At the end of last year, Curtea Veche publishing house published in the collection “Constellations” the translation of one of last year’s most important books, The Nobility of Spirit. A Forgotten Ideal, by Rob Riemen, the director of Nexus Institute in Holland. In the volume’s Argument, Vladimir Tismaneanu, the coordinator of the collection, the person to whom we owe the speedy translation and publication of the volume, offers a brief presentation of the intellectual oasis that Rob Riemen has created at the Nexus Institute, which he founded on 1994 because, as he himself states, it was his only and ultimate choice for successfully combining “erudition and tolerance, [the Institute] being opposed to any forms of limitation such as sectarianism and chauvinism. It rejects both the intellectual poverty of not knowing and the arrogance of pretending to know it all.” As Vladimir Tismaneanu explains, this volume is inspired by a moral unease toward the fragmentation of humanist values in times dominated by “oblivion, selfishness, Narcissism, consumerism, mercantilism, and by a persistently ubiquitous lack of understanding regarding the tragedies of the 20th century.”
George Steiner’s preface synthesizes superbly Riemen’s project and its ramifications. By situating Thomas Mann, Riemen’s hero and the last humanist, in Weltliteratur, Steiner points to the influences of classical culture and of those of Russian literature within the writings of the author of the Magic Mountain. If one argues that Thomas Mann is the last among humanists, then one must consider Doctor Faustus as his fundamental work. Steiner acknowledges the fact that Mann had to be the one to anticipate the transition from nihilism to relativism. Which is the nature of Riemen’s project, as expressed by the four book chapters and as materialized in the Institute’s activity? Steiner starts by taking his now well known skeptic stand. At a time when the elites seem to concentrate on technology and natural sciences, the place of humanism and, why not, of the basic expression of logos are more often than not marginal. These considerations notwithstanding, he does consider Riemen’s project legitimate (to say the least).
H.R. Patapievici’s Afterword engages us with the atmosphere of this unique volume. It starts with debate about the ideal dimension of the European Project, a dialogue close to nonexistent in Romania. The European Union today does not stand anymore for European humanism. Riemen’s book though is indeed an expression of humanism as a lived system of values. According to Patapievici, The Nobility of Spirit is a didactic poem constructed according to the twelve principles that Jeanne Hersch, Czeslaw Milosz friend, formulated on the same theme. Patapievici traces the genealogy of the nobility of spirit from Cicero to Goethe and Thomas Mann.
In a Romania Literara article, Mircea Mihaies talks about the irresponsibility of relativist intellectuals and admires Riemen’s courage in writing this book. After 9/11, many high profile intellectuals, such as Dario Fo, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, reacted along the lines of the widespread misconception “every terrorist is a freedom fighter”. Therefore, they achieved the regrettable feat of justifying terrorism in counter distinction to Western, and particularly American, foreign policy. These harebrained excesses of
American intellectuals are deeply rooted in the highly influential relativism of those whom they idolize. I am thinking here at the classical case, Jacques Derrida (who himself revisits his stand on 9/11, but too late to quench the fashion he started).
I will not dwell any further on these subjects, for I wish to discuss the ethical aspects of Riemen’s book. Rob Riemen visited Romania in November, being invited by the Romanian Cultural Institute. In one interview, he talked about the amnesia of the East toward its totalitarian past and about the West’s torpor in the face of the major spiritual crisis it is confronted with. On January 2nd, Riemen published in the U.S., in one of the most successful liberal magazines, the Huffington Post, an open letter addressed to president Obama. In this document, Riemen attempts a dialogue with Obama, who, during his electoral campaign, invoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s worthy intellectual heritage. Thomas Mann once described in his journal the meeting he had with president Roosevelt, the way he successfully influenced if not the latter’s decisions, but surely his discourse. In a material that Mann gave to Roosevelt, entitled “On the Future Victory of Democracy”, he talked about democracy as a form of government that places at its core human dignity. Mann also pointed to the nefarious predominance of human narrow-mindedness, egotism, cruelty, cowardice and stupidity in the world. Nevertheless, he maintained his belief that the survival of democracy will revitalize a humanism focused upon an individual that will foster dignity through the passion for the arts and science, for truth, beauty, and justice. Indeed Roosevelt responded, as he began its inauguration speech with a plea for America’s spiritual rebirth.
In his turn, Riemen, starting from Socrates and keeping with the spirit of Thomas Mann’s initiative, argues that the economic crisis the U.S. is experiencing is one typical of a civilization which has, for too long, been obsessed with money, ignoring the development of spiritual values. This crisis impacts on education, as in the U.S. the latter is mainly practical and utilitarian, while the system itself seems to foster anti- intellectualism. Obama’s election is for Riemen a signal that the times are changing, that in this respect there is now a chance for a major shift. In his inauguration speech, one that the media hardly focused upon, seeming more interested in the clothing choices of the presidential couple, Obama did indeed talk about America’s rebirth, about responsibility, and about inequality. We don not know if Obama ever read Riemen’s letter, but one can only hope the two will, at one point, meet.
