Our editors discuss these books, along with others, on the extended segment of The Commonweal Podcast
December can feel like a tangled string of lights stuck on a maniacal strobe setting: shopping, rehearsals, parties, the “busy” time at work. Whatever else it may be, the oft-maligned commercialization of Christmas is a temporal phenomenon. It intensifies the hustle and bustle of daily life. You search for an elusive parking spot so you can search for an elusive gift. You grit your teeth beneath a forced smile of holiday cheer. The whole experience is more Sisyphus than St. Nicholas.
But December can also offer a radical break with the hustle and bustle. Advent promises a fuller sense of time. Contemplating Christ’s Incarnation in a particular time and place can help us be more fully present in ours. While it is a commonplace to contrast these two Decembers, the vita activa of the “holiday season” and the vita contemplativa of Christmas, our active and contemplative lives are not necessarily opposed to one another. In fact, they need each other. In Advent, prayerful expectation can lead to purposeful action, including service to those in need and grateful attention to friends and family. Without contemplation, action devolves into mere activity.
This last claim is at the heart of Byung-Chul Han’s philosophical project. A professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Han gained international attention in recent years for his diagnosis of the twenty-first century “burnout society.” In The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (translated by Daniel Steuer, Polity, $45, 120 pp.), Han explores a widespread experience of time “whizzing without a direction.” He advocates a renewed vita contemplativa that restores time as duration. We need to learn how to linger, how to be patient, how to be still. Against our instrumentalizing tendencies, we need to recover a “contemplative gaze” that “goes easy on [things,] letting them be in their own space or radiance.” Han writes short, dense chapters of philosophical exegesis, but some of his books’ best moments are poetic and evocative.
While Han draws on Martin Heidegger throughout The Scent of Time, he is more appreciative than Heidegger of Christianity. He takes Heidegger to task for failing to grasp the mystical tradition: “Heidegger does not address the mystical dimension of contemplation at all, according to which—as a lingering with God in loving attentiveness—it does not possess the categorizing and securing intentionality Heidegger supposes it has.” Han suggests that we need meaningful narratives and rhythms to counter “whizzing time.” He notes how “the medieval calendar did not just serve the purpose of counting days. Rather, it was based on a story in which the festive days represent narrative resting points. They are fixed points within the flow of time, providing narrative bonds so that the time does not simply elapse.” Again, Advent is a good time to recover the bonds still provided by the liturgical calendar. Han is perhaps ultimately more “post-secular” than religious, more interested in drawing resources from Christian tradition than in presenting it as a living faith, but he does commend its mediation of contemplation and action.
In Action Versus Contemplation: Why An Ancient Debate Still Matters (University of Chicago, $25, 256 pp.), Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule also pursue a mediation of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa, and they too draw on Christian (as well as Jewish and Shinto) tradition. One chapter, for instance, looks at the history of allegorical readings of Mary and Martha in which the former represents contemplation and the latter represents action. While premodern theologians prioritized contemplation, they “tended to stress the close relation between the two,” with Augustine seeing Martha as representing “worthy labor” and Mary representing “worthier quiet.” Origen simply saw them as the “two sides of the Christian life: ‘For there is no action without contemplation, or contemplation without action.’” Summit and Vermeule, like Han, argue that the opposition between action and contemplation became much sharper in modernity, with action gaining the privileged position.
Their diagnosis matches Han’s in several other ways: “Distraction, compulsive social networking, saturation by streams of images and sounds—every part of the media- and technology-driven industrial world catches us in its mad swirl. We hear about the end of reading, the end of solitude, the end of long-form journalism, and other cultural catastrophes that will follow.” Yet they are ultimately less polemical and decidedly more upbeat. Action Versus Contemplation grew out of an Introduction to Humanities course the authors co-taught at Stanford. They saw beneficial effects in both students’ lives and their own when that “versus” gave way to an “and.” They also see evidence—in student surveys, “locavore” movements, and emerging workplace cultures—that people are searching for new syntheses of action and contemplation. They make keen suggestions throughout the study about how the university should facilitate that search. In the final analysis, Summit and Vermeule would likely find Han too pessimistic about contemporary prospects for contemplation; Han, in turn, is a sharp critic of how the “flexible” workplace can mean a constant smartphone tether, and of how health obsession, social-media frenzy, and online binge watching can burn out even leisure.
Whatever the contemporary trends, poetry remains a sure teacher of the art of lingering. Since the Christmas season is a time for joyful contemplation, it would be particularly fitting to linger with the poems in Joy: 100 Poems (Yale, $25, 232 pp.). They testify to many different experiences of joy in many different poetic forms. Consider the variety just in the poems about dancing: William Carlos Williams’s “Danse Russe,” Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado,” John Berryman’s “King David Dances,” Patricia Smith’s “Hip-Hop Ghazal.” The collection is not saccharine (a suspicion, the editor Christian Wiman acknowledges, one might well have about such a collection). Several of its poems are about joy in the midst of great difficulty or sadness.
Many poems in Joy evoke a “contemplative gaze.” In Pablo Medina’s “A Poem for the Epiphany,” it snows “Because the clouds are singing / and trees have a right to exist.” Les Murray treats a similar topic in “Once in a Lifetime, Snow.” An Australian farmer steps outside and is “stopped short, and gazed / lit from below, / and half his wrinkles vanished / murmuring Snow.” At the end of the poem the farmer “tiptoed in / to a bedroom, smiled, / and wakened a murmuring child / and another child.” Such poetry can help us see the world anew—see it as charged with a significance beyond our use-value. Joy and wonder fuse. Time itself seems to stop short. Wiman, in a remarkable introductory essay, notes Kierkegaard’s claim that “joy is the present tense” but concludes, “It might be truer to say that joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.” Joy to the world, indeed.