Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World
I met Hannah Arendt in 1946, at a dinner party given for Rabbi Leo Baeck by Elliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary. It was that long ago. She was a handsome, vivacious forty-year-old woman who was to charm me and others, by no means unerotically, because her interest in her new country, and for literature in English, became as much a part of her as her accent and her passion for discussing Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka, even Duns Scotus, as if they all lived with her and her strenuous husband Heinrich Bluecher in the shabby rooming house on West 95th Street.
No less than the Bluechers, I felt that Hitler’s war had not ended. The “Holocaust” (no one yet called it that) as the ultimate horror of the Nazi regime’s twelve years so dominated every conversation with them that I was not surprised to learn that Hannah was writing a book on totalitarianism. In the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) the book’s thesis was credited entirely to the unpublished philosophy of Bluecher.
Bluecher, an extraordinarily mental creature, an insatiable orator in his living room on the great thinkers even when he transferred his vehement verbal powers to the New School and Bard College, was incapable of writing for publication, whether in German or English. He made up for this by shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. He was given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge (he had been a teenage recruit in the Kaiser’s army) and his relationship to the family of Marshal Bluecher.
As a Protestant and independent German radical married to a Jew, he impressed me most by his concern and even identification with Jews. Nothing had so unhinged me from my old “progressive” beliefs as the destruction of the Jews. Hannah and Heinrich were not only close but enclosed, it sometimes seemed to me, by what Churchill had called “the worst episode in human history.” The reverberations of the Nazi experience would never cease. And in the immediate postwar years Hannah impressed me every time I saw her by her stalwart Jewishness, her independent commitment to a Jewish homeland, her directorship of an organization devoted to restoring to devastated Jewish communities the religious and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. As a refugee in Paris after 1933 she had worked for the Youth Aliyah trying to get children into Palestine.
Intellectually, like many another Jewish thinker, she was indifferent to Judaism; she had been much more influenced by Christian thought and by what she canonized all her life—philosophy as a daily activity. She had written a famous doctoral dissertation under Karl Jaspers at Heidelberg on St. Augustine’s concept of love, and never tired of quoting her favorite maxim from Augustine, “Love means: I want you to be.” Her conversation, unlike Bluecher’s, was so much from what she had written or was planning to write that reading her again for this piece I distinctly heard her gruff but pliant voice repeating her favorite themes and quotations.
In those early years after the war, before she became the first woman professor at Princeton, a powerful presence at Chicago, Berkeley, etc., her astonishing expressiveness as an expounder was already inseparable from her charm as a woman. This expressiveness, physical and tangible, was for me her greatest attribute. She was too reverential about the great thinkers to claim “originality” in philosophy itself; her distinctive procedure, which she must have learned in German seminars, was to circle round and round the great names, performing a “critique” in their name when she disowned a traditional position. Even in the kitchen she sailed into the airiest flights of German speculation. In the early days this took the form, ironically, of abjuring what Santayana had called “egotism” in German philosophy in favor of politics, the public realm, the Greek tradition of the polis.
This was ironic because though she had shifted from the supposed unworldliness of German philosophy (Heidegger the sometime Nazi was the most telling current example) to political thought, and during the Origins of Totalitarianism period constantly cited Montesquieu and Tocqueville, her interest (as Sheldon Wolin has pointed out)1 turned but to be more in Nietzschean prejudices about the “elite” and the “mob” than in the kind of empirical observations with which Tocqueville had filled his great book on the revolutionary spectacle of “democracy in America.”
The Origins, for me still the book of hers most concentrated on its subject and relatively undistracted by the spectacular theorizing of Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, Bultmann that never ceased to haunt her, was still more about “origins” than about German and Russian society. Even the harshly brilliant structure she built up in her last chapters on the parallels between the Hitler-Stalin bureaucracies, their arbitrary use of exclusion and terror, the central importance of the police, seems to me now, rereading the book, a stupendous literary idea, like the structure of Dante’s Hell. There is not a reference to the actualities of czarist society.
I still think that her thesis was right and that “total domination” (a clearer term than “totalitarianism”) is exactly what Stalinism and Hitlerism had in common. But Lenin, the real author of the one-party state, does not figure in her book because the Russia that formed Lenin does not figure there. The fascination of the Origins is in Arendt’s unremarked gift of concentrated literary force—the last chapters are overwhelming, apocalyptic. But she attained this force through her severe logic. The book hammers out the exclusive theory of totalitarianism with which she started and to which her selected phenomena had to fit. So no other book on the subject had such an impact. With her you knew where you were. Totalitarianism was the “burden of our time.”
