Hannah Arendt: Commemorating A Life in Exile

Hannah Arendt: Commemorating A Life in Exile

I. On Misunderstood, Departed Women Intellectuals

Some time ago, I published an article here in honor of Hannah Arendt. More recently, a new work has been published that argues forcefully for the continuing importance of Arendt’s political theories. Carlin Romano has provided a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education. An adaptation of Romano’s review is presented here, followed by my own memorial article that was written earlier:

“…Elizabeth Young-Bruehl reminds us of the importance of Hannah Arendt’s political thinking in her new book, Why Arendt Matters (Yale University Press, 2006). Young-Bruehl, a former student of Arendt at the New School for Social Research, presents a staunchly devotional argument for the continuing relevance of political theorist Hannah Arendt. Why Arendt Matters marks a welcome, growing commitment of today’s female scholars to dismantling simplifications of past female intellectuals.

One of Young-Bruehl’s chief aims for showing Arendt’s relevance today is to speculate on what her mentor would have thought about events that have occurred since her death. As Young-Bruehl examines The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a veritable “field manual” for identifying an enemy, we get sentences such as, “She would, for example, have taken the measure of Slobodan Milosevic’s government from his talk about ‘Greater Serbia,’ a phrase he obviously and purposefully modeled on Hitler’s ‘Greater Germany.‘” And, “It seems to me that Hannah Arendt, had she been alive in 2001, would have gone straight to her writing table to protest that the World Trade Center was not Pearl Harbor and that ‘war on terror’ was a meaningless phrase.” At the same time, Young-Bruehl acknowledges, “Neither I, her biographer, nor anyone else should presume to know what Hannah Arendt would have thought about any event, trend, idea, person, or group that she did not look upon with her own fiercely observant eyes and the eyes of her uniquely and inimitably brilliant mind.

Still, Young-Bruehl repeatedly and successfully unpacks Arendt’s views of such concepts as action, power, forgiveness, judgment, radical evil, revolution, and the human condition itself. Arendt’s phrasemaking and popularization of notions such as “totalitarianism” developed because she “wanted thoughts and words adequate to the new world and able to dissolve clichés, reject thoughtlessly received ideas, break down hackneyed analyses, expose lies and bureaucratic double talk, help people withdraw from their addiction to propagandistic images.” She persuasively suggests that Arendt’s ideas informed such modern political phenomena as Poland’s Solidarity movement and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and credits her with being ahead of the curve on globalization.

Drawing by: Shy Abady, Dusty Orange (2004)

II. A Commemoration: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906-December 4, 1975) was an eminent political theorist of German origin. In 1940, Arendt was taken to the infamous internment camp at Gurs, near the Pyrenees; at the last minute she was able to avoid deportation to an extermination camp and made her way to New York in 1942.

As a student in Germany, Arendt studied with Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Husserl and Walter Benjamin. Subsequent to her escape to New York, she became part of the large group of immigrant academics known as “The Exiles in Paradise.” They found that, upon escaping to America, academic insitutions were generally anti-semetic and refused to give them teaching appointments. In response, Jewish relief agencies established special institutes in New York City, at which they could conduct research and teach. One of the special institutes was the “University in Exile” (later to become The New School for Social Research), where Arendt served on the graduate faculty for many years.

In 1963, there was intense critical debate among the New York Jewish intellectual community following Arendt’s publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. Arendt was subjected to great censure for her position that evil is never “radical” but only extreme, that evil does not possess depth or demonic dimension. She described it as “thought-defying,” because people try to reach depth but there is nothing there and that is banality. She then wrote, “Eichmann may very well remain the concrete model of what I have to say.” She felt that was quite frightening to imagine that Eichmann was not an inherently outrageous mythical monster, but rather a clear example of the kind of person that a totalitarian regime is capable of producing. In other words, she was saying, Eichmann could very well be you or I.

