In summer last year, Lyndsey Stonebridge, professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham, posted a selfie on Twitter modelling her new Hannah Arendt face mask:
for the worst:
expect the best:
take what comes
‘Not a Hannah Arendt quote! :/’ Samantha Rose Hill, then the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Centre at Bard College in New York State, tweeted back, across the hours and the Atlantic Ocean. ‘I know! ’Twas sweet gift,’ Stonebridge replied, then added: ‘We should make our own.’
‘One doesn’t always have to speak,’ Hill suggested – a real Arendt quote, from the long television interview she did in the 1960s with Günter Gaus, and one of the many Hill keeps in rotation on her Twitter feed, along with ‘Writing is an integral part of the process of understanding’ and ‘Speaking is also a form of action’ and ‘Evil comes from a failure to think.’ She also posts pictures of the contents of Arendt’s library – ‘all the old friends … Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Goethe, Rilke’, in the words of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Arendt’s former student and first biographer – as well as her manuscripts, typed then scribbled on and sometimes cut up and stuck back together: ‘One can almost see [her] … with enormous silver scissors and a roll of Scotch tape in her hand, making an image as much as a text, alive with desire for understanding,’ Hill writes in her new biography.
I too have merch with the dodgy quote on it – a ceramic tile not a face mask, and ’twas gift from my sister-in-law, working in league with my teenage son – and I too have tweeted an image that links me to Hannah Arendt. In Aberdeen in May 1974, Arendt had her picture taken along with her great friend Mary McCarthy less than a mile away from where I would have been sitting at that very moment in school. What on earth were those two doing in Scotland? Well, Arendt had been delivering the second part of the Gifford Lectures, which she would write up as her final, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind, when she had a heart attack walking to the podium. McCarthy rushed over from Paris to help, then was joined from New York by Lotte Köhler, Arendt’s longtime assistant. The following year McCarthy and Köhler were appointed joint executors after Arendt suffered a second heart attack and died in her Riverside Drive apartment.
‘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 US until 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’.
A prophetess, then, a high-class soothsayer? It’s true that Arendt quotes, from The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in particular, were conspicuous in the cheese dreams of the US media during the Trump presidency. Was it or wasn’t it totalitarian? Was he or wasn’t he a fascist? Here’s another nice Arendt quote: ‘No matter how much we may be capable of learning from the past it will not enable us to know the future.’ So there we are. In any case, no, Trump was not totalitarian, as Rebecca Panovka pointed out recently in Harper’s: one clue being in the morpheme ‘total’. ‘Trump never made the defining totalitarian effort to bend reality to his fictional world.’ ‘Alternative facts’, though, and their stitching together into alternative realities: it didn’t start with Trump, as Panovka shows. One reason Trump’s lies were so successful was that he was able to exploit a lack of public trust already evident when Arendt was writing her essays ‘Truth and Politics’ (1967) – ‘No one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues’ – and ‘Lying in Politics’ (1971), about the Pentagon Papers and the alternative reality they presented of the war in Vietnam.
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?’
As late as the 1970s, academic colleagues considered Arendt ‘a journalist, not a philosopher’, a midcult Mitteleuropean media performer, an intellectually more respectable version of Ayn Rand. It’s absolutely true that much of Arendt’s best-known writing was done for magazines, not academic journals, and much ‘Englished’, as she called the vigorous polishings to which her work was submitted by editors and friends: and it’s certainly strange to look up her Eichmann reports in the New Yorker and find this mighty ‘obligation I owe my past’ – as she called it – surrounded by ads for Super Masque, Cartier diamond hairclips, the Tomlinson chair (cushioned in Fortrel polyester fibre-fill and covered in Celaperm acetate sealed-in colour), the RCA Victor New Vista Color TV. But there’s worse than strange and worse than writing for the New Yorker. ‘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 Review piece – 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.’
