Without the cultivation of the life of the mind, you will never understand anything about your own life or the world that we live in, says cultural critic Rob Riemen. To get you started for the new year, he recommends the best humanist books (that he read) published in 2017.
Are these the very best humanist books that were published in 2017?
According to my knowledge, yes. That’s a very important disclaimer. There were many books published that I didn’t read. For example, there was a great biography of Toscanini by Harvey Sachs. It’s 900 pages and only recently published. If I had read it, I probably would have put it on my list. But, with my limited time, of the books I’ve read this year, in English, this is my list.
Can you start by explaining what humanism is, as I think the meaning is a little different across countries? What does humanism mean, to you?
Let me try to be as brief and clear as possible. The first book I wrote was called Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, which was published by Yale University Press about ten years ago. Humanism, in my view, is an attempt to cultivate this nobility of spirit. It is something of extreme importance. You do not need a lot of money, you do not need science, you do not need technology, you do not need religion, you do not even need higher education to cultivate nobility of spirit.
The phrase, ‘nobility of spirit’ is a translation. It’s the title that Thomas Mann used when he published his book Adel des Geistes—which included all his great essays on Goethe, Freud and Chekhov. It was a bitter title because he published his book in 1945 when all Europe was in ruins.
Much further back in history, you have Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, where he comes up with the phrase, “Cultura animi philosophia est”—“Philosophy is the cultivation of the soul.”
Our word culture comes from that phrase—and all the four terms in it have been forgotten. We have no clue about cultivation of the soul anymore, nor are we living in a society where there is a quest for wisdom. European humanism is rooted in that phrase. It’s rooted in this tradition that, at the end of the day, it is the cultivation of your soul, it is nobility of spirit, it is the life of the mind that makes life worth living.
“You do not need a lot of money, you do not need science, you do not need technology, you do not need religion, you do not even need higher education to cultivate nobility of spirit. ”
All these things are connected because we are the only beings on earth which have a double nature. On the one hand we are like animals. We are blood and flesh. We have our instincts. We have our fears. We have our desires. We need food. We need sex. We die.
But, at the same time, we are endowed with a human spirit. We know about notions of truth and justice and love and freedom. We know about the world of ideas. No animal has this kind of knowledge. No animal has this kind of consciousness.
The whole idea of European humanism is based on the fact that, to make life worth living, we have to get beyond our animal nature. We have to try constantly to make those values our own, and to give justice and truth a place in our world, on our planet.
To do that, we have, first of all, the gift of the muses. Nowadays we live at a time of ‘a-musement.’ A-musement is literally the opposite of the muses. The muses want to give us something: make us aware of who we are. Amusement is always the escape from who we are.
We have the world of philosophy. We have the quest for wisdom—because we are beings who are constantly dealing with all kinds of questions to which we don’t have an easy answer. The world of philosophy wants to help us to find an answer.
Culture, in its original meaning, is not something descriptive. Now we use it as an anthropological concept: ‘I have these clothes and you have those clothes’, but in its original meaning it is a normative concept. It is an expression of what the dignity of life is all about, and gives us the norm to which we have to live up to. And liberal education—true liberal education—is about the hope of becoming our better selves.
So this intellectual, spiritual heritage is what humanism is all about. Basically, it’s our sense of what it means to live in a civilised world. This is why it is so ingrained in the world of book culture. Humanism cannot exist without a book culture.
I’ve been reading your latest book, To Fight Against This Age. It’s subtitled ‘on fascism and humanism.’ It seems as if fascism is, to some extent, the opposite of humanism. Is that right?
Oh yes. The world of humanism is about culture. It’s about books. It’s about liberal education. But it has a political dimension. The political dimension is the spirit of democracy. Now this is a thing that the great Dutch Jewish philosopher, Spinoza, realised in the 17th century.
He was one of the great thinkers on freedom, and he realised that true freedom is the opposite of licence. It is not, ‘I can do whatever I want’ or ‘Leave me alone.’ According to Spinoza, you’re only free when you can liberate yourself from your own ignorance, your own prejudices, your own fears. Only then can you become a free human being. In that respect he’s only quoting Socrates, who makes the same argument.
