By Hans Teerds
“Jaspers’ thought is spatial because it forever remains in reference to the world and the people in it, not because it is bound to any existing space.”
-- Hannah Arendt, ‘Karl Jaspers: A Laudatio’
It is in the midst of her description of the German philosopher and her tutor Karl Jaspers’ ‘faculty for dialogue [and] the splendid precision of his way of listening’ that Arendt identifies his spatial approach. Jaspers, she argues, through his thinking created a space wherein ‘the humanitas of man could appear pure and luminous.’ In speaking and listening, Jaspers was able to change and widen, sharpening and therewith ‘illuminating’ the subject. This approach of course depends upon the ability to take other perspectives into account, i.e. Kant’s ‘enlarged mentality,’ of which Arendt was the ‘political mentality par excellence.’
On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College, we came across a shelf that immediately attracted our attention.
It is no coincidence to us that the two books displayed in the middle of the image, Vie Politiques: Hannah Arendt and Who's Who In the World: 1974-1975 (Second Edition), are placed adjacent to one another. Hannah Arendt had lived through the "dark times" that characterized the lives of the other Vie Politiques subjects, among them Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Hermann Broch, Walter Benjamin, Brecht Bertoit, Rosa Luxemburg, and John XXIII, and had emerged as one of the great political thinkers of her time. Between 1972 and 1975, she worked on her projected three-volume work The Life of the Mind, two volumes of which ("Thinking" and "Willing") were published posthumously, as well as helped create the Structured Liberal Education at Stanford University. Considering all of the other thoughtful publications she wrote earlier in her life, it is clear that Arendt was indeed a "Who's Who" in 1974-5.
Only a year later, Arendt would pass away in New York City as a result of a heart attack. She was 69 years old.
Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library? Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com, and we might feature them on our blog!
Recently, we received this photograph from Rita Novo, one of our Twitter followers, of her lovely personal Arendtian library.
Commenting on the photograph, Rita had this to say:
With no particular order in mind, here is a photo of my Arendt collection. Towards the left side of the image, you can see the reference works of Simona Forti and Margaret Canovan, “Correspondance” with Karl Jaspers, and Jaspers' “Die Schuldfrage” in a Spanish edition. Arendt's “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is next, flanked by biographies such as the remarkable work of Elizabeth Young Bruehl. “The Life of Spirit” and “The Human Condition” follow after, as well as some Spanish collections of Arendt’s articles on responsibility and politics. I also have “Men in Dark Times” and the first Spanish edition of her “Rahel Varnhagen”, one of my favorites. Towards the right edge of the photo, we have “Essays in Understanding,” “The Jewish Writings,” and “Between Past and Future” in Spanish. All order aside, each of these works supports her main interest, namely the ethical imperative of understanding with regards to our love of the world.
About Rita Novo
Rita is a professor at the Philosophy Department at National University in Mar del Plata, Argentina. She serves as the Chair of Philosophy of History, a program in which Hannah Arendt's works function as one of the main subjects.
Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library? Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might feature them on our blog!
The Hannah Arendt Center recently received a special donation from Konstanze Bachman in honor of her mother, Maria Schmitt-Kuemmell. We accept this gift with our sincerest thanks.
The donation is Hannah Arendt's 1929 dissertation Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch Einer Philosophischen Interpretation, or "The Concept of Love in Augustine. Attempt a Philosophical Interpretation" (Berline, Springer Verlag, 1929).
Under the direction of Karl Jaspers and the influence of Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt first began her scholarly career in 1929 by writing a dissertation on Saint Augustine's concept of caritas, or neighborly love. Four years later, her life in Germany ended abruptly with Hitler's rise to power in 1933, events which forced Arendt into exile in France. She eventually moved to New York and took her dissertation with her.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Arendt completed some of her most influential studies of political life. It was at this time that Arendt also reworked her dissertation using some of the arguments and observations she had used in her other works. In this sense, Arendt's dissertation became a bridge over which she traveled back and forth between her early years in Germany and her professional career in New York, two periods which, despite their separation in time and space, both found relevance in Augustine's questions about human freedom and the possibility of political life in a scientific and technological age.
This is the 9th booklet of the Philosophische Forschungen, which was published by Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg.
The Hannah Arendt Center intends to archive the book in the Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College's Stevenson Library.
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.
