silence of goodness

Last weekend, Toni Morrison gave a talk at UCSC on literature and the silence of goodness. It was part of the 2014 Founders Celebration events at UCSC.

She gave a similar talk at Cornell last year (“Translating goodness”), and in the Ingersoll 2012 Lecture at Harvard Divinity School. She began with a non-literary example of forgiveness, that of the Amish community’s reaction after the shooting of nine young girls (five died) and the suicide of the killer in 2006. They responded with support for the families, media silence, and no vengeance. The silence particularly impressed Toni Morrison and started her thinking about this broader topic of the silence of goodness. Evil exercises no fascination on her. She wondered about its attraction for others, what she called its worshipping. Why is evil so captivating? In the nineteenth century, she said, whatever the forces of malice, redemption was there at the end. She spoke of the effects of WW I, the disappearance of happy endings. With WW I and one could add even worse with WW II, the dynamics of evil and redemption set up in nineteenth-century bourgeois fiction didn’t quite fathom anymore the depths human misery could reach, and any morality play looked trite and hypocritical. Acts of goodness were greeted with suspicion or irony. True heroes were dead ones.

It all sounded so categorical. I wondered about Saint-Exupéry’s works. Or children’s literature. I granted the point however that the force of goodness is more mysterious than that of evil, this crafty grabber of the intellectual platform. Before giving examples of the role of goodness in the drama of her own books, she mentioned Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, fascinating, distant, scornful of good intentions. In Roth, Bellow, etc., goodness seemed comical and frail. She noted an exception to this chorus of minds fascinated by evil: Marilyn Robinson. I thought of others still.

All along the talk, I kept thinking of Apollinaire’s line in La jolie rousse: “Nous voulons explorer la bonté contrée énorme où tout se tait” = “We want to explore kindness enormous region where all falls quiet.” Apollinaire the wounded soldier of WW I. The drama of good vs evil swirls around kindness, goodness, self-giving, forgiveness, as the hurricane around its eye. Forgiveness, the broad giving of everything that counts without calculation or expectation of recognition (hence its no-name, no-image) is at the center of being human or pan-human, or is all that this noosphere may consist of. A fiction of it is rather paradoxical. Better if fiction continues to function as a reminder of the eye at the center of the storm. The father of the prodigal or lost son in Luke 15—another story—looks so weak, so un-patriarchal, yet so dramatically decisive and speedy in restoring the younger son to original status. It was the right thing to do, he says to his older, envious, raging son. He begs him to enter into this pacified, giving society “where everything falls quiet.”

Modern society presents many opportunities to give and forgive in ways that are more splendid and sublime than ever before because completely invisible to others. In fact, the raison d’être of modern economic development, with its systematic erasure of stifling local, traditional bonds and the explosion of enticing, temporary, greedy freedoms of capitalist structures, is its enabling of un-named, quiet, transforming, non-reciprocal and assymetric giving. I’m not thinking about philanthropy, certainly not the name-rich philanthropy of Founders’ Day at a fast-corporatizing UCSC and its expensive speech on the silence of goodness (20,000$+ if I’m not mistaken). I’m thinking of hidden forms of generosity, beyond our anonymous taxation and social security systems, though they are at the heart of it too. This giving and forgiving beyond public morality, this thousand-fold com-passion or em-pathy in families, offices, streets, companies, that is our work of fiction, a negative of the printed and electronic one, the heart of a moving coral reef. Like a coral reef, it is capable of establishing “lasting institutions” in spite of what Melville’s Billy Budd says, quoted by Hannah Arendt (On Revolution, p. 86). Printed history and fiction sometimes hesitatingly point in the direction of this old, unmarketable story.


Amos Oz on Israel and Palestine, Yedioth Aharonoth, Oct. 25, 2014:

There is no chance and no point, after a hundred years of hatred and violence, of trying to put the Israelis and the Palestinians into a double bed and hope for a honeymoon. If we don’t become two states, and quickly, there will be one state here, and it will be an Arab state. If there is an Arab state here, I don’t envy our children and grandchildren.


