In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.

On freedom, art, and danger

tumblr_nkimgytnZL1ru1z71o1_1280
Boris Nemtsov surrounded by riot police

“Our inheritance comes to us by no will-and-testament,” 

I came across this aphorism by René Char, a French poet and writer, in Hannah Arendt’s books (she mentions it on more than one occasion), and it keeps recurring in my mind, like a line from a forgotten poem, like an answer to a question I haven’t yet asked.

Char was writing about his experience in the French Resistance: French intellectuals who were thrown, unexpectedly, into the realm of political action discovered that

“<…> he who joined the Resistance ceased to be “in quest of [himself] without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction,” that he no longer suspected himself of “insincerity,” of being “a carping, suspicious actor of life,” that he could afford “to go naked.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4),

And in this new, naked state of mind, they have been “visited by the apparition of freedom” —

“<…> without knowing or even noticing it, [they] had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear. “At every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.” (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, p. 4)

This was their unexpected inheritance, accidentally found in the time of darkest crisis: both a state of an individual mind, and a “public space”: a space of interaction, the medium in which communication can happen, where a genuine connection can exist. Arendt calls it “the lost treasure of the revolutions” — because it seems to come into existence only in times of political crisis, and then disappears again in the trance of day-to-day “normal” life.

We don’t have a name for this experience; it’s absent from our languages. Arendt equates this namelessness, the elusive nature of the “lost treasure”, the non-existence of will-and-testament for it, with a failure of the Western intellectual tradition:

“Without testament or, to resolve the metaphor, without tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is there seems to be no willed continuity in time and hence, humanly speaking, neither past nor future, only sempiternal change of the world and the biological cycle of living creatures in it. Thus the treasure was lost not because of historical circumstances and the adversity of reality but because no tradition had foreseen its appearance or its reality, because no testament had willed it for the future. The loss <…> was consummated by oblivion, by a failure of memory, which befell not only the heirs but, as it were, the actors, the witnesses, those who for a fleeting moment had held the treasure in the palms of their hands (Hannah Arendt, “Between Past and Future”, pp. 6-7).

I have had a similar experience — this glimpse of freedom, and the naked reality of being — during the collapse of the Soviet Union, three days in August 1991, filled with danger and hope, when its future was decided on the streets; and then it was lost, as though in an unfathomably stupid nightmare.

But I am writing this just a few days after Boris Nemtsov, one of the very few people who had not lost our shared inheritance, was murdered under the walls of Kremlin. But there is a recurrent theme in all obituaries written by those who knew him personally: he has always been incredibly, overwhelmingly alive; someone even said: almost indecently alive, as though echoing René Char’s metaphor of going naked. All through these last days, mixed with sadness and anger, I’ve been feeling something else — a sentiment I could not recognise at first, so out-of-place it was. I now know that it was envy: Boris Nemtsov won in this game of life, because he has never lost the treasure of freedom, and nobody can take this victory away anymore.

Why is it, I wonder, that some people can keep the treasure alive, while others lose it, or never find it? I recall another similar experience, from even earlier times. Back in the years of the Soviet Union, in its freezing and thoroughly false public atmosphere, I was growing up in an oasis of free thought. My father organised a “home seminar”, a small public space where people could come and talk freely. It was about everything really: history, philosophy, mathematics, art, memoirs, poetry, politics. That space was free from political pressures, from ideological and social considerations of academic and literary carriers, fashions, conventions. It wasn’t going to advance anyone’s career in any field; quite the contrary: unlicensed by the omnipresent totalitarian state as it was, participation could easily put one in danger. But people would come, because they needed this breath of the fresh air, this space of freedom.

This was an atmosphere quite different from anything I knew later, in a variety of seminars and conferences all over the world, where the politics of academia was always present, in one form or another. It is, as they say, “the real life”: nobody can afford to go naked in real life. But Hannah Arendt is right: it is not the “adversity of reality” that makes one lose the treasure of freedom. The atmosphere of modern free world is by no means more adverse to freedom than the Soviet Union or the German occupation of France. But is it just a failure of intellectual tradition, the lack of “will-and-testament”? Come to think about it, it may also be the lack of courage — why else would we seem to find the treasure of freedom only in the darkest times, when there is nothing to lose?

