The Metaphysical Couple

The Metaphysical Couple

This book has a past, which begins at least in 1995, when Elzbieta Ettinger brought out a controversial account of the unpublished correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, but p


This book has a past, which begins at least in 1995, when Elzbieta Ettinger brought out a controversial account of the unpublished correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, but probably much earlier. It was 1982 when Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, described the “first amour,” as Arendt called it, in some detail. And for years before Arendt’s death in 1975, the affair with Heidegger, and even more its aftermath, was known to her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and to many close friends. It was not an experience that could be kept secret; not by Arendt, who was moved at a time–she was 18 when she met Heidegger in Marburg in 1924–that left her moved forever.

But it was the publication of Ettinger’s Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger–which drew upon a half-century of unpublished correspondence that she was unable to quote directly at the time–that brought this improbable and disturbing relationship to the attention of a wider public. (Less than a quarter of the surviving letters are by Arendt, something Ettinger ignored.) According to Ettinger, Arendt succumbed to a “girlish crush” that never wore off. When she was reunited with Heidegger in Germany after the war, the story goes, she was struck as much by their continuing love as by his political misdeeds, and resolved to defend him in the court of public opinion even if that meant downplaying the importance of her own work, which subverted Heidegger’s project from within. Arendt, she says, “gave her love freely, happily, defying convention. She held up for Heidegger a mirror in which was reflected an almost godlike being,” while Heidegger retained a “capacity for ruthlessness and cunning,” and a “constant need of worship and adulation.” He “was in a position of power. He enjoyed power, and he used it as he saw fit.” He “reinforced the ‘slavish’ streak in her,” Ettinger wrote.

Sensationalist though it was, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger was reviewed seriously, even by its harshest critics, because it purported to unlock the mysteries of a relationship that has troubled Arendt’s admirers while confirming the longstanding prejudices of her detractors that, in Gershom Scholem’s words, she had “no love of the Jewish people.” How could a Jewish philosopher, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and an unswerving critic of fascism and intolerance, have fallen in love with a philosopher of the German right–and, moreover, refused to break with him even after his sordid record of Nazi collaboration was starkly revealed? For critics of Arendt’s explosive book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the Heidegger relationship was added to her list of unforgivable sins, and was advanced by some as an “explanation” of her intellectual failings. “Hannah Arendt did not only have a Jewish problem,” Richard Wolin wrote in a caustic review of Ettinger’s book in The New Republic. “She also had a Heidegger problem. And they were, in many respects, intertwined with each other.”

But were they? With the publication of the Arendt-Heidegger correspondence, edited by Ursula Ludz, it is finally possible to assess the meaning of the relationship. Arendt may have been guilty of poor judgment in maintaining ties with a man who failed to repudiate his National Socialist involvement, but Ettinger substitutes a banal fantasy for what the letters say, and one is hard-pressed to believe she refers to the same material.

When Arendt first met Heidegger, she was a young philosophy student in Weimar Germany on her own for the first time. Fiercely independent yet full of melancholy, she was older than her years, a romantic in a way people are not romantic anymore. Heidegger, for his part, was 35, married and the father of two young sons. He was approaching the end of his masterpiece Being and Time (1927), a critique of Western metaphysics that revolutionized philosophy. (As Sartre’s 1943 Heideggerian tome Being and Nothingness demonstrated, one didn’t have to be German or a nationalist or conservative to believe the book topped all previous philosophy.) Heidegger was at the witching age, when, according to Jung, one reaches a fork in the road and chooses, or not, to reflect on one’s life, to place it on a solid footing. Hannah Arendt was caught up in his search; she became, in a sense, the means by which he could both experience love and love himself.

In his first letter, written just before their affair began, Heidegger wrote: “Dear Miss Arendt! I must see you this evening and speak to your heart…. You are my pupil and I your teacher, but that is only the occasion for what has happened to us. I will never be able to call you mine, but from now on you will belong in my life, and it shall grow with you.” A few days later, on February 21, 1925, came the second: “Dear Hannah! Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices…. Love,” he decided, “transforms gratitude into loyalty to ourselves and unconditional faith in the other.” Three months later, he told her that “Augustine once said: I love you–I want you to be what you are.”

This last was a saying Arendt never forgot. It may have inspired her to write her dissertation on St. Augustine’s concept of love, just as falling in love with Heidegger led her to start her book in 1930 about the nineteenth-century Jewish figure Rahel Varnhagen, whose salon was the center of the German Romantic movement, and who nearly married the gentile Count von Finckenstein. “To be what you are” comes close to defining Arendt’s sense of herself, of the endless portents that lay in her being. And Varnhagen’s diaries came close to evoking Arendt’s inner life.

In the first part of Letters 1925-1975, which covers the years of their affair until the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, there are only three letters from Hannah, plus the essay “Shadows,” and forty-one letters from Heidegger. According to Heidegger’s son, the two had sworn to destroy the other’s early correspondence; the three letters from Arendt are copies, and the later ones are carbons. Only in 1966, beginning in the section titled “Autumn,” did Heidegger start saving Arendt’s letters. Meanwhile, every letter from Heidegger, including notes–“Do you want to come to the wood this evening? But only around 10. For I have exams until 8…”–was kept by Arendt in a bedroom drawer.

The first extant letter from Arendt, written on April 22, 1928, in Heidelberg, where she had gone to write her dissertation on St. Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers, begins in medias res: “So you aren’t coming now–I think I understand. But still I have been anxious in the last few days…” She and Heidegger were meeting less frequently since she’d left Marburg in late 1925. He wasn’t happy with the change: “I understand, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear,” he wrote on January 10, 1926. And a few lines later: “I forgot you–not from indifference…but because I had to forget and will forget you whenever I withdraw into the final stages of my work.” The letter jolts back and forth, from “I can well imagine that ‘Heidegger disciples’ are hardly a pleasant phenomenon,” to “perhaps your decision will become an example and will help me clear the air”; but it does not confirm Ettinger’s belief that Heidegger rejected Hannah. Arendt’s 1928 letter continues: “The path you showed me is longer and more difficult than I thought”; and is signed, “And, if God choose, I shall love thee better after death,” a quote from Sonnets From the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and not, as Ettinger suggested, Arendt’s death wish. The correspondence testifies to the seriousness of this relationship, for both of them.

Arendt’s second letter, probably written in 1929, refers to “the trust that our last reunion in Heidelberg once more newly and gratifyingly strengthened,” and asks Heidegger to “not forget me, and do not forget how much…I know that our love has become the blessing of my life.” She has married fellow student Günther Stern. In the third letter, Heidegger has come for a visit and stands at the window of the train with Günther. “So many things that had left me utterly confused came together. Not just…how the sight of you always rekindles my awareness of life’s clearest and most urgent continuity, of the continuity of our–please let me say it–love. But: I had already stood before you,” she said; “you had briefly looked up. And you did not recognize me.” She told him how when she was a child her mother had once “stupidly” frightened her by pretending not to recognize her, as in the fairy tale about Dwarf Nose, “whose nose gets so long nobody recognizes him anymore…. I kept crying: but I am your child, I am your Hannah.” Then the train was about to leave, and there they were, and she alone, “completely powerless. As always, nothing was left for me but to let it happen, and wait, wait, wait.”

With Rahel Varnhagen, who also found illumination in suffering, she could say, “What am I doing? Nothing. I am letting life rain down upon me.” But Arendt had moved to Berlin and with Stern participated in the underground railroad that ferried Communists out of Germany. She was closer to the Zionists, however; and by 1930, when people all over Germany were hailing Hitler as a savior, she was studying the history of German and European anti-Semitism. Arendt’s dislike of intellectuals who failed to recognize the darkening political situation led her to reject the advances of Leo Strauss, the philosopher and future neocon guru, who met her in the Prussian State Library after Stern had fled Germany for Paris in early 1933. (Arendt and Stern were divorced in France.) Strauss’s bitterness lasted for years, and grew worse when they found themselves at the same faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, for she had pointed out the irony of his support for a political party that had no place for a Jew like him. Her conviction that “when one is attacked as a Jew one must defend oneself as a Jew, not as a German, not as a world-citizen” also led her to distance herself from Theodor Adorno, who had adopted his mother’s Italian family name in 1933 in place of his father’s more obviously Jewish name, Wiesengrund.

In his last letter to Arendt in the early period, written in the winter semester of 1932-33, Heidegger attempted to lay to rest the “rumors that are upsetting you” about his treatment of Jews, even as he drew closer to the Nazi Party. He was elected rector of Freiburg University, and in his inaugural address in the fall of 1933–when Arendt fled Germany for Paris with her mother–had claimed that Hitler would bring the German people back to spiritual health, and ended by giving the familiar salute to the audience’s cries of Sieg Heil. It was true that he protected Jewish members of the faculty, though as Arendt wrote, “Hitler himself is said to have known 340 ‘first-rate Jews'”; and that he resigned after a year in protest against the interference of the Nazi minister of education, and no doubt for other reasons. But it was also true that he hoped in these early years that the author of Mein Kampf would benefit from his teaching. Arendt was appalled by his activities, and in a 1946 essay in Partisan Review called him a philosopher of “absolute egoism” and a “potential murderer” of his Jewish mentor Husserl.

Yet when she returned to Europe as the director of a Jewish organization, in search of stolen Jewish property, especially the contents of libraries, she looked up Heidegger in Germany. She was “the girl from abroad,” she told him in her first letter in the second section (the note that summoned him to the Freiburg Hotel is missing); and soon after he sent her an untitled couplet–“In rare abruptness, Being’s flash of light./We peer, protect–turn toward the sight”–followed by “The Girl From Abroad”: “The stranger,/even to yourself,/she is:/mountain of joy,/sea of sorrow,/desert of desire,/dawn of arrival…” He gave her his translation of Sophocles’ Antigone and two Heraclitus lectures from before the war. She gave him–“actually not just for you but also for your wife,” an unrepentant Nazi–an essay she had published in Jewish Frontier in 1945, called “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility.” In it, one finds the germ of the Eichmann thesis, the “mob man” for whom there is no longer any connection between “private and public functions, of family and occupation…. When his occupation forces him to murder people he does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity.” If Heidegger had any reaction to this, it’s not in the letters. In fact, the rest of the correspondence contains no record of a discussion of the Nazi period, and no mention of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which came out in 1951.

Despite misgivings about his past, Arendt had found in her reunion with her former mentor and lover “the confirmation of an entire life.” Not only was her memory of their early rapport affirmed but she was struck by his isolation, by his unawareness of his worldwide reputation as a philosopher and by his political ineptitude. To her husband, Heinrich, she wrote: “The two of us had a real talk…for the first time in our lives, with the result that I had to think of my darned Snubby [Blücher’s nickname], who’s such a good judge of things”–an odd remark, suggesting If Not For Him.

The next day, over tea, she had an argument with Heidegger’s wife, Elfride. As long as Hannah was alive, “she is ready to drown any Jew in sight…. But I’m going to try to defuse things as much as I can,” she told Heinrich. And she did and didn’t, as the letter shows, treating Mrs. Heidegger to tantalizing confessions, most likely intended for her husband, such as “Martin and I have probably sinned just as much against each other as against you”; and, “I did things later in connection with this affair that were so much worse that I did not remember the earlier things”–possibly a reference to her denunciations of Heidegger–and this curious statement: “Please believe one thing: what was and surely still is between us was never personal. At least not that I am aware of.” Yet she managed to thank Elfride for breaking “the spell” of silence between them.

To Blücher, she said of Heidegger’s wife: “For twenty-five years now, or from the time she somehow wormed the truth about us out of him, she has clearly made his life a hell on earth,” Arendt wrote. “And he, who always, at every opportunity, has been such a notorious liar, evidently…never…refuted that I had been the passion of his life.” It was this honesty in personal relations that allowed her to forgive Heidegger for his political crimes.

Heidegger speaks frankly in his poems, and there are dozens here. One, sent in March 1950, is called “November 1924,” and addresses his earliest attraction to “that child”: “If only from withdrawn grace,/she, the one, would fall toward me!/…renew the shyness of that child,/the gaze that bid me to be true,/fearing my failure all the while.” He is particularly candid in the letters that follow Arendt’s return (“I wish I could run the five-fingered comb through your frizzy hair”), until June 1952, when Elfride has had enough of Hannah, whose visits have grown more frequent. Before that, Heidegger had asked Hannah to stay as close to Elfride as she could; “I need her love, which bore everything in silence through the years and still has room to grow. I need your love, which, mysteriously maintained in its early seeds, brings hers from the depths.” Perhaps there was good reason for him not to share “the joyousness…of our love” with his wife in 1925; but now, thanks to Arendt’s return, he has no choice. And Heidegger, far from being in a position of power, was, at least in the domestic realm, at the mercy of his women.

It was 1953 before Heidegger, who was still under a form of house arrest for his collaboration, was allowed to teach again. In the meantime, his need for Arendt’s support was profound; and letter after letter until mid-1952, some twenty-two in all, are full of “metaphysical thinking,” of the relationship between “existence” and “Being,” and references to early manuscript drafts that Arendt had. “Oh you! most trusted one–if you were here–yet you are here…. But the great ocean between us,” he wrote on May 16, 1950. “You remember: on a walk in the valley, we talked about language. You are right about reconciliation and revenge.… And then I dream–you would like living here after all, walking down interlocking forest paths…. As it is I have ‘only’ your picture.” From Christmas 1952 to 1966, when Arendt no longer saw Heidegger, there are only eight letters from him, and these are stiffer: “Our forests and mountains are still standing, and are not yet weary of their essence. They send you their best at this Christmas season….” “Tant pis pour moi,” she wrote Blücher from Germany in 1952, which didn’t imply that “anything has changed between the two of us; that doesn’t seem possible anymore,” only that “he needs peace and quiet…which [Elfride] won’t give him if I’m in the vicinity.”