Patrick Modiano’s books are striking for their great precision of place and time: toponymy of cities, especially Paris, its cafés or bars, streets, squares, subway or railway stations, house numbers. Dates, hours… Against this police-record accuracy, the impression of a fog à la Simenon in which people are conjured up, but from what hidden, secret pasts, and for what, louche, projects? They pass each other by, though they look or stare, speak, joke a little, meet again, and come to life in public. These lives have a few zones of contact where little is exchanged or shared. We follow them in different guises, from different viewpoints. They all go missing or fade away in what becomes a fog of time that reminds me of the end of Fellini’s Amarcord. The transformation of pale and mysterious human lives fuses with that of the evolving physical surroundings. Cafés that were cosmopolitan, mysterious, congenial meeting places have become boutiques or agencies. What looked like a motivated pursuit of a where, what, and why dissipates in infinite peregrinations or searches that echo each other. The clash between the precise evocation and the progressive erasure of moments, places, and people creates an emptiness and dislocation, a dark dream from which there is but fleeting moments of wakefulness. Correction: a daze rather than a dream, from which the absent, so near, so close, calls us to emerge.


Today’s NYT op-ed about Stangneth’s book on Eichmann (Eichmann before Jerusalem, translation of a 2011 book in German), focusses on Hannah Arendt. Seyla Benhabib, philosophy professor at Yale, argues Arendt didn’t get it wrong regarding Eichmann, as Stangneth herself agrees, if somewhat cautiously. What was not seen by Arendt perhaps was the depth of Eichmann’s antisemitism. But his “thoughtlessness” (heedlessness?), Gedankenlosigkeit, which was a concept important for Heidegger, and that Arendt perhaps kept for that reason, is not to be confused with Eichmann’s lack of intellectual ability or drive. For Arendt, it was a fundamental absence of reliance on reason (not sure of my formulations here), hostility to it actually, exemplified by the twisted understanding Eichmann showed he had of Kant’s moral imperative, at the trial in Jerusalem:

She [Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem] quotes Eichmann saying, “I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws.” But Arendt notes that Eichmann’s meaning perverts Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Whereas “In Kant’s philosophy the source, that source was practical reason, in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Führer.”

Seyla Benhabib defends the concept of banality of evil inasmuch as Eichmann’s fanatical antisemitism was banal and widespread among National Socialists.

So, I ask myself, no hidden last play by Eichmann? I’m still curious to know if anything happened in his youth when he abandoned (slid off?) the Christian beliefs (which exactly) of his parents? Or did his parents already have strange volkish, anti-universal beliefs? In other words, from what world did nazism’s belief “system” emerge and why did it find such a powerful mix of sympathy, cowardice, heedlessness, and efficient bureaucratic power? I grant it is important not to go along with so much fantastic Western thinking concerning “evil” and ascribe it to demonic, irrational forces. I don’t think it is enough either to ascribe it to an inability or refusal to think à la Kant (or à la Heidegger?). I keep coming back to this crux: how could a Christian country, profoundly antisemitic but also reminded daily by its Christian structures both of human fallability and divine forgiveness, come to abandon this latter part of its ideology completely and revert to a notion of justice and morality that looked no further than blood and narrowly defined nation?


In Chinese religions in comparative perspective, an essay published on The Immanent Frame blog, and that presents some of the ideas of a chapter in his forthcoming book, Prasenjit Duara pursues the following question: How did state and religions manage the question of transcendence? Duara argues that contrary to what axial age theorists think (among those specialists might be Robert Bellah whose last book is: Religion in human evolution: from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard UP, 2011), transcendental dimensions existed in Chinese religions and have been missed by analysts because of the Abrahamic framework of their thinking. Given the brevity of the essay, it is hard to see what exactly he means by “Abrahamic framework,” so the following questions and comments regarding this “framework” can only be tentative. Is it a view of the divine as single, radically separate from creation, yet mysteriously engaged in human history? And this view would be so militantly bound to monotheism and so impatient with more embedded, complex pantheons, that it has long blinded its theologians and followers to the existence of other forms of transcendence? I agree (and many theologians would too, I suspect) that there is good reason to broaden the field and think of transcendence as a universal capacity to see beyond the immediate horizon; a capacity to anthropomorphize personal or impersonal, living, powerful forces hidden below, beyond, and above. A capacity to shape hopes. In that wider sense, it can be observed in all societies. Its figuration, access to it, and leveraging, have been and are a locus of political give and take. That is how I understand Duara’s contrast of “dialogical transcendence” with what he presents as radical transcendence and dualism. He is showing that the theologies and politics of transcendence are not the exclusive province of monotheistic faiths, far from it. They took many highly contested forms and no simple evolutionary scheme can account for their history. The complexity he sees in that history is not unlike Jullien’s reasoning on landscape and perspective: the intricacy of “mountain(s) and water(s)” versus the objectification in modern European painting.