A couple of days ago, Google+ brought me a link to Steven Kotler workshop on flow states (or “optimised brain performance”) on the Big Think website. What caught my attention in this workshop was Kotler’s emphasis on risk and danger as “triggers” for flow states: essentially, he says that we need danger to be at our best (and also at our happiest). The danger need not be physical — social and emotional risk-taking has the same flow-inducing magic in it — but it must be danger nonetheless. This, I feel, is the missing piece of the puzzle — when everything seems well, safe and secure, it takes willingness to put oneself in danger to find the treasure. Paradoxical as it sounds, it’s easier when the times are perilous and dark. It’s not just the lack of intellectual tradition, it’s also the desire to feel safe that keeps one from finding the treasure of being alive.

There is a striking similarity with the experience of art, another “lost treasure”. It might seem that this inheritance, at least, has been properly cared for: stored, catalogued, exhibited in museums, performed in symphony halls, printed in numerous editions, and, more recently, added to the mind-staggering web of knowledge given to us by the internet. But no: although it is here, for all to read, see, and listen, this treasure, too, came to us without will and testament. We have a whole vocabulary of names for forms and genres of art, for its styles, techniques, and epochs, and libraries filled with books of art history and criticism, but there is really no proper word for the genuine experience of Art, which opens the way for the same apparition of genuine freedom, the reality of being alive, to the incomprehensible place where the mind of an artist connects with the mind of the beholder, beyond the usual capacities of language.

It may sometimes seem as though each of us can stumble on this treasure only by luck, because there is no “will and testament” to tell us how to find it — a problem recently raised by Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong in “Art as therapy”. They write:

“Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our relationship with art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”.

There is a truth in this, but, again, it’s not the whole truth. There is no doubt that the experience of art can be facilitated by a tradition of appreciation, by art education, but, in the end, it’s also a matter of courage, risk, and danger.

Just like the apparition of freedom comes in the darkest political times, when there seems to be nothing more to lose, so the genuine experience of art often touches us in the darkest valleys of our lives, in the midst of emotional turmoil, loss, mourning, grief. But when all is well, when one feels emotionally safe and secure, this experience is easily lost, and art degrades into a matter of entertainment, luxury, taste, style, technique, social status, small talk. It takes willingness to risk one’s emotional stability, to put oneself in danger of sorrow; otherwise, the door remains closed, the apparition never comes. It’s not unlike the risk Vincent van Gogh took when he opened himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence — the beholder’s share in the risk is not as huge as the artist’s, but it’s a risk nonetheless.     

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On holding Time: the painting of sixty fifth sonnet

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20"x20". Oil on canvas. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2014

[accordion_item title=”Read the sixty fifth sonnet again…“]

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

[/accordion_item]

[pullquote type=”right”] Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with? [/pullquote]

The first, blurry, visualisation of this sonnet came easily: it’s all about holding something, or failing to hold (the verb hold is repeated thrice in different contexts, in every quatrain). And then there is this beautifully mixed metaphor of strong hand holding Time’s swift foot back in the eleventh line — so hands appeared in the very first sketch for this painting.

The hand imagery also offered a straightforward “translation” of the miracle of the sonnet: poetry transformed into painting. One hand will be holding a brush and actually painting the painting; just like this in this miracle self-references the sonnet, the painting will reference itself (I was indeed painting this hand from life, while working on this very painting).

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But what is it that these hands are trying to hold?[/feature_headline]

The question kept teasing me: I was convinced my vision of the future painting was so blurry because I didn’t have the answer, yet I decided to start, in the hope that the answer will come in the process. That’s, after all, what I probably love most about the process of painting: painting as a peculiar way of thinking, a word-less dialogue between the vision and the material. “Wordless” sounds like an oxymoron for a sonnet painting; but it’s only the words of the sonnet that are present: no inner discussions of its meaning or interpretation.      

Has the question resolved itself in this painting? The answer is both yes and no. The “yes” of it is this: the hands are trying to grasp the meaning of life. I spent some time looking for a historical grounding for this reading, but it emerged in my mind all by itself in the process of painting, an offspring of this strange interaction between poetry and colour.

It’s there in the painting: this is why there is, in a sense, nothing they hold, except for the chaotic movements of colour and the brush: the meaning of life is as impossible to grasp and hold as summer’s honey breath.

