“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.
“Person” - ego - character
“Persona”: mask, originally, the role chosen by the ego for the game among and with human beings, the mask that it holds in front of itself in order to be non-identifiable.
Person: can also, though, be the role or the mask that we are born with, the one given to us by nature in the form of the body and the gifts of the mind, and by society in the form of our social status.
Person in the first sense is actually character, insofar as the person is here and is the product of the ego. The question of identity arises in both cases, in case of the character, in such a way that the ego remains the sovereign master of the character, its product. In the second case, in such a way that the person conceals something else, something apparently deeper, and the ego becomes no more than the formalistic principle of the unity of body and soul, on the one hand, [and] of the coherent relatedness of multiple gifts, on the other.
In contrast: “persona” as “per-sonare” – to sound through.
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch (freely translated by Stefanie Rosenmüller )
Are we not, especially as adolescents, urgently in search of our own personality? The young human being, or at least that of my recollection, attempts to discover his or her own personality, the pure ego of the person, like an inner core within, like a treasure or a talisman that enables the individual to shine brightly and which equips one to confront and encounter the people and things in the world outside.
Arendt would probably have seen this as a futile enterprise. The person is not the same as the thinking ego, and attempting to find the person through pure introspection would surely, in her eyes, have been a form of psychologism. The person is not the pure ego: it represents an interface between me and the others, the place where the two sides confront one another.
Young people do spend a remarkable amount of time in front of the mirror and, although we can certainly point to quite simple reasons of vanity to explain this, most people would probably agree that there is more to all this experimenting and checking of hairstyles, creams, cosmetics and caps than mere fashion, and that it involves the search for one’s own identity and the possibilities of presenting one’s own person to others. Presentation, in this sense, includes not only all types of styling and concealment, but also the features of the face itself - yet my own features do not seem to want me to read them and although the mirror may (nearly) reflect the perspective of the others, I cannot find my ego there, the gap remains, and my person is not to be found in the mirror. But why (leaving Lacan aside for the present) do people search for their personality in the mirror’s reflection?
The “persona,” which was the mask shown to the audience in the Roman theatre, defines the character of the person it conceals. Standing in front of the mirror might symbolize my attempt to tear off my own mask, to gaze, for a moment at least, at what lies behind, to see into and through myself and then to decide whom or what facet I want to show to others – unfortunately, though, this undertaking will not succeed. The person is not an entity behind the mask, but an interface between me and the others: the personality will appear only in the concealing by the mask.
The person, as Arendt describes it, is seen only by the others, and it is only in the gaze of those others that I can, at most, catch a reflection of it. I cannot remove the mask of my own face, and were I to do so, there would be nothing to see but bones and sinews. The face shows the person and although the eyes are said to open a view right through to the soul, to myself that view remains opaque.
“On the contrary, it is more than likely that the ‘who,’ which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.“ (Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition)
“[O]ur newest experiences and our most recent fears…[are] a matter of thought and thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – [This] seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Not thinking was, for Arendt, the increasingly dominant quality of the world in which we live. Thoughtlessness is the negative mirror image of what she called for as the only form of thinking appropriate to period of crisis (indeed, in a strict sense, perhaps to any time) – thinking “without a banister.”
Inherent in this conception is that in ages and at times like our own, when one must think without support, many, perhaps most, will not think, or rather will avoid thinking. They will thus be left without that voice of conscience – like Socrates' daimon who appears at moments of judgment and keeps Socrates from justifying, or even engaging in acts that are evil. Importantly, that something is “true,” means nothing by itself unless it is the subject of thinking.
One might consider here the thoughtlessness that reigned in the general reaction in the United States to the attacks of 9/11, 2001. The analogy was immediately drawn to Pearl Harbor. From this analogy it followed that our response should be analogous to that after Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda, unlike Japan, was not a nation-state. Furthermore this enemy was linked to an Axis of Evil against which one was to fight a “war on terror.” Osama Bin laden was Hitler or at least Tojo; Saddam Hussein another totalitarian, linked by an Axis of Evil to the other totalitarians. Yet one cannot fight against terror, only against an enemy – Carl Schmitt had warned of forgetting this.
The result of not thinking about what one has done – whether as a policy maker or a member of the population -- has been a war that has now gone on for ten years with neither goal nor end in sight. Thoughtlessness has consequences: people die as a result of thoughtlessness.
(I discovered similar thoughts in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters on pages 12-13 after writing this passage and modified my words, as hers are much better: I join others in mourning her passing).