Three Minute Interview

Interview by Mark Sarvas for The Elegant Variation

We recently added Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit (Yale) to a place of honor atop our recommended sidebar, and now those of you in New York will have the chance to see him person. He’ll be reading from and signing this, dare we say, important work next week on October 30 at the National Arts Club. In the meantime, we thought we’d pique your curiosity by running a few questions by our new favorite deep thinker.

Nobility of Spirit – both your version and the version of your hero Thomas Mann – exalts its readers to aim high, to drink deeply at the well of the Great Thinkers and, above all, to challenge and re-examine (in the best Socratic fashion) our own decisions about where we place our greatest value. In what way do you think such a high-minded (and some might say old-fashioned) cri de coeur speaks to the modern condition, and how can it hope to compete the consolations of easy entertainment and instant information?

I have added to my book an “Author’s note” in which I quote from a famous letter of Machiavelli which he wrote to his friend Vettori on December 10, 1513. In this letter he writes about the life he is living and that at the end of every day he goes to his study and starts reading the works of the Great Thinkers: “I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.” Machiavelli understood that the Great Thinkers, the real great thinkers, are by definition our Most Steadfast Friends! They are always with us, they never let us down, we can completely trust them, they know what we are talking about, they understand our emotions, our experiences, our troubles and worries – and they have something to say, they have some advise, they will never lie to us; with them we are never alone… It is hard to imagine a greater consolation “in times of trouble” than to have these friends. Sure, quite often when we speak with them, they may tell us “you must change your life,” you must aim high for the very simple but profound reason that to be free is not only our greatest gift, but also our greatest responsibility: to be free, to make life worth living; to give it meaning.

Remember what Socrates said at his trial where he finally got the death sentence: “I shall never stop practicing philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone I meet. I shall go on saying, in my usual way: my very good friend, you are an Athenian and belong to a city which is the greatest and most famous in the world for its wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquire as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding an d the perfection of your soul?” This cri de coeur indeed is twenty five hundred years old – and it is still the best comment on the fraud of Wall Street gang and the obsession with money in our society.

My book is not an academic book, in some sense it is even an anti-academic book; it consists of four stories, inspired by my best friends, in which I aim to make a forgotten ideal, a way of life, the nobility of spirit, visible again. In some sense it can be read as a ‘self help’ book but what it has to offer is the opposite of the consolations of easy entertainment. The so called consolations of our society are a lie; it’s kitsch, nothing more; there is no truth in it – and we know. All the happiness stuff forgot to tell you about one inescapable dimension of life: its tragic side. One of my Best Friends, Spinoza, is right and honest when he tells us about our struggle to give meaning to our life: “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

You come back again and again to Mann, and you’ve built much of your life around his example. What would you advise a young reader staring with trepidation at The Magic Mountain or Doctor Faustus?

That there is much less need to stare with trepidation at great books than at life itself; in fact, these books are there to help you to get through life. The difference between what amusement offers and what the muses have to offer is that the former is an escape from reality, the latter helps you to understand reality. Nietzsche was right when he encouraged in his brilliant essay “Schopenhauer as educator” young people to read great literature as it offers a much more profound education than universities have to offer. Do read The Magic Mountain when you’re young and realize; the protagonist is me! It’s my story! I have to discover what has meaning, and what doesn’t; what it means to be human; what love is; what time is; what life is all about…. Do read Doctor Faustus and it will help you understand what art is, what it can and cannot do; what the responsibilities of an artist are…

Please tell us something about the Nexus Institute, its mission, its history?

Thomas Mann as my educator had introduced me to the world and spirit of European humanism; the intellectual-spiritual tradition from Socrates, Cicero, Petrach, Erasmus, Montaigne, Cervantes, Goethe, Nietzsche – and in our time Camus, Celan, Akhmatova, Saul Bellow, Joseph Brodsky. I met in my twenties a Jewish publisher, Johan Polak, how had survived the war and then decided to devote all his time, money, and energy to continue what Hitler had wanted to destroy: European culture. He started a publishing house and became the publisher of Marguerite Yourcenar, Nabokov, Kafka, Cannetti and others. It was Johan who encouraged me to start a journal for European culture, “Nexus”; which in his perception had to be a kind of secular monastery to save what is best of our culture from our past and present for the future generations; to stimulate an open intellectual reflection on what is going on in our lives and society.

After we – finally, as we had no money! – had published the first issue, he died unexpectedly and I felt morally obliged to continue what we had started. By that time I had realized that I could never survive with only a non-academic, essayistic journal, so my wife and I took a deep breath and we started an independent cultural philosophical institute to organize public lectures and conferences. We started from a scratch; for many years we lived on a shoestring; but if you visit the website today can see a list of speakers including the daughter of Thomas Mann, Elisabeth, Sonia Gandhi, Juergen Habermas, Adam Zagajewski, George Steiner, and participants in our conferences: John Coetzee, Susan Sontag, Ian McEwan, Frank Fukuyama, Richard Rorty, Simon Rattle, Azar Nafisi, Arthur Danto, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Israel, and many others. The mission: to be that place where culture matters and people with different views and opinions sit together for an intelligent public conversation on the great questions, which are by definition everybody’s questions!

Who is the best writer we’ve never heard of?

Cristina Campo, Italian writer 1923 – 1977. She published one small book with poems; one book of letters; one small book of essays. Her essays are like the work of the Dutch painter Vermeer: a serene beauty, deeply profound. Every single word of hers is essential. She is by far the most brilliant essayist of the 20th century!

Ask yourself any question you like – but be sure to answer it as well!

Can faith move mountains? Yes, but always step by step.