Professor Eric Keenaghan
While watching a documentary, my husband first heard the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt express her love for an American truism, Stop and think. I was happy that he became just as thrilled as I was over Arendt’s love for a simple turn of phrase…and its deeper significance. One cannot truly think unless one ceases the banal activities and drudgery that take up too much of our brief lives. Such a simple idea is foundational to all of Arendt’s work, from The Human Condition (1958) to her unfinished masterpiece The Life of the Mind (posthumously published, 1978). Many scholars interpret her premise as mandating philosophers’ retreat from everyday life into the proverbial Ivory Tower. Such a mode of thinking would be cold, dispassionate—judgment from afar. Nothing could be further from the truth, though! For Arendt, thinking does not mean withdrawing from life. Instead, it simply opens a space amidst one’s living. Only then can we imagine the world differently, and thus reconnect with it. Thinking is intertwined with emotion because of its imaginative dimensions. As writers and artists, my husband and I have long appreciated how hard it is to stop and think, in precisely Arendt’s sense.
My love for Arendt’s philosophy is on par with my love for American modernist Kay Boyle’s fiction. It is no coincidence that the philosopher figures so prominently in my thinking about the novelist in my essay “The Political Experiment of ‘Pot-Boylers’: Thinking, Feeling, and Romance in Kay Boyle’s French Resistance Thriller Avalanche.” Like Arendt, Boyle is often misinterpreted. Much of the little bit of existing criticism about her focuses on her fictions’ relationship to sentiment and emotion. I have long regarded Boyle, though, as one of the great writers not just of feeling but also of thinking. As a modernist, how could she not be? She regularly used such narrative devices as free indirect discourse and stream-of-consciousness to convey her protagonists’ thoughts and feelings. Even when she wrote more “objectively,” her shorter form fiction and full-length novels tend to use impressionistic descriptions, thus projecting her characters’ inner lives upon their environments.
These were stock-in-trade techniques for many “experimental” writers of Boyle’s generation. Associated with the Paris-based little magazine transition during the twenties, Boyle was regularly printed alongside such noted literary innovators as James Joyce, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. Almost two decades later, when the Nazis invaded Austria and later France, Boyle began to hone her psychological fiction into a more social, even political form. She fled Europe with her family shortly after the Occupation began. When she returned to her native United States, she believed that if she could reach mainstream American readers, she could convince them that the French did not succumb without a fight. Boyle became a de facto emissary for the Resistance. Her fiction imagined what it was like for a woman to commit to, to intelligently and emotionally find one’s way to, actively opposition to the Occupation. In Avalanche (1944), especially, Boyle used serialized mass fiction, tempered with a healthy dose of modernist narrative techniques, to realize her political objective. At midcareer, her experiment was no longer to experiment with literary forms for the sake of aesthetic innovation. She now was experimenting with ways of politicizing modernists’ tools, by applying them to a political story that would reach a larger market.
In my larger body of work, “The Political Experiment of ‘Pot-Boylers’” is an anomalous essay. It’s my own critical experiment. Poetry, not fiction, is my usual subject matter. French Resistance histories and stories have long fascinated me, but, until now, I only have indulged privately in my reading of the writers and visual artists who participated in those efforts. And although Arendt has been a private touchstone for my own thinking for the last decade, I haven’t featured her prominently in my criticism, either. From start to finish, then, this essay has been a project intended to bring some of my beloved subjects together into conversation. Whatever scholarly gravitas it has, I see it mostly as a labor of love. Indeed, it is so rare that we get to stop and think about the texts and ideas we truly love, especially when they fall outside our usual fields and specializations. Yet, isn’t that the original reason why most of us entered academia?