Wednesday, February 08, 2012

In Defense of the Life of the Mind - Letter to Maikel Nabil

On Steep Waves, for Maikel Nabil, Vienna, November 2011

Dear Maikel Nabil,

Weeks have passed since you were finally released from imprisonment, and one might think that those weeks turned into years – for greater than before have been the horrors to which we have been exposed since then – making us hesitate in which side of the bars had you been and had we been throughout this time; ask ourselves if maybe it was the same side after all? It is at best strange to want to write a letter of sorts to someone who is not a friend or a relative, to spend a thought or two on a person about whom we know so little and the details, that is, the journalistic details, are unimportant. People who write – in particular those who cover tragedies and restless corners of the world – have an obligation to place themselves at a distance from the subjects of their endeavors and must attempt to see the larger picture, but yet sometimes it is necessary to communicate things in another way, and it is precisely that direct communication what humanizes the writer and the journalist by humanizing his own subjects.

After those many months of patiently waiting to hear news, of sinking, of unraveling, of being infinitely hopeful in spite of the circumstances collapsing under one’s feet; it was infinitely joyous to hear that at long last you were free at the same time that it was a joy marred by the full knowledge of how dovetailed was the freedom that the world was again offering you, and by tour de passage, offering us. The truth being said, I personally did nothing other than offering empathy and perhaps I am sorry that I didn’t do anything else, for I didn’t know what could possibly be done and it is clear to me at this point that talking and writing simply do not release people from injustice but rather, only overstate the obvious – that such injustice exists, that we live with it and are often part of it as well. An Israeli writer said once that he had dreamt with being a book rather than a writer, because writers are easier to kill than it is to burn books that always might survive and damaged as they might be, find a way to a shelf somewhere. Noble as writing might be, it’s incredibly powerless before reality.

Thoughts, opinions, words… They are often rendered powerless but not insignificant. After all it was through reading the thoughts of an anonymous somebody in another corner of the world that I became familiar with Maikel Nabil the blogger, the prisoner, the striker, etc. I do not think that the important thing was whether I agreed with or loved what you said; whether I condemned it or praised it, that is entirely besides the point here. It is also not an issue of proclaiming that one should defend anyone’s thoughts no matter what, as per the use and abuse of Voltaire among the liberals that hated your thoughts but opposed the injustice – this is something I can never comprehend. I do not think personally that all thoughts must be defended or that there is equality in thinking; some thoughts are indefensible and even worthy of condemnation; not all thoughts are of equal value or quality. Thinking can be a very solitary thing and it often is, and there is a difference between the things we think, the persons we are, the worlds in which we live; sometimes there might be not even a relation. It is possible to hate thoughts of people we love, and to love thoughts of people we despise. To be honest, I find it reproachable that you had to do what you did in order to preserve your dignity and what accorded to your actions the status of heroic; reproachable not about you but about ourselves and the times in which we are living, for as Bertolt Brecht wrote once, “Unhappy is the country that needs a hero”. 

Commenting on the character in that play of Brecht where the telling line is included, a friend of mine wrote recently: “Did he escape unhappiness in this way? Certainly not; for unhappiness reigns as long as the demand for heroes exist. It does not help to turn down individual heroism. The situation won’t improve. One should therefore read the sentence contrary to its intention: Because unhappiness is the rule and not the exception, there will be always need for heroes.” One doesn’t need to be too well informed to know about the fate of heroes that is well documented from the Greek tragedies to Jesus to our own days. To be heroic does not accord a higher personal or spiritual status, at least from the perspective of the maker of the heroic deed. My friend comments then on Vaclav Havel and says about heroes: “Their relationship to the world is pragmatic and rather cheerful than melancholy or brooding. They have a free spirit, but this is no reason for them to be vain; sometimes they do not even know it. If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future.”

While this might be true for you as the bearer of such incredible dignity, it is never true for the observer who needs to resort to pathos and to his own inability to act, in order to recognize the heroic nature of something or somebody. For all the above, I will keep myself from calling you a hero, especially because heroism has to do mostly with two things – with courage and with tragedy. On the one hand I love the world too much – brutal as it might be – to appreciate the melancholy figure of the hero, and on the other, courage is not a virtue or a value. Susan Sontag writes: “Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of moral courage – because there is such a thing as amoral courage too. And resistance has no value in itself. It is the content of the resistance that determines its merit, its moral necessity. There’s nothing inherently superior about resistance”. While courage might be a political virtue, it no longer has anything to do with you as a person because in politics it is not life or the objective personality but the world what is at stake.

With so many tragic events, uncalled for heroes – even the dead ones – and wars raging all over the world as we speak, what is it then that compels a perfect stranger to write a letter to Maikel Nabil? I do not think that the fact that you are one another subject in the vast repertory of Middle Eastern tragedies is the really significant part; for it is not the content of your thoughts, or the heroic and courageous nature of your actions what has turned your objective person into a sort of fixed image, I believe you are just a guy like any one of us is, with friends and enemies, with a past – maybe a bad one, who are we to know that? – and with all the virtues and defects that are found among human beings, with goodness and cruelty, with selfishness and altruism. For all the above I do not want to pretend that I had anything to do with campaigning for your release or that anything I said or did had any effect on anyone; my thoughts are private and in writing there can be nothing more superficial than patronizing a reader rather than stirring him up, and as such there is no reason why I consider that you owe any gratitude to anyone but life itself, and why not, chance. There is an emotional element to this, which was less the good intention and more the despair and the powerlessness about the injustice committed and that we certainly couldn’t fix.

What I think is really unique about you is not WHAT you thought but that you THOUGHT at all, and because it was your thoughts what put you in jail and not anyone else’s thoughts, what matters ultimately is how you defended and still defend the life of the mind and the right to thinking with pride and not following whatever is available or offered in the open market of political ideas; sense in which you are defending something that is infinitely beyond the realm of mere politics and it constitutes something so incredibly human because it puts the life of the mind above the practical concerns of the day and in doing so, one equates his own sense of freedom with the burden of responsibility for the others as well; something nearly impossible to do today. In the words of Hannah Arendt: “The vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty par excellence, can be actualized only as one of the many and manifold forces of human community.”

Only those who think for themselves are able to grasp the extent to which they are also responsible for others, and whoever defends the life of the mind from the tyranny of faith and conviction and persuasion, will understand that heroism and courage is not necessary UNLESS it is immediately necessary. Because I strongly believe this I refuse to take part in the culture of hero worship and in the insatiable ambition for recognition, for after all infinitely good deeds might be as banal as infinitely bad deeds once they are put into the world and we are no longer in control of them. In moments such as this when the world surfaces in its ugliest shades of color, we do not need more tragic or dead heroes and courage is not a virtue but a necessity and obligation for survival; but thinking for yourself, the life of the mind, what I believe you represent, is the only insurance left for those who want to navigate through the ocean of cruelty and war without getting lost in it by adopting what seem to be the practical solutions of the day, it is the insurance that guarantees we are thinking what we are doing and doing what we are thinking.

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