Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Jul/141

The Story of Reconciliation

Greek_storytelling

**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"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

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
29Jul/130

Amor Mundi – 7/28/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Who's Afraid of the Intellectuals?

believeRelevant to the most recent Quote of the Week on the danger of intellectuals is Jan Mieszkowski's review of historian Christian Ingrao's recent book Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine. Ingrao's book employs a particular qualitative methodology to explore the role and motives of intellectuals within the Nazi elite - specifically of lawyers, historians, philosophers, and similarly trained professionals who joined the Sicherheitsdiest or SD - the intelligence arm of the SS. According to Mieszkowski, "Believe and Destroy focuses on "a group of eighty university graduates: economists, lawyers, linguists, philosophers, historians and geographers." Drawing on a range of archival sources, Ingrao follows their careers from school and university through their participation in the SD and subsequent efforts to defend themselves in postwar trials. (A dozen members of the group were hanged; most of the others received prison sentences.) He is particularly concerned with the transition from the 1930s, when the SD evolved into an immense surveillance and social science research organization operating inside Germany, to the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, when these men took the first steps toward putting their theories about the Germanification of foreign lands into practice." Read Roger Berkowitz's further account on Mieszkowski's essay here.

The Importance of Reading Pushkin

pushkinMikhail Shiskin discusses the way that Russian governance, from the absolutist czars, to the communists, and into today's nominal democracy, has felt that it needed to make a political hero out of Pushkin: "From the times of Pushkin and Nicholas I, it was no longer enough for the earthly czar to be anointed by God; the ruler had also to be sanctified by Russian literature, the second sacred Russian power. That is why Stalin's regime was so concerned with perpetuating the memory of the classic Russian writer. If Orthodox czars based their right to own the bodies and souls of their subjects on heavenly law, the Communists legitimized the dictatorship of the party with "scientific" theses such as, 'The teachings of Marx are omnipotent because they are the truth.' But the real sacred figures who could sanctify the state were Pushkin and Gogol - the poets and the writers. When the people followed the Communists at the beginning of the twentieth century, they gave up Christ, but they found it impossible, as the revolutionary poets exhorted them, 'to throw Pushkin overboard the steamboat of modernity.' They could not raise their hand against that which is most sacred for the Russian soul. So this prison state built monuments to Pushkin everywhere, trying to seem righteous in the people's eyes."

The Value of the Prison Paper

angoIn the wake of the recent system-wide hunger strike in the California prison system, Andrea Jones considers the role of the free press in connecting prisoners to the outside world. "There are more prisoners than ever, but the emotional distance we have from prisons is also greater than ever," suggests Sarita Alami, a historian at work on a project that employs digital methods like topic modeling and text mining to identify patterns in archived prison periodicals. Analyzing the volume and content of inmate journalism from 1912 through 1980 -what she calls the "golden years" - Alami studies intervals of collective unrest and activism in prisons. She has determined that the Great Depression, the early 1950s, and the late 1960s through early 1970s - time periods characterized by widespread riots, lawsuits, and work stoppages - corresponded to upswings in prison journalism, which she posits as a key facilitator of resistance and reform." But in recent decades, "as prison populations ballooned..., inmate-produced media did not experience a parallel upsurge. According to Alami, the penal press was suppressed twofold: by the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and by broad shifts in media consumption. ... the ascension of the Internet, while expanding the scope of information on the outside, served to cut off prisoners from the mediated public sphere of the modern world." She goes on to conclude, convincingly, that prisoners are often punished, particularly with solitary confinement, for trying to write and share their experience of the world.

Reconciling Experience with History

makkaiDiscussing her recent essay in Harper's, writer Rebecca Makkai talks about her experience of her grandfather, whom she knew as a yoga instructor who lived in Hawaii, who was also the principal author of Hungary's Second Jewish Law, which passed in 1939. At one point, she strikes a particularly Arendtian note: "There's also the fact that it's just very difficult, psychologically, to reconcile the face of a real person with one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century. It's not the same as looking at someone who's personally violent, likely to reach out and hit you. This guy is chopping up papaya on his balcony, telling jokes, and I think we have an instinct to forgive, to see just the best in that person, to see him at just that moment. (The irony being that this is what he and his colleagues failed to do - to see humans in front of them.)"

The Confused Readers of "The Lottery"

lotteryRuth Franklin, writing about Shirley Jackson's 1948 horror short story "The Lottery," draws attention to a few of the letters that the New Yorker received after the story's publication in its pages: There were indeed some cancelled subscriptions, as well as a fair share of name-calling - Jackson was said to be "perverted" and "gratuitously disagreeable," with "incredibly bad taste." But the vast majority of the letter writers were not angry or abusive but simply confused. More than anything else, they wanted to understand what the story meant."