In his essay, Duara starts with Guoyu, a fourth-century bce text that points to the monopolistic use of shamanism and exclusive access to heavenly powers by kings and their subordinate priests. Duara asserts that this “vertical division between state and people in relation to transcendence” was “different from that of other so-called Axial Age civilizations which often integrated states and believers vertically through the clergy.” This last sentence implies, I suppose, that priests were the leading element in first millenium bce societies of India and the Mediterranean region. What Duara calls an “integration,” however, was actually a claim by kings (sometimes kings-priests and priests-kings) to special and monopolizing access to divine power(s), very much like what the ancient Chinese text pointed to. In spite of occasional cycles of what he calls “Caesaro-papism” in Eurasia, and in spite of the long Confucian-led (or masked) attempts by (free-standing?) elites to assert authority over religious interpretation of divine will (my vocabulary: read Heavens, and metaphoric application to society of its perceived regularities), he sees the domination of the imperial state as being uncontested in this respect. It asserted exclusive power over expressing and interpreting two major religious aspects: first, divine will (“Heavens”), and secondly the ancestor cult, primarily via the primacy of the imperial ancestors (with Confucius eventually integrated into this cult).

That the first one (divine will, or heavenly power) is considered transcendent by Duara, and not the ancestors’ cult, puzzles me. It would be important to know if heavenly powers were considered part of the cosmos (constellations, laws setting courses of stars, etc.), or on the contrary external agents of creation. This is a key issue, I believe, that separates Abrahamic-style transcendence from other forms. Secondly, the ancestor cult seems to me to be another kind of transcendental activity, in that it reaches out to absent bodies whose past reconstructed lives can become and are made to be authoritative patterns for the living (social divisions, labor division, etc.).

Not surprisingly, as Duara makes clear, imperial claims in China didn’t necessarily carry much weight with the masses and even less with elites when they felt they could shake off the yoke. A parallel would be the Roman attempts at the beginning of our era to spread their own version of an imperial cult. In China, there was (and is, Duara implies at the end) a complex “interface” between local elites and the population regarding religious customs and beliefs. And this could lead to protracted, irreducible struggles over authority. From time to time, there were attempts by state powers and elites to eradicate popular forms of religion if they were perceived as outside the state or elite forms. These attempts could have the contrary effect. At this interface, there were complex games of power, of accommodation and resistance… And claims of access from within popular cults to heavenly power and knowledge, as well as claims to authority for utopian programs. Buddhism in particular provoked or elicited this complex behavior (an example given by Duara: world negation as potentially contrary to filial and familial duties, but tempered by stories of filial devotion).

Back to Abraham and Christian or post-Christian (European?) exclusivist claims on the notion of transcendence. Duara thinks the main difference between Eurasian and Indic or Abrahamic traditions was that the latter were controlled by priests, brahmins, ulamas. This was not true of polytheistic societies like Egypt or Mesopotamia. Kings were very much interested in controlling access to heavenly (or subterranean?) powers, which could be contentious, granted (think of Egypt’s Amenhotep’s attempt to wrest power completely from the temples). But it was not true either of more recent small kingdoms like Israel and Judah, or the dozen neighboring kingdoms of Iron Age Levant where palaces dominated temples. A most important change occurred in Israel/Judah when their monarchies were displaced (ca. 700-600 bce), the monarchy-related temples stopped functioning at the same time, and priesthood or prophets survived as the only trusted voices that could lead people in reshaping a kind of potentially universal access to divine power(s), formulated as exclusive monotheism. It is only then that the book of Exodus configured access to the divinity in a more radical way, though still ambiguously: without kings but via a mediator who disappears from the story and can’t be imitated (Moses), directly at times for the people (including direct access to the text/Torah), and still—secondarily—via the priests and levites. What seems clear, though, is that the divinity inherited from a semi-transcendent, astral, king-supported pantheon (Yahweh) saw its sphere of action expanded to all of human history by the end of the sixth century before our era, and its locus placed outside of cosmos and time. This way of framing a unique, personal power as radically transcendent made it possible to envision politics without kings, suffer empires, and keep hopes of freedom and dignity alive. The Abraham cycle of stories is written then and there as exemplary escape from politics as usual.

