Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit

The essayist and cultural critic Rob Riemen:

Today’s Western society has the same aspirations as the Fascists and Communists. Not without reason do its most important pillars, the mass media and social-capitalist economy, proclaim the virtues of what is new, fast, and progressive — all on the level of consumer goods — and then offer us the freedom to be happy with our gadgets. We must feel eternally young, always see that which is new as superior, accept that limitations do not exist — and we’d better forget about death.

Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal is an unusual book, a set of loosely related essays that borrows its title from a 1945 collection of essays by Thomas Mann. Riemen’s touchstones (Mann, above all) are seldom mine; Riemen’s generalizations — “the European cultural traditions,” “the great humanistic ideas” — manage to overlook the long history of European colonial and imperial endeavor. To describe the book in terms of its materials is to suggest a random assortment: an unexpected conversation in a New York restaurant; scenes from the lives of Socrates, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Mann; an examination of American intellectuals’ reactions to 9/11; a conversation among André Malraux, Albert Camus, and others; and the torture of the Italian anti-Fascist Leone Ginzburg.

What holds the book together is its impassioned advocacy of nobility, not of bloodlines but of spirit, a nobility that Riemen sees as available to anyone who is interested in acquiring it. (Not really: literacy and access to liberal education are the tacit prerequisites.) Riemen associates nobility of spirit with art, intellect, truth, virtue, and the rejection of fundamentalism and nihilism. (See? I have to write in generalizations.) What Riemen seeks is a culture that reverences and preserves all that is good in the human endeavor, that promulgates the dignity of the individual, that eschews the merely entertaining and expedient, that renounces any dream of human perfectibility.

This book’s great value, I think, is its ability to provoke its reader to more careful consideration of our life and times. Now when I see an assistant professor explain away an academic superstar’s plagiarism by arguing that we all use sources without citing them, when I see another celebrated academic dismiss a writer as irrelevant in part because that writer was born before the invention of the telephone, when I see Microsoft equate the purchase of its products with bravery (“I wanna see you be brave”), I think of Rob Riemen’s book.

[That I happened to encounter Nobility of Spirit is testimony to the usefulness of bookstores: I read somewhere that the Manhattan bookstore Crawford Doyle recommends the book to its customers. Strange: I can’t find anything about that online now — though I did buy a signed copy of Nobility of Spirit at the bookstore. What I did find online just now is the surprising news that Crawford Doyle’s owners, Judy Crawford and John Doyle, persuaded New York Review Books to reprint John Williams’s novel Stoner.]

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