Saturday, July 19, 2014

Was It Freud Who Decided We Should Be in Touch with Our Feelings?

I am not very good with feelings.  I tend to be a stoic and without high emotional intelligence. When I was in psychotherapy, I always found it very frustrating to be told that I should be aware of what I am feeling in every moment. It can take me a day to figure out what I feel about a situation. And then of course it is too late for it to be of any value because the encounter is over.

My knee-jerk reaction about most people's expression of feelings is that they are being superficial. And I know it is not always fair to say that. It is an inescapable fact that people have feelings.  According to Fr. Luigi Giussani, the purpose of feelings is to draw our attention to what is important.  I like that and find it helpful. Feelings have a purpose, and I now know what that purpose is.

One of the priests who is in our NJ Communion and Liberation group once made a statement that we don't get to decide what our feelings are. They are something that happen to us. That is also insightful.

In the English language unfortunately, the word heart is synonymous with feelings. That is not the case in the romance languages or in the Bible's usage of the word. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place "to which I withdraw." The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

If I were to attempt my own definition of heart--it be about all of our faculties coming or acting together as a whole.

In America, people are always expressing and acting on their feelings. For many their feelings are a sacred cow--an idol--and authoritative. For many, the old hippie slogan--question authority, especially your own--needs to be applied to to their feelings. I should differentiate between the experience of feelings and the expression of feelings. Due to Original Sin--the brokenness of humans beings--the expression of feelings frequently manifests itself in dysfunctional, destructive, and even violent ways (James 3 and the power of the tongue!).

Freud wrote in German, not a romance language. Was anything lost in translation?  Note that Freud was also a Jew--of the people of the Bible. Did he understand the Biblical meaning of heart?  And it seems that every time I read a little bit of Freud, I come away sensing that he was highly influenced by St. Augustine, the saint of the interior life and of the heart.

 What do you say?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hannah Arendt, the Film (2012)

Have you ever heard the phrase, "the banality of evil?"  The phrase was coined by a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) after observing the trial of Adolf Eichmann.  I watched the film, Hannah Arendt (2012) this past weekend, on Netflix. I had to watch it three times to catch all the nuances. You will not like it. It has no action, sex, violence, horror, intrigue, comedy, or special effects.

Hannah Arendt studied philosophy under the most prominent continental philosopher of the time, Martin Heidegger, at the University of Marburg. The film shows a young Martin Heidegger giving a dramatic lecture on the importance of thinking.  It also shows a young and adoring Hannah Arendt going to his office and asking him to teach her to think.

As teacher and student, Martin and Hannah had a long and stormy romantic relationship.  Hannah had to leave him to earn her Phd under another major German thinker, Karl Jaspers.  (Curiously, the topic of Hannah's Phd thesis was the concept of Love in Saint Augustine. I wonder what Hannah's conscience told her about her relationship with Heidegger and her other many affairs. Saint Augustine would not be pleased!)  After Hannah received her Phd in 1929, she was denied a professorship because she was Jewish. It was in 1933 that the Nazis decreed by law that Jews could not teach in universities. Subsequently, Hannah did research into anti-Semitism, which resulted in her being arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. She was only released from jail because of a sympathetic jailer (1933).

Within weeks of Adolf Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of Germany (1933), Martin Heidegger was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg and became an unwavering supporter of Nazism. Heidegger had nothing personal against Jews. He supported Nazism merely for careerist reasons--he felt it was necessary in order to support the university and philosophy.

After her release from jail in 1933, Hannah fled to Paris, where she worked to help other Jewish refugees.  But with the German occupation of northern France, she was sent to an internment camp at Gurs, in Southern France, in 1940. Initially the camp was run by French who were friendly to the Allies, but once the Germans took full control, it became a transitional concentration camp, where the inhabitants were shipped to Auschwitz. With outside help, Hannah and her husband escaped and arrived in New York in 1941.

In New York, Hannah lived the  life of a public intellectual. She was active in the German-Jewish community and was part of the circle of intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review. She joined the faculty of The New School for Social Research (joining numerous other ex-patriot refugees from Hitler). She had a large network of friends and colleagues, both Jewish and not, American and European.

Besides The New School, she taught at many other American universities, including Bard, the University of Chicago, Berkeley, and Princeton, where she was the first woman to become a full professor.

In 1951, her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was published.  It was the first book to examine the rise of Nazism and Stalinism and their meaning, implications, and consequences, including for antisemitism. The book made her an intellectual celebrity.

In 1960, Adolf Eichmann was arrested in Argentina by agents from the Israeli Mossad and flown to Israel to be put on trail. With the arrest, Hannah Ardent sought and received an assignment from The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial as a journalist. This is where the real drama begins.

