Contemplation and the Self

29 Nov

The third chapter on Byung-Chul’s “Vita Contemplativa” begins with a text by Walter Benjamin on the painting Angelus Novus in ink, pastel chalk and watercolor on paper by Paul Klee from 1920, which is currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in the Christian collection.

Describe Benjamin’s quote: “an angel is represented there who appears as if he were moving away from something he is facing. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, and his wings are outstretched. The angel in the story must look like this. He turned his face to the past. Where a chain of events appears to us, there he sees a catastrophe that incessantly piles rubble upon rubble, sliding before his feet. He would very much like to linger, awaken the dead and bring the fallen together” (apud Han, 2023, p. 57) and continues.

Benjamin’s text ends with a sentence: “What we call progress is a storm” and thus begins the chapter “From action to being”.

Hannah Arendt was the first to understand the 20th century as a time of action, says the author, later in the text the author will remember that the anthropocene was the result (I would say the attempt, since nature rebels) of the submission of nature to human action, losing our autonomy and dignity, we “make” history by acting, he states.

What can we do about this catastrophic action on nature, Arendt confesses that she cannot offer any solution, cited by Han: “address the essence and possibilities of the action, which had never been shown so openly and revealed in their greatness and at their peril” (apud Han, 2023, p. 59).

She points out a path in thought that would be a type of “philosophy of politics” that would bring a reflection on the problematic of human action, in “Vita activa” she exposes (I think recovers) human action in its grandeur and dignity (page. 60).

Reflecting further on the figure of Angelus novus (above), “his wide eyes reflect his impotence, his horror. Human history is an advancing apocalypse. This is an apocalypse without an event”, the relationship with current events is remarkable.

Years before Arendt published Vita Activa, Heidegger had given a lecture on Science and Reflection where he said that as opposed to action that moves us forward, reflection brings us back to where we always already are. It opens up to us a being-there (Da-Sein) that precedes every doing, every action and that takes time (Han, 2023, pg. 62).

The same Heidegger will write in Black Notebooks: “What would happen if the presentiment of the silent power of inactive reflection disappeared?” and Han reflects: “the presentiment is not deficient knowledge. Rather, it opens up to us the being, the there, which escapes proportional knowledge. Only through presentiment do we have access to that place in which human beings always find themselves…” (page 63).

HAN, B.C. (2023). Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity, transl. Daniel Steuer, USA, ed. Polity.


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