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This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Eight Decades of Hannah Arendt and Her Critics | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Eight Decades of Hannah Arendt and Her Critics




Hannah Arendt in 1969. (AP Photo)

Searching for more information on a New York–based journalist named “Albert Canus”—who the State Department had singled out to the FBI as a habitual filer of “inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country”—J. Edgar Hoover closely studied Hannah Arendt’s essay “French Existentialism” in the February 23, 1946, issue of The Nation—one of the first descriptions in the American press of the philosophical phenomenon then sweeping through Europe. It would be interesting to know what Hoover made of such passages as the one where Arendt explained the existentialists’ objections to bourgeois notions of “respectability”:

The “serious” man is one who thinks of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honor, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function. For by doing so he agrees to the identification of himself with an arbitrary function which society has bestowed. L’esprit sérieux is the very negation of freedom, because it leads man to agree to and accept the necessary deformation which every human being must undergo when he is fitted into society.

“Deformation,” Hoover may have whispered to himself, gazing out the window. “Deformation.”

On the next page he would have read Arendt’s description of the existentialists’ “insistence upon the basic homelessness of man in the world.”

For Camus man is essentially the stranger because the world in general and man as man are not fitted for each other; that they are together in existence makes the human condition an absurdity. Man is the only “thing” in the world which obviously does not belong in it, for only man does not exist simply as a man among men in the way animals exist among animals and trees among trees—all of which necessarily exist, so to speak, in the plural. Man is basically alone with his “revolt” and his “clairvoyance,” that is, with his reasoning, which makes him ridiculous because the gift of reason was bestowed upon him in a world “where everything is given and nothing ever explained.”

“Alone with his clairvoyance” may have tossed around the Hoover mind for some time to come.

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In next week’s issue, essayist, journalist and Nation contributor of several decades David Rieff reviews Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic, Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the events surrounding the publication of her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In that book, Arendt introduced the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the defendant as a go-along-to-get-along functionary whose monstrous crimes were largely the result of unthinking conformity rather than diabolic anti-Semitism. But loyal readers of this magazine and of Arendt, as well as viewers of von Trotta’s film, are probably unaware that during her years in New York City during and immediately after World War II, Arendt contributed a series of essays to The Nation, including the one on “French Existentialism,” many of which telegraphed the themes of her later, more controversial work.

Randall Jarrell, who briefly served as interim literary editor of The Nation in 1946, was one of Arendt’s closest friends during those New York years, when she worked as an editor for Schocken Books. According to the late Arendt biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Jarrell was translating German poetry at the time, which Arendt helped him with and tried, but failed, to convince Schocken to publish. Jarrell, in turn, commissioned from Arendt a series of short book reviews on topics ranging from the songs of Robert Gilbert to her new friend Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil to the collected essays of the philosopher John Dewey. It is striking to see Arendt discuss in that last article the connection between “scientific planning” and the Holocaust—one of the major themes of Eichmann in Jerusalem—with the same kind of empathy for its victims in which she was later charged with being deficient:

Dewey earnestly holds that the source of all the social and political evils of our time is laissez faire…but a glance at today’s or yesterday’s newspaper invariably teaches us that hell can be properly established only through the very opposite of laissez faire, through scientific planning. (This, of course, does not say anything against science as such.) Even more out of tune with reality are Dewey’s complacent judgments on those evil times of the past in which men were still slaves and serfs; only a great scholar living in the ivory tower of common sense could be so completely unaware of the fact that certain categories of men today are far worse off than any slave or serf ever was. Nor do we need to evoke the extremities of the death factories. Concentration camps have outlived the downfall of the Nazi regime and are accepted as a matter of course; their inmates belong to a new class of human beings who have lost even the elementary human usefulness for society as a whole of which slaves and serfs were never deprived.

Arendt went on to take issue with the fundamental premises of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy: namely, that the conceptual tools of science could be usefully applied to studying and improving human affairs.

