Arnon Grunberg



On snootiness and Arendt - Jenny Turner in LRB:

“The Arendt cult is a riddle,’ Walter Laqueur sighed in the 1990s, as Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire had sighed before him. So much reverent attention for someone so ‘devoid of originality, depth and a systematic character’. Was it because women like reading other women, Laqueur wondered, and was this the reason Arendt herself, ‘a highly emotional person with a strong inclination towards impressionistic, romantic and even metaphysical influences’ admired the ‘second-rate’ Rosa Luxemburg? It’s probably true, as far as it goes, that increasing awareness among scholars of feminist citational practice has something to do with the current prominence of both. Yes, women do like reading other women, and seeing them properly recognised for their work.
But it’s also, David Runciman reckons on his Talking Politics podcast, to do with the eventfulness of Arendt’s life, which is why Ken Krimstein’s comic-book biography of 2018 is structured around our heroine’s ‘Three Escapes’. Arendt did not arrive in the USuntil 1941, by which time she had been on the run from Nazis of one sort or another for many years. The first escape – in the 1920s, when Arendt was a teenager – was from a predatory, soon-to-turn-Nazi lover; the second, in the 1930s, was from a Gestapo cell in Berlin. The third was from the Gurs internment camp in France just before the Germans took it over and started sending its inmates east; Arendt was one of only a handful of prisoners to grab at the chance offered by the French surrender to walk away ‘with only a toothbrush’, to spend the rest of their lives with the knowledge of what had happened to those who had not. One irony of the merch quote is that taking ‘what comes’ is just what Arendt didn’t do. Friends saw her as ‘a person overinclined to embrace conspiracy theories’, Young-Bruehl reports, although the friends who listened were often glad they had. ‘It is in the very nature of things human that ... once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been,’ Arendt wrote in the epilogue to Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). The destructive potential of postwar technological developments might yet make what Hitler did ‘look like an evil child’s fumbling toys’.”


“Arendt’s American essays are widely read and debated, but a lot of her ideas about the US were odd. She didn’t get there until she was in her mid-thirties, and when she did, spent most of her time with other German émigré intellectuals (one reason so many Jewish Americans found her Eichmann reporting so offensive was because of its unconcealed German-Jewish snootiness towards Jews from other places) and Americans who, wherever their families had come from, had long since made themselves over as aristocrats of the left. On Revolution (1963), for example, stages a peculiar encounter between the French Revolution – a bad thing because it let ‘the existence of poverty’ inspire it, drive it onward, ‘and eventually [send] it to its doom’ – and the American, which went well because the Founding Fathers refused to let the ‘abject and degrading misery ... present everywhere in the form of slavery and Negro labour’ distract them from drafting the constitution. Arendt’s lifelong effort to keep ‘the social question’ out of politics reached an apogee with ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ (1959), in which the Lady Arrogant – as enemies sometimes called her – took one look at the famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford, the lone Black girl on her way into school being yelled at by a line of hate-filled whites, and decided that the most important thing going on in it was what it said about negligent Black parents and ‘the equally absent representatives of the NAACP’: ‘Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?’”


“For twelve years the peace necessary to do intellectual work is something I’ve known only from hearsay,’ she wrote to her mentor Karl Jaspers in 1945, after years in which each of them had believed the other dead. ‘I’ve become a kind of freelance writer, something between a historian and a political journalist.’ She had published her first Partisan Reviewpiece – about Kafka – the year before.
Did she even care that much whether her work made a splash, or whether the splash was for the good or the bad? ‘Her best-known writings were essentially inward-looking,’ the political theorist Margaret Canovan explained in 1992. ‘The motive behind her work was her own effort to understand ... Misreadings of her books left her largely unmoved.’ For Canovan – who wrote two separate Arendt books eighteen years apart, with two quite different accounts of what she was about – the way Arendt sliced and shaped her ‘thought-trains’ was not random or careless exactly, but neither was it as laboriously intentional as it is for many writers. Her books are best read, Canovan thinks, as ‘part of the deposit laid down by her endless process of reflection and writing ... like islands out of a partly submerged continent of thought’. Even in the most famous, apparently well-made Arendt books, key arguments are obscured by noodles and doodles: ‘What her work most resembles is some medieval manuscript on the pages of which dragons and griffins climb in and out of the letters, and leaves and tendrils twine about the words: a marvellous work of art, wonderfully bejewelled, but in which the text is “illuminated” in a way that is liable to distract attention.’”


“‘The banality of evil’ is not the only flashy phrase in the Eichmann book, one problem with which is the way it combines sober, deadly serious reporting with a weirdly aerated streak of satire: the accused in the dock like a Spitting Image puppet, with his ‘scraggy’ neck and ill-fitting dentures; the ‘sheer comedy’ of the court interpreters, translating from German into Hebrew and back into much worse German; the ‘heroic fight’ in which the accused seemed locked with the German language, ‘which invariably defeats him’; the hideous hilarity of hearing him use phrases such as ‘like pulling teeth’, about the struggle to get people to do what they were told, and ‘Kadavergehorsam, obedience of corpses’, when they did. McCarthy quickly regretted her line about Mozart and Handel, but Arendt secretly thought she had a point: ‘You were the only reader to understand what otherwise I have never admitted – namely that I wrote this book in a curious state of euphoria.’ ‘Irony,’ Hill comments, ‘allows for distance and reveals logical absurdity with a sense of humour.’ ‘Like so many who write ironically,’ Young-Bruehl says, ‘she was at her most cutting when most intensely involved.’”


