“The wonder that man endures or which befalls him cannot be related in words because it is too general for words….That this speechless wonder is the beginning of philosophy became axiomatic for both Plato and Aristotle.”
-Hannah Arendt, "Philosophy and Politics"
Aristotle had told us that philosophy begins in thaumázein-- θαυμάζειν –“to wonder, marvel, be astonished.” In the New Testament, the word appears only twice. In the parallel occurrences (Matthew 27:14 and Mark 15:5), Pilate marvels at the fact that Jesus says nothing. What is significant is that thaumázein is associated there with an experience for which there were no words. The word means a kind of an initial wordless astonishment at what is, at that that is is. For Aristotle, thaumázein is the beginning of philosophy as wonder. It is not for the Greeks, therefore, the beginning of political philosophy.
Key here is the fact of speechlessness. This wonder “cannot be related in words because it is too general for words.” Arendt suggests that Plato encountered it in those moments in which Socrates, “as though seized by a rapture, [fell] into complete motionlessness, just staring without seeing or hearing anything.” It follows that “ultimate truth is beyond words.” Nevertheless, humans want to talk about that which cannot be spoken. “As soon as the speechless state of wonder translates itself into words, it … will formulate in unending variations what we call the ultimate questions.” These questions – what is being? Who is the human being? What is the meaning of life” what is death? And so forth “have in common that they cannot be answered scientifically.” Thus Socrates “I know that I do not know” is actually an expression that opens the door to the political, public realm, in the recognition that nothing that can be said there can ever have the quality of being final.
According to Arendt, Socrates has three distinct aspects. First he arouses citizens from their slumber – this is the gadfly who gets others to think, to think about those topics for which there is no final answer. Secondly as “midwife” he decides – he makes evident – whether an opinion is fit to live or is merely an unimpregnated “wind-egg” (cf Theateatus 152a; 157d; 161a): Greek midwives not only assisted in the delivery but determined if the new-born was healthy enough to live. Socrates concludes his discussion in the Theateatus (210b) by saying all they have done is to produce a mere wind-egg and that he must leave as he has to get to the courthouse for his trial. Lastly, as stinging ray, Socrates paralyzes in two ways. He makes you stop and think; he destroys the certainty one has of received opinions. Arendt is clear that this can be dangerous. She goes on to say that “thinking is … dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed,” but she is equally clear that “non-thinking … has its dangers [which are] the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.” To think is dangerous: but to think is to desire wisdom, what is not there. It is thus a longing; it is eros and, as with all things erotic, “to bring this relationship into the open, make it appear, men speak about it in the same way that the lover wants to speak of his beloved.” Where does this leave one? For the most part, in normal times, thinking is not of political use. It is, however, of use, in times when the “center does not hold,” in times of crisis.
At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by whatever everyone else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conscious and thereby becomes a kind of action. The purging element … is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another human faculty, the faculty of judgment, … the faculty to judge particulars without subsuming them under those general rules which can be taught and learned until the grow into habits.
Suppose we read Arendt as saying that political philosophy must now turn and thaumázein – and wonder – not at that what is, is, but at the human reality, at the world of human activity. This would involve a change in philosophy – for which she says philosophers are not particularly well equipped. She thinks such a turn would rest on and derive from several elements – she mentions in particular Jaspers’ reformulation of truth as transcending the realm that can be instrumentally controlled, thus related to freedom; Heidegger’s analysis of ordinary everyday life; and existentialism’s insistence on action. It will be an inquiry into the “political significance of thought; that is into the meaningfulness and the conditions of thinking for a being that never exists in the singular and whose essential plurality is far from explored when an I-Thou relationship is added to the traditional understanding of human nature.”
What is problematic with purely philosophical thaumázein? The Thracian maid who appears in the title to Jacques Taminiaux’s book and stands for Arendt in his analysis derives from an account in the Theateatus. Upon encountering Thales who, all-focused in his wondering, had fallen into a well, the maid notes that the philosopher had “failed to see what was in front of him.” Mary-Jane Robinson notes four elements to Arendt’s suspicion of excessive wonder, a suspicion one assumes was directed at Heidegger. First, such wonder allows avoidance of the messiness of the everyday world; secondly, such “uncritical openness” leads philosophers to be “swept away by dictators.” Thirdly, such wonder alienates the philosopher (as with Heidegger post-1945) from the world around him, and lastly, such openness to the mystery of the world, “disables decision making.”
If politics is the realm of how humans appear to each other when they act and speak, from whence does it come? The only possible answer is that politics is an emergence from a realm which is neither that of action nor that of speech. The political emerges from nothingness. Perhaps this is the realm to which poetry can call us – and some of Arendt’s most moving essays are on poetry and literature – but such a realm is not political. In this sense there is a limit to political science, as there is to all science. For Arendt, there are no underlying causes out of which that which is political must emerge. This is why political action is always for her a beginning and a marvel for which we have to try to find words.
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. Yet, in their effort to prove that everything is possible, totalitarian regimes have discovered without knowing it that there are crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive. When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice; and which therefore anger could not revenge, love could not endure, friendship could not forgive. Just as the victims in the death factories or the holes of oblivion are no longer "human" in the eyes of their executioners, so this newest species of criminals is beyond the pale even of solidarity in human sinfulness.
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Although Hannah Arendt never dedicated an entire chapter or essay to the emotion, she was nonetheless well aware of the insidious pull of resentment. In The Origins of Totalitarianism resentment is mentioned 16 times.
Early in the Origins, Arendt writes, "The social resentment of the lower middle classes against the Jews turned into a highly explosive political element, because these bitterly hated Jews were thought to be well on their way to political power." Here resentment refers to the mobilization of mass antisemitism and the driving force behind the scapegoating of Jews.
By the end of Origins of Totalitarianism, in the lengthy passage quoted above, Arendt refers to resentment as one of many "evil motives" that had in the past made crimes understandable. With the advent of radical evil typical of the Third Reich, however, crimes against human plurality that could neither be punished nor forgiven could also not be explained away by unsavory human emotions and intentions. Here we can see a shift in meaning: in the beginning stages of Nazi occupation, resentment is an emotion that helps to make sense of antisemitic attitudes. With the advent of the death factories we find that evil human motives of self-interest, lust for power and resentment are no longer able to make sense of the world.
I find the ambiguity of the meaning of resentment in Arendt's work fascinating. Origins begins with a fairly common understanding of the emotion as a kind of envious grudge that seeks revenge. But it would be a mistake to understand resentment as the psychological essence of totalitarian rule. For although Arendt acknowledges the role resentment played in the mobilization of social attitudes of antisemitism, she also reveals the limits of human emotions within the Nazi program of destruction. Resentment is not the cause of human destruction. Rather she says,
Propaganda and organization no longer suffice to assert that the impossible is possible, that the incredible is true, that an insane consistency rules the world; the chief psychological support of totalitarian fiction—the active resentment of the status quo, which the masses refused to accept as the only possible world—is no longer there.
But where does resentment go, and what replaces it? Ironically, Arendt saw resentment as the last remnant of humanly recognizable relations—relations that were quashed as a requirement of totalitarian destruction.
To illustrate this point, near the end of the book, Arendt makes a distinction in the torture practices first performed by the Nazi Party's "Brown Shirts," the Sturmabteilung (SA) and later by Hitler's paramilitary, the Schutzstaffel (SS).
Whereas torture for the SA officer was provoked by a heated resentment against all those the SA guard perceived to be better than himself, torture of the magnitude required for the annihilation of a people—the kind that was effectively able to exterminate people long before they became biologically dead—was not the result of any human emotion. It was precisely the total lack of human emotion that enabled this atrocity. Arendt contrasts the irrational, sadistic type of torture driven by resentment and carried out by the SA to the rational calculations of the SS:
Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling (GH emphasis). The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.