Hannah Arendt was indeed (on one side of her) a grand and incessant theorist. She was also a complex temperament who in her best East Prussian severity, with other people’s weaknesses and disagreements, always had sharp put-downs for theories and persons she disliked. Her theorizing and her “imperiousness,” as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl puts it in her admiring, extraordinarily full, on the whole dependable biography, did not prevent her from being a femme fatale, though she would have been puzzled by the compliment. The trouble she had with the wives of some American admirers she never ascribed to anything but their lack of parity with their more congenial husbands. Despite her scorn for such feminist tracts as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I doubt that she had any more interest in feminism, pro or contra, than Immanuel Kant. Her “heroes” certainly included women of her own moral stamp, like Rosa Luxemburg. Many women, responding to her own gift for friendship, became positive addicts of Arendt.
As a student she had, as Young-Bruehl reveals, an affair with Heidegger, and never got over it. She was proposed to by such eminences as Leo Strauss, W.H. Auden, Hans Morgenthau, and was vainly propositioned by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch. “Let me be the exception, Hermann.” At her funeral her hard-boiled publisher William Jovanovich startled everyone by breaking down for a second and crying, “I loved her fiercely!” Her first husband, Günther Stern (later Anders), once heard me talking at a party about Hannah, and interrupted to say, “I wish to thank you for speaking so well of my ex-wife Hannah Arendt.” When I reported this to Hannah, she took it as a matter of course and came out with a tribute to their spiritual education in Weimar days—their training in Erkenntnis as mutual recognition. She and Bluecher were positively intoxicated with each other. She identified him so much with herself that she had him buried from a Jewish funeral chapel.
“You must think what you are doing”—a refrain in her conversation and her books until it became her reason for dismissing Eichmann as just an unthinking nonentity—she owed to her philosophic training and especially to Heidegger, whose belief in “thinking” as an autonomous activity influenced her far more than did her father-figure Jaspers, whose style she privately thought prolix.
Emerson (his admirer Nietzsche laughed that he had been too much influenced by German philosophy) was smugly sure that “so long as a man thinks, he is free.” Heidegger believed that “thinking” (apparently only philosophers and poets have ever done it) seeks meaning, not knowledge. To find meaning, one must take up a stance toward the universe, whereas knowledge seeks to possess some portion of it. Knowledge, as in science, is too limited. As “truth,” a special prejudice of our science-dominated minds, it is too easily confirmable and therefore transient in interest. Heidegger as philosopher drew heavily on the pre-Socratics and on a poet like Hölderlin for his image of true philosophizing. He was consciously “archaic”; Arendt’s final excuse for his Nazifying was that he was “primeval.” Both would have agreed with that most Germanic saying of Rilke’s, “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.”
Poetry as a spell from the past was part of Heidegger’s appeal for Arendt, who wrote a plaintive, stricken kind of lyric verse and who naturally saw poetry as central to her philosopher’s ability to wonder at the phenomenal world. What Heidegger emphasized as Denken was really revelation—perfectly poised attentiveness to what is “concealed.” This encouraged and intensified in Arendt the connection between thinking as dialogue with oneself and her natural sense of solitude. She had grown up fatherless; even before she became a refugee and “homelessness” played a dominating role in her sense of herself as exceptional and a “pariah,” she adhered to a German tradition of exalted solitude that her many fierce interchanges in America never diminished.
The sense of freedom central to her political theory depended on a person’s ability to think for thinking’s sake. “Thinking” as a positive ideal, as a way of closing in on any subject without surrendering to its worldly repute, became her way of independence as well as a constant goad to her untiring intelligence. Her intellectual self-confidence went hand in hand with a candid “loneliness in this world” to which she always managed to give a philosophical and even theological aura. This was the foundation of her free religious concern rather than belief. No one was ever more contemptuous of “psychology”; she never mentioned Freud’s name without a laugh. In her own occasional moments of emotional distress, she could be not just appealing but Antigone-like in her struggle with herself. She was lofty about other people’s conflicts and involvements—especially when these became so hopelessly personal that they could not “think” as a way of solving themselves.
All this gave Arendt an unceasing seriousness of tone and inflexibility of judgment fundamental to the tragic vision of our age behind everything she wrote. The resentment Eichmann in Jerusalem raised among some intellectuals just brought out the feelings many of them had stifled when they read The Origins of Totalitarianism. Before there was “the banality of evil” there was “radical evil.”
The New York Review, Oct.26, 1978.↩
The New York Review, Oct.26, 1978.↩