‘I’ve read your book, absorbed, for the past two weeks, in the bathtub, riding in the car,’ McCarthy wrote to Arendt in 1951, on reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, which had just come out. The McCarthy-Arendt correspondence quickly developed, via lunches, ‘parrot talk about politics, sex, Norman Mailer’, an exchange of gifts (a silk scarf, a Pottery Barn casserole), into an extraordinarily rich friendship. When friends and foes alike turned on Arendt’s Eichmann book, it was McCarthy who leaped in to defend her: ‘I freely confess that … I too heard … a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah.’ It was McCarthy, too, who ended The Group, her bestselling proto-feminist romp of 1963, with the charismatic Lakey driving her stocky German baroness off into the sunset, the rest of the girls fretting that ‘Lakey, who had always been frightening and superior, would now look down on them for not being Lesbians.’
And it was McCarthy, finally, who was left to organise and English what there was of Arendt’s last book after her death. ‘She chafed against our language and its awesome, mysterious constraints,’ McCarthy wrote in an afterword, ‘though she had a natural gift, which would have made itself felt in Sioux or Sanskrit, for eloquent, forceful, sometimes pungent expression.’ ‘The Banality of Evil,’ for example, the dirge-like subtitle the Eichmann report was given on publication, is a powerful phrase that illuminates much about the way lies, carelessness, technology and logistics combine in certain individuals and organisations to ‘wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man’. But that phrase on the cover of a book about the Holocaust in the early 1960s? Maybe not the best way to elicit a calm and reasoned response.
‘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.’
‘Cura posterior’, Arendt called her coverage of the Eichmann trial. ‘Ever since,’ she confessed to McCarthy, ‘I feel – after twenty years – light-hearted about the whole matter. Don’t tell anybody, is it not proof positive that I have no “soul”?’ She’d left it behind, perhaps, in the Berlin library, or the Gurs internment camp, or on the ship crossing the Atlantic, reading out the notes she’d been given by Walter Benjamin to the huddled masses on the deck. ‘Feelings of being alien, homeless and alone characterised her existence,’ Köhler wrote about Arendt in America. The only person she ever felt spoke ‘the same language’ was her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, to whom she remained devoted up to and perhaps beyond his death in 1970.
‘Even Constance could see that, in some real sense, the Rosenbaums’ lives were over,’ the poet Randall Jarrell – a close friend and frequent Englisher – wrote in his novel Pictures from an Institution (1954), in which Constance is taken to be an authorial stand-in, with Gottfried and Irene Rosenbaum as Blücher and Arendt. ‘His automatic acceptance of everybody,’ the novel says of Gottfried, ‘was a judgment of mankind crueller, perhaps, than … impatient rejection … The thought of how he had acquired these expectations was a disagreeable one.’ Irene, on the other hand, Jarrell depicts as ‘disinterested, but … also rather uninterested’. She spends whole days just sitting, ‘looking silently, seeing nothing except what she did not see’.
Thinking is what Arendt probably claimed to have been spending whole days doing: ‘the two in one’, ‘the soundless dialogue … between me and myself’. She would be thinking, and she would be smoking; activities, as A.O. Scott remarked in his review of Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 biopic, that from the outside look much the same. There is something very Kant-like, I used to think, about smoking, the analytics and architectonics you build when you inhale, exhale, yet all of it ultimately springing from a single point; and smoking can be so useful for women and especially for women writers, sharpening your focus, giving you a smokescreen, acting as a repellent to keep the buzzing pests away.
Arendt liked smoking while giving lectures, McCarthy noted, ‘when the fire laws permitted’, and McCarthy and Köhler, Young-Bruehl reports, were both impressed by her ‘recalcitrance’ as a patient in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. ‘She took up her cigarettes as soon as the oxygen tent was removed from her room, refused to eat sensibly or cut down on her daily coffee intake and mustered an irritated bravado which thwarted all efforts to keep her calm.’ The picture Hill has chosen for the cover of her book is lovely, a classic from the 1930s: you can easily miss the cigarette and the big glass ashtray at the bottom right. But you won’t in a more revealing picture from the same session, taken a minute before or after, which Hill has put inside. The eyes have bags, the face is puffy, the hands are wringing, almost, and the cigarette is in the mouth, being sucked. The ashtray already has stubs in it. There’s something that looks like a Rizla packet on the tabletop nearby.
Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover in 1906, the cherished only child of highly educated, non-religious Jewish parents. Her father, Paul, was an electrical engineer with an amazing home library – she first read Kant, Arendt told Gaus, at fourteen. The Arendts were socialist fellow-travellers, Hannah’s mother, Martha, in particular. The ‘impressionistic, romantic’ admiration of Luxemburg may have begun when Martha took her to a meeting about the Spartacist uprising in 1919.
In 1909 or 1910, when Hannah was three, her family moved back to Königsberg, where both parents had grown up, as Paul was progressively weakened by the syphilis that killed him in 1913. Hannah did not take to the widower her mother married in 1920, or to his slightly older daughters, and in 1922 was expelled from Gymnasium for organising a boycott of a teacher she disliked. She finished her Abitur in Berlin.
‘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.
Rahel Varnhagen (née Levin) never published a book herself – how could she have done, being Jewish, and a woman, in the Berlin of the early 19th century? But she read Goethe, and wrote thousands of letters, and in her attic salon hosted conversations between great poets, mighty diplomats and mere nobodies such as herself, during ‘the age of Frederick II, in which Jews could live, which gave room for every plant in his sun-welcoming land’. But then the World Spirit crashed through Jena, fashions changed, and ‘social prejudices were … intensified to the point of crass, brutal exclusion’. In 1814, she married Karl August Varnhagen, a Prussian diplomat, and converted to Christianity: ‘19th-century Jews, if they wanted to play a part in society, had no choice but to become parvenus par excellence.’ Rahel, however, turned out to be too sensitive, too thoughtful, too fine a person really, to be an entirely successful social climber, and on her deathbed embraced Jewishness – ‘the thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame’ – as an experience ‘I should on no account now wish to have missed’. Varnhagen, Luxemburg and Arendt form Gillian Rose’s central trio of outsider women thinkers in The Broken Middle (1992), excluded from all clubs by ethnicity and gender, but who learned to use that exclusion as a ‘coign of vantage, in letters as in life’. ‘It was,’ as Arendt put it, ‘the very loophole through which the pariah, precisely because he is an outcast, can see life as a whole.’
By 1956, when Arendt was tidying her Rahel book for publication, the ‘physical annihilation’ which ended the history of the Jews in Germany was known to all. Even in the early 1930s, however, Arendt felt she had some ‘awareness of the doom of German Judaism’. When the Reichstag burned in 1933, she immediately felt ‘responsible’, and was ‘no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander’. Stern fled to Paris, but she stayed in Berlin with her mother, hiding communists and doing research for the Zionists in the Prussian State Library. One day later in 1933 she was arrested by an inexperienced Gestapo man. She was detained for several days, but she buttered him up and he let her go. Hannah and Martha left Germany the next day, travelling via Prague and Geneva to Paris. Arendt remained in Paris until 1940, working for a series of Zionist organisations that supported Jewish refugees from Nazism and prepared them for settlement in Palestine. She and Stern divorced in 1937.
Arendt had met Benjamin in Berlin – he was a distant cousin of Stern’s. But she got to know him much better in Paris through refugee networks, which was also the way she met Blücher, a non-Jewish former Spartacist and sex-club bouncer, whom she married in January 1940. In September 1939, Blücher and Benjamin were interned together at Nevers, though Blücher was released early, only to be interned again a few months later. This time the order included women. On 15 May 1940 Arendt showed up at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, near the Eiffel Tower, to be transported after a week to the camp at Gurs. She’d been there for five weeks when France fell to the Nazis, discipline collapsed, and she just walked out. ‘By chance,’ she later wrote to Gershom Scholem, she ran into Benjamin at Lourdes, where he was waiting for visa papers, and spent ‘a few weeks’ with him, playing chess, before leaving for Montauban, where she was reunited with her husband. Arendt and Blücher last saw Benjamin in Marseilles on 19 September 1940, when he gave them a suitcase of papers to look after. Six days later he killed himself at Portbou on the Spanish border.
