“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
“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.