The intention of this approach is certainly humanistic in essence; it tries sincerely to humanize science, to make scientific results usable for the human community. The trouble is only that, at the same time, science, and not man, takes the lead in the argument, with the result that man is degraded into a puppet which through education—through “formation of attitudes,” through “techniques for dealing with human nature”—has to be fitted into a scientifically controlled world. As though it was not man who invented science but some superhuman ghost who prepared this world of ours and only, through some incomprehensible obliviousness, forgot to change man into a scientific animal; as though man’s problem were to conform and to adjust himself to some abstract niceties. As though science could ever be more than man; and, consequently, as though such a gap between scientific and social knowledge could ever be more than wishful thinking.

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Though Arendt did not again contribute to The Nation after 1946, our Books and the Arts section covered her career almost every step of the way—almost, because the controversy that raged around her “banality of evil” thesis in Eichmann in Jerusalem somehow received no notice in our pages until 1969, when in a review of another Arendt book, the late political theorist and historian Paul Roazen said Eichmann “remains a shocker—for the terrible historical tale it tells, for the trial it records, and for the viewpoint it presents.”

As with Rieff’s essay, Nation writers have always had a strikingly mixed reaction to Arendt’s books. In 1951, the historian H. Stuart Hughes—grandson of the eleventh Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—praised The Origins of Totalitarianism as “the product of a rigorously trained and scrupulously honest mind, impatient with easy explanations and verbal fluency.” A later Nation writer, Jonathan Rée, called that “a very tactful way of putting it.” Hughes continued:

It reflects the high intellectual level of the German emigration of the 1930’s, which has done American thinking an inestimable service by setting a standard that the native-born have rarely been able to match. To a reader surfeited with the vacuous rhetoric that is currently doing service as the discussion of public affairs, Dr. Arendt’s book comes as a salutary mental shock.

While Hughes went on to complain that the author’s “unitary view of the totalitarian phenomenon causes Dr. Arendt to slur over the differences” between communism and fascism, he also called Origins an “unconventional history, but…a magnificent effort of creative imagination.”

Subsequent Nation reviews, however, identified the same faults in Arendt’s writing which, as Rieff notes in his essay, invited controversy after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Reviewing 1958’s The Human Condition, British philosopher Richard Peters called Arendt’s distinction between labor and work “coarse and confused,” while the prolific Canadian historian D.J. Goodspeed took issue with “not quite faultless” logic, “mistakes in history,” and “a lack of clarity only partly attributable to her subject” in On Revolution (1963). “Not all obscurity is the result of profundity,” Goodspeed cautioned. “All too often in Miss Arendt’s book, the sluggish flow between subject and verb is diverted and the reader is left to trace as best he can a thin trickle of assertion through a flooded swampland of redundancies, appositional phrases, pronouns of indefinite antecedent and unnecessary relative clauses.”

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More recent Nation articles on Arendt have focused on biographies and collections of letters published since her 1975 death. In contrast to von Trotta’s film, which Rieff says fails “to convey any sense of [Mary] McCarthy’s enormously cultivated sensibility and breadth of knowledge,” the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, in a 1995 review of Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, wrote:

Through their writing and lecturing, public participation and involvements, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy earn their place among the few women of our tradition who have discovered, in Arendt’s words, “the joys of public life” of acting and speaking in common in a shared public sphere.

Unsurprisingly, another constant preoccupation of Nation writers regarding Arendt is her complicated lifelong relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose willful collaboration with the Nazis was known at the time but the astonishing extent of which has only come to light in recent decades. Reviewing Elzbieta Ettinger’s landmark 1995 study, Hannah Arendt / Martin Heidegger, the first book on the subject which used the long-secret correspondence between Arendt and her former lover and teacher, the critic Carlin Romano employed some amusing Heideggerian and Arendtian puns in talking about their relationship. Heidegger, Romano wrote, “made clear through a couple of notes that he had Daseins on her.” In Ettinger’s “somewhat Cosmo-ish view,” he said,

Heidegger may not have been able to put his finger on Being, but he could always make Time for Hannah. As for Arendt’s all-too-human condition of eternal loyalty, it’s simply the banality of romantic obsession.

