Saul Bellow on Hannah Arendt: The upshot? He didn’t like her much


Letters out this month

Viking is publishing Saul Bellow: Letters this month.  It’s excerpted in Salmagundis 45th anniversary issue (Fall 2010/Winter 2011), which arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Here’s an excerpt of Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s March 12, 1982, letter to Leon Wieseltier. Clearly not a fan of political philosopher Hannah Arendt:

“The trouble is that her errors were far more extensive than her judgment.  That can be said of us all, but she was monumentally vain, and a rigid akshente [Yiddish: impossible woman, ballbuster] Much of her strength went into obstinacy, and she was the compleat intellectual – i.e. she went always and as rapidly as possible for the great synthesis and her human understanding, painfully limited, could not support the might of historical analysis, unacknowledged prejudices, frustrations of her German and European aspirations, etc. She could often think clearly, but to think simply was altogether beyond her, and her imaginative faculty was stunted.

German to the end?

“I once asked Alexander Donat, author of The Holocaust Kingdom, how it was that the Jews went down so quickly in Poland. He said something like this: ‘After three days in the ghetto, unable to wash and shave, without clean clothing, deprived of food, all utilities and municipal services cut off, your toilet habits humiliatingly disrupted, you are demoralized, confused, subject to panic. A life of austere discipline would have made it possible for me to keep my head, but how many civilized people lead such a life?’  Such simple facts – had Hannah had the imagination to see them – would have lowered the intellectual fever that vitiates her theories. Her standards were those of a ‘noble’ German intelligentsia trained in the classics and in European philosophy – what you call the ‘tradition of sweet thinking.’  Hannah not only loved it, she actively disliked those who didn’t share it, and she couldn’t acknowledge this dislike – which happened to be the dislike of those (so inconveniently) martyred by the Nazis.  The Eros of these cultures is irresistible.  At the same time assimilation is simply impossible – out of the question to reject one’s history. And insofar as the Israelis are secular, they are in it with the rest of us, fascinated and also eaten up by Greece, France, Russia, England.  It is impossible for advanced minds not to be so affected. …

“Anyway, your Arendt pieces are wonderful, even though the concluding sentence … but what else can one conclude but ‘on course; and ‘in the dark’? We mustn’t surrender the demonic to the demagogic academics.  Intellectual sobriety itself may have to take the powers of darkness into account.”

Casper discusses Arendt (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In his book, Donat recounts the entrenched pro-German mindset of most Jews, who were looking backward to the heritage of the German Enlightenment: “For generations, East European Jews had looked to Berlin as the symbol of law, order, and culture. We could not now believe that the Third Reich was a government of gangsters embarked on a program of genocide ‘to solve the Jewish problem in Europe.’”

But I rather wonder at his characterization of “Jewish passivity,” remembering the doomed heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Only since the Fall of the Wall are some stories of Polish (Jewish and Christian) resistance coming to light.  History changes.

I attended a conference on Arendt last spring and was moved by Gerhard Casper’s tenacious loyalty to the friend he characterized as “a very private person”:   “She was forceful, opinionated, never had any doubts about her views,” he said. “In certain circumstances she was willing to listen carefully and be convinced she was wrong. Those were rare.”

Piotr Nowak recommended I read her pages on ineradicable evil in The Origins of Totalitarianism when we were at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen two years ago, while taking the “powers of darkness into account.”

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5 Responses to “Saul Bellow on Hannah Arendt: The upshot? He didn’t like her much”

  1. Frances Madeson Says:

    That’s what one member of the Committee on Social Thought had to say about another? With colleagues like that, who needs…etc.? Saul, Saul, Saul, oy, what are we going to do with you? Don’t ya know, Reb Bellow, nice girls don’t make history. They really don’t. Akshentes on the other hand…

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    What a great website! Thanks!

  3. Recruiting Animal Says:

    I enjoyed this posting. It was full of fun formulations. Interesting how the friend and the critic both have the same analysis of her character. Vain and narrow-minded.

  4. Wender5 Says:

    Recruiting Animal, you are misinterpreting the friend’s remarks. Saul Bellow was himself an ideologically and morally shunted man, he was never capable of the moral insights offered by Arendt.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the late posting, Wender5 – this got caught in a spam filter.