Meet the author: Martha Nussbaum

I read Martha Nussbaum’s book “Not for Profit: why democracy needs the humanities”. I’m passionate about the Arts and Humanities and all related subjects. You may not have noticed it, but these are under threat – no, I’m serious.

Culture, the Humanities, and related subjects are deemed “not necessary”, “superfluous”, “money wasters”, and worse. Even before the lending crisis brought the world economy practically to a stand-still, governments were already drastically cutting back investments in the Arts, Humanities, your local library, swimming pool, theatre, small museums, education.

Things only got worse since then. Friends throughout the world, from the EU to the US via Australia, Asia, and other nooks and crannies, mailed and wrote about further cuts to cultural and educational budgets. So a book trying to clarify why humanity and democracy need these so-called money-wasters is read by me.

Martha Nussbaum’s book was not an easy read. Sometimes, I found the arguments and writing difficult to follow. But despite it being no straightforward read and me not agreeing with everything, it made me think hard. So when early this year, word got round that Martha Nussbaum would visit the country to promote a book and give an interview, I booked a ticket straight away. Tickets sold out in no time.

Unlike previous “meet the author” events (like f.i. “Il faut“), this one was hosted at one of Leiden University’s venues. I arrived early and got myself a tea. That took a while and when I finally sat down at a table, I noticed the queue for coffee and tea growing, growing, growing. I also noticed an overpowering smell. No, not some weird perfume: the particular brand of jasmine tea smelled like a large bunch of freesias.

In front of me was a picture of the local academic world in gowns parading through a street. It fitted the atmosphere. The public seemed slightly aloof, the building clinical – it all had that academical look and feel I’m not fond of.

After drinking the jasmine tea with freesia smell, I wandered into the modern auditorium. I found a seat. The backs of the seats in front of me were taller than me. The next seat offered a view of a pillar. I finally found a seat on a last row, which offered a view of the interview table. I felt sorry for students and professors damned to use this place.

The mediator started the interview by reading part of a Walt Whitman poem. I’m no fan of his poetry. I don’t think the mediator would have survived one of my English lit lectures – because of the rendering. Martha Nussbaum liked it all.

I can’t cover all the topics which were discussed, but if you want an impression of Martha Nussbaum, read her book on why we need the Humanities. She turned out to be one of the few authors you actually “get to know” through their books. The person who “talked” to me through “Not for Profit” was the person being interviewed.

Subjects discussed included why the Arts and Culture matter and people who inspired and influenced the writer, like Nelson Mandela and similar leaders. The “Can’t Breath!” protests; the importance of a nation or state versus something like the EU, how aid to third-world countries does not help these – bar aid to combat a crisis like Ebola; the books and themes Martha Nussbaum is currently working on and researching, were all talked about.

The last quarter of an hour or so, a few members of the public were allowed to ask questions. Some extremely gushy American fan needed quite a lot of time to frame a decent question on a US subject. A few members of the public seated close to me, sighed deeply in disgust.

Interesting was a question on the importance of the internet and social networks and how these may connect people in a positive way. Martha Nussbaum’s response seemed to indicate she isn’t much taken with the internet and social networks as a means to connect people.

Another question was about anger not only being negative, but sometimes empowering change. It was one of the few moments which actually seemed related to the promoted book “Political Emotions”.

Martha Nussbaum responded that she’s working on a book about anger and that her research has changed her view. She is less positive about anger and less convinced it can have a positive aspect or effect. There was also a remark about detective stories being all about revenge and violence. The reason for Martha Nussbaum’s conviction apparently is that anger, revenge, retribution do not help the (dead) victim. These emotions also do not work towards preventing the original mistake or crime from happening in the future.

Sometimes, during this interview, I was struck by the discrepancies between responses and the real world or reality: at times things were very academic. Often, my views and Ms Nussbaum’s opinions differed. For instance, her view of the European Union, its history, its nations, its people, seemed not to differ from the sometimes highly simplified view of many an American who has never left the US and is not interested in Europe.

All in all, this was an interesting interview but did not add anything to my impression of Ms Nussbaum. It was thought-provoking, but reading any of her books has a similar effect. As a “meet the author”, I think all my previous “meet the author” events were far more entertaining and interesting.

Interested in an earlier interview with Martha Nussbaum: interview.
Want to know more about the author including a list of her works: Martha Nussbaum

“Not for Profit: why democracy needs the humanities”, Martha Nussbaum, Princeton University Press, 2011. Translated in many languages and available through Amazon.

“Political Emotions: why love matters for justice”, Martha Nussbaum, The Beknap Press, 2013. Translated in many languages and available through Amazon.

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