Arendt and Blücher left France for Lisbon early in 1941, then in May boarded the SS Guiné for New York. They opened Benjamin’s suitcase and entertained their fellow passengers by reading the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ out loud: the homunculus in the chess set, the storm from paradise, the ‘state of emergency’ that is simply the normal condition of the oppressed. After processing on Ellis Island they found two furnished rooms to rent on West 95th Street, which they shared with Arendt’s mother when she arrived a few weeks later.
All three of them were well past the age at which it’s easy to pick up new languages: but they had to, and they did. Arendt spent six weeks working as an au pair with a vegetarian family in Massachusetts and was thinking of training as a social worker until Blücher nixed it: ‘Only a dervish or a gifted imbecile could survive that kind of study.’ Blücher struggled terribly with English. Young-Bruehl quotes pages of cheesy idioms from his notebooks: ‘tickled to death’, ‘hit the jackpot’, ‘make a mess of it’, ‘nifty chick’. Arendt too relished a flavourful saying, a habit McCarthy tried in future years to correct: horned dilemmas, spades called spades, willy-nilly and pell-mell. Young-Bruehl, who studied with Arendt at the New School in the 1970s, remembers her as especially fond of ‘when the chips are down’, pronounced ‘cheeps’; when McCarthy edited the posthumous Life of the Mind for publication, she altered this to ‘when the stakes are on the table’. The cheeps get the last laugh, however, in Benjamin’s 13th thesis, included in Harry Zohn’s translation of Illuminations, edited by Arendt in the late 1960s. ‘Wenn es hart auf hart kommt’, Benjamin wrote in German, often translated as ‘when it comes to the crunch’. Zohn and Arendt give us: ‘However, when the chips are down’.
Arendt found her feet in New York much more quickly than Blücher. One job she got was to research the whereabouts of lost and ruined Jewish artefacts – a position that allowed her to ‘mourn through action’, in the words of a friend. Another was for Schocken, the Jewish émigré publisher, bringing editions of Kafka, Scholem, Bernard Lazare to the American market. And she wrote polemical essay-columns, in German at first, for the German-speaking New York Jewish press, and then in the spirited, sardonic English of a beer-hall fiddler who hasn’t forgotten her old life in the string quartet: ‘Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings – the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends,’ she wrote in one small, harsh masterpiece, ‘We Refugees’ (1943). ‘There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way.’
By 1945 Arendt was talking to publishers about the book that would appear in 1951 as The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘Our book’, she called it in private with Blücher, who did a lot of the reading for her in the New York Public Library while she was at work and Martha was doing the cooking and cleaning. ‘Without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm,’ Arendt later wrote about the previously unpolitical French intellectuals who were suddenly ‘sucked’ into the Resistance when their government capitulated to the Nazis. Individuals using their ‘initiative’ and working together to build open debate and freedom: that, to Arendt, was a ‘treasure’ that ‘appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana’. Arendt and Blücher built something like this between them in The Origins of Totalitarianism in particular, ‘an epic work’, as Hill says, crammed with historical takes and angles, bits and bobs about Disraeli and Dreyfus, Rhodes and Kipling and other gamers of ‘the great game of incalculable bigness’, all squashed together because you never know which bit you’re going to need and when.
The Origins of Totalitarianism changed shape and thrust many times over the years of its composition. The first plan, Hill explains, was for a book called ‘The Elements of Shame: Antisemitism – Imperialism – Racism’. That shifted to ‘The Three Pillars of Hell’, with sections entitled ‘The Jewish Road to the Storm-Centre of Politics’, ‘The Disintegration of the National State’, ‘Expansion and Race’, ‘Full-Fledged Imperialism’. The changes in scale and approach presumably had a lot to do with the stop-start nature of work on the book, but as Arendt went on, the ways she slotted her fragments together became a method of organisation in its own right: ‘Elements by themselves probably never cause anything. They become origins of events if and when they crystallise into fixed and definite forms. Then and only then can we trace their history backwards. The event illuminates its own past but can never be deduced from it.’
