Posts Tagged ‘“Hannah Arendt”’

Question for the coronavirus era: What’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s not company.

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Arendt had the best company: herself

The business of being a writer is necessarily solitary. I’m used to it. In fact, with the current coronavirus “shelter in place” in  California and elsewhere in the country, little has changed in my work routine. One good adjustment: the rest of the world is on “pause,” so I don’t have the usual intrusion of emails, phone calls, and other interruptions.

Nevertheless, should all those fail, I have shelves of books I’ve never read. And it’s always a good day when you can reread Jane Austen, or explore The Divine Comedy again. Revisit Proust, or Stanisław Barańczak. Or finally get around to reading something by Michel Houellebecq, or the unopened novel by Ismail Kadare.

Yet all over the social media I hear complaints about loneliness and boredom during the coronavirus crisis. But the antidote to loneliness isn’t society – it’s solitude.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ability to tolerate the solitariness of an internal space, in which one can commune with oneself and think for oneself, is central to personal responsibility. In an essay on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” she argued such “being-with-oneself” is connected with the sustained practice of examining issues, weighing contradictory thoughts, making up one’s own mind. She observed that those who resisted the Nazi call had the habit and experience of daring to judge for themselves:

“The precondition for this kind of judging is not a highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters, but rather the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking.”

It’s what  Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison said a decade ago at a Stanford conference on Arendt, when he made the event’s most spirited remarks in a talk on “passionate thinking.” Read the whole article here. A relevant excerpt:

Stanford’s Gerhard Casper, Robert Harrison at back (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

[Harrison] considered Arendt’s notion of friendship and thought as rooted in solitude and the ability to commune with oneself – that “plurality begins with the individual.”

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is: “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

So do take some time to talk internally with yourself during this unusual time. We hope it will be over soon! And if you want to read what Arendt wrote to James Baldwingo here.

Postscript from George Dunn of Zhejiang University: Ursula LeGuin has a powerful story that addresses issues of injustice and scapegoating, titled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” I’ve used it in my Ethics class more times than I can count. The title refers to the very small minority of citizens in the imaginary city of Omelas who walk away from the hedonic paradise this city represents because they are unwilling to partake of a joy that’s purchased through the torture of a child. There is one line in the story had that always struck me as somehow key to what LeGuin wants us to understand, though it is spoken so causally that its import can easily be missed. Most of the citizens of Omelas are reconciled to the horror on which their happiness is built, though some leave in their youth the moment they come face to face with that horror. Yet, reports LeGuin, “Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home.” The phrase “falls silent” stands out for me, indicating as it does a retreat into deep introspection. Such a retreat into silence would be quite conspicuous in Omelas, whose citizens are depicted by LeGuin as highly gregarious. LeGuin then recounts how these few leave the city, three times using the word “alone” to underscore the solitude of those who walk away. Reading these passages always puts me in mind of Arendt’s essay on “Responsibility,” also assigned a few times, with its reminder that ethics is predicated on our ability to resist the crowd, which in turn depends on having cultivated an inner space for reflection. Being highly intelligent, articulate, and quick-witted in debate is no guarantee of a capacity for reflection. To the contrary, as we’ve both seen, those with the greatest intellectual gifts will also often display the greatest ingenuity in making excuses for themselves.

The meaning of love in politics: What Hannah Arendt wrote to James Baldwin

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

Today is James Baldwin‘s birthday. To celebrate, here’s a portion of “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” which appeared in The New Yorker on November 17, 1962 – and then Hannah Arendt‘s reply. In his essay, Baldwin concluded: 

When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s – or Allah’s – vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then? I could also see that the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable – a vengeance that does not really depend on, and cannot really be executed by, any person or organization, and that cannot be prevented by any police force or army: historical vengeance, a cosmic vengeance, based on the law that we recognize when we say, “Whatever goes up must come down.” And here we are, at the center of the arc, trapped in the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen. Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

Here’s what Hannah Arendt, who knew him slightly, replied in a letter that is now at the Library of Congress:

November 21, 1962

Dear Mr. Baldwin:

Your article in the New Yorker is a political event of a very high order, I think;  it certainly is an event in my understanding of what is involved in the Negro question.  And since this is a question which concerns us all, I feel I am entitled to raise objections.

