Paul A. Fleming, German Studies/Comparative Literature, recounts an old story that’s been told and retold many times. It comes from Herodotus’ Histories, an account of the Egyptian King Psammetichus’ capture by the Persians. As part of the king’s humiliation, the Persians parade his family in front of him—first his daughter as a slave and then his son on his way to execution. While everyone else around him wails, King Psammetichus shows no emotion, until a beggared old drinking buddy passes, upon which he begins to weep and lament.
“The question that has perplexed and engaged so many,” says Fleming, “is why does he weep when he weeps?”
Interpretations abound from philosophers Michel de Montaigne to Ernst Bloch to Walter Benjamin and more. It’s one of the crucial stories that Fleming uses in a new book in progress about the use of the anecdote as a mode of thought. He describes it as “thinking in stories.”
“What the anecdote does is it enters our space. We have to confront it, and it can challenge how we view the world,” he says. “The story of Psammetichus is not about empathy. It’s about enigma. Why does he weep when he weeps? What interests me is the use of the anecdote as a way of thinking, as a nonconceptual realm of thought—one that’s so decisive for defining our experience of the world.”
Studying the Anecdote
The power of the anecdote comes from its specificity—how it captures a particular experience in contrast to a concept or abstraction. “My individual experience of happiness, of mourning, et cetera will never be grasped by the concept,” Fleming says. “That’s why the story is so important.”
Fleming’s book looks at the use of anecdote in theorists’ work from Michel de Montaigne, writing in the sixteenth century, to the present. “It explores the anecdote from the perspective of three concentric circles: evidence, rhetoric, and history, that is, the relationship between the anecdote and the grand historical arc,” he says.
Walter Benjamin, a key theorist for Fleming’s work, saw the anecdote as one of the few forms that could disrupt history and change its course. A German Jewish philosopher, Benjamin was writing in Parisian exile in the 1930s, when the world in Europe was collapsing around him. “He’s the one who says that the power of the anecdote is not about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Rather, the anecdote intrudes into your space and creates the possibility of upsetting your world. He calls it ‘the street insurrection of the anecdote,’ and he embraces it,” Fleming explains. “For Benjamin, it’s a necessary measure to have any hope of changing things.”
Other philosophers have pointed to the risks of the anecdote. Theodor Adorno, a close friend of Benjamin, thought the anecdote dangerous. In his 1959 address, “What Does it Mean to Work through the Past?” (for a conference on education, hosted by the German Coordinating Council of Organizations for Christian-Jewish Cooperation in Wiesbaden, Germany) Adorno uses a troubling anecdote to illustrate its limits. As Fleming tells it, after a post-war staging of the adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, a friend of Adorno’s overheard someone say, ‘Well, at least they shouldn’t have killed that girl.’
“For Adorno this comment shows the beginning of insight,” Fleming says, “in so far as one begins to see the horror of the Holocaust. But at the same time, it blocks all further insight because it focuses only on the one girl, ignoring the six million other Jews that were killed.”
Whether we side with Benjamin or Adorno, Fleming says the use, power, and potential for abuse of the anecdote is everywhere in our world. “You see in politics, it’s used all the time,” he says. “Love it or hate it. It’s reality, a reality that needs to be confronted and addressed.”
“What the anecdote does is it enters our space. We have to confront it, and it can challenge how we view the world. The story of Psammetichus is not about empathy. It’s about enigma.”
Story, the Humanistic Inquiry
The current moment demands our attention to the use of stories. Fleming continues, “What’s very clear in the world today is that stories play a huge role, whether they are rational or not, whether they are true or not.”
Take climate change as an example. “The science is there, the facts are there,” Fleming says. “We need to figure out other ways to get people to change the way they think and act. More science isn’t going to do it. We need other tools. This is where humanistic inquiry and arguments and stories come in. What is the story? What is the rhetoric that works and doesn’t work?”
The humanities have a long history of studying just that. “We come from a field that’s trained in complexity, contradiction, irrationality, and we have a long tradition of crafting and analyzing rhetoric, going back to the ancients,” he says. “We can use these tools to help understand the world and to offer some solutions.”
How German History and Thought Shed Light on Current World Affairs
Fleming was led to study German literature and philosophy because he needed to learn another language fast after Ancient Greek. “I was a junior in college and wanted to work with this one professor for my senior thesis,” Fleming says. “She said, ‘You have to learn a modern language, and you have to do it now.’”
Fleming’s professor suggested German because there were opportunities to live and learn the language in Germany post-graduation. “That’s exactly what I did,” Fleming says. “There are lots of contingencies that go into how these decisions are made,” he laughs.
Since then, Fleming has been amazed time and again at how German history and thought relates to and illuminates current world affairs. “In the world today, there’s a profound crisis of liberal democracy, here and in Europe,” Fleming says. “The German tradition has an entire body of work in the form of the Frankfurt School that has analyzed similar situations from early Weimar through exile in the U.S. This school of thought is truly interdisciplinary in examining the rise of authoritarianism, the crisis of capitalism, the crisis of subject formation, the internal threats to democracy, the new questions that arise with mass media, and much more.”
It follows that there is a lot to learn from German texts and history—making Cornell’s Institute for German Cultural Studies (IGCS), which Fleming directs, a valuable resource. “IGCS is a crucial forum at Cornell for collaborative, interdisciplinary work coming out of the German tradition in relation to Music, Jewish Studies, Government, History, Comparative Literature, and many other departments and programs,” Fleming says.
Structures like the IGCS and Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, for which Fleming will start serving as director in 2017, play a decisive role in sustaining humanistic inquiry. “There are a lot of pressures on students today to treat college like a vocational school,” Fleming says. “I understand that, but it can’t be the sole purpose of higher education in our society. Look at the past year, 2016. We need the humanities, particularly when it comes to educating toward democracy, for critical reflections on media and political life, for understanding the complexity of the world in its historical depth and cultural breadth. We need the humanities more than ever.”