However, to be able to do that, you also have to have a free society. You need political freedom. Political freedom is what the spirit of democracy is all about.
“Nowadays we live at a time of ‘a-musement.’ A-musement is literally the opposite of the muses. The muses want to give us something: make us aware of who we are. Amusement is always the escape from who we are. ”
Fascism is the ongoing attack on the spirit of democracy. You get into a fascist society when the so-called democratic society is no longer cultivating the spirit of democracy and turns itself into a mass democracy. This is the explanation why, in the 20th century, when we first started to live in a democratic society, at least here in Europe—when we finally were able to get rid of feudal society and the power of the church and all these things—it very soon turned into a mass democracy.
A mass democracy is a society which is not cultivating the nobility of spirit. It’s not cultivating the life of the mind, it’s not cultivating moral values. It is basically a society which is driven by basic instincts like fear and greed, where freedom turns into licence. It’s also a society which is based on the fear of freedom. Remember, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s story of the legend of “the Grand Inquisitor.”
Democracy is committing suicide and the demagogues are marching in. We are seeing this everywhere. Trump is the most famous example. But here in Europe we have Orban in Hungary. We have the government in Poland. We see it with Le Pen, in France, Wilders and Baudet in The Netherlands, and so on and so forth. Fascism is the cancer which always will develop in a mass society. It’s the opposite of the idea of Europe. It’s the opposite of the spirit of democracy. Eventually, it will bring a society where people are no longer free at all.
You’re talking about nobility of spirit as appealing to the best of what is in humans—whereas fascism or people like Hitler and Trump appeal to the worst in people?
They are no longer appealing to the best in people, but they are only the expression of a certain type of society. It’s not only the political class. It’s almost everywhere. Our whole society is driven by an appeal to people’s most vulgar instincts. A lot of our media is driven by appealing to people’s lowest instincts. Many aspects of capitalism and the financial world are based on cultivating the notion of greed.
What you get then is the whole ‘kitsch’ society. All those appeals to people’s baser instincts create a kind of cultural and spiritual emptiness which has to be filled. And it’s filled by this kitsch society—which I write about in my book To Fight Against This Age.
In such a society, which has been developed for the past half-century, the cancer cells of fascism will grow again and again. Then you can simply wait for a Trump, or whoever they are. That’s what I argue with my American friends. Don’t think that if Trump and his family disappear that fascism will be gone in America. That’s not the case.
So I hope these books you’ve chosen are a good antidote to all that. Let’s go through them, and you can tell me what you like about each of them. The first on the list is by the Italian philosopher, Nuccio Ordine. It’s called The Usefulness of the Useless.
One of the reasons that I am very fond of that book is that in one of the essays in my book, The Nobility of Spirit, I try to explain that culture, by definition, has to be useless. It will therefore always be defenceless. It will always be disinterested because culture—and the classics—are timeless. They are important for all time, for everybody. That’s what makes them timeless. This is why we can still read Shakespeare or Jane Austen, or listen to Bach etc.
This means that these works—whether it’s a cathedral or a poem or a sonata or a great novel—tell us something. We are not in charge. It’s not us who can control the work of art. The work of art is there to tell us, to inform us.
Nuccio’s wonderful, small book is a compilation of the many things from antiquity to nowadays, making this call, not to make a mistake. Already in the 18th century Schiller—in his Letters on an Aesthetic Education—informs us that utility has become the idol of our time. So this is not about arguing something new or original. As a great archivist, Nuccio has put it together in an extremely readable and accessible way.
“European humanism is rooted in that phrase. It’s rooted in this tradition that, at the end of the day, it is the cultivation of your soul, it is nobility of spirit, it is the life of the mind that makes life worth living.”
In the world of education or when you are in the world of culture and you are involved in fundraising, you constantly get this nonsense of how to make it concrete and ‘What’s in it for us?’ That business approach is the poison of our society. It has no clue about the meaning of life. Zip. Zero.
Once I was talking to some right-wing youngsters. They were asking things like, ‘Why should we support the arts? Why should the government support art?’ Or, ‘Why should we have bookshops? They are not useful at all.’
