“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.
It is well known that Eric Voegelin reviewed Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism in The Review of Politics. Arendt responded and she and Voegelin had a lifelong correspondence. They respected each other's work, even when they disagreed. Arendt contributed to a Festschrift for Voegelin's 60th birthday. Voegelin invited Arendt to speak at his institute in Münich, in 1961.
Less known is that Arendt and Voegelin also discussed her book in an exchange of letters before he penned his review.
In response to an introductory letter by Voegelin, Arendt wrote two letters, but only sent the second and shorter letter. According to Peter Baehr, who recently has edited and reconstructed the history of their correspondence, Arendt's first letter is one her earliest attempts to situate her thoughts on totalitarianism within her emerging thinking about plurality and politics. As Baehr writes:
In his letter of March 16, 1951, Voegelin had introduced himself and offered an informal verdict on Origins of Totalitarianism. On April 8, Arendt typed a letter in response but never sent it. On April 22, she tried again and this time the result was mailed to its addressee. The first version, however, is not only longer but also more informative than the second. Why did she rework and truncate it? The letter she did send offers a plausible reason: “At the moment my own thinking is just at the stage (the in-between stage) at which it is both too late and too early to be brief.” Arendt may simply not have wished to articulate ideas that were still embryonic. The result of this omission was to deprive him, however, of intimations that we now think of as the very signature of Arendt’s political thought. Notably, the unsent letter contains an early statement of Arendt’s concept of “plurality,” a leitmotif of her postwar work.
One particularly fascinating excerpt from Arendt's never sent letter is concerns the loss of the idea of the human, a theme that is central in The Origins of Totalitarianism and forms the opening leitmotif of The Human Condition. Arendt writes:
The omnipotence of man makes men superfluous (just as monotheism is necessarily the consequence of the omnipotence of God), then totalitarianism’s power to destroy humans and the world lies not only in the delusion that everything is possible, but also in the delusion that there is such a thing as man. ... But man exists only as God’s creature. The power of man is limited by the fact that he has not created himself, whereas the power of men is limited not so much by nature as by the fact of plurality—the factual existence of my kind. It does not help me, as the humanists would have it, that I see man in every human being, as this by no means necessarily leads to respect or recognition for human dignity, but can equally well mislead us into believing in a surplus and in superfluity.
Here we see Arendt seeking to identify limits on human power, engaged in the problem of about thinking human and political limits to totalitarian power. If her first book focuses on the loss of human limits and the consequent rise of totalitarianism, her later work turns more and more to the possibility of political limits on human action. Her never-sent letter to Voegelin is, it turns, an important part of that transition in her thinking.
Baehr has done an admirable job of situating these letters in the context of Arendt's thought and his article, which includes translations of Voegelin's letter and Arendt's sent and unsent responses, is well worth reading. You can read Baehr's excellent essay in the October 2012 issue of History and Theory (vol. 51). You can read Arendt's letter here. It is your weekend read.