Suffering from and saddened by the intense criticism in New York and feeling “doubly-exiled,” she accepted an offer to teach at the University of Chicago (The Committee on Social Thought, which at that time also included Saul Bellow as a faculty colleague). The University of Chicago was one of the very few major universities that welcomed the academic immigrants with open arms. This was an opportunity that allowed her to resume previous relationships with other immigrants teaching at the University, which included Leo Strauss, Hans J. Morgenthau and Bruno Bettelheim.

In addition to her faculty positions at the “University in Exile” (New York) and the University of Chicago, Arendt later held professorships or guest-professorships at several universities, including Princeton, Harvard and The University of California at Berkley. She received numerous honors, including ten honorary doctorates.

During her later years in New York City, she became more reclusive, but maintained a renowned circle of friends, including W. H. Auden. In 1971, she was personally deeply struck by the death of Auden. She openly wept on the way to Auden’s memorial service at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. At the memorial service, she was dressed in black and overcome with melancholy. In her own memorial for Auden, she focused upon Auden’s capacity to let himself feel full vulnerability to the devastations of human failures and to:

Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress

Arendt went on to say:

Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love.”

An Arendt quotation on growing old:

I must admit that I mind this defoliation (or deforestation) process. As though to grow old does not mean, as Goethe said, ‘gradual withdrawal from appearance’–which I do not mind–but the gradual (rather, sudden) transformation of a world with familiar faces (no matter, friend or foe) into a kind of desert, populated by strange faces. In other words, it is not me who withdraws but the world that dissolves–an altogether different proposition.”


The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

The Human Condition (1958)

Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963)

* The drawing by Shy Abady, entitled Dusty Orange (2004), is used with permission granted by the artist.  This work is part of a larger series concerning Arendt’s image.  The series, entitled The Arendt Project, is comprised of 19 works portraying the image of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).  The works focus upon her personality, as well as upon the manner in which her visual image and her life mirror the turmoil of the twentieth century.

An exhibition of The Arendt Project was presented first in October 2005 at the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt, later at the Heinrich Böll Foundation Gallery in Bremen and in the Hannah Arendt Zentrum in Oldenburg.  In October 2006, Hannah Arendt’s 100th birthday was commemorated around the world. The Arendt Project was presented at the Jerusalem Artist’s House, supported by The Heinrich Böll Foundation in Israel and The Goethe Institute.

The entire series can be viewed at: www.shyabady.net.

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NewsVine Attacks: Persecution and the Art of Writing


On Facing Viscious Attack:

I was recently the target for a relentless series of viscious attacks by a mob of writers and commenters on the Newsvine website. I suppose that this shouldn’t have been too surprising, since Newsvine is becoming known as the home for many mean-spirited writers. The following article is a metaphoric response to that mob of sadistic attackers, written in the spirit of “persecution and the art of writing.” This is a particular form of writing addressed to only the few. Unfortunately, it is not written directly to the attackers. Nevertheless, they would probably not understand it anyway, since they are seldom capable of understanding anything beyond their own grandiose and narcissistic sense of self-worth:

Our seemingly established right to freedom of expression may be seen as caught between two different trends of disenchanted modernity. The first trend relies upon the demands of an extremely pragmatic form of rationalization, leading to the framing of our thoughts as legitimate only when subordinated to the dictates of scientistic objectivism and the dominant governmental ideology.

At perhaps an even more personal level, it can lead one to become subjugated to an increasingly impaired quality of thought processes (often a rapidly progressing, narrow focus upon issues related to the draconian pursuit of power) characterizing whatever institution to which one has been devoted.

The second trend is to anchor feelings of confidence upon introspective self-inquiry, which offers one the opportunity for a sense of freedom from the dictates of orthodoxy, inequality, and authority.

However, the reaction against the first trend of submission to external domination may tend to produce, in its emphasis upon introspective subjectivity, a vulnerability to reifying counter-ideals of not-knowing and mutuality, which must also be carefully deconstructed. Differences in meanings achieved by others who also choose to rely ever more upon the liberating capacity of subjectivity suggest pluralism will make new knowledge demands upon us. The development of new critical abilities will be needed to help form a way of knowing that is based upon collaborative, democratic processes, where knowledge itself can be used homeopathically as an antidote to the old ideal of the knowing authority.