 

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From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeff Jurgens considers how Hannah Arendt's Jewish identity contributed to her cosmopolitanism. Roger Berkowitz thinks through Arendt's feelings about intellectuals. Your weeked read explores the role and motives of intellectuals within the Nazi elite. And this week we kicked off a short membership drive; Roger explains what's next for the Center, and why you should consider joining us, here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12Jul/132

Excerpts from the Sassen Papers

ArendtWeekendReading

In response to the my essay on “Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem,” I have been asked repeatedly how to access the Sassen papers, the more than 1,300 pages of memoir and interview transcripts that Eichmann produced while he was in Argentina. The first answer is simple: Read the two issues of Life magazine from November 28 and December 5, 1960 in which a large chunk of these interviews are excerpted.

lifecover

To actually read these excerpts is to be struck by how long they are, how detailed, and how chilling. And also it is to become aware of how important they were for Arendt’s own attempts to understand Eichmann.

Historians who now are digging through the Sassen papers are somewhat dismissive of the excerpts. Bettina Stangneth, the very best and most responsible of these historians, writes that excerpts in a popular magazine are not meaningful sources for serious scholars. And in one important sense, she is correct.

The excerpts are of course mere excerpts. Further, they were prepared by Willem Sassen, a Dutch-German Nazi and war criminal who along with others interviewed Eichmann over many months in 1957 in Argentina. Sassen was a journalist and gifted writer, and the original plan seems to have been for him and Eichmann together to publish a memoir or biography and split the profits, along with Eberhard Fritsch.  Beyond pecuniary considerations, Sassen and Fritsch hoped that Eichmann would assist them in their aim of denying the Holocaust. Eichmann did not do so and, on the contrary, he confirmed it and boasted of his role in it. The three did not see eye to eye and publication plans were abandoned. After Eichmann was kidnapped and brought to Israel for trial, Sassen assembled the excerpts from the interviews and sold it to Life Magazine. Clearly, such tainted documents need to be taken with some care.

That said, the excerpts published in Life are remarkable documents and as they are widely available on Ebay and in libraries in the U.S., they are easily the most accessible way for English speakers to read Eichmann’s self-justification and self-presentation in Argentina, years before he was brought before Jewish judges in a courtroom in Jerusalem.

butcher2

In what follows, for your Weekend Read, I offer some excerpts from these excerpts. Here, for example, is Eichmann describing his first encounter with the physical destruction of Jews:

When I rode out the next morning they had already started, so I could see only the finish. Although I was wearing a leather coat which reached almost to my ankles, it was very cold. I watched the last group of Jews undress, down to their shirts. They walked the last 100 tor 200 yards—they were not driven—then they jumped into the pit. It was impressive to see them all jumping into the pit without offering any resistance whatsoever. Then the men of the squad banged away into the pit with their rifles and machine pistols.

Why did that scene linger so long in my memory? Perhaps because I had children myself. And there were children in that pit. I saw a woman hold a child of a year or two into the air, pleading. At that moment all I wanted to say was, “Don’t shoot, hand over the child….” Then the child was hit.

I was so close that later I found bits of brains splattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin. …

Having seen what I had in Minsk, I said this when I reported back to [Heinrich] Müller: “The solution. Gruppenführer, was supposed to have been a political one. But now that the Führer has ordered a physical solution, obviously a physical solution it must be. But we cannot go on conducting executions as they were done in Minsk and, I believe, other places. Of necessity our men will be educated to become sadists. We cannot solve the Jewish problem by putting a bullet through the brain of a defenseless woman who is holding her child up to us.”

Müller did not answer. He just looked at me in a fatherly, benevolent fashion. I never could figure him out.

In another excerpt, Eichmann describes his first experience viewing mobile gassing centers.

A doctor who was there suggested that I look at the people inside one bus through a peephole in the driver’s seat. I refused. I couldn’t look. This was the first time that I had seen and heard such a thing and my knees were buckling under me. I had been told that the whole process took only three minutes, but the buses rode along for about a quarter of an hour. …

When I reported back to Müller in Berlin, he chided me for not having timed the procedure with a stop watch. I said to him, “This sort of thing can’t go on. Things shouldn’t be done this way.” I admitted I had not been able to look through the peephole. This time too, Müller behaved like a sphinx. He forgave me, so to speak, for not having looked. Perhaps “forgive” sounds like an odd expression here.

The executions at Litzmannstadt and Minsk were a deep shock to me. Certainly I too had been aiming at a solution of the Jewish problem, but not like this. Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen burned Germans, Germans shrunken like mummies in death. I had yet to see the heavy, imploring eyes of the old couple in a Berlin air raid shelter who lay crushed beneath a beam, begging me to shoot them. I couldn’t bear to shoot them, but I told my sergeant to do so, if he could. If I had known then the horrors that would later happen to Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can’t look at any suffering without trembling myself.