By 1948, the project had taken on a shape recognisable to readers of the current version, in three parts, headed ‘Antisemitism’, ‘Imperialism’, ‘Nazism’. But then, ‘as news of Stalinist tactics emerged and Arendt began to read through materials from the Soviet Union’, she decided to revise the final section, and what had been tightly focused on Nazi Germany began to stretch and spread. The Penguin Modern Classics edition contains a short preface from 1950 that presents the top level of her analysis: two world wars in a generation leading to ‘homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth’, and the likelihood of ‘a third world war’ any minute; ‘the irritating incompatibility’ between all the amazing things modern humanity can do and its apparent inability to live in and ‘understand the sense of’ the world it has brought about; the desperate need for ‘a new political principle’ to protect humanity from the ‘destructive forces’ its own ingenuity and foolishness have unleashed.
Then come three more prefaces, one for each section of the 1968 edition, along with a final chapter, ‘Ideology and Terror’, that was first added to the second edition in 1958. The third section is now about totalitarianism in general: masses not classes, conspiratorialism and terror, loyalty to the leader, secret police. This part can read like the slightly pulpy, mid-century-modern Cold War bestseller it kind of was, but it’s also righteously horrific. The ‘crisis of the century’, Arendt thinks, has at its storm centre the problem of superfluousness, the millions and millions of people abandoned by modernity and its brutal accelerations. This is a political, not a populationist, argument. It’s about the way modern governments sort between the people they have a use for and the much larger number they don’t: ‘utilitarian’ is one term Arendt uses of this process and ‘radical evil’ is another. ‘Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.’
The Origins of Totalitarianism is such a massive book, so dense and so disorganised, that Canovan’s idea of approaching it like a group of islands is good. Each reader needs to find her own route through it, and I like to split the trip in two. ‘Antisemitism’ and ‘Imperialism’ together form a brilliant historical account of the way the development and disintegration of the 19th-century European nation-state gave birth to two ‘new kinds of human being’, ‘cousins-germane’ in more ways than one: the refugee outside the border, the national minority within. At the same time, the colonial search for new ways to make profit shrank the world and brought fantasies about its domination ever closer to reality. Back in Europe, meanwhile, wealth and population, emancipation and enfranchisement, were increasing unevenly and often explosively breaking old habits and institutions, and leading to outpourings of nastiness against vulnerable minorities, no matter that members of these minorities might be assimilated and rich. Thus the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, where totalitarianism took off, Arendt thinks, because it looked like it really did offer a one-stop solution to all the problems of the time.
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.
‘At the same moment that exile flourished as a cultural and literary trope in the Cold War West,’ Stonebridge wrote in Placeless People (2018), ‘the rightless (who kept on coming) receded into the mist of a humanism attempting to reinvent some kind of moral authority for the European tradition even as its geopolitical power wilted.’ The reinvented moral authority, in recent years, has not been going well.
The second half of my island-hopping would pursue a route through the third section, understanding totalitarianism as a terrible answer to the perfectly sensible question Arendt puts at the end. How might one go about resolving ‘the crisis of the century’, be that century the 20th or the 21st? The history her argument traces is an infernal version of Pilgrim’s Progress, through terror, camps, pits and holes of oblivion, before petering out at a cliff edge: ‘It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form – though not necessarily the cruellest – only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.’ The ‘crisis of the century’ may eventually burn through the totalitarian formation to be replaced by something else.
