Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Literature

From the 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address delivered by the Peruvian novelist and erstwhile presidential candidate:

Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better, to orient ourselves in the labyrinth where we are born, pass by, and die. It compensates for the reverses and frustrations real life inflicts on us, and because of it we can decipher, at least partially, the hieroglyphic that existence tends to be for the great majority of human beings, principally those of us who generate more doubts than certainties and confess our perplexity before subjects like transcendence, individual and collective destiny, the soul, the sense or senselessness of history, the to and fro of rational knowledge.

I have always been fascinated to imagine the uncertain circumstance in which our ancestors – still barely different from animals, the language that allowed them to communicate with one another just recently born – in caves, around fires, on nights seething with the menace of lightning bolts, thunder claps, and growling beasts, began to invent and tell stories. That was the crucial moment in our destiny, because in those circles of primitive beings held by the voice and fantasy of the storyteller, civilization began, the long passage that gradually would humanize us and lead us to invent the autonomous individual, then disengage him from the tribe, devise science, the arts, law, freedom, and to scrutinize the innermost recesses of nature, the human body, space, and travel to the stars. Those tales, fables, myths, legends that resounded for the first time like new music before listeners intimidated by the mysteries and perils of a world where everything was unknown and dangerous, must have been a cool bath, a quiet pool for those spirits always on the alert, for whom existing meant barely eating, taking shelter from the elements, killing, and fornicating. From the time they began to dream collectively, to share their dreams, instigated by storytellers, they ceased to be tied to the treadmill of survival, a vortex of brutalizing tasks, and their life became dream, pleasure, fantasy, and a revolutionary plan: to break out of confinement and change and improve, a struggle to appease the desires and ambitions that stirred imagined lives in them, and the curiosity to clear away the mysteries that filled their surroundings.

This never-interrupted process was enriched when writing was born and stories, in addition to being heard, could be read, achieving the permanence literature confers on them. That is why this must be repeated incessantly until new generations are convinced of it: fiction is more than an entertainment, more than an intellectual exercise that sharpens one’s sensibility and awakens a critical spirit. It is an absolute necessity so that civilization continues to exist, renewing and preserving in us the best of what is human. So that we do not retreat into the savagery of isolation and life is not reduced to the pragmatism of specialists who see things profoundly but ignore what surrounds, precedes, and continues those things. So that we do not move from having the machines we invent serve us to being their servants and slaves. And because a world without literature would be a world without desires or ideals or irreverence, a world of automatons deprived of what makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.

From the cave to the skyscraper, from the club to weapons of mass destruction, from the tautological life of the tribe to the era of globalization, the fictions of literature have multiplied human experiences, preventing us from succumbing to lethargy, self-absorption, resignation. Nothing has sown so much disquiet, so disturbed our imagination and our desires as the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions real life will never give us. The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.