One of the joys of having office space in a major university library is that, well, you never have to go to the library. You are already there.
On my way to the stairs I passed a book I had seen footnoted or recommended, somewhere – Hannah Arendt‘s Men in Dark Times. It seemed to jump out at me from the shelves – so I grabbed the volume and continued on my way.
Arendt lived in the long afterglow of the German Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that this collection of essays, written from about 1955 to 1968 for various publications and occasions, should favor Germans – Lessing, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht. But there are some surprises, too – her friend Randall Jarrell, Isak Dineson, and Pope John XXIII, among others.
Why the title with its reference to “dark times”? She explains:
“I borrow the term from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns.
When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.
…even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of the blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter or secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”