I replied, ‘Okay, well, so you think that the most important things in life are useful? That all things have to be useful?’ Then I asked one guy, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ ‘Yes, yes, I have a girlfriend,’ he said. I asked him, ‘Do you have a girlfriend because she’s useful to you? And you would like to have children. Is that because they are useful to you?’
But people stop thinking and they do not realise that all the things that make their own life meaningful are by definition useless. They have to be useless, otherwise they cannot be what they are.
That’s what Nuccio’s beautiful book is: a great reminder and giving you all the texts you need to “weapon” yourself against all the ongoing nonsense.
I haven’t had a chance to read it, does he go through all these texts historically?
It’s in no way academic, but he quotes Aristotle, Leopardi, John Locke, and Emil Cioran. It has wonderful, short chapters on the consequences of the disappearance of historic bookstores and why the classics are important, etc. etc. It’s a very small book that puts you in a very good mood. And it keeps you organised if at any moment you are confronted with the stupidity that something has to be ‘useful.’
Okay, so let’s go on to your second book, A Long Saturday. These are a journalist’s conversations with the French-born literary critic, George Steiner, a couple of years ago.
Interestingly George Steiner used to teach Nuccio Ordine, so there is a connection between the two. The subtitle of A Long Saturday is “Conversations.” This is also one of the reasons I wanted to mention this book, because the quintessence of humanism is to have conversations. There is a deep connection between communication and ‘communio,’ community. Sitting together, eating together, drinking together, talking together. When people stop talking to each other, then you get into war. It’s the notion of an ongoing conversation—a real conversation and not this Facebook or Twitter nonsense. You sit together and have a glass of wine, if you like wine, or something else—I don’t care.
Now, this is where “Conversations” comes in. Probably it will be Steiner’s last book, as he’s not been in very good health, already for a while. Is it his most important book? No, it’s not. But George, for me, is one of the last real, European humanists—as a literary critic, as a cultural philosopher.
“There is a deep connection between communication and ‘communio,’ community. Sitting together, eating together, drinking together, talking together.”
His approach, again, is the opposite of academic prose. Whether it is his book Language and Silence, in which he wants to explore what is happening in a society, where we can no longer speak, where the inexpressible becomes really inexpressible. Or his book Real Presences, which is very important, with its quest on what gives meaning. What is meaning? What is the meaning of meaning? It sounds like a very abstract, philosophical question, but then try to imagine a situation where you realise that ‘This is meaningless.’ That drives people crazy—because we are beings who are in need of meaning, whatever we do. Whatever life we live, we want things in our life to be meaningful. But what is meaningful, or what gives us meaning? The opposite of meaningful is this huge escapism which has been created by the kitsch society—the world of mass media and games and drugs or whatever.
A Long Saturday is a beautiful, intellectual testament of a great European humanist. It’s a reminder what civilization is all about, why book culture is important and what the world of Judaism has to offer to the world. Why life is a quest.
So for me, again, is it the greatest book on the world of humanism? No. But for anybody who doesn’t know George Steiner, I hope this book will be an introduction to read the great books that he wrote.
It starts quite personally, doesn’t it? It asks him about having only one hand?
Yes, George is crippled in his right hand. They start the conversation with the story of his mother telling him that it is an advantage because now he will not have to go into the army. I know George Steiner quite well. He’s not the most easy person that I’ve met. He’s very tough. But he’s especially tough on himself.
He has an independent mind. So the whole sense of, you have to conform to the academic elite and ‘I put you in my footnotes, so you can put me in your footnotes’—that’s not George. He wrote books on Antigone, about Hitler, The Portage to San Cristobal. All these books are very powerful and, for me, almost timeless reminders of what it means to be European, what it means to be a humanist. What the true meaning of the life of the mind is about and what liberal education is all about. And why our sense of European civilization will disappear at the very moment that we have forgotten how to read books.
It’s good that you’re drawing attention to books by some European intellectuals, because they’re not so well represented on our site as we started in the US and now are based in the UK. The English-speaking world can be a bit arrogant.
