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Saying Good-by to Hannah

Her last book was to be called The Life of the Mind and was intended to be a pendant to The Human Condition (first called The Vita Activa), where she had scrutinized the triad of labor, work, and action: man as animal laborans, homo faber, and doer of public deeds. She saw the mind’s life, or vita contemplativa, as divided into three parts also: thinking, willing, and judging. The first section, on thinking, was finished some time ago. The second, on willing, she finished just before she died, with what must have been relief, for she had found the will the most elusive of the three faculties to grapple with. The third, on judging, she had already sketched out and partly written; though the literature on the subject was sparse (mainly Kant), she did not expect it to give her much difficulty.

I say “her last book,” and that is how she thought of it, as a final task or crowning achievement, if she could only bring it off—not only filling in the other side of the tablet of human capacities but a labor of love in itself for the highest and least visible of them: the activity of the mind. If she had lived to see the book (two volumes, actually) through the press, no doubt she would have gone on writing, since her nature was expressive as well as thoughtful, but she would have felt that her true work was done.

She would have executed a service or mission she had been put into the world to perform. In this sense, Hannah, I believe, was religious. She had heard a voice such a spoke to the prophets, the call that came to the child Samuel, girded with a linen ephod in the house of Eli, the high priest. One can look on this more secularly and think that she felt herself indentured, bound as though under contract by her particular endowments, given her by Nature, developed in her by her teachers—Jaspers and Heidegger—and tragically enriched by History. It was not a matter of self-fulfillment (the idea would have been laughable or else detestable to Hannah) but of an injunction laid on all of us, not just the talented, to follow the trajectory chance and fate have launched us on, like a poet keeping faith with his muse. Hannah was not a believer in slavish notions of one’s “duty” (which may be why she had so much trouble with the section on the will) but she was responsive to a sense of calling, vocation, including that of the citizen to serve the common life. She was also a very private person, and I think (though we never spoke of it) that The Life of the Mind was a task she dedicated to the memory of Heinrich, a kind of completion and rounding out of their common life.

Heinrich Bluecher, her husband and friend, was the last of her teachers. Though he was only ten years older than she, in their intellectual relationship there was something fatherly, indulgent, on his side, and pupil-like, eager, approval-seeking, on hers; as she spoke, he would look on her fondly, nodding to himself, as though luck had sent him an unimaginably bright girl student and tremendous “achiever,” which he himself, a philosopher in every sense, was content, with his pipes and cigars, not to be. He was proud of her and knew she would go far, to peaks and ranges he could discern in the distance, and calmly sat back, waiting for her to find them.

For her, Heinrich was like a pair of corrective lenses; she did not wholly trust her vision until it had been confirmed by his. While they thought alike on most questions, he was more a “pure” philosophic spirit, and she was more concerned with the vita activa of politics and fabrication—the fashioning of durable objects in the form of books and articles; neither was much interested in the biological sphere of the animal laborans—household drudgery, consumption of goods; though both were fond of young people, they never had any children. When he died, late in 1970, quite suddenly, though not as suddenly as she, she was alone. Surrounded by friends, she rode like a solitary passenger on her train of thought. So The Life of the Mind, begun in those bleak years, was conceived and pondered for (and she must have hoped with) Heinrich Bluecher, not exactly a monument but something like a triptych or folding panel with the mysterious will at the center. Anyway, that is what I guess, and she is not here to ask.

I spoke of a crowning achievement, but Hannah was not in the least ambitious (absurd to connect her with a “career”); if there was some striving for a crown, it was in the sense of a summit toward which she had labored in order to be able to look around, like an explorer, finishing the last stages of an ascent alone. What would be spread out before her were the dark times she had borne witness to, as a Jewess and a displaced person, the long-drawn-out miscarriage of a socialist revolution, the present perils of the American Republic, in which she had found a new political home in which to hang, with increasing despondency, the ideas of freedom she had carried with her, but also the vast surveyor’s map of concepts and insights, some inherited from a long philosophical tradition and some her own discoveries, which, regarded from a high point, could at least show us where we were.