“I can only say that I always knew I would study philosophy,’ she said in the Gaus interview. ‘For me, the question was somehow: I can either study philosophy or I can drown myself, so to speak.’ She started hearing a ‘rumour’ about a brilliant young teacher at the university in Marburg: ‘Thinking has come to life again; the cultural treasures of the past, believed to be dead, are being made to speak.’ And so she went to Marburg and enrolled in two of Heidegger’s classes, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy and a seminar on Plato’s Sophist: ‘For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression “being”. We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.’ Arendt and Heidegger – a brilliant young woman of eighteen and a charismatic, married professor twice her age – began a sexual relationship then tried to end it, with Arendt leaving Marburg first for Freiburg, where she studied with Edmund Husserl, then Heidelberg, where she worked on St Augustine with Karl Jaspers. The entanglement came and went – Heidegger, McCarthy thought, was ‘the great love affair’ for Arendt – for the rest of their lives.
Arendt was horrified, obviously, when Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and obeyed the decrees by sacking his non-Aryan colleagues. She cut all contact for many years. But it seems that she picked up with him again in 1949, on her first trip back to Germany after the Nazis had been defeated, and that she felt almost sorry for him, on account of the poverty of his ethics and political judgment: ‘Once upon a time there was a fox who was so lacking in slyness he not only kept getting caught in traps but couldn’t even tell the difference between a trap and a non-trap ... He hit on an idea completely new and unheard-of among foxes. He built a trap as his burrow.’ Her own more phenomenological writings – The Human Condition; the ‘exercises ... in how to think’ in Between Past and Future – replace the heroic struggle with existence with worlds that are shared and human, inhabited by ‘Men’ and with human-made space between them. The emphasis she put in her own work on what she called ‘natality’, new beginnings, must be intended at least partly to give the finger to Heidegger and his fascination with Being-towards-Death.
In 1929, Arendt took up with Günther Stern, a young German-Jewish writer-intellectual. One reason she married him was that her mother liked him, another was that she liked his mother. Stern was working on his Habilitationschrift in Frankfurt, though his progress was blocked by Theodor Adorno. (This was one reason for Arendt’s lifelong loathing of ‘Teddy’, another being his use of his mother’s Italian and non-Jewish surname instead of his father’s, which was Wiesengrund. ‘Infamy’, in Arendt’s view: an ‘unsuccessful attempt at co-operation’.) She, meanwhile, found funding to start researching German Romanticism, a project that became the remarkable Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess, largely finished by 1938, then lost, and finally published only in 1957.”


“I would linger a bit longer on the final chapter of the ‘Imperialism’ section, which tells the sorry story of the Rights of Man since they were first declared in 1789; in Arendt’s view they have never and nowhere been properly enforced. The idea of universal human rights has, she thinks, always been muddled up with nationalism, the wars and revolutions of modern Europe like a gigantic game of musical chairs. When the music stops and borders get fixed again, the lucky people find themselves in nation-states that want them and have the wherewithal to look after them. The unlucky ones, on either side of the border, find their inalienable rights as human beings of no use to them at all.
The League of Nations? That really proved itself, didn’t it, in the years between the wars. The United Nations, with its Declaration of Human Rights in 1948? Arendt mentions it once, in a footnote, to say that it convened a ‘mere gesture’ of a conference in the early 1950s ‘with the explicit reassurance that participation ... would entail no obligations whatsoever’. The conception of human rights, ‘based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships, except that they were still human’ – as had happened with the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. Then, the postwar ‘solution of the Jewish question ... namely, by means of a colonised and then conquered territory’, succeeded only by producing ‘a new category of refugees, the Arabs’. And so the game goes on.”


“Arendt added a chapter to that book in 1958 then removed it. In it, she writes about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 as another of those moments, like the birth of the French Resistance, when scattered groups of people, ‘without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations’ come together to build ‘public happiness’, as she sometimes called it, or ‘public freedom’ – the ‘treasure’ that ‘appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again’, like the Flying Dutchman. It’s something a bit like this ‘treasure’ that Arendt calls ‘natality’, the fact of human birth and the possibility of new beginnings, and I have to say that I don’t buy it and always feel a bit embarrassed when Arendt tries to palm it off.”

Read the essay here.

This is an insightful essay. She liked his mother and her mother liked him.

Those who don’t get German-Jewish snootiness (the contemporary German Jew cannot be a Yekke anymore, even if he desires to be one, the German Jew after the Holocaust has become whether he likes it or not a pillar of the state, he is the outsider that is needed to prove that the ghosts of the past have been defeated ) will mis a few things about Arendt.

We should not give up and even futile resistance can be a sign of hope, fair enough, but the words ‘public happiness’ for such resistance are a bridge too far for me, but alas.
How to define resistance in times of global capitalism? Capitalism could survive because it managed all resistance to incorporate in its own seemingly endless spectacle.

Just watch the 1984 Apple commercial.

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