They are extremely parochial. There are so many things they do not know. I have the good fortune to live in the Netherlands and we have many, many books, which are translated into Dutch because Dutch is a very small language. Germany is the door to the world of central Europe. But in America, I don’t know the exact figures, but not that many translations are done. Fortunately, you still have the Library of America and Everyman’s Library. Once upon a time, we had great publishers like Peter Mayer…but I don’t have to tell you what’s going on in the world of publishing. It’s in a terrible state.
All these things relate to the larger picture and the larger picture is that we are losing our sense of this European humanism. That’s why the subtitle of my book on Nobility of Spirit is “A Forgotten Ideal.” History has seen many periods of decline and fall but, fortunately, it is also full of periods of renaissance. As long as we are free to speak and as long as we are free to read, we have a moral obligation to contribute to this sense of renaissance. It happened before, so it can happen again.
So tell me about the third book on the list. This is The Genius of Judaism, by the French public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy or BHL, as I suppose he’s often referred to.
That was a very surprising book for me, because for many people who are a little bit familiar with the world of public intellectuals, BHL has his own image. Some admire him for his guts, for his outspokenness, for being a man of action and not only being a scholar in his study. At the same time, he’s not without some forms of vanity—‘I know Sarkozy and I know Netanyahu and dah, dah, dah.’ People envy him and consider him an extremely arrogant man.
The Genius Of Judaism is an extremely honest book. It does justice to another phenomenon which is quintessential for the notion of European humanism. This again comes from Socrates, who was the great-grandfather of this whole notion of European humanism. Socrates was the first philosopher who’s not much interested in the elements and the earth and whatever, but thinks about human nature. Then he says that there are only two questions that are really important for everybody, for all time. One is the right way to live and the other is a good society.
What is the kind of life I have to live? What are the choices I have to make? How can I make the distinction between the good choice and the bad choice, between what’s good and what’s evil and connected to that, what is the world I have to live in? What is the kind of society I want to live in, and what is my role in that society?
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
These are the two big questions and then Socrates starts his own conversations. The dialogues are only conversations asking, what is justice? What is goodness? What is truth? What does it mean to be brave? Etc. etc.
At the end of his life, in his Apology, he says that the whole secret of life is that it starts with self-examination. You have to know yourself, because without knowing yourself, there is nothing you will ever understand. Later on we have what we call the Bildungsroman—like The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, like Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Goethe, and in a certain sense also In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. All those novels are about the quest of these young men for what the meaning of life is.
Now, this book by Bernard-Henri Lévy is an expression of a man who starts to do self-examination. He comes from the French intellectual left—the world of Sartre, of Foucault, of revolutions, of Maoism. And then, in a very honest and extremely accessible way—and accessibility, for me, is always important because I agree with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer that if you cannot write in a clear way, there is no clear thinking—he wrote this book on how he discovered the world of Judaism.
It’s about how he moved beyond this world of political revolutions and started to understand what his own religious and cultural heritage had to offer to him and to the world. And what its meaning is. He doesn’t present himself as a deeply religious man, but he makes a very convincing argument that for him, Judaism is about the world of learning.
It’s about the world of ongoing study. It’s about the world of constantly questioning yourself and being extremely critical. It is about the life of the mind—because without the cultivation of the life of the mind, you will never understand anything about your own life, or the world that you live in.
What’s also very moving is that, apparently, his favourite book in the Bible is the small book on the prophet Jonah.
Now, Jonah—and people who are not familiar with it can get their own Bible and read it, it’s a very short, beautiful story—is a prophet who has his own problems with God. He’s a grumpy guy. Then God instructs him to go to Nineveh, which is modern day Mosul in Iraq—a city of sinners and unbelievers. Jonah says, ‘Why should I go to those people? They are not Jewish. They are not religious. They are not righteous. I can spend my time in a better way.’
“Without the cultivation of the life of the mind, you will never understand anything about your own life, or the world that you live in.”
At the end of the story, the prophet Jonah is in despair because of a tree that is not growing. Then God says to him, ‘You’re a pitiful man. You’re concerned about that silly tree, and yet you accuse me for the fact I am concerned about the life of 120,000 human beings.’ And so, for Bernard-Henri Lévy, this became the story of why he, as a Jew—and always afraid of new forms of anti-Semitism, because of the history—wanted to go to the people who were not his friends, who are, basically, his enemies.
