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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