The open letter can take aback only those who never carefully read Riemen’s book. Neither his American critics (few for the moment) nor the British ones managed to escape a dichotomy which Riemen considers representative of the crisis of contemporary democracy: the politicization of intellectuals. Riemen took criticism from the left, which employed its regular cliches – ‘inegalitarian spirit’, ‘life as art’ – and praised from the right on grounds of ‘reinstatement of tradition’. Riemen, though, unsurprised of their appeal, considers such interpretations erroneous. His volume, written in literary style, relying upon imagined dialogues, cannot be labeled, for its very meaning is that of criticism against the contemporary intellectual clichés.
The prologue of the book, with a motto from Walt Whitman “Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?”, can be considered a short story of sorts. On November 7th, the anniversary of both Plato’s birth and death, at the famous River Cafe in Brooklyn, Riemen meets Thomas Mann’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Mann Borgese. After the war, Elisabeth and her husband, the well known antifascist and literary scholar Giuseppe Borgese, advocated for the beautiful but utopian idea of a world federation. They did obtain the support of, among others, Gandhi, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, Einstein, and of her own father. She had also been professor of maritime and environment
law “avant la lettre”, well before the by now emblematic Al Gore. At the River Cafe we are introduced to one of the most impressive characters of the book, Joseph Goodman. Exceptional young pianist, in loved with Elisabeth at the end of the 1930s, when Mann emigrated to the U.S., Joe now seems, at first glance, to fit the loser label. After Elisabeth gets married with Borgese, Joseph Goodman gives up the piano for books; he develops a cult for Walt Whitman (very similar to Riemen’s own attachment to Mann). At the meeting, as the three of them (Elisabeth, Joe, and Rob) discuss the problem of the evil manifest in the aftermath of 9/11, Joseph shows them a solo cantata, composed on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Its title is The Nobility of Spirit. Goodman believes Whitman was convinced that life was the art of becoming by means of the cultivation of the human spirit, of “truth, love, beauty, and kindness.” Goodman dies two months after the River Cafe meeting, not before destroying his masterpiece. Elisabeth, though, encourages Riemen to carry on in his work Joseph’s ideals.
The theme of the sacrifice had been employed by Riemen in his opening address at a 2006 Aspen Institute conference. Riemen began by showing fragments of Tarkovski’s homonymous movie (which incidentally, with the exception of his wife Kirsten, nobody in the rather intellectually posh Aspen audience had seen before). The film opens with a question similar to Steiner conclusion in preface of the Riemen’s volume. Alexander’s son wonders: “Father, what was at the beginning of the world?” In invoking Alexander, an atheistic actor who took an oath before God that he will sacrifice all in order to save humanity from nuclear Holocaust, Riemen addresses, in a more direct manner than in the book itself, the evanescence of the sacred. At the time, his talk was entitled “Kitsch and the Crisis of the West.” By kitsch, Riemen meant not only aesthetic value (i.e., the lack thereof), but also ethics. A thing can be beautiful, but also untrue – this, according to Riemen, qualifies as kitsch. American culture is predominantly obsessed with money, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump, whom therefore qualify as the official couple of Mr. and Mrs. Kitsch.
When he talks about ethical kitsch and the torpor of the West, Riemen forgets that such stasis is not typical only for the West. Eastern Europe is not just amnesic, but also emulative toward the West, practicing with ever deeper conviction its kitsch. Moreover, large sections of the elites, and not only, of Asia, Latin America or Africa pay tribute to similar idols.
In his book, after dwelling on Spinoza and the connection between ethics and politics, Riemen takes on Socrates’ model. Socrates was sentenced, but he chose to die. Unfortunately, not his example, but that of Cephalus (convinced that wealth makes him just), of Plato’s brother, Glaucon, or that of Kallikles (all three believing that nobody is just by will and that injustice is better than justice) triumphed in our world. Spinoza refused to teach, knowing that in brothers Witt’s times the exposition of his principles could only trigger adversity. He therefore chose to carry on working on his lenses, accepting the inherent sacrifice, dying young because of the glass residue. Camus said ‘no’ to his friends when asked to sacrifice morality for the sake of politics. John Goodman’s story, Alexander’s, Spinoza’s, Camus’s, and the all stories of individuals of similar ethical cloth are the narrative foundation for Riemen’s plea for the ideal of nobility of spirit.
I am sure that Steiner’s skepticism about the West’s renouncement to the values which (un)inspire it nowadays was reinforced by Joseph Goodman’s tale. Riemen seems to realize it too. Nevertheless, Riemen believes in a duty of the intellectuals (both literati and politicians) to show to the rest “what really gives meaning to life”, an implicit answer to the basic Socratic moral query.
The last chapter of the volume, the one that is imaginatively detailing the circumstances of Leone Ginzburg murder by Italian fascists, gives a clear resolution to the nature of the above mentioned duty. Before being killed, Ginzburg talks to a Jesuit whom he briefly met ten years earlier and who, at the time, had been expelled from University. Their dialogue circumscribes the duty that intellectuals have nowadays: to leave behind any political, religious, or personal antagonism in order to believe and defend the fundamental, moral values of humanity. Unfortunately, one of the most difficult things to accomplish today is solidarity among intellectuals. Do we have enough courage to strive for it?
The Sacrifice of the West
by iulia • • 0 Comments