In May 2013, the Hannah Arendt Center and ECLA of Bard sponsored a conference in Berlin: Judgment in Extremis, a conference Inspired by the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The video from the conference is now online and you can watch lectures by Roger Berkowitz, Jay Bernstein, Seyla Benhabib, Kerry Bystrom, Andreas Nachama, Gerd Hankel, and Christoph Menke. The conference focuses on the fact that Arendt's book on Eichmann's trial is actually a book less about Eichmann and the banality of evil than an inquiry into the problems of doing justice in extreme cases of evil of the kind Eichmann represented. This is especially apparent in the keynote talks by Roger Berkowitz and Christoph Menke. As Berkowitz frames the question, Arendt "didn't go to the trial to develop a thesis on the banality of evil; she went to the trial in order to answer this question on the adequacy and inadequacy of law to deal with extreme crimes like genocide. She had already developed this in the 1940s in correspondence with Karl Jaspers, and she writes, "We have no tools at hand except legal ones, with which we have to judge and pass sentence on something which cannot be adequately represented, either in legal terms, or in political terms." So she is dealing with a problem that she has already identified, and that problem is that law is just a way we deal with a trial and deal with crimes, and is inadequate for these kinds of experiences. In the Eichmann in Jerusalem book, proper, she repeats this same point. This is but one example among many to convey the inadequacy of the prevailing legal system, and the current judicial concepts, to deal with the fact of administrative massacres, organized by the state apparatus. I want to suggest here that this is really the question she goes to Israel to answer." For both Berkowitz and Menke, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a book about the inadequacy of law to deal with extreme cases of wrong and Arendt's response to that inadequacy. You can watch all the videos here.
James Surowiecki over at the New Yorker writes about the recent walkouts by fast food workers and attempts at local and federal levels to pass living wage bills. The real problem, he argues, is that fast-food workers are now family breadwinners: "[T]he reason this has become a big political issue is not that the jobs have changed; it's that the people doing the jobs have. Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income. As the historian Bethany Moreton has shown, Walmart in its early days sought explicitly to hire underemployed married women. Fast-food workforces, meanwhile, were dominated by teen-agers. Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That's because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. ... More of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families." Surowiecki argues we need legislation to require higher wages and also increased governmental safety nets to guarantee a middle class life. But maybe also we need to face the reality that across the country, the standard of living we associate with a middle class lifestyle is simply beyond the means of most middle class jobs.
Rebecca Bates talks to editor Jesse Pearson about the second issue of his magazine Apology, which he calls his "apologia against... the state of magazines today." When he elaborates, he talks about a way of publishing that is outside of time, noting that "many magazines seems to be overly obsessed with the new and are often lifestyle/culture catalogs for new, new, new, new, new. I like the idea of doing a magazine that owes nothing to the current moment."
Ryan Bloom recently translated a wordless play of Albert Camus's. In the mimeodrama, an artist becomes distracted from his life by his art; as he paints, he removes himself from the world and the world passes him by.
In a review of Anna Segher's recently republished book Transit, Adam Levy considers the German-Jewish-born Segher's experience of trying to find a way out of Marseilles in the first few years of World War II. Instead of writing her attempts to leave into her novel, she invents a protagonist who is desperate to stay; in doing so, Levy says, she turns the tragedy of the refugee on its head: "You could say that permanence is the goal of the displaced, and not always to return home. For the narrator of Transit this is certainly the case. What home is left for him to return to? And if home resides somewhere else... what would be the point in continuing to run? The logistics of staying put, however, set the narrator paradoxically on the road to departure: to stay in Marseille he must prove that he is preparing to leave."
In the wake of Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos's purchase of the Washington Post, Todd Gitlin writes about just what happened to the American newspaper: "The business model built on advertising and circulation to sustain a professional staff lasted roughly a century, and is now skidding and smoldering when it is not crashing and burning. Suburbanization killed afternoon papers, and along with television, drained department stores of their taste for full-page display ads. The Internet ate up the classifieds. At both high and low-end papers, circulation, stagnant for years at best, plunged, as did profits, especially the sort of superprofits that became de rigueur as newspaper chains and other publicly traded media companies squeezed the newsrooms for more (and less news) for their bucks."
The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"
Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.
“German Jewry, like Western European Jewry in general, never understood that the simple person is the true center of politics in all democratically governed countries.