I glean two points from this passage. First, Arendt believed that the human destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich was an exemplification of what she called the "banality of evil." This is to say that it was not pathologically sadistic and neurotically resentful and self-interested men, but rather "perfectly normal men" who, by following the rules, fulfilled the brutal logic of the Third Reich. Second, the annihilation of the Jews required cold calculation that in effect destroyed the very condition of possibility for resentment: human plurality. And this is where the irony of Arendt's thinking shines through: Resentment disappeared in the camps because understandable human sinfulness disappeared. Through this irony Arendt exposes her readers to a provocative ambiguity: Resentment appears in Origins as both the provocation of criminality and a vague remnant of human plurality.
“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”
-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24
As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”
Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.
When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”
But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.
Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.
When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”
A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”
“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”
-Kathleen B. Jones
“And wonder what you’ve missed”
- W. H. Auden, as quoted in Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind
At the end of the second-to-last chapter of the Thinking section of The Life of the Mind , Hannah Arendt quotes two stanzas from W. H. Auden’s poem As I Walked Out One Evening, the first of which is the following:
O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.
Arendt thus ends a chapter containing no prior reference to Auden with two significant quotes by him, offering no further comment of her own. This lies in stark contrast to her treatment of the quote from The Tempest, which directly precedes the Auden quote; she relates Shakespeare’s metaphors very clearly to the subject matter of the chapter. Why, then, do Auden and his quotes have free rein?
In her essay “Remembering Wystan H. Auden,” written shortly after Auden’s death, Arendt describes their relationship as “very good friends but not intimate friends.” The rest of her tribute reveals her profound respect for Auden not just as a friend, but also as a writer and thinker. This respect is further indicated by their letter exchanges and the vast collection of Auden’s books in Arendt’s personal library; and it is reciprocated by Auden, who in 1959 reviewed The Human Condition for the magazine Encounter, describing within it the “jealous possessiveness” he experienced due to the close connection he felt with the book. Years later, Arendt dedicated her lecture Thinking and Moral Considerations to Auden. Shakespeare’s presence is to be noted in both this lecture and Auden’s essay The Fallen City. Some Reflections on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, upon which Arendt voiced her opinions in a letter to Auden. Arendt’s placement of the Shakespeare and Auden quotes in close proximity to each other in The Life of the Mind creates an illumination of each text by the other, as we will see later.
In order to unfold the meaning of the quote from As I Walked Out One Evening, however, one should consider the poem in its entirety. As two stanzas excerpted from a 15-stanza whole and presented without context, their meaning appears at first glance to be rather abstract. The poem focuses on humankind’s fight against time, explored mostly through a song sung by “a lover,” which the speaker of the poem overhears. This bears strong relation to one of the main questions explored by Arendt in her chapter: that of the position of the thinking ego in time, and its constant battle against both the past and the future. However, while Arendt concentrates on temporal freedom within the present realm of thought, which exists in an area bound to but not trapped in the midst of this battle, Auden’s focus is on the inevitability of “Time”, which is capitalized as such and portrayed as an ever more malignant force of nature. The description of the “crowds upon the pavement” as “fields of harvest wheat” in the first stanza already hints at death, evoking the Grim Reaper and time as a sickle on its way to sever our lives. The first explicit reference to Time appears in the sixth stanza:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
This context sheds light on the two stanzas quoted by Arendt. Even the exclamation “O” increases in its significance; one hears in the background of one’s mind odes from literary practices of centuries past, and ruminates on the continuity of traditions, considering Time’s role in it as both a destructive and constructive force, especially in light of Arendt’s own ruminations regarding the discontinuity of “the Roman trinity that for thousands of years united religion, authority, and tradition.” Her related notion of a “fragmented past” resonates with the second of the two stanzas by Auden: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead.”
