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Arts and Letters

Red Dragonflies

The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Erik Butler
Stanford, pp. 72, $14.00

The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer
Polity, pp. 186, $16.95

The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception, and Communication Today

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Wieland Hoban
Polity, pp. 100, $14.95

Lob der Erde: Eine Reise in den Garten

Byung-Chul Han
Ullstein, pp. 160, $27.00

Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer
Polity, pp. 110, $16.95

Saving Beauty

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer
Polity, pp. 120, $12.95

The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer
Polity, pp. 120, $16.95

Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity

Byung-Chul Han, trans. Daniel Steuer
Polity, pp. 128, $16.95


Writing for the Nation in 2021, Byung-Chul Han recalls attending a Christmas “midnight mass that took place despite the pandemic.” The Mass raised the philosopher’s spirits, but he was disappointed that the thurible was not smoking, that it hung there empty of incense. Han recalls, “I asked myself: Is there also a strict ban on incense during the pandemic? Why?” Later, Han discovered there was no holy water when he tried to dip his fingers in a dry stoup. Hand sanitizer sat by the church door instead. Han’s essay draws attention to arbitrary curtailments that sometimes attended the pandemic, in the Church and throughout society.

The missing incense may remind devoted readers of Han’s books of a poetic chapter at the heart of The Scent of Time. There Han describes the traditional Chinese incense clock. Instead of measuring time with numerals and hands, or with sand running through an hourglass, or with a sundial’s shadow, it measures time by slowly burning through a patterned arrangement of incense in a small, lattice-covered box. Instead of ticking off uniform increments, the fragrance draws one into an extended present, a contemplative sense of time. The incense clock gives time a “scent.”

The empty thurible may also remind Han’s readers of The Disappearance of Rituals, where he holds that rituals, and especially religious rituals, “render time habitable. They even make it accessible, like a house.” Incense at Mass draws embodied creatures into contemplative attention so that their prayers can rise with the wisps of pungent smoke. Such experiences of lingering contemplation often elude us in our age of “whizzing” time.

It is no surprise that Han missed the incense, especially at midnight Mass, when Catholics expect all the smells and bells. Perhaps Han even offers a subtle warning to the Church by noting the missing incense, a warning not to neglect Her contemplative practices in the current liturgy wars. The incense reminds us to keep time holy, to participate contemplatively in the Mass. If Han is right that anxiety and hyperactivity are the “signature afflictions” of our age, as he claims in The Burnout Society, then ritual and liturgy are not nostalgic relics but needful medicines in the “field hospital” that Pope Francis calls the Church to be.

Han is the rare philosopher to gain an American readership beyond the academy. His appeal has much to do with how he helps his readers not only to understand the times better but also to live better in them. Born in South Korea, Han liked to disassemble gadgets as a youth and initially studied for a career in material sciences. But he also had a contemplative streak. In 2018’s Lob der Erde (Praise the Earth), which remains untranslated into English, Han recounts growing up in Seoul near a polluted river and the railroad tracks. He loved the dragonflies, especially the red dragonflies, that congregated there. He also grew up near a Catholic church where a kind nun often gave Han and his sister some of the flowers she arranged as altar decorations. Han prayed a daily rosary. This perhaps contributed to his later fascination with the “stabilizing” power of familiar things held “close to the heart,” a major concern of Non-things, and to his quip that smartphones are the new rosaries to which we devote our harried attention and restless days. As a young man, Han emigrated to Germany without telling his parents that he planned to study philosophy rather than metallurgy. He continues to live in Germany, where he has published around thirty short books, many of which have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Italian, Chinese, French, and English.

Across his many books, Han holds that the digital societies of the developed world have largely lost their capacity for contemplation. They find themselves plagued by hyperactivity leading to exhaustion, by distraction giving way to indifference. While concerns about restlessness and inattention are as old as history, Han writes that the constant distractions and allurements of the digital age have brought about a shift, one underpinned by a culture of continual self-optimization and self-gratification. Many of us embrace this as a culture of freedom. Yet shorn of shape or rhythm, of any contemplative lingering, it often results in burnout via relentless achievement (at work, at the gym, on social media), entertainment (by binge-watching on Netflix), or self-stimulation (by scrolling endlessly through pornographic images).