And this is also the reason why German Jews often do not understand the just national aspirations of the Jewish people [folk]. Most do not know at all what a people [folk] really is and what it wants. The most beautiful Hebrew in the world will not teach them that. Let the German Jews learn to respect simple person [poshete mentshn], in general, and the simple Jew [yiddishe folks-mentsh], in particular – and then you will be able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
These are the closing words of an op-ed written by Hannah Arendt in November 1942 for the New York Yiddish daily Morgen Zshurnal. The short piece is a response to an account of recent conflicts between German and Hebrew speakers in the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) written by Aaron Zeitlin, a Yiddish author and regular contributor to the newspaper.
It is, by all evidence, Arendt’s only Yiddish-language publication. (A year earlier, in December 1941, the News Bulletin of the “Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs” published a Yiddish translation of Arendt’s first Aufbau op-ed, “The Jewish Army – The Beginning of Jewish Politics?” But the Morgen Zshurnal piece seems to be the only one that Arendt published exclusively in Yiddish.) Arendt’s Yiddish voice is both familiar and surprising, and, as I shall sketch very briefly here, her exchange with Zeitlin fascinatingly prefigures significant moments in Arendt’s thinking and her dialogue with others later in life, for example her exchange with Gershom Scholem about Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In the fall of 1942, tensions between immigrants from Nazi Germany and the veteran Zionist community of the Yishuv had reached a violent peak with the bombing of a press in Jerusalem, which had been printing a German-language newspaper. Zeitlin bases his account of the event, and of the political atmosphere that led up to it, on a report by Menachem Ben Eliezer, which appeared in October in the Hebrew newspaper Hadoar, published in New York by the Hebrew Federation of America. The Hebrew reporter and the Yiddish commentator both blame the German Jews, known as “Yekkes,” for failing to assimilate into the society of the Yishuv and, especially, for obstinately refusing to learn Hebrew. In Zeitlin’s words, the German Jews are not patriotic because they lack a love of Israel (“ahavat Israel” or, in Yiddish, “ahaves Yisroel”).
Arendt, described in the byline as “a well-known German-Jewish writer and Zionist activist” who, “in 1935, visited the Land of Israel, where she spent three months and had the opportunity to get to know the Yishuv and the new immigration (Aliyah),” responds to the accusations ambivalently. Outraged by the violent act of the Hebrew purists of the Yishuv, she nevertheless concedes that the failure of German Jews to understand the simple Jews of Eastern Europe and their justified national aspirations is a problem.
The brief op-ed piece thus reveals a fascinating moment in the development of Arendt’s identity and her political affinities. Having recently arrived as a refugee from Europe, Arendt was writing for the German-language Aufbau and would soon start publishing in English-language publications such as Partisan Review and Nation. But her attention was evidently also devoted to publications such as Morgen Zshurnal and their Yiddish-speaking readership. As Thomas Wild has recently argued on this website, Arendt’s career would continue to move productively between German and English, for example when she substantially revised the English The Human Condition to produce the German Vita Activa.
And even after this brief stint, the Yiddish language did not disappear from her writing entirely, as I briefly mention below. She would also find opportunities to reflect publicly on issues of language choice, for example in her 1948 dedication of the German book Sechs Essays to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers, where she explains the difficulty and the necessity of writing and publishing in her native language. But this Yiddish op-ed – written in a language that she had studied as an adult and that was rapidly moving aside to make space for English, not only in her mind but also in the American-Jewish public sphere – is probably the only statement that Arendt made about Jewish language politics.
Interestingly, at this juncture in her own linguistic affiliations, Arendt insists that the battle over languages is a political red herring. “Unlike Herr Zeitlin,” she writes, “I am of the opinion that the entire education and psychology of the world could not successfully separate people from their mother tongue […]. It is a process of a generation or two, and in America we have the best proof of that.” Instead of focusing on the struggle between the languages, Arendt points her readers in two different directions. The piece opens, in a familiarly sarcastic tone, with an expression of Arendt’s interest in Jewish militancy as a form of political response to the current crisis (an interest that was expressed in her contemporary writing for Aufbau): “I am of the opinion that it would be better for the Yishuv to boycott German merchandise rather than the German language, and that the hotheads would do better to save the bombs for Rommel’s soldiers rather than to use them against the Jews for their German language.” But it ends on a different note, with a vision of a post-Babelian politics that grows out of solidarity with the simple people. If the German Jews only understood what a true Jewish “folks-mentsh” is, the conversation could transcend linguistic divisions and one would be “able to speak to them about Jewish politics in all the languages of the world.”