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), Shoshana Zuboff writes that she was ‘haunted’ for decades by Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism being the curse of the 20th century ‘only because it so terrifyingly took care of its problems’: loneliness, superfluity, the collapsing of institutions and the sense they gave their members of purpose and connection. I can’t imagine why she’d be thinking about Facebook and Google here. ‘Instrumentarianism’ is what Zuboff calls the stealthier sort of total domination she sees as characteristic of surveillance capitalism: her argument would be clearer – and her book blessedly shorter – if she’d put in a pinch more Marx and Foucault, but I can’t deny the chill I get from the way she uses Arendt.
In Arendt’s book, terror, camps and torture enable domination by destroying spontaneity, reducing ‘the human specimen’ to a ‘bundle of reactions that can always be liquidated and replaced by other bundles of reactions that behave in exactly the same way’. Zuboff’s instrumentarianism is gentler and more entertaining, but it eats away at the possibility of human freedom from within. B.F. Skinner, Zuboff writes, did not live to see the real power of his techniques for behavioural modification actuated in humans, via phones and networks, at enormous scale. ‘The trouble with modern theories of behaviourism,’ Arendt wrote in the 1950s, ‘is not that they are wrong but that they could become true … it is quite conceivable that the modern age – which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.’
The political theory line on The Origins of Totalitarianism is that it is, as Canovan puts it, ‘lopsided’. The ‘Antisemitism’ and ‘Imperialism’ parts are fairly solid, but the subsequent deduction of ‘an entirely new form of government’ might as well be fiction, for all the evidence and method there is in its construction. Which is true enough, as far as it goes, though I think you can learn more by going with Arendt. The other big imbalance is the hundreds of pages about racism and antisemitism and the ‘subterranean stream’ of the cranky and the resentful, but nothing about socialism utopian or scientific, Marx or Lenin or the movements to which they gave their names. Marx, Arendt was in no doubt, was ‘a great scholar’ with ‘a passion for justice’; yet it was, she felt, also clear that Marxism led to immiseration and gulags. How much was it down to Marx that socialism in the Soviet Union had gone so dreadfully wrong?
Arendt planned to deal with this question in a ‘little study of Marx’ to be split into three sections. The first would look at Marx philosophically, as the inheritor of a tradition of muddled thinking about work and labour stretching back at least to Plato. The second would be a history of Marxism from Marx to Lenin, Lenin to Stalin, and the work she did towards the third became the ‘Ideology and Terror’ addendum to The Origins of Totalitarianism. But the study was never finished. The more Arendt explored Marx’s place in the wider tradition of Western philosophy, the more the difficulties spread. The study grew into the sections ‘Labour’ and ‘Work’ in The Human Condition (1958), the first and best two essays in Between Past and Future (1961), the anti-‘social question’ strand in On Revolution and a cache of drafts and lectures, in English and German, that remained unpublished until after her death. These were published in 2018 as The Modern Challenge to Tradition, Vol. VI of Wallstein’s edition in progress of Arendt’s complete works, and it was Canovan’s discovery of these papers in the archives in the 1980s that led her to change her mind about the overall direction of Arendt’s thought.
‘It has become fashionable,’ Arendt wrote in a 1953 manuscript, ‘to assume an unbroken line between Marx and Lenin and Stalin, thereby accusing Marx of being the father of totalitarian domination,’ but actually this is wrong. ‘I think it could be shown that the line from Aristotle to Marx shows both fewer and far less decisive breaks than the line from Marx to Stalin.’ It follows, then, that if you’re going to blame the ‘monstrosity’ of Stalin on philosophical influences, you can’t blame Marx in isolation: you need to take on the entirety of ‘our own tradition’, including ‘those real questions and perplexities’ within it that Marx had to struggle with himself.