It is thus apt that the English title of Han’s breakthrough book is The Burnout Society. Han insists that this kind of burnout is not the result of coercion, at least not in the usual sense. It does not result from an internalized “or else” injunction to achieve, from a disciplinary “should.” It instead results from an alluring “can.” “Prohibitions, commandments, and the law,” Han claims, “are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation.” Han illustrates this paradoxical sort of “positive violence” with a plea that the artist Jenny Holzer once blazoned on a Times Square billboard, a blasphemous statement in that great American shrine to the consumerist “can”: “Protect Me From What I Want.”

Probably the most frequent criticism of Han is that he overstates this shift from “should” to “can.” After all, plenty of coercion and disciplinary violence remain in developed societies. New forms of digital coercion are becoming more overt, more encompassing. Nevertheless, his diagnosis recognizes something important in our societies and in ourselves. Reading Han forced me to take a hard look at the ways I embrace the logic of “can” in my life. Consider a commonplace like this: I wait outside my daughters’ dance studio in the aptly named Buena Vista, a sleepy little town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley near the Appalachian Trail. I crouch down on the sidewalk with my back against a brick wall to watch the setting sun wash one last receding wave of gold over the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is early spring, so the lower slopes are a deep verdant green, the upper slopes the bright lime of newly unfurled leaves, the crest still more bark than bud, all gradually slipping into twilit blues and purples. I left the studio’s waiting room to witness this. Instead of lingering with the beauty, though, instead of sinking into the moment, I soon feel the itch to pull my phone out of my pocket. I am not expecting anything important. It’s not as if my boss will fire me if I don’t keep an eye on the inbox this evening. It’s not a matter of “should” but perverse “can.” Addictive technological design and habituated compulsion are part of this, as Han well notes. But there is also a sense of possibility at work, a sense of being able to “achieve” something during this downtime—even if it is just responding to a buddy’s text or reading a clickbait story. The achievement is of course empty and comes at the cost of the fullness of the present moment, but out comes the phone anyway.

Han helped me better understand the problem, but I also nodded my head at his contemplative solution. He insists that contemplation is not a passive activity. It is a practice of focused, disciplined attention. It calls for “instruction in a particular way of seeing,” he explains in The Burnout Society. It involves openness but also the ability to winnow out distractions. This includes the thoughts and desires that draw us out of the moment or away from deep seeing. To focus on the sunset, I needed to resist the continual itch to pull out the smartphone. Contra the frequent conflation of contemplation and passivity, Han claims that hyperactivity is the true passivity since “one obeys every impulse or stimulus without resistance.” Contemplation calls instead for “the negativity of not-to,” the capacity to block out distractions, the capacity to withhold attention from some things so as to focus on others. Han turns to Zen, where “one attempts to achieve the pure negativity of not-to—that is, the void—by freeing oneself from rushing, intrusive Something.” In a society of “can,” the capacity not to live in constant distraction or always to rush from thing to thing, the capacity for contemplative focus, is key to preventing burnout and to recovering perspective, to recollecting oneself.

Some are skeptical of Han’s talk of burnout and contemplation, dismissing his steady output of very short books as high-theory self-help. Given the rates of mental illness in the developed world, however, it is no small thing if his books offer readers some wisdom that brings relief. And if they lend help, it is precisely not self-help. Han continually calls us out of self-absorption. He urges us to stop treating social get-togethers as networking opportunities, to stop confusing social media “friends” pumped for likes and shares with actual friendships, to break out of the narcissistic feedback loop of digital algorithms. He urges us to truly encounter the world and other people, to allow them to draw us out of ourselves and our projects, to allow them to remind us that we are not projects ourselves. The society of “can” is one of selfish “smoothness.” Its aesthetic, Han argues in Saving Beauty, is the smooth touch screen of the smartphone. It is always there to draw us away from the wider world, where things and people exceed or resist our smooth mediation, where they deny instant gratification, into a digital world where everything is just a finger swipe away.