In the realm of ideas, Hannah was a conservationist; she did not believe in throwing anything away that had once been thought. A use might be found. for it; in her own way, she was an enthusiastic recycler. To put it differently, thought, for her, was a kind of husbandry, a humanizing of the wilderness of experience—building houses, running paths and roads through, damming streams, planting windbreaks. The task that had fallen to her, as an exceptionally gifted intellect and a representative of the generations she had lived among, was to apply thought systematically to each and every characteristic experience of her time—anomie, terror, advanced warfare, concentration camps, Auschwitz, inflation, revolution, school integration, the Pentagon Papers, space, Watergate, Pope John, violence, civil disobedience—and, having finally achieved this, to direct thought inward, upon itself, and its own characteristic processes.

The word “systematically” may be misleading. Despite her German habits, Hannah was not a system-builder. Rather, she sought to descry systems that were already there, inherent in the body of man’s interaction with the world and with himself as subject. The distinctions made by language, from very ancient times, indeed from the birth of speech, between this and that (e.g., work and labor, public and private, force, power, and violence), reveal man as categorizer, a “born” philosopher, if you will, with the faculty of separating, of finely discriminating, more natural to his species than that of constructing wholes. If I understood her, Hannah was always more for the Many than for the One (which may help explain her horrified recognition of totalitarianism as a new phenomenon in the world). She did not want to find a master key or universal solvent, and if she had a religion, it was certainly not monotheistical. The proliferation of distinctions in her work, branching out in every direction like tender shoots, no doubt owes something to her affection for the scholastics but it also testifies to a sort of typical awe-struck modesty before the world’s abundance and intense particularity.

But I do not want to discuss Hannah’s ideas here but to try to bring her back as a person, a physical being, showing herself radiantly in what she called the world of appearance, a stage from which she has now withdrawn. She was a beautiful woman, alluring, seductive, feminine, which is why I said “Jewess”—the old-fashioned term, evoking the daughters of Sion, suits her, like a fringed Spanish shawl. Above all, her eyes, so brilliant and sparkling, starry when she was happy or excited, but also deep, dark, remote, pools of inwardness. There was something unfathomable in Hannah that seemed to lie in the reflective depths of those eyes.

She had small, fine hands, charming ankles, elegant feet. She liked shoes; in all the years I knew her, I think she only once had a corn. Her legs, feet, and ankles expressed quickness, decision. You had only to see her on a lecture stage to be struck by those feet, calves, and ankles that seemed to keep pace with her thought. As she talked, she moved about, sometimes with her hands plunged in her pockets like somebody all alone on a walk, meditating. When the fire laws permitted, she would smoke, pacing the stage with a cigarette in a short holder, inhaling from time to time, reflectively, her head back, as if arrested by a new, unexpected idea. Watching her talk to an audience was like seeing the motions of the mind made visible in action and gesture. Peripatetic, she would come abruptly to a halt at the lectern, frown, consult the ceiling, bite her lip, pensively cup her chin. If she was reading a speech, there were always interjections, asides, like the footnotes that peppered her texts with qualifications and appendices.

There was more than a touch of the great actress in Hannah. The first time I heard her speak in public—nearly thirty years ago, during a debate—I was reminded of what Bernhardt must have been or Proust’s Berma, a magnificent stage diva, which implies a goddess. Perhaps a chthonic goddess, or a fiery one, rather than the airy kind. Unlike other good speakers, she was not at all an orator. She appeared, rather, as a mime, a thespian, enacting a drama of mind, that dialogue of me-and-myself she so often summons up in her writings. Watching her framed in the proscenium arch, we were not far from the sacred origins of the theater. What she projected was the human figure as actor and sufferer in the agon of consciousness and reflection, where there are always two, the one who says and the one who replies or questions.