One problem was the philosopher-king idea that the vita contemplativa, as Arendt called it, led to better politics than the vita activa. Another was the view of history as a human artefact, followed by the unsurprising discovery of pattern in that artefact: ‘Class struggle – to Marx this formula seemed to unlock all the secrets of history, just as the law of gravity had appeared to unlock all the secrets of nature.’ The biggest of Marx’s ‘perplexities’, however, were the confused ideas about work and labour he had inherited from the philosopher kings before him, but which became a particular problem for his thinking, given the explosive growth and changes both activities were undergoing. ‘It is as though Marx … tried desperately to think against the tradition while using its own conceptual tools.’ He was far from the only writer in his time to come up against this: the ‘modern age in general’, Arendt writes, found itself ‘overwhelmed … by the unprecedented actual productivity of Western mankind’. All this new wealth all of a sudden, all produced by human labour, but robbed from the labourers to make others rich: the injustice made Marx furious, and the fury led him to a series of ‘fundamental and flagrant contradictions’, the biggest of which is the one between labour as the activity that makes humans human and labour as bondage, the chains that must be broken so humans can be free.
Readers come to The Human Condition expecting clarity, definition, a statement, perhaps, of Arendt’s central principles. Canovan herself approached it this way in her first Arendt book, then gave in and wrote her second, ‘a reinterpretation’ of Arendt’s thought, in which she acknowledges that much of it looks ‘bafflingly perverse’. The vocabulary, for example, is plain, but Arendt ‘does not warn her readers before using ordinary terms in special senses’ and these special senses have a way of piling up: ‘She often tries to say more (and particularly to make more conceptual distinctions) than can be comfortably digested.’
Riffling through The Human Condition, you’ll see a great deal about the Athenian polis and its distinction from the oikos, and about ‘action’, which is Arendt’s usual rendition of what Aristotle called praxis, and which she defines as ‘the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter’, and thus ‘the political activity par excellence’. The emphasis on Athenians has led many to misread the book as ‘an exercise in nostalgia’, Canovan writes, but if anything it’s the opposite. It begins with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 – an event ‘second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom’, yet only the latest sally in modernity’s ‘rebellion against human existence as it has been given’, something we really need to talk about, surely, before we’re all blown up. Except that we can’t talk about it, because science moves so fast that most people ‘will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do’. There’s thus a danger that we are becoming ‘thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget that is technically possible, no matter how murderous’. The book ends with the evocation that disturbed Zuboff, of ‘the deadliest’ and ‘most sterile’ passivity the world has ever known.
In between, it’s true, there are a lot of Greek and Latin terms, but Arendt is not reviving classical theories so much as prodding and reflecting, examining concepts and their histories, in an urgent search – as Canovan sees it – for important bits that may have been missed out. One missing link is Aristotle’s distinction between zoe and bios: zoe being the sort of life you get everywhere in nature, in animals and plants as well as people, whereas bios is always human-shaped, biographical, ‘limited … by the two supreme events of appearance and disappearance within the world’. Another is the work-labour distinction that befuddled Marx. From the time of Aristotle, European languages have maintained ‘two etymologically unrelated words for what we have come to think of as the same activity’: work and labour, oeuvrer and travailler, werken and arbeiten, ergazesthai and ponein. Happy meanings, to do with craft, achievement, stability, tend to cluster around one member of each pair, and sad ones, concerning pain, trouble, waste, sheer unending graft and repetition, around the other. Labour was exhausting, dirty, unending, a constant battle to beat off death and decay, which is the reason the citizen kept slaves at home, along with the women, to do it for him: ‘The slave’s degradation was … a fate worse than death.’ Work, on the other hand, makes the stuff that constitutes what Arendt calls ‘the world’, the coating of ‘human artifice’ we build over the earth and nature, without which the ‘common world’ of human civilisation could not exist.
Philosophers, however, always ‘overlooked’ the work-labour distinction, for reasons Arendt considers ‘obvious enough’. Labour especially was a non-subject, a matter to be kept hidden away in ‘the shadowy interior of the household’ where women produced children and slaves cleared up the mess. That was just the way it was; they had nothing to compare it to. Christianity, when it came along, also kept itself well away from all the nasty, dirty stuff in the privy. And so the confusions multiplied with the centuries, between labour and work and action, the private life and the public; and then along came Marx, the first great scholar really to care that the labour that makes value does so at the expense of the suffering of human beings.
