It is difficult to write a good review of a collection of articles and essays which do not have a common theme, some of which, frankly, are pieces written for specific occasions which may well have otherwise not found Arendt's close attention. But the quality of the writing and the interest of the content of most of the essays in this book are generally so high that I feel I must draw this book to your attention.
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), originally trained as a philosopher by no less than Martin Heidegger, preferred to be called a political theorist, and, certainly, she had good reasons to want to carefully analyze political ideas and behavior. A German Jew briefly held by the Nazis in 1933 who then fled to France with alacrity, Arendt's German citizenship was revoked in 1937, and, when the Nazis invaded France in 1939, she was held by the Vichy authorities for 5 weeks before she and a few others escaped from the Gurs internment camp. She was one of the lucky few who succeeded in escaping to the USA via Portugal.(*)
Better known for books like The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), in 1968 she published Men In Dark Times, a collection of eleven occasional essays and articles she had published in the previous decades, some written in English and some in German (translated here). With the exception of the opening essay which used her acceptance of the Lessing Prize as an occasion to give a sober talk about ethics over the ages with a particular emphasis on the thought of Gotthold Lessing, the essays occupy themselves with men and women who rose to some prominence in the 20th century.
If one searches for a unifying theme in this collection, the only candidate is the question: How does one behave in dark times? Does one engage and struggle or does one withdraw and use one's limited time and energies for other matters? But, in point of fact, no theme is common to all of the essays. Some, like the last two on Randall Jarrell and Waldemar Gurian, are prose elegies that briefly and evocatively resurrect close friends of Arendt. Many are essay/reviews that appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and therefore in the well known manner take the occasion of a book review to expand upon a closely related subject at some length.
Though her side remarks about Lessing in the Lessing Prize acceptance address have started me anew reading his works, the articles which made the greatest impression on me were those on Rosa Luxemburg, Hermann Broch, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. These essays are anything but occasional reviews written with a studious sense of obligation to fulfill a commission. Arendt appears to know all the works of these authors and all the secondary literature; in some of the cases she knew the individual personally. These persons evidently occupied Arendt's attention for many years. Each of these essays teems with the kind of information and insight I read with gratitude.
Let's take the 50 page study of the life, personality and work of Benjamin as an example. Haunted by misfortune and wrong choices, largely unknown and unappreciated, Benjamin was a unicum in ways that were not completely clear to me when I read some of his books. Though he was associated with Horkheimer and Adorno's Institute for Social Research, dialectical thought was quite foreign to him. He sought for the small phenomena, the apparent trivialities, which somehow contained the essence of the large matters he was trying to understand. As Arendt mentions, Benjamin was enthralled when he found in a museum two tiny grains of wheat on which some obsessive person had inscribed in some impossibly small script the complete Shema Israel.
For him the size of an object was in an inverse ratio to its significance. And this passion, far from being a whim, derived directly from the only world view that ever had a decisive influence on him, from Goethe's conviction of the factual existence of an Urphänomen, an archetypal phenomenon, a concrete thing to be discovered in the world of appearances in which "significance" (Bedeutung, the most Goethean of words, keeps recurring in Benjamin's writings) and appearance, word and thing, idea and experience, would coincide. ... In other words, what always profoundly fascinated Benjamin from the beginning was never an idea, it was always a phenomenon.
Benjamin was really a poet who wrote with metaphors, who tried to discover what Baudelaire called correspondances to reveal deep connections one would not ordinarily observe. Another aspect unknown to me: Benjamin dreamed of the perfect book that would consist only of sublimely selected quotes. When he wrote a Habilitationsschrift necessary for becoming a professor at a German university, he let it become all too close to his dream; the professors on the evaluation committee were baffled by the eccentric text they had to read. They did not accept it, for how could they possibly hope to understand what Benjamin was doing, that he (without indicating his intentions to the poor readers) "placed the greatest emphasis on the six mottoes that preceded the study?" Arendt cites from one of Benjamin's letters: No one...could gather any rarer or more precious ones. (!) Clearly, Benjamin thought in ways unfamiliar to most of us. Hence, every single one of his texts is sui generis.
Arendt summarizes Benjamin's mature process/point of view in the following beautiful manner:
And this thinking, fed by the present, works with the “thought fragments” it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past - but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.
I have mentioned only a few of the many remarkable matters Arendt raises in this essay. And Hermann Broch is almost as curious a man and thinker as Benjamin is.
In each of the essays, and not just the four I liked the most, Arendt manifests a noteworthy talent to recognize and describe the manner in which her subjects think and act, and to set them in an intellectual and historical context. Quite impressive.
(*) Walter Benjamin, for example, tried, failed and committed suicide. Not to mention the millions of Jews who weren't intellectuals or artists and never had a chance of being accepted by the American immigration authorities, even if they had had the money and connections to get themselves to Portugal.