Yet nobody could have been farther from an exhibitionist. Calculation of the impression she was making never entered her head. Whenever she spoke in public, she had terrible stage fright, and afterward she would ask only “Was it all right?” (This cannot have been true of the classroom, where she felt herself at ease and among friends.) And naturally she did not play roles in private or public, even less than the normal amount required in social relations. She was incapable of feigning. Though she prided herself as a European on being able to tell a lie, where we awkward Americans blurted out the truth, in fact there was a little hubris there. Hannah’s small points of vanity never had any relation to her real accomplishments. For example, she thought she knew a good deal about cooking and didn’t. It was the same with her supposed ability to lie. Throughout our friendship, I don’t think I ever heard her tell even one of those white lies, such as pleading illness or a previous engagement, to get herself out of a social quandary. If you wrote something she found bad, her policy was not to allude to it—an unvarying course of action that told you louder than words what she thought.

What was theatrical in Hannah was a kind of spontaneous power of being seized by an idea, an emotion, a presentiment, whose vehicle her body then became, like the actor’s. And this power of being seized and worked upon, often with a start, widened eyes, “Ach!” (before a picture, a work of architecture, some deed of infamy), set her apart from the rest of us like a high electrical charge. And there was the vibrant, springy, dark, short hair, never fully gray, that sometimes from sheer force of energy appeared to stand bolt upright on her head.

I suppose all this must have been part of an unusual physical endowment, whose manifestation in her features and facial gestures was the beauty I spoke of. Hannah is the only person I have ever watched think. She lay motionless on a sofa or a day bed, arms folded behind her head, eyes shut but occasionally opening to stare upward. This lasted—I don’t know—from ten minutes to half an hour. Everyone tiptoed past if we had to come into the room in which she lay oblivious.

She was an impatient, generous woman, and those qualities went hand in hand. Just as, in a speech or an essay, she would put everything in but the kitchen stove, as if she could not keep in reserve a single item of what she knew or had happened that instant to occur to her, so she would press on a visitor assorted nuts, chocolates, candied ginger, tea, coffee, Campari, whiskey, cigarettes, cake, crackers, fruit, cheese, almost all at once, regardless of conventional sequence or, often, of the time of day. It was as if the profusion of edibles, set out, many of them, in little ceremonial-like dishes and containers, were impatient propitiatory offerings to all the queer gods of taste. Someone said that this was the eternal Jewish mother, but it was not that: there was no notion that any of this fodder was good for you; in fact most of it was distinctly bad for you, which she must have known somehow, for she did not insist.

She had a respect for privacy, separateness, one’s own and hers. I often stayed with her—and Heinrich and her—on Riverside Drive and before that on Morningside Drive, so that I came to know Hannah’s habits well, what she liked for breakfast, for instance. A boiled egg, some mornings, a little ham or cold cuts, toast spread with anchovy paste, coffee, of course, half a grapefruit or fresh orange juice, but perhaps that last was only when I, the American, was there. The summer after Heinrich’s death she came to stay with us in Maine, where we gave her a separate apartment, over the garage, and I put some thought into buying supplies for her kitchen—she liked to breakfast alone. The things, I thought, that she would have at home, down to instant coffee (which I don’t normally stock) for when she could not be bothered with the filters. I was rather pleased to have been able to find anchovy paste in the village store. On the afternoon of her arrival, as I showed her where everything was in the larder, she frowned over the little tube of anchovy paste, as though it were an inexplicable foreign object. “What is that?” I told her. “Oh.” She put it down and looked thoughtful and as though displeased, somehow. No more was said. But I knew I had done something wrong in my efforts to please. She did not wish to be known, in that curiously finite and, as it were, reductive way. And I had done it to show her I knew her—a sign of love, though not always—thereby proving that in the last analysis I did not know her at all.

Her eyes were closed in her coffin, and her hair was waved back from her forehead, whereas she pulled it forward, sometimes tugging at a lock as she spoke, partly to hide a scar she had got in an automobile accident—but even before that she had never really bared her brow. In her coffin, with the lids veiling the fathomless eyes, that noble forehead topped by a sort of pompadour, she was not Hannah any more but a composed death mask of an eighteenth-century philosopher. I was not moved to touch that grand stranger in the funeral parlor, and only in the soft yet roughened furrows of her neck, in which the public head rested, could I find a place to tell her good-by.

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