And this is the “no” of it: I don’t know what the meaning of life is, so all I could do was paint the question. Or put it this way: I know the meaning of life as it happens, but one cannot grasp it and cage it — neither in words, nor in concrete images. The blurriness of my initial image, it has turned out, was not an imperfect visualisation; it was its essence.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But Shakespeare doesn’t say a word about the meaning of life, does he?[/feature_headline]

The sonnet is all about the non-existence of immortality, the impossibility of holding Time. Am I not, then, adding something alien to the sonnet, something that was never there at all? Maybe I am — it might even be inevitable (openness to such bizarre interactions with future minds is, arguably, what makes a poem immortal). Still, I believe this reading, the seed of it at least, is right there in the sonnet: immortality is relevant to the life of mortals only insofar as it is conceived of as the locus of meanings, the larger-than-life context of mortal life.

After all, it might have been natural to understand the meaning of life in terms of immortality when the world around humans was immortal. That’s how they looked at it in antiquity:

”Praise, from which came glory and eventually everlasting fame, could be bestowed only upon things already “great,” that is, things that possessed an emerging, shining quality which distinguished them from all others and made glory possible. The great was that which deserved immortality, that which should be admitted to the company of things that lasted forever, surrounding the futility of mortals with their unsurpassable majesty” (Arendt “Between Past and Future”, 1961: 47).

But if the world is mortal, as it is now (and as it evidently was for Shakespeare), then there is no obvious reason why something should be immortal to be meaningful: if something is fleeting, it is not necessarily futile; its fleetingness makes it all the more glorious. And yet, when we see and recognise this emerging, shining quality, the inherited conceptual link in the time-worn semantic network of our intellectual tradition still points to immortality, calls out for it, but there is only a great void where immortality used to be.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]Shakespeare sees this shining quality in fleeting beauty, faces the great void, and hopes to fill it with poetry. How? [/feature_headline]

Can art hold the flow of time: hold Time’s swift foot back, hold out against its wrackful siege, hold a plea with its rage? Can it capture the fleeting, shining moment of transient beauty? This, I feel, is just another version of the question I’ve been painting; another way to put its elusive answer in words: what these hands are trying to hold is Time. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t seem as inherently, despairingly impossible as to hold meaning.

Holding a moment, making it “sit still” for a while, even if only within the pictorial space, is the very essence of painting. It’s harder to depict, in a painting, the flow of time, its swift movement. This painting tries to achieve this with two explicit pictorial contrasts: one between movement and stillness, and the other, between (the illusion of) three-dimensionality and two-dimensional flatness.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).

This latter strategy exploits the way we (or rather: our languages) spatialise Time, that is, the way we think and talk of Time as the fourth spatial dimension, in which we can travel in one direction only, and with the pre-ordained velocity (unless, of course, we are time-travelling in our imagination). As holding the flow of time would reduce this four-dimensional time-space to a three-dimensional single moment, so the painting relinquishes its illusion of three-dimensionality in the bright warm area in the top right corner, above the brush. This area, the “painting within painting”, is both still and flat, overtly two-dimensional: the painting hand holds the flow of time and so protects the shining brightness of summer’s honey breath against the chaotic movement of cold colours.

This gives rise to the final paradox: after all, this painting, as any painting, is still and two-dimensional, whatever its contents and technique; movement and depth are but illusions created in interaction between a painting and its viewer’s sense of vision. The painting hand “collapses” the third dimension and “stops” the movement that were never really there in the first place. It has always been an illusion, a trick of senses, perhaps as illusionary as the fourth spatial dimension, in which our future pretends to exist “before us” and the past, “behind”. Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with — no swift foot, no wrackful siege? Wouldn’t the world then be just like a painting that is still and flat, with neither depth nor movement? Wouldn’t it be boring and utterly devoid of meaning?

I don’t have answers, and these may well be the wrong questions — but these are the questions painting this sonnet leaves me to live with…

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On sonnet 65: art and immortality

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””] ... is it immortality that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace immortality of nature? [/feature_headline]

J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.
J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 65

There is one inevitable stage in the process of painting a sonnet: getting thoroughly puzzled with something about it. For this sonnet, the puzzle was this:

The couplet seems to give a tentative promise to preserve for eternity the young man’s beauty, but then why does the sad mortality of long-lasting things play such a huge role, taking over the whole body of the sonnet?

Does one really need this grandiose background to appreciate the fleeting transience of human beauty? We know much more about the mortality of nature than Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly could, accustomed as we are even to the perishability of stars and the universe itself, but I could neither feel nor see the connection: What does the death of the sun in the distant future have to do with the imminent ageing of one’s lover? How might it possibly help if the sun was, indeed, immortal?