He sees it as a moral obligation to fight for them. So, these last years, he has spent a lot of time in Kurdistan. We know the role he played going to Libya.
All of this made me put him on the list. It’s an exercise in education, in self-examination. It’s a wonderful description of what it means to live your life as an intellectual Jew. And there’s also this profound message—that people should get out of their own cave and look beyond their own tribe and try to see fellow human beings as what they are, which is fellow human beings, whatever their religion or their political position.
Let’s go on to book number four on your list. You’ve got Patti Smith with Devotion.
I guess everybody knows who Patti Smith is. She was one of my heroes when I was younger, when Horses came out. She was the godmother of the punk generation, but that’s only a very small part of the Patti Smith story. She’s not only a great singer but also she knows how to write. They didn’t come out in 2017, but Just Kids and M Train are magnificent stories of her life, what it was like to live in New York in the 50s and 60s. She’s a phenomenal writer and she’s one of the most erudite people I’ve ever met.
She comes from the world of Bob Dylan and pop culture. She is a great artist herself, but she knows Bulgakov. She knows Brecht. She knows Paul Valéry. She knows Simone Weil.
Devotion is a very odd, small book, which I absolutely adored because it consists of three parts. The first part is how she goes to Paris for the promotion of her book, but then uses her time to go to the south of France and to see the graveyard of Paul Valéry and from there she goes to London, to visit the graveyard of Simone Weil.
In the meantime, she’s working on a story, and the story is the second chapter of the book. It’s about a young girl of only 15 or 16, an orphan. She is trapped by an older man, who wants to make her live her life according to his rules. So he gives her a new name, Philadelphia. She asks why Philadelphia and he says it’s because it’s a hotbed of freedom. Anyway, at the end of that story in which she just has to follow him, she kills him and goes back to the world where she came from.
For me, I read it as an astonishing story about the meaning and the quest for freedom. To be a free human being, not to have others tell you how to live your life and what you have to do.
Then you get to the final part of the book, where she is invited by the daughter of Albert Camus to go to Lourmarin, and to visit the house and to see all the manuscripts. And that makes her, again, reflect on the world of the muses.
What is artistic life? What is writing all about? What is this gift, trying to express the inexpressible? Then she also, in a very honest way, explains what her dream is, which is to use the world of the imagination to show something to the world that is meaningful, to be better than she is.
George Steiner says that liberal education is about finding your better self—through a novel, through a piece of music you hear, through a movie you have seen. When they are good, it is always a confrontation with yourself. And with this moment of self-knowledge, you can move forward. You can try to be better, to do something better. This very small book of Patti’s is a beautiful example of that.
It sounds amazing.
Patti is amazing.
Finally, you’ve chosen Philip Roth, Why Write?
If you’d asked me in 2002, I would have said The Plot Against America but, unfortunately, Philip Roth has retired from writing novels, apparently. Why Write? is a collection of his non-fiction written between 1960 and 2013. I wanted to put it on my list because of the essays on the meaning of literature but also because a large part of the book is these conversations he has—with Primo Levi, with Ivan Klima, with Milan Kundera, with Edna O’Brien.
He is a great American writer with a very strong European sensitivity. The fact the Nobel Committee has never given the Nobel Prize to him is an eternal stain on them. Kafka is extremely important to him. He was one of the first to give more space to Primo Levi in America. He’s the one who discovered Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera for the US.
Already in the 60s, with Nixon and Watergate, he was writing about the predicament of expressing in fiction what was already so unbelievable. In that respect it will be very interesting to see what kind of novels come out of the Trump world.
“That also is what I appreciate in Phillip Roth. He uses his position as a quite influential and famous writer to do the right thing.”
The are many, many ideas in the book—including on the responsibility of the writer. The responsibility of the writer is to constantly ask—through the world of the imagination, through the novel—‘What is it to be human? What is it to be humane?’ He confronts you again, and again, and again, with ‘Yes, we are not living in a totalitarian society. But look at the huge impact of trivialization and the mass media—how everything becomes more and more stupid.’