As Elizabeth Young-Bruehl describes in her biography and as evidenced also in the early correspondence with Heinrich Blücher, Arendt had studied Yiddish with her friend Chanan Klenbort in Paris. But in the absence of further information about the composition process – was the piece written in German and translated into Yiddish? Or did a native speaker aid Arendt, in the way that friends such as Randall Jarrell and Alfred Kazin later helped her with her English? – one can only speculate about the significance of the highly Germanic style of the Yiddish in which the piece is written or of word choices such as “folks-mentsh” and “posheter mentsh.” Reading Arendt in Yiddish can feel like a glimpse through a door to an alternative history. What would have been the circumstances – in Arendt’s own intellectual development, in the history of the Jews – that would have compelled her to keep writing in Yiddish? Would the Yiddish version of The Human Condition have placed the “posheter mentsh” at the center of politics? In other words, the Yiddish op-ed focuses our view on Arendt’s preoccupations and her transformation during her early years in the United States. It also sharpens questions that have already been raised in relation to her writing for Aufbau: Does the writing of this period prepare the ground for her later philosophical and political work? And if it does, how should we describe this ground? Or does the shift of her positions on Zionism rather constitute a break in her thinking?
It is easy to see the continuity between the criticism Arendt expresses here and her sharp critique of German Jewry in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. But there are other, far more uncanny, linguistic continuities, not only in Arendt’s own writing but also in her dialogues and polemics with others. In his famous response to the Eichmann book, Gershom Scholem echoes Zeitlin – most probably unwittingly – when he laments Arendt’s lack of “Ahabath Israel” (as Scholem rather Germanically transcribes the Hebrew expression). Arendt seems to hear that echo when she inserts in her reply to Scholem’s letter a parenthetical inquiry about the history of the term: “I would, by the way, be very thankful if you could tell me since when this concept plays a role in the Hebrew language and scripture, when it first appears, etc.” Indeed, the echo seems to conjure up in Arendt elements of her original response to Zeitlin, and so she returns to the same simple person she had once hoped that German Jewry could listen to, in Yiddish or in “all the languages of the world.” Thus, when she attempts to defend her (to many readers indefensible) position on Jewish collaboration with the Nazis, she explains to Scholem: “There was no possibility of resistance, but there was a possibility of doing nothing. And in order to do nothing, one need not have been a saint, but rather one needed simply to say: I am a simple Jew (ein poscheter Jude) and I do not want to be more than that.”
The Yiddish was excised from the German version that was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in October 1963 (where it was replaced by “einfacher Jude”) and from the English translation published in Encounter in December 1964 (which refers to “a Simple Jew”). The act of self-censorship is probably as revealing as Arendt’s use of the term itself.
Arendt’s brief foray into Yiddish journalism also has a fascinating postscript on the pages of the Morgen Zshurnal (or rather its continuation Der Tog Morgen Zshurnal). As Richard I. Cohen has described, in 1965 the newspaper carried Aaron Zeitlin’s raging response to Arendt’s Eichmann book, a response in which he described her as the agent of the devil. Zeitlin does not explicitly mention his previous disagreement with Arendt, indeed, he conspicuously avoids mentioning her by name. But, in its emphasis on Arendt’s misnaming of Eichmann when she describes him as a “grey, simple (posheter) average person,” his vitriolic attack can be read as a response to Arendt’s polemic twenty-three years earlier
Based on research and translation conducted in collaboration with Sunny Yudkoff. Many thanks to Barbara Hahn and Thomas Wild, who uncovered the Yiddish piece in the Hannah Arendt archive.
NOTE: This Saturday, February 23, 2013 marks the launch of the Hananh Arendt Center three part series, "Music in the Holocaust: Jewish Identity and Cosmopolitanism". The series is made possible through the generosity of grant from the Bertha Effron Fund of the Community Foundation of the Hudson Valley. Learn more here.
COERCION, COLLUSION & CREATIVITY - Music of the Terezin Ghetto & the Central European Experience
NATIONALISM, CONTINUITY & SYNTHESIS - Music of Warsaw, Lodz, & other Eastern ghettos
KURT WEILL & THE MODERNIST MIGRATION - Music of Weill & Other Émigrés
Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.
However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.
Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?
Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.
More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point, and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.
What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.
Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.
Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.
-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)
“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.