tie the knot, the contemporary Okanagan aesthetic, at its richest:

In this aesthetic, we have the water (imagined), the sacred trees (neglected and shaped and abandoned), nationalism (a flag), wildlife (dead, or at least 4 feet in the air), a garden of Eden (or at least the tools for it), an English manor house (or at least some 1×6 boards, fading), and an entire living area made out of manufactured articles, placed nearly randomly to create not a space to look at but one to look out of, while mocking the pretense of any other approach. This is a country that is comfortable in its immature state, in which the assemblage that is called creativity is driven by the recombination of the products of industry (bricks, rock, wood) to make a kind of comfortable nest, in the same way that the Duke of Bradford’s wife made a nest for herself in Dartmoor, with cycads and a fountain:

The impulse is the same, approached from different sides of class and power. In all of these instances, the Earth is refashioned to reflect human intention or observation, and to reshape those attentions and observations in differing ways, just as the fake news and propaganda coming out of Russia, or the propaganda coming from Associated Press, Fox News, the BBC, the CBC, or Die Zeit is designed to shift us into certain positions, none of them aligned with Arendt’s basic premise: to escape totalitarianism, grow up and love…

…which she described as having to create a ‘we’. There is a lot of talk these days about climate change, and lately a bit of talk about how climate advocacy, at times funded by Russia, has weakened the West and prepared the way for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Let’s expect a lot more talk about that in the weeks and months to come, and a real backlash, and while it comes at us, perhaps at the behest of swaggering oil executives, let us remember that whatever its source it is totalitarian thinking and that, aside from all of this social positioning in the human tribe, the Earth is pushing its way into us, quite violently, and we simply can’t remake it out of dimensional lumber, a few bricks, and some heavy machinery, no more than Russia can remake Ukraine in its own image. What we can do, however, is nurture the “we” that the invasion of Ukraine has forced upon us all, just as Hannah’s generation had to do in the apocalypse of the Holocaust, and while we do so let us remember that some of us, perhaps stupidly, smoke the cigarettes that are going to kill us. So what. The idea is not to love the perfect image that one might become. That’s totalitarian thinking. Rather, we can love the people that we are, and the Earth that is making us speak her mind.

2 replies »

  1. Crises of the Republic, by Arendt, 1972: fifty-years wise and running after some previous fifty-odd years of daunting fruition. No shortage of insightful, cautionary contributions back then: Arendt, Carson, Commoner, etc… not to mention the poets: Char, Ferlinghetti, Snyder… An instructive, inspiring gift chest of thought and expression for learning to journey one’s way among, in, and through the “we-orold”.

    Ah, by contrast – excuse my bias – the slow devolution toward media- and market- induced infantilism.

    Russia imposing itself on Ukraine. One tragedy of many here: namely, that as is the case in so many political conflicts during these times, Russians and Ukrainians share much in common, not least of all in regions now the subject of conflict. Here in Portland, little stirring at the surface in associated. newcomer communities. Back in my old neighborhood, the East Village of New York City, a long-established Ukrainian community’s love for Russia is reportedly being sorely tested and eroded, perhaps irreparably. Meanwhile, as you say, Great Grandmother Earth keeps pushing back, even violently. There is at the heart of this confluence a message of good guidance and wisdom if we are willing to take the time to explore it.

    And yes, blessed be, for the mind, the senses, the heart, the stomach, standing upon two generous feet, here and now, and in “place”, as always. With gratitude. Do carry on.

    Liked by 1 person

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