The reiteration of the words “plunge” and “stare” in the first quoted stanza leads one to consider the significance of repetition, a technique that Auden employs throughout the poem, in the context of time. Repetition can be perceived as a loop of time, giving it a plurality (for example, describing the word as being used two times) while also somewhat of a stationary character, since physical time has elapsed but mental time has not, instead revolving around itself and meditating on the same idea in a suspended state. Auden’s poem thus offers us another way of approaching Arendt’s consideration of time as experienced by the thinking ego.
The physical imagery employed by Auden reveals water to be an especially powerful metaphor for time. The poem concludes with: “The clocks had ceased their chiming,/And the deep river ran on,” portraying the constancy of time, ever running, even when our own human efforts to measure or control time have stopped or failed. The eighth stanza also contains a subtle evocation of water: “In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away”; in this context, our personal lifetime is the water that we cannot imperviously contain. This aids our understanding of the image of water in the basin in the first quoted stanza. Containing water in the basin represents our attempts to control and preserve time in a human construct, but, despite all these efforts, we cannot grasp time in our hands, no matter how deeply we “plunge” our hands into the water. Instead we can only “stare, stare” at our reflection, and “wonder what you’ve missed”. These four words are possibly the key to unlocking the relationship between this poem and The Life of the Mind. The physical reflection of oneself in the basin’s water prompts a mental reflection on the passage of time; time is once again suspended as our thinking ego considers our past. But perhaps Time is even more malevolent, in that while we stare at our reflection (the verb “stare” itself having rather stern connotations, in contrast to words such as “look” or “gaze”), physical time is still passing, and we are consequently “miss[ing]” even more of or from our lives as we try to deduce what the past has already robbed from us.
In her interpretation of the Tempest quote preceding the Auden citation, Arendt presents a rather different view of the water-time metaphor. The sea here represents an infinite expanse of time containing “fragments from the past”, the “pearls” and “coral” that do not pass away but are modified by the time they spend in the sea. As two stanzas extracted from an entirety of fifteen, Arendt presents Auden’s words as “pearls” and invites us to play a part in the continuity of this poem and the thinking ego within it, saving it and treasuring its “sea-change” through the generations.
Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?
The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.
In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.
In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.
In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.
How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?
This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.
This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.
Franzen offers us a house in many valences.
It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."
The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.
If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:
I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.
House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.
I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.
It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.
Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.
“Everything that is appears; everything that appears disappears; everything that is alive has an urge to appear; this urge is called vanity; since there is no urge to disappear and disappearance is the law of appearance, the urge, called vanity, is in vain.‘Vanitas vanitatum vanitas’—all is vanity, all is in vain.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, 796
Arendt writes this entry in her Denktagebuch in September 1970. She is 63 years old and long familiar with the law of disappearance. For years the record of her thoughts has been interrupted by mention of the death of friends and mentors: May 1951 “[Hermann] Broch died on 30 May and was buried on 2 June 1951”; February 1969 “Jaspers dies”; November 1968: “Tonight I dreamed of Kurt Blumenfeld… in the dream I didn’t know that he was dead.” The following month the law would bear down again and she would write an entry beginning: “On 31 October Heinrich died…”. Within a little over four years of her husband’s death she would herself be gone.
“Vanitas vanitatum vanitas.” This could be despair. It could be that dreadful thought that forces itself on us in moments of grief and anxiety, the thought that a life’s endeavor has been for naught, that all our achievements have turned out to be worthless. It could be the distress at the Nietzschean reflection that not only must we each die, but this human race and this earth will eventually disappear without trace. Perhaps it is the same as the horror Sophocles savors when he warns us: “Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when man has seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.”
It could also be frustration at the sheer urgency of the desire to rush into full view when thinking is always conducted in darkness and quiet, at a remove from the world. It might be a distaste, for instance, for glib self-promotion that stands in for political action on the part of candidates for public office, or for everything about the modern university that insists that “research” be published prematurely, rendering it hypocritical, superficial and irrelevant (Denktagebuch, 703).
