Letters On Dark Times

Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926–1969

edited by Lotte Kohler, by Hans Saner, translated by Robert Kimber, by Rita Kimber
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 821 pp., $49.95

In the introduction to his edition of the letters of Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno wrote that

in the age of the disintegration of experience human beings are no longer subjectively disposed to letter writing. For the present it looks as though technology is eliminating the preconditions for the letter. Because letters are no longer necessary, given the speedier possibilities of communication and the shrinking of spatiotemporal distances, their inherent substance is disintegrating as well.

The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers stands as a notable contradiction to that confident generalization, which would probably have amused and pleased the two correspondents, who disliked Adorno because of what they believed were his attempts to ingratiate himself with the Nazis. His “hodgepodges of anything and everything that comes to mind are intolerable,” Jaspers wrote Hannah Arendt.

Their letters to each other were the product of the dissolution of their normal world, and their substance was enriched, rather than impoverished, by that experience. When the correspondence became regular and frequent in 1945 (there are only thirty letters out of the 433 printed here from the years before then), Hannah Arendt was in New York leading what she called the “infinitely complex red-tape existence of stateless persons,” while Jaspers was in Heidelberg, isolated in a society of “hostile faces” and “sullen losers” who slandered him behind his back. They were like survivors of the Flood, Noahs, as Arendt said in a figure of speech which delighted Jaspers and which he often used, “floating about on the seas of the world,” who could only find hope and solidarity by “trying to steer their arks as close to one another as they can.”

Their letters, at first a means of renewing their common scholarly interests, rapidly developed into a forum for discussion of fundamental issues in their lives and writing—what it meant, for example, to be a German or a Jew after Auschwitz—and of the moral and political climate of the three countries that meant most to them, West Germany, Israel, and the United States. The two correspondents debated all of the major issues of the first phase of the cold war, Arendt always the more passionate partner and the more pessimistic, Jaspers less prone to catastrophic views and more hopeful of mankind’s potential for good. Over the years, the teacher-student relationship of the first years became an exchange between equals who respected each other’s views and were bound by an ever deepening friendship. Because neither of them believed that the letters would ever be published and because they trusted each other, there was no trace of self-censorship in what they wrote. As Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner point out in their elegant and informative introduction to this volume, Arendt and Jaspers

reveal themselves in a more personal, spontaneous, warmer, and, at the same time, more ruthless way than they do in their works. For Arendt, this correspondence is the first published document from her private life. For Jaspers, it …

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