The American writer and founder of Dissent magazine Irving Howe wrote many of the best accounts of the controversy over Arendt’s publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. As the controversy swells yet again in the wake of the new movie “Hannah Arendt,” Dissent thankfully republishes an excerpt of Howe’s testamentary writing about Arendt.
My first encounter with Hannah had come in 1947 when she was editor of Schocken Books, the German-Jewish publishing house recently moved to New York. She needed a part-time assistant to do literary chores (copy for book jackets, cleaning up translations, and so forth), and for the handy sum of $150 a month I took the job. With it came the privilege of visiting Hannah at her office every week. She had not yet published her major work on totalitarianism, but everyone in the intellectual world respected her and some feared her. She liked to “adopt” young people, and while I was not one of her chosen—perhaps because I was deaf to philosophy, or had been contaminated by Marxism, or was visibly intent upon resisting her intellectual lures—she would take an hour off and talk to me about Kafka and Brecht, Yiddish folk tales and American politics.
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“The accusative of violence, like that of love, destroys the in-between, crushes or burns it, renders the other defenseless, strips itself of protection. In contrast to this stands the dative of saying and speaking, which confirms the in-between, moves within it. Then again there is the accusative of the singing poem, which removes and releases what it sings from the in-between and its relations, without confirming anything. When poetry and not philosophy absolutizes, there’s rescue.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, p. 428 [August 1953], (my translation.)
When I was in college, puzzling over Arendt’s work for the first time, I read Hanna Pitkin’s famous essay “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” which contains some of the most-quoted words ever written about The Human Condition: “What is it that they talk about together, in that endless palaver in the agora?” This question grew in part out of Arendt’s love of the troublesome phrase “for its own sake,” which, when used to characterize political action, seemed to imply that genuine action had to be about nothing but itself, gloriously pointless: praxis as peacock-feather. Yet at other times Arendt took the edge off of this austerity: “Most words and deeds,” she says, almost offhandedly, “are about some worldly objective reality in addition to being a disclosure of the acting and speaking agent.” They talked about a thousand mundane things.
This week’s passage, drawn from Hannah Arendt’s notebooks from 1953, elegantly uses a grammatical idea to hold these two thoughts together. As readers of German will know, the “accusative” and the “dative” are two of German’s four grammatical cases, in which pronouns and nouns are changed, or given specific endings, to signal their relationship to another part of a sentence. The accusative case is used, roughly, when something is the direct object of a verb—when we are in the register of cause and effect, you might say, in which one thing “accuses” another through the linguistic mark it bears of an action that was taken upon it. The dative case, by contrast, is used for indirect objects, and originally with objects to which or to whom something is given. (And that means, incidentally, that acknowledging givenness isn’t a matter of submitting to the brute, determining force of things as they are: to be given something is not to be struck with it, no matter how unalterable it may be.)
These are very different kinds of relationship, as Arendt emphasizes by tying this grammatical distinction to her oft-repeated contrast between violence and speech; but they are also relationships that can exist, side by side or even hand in hand, in a single course of action. It happens all the time in language: we give something (accusative) to someone (dative); or, as Arendt says elsewhere in her notebooks, we speak about something (über, accusative) with others (mit, dative). She also suggests that speech that isn’t about anything—speech that has lost its “Über”—isn’t an admirable exemplar of human freedom, but merely the “last residuum” of speech; bare, formal logic; on its way to silence.
And, although Arendt herself doesn’t make this point explicitly, we might also notice that the phrase “for the sake of” (um...willen in German) indicates yet another kind of relationship, for it takes the genitive case, the case of possession (for God’s sake). The “sake” in “for the sake of” is also a cause, but not in the sense of efficient causality, nor even in the sense of an ultimate purpose, if that is understood as the final term in a linked chain of means and ends. It is more like a “cause” in the sense of a legal issue, a dispute that bears on or is relevant to certain parties—both their cause and their case. To say that action is for its own sake, from this grammatical perspective, is not incompatible with action being about some particular object, nor with action establishing indirect relations between people that are mediated by that object. It means only that nothing outside the field of action itself determines the range or sustains the intensity of its relevance.
The other striking part of this passage, of course, is its suggestion that, at least sometimes, human activity can stand between, or straddle, the accusative of violence and love and the dative of speaking and saying. Arendt’s example is “the accusative of the singing poem,” which has a direct object, but acts upon it in a distinctive way: not violently or absorptively, but by “releasing” it, she says, from the in-between and its relations. Arendt presents this release as a kind of “absolutization,” but not the kind performed by philosophy—or at least some kinds of philosophy—where, as she had put it in her notebooks a few months earlier, an object is abstracted or isolated from all worldly relations in order to be measured according to a standard that comes “from outside,” that is, which is itself also grasped in isolation.
What happens in the “singing poem,” then, is not absolutization as universalization, as a stripping-away of muddying particularities, but absolutization as the creation of something particular that can subsist, for a while, as its own world, that can be encountered as an appearance and not, or not yet, as a means to an end. This is what Arendt, in one of her essays on Bertolt Brecht, called the “precise generality of the literary art.” The poem places a dark, silent margin around its object, a horizon that turns us back to the specificity of its words—of its own words, for its own sake. Yet its removal of itself and its object from the in-between is only provisional, for what it releases from the world it then releases into the world, transfigured in what—in a few years—Arendt will call “a veritable metamorphosis in which it is as though the course of nature which wills that all fire burn to ashes is reverted and even dust can burn into flames.”
These flames do not destroy the world, but braze together its cases.
 Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “Justice: On Relating Private and Public,” Political Theory 9, no. 3 (August 1981): 336.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958),
 Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 214; 345.
 Ibid., 339.
 Hannah Arendt, “The Poet Bertolt Brecht,” in Brecht: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Peter Demetz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 45.
 Arendt, The Human Condition, 168.
Stevenson Library, Bard College
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