Hannah Arendt was an oasis in the fevered, dialectical dust of New York—to me, and I imagine to everyone who loved her. We met in the late Fifties or early Sixties in Mary McCarthy’s apartment. She seemed hardly to take her coat off, as she brushed on with purpose to a class or functional shopping. In her hurry, she had time to say to me something like “This is an occasion,” or more probably, “This is a meeting.” I put the least intention into her words, but later dared telephone her to make a call. The calls were part of my life as long as I lived in New York—once a month, sometimes twice.
I was overawed. Years earlier Randall Jarrell had written me in Holland that if I wanted to discover something big and new, I would read Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Randall seldom praised in vain, but my Dutch intellectual friends, as usual embarrassingly more into whatever was being written in America, were ahead of me, and were discussing Origins with minds sharpened by the Dutch Resistance, a hatred of Germany, and a fluency with German philosophers. I felt landless and alone, and read Hannah as though I were going home, or reading Moby Dick, perhaps for the second time, no longer seeking adventure, but the voyage of wisdom, the tragedy of America.
Writing when Stalin was still enthroned and the shade of Hitler still unburied, Hannah believed with somber shrewdness, like Edmund Burke, that totalitarian power totally corrupts. Compared with Melville, however, she might seem an optimist about America. Origins, like many of her books, is apparently a defense of America, one that overstates and troubles us by assuming that we must be what we declared ourselves to be in our Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary beginnings. Her dream, it is both German and Jewish, now perhaps seems sadly beyond our chances and intentions. Yet the idea is still true, still taunting us to act. What is memorable, and almost uniquely rare and courageous in a thinker, is that Hannah’s theory is always applied to action, and often to immediate principles of state. Her imperatives for political freedom still enchant and reproach us, though America has obviously, in black moments one thinks almost totally, slipped from those jaunty years of Harry Truman and the old crusade for international democracy. We couldn’t know how fragile we were, or how much totalitarianism could ameliorate, bend, adulterate itself, and succeed.
Hannah’s high apartment house high on the lower Hudson always gave me a feeling of apprehension, the thrill, hesitation, and helplessness of entering a foreign country, a north German harbor, the tenements of Kafka. Its drabness and respectability that hid her true character also emphasized her unfashionable independence. On my first visit, I blundered about a vacant greenish immensity unable to find the name of any owner. Then I ran through the small print cards, uniform as names in a telephone book, that filled …