“Plurality of languages: […] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was ready for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English, and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch; it was written in several languages—often, like the entry above, in German.
According to Arendt, the fact that an entity designed to bear and present things can be called both “table” and “Tisch” suggests that something of the “true essence” escapes from that which we produce and name ourselves. The belief that we can positively comprehend the essence of a table with the word “table” would only function under the assumption of a “homogenous human collective.” This hypothesis is in Arendt’s eyes just as “absurd” as the idea of a universal “world language” or one “human condition.” Such conceptions imply the danger of an “artificial forcible disambiguation of the ambiguous,” the entry in the Denktagebuch continues. In political terms this would mean: the abolition of plurality.
Plurality is a fundamental concept in Arendt’s writing. The many and the various are for Arendt the starting point from which to think in new ways about the political, whose meaning is freedom, in the age of totalitarianism. Arendt’s theoretical project responds to the political circumstances of the time: in more than one language. This passage written in German in the Denktagebuch on the “plurality of languages,” for example, is framed by a note in French and one in English—the languages of Arendt’s exile (she left Berlin in 1933 in flight from the Nazis, spent the next eight years in Paris and fled further to New York when Hitler invaded France.).
Interestingly, one German word of the quoted entry is put in quotation marks and thereby emphasized: “Entsprechungen” (“counterparts”). Arendt draws a correspondence between the experience of the “wavering ambiguity of the world and the uncertainty of people within it” and the experience that (mediated by the learnability of other languages) there are “yet other ‘counterparts‘ for our mutual-identical world.” In the echo chamber of the bordering entries in French and English, what would be the counterpart of the German “Entsprechungen”? Pendants, adéquations, équivalents – equivalences, analogies, counterparts? Or perhaps correspondences – correspondences?
Arendt came to speak again of “correspondences” almost twenty years later in her essay on Walter Benjamin. “What fascinated him,” she wrote of Benjamin, “was that the spirit and its material manifestation were so intimately connected that it seemed permissible to discover everywhere Baudelaire’s correspondences, which clarified and illuminated one another if they were properly correlated, so that finally they would no longer require any interpretative or explanatory commentary.”
In the same context, Arendt characterizes Benjamin’s special mode of thinking as “poetic thinking.” Is this to be read also as a response to her fundamental question, noted in her Denktagebuch in December 1950, in close proximity to her entry on the plurality of languages: “Is there a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
A considerable portion of Arendt’s books and essays is written not in one, but in two languages. Depending on the situation, for example, first in English and then later in German, when the same text was published on the other side of Atlantic. Particularly fascinating in this respect is a comparative reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) and the German version Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1960). Literally every page, every paragraph, and every sentence of both books shows how Arendt thinks and writes in two languages, “not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar.”
Take for example the presumably well-known division of human activity that Arendt deals with in The Human Condition: labor, work, action. As Patchen Markell has presented in his essay “On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” this conceptual triad is best understood “not as a single, functionally continuous three-part distinction,” but rather as “the fraught conjunction of two different pairs of concepts— labor and work, and work and action.” In a dense passage of §12 of The Human Condition, Arendt puts these distinctions into words in the following way:
Needed by our bodies and produced by its laboring, but without stability of their own, these things [consumer goods] for incessant consumption appear and disappear in an environment of things that are not consumed but used, and to which, as we use them, we become used and accustomed. As such, they give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things [labor, work] as well as between men and men [action]. (p. 94)
In the placing together of “to use” and “to get used to,” Arendt’s systematic reflections on labor, work, and action as distinct and connected concepts verbally echo her thought. In the German version of the same passage in Vita Activa the scope and radicality of this thought is made clear in another way. Here Arendt works with the words “verbrauchen” (to consume) and “gebrauchen” (to use). While the first one refers to labor and the second to work, their conceptual proximity becomes visible in the shared stem: “brauchen.” In the same passage of Vita Activa, Arendt transforms the work-related activity into a noun, “Gebrauch” (use), which is a collective singular, while the plural form is “Gebräuche,” i.e. when the word enters the realm of plurality it opens up what the English version calls “customs and habits,” including manners and morals, i.e. phenomena belonging to the world of (political) practice and leaning towards action. All the terms in Arendt’s constellation of distinct yet related concepts share the word “brauchen.” Ironically or aptly, this German word means not only “to use” but also “to need” and in its reflexive form “to need each other.”
We need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages, so that their differences can illuminate each other, if we want to grasp the political and poetic, poetic and political spectrum, legacy, and provocation of her thinking. Well, I might rather say: we need to begin.
-Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten