“Arendt on Narrative Theory and Practice”
Allen Speight, College Literature, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2011, pp. 115-130
Allen Speight, Director, Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University, argues for Arendt’s place among theorists of narrative such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Talyor, and Paul Ricouer. While he does indicate contemporary questions in both the Anglo-American and continental traditions throughout the article, he delivers particularly rich insights into Arendt’s engagement with three canonical thinkers. Specifically, he highlights aspects of Arendt’s use of conceptions of narration in developing her ideas of action in The Human Condition. In each aspect, he sees Arendt drawing on a specific philosophical precursor—Aristotle, Hegel, and Augustine in turn—but also diverging from them.
In relation to Aristotle, Speight focuses on how action reveals the “who,” how the actor emerges not from his intention but from his impact on the world. As does Aristotle, Arendt places a strong focus on drama. Aristotle and Arendt both hold that “dramatic actions” allow us to “construe what sort of a character an agent has.” However, rather than focusing on the reception of the audience, Arendt links the spectator to the actor. Indeed, expanding from Speight’s interpretation, we might say Arendt opens another center in the actor himself with her idea of the daimon, who watches over one’s shoulder.
From Hegel, Speight sees Arendt picking up on the tragic nature of action and how this leads to a need for forgiveness. The agent will not get what he wants and indeed often perish due to effects that he cannot foresee. Speight makes a striking link to Hegel here:
“A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel liked to say: action by its nature is not something construable in given terms but is a kind of “stepping-forth” or opening up of the unexpected and unpredictable (Elements of the Philosophy of Right.) The classic, tragic examples of action in its openness—Antigone’s deed, for example, which both Hegel and Arendt were drawn to—present in an intensified way what is an underlying condition within ordinary action, one requiring the need for some means of reconciliation.
With the line “A stone thrown is the devil’s,” Hegel lets the personified evil step in as a kind of holding place that opens the question of how the effect of action will change the actor. Unlike Hegel though, the ultimate judge is not institutionalized world history, but the world as the space in which the who is revealed.
Stepping back chronologically, Speight then turns to Augustine as a source of Arendt’s idea of narrative rebirth. Here he picks up on an existentialist debate through Sartre: given that one’s account of one’s life can change it fundamentally, do we have a responsibility to an authentic narration? To what extent are we free when we tell our own stories? Arendt rejects the possibility that a life can simply me “made” in narrative. However:
for Arendt the distinction between a life that is “lived” and a story that is “made” involves two distinctly non-Sartrean consequences. The first we have already seen in her “daimõn thesis”: that precisely because we live rather than make a life, there is a privileged—but (pace Sartre) a not necessarily false—retrospective position from which we must view the “who,“ the daimõn, that is revealed in our lives. Thus, as we have seen, the “who” is visible “ex post facto through action and speech” (Arendt 1958, 186) and this retrospectivity in turn privileges the work of the discerning interpretive historian or storyteller. (121)
I find Speight’s repeated discussion of the daimon particularly relevant, since it offers an original way to talk about the belatedness of knowledge, of how it can comes later, or even from the side, without privileging an end position as Hegel does.
In the second half of his article, Speight offers a reading of Men in Dark Times that illustrates how Arendt uses these three aspects of her narrative theory in her own practice of narration. His reading the sections on Jaspers and Waldemar Gurian explicitly link the question of the daimon, biography, and how a person come to appearance in the public realm. Readers following the growing subsection of Arendt scholarship engaged with Arendt’s literary dimension will find an original effort here that offers a model for future work connecting Arendt’s theoretical articulations with her writing practice.
“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.
And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.
It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).
Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.
The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.
And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.
Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?
It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”
The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.
Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier
Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive.
NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés
"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
- Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times
According to Arendt, it is through action – and all action is but acts of speech – that human beings disclose themselves in their whoness rather than merely on the basis of their whatness. Her indebtedness for storytelling comes from a two-fold source: The Greek world on the one hand - the poets and the historians, and on the other the writings of Isak Dinesen.
Arendt devoted no theoretical effort to pass Dinesen under the lens of theory, other than some occasional mention and a literary profile in the book that Auden called her most German book – because of the form of epic legends in which the stories of the anti-heroes, under the shadow of dark times, are told.
Herself a talented storyteller, her books can be read better against this background of storytelling than on theoretical impetus; this is not because Arendt wasn’t a vehement defender of the life of the mind but because of her insight about the inability of intellectual traditions and history to understand and comprehend the events of her century.
Her reading of Dinesen conforms to the difficulties of understanding Totalitarianism. Spanish philosopher Fina Birulés puts in the following words: “While storytelling does not solve any problem and does not master anything forever, it adds yet another element in the repertory of the world, it is a way for human beings to leave a lasting presence in the world, not as species, but as a plurality of who’s”.
The relationship between storytelling and reconciliation is laid out by Arendt through Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go: “When the storyteller is loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence”. To let go is an act of reconciliation.
