Recursions, Part 7: “The Portable Hannah Arendt,” Edited by Peter Baehr

Blank Hall

This is the seventh in a series of short critical looks at books of literary criticism. Yes, a writer writing about writers who write about writers! I composed these for a private Facebook group originated by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd, called the “Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group.” Members suggested a number of books about writing, and read them and reacted to them.  I will publish mine here, once or twice a week, in the order in which I wrote them–an order voted on by the group. 

“The Portable Hannah Arendt,” Edited by Peter Baehr

This impressive collection has little relation to literary criticism, but it is part of an irregular series of readings I engage in with the Literary Criticism/Critical Theory Reading Group on Facebook. (This is a tiny private club of readers and commenters, led and inspired by my friend Sara Mortimer Boyd.) Arendt’s works certainly qualify as critical theory; in fact, the compilation has been sufficient to convince me that hers was one of the most incisive minds our species has produced. The book, which in the edition I read is nearly six hundred very thin pages covered in very small print, renders a fair sampling of Arendt’s prodigious output. And this output includes works such as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, On Revolution, The Life of the Mind, and numerous freestanding essays, plus letters–sometimes contentious ones–to other thinkers and critics.

What is most dismaying in reading through these works, conceived during the terrors engendered on an industrial scale by Hitler and Stalin, and written largely during the reactionary Fifties and early Sixties, is just how much of their dire analyses applies today…and how much of it applied in part during all human history, reaching back into antiquity. For Arendt is casually capable of quoting Greek, Latin, French, and German thinkers in the original, sometimes several within two paragraphs, and tying their observations into cultural developments of the middle of the twentieth century, developments which still shape our political, cultural, and economic life today, in 2017. And probably will for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Any direct comments I could make would be paltry, petty, and presumptuous. This is a collection with an epiphany on every page–even editor Peter Baehr’s introduction is a superb piece of writing on its own. I will restrain myself to quoting a few lines of Arendt’s that I found particularly affecting, and closing with a poem I recently wrote inspired by my encounter with this volume….

“Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.”

“While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions on religious or philosophical matters, factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before.”

“…the differences in principle between the restriction of freedom in authoritarian regimes, the abolition of political freedom in tyrannies and dictatorships, and the total elimination of spontaneity itself, that is, of the most general and most elementary manifestation of human freedom, at which only totalitarian regimes aim by means of their various methods of conditioning.”

“It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity. It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do literally anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family threatened. The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts.”

Her meditations on the ancient Greek concept of freedom–to be able to speak one’s mind among peers in public–and its ties to patriarchal authoritarianism in the home, are painfully on point, and elaborate a much more complex and nuanced interpretation of the Attic foundation of Western culture than one typically encounters in popular scholarship.

So here’s the poem I wrote, still inadequate, but the best I could do while still stunned by my experience of Arendt’s writing….

How Else Can You Live?

yes, yes, we know, we know all that
how at a level deep beyond seeing
all is nothing, or nothing more nor less
than vibration, space, congealing
emptiness, how these beating hearts
muffled within skin and strength, the cat
on the lap, the lap on the chair,
will all, all dissolve, hearts, skin,
and chair all alike, and be forgotten

how all love is forgotten when
the last echoes of its words dissolve…
we know, we know all that…. we know
that ocean eats away at the land,
that land shatters waves, that suns
flare, die, sink
into their own dark hearts
we know all that

yet these hearts, that chair, those four walls
painted a chosen shade of seafoam green,
the sun in the window, patterning the floor,
the smile above the chair, the vase
with its chipped edge and paper flowers,
these are our only eternity, which lasts
forever for this moment only

we know that too, because
how else can you live? how else can you live?
how else
can you live?

Also available on my Medium pages.

Have you read this book? Scroll down to comment with your own reaction to it, or to my essay.

Rick Risemberg