Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975
Hannah Arendt died twenty years ago, leaving a curious and divided legacy. To some she represented the worst of “Continental” philosophizing: metaphysical musings upon modernity and its ills unconstrained by any institutional or intellectual discipline and often cavalierly unconcerned with empirical confirmation. They note her weakness for a phrase or an aperçu, often at the expense of accuracy. For such critics her insights into the woes of the century are at best derivative, at worst plain wrong. Others, including the many young American scholars who continue to study and discuss her work, find her a stimulating intellectual presence; her refusal to acknowledge academic norms and conventional categories of explanation, which so frustrates and irritates her critics, is precisely what most appeals to her admirers. Twenty years after her death they see her desire for a “new politics” of collective public action vindicated by the revolutions of 1989, and her account of modern society in general and totalitarianism in particular confirmed by the course of contemporary history. Both sides have a point, though it is sometimes difficult to remember that they are talking about the same person.
In fact, and despite the broad range of topics covered in her writings, Hannah Arendt was throughout her adult life concerned above all with two closely related issues: the problem of political evil in the twentieth century and the dilemma of the Jew in the contemporary world. If we add to this the special difficulty she experienced in acknowledging the distinctive place of Germany in the story she tried to tell—a difficulty of which she was not, it seems to me, always fully aware—we have grasped the central threads of all her writings, even those that seem at first reading most abstracted from such concerns. It does not follow from this that Arendt’s various works can be reread in this light as a single, continuous, coherent theoretical undertaking—she is every bit as diffuse and muddled as her critics claim; but if we understand her main historical concerns against the background of her own obsessions, it becomes a little easier to see just what holds together the various parts of her oeuvre and why they provoke such diverse and powerful responses.
The central place in all of Arendt’s thinking of the problem of totalitarianism seems obvious.1 In a 1954 piece, “Understanding and Politics,” reprinted in Jerome Kohn’s useful and very well-edited collection of her early essays, she stakes out her territory without ambiguity: “If we want to be at home on this earth, even at the price of being at home in this century, we must try to take part in the interminable dialogue with the essence of totalitarianism.” As she would later express it in her “Thoughts about Lessing,” the “pillars of the best-known truths” lie shattered today, and the first task of the survivors is to ask how this happened and what can…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.