One of the last things in the book is an interview with the Swedish paper, Svenska Dagbladet. He’s asked, ‘Once upon a time you said that people who have an affection for aesthetic literacy will become a tiny, tiny minority. Do you think that’s still the case?’ He said, ‘Yes, that is the case.’ The people who will continue to read the classics—who will continue to read the great novels of Proust, or Thomas Mann, or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy—or even Philip Roth’s own work will end up a minority, like the people still reading Latin poetry.
Now, on the one hand, that is a pretty depressing idea. At the same time, I think it’s realistic, because there is much less reading. Also, 20 years ago we still had the great novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and Saul Bellow. I don’t want to fall into the trap of nostalgia, but it seems to me that literature on that level, it’s probably there, but it’s less and less and less and less and less.
However, as long there are books, and as long as there are people who read, it’s not written on any wall that these things cannot return. It’s all the more imperative that we keep our small publishing houses, our small bookshops. That we try to avoid, as much as possible, this terrible Amazon thing. And out of it will grow, like in the Renaissance (which also took 200 years) new communities of people who will read books. Everybody has a certain responsibility. And that also is what I appreciate in Philip Roth. He uses his position as a quite influential and famous writer to do the right thing.
Lastly, I know you really wanted to include Thomas Mann: Joseph and His Brothers in this list, but it isn’t coming out until next year. Do you just want to say a couple of sentences about that?
Yes, so S. Fischer Verlag, the publisher of Thomas Mann since the end of the 19th century, is working on the critical edition of his collected works, including all the letters and diaries. They are extremely slow, but finally in April 2018, they will publish the critical edition of Joseph and His Brothers. For me, Joseph and His Brothers is the magnum opus of European humanism written in the 20th century.
Goethe once observed how the story of Joseph in Genesis is only one and a half pages long, but that there’s a whole story behind it. And Thomas Mann then writes a novel of almost 2000 pages. One lovely anecdote is that when he had finished it and given it to his secretary to type, she says, ‘Herr Professor Mann, now we finally know how the things really happened.’ Which is a great compliment for a writer.
He started working on it in the 1920s, in Munich, when Mr. Hitler was rising to power. During World War I, he wrote a book, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen or Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, in which he still embraced a conservative, anti-democratic worldview. It took him until 1921 to realise how wrong he was. In May 1921, he writes in his diary that “Humanism is not German, but it is essential.” That was a turning point in his own thinking.
Hitler and the Nazis created their own mythology—which was inspired by the German nationalistic mythology of Wagner. So what is it that Thomas Mann does? He goes back to another mythology, the one of the Bible. He wants to retell a story of another God and of another chosen people, about what it means to be human.
This novel is next to that also a reflection of what it means to be an artist, and a very profound reflection on how to find truth because Joseph, the chosen one, knows what is true, but he also realises that because the times are changing, our knowledge of truth will change as well. This is the best criticism of any form of fundamentalism. Nobody can ever claim to have complete access to TRUTH (in capital letters).
Also included in the book are important lessons of life that Joseph has to learn. There is a meaning of life, but you have to be able to read the signs, which are beyond the physical world of facts…and that’s where his dreams come in.
The other thing he has to learn is that there are always temptations. You have to be strong to resist the temptations. You have to have the courage to follow your own path in life.
So it’s about humanising the world of mythology. In a time of the rise of fascism, he retells the story of the mythology of where civilization comes from and what it means to be a moral human being. The four volumes took him 16 years to write because, in the meantime, he also wrote a book on Goethe and some stories.
But he writes the fourth volume when he is already in exile in the United States. Thomas Mann was befriended by Franklin Roosevelt. And Roosevelt, at the time, was doing The New Deal. So in the last chapter, when Joseph is already the vice pharaoh, he makes sure that Egypt is a welfare state, and because of that Jacob, his brothers and the people of Israel can come, and survive. The whole economics of Joseph as vice pharaoh Mann bases on the New Deal, which is, of course, the complete opposite of what you’re seeing in the US now, with this terrible GOP tax bill, etc. etc. So it’s an extremely important and powerful book for our time—on a political level, on a religious level, on a philosophical level and on an artistic level.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org