Here is the answer I’ve found…

The seductive idea of immortalising something (or someone) in poetry originated in the Greek antiquity, and outlived its cornerstone: the ancient belief in the absolute immortality of nature. For the ancients, all things in nature were immortal, either ever-present (in inorganic nature) or constantly renewing themselves (in organic nature). They simply didn’t know that neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea but sad mortality over-sways their power, and so they lived in a now barely imaginable world where everything was eternal except humans. This is how Hannah Arendt describes this worldview in her 1961 essay “The concept of history”:

“<…> embedded in a cosmos in which everything was immortal, it was mortality which became the hallmark of human existence. <…> The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life with a recognisable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. […] This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.(Arendt 1961: 42)

Hence the fundamental tragic paradox of Greek culture:   

“<…> on the one hand, everything was seen and measured against the background of the things that are forever, while, on the other, true human greatness was understood, at least by the pre-Platonic Greeks, to reside in deeds and words […] This paradox, that greatness was understood in terms of permanence while human greatness was seen in precisely the most futile and least lasting activities of men, has haunted Greek poetry and historiography as it has perturbed the quiet of the philosophers.” (Arendt 1961: 45-46)

Poetry’s role was to resolve this paradox by praising great deeds and words and thus immortalising them in the everlasting memory of humankind (that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses)— as an animal species, the humankind shared in the immortality of organic nature, so one could rely on the immortality of its memory.  

Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.
Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.

Shakespeare is separated from the antiquity by a whole epoch defined by Christianity and its radical reversal of the ancient worldview (now nature was perishable, and individual humans were immortal). But in the sixteenth century, things were a-changing; as the Roman Church was losing its central political role, intellectual and public life was gradually being secularized; in the words of Hannah Arendt, “men once more had become mortals”. When the Renaissance humanists went back to the source of their intellectual tradition, “the ancient opposition of a mortal life to a more or less immortal world failed them. Now both life and world had become perishable, mortal, and futile” (Arendt 1961: 74).

This, then, is the historical context of this sonnet. Its lament over sad mortality of everything actually subverts the immortalising power of art, traditionally grounded in absolute immortality of nature. Paradoxically, though, the couplet reasserts the power of art: what the sonnet seems to be saying is that this miracle of poetry may still “work”; art might be able to replace immortality of nature, instead of relying on it. But how? If earth and boundless sea are perishable, then so is, evidently, black ink

And yet, that’s the world we live in now, don’t we? We don’t exactly know how and why, but art is still here. And even if its original promise of absolute immortality is gone and forgotten, the conceptual link between art and immortality persists. In the following quote, for instance, Aaron Copland invokes this conceptual link as the raison d’être for arts:

“The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant.” (quoted from Brainpickings.org)

Great works of art are actually our only direct experience of immortality, almost the only context which keeps this very word alive in the world: we wouldn’t call earth or sea immortal, but we do still use this word for poems and paintings. But the key word here, I believe, is significance — the meaning of life.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.

Shakespeare belongs to the age when the sad mortality of nature first threatened the meaningfulness of life. The modern age has grown habituated to the idea that not only earth, but the sun, the stars, the universe itself — everything is mortal, nothing is forever; so habituated to it, indeed, that, for most of us, this knowledge has lost its personal urgency, the immediacy of its connection to our own lives: that painful urgency that can still be heard in Shakespeare’s voice. As Arendt writes, “Today we find it difficult to grasp that this situation of absolute mortality could be unbearable to men” (1961: 74).

This may be true (it is certainly true for me, personally), but this personal longing for immortality in nature has not disappeared from our world completely; Alan Lightman, in a very recent book, writes of it as of an intrinsic paradox of human condition:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. […] Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. ” (Lightman 2014). 

Perhaps that’s why we can still hear Shakespeare’s pain in his verse, even though the longing has been gradually dulled by resignation and acceptance. But this longing for absolute immortality in a perishable world may not be an eternal universal of human condition, as Lightman suggests, but rather an unhappy part of our intellectual inheritance from the Greek antiquity. It left us with the concept of immortality and its implicit connection to meaningfulness, handed down through generations neatly “packed” in our various languages for easy, unconscious acquisition, even though immortality itself disappeared from the world.

But is it immortality per se that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life, its seductive promise of significance? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace the antiquated immortality of nature? Isn’t this what Shakespeare’s tentative hope in this miracle is about?    

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