The world thought of Eichmann as a monster--the personification of evil, as close to being the devil himself as humanly possible. But after observing him at the trial, the Jewish Hannah thought differently. She saw that he was not a monster but a completely ordinary and mediocre human being.  He was not a fanatic or a sociopath, but just a stupid man who relied on cliches and conventional thinking rather than think for himself. Hannah stated that personally, Eichmann was not even antisemitic. Her conclusion that the nature of evil is banal does not rest on the fact that he was ordinary or that we are all potential Eichmann's, which we are, but that his stupidity and lack of conscience--his unwillingness to think--was unexceptional.

Eichmann of course claimed that he was only following orders. He claimed that he did not directly harm or intend for harm to come to anyone. He only made sure that the Jews were put on the trains. He even said that he did not harbor any personal malice against any Jews.

In the film, Hannah (her character) says that in Western Civilization, we think of evil as originating from selfishness.  But she concludes no, that mass evil is not monstrous or exceptional but results from people who simply refuse to think.  She meant the ability to decide right from wrong. 

This claim by Hannah about Eichmann became hugely controversial and is the central conflict in the film. But she made one other claim that was even more controversial, that Jewish leaders in Europe had cooperated with the Nazis, including with Eichmann's office itself.

Hannah lost many friends because of her stand.  She was called vile names by countless people. The editors at the New Yorker magazine became very frightened about the consequences of publishing her reportage. One person accused her of turning the trial of Eichmann into a philosophical seminar.  Another accused her of acting like a superior German intellectual looking down on us Jews. The Israeli government sent four agents to America to try and persuade her from publishing. When reason failed, they threatened her. To her face, one former colleague sneeringly called her, "Heidegger's favorite student."  Hannah never backed down or yielded even an inch.

In the film, whenever Hannah is shown in public or having an intellectual argument, she is portrayed as ice cold intellectual without human feelings and is frequently accused of being such.  Many times, when her colleagues disagree with her and fail to persuade her to their point of view, they call her arrogant to her face, to which she never flinches. Yet in private, she is portrayed as human and affectionate, whether with men or women.

Through it all, Hannah Arendt refused to yield. She insisted on thinking. Indeed, the dramatic high point of the film is a scene where Hannah gives a fiery lecture to a class at, The New School of Social Research, on the importance and ability of a person to think.

Ultimately, her report of the Eichmann trial was published in five installments in the New Yorker. And afterwards, they were published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  (But you can find a pdf of the book on the Internet.)

As for Martin Heidegger, essentially, he was another Eichmann. With the Nazis in power, the towering genius of continental philosophy who had inspired Hannah Arendt to learn to think chose not to think.  But his student Hannah Arendt had learned her lessons well.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

This was Ernest Hemingway's first novel. It is clear that he is a master of style.  His sentences are balanced in every way.  The pace is just right, and I appreciate the absence modern structural gimmicks designed to propel the reader.

For the post-World War I generation, The Sun Also Rises was what Jack Kerouac's On the Road was for the post-World War II generation.  The characters appear to be without any direction in life.  But despite all the drinking, fighting, passion, and lust, it is a spiritual journey.  Their busyness, endless, distractions and agitation are signs of restless hearts.  Near the beginning, Robert Cohn expresses a desire to know his purpose in life.  All of them are certainly engaged and in love with life.  Although it may appear this way, Hemingway's character Jake did not take his friends to Pamplona merely to be entertained by the running of the bulls. Jake himself points out that the running of the bulls is only part of a Catholic religious festival called the Feast of Saint Fermina.  Hemingway's character, Jake, goes to church several times and describes himself as very unsure of his Catholicism. Brett tries to pray in churches but resigns to believing that she has no relationship with God.  The title, The Sun Also Rises, is taken from the Bible, from Ecclesiastes. It means that life goes on. Near the end, Brett says somewhat pithily to Jake that she loves the feeling of not being a bitch and that is what we have instead of God.  But Jake reminds her as he has said to her before that there are people who believe. He is talking about himself.  Even if they do not realize it, Cohn, Jake, Brett, and the others  are all looking for purpose, meaning and transcendence in life. That they appear to have failed or not being doing a good job of it does not make it any less a spiritual quest. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Fourth of July

Last night, I watched a documentary about the Revolutionary War, on the American History channel. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought in NY and NJ, in or very near places where I live(d). I shudder at the in-human conditions that the Continental Army, state militias, and other Patriot groups trained, camped, marched, and lived under. I also shudder at the thought of standing shoulder to shoulder at close range facing British soldiers who are also shoulder to shoulder and firing their rifles at you. And that was often followed by a bayonet charge--the Brits had bayonets, and we didn't. Even worse--the overwhelming majority of soldiers who died, died of starvation and disease as POWs in British prison ships. I can't think of too many more miserable ways to die.