By Marx’s time, however, the oikos had burst out of the household and become economics, ‘a nationwide “housekeeping”’, ‘an unnatural growth … of the natural’; and ‘the common world’ that ‘gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other’ had succumbed to the entropy of ‘mass society’. ‘The tragedy of Marx,’ Canovan sums up in her second book, ‘is that although he aimed at freedom … what he actually achieved was to encourage his followers to put themselves at the service of compulsive processes’ – behaviourism, automation, totalitarianism even. Or that’s what Canovan thinks was Arendt’s view.
‘To read such a book, by a woman of large spirit and great erudition, can be painful,’ Adrienne Rich wrote in 1976 of The Human Condition, ‘because it embodies the tragedy of a female mind nourished on male ideologies.’ It was obvious to Rich that it’s women who do most of the work in human reproduction, and most of the unpaid labour in the home; and yet for Arendt ‘the withholding of women from participation in … the common world’ was something ‘from which she does not so much turn her eyes as stare straight through unseeing’. Rich is quite right to read Arendt as anti-feminist. It’s well known that she had no patience with what she saw of Women’s Liberation among her students in the 1970s: ‘This is not serious,’ one of them recalls her saying, poking at the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union badge the student was wearing on her lapel.
Rich laments ‘the power of male ideology to possess such a female mind, to disconnect it, as it were, from the female body which encloses it and which it encloses’; but that disconnection may open up important new coigns and angles. Jacqueline Rose, for example, finds in Arendt’s emphasis on ‘the privative trait of privacy’ – viciousness in the kitchen! – a suggestive starting point for male fantasies of despotic domination, and hence domestic violence: ‘Women become the scapegoats for man’s unconscious knowledge of his own human, which means shared … frailty.’ The strenuousness with which Arendt’s thinking avoided both ‘the realm of necessity’ – which includes everything to do with keeping people alive and preferably thriving – and pity, kindness, grief, ‘the darkness of the human heart’, serves as a useful reminder that mortality is even nowadays unmanageable, which may be the reason that the work done by care-givers to alleviate pain and humiliation is so often stared straight through unseeing, paid badly when it is paid at all.
For Jacqueline’s sister Gillian, the question was not about male violence as such but ‘the connection between liberalism and fascism’ in modern European political history. Rahel, Luxemburg and Arendt ‘span three crises of state and civil society in Prussia and Germany’ and are, ‘as women and as Jews … especially qualified witnesses of the equivocation of the middle’. As women and as members of a pariah nation, they could see the emptiness and delusion at the heart of all the big talk about the rights of man, and that trying to avoid the problem by retreating to ‘community’ or ‘nation’ or ‘race’ or ‘gender’ merely repeated it on a different scale. All the same, you have to keep on trying. It’s a ‘tension of middlewomanship’, a cultivation of ‘aporetic universalism’ that refuses the cosy collapse into ‘any ethical immediacy of love’.
But, actually, the reason I started reading Arendt was because of something Donna Haraway wrote in Staying with the Trouble (2016) about Eichmann and ‘the surrender of thinking … of the particular sort that could make the disaster of the Anthropocene, with its ramped-up speciecides and genocides, come true’. You know it’s happening and I know it’s happening: so why do we go on letting it? ‘This outcome is still at stake,’ Haraway wrote. ‘Think we must; we must think!’ I thought Haraway was right about this, and I thought Arendt might be good to think with, ‘against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair’, as she put it at the beginning of The Origins of Totalitarianism.
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. Then again, I remember that Naomi Klein used to cite the work of Brad Werner, the geophysicist who in 2012 gave a talk called ‘Is Earth Fucked?’ in which ‘he talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations’, and concluded that
global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable in response … There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it ‘resistance’ – movements of ‘people or groups of people … environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists’ … So it stands to reason that, ‘if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics.’
And yet, ‘any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it,’ as Arendt wrote in her beautiful essay on Benjamin. For as long as we use the word ‘politics’, she continues, ‘the Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence – that is, at the bottom of the sea.’