In the history of psychoanalysis, there is hardly a more striking anecdote than a comment made by Freud in a letter to Oskar Pfister in 1910:

“Discretion is incompatible with a good presentation of psychoanalysis. One must become a bad character, disregard the rules, sacrifice oneself, betray, behave like an artist who buys paints with the household money belonging to his wife or bums the furniture to heat the studio for his model. Without such a bit of criminality there is no real achievement.”

This statement, notably to a non-analyst, reminds us how, despite its present appearance of orthodoxy and reverence for the founder, psychoanalysis began as a marginal, radical enterprise. From its inception, psychoanalysis took up a quietly critical stance toward authority, bourgeois conventional norms and what were then the certainties of conscious knowledge.

In contemporary life, the renewed sense of enrichment provided by a turn to self-inquiry, as opposed to living as a servant to external powers, is accompanied by sometimes distressing feelings of disenchantment, an awareness that the modern condition no longer allows us to call upon religious, mysterious, and awe-inspiring forms of truth, upon authority founded in such revealed truth. One of the consequences of this disenchantment is that the ultimate and most sublime values have retired from public life, at best into the brotherliness of immediate personal relationships.

At the same time we are required either to suffer a great deal more uncertainty or, more constructively, learn how to embrace it. Those who find this condition too difficult to bear will retreat vociferously, in a manner that obscures the uncertainty of life, into the arms of churches which promise them a renewed sense of entitlement and power over others, often over the unfortunate and disadvantaged.

My concluding remarks are perhaps the most difficult to formulate clearly. In contemporary psychotherapeutic and “self-help” thinking, feelings of resignation are unanimously associated with feelings of depression, inadequacy and a sense of low self-worth. There are, however, important incidents in the history of psychoanalysis that point out an entirely different dimension of “feelings of resignation.”

One striking example involved the psychoanalyst Edith Jacobsen in the 1930s, who at that time was a member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. Jacobson was arrested by the Gestapo for participating in a resistance group in 1934 and was sentenced and held for more than two years in a Gestapo prison; she was finally released due to illness and managed to escape.

It subsequently been revealed that Anna Freud responded to the Nazi persecution of Jacobson solely in terms of her deep worry that Jacobsen had jeopardized the psychoanalytic movement in Berlin, which had hoped to preserve the Institute and continue treating patients without interference, by complying with the authorities, accepting (demanding) the resignation of its Jewish members, and generally being on best behavior.

For Anna Freud, then, “resignation” was in fact both an oppressive demand and a despicable compliance with the Nazi domination and persecution of the Jews. Jacobson committed herself to an entirely different, firm “sense of resignation” to refuse the vulgar type of “resignation” demanded by Anna Freud, displaying a noble, moral and life-enriching form of resignation.

In the United States, the history of psychoanalysis presents other practical instances where the sense and enactment of feelings of resignation were pioneering and moral acts of justice. One of the more significant of these events took place in the 1930s, with the simultaneous resignations of Karen Horney and Clara Thompson from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in protest against the degrading understanding of women that it expounded, viewing women as innately inferior and damaged humans.

The subsequent body of writings about women created by Karen Horney can quite justifiably be understood as a major cornerstone for the feminist movement that emerged. Clara Thompson went on to become a founder of the William Allison White Institute in New York City, which from its very beginnings has served as a fountainhead for contemporary relational thinking.

“Feelings of resignation,” then, need not necessarily be understood to reflect underlying depression, lack of self-confidence, feelings of incompetence and inadequacy. Instead, feelings and acts of “resignation” may serve as a firm commitment to the affirmation of justice, the defiance of authoritarian domination, the refusal to be ruled by primitive forms of reason and the pursuit of humanitarian achievements. In this manner, “the sense of resignation” stands proudly as a beacon of hope for all mankind.

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