What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy. All the characteristics you stress in the Negro people: their beauty, their capacity for joy, their warmth, and their humanity, are well-known characteristics of all oppressed people. They grow out of suffering and they are the proudest possession of all pariahs. Unfortunately, they have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes. Hatred and love belong together, and they are both destructive;  you can afford them only in the private and, as a people, only so long as you are not free.

In sincere admiration,

cordially (that is, in case you remember that we know each other slightly) yours,

Hannah Arendt remembers W.H. Auden: “an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love”

Friday, December 7th, 2018

The one thing he knew well…

I was unaware the philosopher Hannah Arendt knew the poet W.H. Auden, and I certainly didn’t know that she had left a memoir of the poet. She did, and The New Yorker, which first published the piece in 1975, has republished it here. It’s a gem. A must-read. 

A few excerpts:

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable.


If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance. Time and again, when, to all appearances, he could not cope anymore, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes, so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.


The sad wisdom of remembrance…

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.


It seems, of course, very unlikely that young Auden, when he decided that he was going to be a great poet, knew the price he would have to pay, and I think it entirely possible that in the end—when not the intensity of his feelings and not the gift of transforming them into praise but the sheer physical strength of the heart to bear them and live with them gradually faded away—he considered the price too high. We, in any event—his audience, readers and listeners—can only be grateful that he paid his price up to the last penny for the everlasting glory of the English language. And his friends may find some consolation in his beautiful joke beyond the grave—that for more than one reason, as Spender said, “his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying.” The wisdom to know “when to live and when to die” is not given to mortals, but Wystan, one would like to think, may have received it as the supreme reward that the cruel gods of poetry bestowed on the most obedient of their servants.

Read the whole thing here.

Is evil really banal? Why Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem shocked the world.

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Both sides now.

In 2012, I eagerly, perhaps a bit worshipfully, attended Margarethe von Trotta‘s acclaimed film, Hannah Arendt, describing how the heroic philosopher came to be at the 1961 Jerusalem trial of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann. As everyone knows now, the German-Jewish thinker found no monstrous  incarnation of evil, but rather a banal bureaucrat following orders. And so she fell out with Jewish leaders, Israelis, much of New York’s intelligentsia, and writers like Saul Bellow, too.

Now I have a better idea of the other side, after reading Harvard Professor Ruth R. Wisse‘s”The Enduring Outrage of Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’: Fifty-five years later, her book still has the power to shock—and disgust.” It was one of the thousand tabs on my browser, waiting to be read (in this case, waiting for three weeks), in another publication I rarely read, Commentary. (I’m a sucker for anything on Arendt – read her moving discussion of refugees here.)

The background: The international military tribunal in Nuremberg did not focus on the Jews, in part because Eichmann had never been caught. He had fled to Argentina with his family. According to Wisse, “It is now known that the Germans and the CIA were aware of Eichmann’s whereabouts and never acted on their information. When Fritz Bauer, a member of the German investigative commission, realized that his superiors were contriving not to go after Eichmann, he got the information to the Israelis, who captured him in Argentina and flew him to Jerusalem.”

Wisse continues: “The trial itself was without precedent or parallel. The Israeli poet Natan Alterman wrote that it ‘would fill an eerie void that has been hidden somewhere in the soul of the Jewish people, in the history of its lives and deaths, ever since it went into exile.’ The void he referred to could not have been filled previously because the Jews had never been in a position to prosecute their murderers. Now they were. Given that this was the first and, as seemed likely, the only time that Jewish survivors would be able to confront one of the individuals responsible for the murder of their relatives, the event assumed outsized importance.”

“When it became known that Hannah Arendt would be covering the trial for the New Yorker, there was great anticipation. ‘A foolproof choice,’ wrote Marie Syrkin, one of American Jewry’s leading intellectuals. ‘Who better qualified to report on the trial in depth than Hannah Arendt, scholar, student of totalitarianism and of the human condition, and herself a German Jewish refugee who came to the United States after the rise of Hitler?’ wrote Wisse. “Indeed, of all the German refugees who had been admitted to America just before or at the start of the war, none was better known or more widely admired than Arendt, who had been accepted by the New York intelligentsia not merely as one of their own, but as prima inter pares. Hence the shock when her articles appeared in February and March 1963 and then in the expanded book later that year. Rather than report on the trial as a journalist or observer, Arendt used it as an occasion to expand her theory about totalitarianism—the subject of her most ambitious book.”

Enter Israeli poet Haim Gouri, who published daily dispatches in a left-labor newspaper, later published as, Facing the Glass Booth.

Like Arendt, Gouri is struck by the contrast between Eichmann’s apparent impassivity and the evils he is known to have committed, and, like her, he too later becomes agitated when the witnesses for the prosecution describe Jews herded to their death “like sheep to the slaughter.” But the report tracks his evolution. “Like everyone else present, I felt close to the line separating sanity from madness, but in my case it was for the first time,” he writes. “I felt I was beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible, however wide the gulf separating me from those who were there for even a single day.” Gouri is humbled as he follows the proceedings: “[We] who were outside that circle of death have forgiveness to ask of the numberless dead whom we have judged in our hearts without asking ourselves what right we have.” To state only the obvious, Gouri came to gain understanding, Arendt to impose her understanding on the trial. Gouri’s account follows the sequence of developments. Arendt surmises, synthesizes, and summarizes.”

Gouri was writing for a Jewish readership in a Jewish language in a Jewish country, Arendt for the New Yorker. She did her research relating to the trial in Germany and most of the writing as a research scholar at Wellesley College. In her book on the Eichmann trial, the historian Deborah Lipstadt points out that Arendt left Jerusalem on May 10 and missed five weeks of witness testimony; she was also absent for the prosecution’s cross-examination when Eichmann was at his sharpest.

In short, “The mass murderer who wanted to persuade the court that he was not the agent of his crimes found an ally in a philosopher who, to make her thesis work, needed to prove he lacked moral agency.”

It’s a controversial, passionately argued article. Whether you agree or disagree with Prof. Wisse, it’s worth a look here. Trailer of the movie below.

Arendt: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.”

Friday, September 9th, 2016

Immigration is much in the news, and will be for some time to come. Hence, philosopher Hannah Arendt‘s important and apparently little-known 1943 essay, “We Refugees” is very timely. The Book Haven has occasionally posted about one of the last century’s most famous immigrants: Arendt left Germany for Czechoslovakia and then Geneva and then France, where she was placed in an internment camp. She finally made a home in the U.S. in 1941. Although, of course, she was writing with the Jews and the Holocaust in mind, the reader may substitute the term “Islamic refugees” or “Christian minorities in the Middle East” for up-to-date applications. Her conclusion is all the more stunning for that reason. The piece in its entirety is too good for excerpting, really – you can read the whole thing here – but I’ll do my best:


“A new kind of human beings…”

Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.

Nevertheless, as soon as we were saved – and most of us had to be saved several times – we started our new lives and tried to follow as closely as possible all the good advice our saviors passed on to us. We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine. In a friendly way we were reminded that the new country would become a new home; and after four weeks in France or six weeks in America, we pretended to be Frenchmen or Americans. The more optimistic among us would even add that their whole former life had been passed in a kind of unconscious exile and only their new country now taught them what a home really looks like. …

In order to forget more efficiently we rather avoid any allusion to concentration or internment camps we experienced in nearly all European countries – it might be interpreted as pessimism or lack of confidence in the new homeland. Besides, how often have we been told that nobody likes to listen to all that; hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees. Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends. …

I don’t know which memories and which thoughts nightly dwell in our dreams. I dare not ask for information, since I, too, had rather be an optimist. But sometimes I imagine that at least nightly we think of our dead or we remember the poems we once loved. I could even understand how our friends of the West coast, during the curfew, should have had such curious notions as to believe that we are not only ‘prospective citizens’ but present ‘enemy aliens.’ In daylight, of course, we become only ‘technically’ enemy aliens – all refugees know this. But when technical reasons prevented you from leaving your home during the dark hours, it certainly was not easy to avoid some dark speculations about the relation between technicality and reality.

arendt3No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way. They seem to prove that our proclaimed cheerfulness is based on a dangerous readiness for death. … Instead of fighting – or thinking about how to become able to fight back – refugees have got used to wishing death to friends or relatives; if somebody dies, we cheerfully imagine all the trouble he has been saved. Finally many of us end by wishing that we, too, could be saved some trouble, and act accordingly.

