Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reluctant Ecology in Blake and Arendt: A Response to Robert Mitchell and Richard Sha

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Reluctant Ecology in Blake and Arendt: A Response to Robert Mitchell and Richard Sha

Article excerpt

"The earth," Hannah Arendt writes in her "Prologue" to The Human Condition, "is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice" (2). (1) The earth is the first, paradigmatic instance of the given in the book, and repudiating the repudiation of this "free gift from nowhere," requisite to any theory and action that deserve the name, may be Arendt's first and last critical commitment in the work. Still, the status of the earth is by no means the main focus or high aim of The Human Condition, which culminates in nothing less than a theory of political freedom and the conditions under which it might be realized: the luminous sphere of the polis in which persons visibly enact their collective story in words and deeds, itself dependent upon the fabricated world through which they relate to one another with some degree of permanence. Both spheres are extricated at high cost over the course of the text from the earth, which connotes "the circular movement of biological life" and every undignified opposite of freedom (19). The fate of the earth, dubious in the Cold War, Space Age situation "against whose background this book was written" impinges on the Prologue and the final chapter of The Human Condition like a sorrowful slightly incredulous concession, not an aspiration (6).

Of Arendt's reconstructed image of ancient political freedom in the sphere of the polis, one could very exactly say: "they conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright / Redounded from their Tongues in thunderous majesty" (Blake, Jerusalem 98.28-29). Like the high-impact, dramatic expressions of redeemed Humanity at the climax of William Blake's Jerusalem, that is, Arendt envisions "action and speech as sheer actuality," proper to humans in their plural capacity for spontaneous beginning and incalculable consequence, effects unpredictably "Redound[ing]" (Arendt 207). Agents unloose their speech-acts among and before each other under conditions of hyper-visibility--"reflecting each in & clearly seen / And seeing"--in performances of freedom, both authors insist, that are "humanly disclosed by the word" (Arendt 179; Blake J 98.39). "[E]very word & Every Character / Was Human," says Blake, productive of "exemplars of Memory and of Intellect": words and deeds by which "the best" of the species, in Arendt's terms, "attain an immortality of their own," proving themselves to be "really human" against the cycle of procreation and perishing to which they are bound by "biological life" (Arendt 19, Blake J 99.3).

In The Human Condition, no less than in Jerusalem, this polis and its freedoms are carved out in systematic opposition "from all the Earth, from the Living Creatures of the Earth," the dominion of necessity, mortality, futility, cyclicity, biological survival and bodily need (Blake J 98.54). Arendt's regret that among moderns "the activities connected with sheer survival are permitted to appear in public," rather than decently hidden in the private sphere of the household, is palpable (46). How is it that Arendt concedes her Prologue to a stirring defense of the terrestrial condition, allowing the matter of "earthly nature," which defines "the private sphere" for the bulk of The Human Condition, to appear in public, as it were, as "a political question of the first order"? Or that Blake's first Songs of Experience stage an analogous struggle over whether Earth can or ought to appear when called? (2)

In this essay, I respond to Robert Mitchell's and Richard Sha's searching inquiries into the risks and promises of Romantic(ist) enthusiasm for "the experience of the experiment" by exploring the surprising commitment to addressing the Earth in Arendt and Blake, two punishing critics of experimentalism who would otherwise seem to converge, if at all, in their undisguised (not to say unromantic) contempt for Nature. …

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