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The many friendships of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy in Sicily. 1971.
Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy in Sicily. 1971. | Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Bluecher Literary Trust / Art Resource, NY

In the thousand letters she wrote and received, friendship emerges as one of the great and palpable joys of Hannah Arendt’s life. Friends were shelter, elation and rejuvenation.

By Madeleine Thien

Why did I not write earlier? Well, the truth of the matter is that I did not ‘feel fine.’

— Hannah Arendt to Mary McCarthy, September 16, 1963

Letters, postcards and telegrams containing elaborate travel arrangements race around the world, as she folds multi-day visits to friends into an exhausting schedule of teaching and appearances (though she herself rarely seems exhausted). Telephone calls and voluminous letters keep the passageways well-lit and well-trodden, but being together in person—seen and heard—remains of primary importance.

In her works, Arendt reflects on what it would mean “to love the world enough to take responsibility for it.” Thinking and action arise repeatedly in her works, alongside rootlessness, loneliness, forgiveness, beginnings, and love of the world. For Arendt, thinking is a dialogue with ourselves, outside of public view. It is private not because it is unspeakable or confessional, but because inconclusiveness, possibility, and beginnings are its qualities; this kind of lifelong thinking is not driven by what we want to attain or become. It has no end.

I think of solitude as the surface of a drop of water. The air above, the surface below, the light, are crucial, just as the world and experience are the substance of our thoughts; we are always within it, and it is within us. But deprived of this surface, this necessary solitude, the movement of thinking will have no home.

Reading Arendt’s letters, one also senses that solitude would not be possible without deep friendships: choosing to accompany and be accompanied in life.

I am really homesick for you.

Times are lousy and we should be closer to each other.

Mary McCarthy to Hannah Arendt, November, 1966 and February, 1968

Recently, I was able to examine an enormous, wall-sized 1894 lighthouse map of China, showing ten thousand miles of coastline, as well as the vast reaches of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. I had never seen a map like this before. It seemed utterly empty except for markings of light.

The great Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu, wandered these rivers. In the eighth century, he and his family were part of a flood of internal refugees during a horrific civil war. His fourteen hundred poems dwell on visits to friends—drinking, carousing, grieving, giving shelter to one another, providing food and necessities. It is abundantly clear that without these points of light, no life, let alone art, could have been made.

Reading Arendt’s correspondence and thinking of what she called her “involuntary world travels” — forced to escape Nazi Germany in 1933, she fled, stateless and without papers, through half a dozen countries and countless temporary rooms, before arriving in New York in 1942 — I thought about that Chinese map. Land and sea are almost indistinguishable. There are only degrees of illumination, clusters of light, and solitary outliers.

Arendt’s restless, ceaseless movements across post-war Europe are striking. The way stations are not places, but friends. Wherever they are, that is the place to which she continuously returns.

My heart is heavy. Will we see each other again?

We both feel we still have a great deal to say to each other.

Hannah Arendt to Karl Jaspers, and his reply, 1956

In the heartache and vitriol that surrounded the 1963 publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s character was as much a target as the book. Critics condemned her as imperious, contemptuous, vicious, ignorant, and possessing a “blinding animus”. The most explosive accusations were of such devastating enormity — redeeming the Nazis and vilifying the millions of Jews murdered — that they could not be made without judging the depths of her character.

In the voluminous letters available to an English language reader, Arendt is very much a live wire. The voice that unifies The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, and Eichmann in Jerusalem is here in all its complexity, passion, impatience, patience, irreverence, undeniable brilliance, erudition, tenderness, and a sardonic tone that often serves to hide her mourning.

Perhaps because I am a novelist, the scope of the person beneath the books—what they leave unsaid—has always interested me. Sometimes the writer beneath is surprisingly thin, as if all thoughts and deeds are ultimately directed outwards, to self-aggrandisement. This is not the case with Arendt. I keep returning to her books and letters not to agree with her, or to imbibe her thoughts, but because her company impels me to question the meaning of my own thinking — to stop and think. In a June 27, 1946 letter, Jaspers writes an incisive critique of one of Arendt’s essays (possibly The Seeds of a Fascist International but biographers are not certain):

There are many brilliant, persuasive formulations and observations in your essay—quite apart from the passion, which is central to it. I don’t know what to suggest to you. Would it be possible to articulate the connections more cautiously and therefore more powerfully—that is, to present them in a historically more correct and less visionary way?

In this and throughout the four hundred and thirty-three letters of the Jaspers-Arendt correspondence, they are continuously critiquing, grappling with, and facing the depth of the other’s thinking. Responding to Jaspers’ critique, Arendt’s letter begins, in fact, with response to Jaspers’ Die Schuldfrage:

Your definition of Nazi policy as a crime (“criminal guilt”) strikes me as questionable. The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of the law; and that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough. It may well be essential to hang Göring, but it is totally inadequate.

Later in the letter, turning to her own essay, she says, “You’re absolutely right: as it stands now, you cannot and should not print it.”

The letter concludes with a startling, joyful, expression of gratitude that is very Arendtian: “But now, when you debate me like this … it seems as if I had solid ground under my feet, as if I were back in the world again.”

If I were to go on, I would want to write about Arendt’s engagement with the dead — with poets, and with Rahel Vanhagen and Immanuel Kant  — and how she says that Jaspers, in his monumental work, The Great Philosophers, speaks to Socrates, Confucius, Kant, Buddha, Nagarjuna, Spinoza, and many more: “He takes them out of chronological order and it is as thought you were entering a huge palace where somewhere, in some corner or other, you will find them all. They are all contemporaries and he talks with them and against them, sometimes even quite unjustly so, as though they were there.”

Friendship, for her and for Jaspers, is a space where we meet and truly listen, even across time and place, languages and cultures. This morning, bowed down by my own griefs, I sat for awhile in Arendt’s company. When, shortly after a visit to see Jaspers and his wife, Gertrud, she receives word that Jaspers is dying, Arendt writes to them across the distance,

… and so now I know. And I am sitting here thinking about you both and about the parting that is before us … what I feel is beyond the grasp of language—among other reasons, because I’m overcome by gratitude for all you’ve given me.

With love,
Your Hannah