My phone not only draws me away from sunsets; it also draws me away from my loved ones. In this regard, there is an ethical dimension in Han’s writings. “When a parent stares at a smartphone,” Han writes in Non-things, “the infant is deprived of the gaze.” In books such as The Expulsion of the Other, contemplative focus allows us to be newly aware of and attentive to others. It is necessary for substantial relationships of respect and care. The Expulsion of the Other ends with a chapter on listening as “a bestowal, a giving, a gift.” Across his books, Han calls for a “friendly” openness to others and the world.

Han studied theology as well as philosophy in Germany, and his writings explore the contemplative practices of Christianity alongside those of Zen. In The Scent of Time, Han endorses the traditional Christian view that the vita contemplativa gives intentionality and resolve to the vita activa. He quotes the Benedictine motto “ora et labora” and Saint Gregory the Great’s claim that “it is often useful if the soul returns from the contemplative to the active life, in such a way that the flame of contemplation which has been lit in the heart passes on all its perfection to activity.” Han defends Christian contemplation against Martin Heidegger, who adapted his notion of contemplative Gelassenheit from Meister Eckhart but largely disparaged Christian contemplation and, through some etymological contortions, claimed it was actually about “categorizing” and “analytic seeing.” In this case at least, Heidegger’s etymology obscures what is at play phenomenologically. “Despite his closeness to mysticism,” Han claims in The Scent of Time, “Heidegger does not address the mystical dimension of [Christian] 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.”

In The Disappearance of Rituals, Han claims that, at their best, “forms of ritual, such as manners, make possible both beautiful behaviour among humans and a beautiful, gentle treatment of things.” Han offers both the Mass and the Japanese tea ceremony as examples. He claims, “Every religious practice is an exercise in attention.” Han’s approach to the contemplative practices of religion is often philosophical or sociological. He emphasizes the practice of attention, the way this offers a salutary asceticism of the ego, rather than attending to the divine or to the sacred. Han’s discussions of the latter are often carefully ascribed to traditions rather than endorsed as live options, as his options. The Christian tradition views contemplation as a lingering with God; Zen tradition cultivates an open friendliness to the world. Are we to practice these traditions? Maybe. Han often presents them winsomely. Yet The Disappearance of Rituals begins with a disclaimer that Han is not calling for a nostalgic return to the rituals of the past. So maybe not. In this regard, Han often seems more like a continental “post-secular thinker” than a religious philosopher: not the kind that strip-mines Christianity for radical politics, but the kind that continually returns to religious themes in a coyly ambiguous way. There are much worse things, but at times Han’s books left me wanting more.

Still, there have always been hints that for Han there is more, so it was not a total surprise that his recent books and interviews venture into the mystical. “Only in stillness,” Han observes in Non-things, “in the great silence, do we enter into a relation with the nameless, which exceeds us and in the face of which our efforts at appropriating the name seem feeble.” In what would be a heretical claim for many contemporary philosophers, Han holds that contemplation returns us to a world of rich presences, including the presence of the divine. In a recent interview, Han talks about visiting the churches of Rome by bicycle and how one of them “bestowed a now very rare experience of presence” of the Holy Spirit as “nothing other than the other.” (This may sound like postmodern lingo, but it is also a traditional formulation. Saint Augustine speaks of the divine light as aliud, aliud valde in Book VII of his Confessions.)

Lob der Erde seems to mark a turning point. Han’s most personal and intimate book to date, it offers meditations about tending a small flower garden in Berlin. Working in the soil and cultivating the plants was an unexpectedly profound experience for Han. He became newly convinced that “everything that is is magical and mysterious.” The garden rejuvenated his faith in God. Its fragrances were divine incense. Its blooms were traces of Eden. Reflections on his Catholic childhood, the death of his father, and the children he never had grew from his work among the flowers that bloom, fade, and resurrect. Han’s Berlin garden especially focused on winter-blooming plants, a fitting symbol of life-giving contemplation amongst the wider alienation of hypermodernity. The book is marked by a profound sense of the sacred—a desire to “praise the earth,” as the title suggests—and an exasperated frustration at egotistical desecration. In other books, for instance, Han decries the way in which cathedrals and temples, long visited as “ritual sites,” have now become “tourist sights.” In Lob der Erde, Han recalls an angry exchange with tourists clicking selfies (which epitomize contemporary narcissism for Han) in front of the altar in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Naples while he was trying to pray. He writes that in that moment he understood Jesus’ anger with the money changers. He also recalls climbing the holy mountain Inwangsan while visiting his dying father in Seoul. Glad to leave the “gray concrete” streets behind, he picks winter jasmine on the way and leaves it as an offering in the shamanistic shrine, to gods Han says are barely noticed any longer in a city that idolizes money. He claims, however, that the gods of nature remain, whether human beings attend to them or not.