Later, in the second Life Magazine excerpt, Eichmann describes his famous final speech to his men in Berlin, perhaps the most quoted line from the Sassen interviews. He says:

I made my last report to Himmler less than a month before the final surrender of Germany. The Reichsführer had been for some time negotiating with Count Bernadotte about the Jews. He wanted to make sure that at least 100 of the most prominent Jews we could lay our hands on would be held in a safe place. Thus he hoped to strengthen our hand, for almost to the end Himmler was optimistic about making separate peace terms. “We’ll get a treaty,” he said to me, slapping his thigh. “We’ll lose a few feathers, but it will be a good one.” It was then mid-April 1945….

During those last days I called my men into my Berlin office in the Kurfürsten Strasse and formally took leave of them. “If it has to be,” I told them, “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” (“Enemies of the Reich,” I said, not “Jews.”) I spoke these words harshly and with emphasis. In fact, it gave me an extraordinary sense of elation to think that I was exiting from the stage this way.

The Life Magazine excerpts ends with a transcription and translation of Eichmann’s final outburst when, fed up with Sassen’s attempt to deny the Holocaust or to diminish it, he bursts out in a fit of self-justification:

But to sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.  Adolf Hitler may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German army to Führer of a people of almost 80 million. I never met him personally, but his success alone proves to me that I should subordinate myself to this man. He was somehow so supremely capable that the people recognized him. And so with that justification I recognized him joyfully, and I still defend him. 

I will not humble myself or repent in any way. I could do it too cheaply in today’s climate of opinion. It would be too easy to pretend that I had turned suddenly from a Saul to a Paul. No, I must say truthfully that if we had killed all the 10 million Jews that Himmler’s statisticians originally listed in 1933, I would say, “Good, we have destroyed an enemy.” But here I do not mean wiping them out entirely. That would not be proper—and we carried on a proper war.

Now, however, when through the malice of fate a large part of these Jews whom we fought against are alive, I must concede that fate must have wanted it so. I always claimed that we were fighting against a foe who through thousands of years of learning and development had become superior to us. 

I no longer remember exactly when, but it was even before Rome itself had been founded that the Jews could already write. It is very depressing for me to think of that people writing laws over 6,000 years of written history. But it tells me that they must be a people of the first magnitude, for law-givers have always been great.

To read these excerpts is chilling and also illuminating, both about Eichmann and also about Arendt’s report on his trial.

eichmannspread

Arendt wrote her articles and her book not simply at the mercy of the trial in Jerusalem and Eichmann’s self-presentation before Israeli judges. She had access to the excerpts in Life and many of her most controversial conclusions are clearly traceable to these pages. It is undoubtedly true that scholars should approach the original documents and not rely on excerpts translated in a popular magazine. But no one who has looked at the originals has made the case that anything published in Life is wrong or misleading.

For those who want more, the best source for learning about the Sassen papers is Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann vor Jerusalem. In good news, it will be published later this year or early next year in English.  Stangneth’s book is often mentioned in the same breadth with much-less-responsible books by David Cesarani and Deborah Lipstadt, as collective examples of books that use new information from the Sassen reports to prove Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. But this is not exactly right.

Stangneth does write that Arendt “fell into a trap because Eichmann in Jerusalem was wearing a mask;” Stangneth also claims that “Eichmann manipulated Arendt, and the result was that she saw her own expectations confirmed.” Like Cesarani and Lipstadt, Stangneth wants to claim space from Arendt, to say that the new documents allow the modern scholar a wider perspective.

And yet, Stangneth also insists that Arendt “was very aware of the fact that she was not getting the whole picture.” Stangneth writes of  her own book that,

Eichmann before Jerusalem is a dialogue with Hannah Arendt. This is not merely due to the fact that my own interest in the topic was aroused many years ago by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Our understanding of history is dependent on understanding the era and the circumstances in which events occurred, and so a perspective like Arendt's is indispensible. She showed courage in her ability to reach a clear judgment of the situation while aware of the risk, despite her meticulous research, of not knowing enough.

To read Stangneth’s book in its entirety is to see her in continued dialogue with Arendt as she makes her way through the Sassen papers and is to be impressed with her scholarship as well as by her honesty. If you read German, Eichmann Vor Jerusalem is your best way to learn more about the Sassen interviews. It is your Weekend Read if you don’t to wait for the English translation coming soon.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
7Dec/121

What is a Fact?

What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Apr/1242

The Story of Reconciliation

"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.”

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.