In 1966 Heidegger wrote Arendt on her 60th birthday: “The joyfulness of thinking will revive, of itself, always new…. But it is sufficient if it is granted a subterranean transmission, so to speak.” And soon she paid a call, and was reading his books: Kant’s Thesis About Being and What Is Called Thinking? and pronouncing them marvelous, and finding translators for them. She kept him abreast of Vietnam; “the best thing that could happen to this country…would be to lose the war.” But she didn’t tell him about her own work, about Eichmann in Jerusalem, or On Revolution, or Men in Dark Times, all of which had come out in German. After 1966, she emerged as a defender, though hardly an uncritical one, of Heidegger’s contribution to philosophy. It was what you did for an old friend, and friendship was more important to Arendt–more important in the end than holding his past against him.

“Little more than a name was known,” she wrote in a tribute called “Heidegger at Eighty” in 1969, “but the name made its way through all of Germany like the rumor of the secret king…. there was Husserl and his cry of ‘to the things themselves’–that is, ‘away from theories, away from books.'” But the thread of tradition was broken for Heidegger, too, and he had started over. “The rumor put it quite simply: thinking is alive again; the cultural treasures of the past, which everybody had believed dead, are being made to speak again, whereby it turns out that they are saying quite different things.”

Arendt was ready to forgive Heidegger’s transgressions under Hitler, but not to overlook them. “Who but Heidegger would have thought of seeing National Socialism as ‘the encounter between the global technology and modern humanity,'” she wrote in her tribute, quoting from his Introduction to Metaphysics, “unless one had read not Hitler’s Mein Kampf but a few writings by the Italian Futurists [as he had]…. This mistake is insignificant,” she went on, “compared with the far more decisive error that consisted of avoiding the reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture hells of the concentration camps, which were set up immediately after the burning of the Reichstag, in favor of supposedly higher realms.” How “striking” it was, “and perhaps even irritating that when they got involved in human affairs, both Plato and Heidegger resorted to tyrants and Führers,” which Arendt “attributed not simply to the conditions of their respective times, and even less to innate character, but, rather to what the French call a ‘déformation professionelle.'” The “tendency to the tyrannical,” she noted, can be found in all the great thinkers (save Kant); and was therefore somehow diminished–a questionable conclusion that bent over backward to absolve Heidegger.

“Unlike you, I am only slightly interested in politics,” Heidegger wrote on March 14, 1974, a year before they both died. “For the most part, the state of the world is clear, after all. The power inherent in the essence of technology is scarcely recognized…. The individual can no longer do anything to oppose the arrogance of the ‘mass media’ and the institutions–and nothing at all when it comes to uncovering the origins of thinking in ancient Greek thought.” Which seemed to be all that mattered. For Arendt, it was the power of men and women, acting freely in their public capacity–for love of the world–that could bring about change. Heidegger had believed in the German Volk, and nothing had supplanted it in his imagination.

In The Life of the Mind, dedicated to Martin Heidegger, edited by Mary McCarthy and published in 1977, two years after both their deaths, Arendt turned to “The Anaximander Fragment,” which was written in 1946 and appeared as the last essay of Heidegger’s Holzwege in 1950. It contained a “changed mood [that] reflected Germany’s defeat, the ‘point zero’…that for a few years seemed to promise a new beginning.” In Heidegger’s words: “Do we stand in the very twilight of the most monstrous transformation our planet has ever undergone…? [Or] do we gaze into the evening of a night which heralds another dawn?” It was the mood that Karl Jaspers, the other philosopher in Arendt’s life, expressed at a symposium in Geneva that same year: “We live as though we are knocking at gates that are still closed…. What happens today will perhaps one day found and establish a world.” The mood of hope quickly disappeared in the rapidity of the economic and political recovery under the Marshall Plan, and was not to be found in Adenauer’s Germany. Arendt, however, was still searching for evidence that Heidegger had once seen the light. As in the letters, a much-interrupted conversation between star-crossed lovers, the threads that connect them all are his answers, her questions.

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