Lob der Erde struck a chord with me. Gardening played a part in my return to faith after college. I grew up on a small dairy farm. I loved working with the cattle and helping my grandmother in the vegetable garden. I was also a pious child with a mystical streak who liked to pray in the empty village church. In junior high, though, depressed milk prices finally led my family to sell the herd, if not the farm. My grandmother died. The garden became a chore. The arrival of the Internet in rural Pennsylvania drew me away from the living world. By the time I arrived in college, I was already losing my faith and sinking into egoism. Late in my junior year, though, on a charter bus heading down I-81 for a school trip, I set aside my copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, that strange postmodern evocation of alienation and paranoia, and stared out the splotched window at the spring grass in the median. I yearned to kneel in the median and sink my fingers into the dirt, to lean over and smell the grass. I yearned to pray. I have tended a garden of some form or another, small or large, almost every year since that bus trip. The charges of romantic escapism sometimes leveled at Han will undoubtedly increase once Lob der Erde is translated. But I am grateful for the earnest truth-telling of this book and his other recent works. The Han of Non-things is right: we increasingly “no longer dwell on the earth and under the sky but on Google Earth and in the Cloud,” and we thereby risk losing ourselves, the earth, and God.

The final chapter of Vita Contemplativa returns to this theme, claiming that the decline of religion stems from a decline of contemplation: “Today, souls no longer pray. It is the soul’s hyperactivity that accounts for the demise of religious experience. The crisis of religion is a crisis of attention.” Han concludes by suggesting that Romantics such as Novalis and Hölderlin can teach us to contemplate once more the signs of the divine in the world around us, and this contemplation can in turn lead us to care for that world: “It is a mistake to reject as rapturous, untimely, or regressive the Romantic longing for a connection with the whole, with nature, with the universe.” Here, too, Han writes in a more openly mystical and religious way. Vita Contemplativa, which will be published in English translation in 2024, reads as a synthesis and expansion of Han’s earlier work on contemplation. Han discusses the Sabbath and festivity and offers his most sustained rebuttal to date of Hannah Arendt’s influential critique of contemplation. But the renewed Romanticism of the work’s final chapter reads like a précis for a new stage in Han’s writings, one with roots in his garden.

Despite this recent mystical turn, Han seems pessimistic about the prospects of institutional Christianity, at least in the West. In an interview last year, Han observed that “everywhere the Christian narrative is losing its power.” With the missing incense in mind, one wonders if a reason for Han’s pessimism is that the Church has too often left its contemplative riches tarnishing in the undercroft or moldering on a bookshelf.

The Church has not neglected all its contemplative practices and wisdom, of course. The incense still burns in many parishes. The holy water has returned to the stoup. When I spend time praying before the monstrance or tabernacle, “lingering with God in loving attentiveness,” I leave the church calmer and more composed, better prepared to attend to loved ones and strangers and sunsets. For a time, at least, I do not feel the itch to pull out my phone. God is still there. The Church’s contemplative practices are still there too, even if they are too often neglected or poorly presented. They are spiritual medicine for the burnout society. Han recently said that he visits church daily to pray, though often at odd times: “When people leave the Church, I enter.” Pessimistic or not, he is a son of the Church with wisdom to offer her.

Steven Knepper is Bruce C. Gottwald, Jr. ’81 Chair for Academic Excellence at Virginia Military Institute. He is the co-author with Ethan Stoneman and Robert Wyllie of a critical introduction to Byung-Chul Han forthcoming from Polity.