Prof. Salaita

In 2013, the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign searched for a new professor. Professor Salaita, who teaches at Virginia Tech and has written a number of books, was hired. The appointment letter was issued, contingent on Board of Trustees’ approval, normally a formality. Professor Salaita resigned his position at Virginia Tech and prepared to move. But a few weeks (two?) before teaching was supposed to start this 2014 academic year, the offer was rescinded, or rather the chancellor of Urbana-Champaign made the decision not to forward the appointment to the Board of Trustees. The board routinely approves hires, sometimes retroactively given its rare meetings (three a year, I believe).

What led to this potential violation of professional academic freedom and constitutional free speech, according to many, is the “concern” over the stridency of S. Salaita’s social media comments on Israel’s military actions in Gaza earlier this summer. See his Twitter site.

Strident alright, but clearly part of political discourse and protected freedom of speech. One may strongly disagree with Salaita’s active support of Boycott-Divestment-Sanction (BDS) and his views on zionism, yet defend his rights to express them and to see his appointment at UI-Urbana-Champaign confirmed. In regard to the latter, my only question regarding the judgment by the hiring powers would be: Does and will Professor Salaita engage viewpoints different from his in his teaching and writing? Will he welcome colleagues and students in this broad manner? The American Indian Studies program thinks so (see link below). Prof. Salaita himself addresses that question in the press conference today, at about the 17′ mark of the youtube recording (last link below). To be pursued….


  1. Description of events in article on blocked appointment in Inside Higher Ed.
  2. Vote of no confidence in Chancellor Wise taken by American Indian Studies Program at UI-Urbana-Champaign, with other links.
  3. Illinois AAUP section issued a statement asking that Salaita’s appointment be honored.
  4. Defense of decision by UI’s administration to rescind the offer by Cary Nelson, ex-president of AAUP, who seems to have had Steven Salaita in his crosshairs for quite a while.
  5. Resource guide by UI students. Links to circulating petitions can be found in this guide.
  6. Press conference of Sept 9, 2014, with Professor Salaita, Professor Warrior of American Indian Studies Program at UI/Urbana-Champaign, Professor Rothberg reading the MLA statement regarding the abrogation of due process in Prof. Salaita’s case and more grievously the violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression, students’ statements (including Jewish and Palestinian students), and a period of questions and answers.


Bezañ oa un amzer pa lennen barzhonegoù arabek, evel re Abdul Wahab al-Bayati ha Mahmoud Darwish. Da skouer, evit hemañ, Tonioù kig denel, un dastumadenn graet gant Denys Johnson-Davies (The music of human flesh, London: Heinemann, 1980). Pe Unfortunately, it was Paradise (Berkeley: UC Press, 2003), leun a gezeg, poultrenn hentoù forc’het, mogerioù, kafe ar vamm (ger), c’hwezh bleunioù amandez, ha soñjoù an harlu, evel e

Who am I, without exile?
Stranger on the river bank,
like the river, water binds me to your name.
Nothing brings me back from this distance
to the oasis: neither war nor peace.
Nothing grants me entry into the gospels.
Nothing. Nothing shines from the shores
of ebb and flow between the Tigris and the Nile.
We have become weightless,
as light as our dwellings in distant winds.

Hadet stank eo skridoù Mahmoud Darwish gant skeudennoù ha mennozioù ar Bibl, istor Gilgamesh, hag all. Amañ, Salm 137 (kaset o doa soñj diñ eus ar Salm-se ivez skridoù Mourid Barghouti):

As fate would have it
[to Rashed Hussein]
On Fifth Avenue he greeted me and burst into tears.
He leaned against a wall of glass
… New York is without willows.
He made me cry, and water returned to its rivers.
We had coffee, and too soon went separate ways.
For twenty years I have known him to be forty.
Tall and sad like the hymns of sea coasts.
He used to arrive like a sword dipped in wine,
and leave like the end of a prayer.
He used to read his poems at Christo’s
when the city of Acre was just rising from sleep
and wading in the water. [….]

Metro poem

Poem by Jules Supervielle seen by JFH in the Paris métro, April 2, 2003:

Un boeuf gris de la Chine
Couché dans son étable
Allonge son échine
Et dans le même instant
Un boeuf de l’Uruguay
Se retourne pour voir
Si quelqu’un a bougé
Vole sur l’un et l’autre
A travers jour et nuit
L’oiseau qui fait sans bruit
Le tour de la planète
Et jamais ne la touche
Et jamais ne s’arrête.

Gildas Hamel