More seriously, Romano exonerated Arendt of Ettinger’s most scathing allegation: that Arendt, motivated by lingering romantic attachments to Heidegger, willingly acted as an apologist for her mentor’s fascist sympathies as he tried to salvage his reputation after the war.

Given that she famously detested self-protecting intellectuals as a class by the time she fled Germany for Paris [in 1933], Arendt, if she was to forgive Heidegger after the war, must have seen him as different from the street-smart intellectual careerists she loathed. It is certainly possible, as Ettinger believes, that love blinded Arendt to decency when it came to Heidegger. In light of everything we know about Arendt and her work—her “genius for friendship,” her concrete acts of kindness over the years, her refugee shrewdness about people’s characters, her no-nonsense recognition of man’s weakness before temptation, her belief that one must act politically and communicate with others to solve social problems—it’s far more likely that decency, and a unique understanding of Heidegger’s flaws as a man, made it possible for her to continue to love a part of him while regretting the rest.

Ettinger’s book implies that, knowing what we know now, we should respect Arendt less. This reader, for one, respects Arendt more.

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In the nearly seventy years since her own essays in our pages, the life and work of Hannah Arendt has been discussed and debated in The Nation possibly more than those of any other twentieth-century philosopher. (Exceptions might be Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, both of whom were also occasional Nation contributors.) One reason Arendt’s writing has so interested this magazine is her reflections on the relationship between philosophy and politics, which the British philosopher (and author of a book on Heidegger) Jonathan Rée discussed in a fascinating 2006 review of three posthumously published essay collections:

Arendt had a distinctly high-minded conception of politics, seeing it not as the bureaucratic administration of collective concerns or a burdensome public duty, still less as a self-interested continuation of warfare by other means. Politics for her was a precious cultural achievement rather than a regrettable social necessity, and it involved the careful maintenance of institutions that enable people to converse freely and respectfully about the world as they see it and as they would like it to be. It was essentially concerned with problems of a kind that will never have perfect solutions, and that therefore require improvisation, invention and endless critical discussion. Politics required us to set aside all sentiments of pride, indignation, shame or resentment, as well as any pretensions to superior expertise, in order to become responsive, intelligent citizens willing to negotiate all our differences on a basis of complete equality. Politics, in short, was the opposite of totalitarianism, and it depended on an open-hearted love for “human equality”—for people not in the mass or in the abstract but in the distinctness and idiosyncrasy of their lives and the infinite variety of their perceptions. It was more like a serene philosophical seminar than a self-interested struggle for power, and it was not so much a means to human happiness as the pith and substance of it.

Rée argued that was a somewhat naïve conception of politics, and that this naiveté helped explain some of Arendt’s more controversial writings, like 1959’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” which described federal attempts at desegregation of public schools as, in Rée’s words, “a fateful step…toward totalitarianism.” It does not take much to extrapolate from the last paragraph of his essay an explanation of Arendt’s problematic conclusions about Eichmann and defense of the unrepentant Heidegger:

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It never seems to have occurred to Arendt that if she sniffed Platonic condescension toward politics wherever she looked, it might be because it emanated from her. If she was as keen on the purity of politics as Plato was on the purity of philosophy, it was perhaps because politics as she conceived it was little more than philosophy by another name: a gracious art of respectful, self-critical listening that must always be allowed to take its time. But politics is also about emergencies, catastrophes and deadlines, and if it embodies a set of high republican principles of the kind that Arendt championed, it also contains much else: on the one hand a mass of more or less efficient administrative routines, and on the other elements of compulsion, folly and delusion, or—as Marx would put it—of tragedy and farce. She may have been right to defend the “promise of politics” against our reckless hopes and fears; but she should also have remembered that promises are often broken.

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