We Are Never Alone
What was it like when W. H. Auden, the poet, met Hannah Arendt, the political theorist, in the autumn of 1958? They had first noticed each other at a publisher’s party in the late forties: did that find its way into their conversation when they met again? Was that how they broke the ice?
No matter what it was like, that connection sparked something that resulted in a lasting (“not intimate,” as Arendt later described) friendship—the kind of friendship that prompted her, in January 1975, to write a remembrance of him in The New Yorker.
What is curious to me is how we might value something like this; the friendship of two great thinkers and the thinking that occurred as a result.
Perhaps in a library somewhere there is a dissertation on the topic, where someone has somehow explained how each of their thoughts influenced the other; the work of the poet and the work of the philosopher.
But I think the more interesting take is that we might not know the return on investment (ROI) of their relationship. We might not ever know all the ways in which each idea they shared with the other rippled, swayed, knotted, and tangled together to make a difference in our world.
Of course we have the poems and the books, but none of us were there to grasp the in-between.
We can’t see the invisible dance of ideas, nor the entanglements of thought. We can’t really know which line in the book or poem is better formed or different because of a conversation that happened.
But it is why the publisher’s party mattered.
The gathering offered the opportunity for two people to notice each other. It offered the place where the ideas they might form together could spark.
That sort of spark—the kind that ignites new ideas—is precisely what matters now.
No one needs to spell out the challenges of our time. We get it. We know. Some people are doom-dressing. Things have been a little on the dark side, causing Elodie Marteau to write in 2sight recently about embracing the shadowy atmosphere and wondering: “What if darkness was [...] revealed to foster more realistic, protopian, euphoria-like paths forward? A nyctophilia-inspired approach through Dark Optimism, Dark Ecology and Dark Euphoria, allowing us to ‘be comfortable in the dark,’ yet not blind.”
In other words, as long as things seem to be so dark, might we find hope together with each other in the shadows?
There is beauty in that thought, isn’t there?
So there has never been a better time to have a party—a gathering, a festival—to bring together thinkers of all kinds. To sift through the shadows. To meet in the dark. To set up a space in which the likes of Hannah Arendt might notice a well-dressed W. H. Auden (his suit in later years worn thin, according to Arendt—was he already fixing as a fashion flex back then?) across the room; or across the garden; or across the flickers of starlight. A place where each of us might be invited to be together in a space that sets us apart from our busy lives. A place that protects us from work to be done for a little while.
So we can simply think.
Or better yet: dream.
One might say there are other places to do this. But…really? In our daily lives there really isn’t time for the “weird accidental chemistry of the universe to happen…” We’re often busy with other things. At work it’s client deadlines, timesheets, and billable hours...the thinking that gets done, gets done about work things.
We think about the things our clients hire us to be thinking about.
We’re rarely dreaming.
But remember the challenges of our time?
The sparks need to fly.
Our future beckons us to reimagine things. It encourages us to turn our faces away from the usual, and toward each other.
Consider the words of Koleka Putuma, the South African poet, who says, “for those of us whose lives are placed adjacent to, or somewhere where the microscope cannot find us, cannot locate where the story begins, cannot write our stories [without tragedy]...”
Her words invite us to write stories that allow the microscope to find life.
It is always the responsibility of those that hold the microscope to see what needs to be revealed.
We hold the microscope.
And the good news is that our story is unfolding even as we write it. Things haven’t turned out completely, not yet.
They’re still turning. As Claire-Louise Bennett’s character surmises in her book Pond, “quite often I’m terribly disappointed by how things turn out, but that’s usually my own fault for the simple reason that I’m too quick to conclude things have turned out as fully as it is possible for them to turn, when, in fact, quite often, they are still on the turn and have some way to go before they have turned out completely.”
She is not the only person to think a thought like that. Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself (Section 51) points out how “the moment of ‘Now’ incessantly empties the past and present in order to open a new ‘fold of the future.’”
Whitman imagined life as a series of unfoldings; the analysis says, “each and every moment is a new birth, a new world of ‘Now’ unfolding before the awake senses of all those who are embodied in that moment.”
So our opportunity together is to continue to turn. To “unfold out of the folds.” To stand in the dark while we look for the light.
While we look for that spark.
As we welcome the intersections, overlaps, frictions, textures, feelings, sounds, and collaborations that will help us create our new worlds, whether virtual, spiritual, physical, or metaphysical.
Where should we begin?
What if we dream together in a villa overlooking the Atlantic, and the forests known in the ancient world as the Luna Mons, “the mountains of the Moon,” the legendary retreat of Diana the Huntress?
What if we meet each other as Auden and Arendt did?
What if we spark a friendship? The kind of relationship that, as the writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Four Loves) suggests, is the highest form of spiritual love.
What if buying a ticket to dream together in a place like this, with business leaders, economists, policy-makers, technologists, scientists, artists, and activists, with a shared desire to reimagine business and ourselves, is more like making a wish? More like tossing a coin into the “dark, glimmering water” of a well?
What if, in the end, making that wish is precisely what will matter the most?
We might never know all the ways in which each idea we share with each other will ripple, and sway, and knot, and tangle together to make a difference in our world(s).
That will unfold.
“Whatever view we hold, it must be shown…perhaps, in fact, we never are alone.” — W. H. Auden
Shannon Mullen O’Keefe is a writer and strategist, the founder and chief curator of The Museum of Ideas, and a member of the House community.
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