Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Hannah Arendt & the Redemptive Power of Narrative


Hannah Arendt and the Redemptive Power of Narrative
Selya Benhabib, Social Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, Philosophy and Politics II (spring 1990), pp. 167-196

Selya Benhabib, Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, sees Arendt as affirming the modernist move beyond the nation to universal human rights,  while at the same time disparaging the social in a way that many critics see as anti-modern. As Roger Berkowitz explains regarding a later work, Benhabib works out this universal aspiration “with and against Arendt.”  In this 1990 article, Benhabib makes only passing reference to Arendt’s famous critical phrase “the right to have rights.” Briefly put though, she sees Arendt’s concern not as a fundamental challenge but rather as  an implicit spur for a broader guarantee of rights.


For Arendt the social, which in large part corresponds to economic activity, no longer remains in its proper place of the household, but emerges to obscure the public space of politics. One might then ask, is Arendt a Romantic proponent of a return to Greek origins, in line with Hölderlin, Hegel, and Heidegger?  Benhabib denies this challenge, arguing instead that Arendt’s confrontation with National Socialism led her to develop a new idea

of political theory as "storytelling." In light of this conception, her analysis of the decline of the public space cannot be considered a nostalgic Verfallsgeschichte (a history of decline). Rather, it must be viewed as an "exercise" in thought, the chief task of which is to dig under the rubble of history and to recover those "pearls" of past experience, with their sedimented and hidden layers of meaning, so as to cull from them a story that can orient the mind in the future.

The figures of secret “pearls” and covered sediments align in part but not in whole: historians could be seen as describing the hidden layers of ruins that we rarely consider beneath our feet. The idea of finding “pearls,” which Benhabib draws from Arendt’s longer citation to Shakespeare’s Tempest offers the key idea of a particular point of significance that then rearranges other semantic layers.

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (The Tempest, act I, scene 2)

Benhabib sees the theorist casting the challenges of history as “rich and strange” stories.  One might push this idea further and see the theorist as descending into the depths to inhabit history from the specific place of the dead man, who longer sees naturally, but retains the markers of perception. We might even say that the drowned man offers the right body to connect ourselves to a broken past. Drawing on Heidegger’s terminology, Benhabib writes:

If Dasein is in time, narrative is the modality through which time is experienced. Even when the thread of tradition is broken, even when the past is no longer authoritative simply because it has been, it lives within us and we cannot avoid placing ourselves in relation to it. The narrative uniting past and present defines who we are at any point. Narrative then, or, in Arendt's word, storytelling, is a fundamental human activity. There is then a continuum between the attempt of the theorist to understand the past and the need of the acting person to interpret the past as part of a coherent and continuing life story.

Notice that Benhabib sees it as a necessity that we place ourselves in relation to tradition. The distinctive mark of Arendt’s storytelling is that it is not purely imaginative in the sense that “anything goes.” Instead, it establishes a creative relation to the past.


In the 2004 Tanner lectures, Benhabib argues for human rights based on intersubjective cosmopolitanism rather than a metaphysical universalism. The work on narrative in this earlier article raises the question of the role that narrative plays in creating such a cosmopolitanism. Indeed, in the continuing demand to tell a “coherent” story, perhaps we can see the emergence of an international narrative that does not rely so much on the stability of intersubjectivity as one continually open to the future in action.

-Jeffrey Champlin


Arendt & Auden

“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.

Image by xetobyte

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.

-Frances Lee