She concludes that, for the Jews:

…history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of the Gentiles. They know the outlawing of the Jewish people in Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples – if they keep their identity. For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations. The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.

Again, read the whole thing here.

New short biography of Hannah Arendt: “Her hope for the world lay in ‘natality.'”

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

A photo from before the dark times.

I don’t follow publishing news very closely (I know I should), but I was disappointed when the Penguin Lives series, edited by James Atlas, disappeared shortly after I became aware of it. In the olden days, before I became a blogger, I used to gulp down biographies like dark chocolate, and the short format (about 200 pages) made these books bite-sized. According to the Observer:

The Penguin Lives boutique biography series – a collaboration between Viking publishing, former New York Times Magazine editor James Atlas and former deputy mayor and financier Kenneth Lipper – is kaput.

Mr. Atlas, the general editor for Penguin Lives, told Off the Record that after publishing 22 of the diminutive, handsomely designed hardcover books pairing noted authors with an eclectic range of subjects ranging from Napoleon to Rosa Parks, Viking – a division of Penguin-Putnam – has decided to pull out of the venture.

“They’re closing it down. No real explanation was given,” Mr. Atlas said. “It was a question of its place in the corporate structure. It fit well, but it didn’t always fit well.”

Well, there you have it. That was a dozen years ago. Shows how up-to-date I am. Cut away to a few weeks ago when I received a notice of a package at the Stanford Post office. I tore open the package on my way to a meeting. A book by Hannah Arendt about “dark times.” I assumed it was a fancy new reissue of her Men in Dark Times – I wrote about that here, and assumed it would return me to that time “when there was only wrong and no outrage.” I figured my earlier post and been flagged by some ‘bot for a publishers’ mailing list. So I added the book to a tall pile for future perusal.

Wrong! The book is a short (134 pages) new biography of the philosopher by Anne C. HellerA Life in Dark TimesIt’s one of the short biographies issued in a new Amazon Publishing series called “Icons” (more here.) Seven of the eleven “inaugural” titles have already been published. Next on the list: Karen Armstrong takes on St. Paul, and Brooke Allen writes about Benazir Bhutto. What a good idea this is! It is still a good idea! And the Arendt book had a release date of only four days ago, so I’m just in time!

According to Adam Kirsch (we’ve written about him here and here), “Hannah Arendt was one of the most compelling and provocative thinkers of her time, and she remains indispensable today. In this lucid, accessible biography, Anne Heller shows how Arendt’s eventful life – shaped by war and exile, love and friendship – gave rise to her most important insights into politics and the nature of evil.”

I found this passage in the last chapter, at the end of her life. It is not about dark times – I hear enough about those already in the news – but rather about miracles. And couldn’t we all use one about now?

Arendt-KellerHer hope for the world lay in “natality,” “the miracle that saves the world,” she wrote, by which she meant the unimaginable possibilities that attend every human birth and must be safeguarded until they can reach full flower. “The beginning is also a god; so long as he dwells among men, he saves all things,” she noted, quoting Plato in her 1971 tribute to Martin Heidegger upon his eightieth birthday. And as she would write poignantly in her last book, The Life of the Mind, published after her death in 1978:

In this world which we enter, appearing from a nowhere, and from which we disappear into a nowhere, Being and Appearing coincide. … Seen from the viewpoint of the spectators to whom [a human life] appears and from whose view it finally disappears, each individual life, its growth and decline, is a developmental process in which an entity unfolds itself in an upward movement until all its properties are fully exposed; this phase is followed by a period of standstill – its bloom or epiphany, as it were – which in turn is succeeded by the downward movement of disintegration that is terminated by complete disappearance.

The human soul is born to make an appearance on a public stage, Arendt seemed to have concluded in her later years, and to become most vibrantly itself in a shared world. For her, authenticity did not require withdrawal from noisy modernity into the solitude of Being, as it did for Heidegger, but neither did it permit taking action without standing back and thinking about “what is.” And in her later years what is always encompassed the point of view of people different, even alien, from oneself.