“Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.”
– Hannah Arendt, Preface to Between Past and Future, 1961
Hannah Arendt called Between Past and Future her most important book. The essay collection deals with fundamental political-philosophical terms such as freedom, authority, power and reason. Its subtitle—“Exercises in Political Thought”—points towards the genre of the book, essay, which of course comes from the French essayer, meaning something like to try, to experiment and, in this sense, to exercise. It was from Michel de Montaigne’s Essais—the wonderfully experimental, experience-based reflections on topics both philosophical and mundane, first published in 1580—that the genre got its name. Arendt read Montaigne both in the original French and in English translation, and the two respective versions of Essais in her library prove that she read them carefully, and with a pencil at the ready. Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin developed and expanded the possibilities of this genre in their own unique ways, and both thinkers count among Arendt’s key interlocutors. It is however less well known that Arendt’s work in the genre of “essay” also have another starting point: in American literature, from the writings of Emerson and Melville, both of whom she grew to know through the writings of the literary critic Alfred Kazin.
Arendt and Kazin became close friends in the late 1940’s. Their conversation in letters began with Kafka and continued through literature, friendship, and genuine interest in each other’s work. Kazin helped Arendt find a publisher for her first American book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” and also played a central role in editing that groundbreaking study. At the same time Arendt was reading Kazin’s essay collection “On Native Grounds,”—she read it “every day at breakfast,” in fact, as she wrote to him. For Arendt, who had arrived in the USA only a few years earlier, Kazin’s book was an introduction to the literature and history of her new homeland—as well as a paradigm of the “essay” genre. At the highpoint of their friendship, in the summer of 1956, Arendt told Kazin in a letter that she had written him into her will as “literary executor for all things in English.” In the very same letter that links their literary legacies in such a meaningful way, Arendt comes back to “On Native Grounds,” and to the “essay:” Harcourt Brace, who published both authors, had suggested to Arendt “that I prepare also a volume of essays,” yet she “shuddered at the thought of it,” since she understood the great challenges posed by the genre that in her eyes Kazin was mastering. It took five more years for Arendt to set aside her “shudder,” and to publish Between Past and Future.
In the meantime, Arendt and Kazin sent other writings to each other, among which two texts in particular continued their conversation about the “essay.” The first is a preface written by Kazin to a new edition of Moby Dick. The novel, Kazin writes, “is not so much a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for the whale as it is an experience of that quest.” To understand writing as an invitation to experience something—an invitation to a process of thinking, to an exercise—echoes the project of Arendt’s Exercises in Political Thought. “This is only to say, what we can say of any true poem,” Kazin continues, “that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it, but that we should recognize that its very force and beauty lie in the way it is conceived and written.” “The Introduction is wunderbar,” Arendt wrote Kazin enthusiastically, using the German word both as a sign of intimacy and because the German “wunderbar” more strongly connotes the spirit of “wonder” than the English “wonderful.”
Soon thereafter Alfred Kazin published a large anthology of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. Many of Arendt’s American readers rightfully wonder why Emerson does not appear more frequently in her writing. There seems to be such an intriguing correspondence between both writers’ style of thinking and care for language. But Arendt’s copy of Kazin’s anthology shows just how attentively she read Emerson: the volume is heavily underlined. The markings begin in the introduction and revolve — perhaps not so surprisingly, since Emerson was one of the founding figures of American essay writing—around his writing style. “He is a writer who lives entirely by ideas, but who really lives them,” Kazin writes at the very beginning. “He is not a philosopher, not a maker of systems or a prover of systems or a justifier of them. He starts from a conviction about man’s central importance in the world which he never really elaborates, but which he accepts as necessary and evident and profoundly human – he could almost have said, the only human account of the world in modern, ‘scientific’ times.” It is a description that strikingly resembles the fundamental concept of love for the world —amor mundi—which Arendt was writing in The Human Condition at the very same time. Her books moved and excited him, Kazin later wrote to Arendt, “in a way that no ‘technical philosophy’ ever could. What a visionary you are, as my most beloved poets are!”
As visionary as a poet? Or is this more a view of poetic thinking? Hannah Arendt coined the term “poetic thinking” in her essay on Walter Benjamin. Her catchy formulation is explained in a series of negative characterizations. To fundamentally comprehend Benjamin, according to Arendt, one must understand that he was “very scholarly, but in no way a scholar; that his major subject was text and the interpretation of texts, but that he was no philologist; […] that he was a writer whose greatest ambition was to build a text entirely comprised of quotes from other texts—that is, to override his own role as writer; […] he published countless book reviews and many conventional essays on dead and contemporary writers and poets, but he was no literary critic.” The list is much longer in the original, but it continues in the same vein: Benjamin doesn’t belong to any discipline nor profession; readers need to understand that he “thought poetically.”
Arendt’s remarks on Benjamin find an astounding echo in Kazin’s efforts to answer his own question about Emerson: “What kind of writer shall we call him?” “He is not, of course, a novelist or a dramatist,” Kazin writes, “in fact, he could hardly read novels or wholly enjoy great plays for their own sake. Although he was a remarkable and inventive poet, no one can claim that poetry is the major side of his work. As we have said, he is not a philosopher – not even a philosopher like Nietzsche, who so much admired him.” What, then, could a suitable description look like? Kazin finds a surprising turn of phrase: “And though one falls back on the term ‘essayist,’ the term hardly explains why the essay form, as Emerson developed it, attains a free form that is profoundly musical and fugal, a series of variations starting from a set theme.”
“The essay form,” are the three words of the quote that Arendt underlined in her copy. They echo the passage from Between Past and Future quoted here at the beginning: “Like all collections of essays, this book of exercises [is] a sequence of movements which, like in a musical suite, are written in the same or related keys.” On the same page of this preface, Arendt expands the resonance and meaning of these “related keys” in a highly intriguing way. Her investigations between past and future seek to discover the “spirit” which has “so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language,” such as freedom and justice, responsibility and virtue. In order to trace the “wunderbaren” spirits that Arendt roused from the key words of our political language, we need to listen to the keys in which these exercises and essays in political and poetic thinking were composed and written.
-Translated from German by Anne Posten