Yet, though her frustration is real, and though she grieves, Arendt uses the word vanity without judgment. A few weeks ago Ian Storey introduced a “Quote of the Week” that came from the same late period of the Denktagebuch, and wrote movingly of the sense of end that suffuses these last entries. (It’s beautiful and touching and well worth your while.) He writes also of the shades of Arendt’s response to our endedness, from bitter sadness to old contentment. In the same way, she reacts to the vanity of our beginnings both with an austere refusal of even the fantasy of immortality and wonder that any of it came to be at all.
After all, no one asks to be born. No one demands to come into the world as if birth were a special favor, a privilege granted to some but not to others. We’re propelled into the light of day before we know it, by an urge that has nothing to do with ego and does not belong to us any more than it belongs to our parents or our species. We share it with everything alive. However, if we think of it as a great surging drive towards life or survival, it threatens to diminish thinking and overwhelm the senses as a great unfathomable force; if we think of it as a drive to appear it produces instead the refinement of difference and the delight of variegation.
In these same years Arendt reads about biology and studies up on the science of genetics. She reads the work of the philosophical zoologist Adolph Portmann whose most remarkable studies concern the vast variety in the size, shape and color of butterflies (The Beauty of Butterflies, 1951). Instead of submitting the phenomenon of this variety—and butterflies make up just one terrifically flamboyant example—to the demands of natural and sexual selection as in the mainstream of evolutionary theory, Portmann identifies an Aristotelian desire to appear. Arendt adds to this an existential claim for recognition and even praise. “All that appears wants to be seen and recognized and praised. The highest form of recognition is love: volu ut sis.—The wonder implies affirmation” (Denktagebuch, 701). The moment our surprise at the color of a butterfly turns into wonder that it should have somehow come to be and come to be precisely this color, we affirm its existence. We could never have called up in imagination all the colors of butterflies’ wings, and no-one could have planned the immense series of mutations and other tiny contingencies that brought them all into existence but, exposed to a small section of their uncalled-for variety, astonished by it, wondering at it, affirming it, we will that it be. This is what it means to love the world.
This love comes as a sort of gratitude, even if we’re not sure whom we should be grateful to. Believers thank the creator god. Arendt may not believe—at least not like that—but she reaches for the word blasphemy and so also for a sense of something sacred that needs protection from profanity. In October 1969 she writes: “The desire for earthly immortality is blasphemous, not because it wants to overcome death, but because it negates birth” (744). The problem is not that we want to play God by refusing to die, but that we balk at making way for a new, different world. From her reading in genetics she knows the role of genetic mutation in the generation of natural variety and the many millions of mistakes that had to happen to produce the living world we see. She has noted Portmann’s bon mot: “One of the surest methods for the regular occurrence of new [genetic] combinations is that peculiar game that biologists call sexuality.” What is sacred, then, is the fact of all those butterfly wings, all the fish scales, animal ears, nose shapes, eye colors, skin tones, smiles that could easily have happened in some other way but that appear to us now, just as they are, the needlessly glamorous and constantly renewed results of contingency.
All vanity, yes, and all in vain, certainly. But praise be.
“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”
-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792
One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy. As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful. The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.
It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles. The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.
Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term. In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy. On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others. This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged. A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects. So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.” What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?
This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work. The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends. The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself. At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook. She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.” At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived. To not want to pay this price, is miserable.” Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action. Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others. And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.
The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch. In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat. Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost. We should all be so lucky. And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation. In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself. It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it. But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.
In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances. Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780). After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making. This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so. Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive. It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.
This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist. The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together. Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world. To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other. And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.
It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear; but just as the Nazis' feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacres - through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery - were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents "disappear in silent anonymity" were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
—Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
Aung San Suu Kyi accepted her Nobel Peace Prize this weekend, 21 years after it was awarded. For over two decades since her landslide victory in what was then Burma and is now Myanmar, Suu Kyi has stood fast in her opposition to the military junta ruling her country. The junta has sought to make her disappear, suppress any mention of her, and violently repress all protest and dissent.
Until 2010 when, suddenly, the regime allowed Suu Kyi to stand for elections as the leader of the opposition. She is now a member of parliament.
In her speech accepting her Nobel Prize, Suu Kyi said of the Nobel Prize she won in 1991:
What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me.
To be part of the human community is to be seen and remembered. It is to affirm that one has meaning and significance in the world. At a time when she had been hidden, silenced, and deprived of the right to speak and act in a way that matters in the world, Suu Kyi was in danger of disappearing. Hanging tenuously over the pit of oblivion, she felt her bond with the human community slipping away. “To be forgotten,” Suu Kyi said in Oslo, “is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity."
Suu Kyi was near to falling through the cracks of the world into a black hole of forgetting. It is such oblivion that Hannah Arendt saw to be the grave threat totalitarian domination posed to human beings. Totalitarianism threatens to acquire the ability not simply to oppress a people, but to do so in such a way that even their death and their oppression was senseless and powerless in the world. To deprive a person of even the right to die like a human being and to be remembered is, Arendt saw, the greatest imaginable attack on human dignity.
But such holes of oblivion do not exist. That is Arendt's optimistic conclusion that she brings to bear upon the argument of a German Army physician, Peter Bamm. In his book The Invisible Flags (1952) Bamm distinguishes the SS mobile killing units from ordinary German soldiers. Arendt quotes his account of the murder of the Jews at length:
We knew this. We did nothing. Anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within twenty-four hours and would have disappeared. It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don't permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr's death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. This is not to say that such a sacrifice would have been morally meaningless. It would only have been practically useless. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning.
If Bamm's argument at first sounds "hopelessly plausible," it trades in platitudes. Its power rests upon the assumption that deaths of resistance would have been in vain, that resisters would have disappeared in "silent anonymity." Practical uselessness thus excuses one from courageous moral action.
Arendt's faith in the symbolic power of moral action and the necessary failure of totalitarian suppression of that power underlies her stunning formulation of the Right to Have Rights in the Origins of Totalitarianism. Whereas much of human rights discourse in 1950 and still today imagines that there is a human right to life or to food or security, Arendt rejects those claims. Humans will die and some will starve. This is not hard hearted so much as it is a fact. Death and starvation can be unjust and tragic, but they are not inhuman thus not a violation of fundamental human rights. What is more, there are times when the most human thing we can do is to die and starve in ways that so exemplify our humanity.
The most basic human right is the right to know that whether we decide to live or to die, our choice will matter. For Arendt, the truly human rights are the rights to be heard, to be seen, and to be meaningful. As humans, we have the right to belong to an organized community, where we can speak and act in ways that matter in the world. In other words, we have the human right to not be consigned to oblivion.
We have such a human right both in theory and in practice. Arendt is convinced that even at a time when technology allows totalitarian regimes to rewrite and even to rewire reality, facts have a stubbornness that allows them to surface. And moral action, even more than mere fact, has a power that is impossible to suppress. As long as the story of resistance can be told, totalitarian oblivion is simply a myth that excuses inaction.
The myth of oblivion is shattered by action in spite of totalitarian domination. One of Arendt's favorite examples of such moral action is the German Sergeant Anton Schmidt. During the war, Schmidt assisted numerous Jews to escape by giving them passports, money, and papers. He never took money in return. He was indeed captured and executed. But his action was not in vain. For not only did he save individual Jews, he inspired them and others to continue their resistance. And his story today remains as a powerful reminder of the practical and moral importance of courageous self-sacrifice in the name of the good.
In her speech on Saturday, Suu Kyi said that the Nobel Peace Prize "opened up a door in my heart." The Nobel Peace Prize is often derided as political. That is often true. And yet there are times when the prize not only rewards sacrifice, but salvages a world in danger of being lost. The Nobel Prize can help illuminate those holes of oblivion that continue to exist, however temporary that existence might be. At its best, the Prize celebrates those like Suu Kyi who choose to dedicate their lives to the conviction that the truth will win out and the holes of oblivion cannot last.