Arendt writes the story of this anxiety and melancholy of her own through Dinesen: “That grief of having lost her life and lover in Africa should have made her a writer and given her a sort of second life was best understood as a joke, and “God loves a joke” became her maxim in the latter part of her life”.
Agnes Heller writes that Arendt knows in advance what it is that she wants to find in her storytelling, in spite of – often – finding something unexpected.
Dinesen becomes a reflection of mirrors for Arendt who in writing about Dinesen’s own storytelling that seems artificial and blurs the distinction between truth and fiction, finds the detachment necessary to comprehend the world, temporarily: “To become an artist also needs time and a certain detachment from the heavy, intoxicating business of sheer living that, perhaps, only the born artist can manage in the midst of living.”
The flight into imaginary worlds at the hand of Dinesen’s pen isn’t simply a performance and re-enactment of the Gothic – as is for example William Beckford’s “Vathek” – but rather a coming to terms with the present by telling a story about its burdens.
It is nothing but an anchoring on the present at a time when the foundation of the present itself – the past – seems irrevocably lost. A similar example of storytelling through mirrors would be, for example, Susan Sontag’s review of Anna Banti’s “Artemisia” for The London Review of Books in 2003.
“Artemisia” is a novel written late in the Second World War about the life of Artemisia Gentilenschi, a 17th century Italian painter: Banti, trained as an art historian, is meticulously careful about her treatment of sources on Gentilenschi’s life and writes in what Sontag calls “a double destiny”; according to her, Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia and is careful enough to write in the detachment of the third person, only available to the truly committed storyteller in a game of hide and seek: “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I”.
More than a biography or a historical novel, Artemisia is a deeply emotional but sober and detached portrait of a woman in the early 17th century, tainted by the scandal of a rape that disgraced her family and haunted no more by her total commitment to art, than by the immense loneliness of living as an artist in a male-dominated world – but told with more grace than resentment.
The story about Banti and Artemisia that Sontag is telling is one of permanent displacement and loss; not only because of the female story being told but because the original novel was lost under the ruins of Banti’s house in Borgo San Jacopo when the mines detonated by the Germans wrecked the houses near the river, including hers.
Without knowing as much, Susan Sontag is writing about Banti in the same way that Arendt is writing about Dinesen: Behind a story of loss and womanhood, there is an affirmative and rather reckless anchoring in the present – in Sontag’s case, the world after Totalitarianism: The Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib. It is against this background that she is writing about a “phoenix of a novel”, which is in itself a testimony to Sontag’s own work.
What both writers learnt from their own writers is a bitter lesson in contemporary history, as eloquently put by Arendt about Dinesen:
Thus, the earlier part of her life had taught her that, while you can tell stories or write poems about life, you cannot make life poetic, live it as though it were a work of art (as Goethe had done) or use it for the realization of an “idea”. Life might contain the “essence” (what else could?); recollection, the repetition in imagination, may decipher the essence and deliver to you the “elixir”; and eventually you may even be privileged to “make” something out of it, “to compound the story”. But life itself is neither essence nor elixir, and if you treat it as such it will only play its tricks on you.
When Lebanese writer Mira Baz left Yemen in 2011, in the course of the revolution and just before the deadly “Friday of Dignity” massacre, after nearly a decade teaching and writing in the mysterious land – similar to Dinesen’s Africa seen through Arendt and Banti’s Florence seen through Sontag, a sort of paradise lost and not without heavy taxes levied by the status of paradise, she was to become displaced and would turn her poetic travelogue of Yemen into a vast vault of memory.
In March 2012 she wrote – exactly a year after the massacre – about the experience of the displacement, invoking the following lines from Dinesen:
“If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,
Of the plows in the field and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,
Does Africa know a song of me?”
After which she writes:
The house and the garden had quickly become my home, where in the mornings I fed my regular guests Bulbuls and Serins, and found serenity when, through watching them, I meditated on existence, on cycles, on life, on everything and nothingness. Out there was Yemen. Within the garden walls, and all the walls, was me, inside my head.
Through reading and writing, life cannot be changed, but it can be made understandable and livable, after the same fashion of John Updike when he described the prose of Bruno Schulz: “The harrowing effect of Schulz’ prose is to construct the world anew, as from fragments that exist after some unnamable disaster”. The disaster is always the turbulence of history and the unnamable is the loss, but here storytelling becomes a privilege, a sign of truth, and the burden of a presence – entering the world once again, even if it had been lost once.
Fina Birulés concludes her timely meditation on Arendt and Dinesen: “The political function of the narrator – historian or novelist – is to teach the acceptance of things as they are. From this acceptance, that might be called as well veracity, is born the faculty of judgment, by means of which, in words of Isak Dinesen, in the end we will have the privilege to see and to see again, and that is what is called Day of Judgment.”