I took a spontaneous trip to Mecca for twelve hours of philosophy at the end of January. By Mecca, I mean New York. By twelve hours of philosophy, I mean twelve hours of philosophy.
French Institutes all over the world held their twelfth annual international Night of Ideas. In Argentina, they contemplated the beach. In Iran, they took a literary journey. In Singapore, they talked about urban spaces. I learned about La Nuit des Idées the Wednesday before it was to happen, booked a flight that afternoon, and headed to Brooklyn with my philosophy posse for the 16-hour detour our schedules would allow (apologies to all the friends I failed to see–I’ll be back for longer and soon).
There are only two other places that have ever felt as packed and claustrophobic to me as this night in the Brooklyn Public Library: music festivals where I’ve been right in front of the headlining band onstage and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I was shocked. The talks and discussions were standing-room only well into the wee hours of the morning. The demand was so high that almost nothing ran on schedule–at first. They canceled some events to get things back on track. And that strategy worked at times. But the audience disappointment was vocal and visceral. Imagine waiting in line for thirty minutes or longer, wedging into a seminar room so packed that people are climbing onto window ledges and sitting on each other’s laps, only to learn that the talk you were there for was canceled. The passion surprised me.
Every bit of the Brooklyn Public Library was in use: lectures, seminars, musical performances, chess games, movie showings, activist networking, yoga, dancing, art, readings, marathon readings–and those were just the scheduled gatherings. The conversations were formal at times, informal more often, and organic whenever possible. I had never expected to see so many people, let alone so many different kinds of people, come out for twelve hours of philosophy on a Saturday night. And apparently, neither had the organizers.
And maybe if I were not so much in awe of the spectacle, I might have found some reason to complain. But I still have none. What made people, such different, different people, come out en masse like that? At this event, I discovered not only a diversity of ages, races, genders, orientations, incomes, intellects, nationalities, lifestyles, tastes, and education, but also a diversity in ideas. To take one example, there were those participants passing out fliers about activism related to the Trump administration, but there were also conservatives (of US, South American, and European varieties), monarchists, anarchists, oligarchists, socialists, and at least one totalitarian I encountered. (There may have been others. It wasn’t possible to meet everyone.)
Why did so many thousands of people attend? Why did they stay?
Some of it might have been posturing, but that’s an awfully long time to posture. Dismissing anyone there as a faux philosopher or wannabe thinker misses the point. They could have postured just as easily in any of a hundred other joints in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or elsewhere.
They stayed. Something in them longed for more no matter what their initial reasons were for attending. The conversations were genuine. The questions, however layered at times in irony and the zeitgeist-Brooklyn cool du jour, were real ones about justice, and politics, about the United States and its future, about the philosophical life, the practical life, about what it means to be a human being, about what it means to be a good one.
I was glad that the environment was so chaotic: it led to an equally chaotic and free exchange of ideas. It led to an evening of sleep deprivation and shared conversation. And it led to the feeling that that night anything was possible.