Letters, 1925 —1975, Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, ed. Ursula Lutz, trns. Andrew Shields, New York: Harcourt, 2004.
When this book crossed my desk, it certainly jerked my memory. I remembered, rather dimly, that some time ago—it turns out to be nearly ten years—the historian Elzbieta Ettinger had written a rather good, sad but amusing book about Arendt and Heidegger. It seemed that poor, deluded, Jewish, Hannah Arendt remained fixated all her life on her sometime teacher and lover Martin Heidegger, even after marrying, and even after realizing that he was an unrepentant anti-semitic nightmare, pale in his sins only by comparison with his appalling wife Elfride, whose main claim to fame apart from her marriage seems to have been driving sick and pregnant women into labouring for the Reich.
I also remembered, rather vaguely, that this set the cat among the pigeons, producing subsequent squawks from many parties: Arendt groupies, Heidegger groupies, Zionists, Survivors, pretend Survivors, counselors, maybe the Elfride support group, historical revisionists, the whole enchilada. As somebody with no axes to grind I quickly dismissed it all as a typical New York Review of Books piece of navel-gazing, a low-temperature holocaust in which no party came out badly in their own eyes, while the only possible explanation for the different perspective voiced by the other correspondents was their blind inhumanity and twisted villainy. The only scholarly question, it seemed to me, was whether Ettinger had accurately relayed the gist of the correspondence between Arendt and Heidegger. And since at that time virtually nobody had access to the archives, such is the reticence of those who themselves flutter around the flame of Being, or such, dare we think, is the possessiveness of those who scent a tenure or a royalty fluttering in the neighbourhood of Being, no judgment on that was possible.
Now, beautifully presented, and with immaculate scholarly notes, we can go through the whole corpus of 165 letters from 1924, the beginning of The Affair, to 1975 when Arendt died. The corpus is incomplete, in that letters, especially from Arendt to Heidegger, must have been lost, and it seems uncertain whether others were even sent; whether this is because of the sin of epistolatory onanism or other causes remains unclear. But in advance of microscopic scrutiny it looks to me as though Ettinger was on the money. Arendt was as stuck as the rabbit in the headlights, stuck, and for the same reasons, as the followers of the Baghwam whosit, David Karesh or the Reverend John Jones. And if Heidegger had had a real self, he would have been stuck in turn in her headlights, and at least at the beginning he made a good shot at pretending to be. Connoisseurs of the windings of the human heart need not be surprised, although one does not have to be too fastidious to wonder why this quantity of laundry is on show.
The titanic quality of this passion depends, of course, on the ascendancy of the minds involved. Here, I find myself a little nervous. Inevitably, perhaps, one has to admit that some of the testimonies do not fully express the profundity of the ocean of thought each participant took themselves to have plumbed. Some of the letters are indeed quite slight, or as disciples might say, exquisite. So in my judgment, the minimalist number 107:
Next Wednesday is good for me—preferably in the afternoon—as I need the morning for work, As always, Martin
has a pleasantly stark, nearly haiku-like quality, perhaps answering contrapuntally the warmth of 105:
We will expect you tomorrow at 4.pm for tea and would like you to stay for supper. Like you, I am glad. Martin.
The Heidegger wife, or Elfride motif (‘we’), sounded only faintly here, is heard again in the austere 113, surely taking us into a minor key,
We are looking forward to your visit and will expect you on Thursday, June 16th, in the early afternoon. As always, Martin.
But the answering, joyous,136 peals out:
ALL THE BEST FOR THE NEW HOUSE THE NEW YEAR, Hannah
showing. perhaps, how thinking, real aristocratic elite thinking, a preoccupation of both these writers, elevates one above the mundane world that afflict only the masses. Neither of them I fear give us much more of an example of how this real thinking takes place, even in the longer letters, perhaps because they seem to imagine it in terms of a simple event, a kind of emission or secretion of profundity, as might happen during the night.
Not that all is sweetness and light. ‘The amount of publicity it received’, sniffs the editor, Ursula Lutz, talking of Ettinger’s book, ‘is in stark contrast to its quality’, and she goes on to lament its ‘striking lack of insight and tact’. Oh dear. I didn’t follow it myself. I think that people who mine these seams should stick together. If you want to enjoy the early, imperious ‘I would like to ask you to come see me Sunday evening after 9’ (no. 21) or the relatively considerate ‘if no light is on in my room, ring the bell’ (number 26), then surely you should be able to do so, and should join hands with others fingering the laundry.
I have talked of Heidegger, his philosophy, before in these pages. In my judgment—well let us just say that there is more ambition than achievement in his work. He tells a primal story of loss: a Romantic story of exile from the shelter of Being, of loneliness and journeying and the possibility of redemption as we try to regain it. He captured the imagination of many in the twentieth century simply because of this prospectus, and the sublime self-confidence with which he issued it, not because of any specific insight into the way it is or has to be realized. Indeed specific insight is exactly what has to be avoided, so that we can have an orgy of emotion about the masses and the soulless mechanical world view, and the loss of meaning, the regaining of Being in classical Greece, and the other tropes of Romanticism, without ever pausing to think of the different, detailed reality that often contradicts the automatic, and shallow, sentiments thereby triggered.
I have tried to read Arendt, but her judgments seem so perverse that in spite of the genuinely illuminating (and beautifully written) defenses by Margaret Canovan, I find it difficult to take her seriously. There may sometimes be some use in the Hegelian idea of a concrete universal such as totalitarianism, a kind of abstract force or pattern always ready to reemerge in human history, but then there may not; details crowd in and differences require attention. It is the same problem as Heidegger’s, from whom she may have learned the trick of generality. As someone who mistrusts airy abstractions, such as her simple, sweeping brainchild that the Greek agora was some kind of preeminent domain of freedom, whereas, for instance the household was not, I tend to find these generalizations at best irritating, and more often wrongheaded beyond redemption. There is doubtless more to be written on this, although the slight secondary literature on Arendt suggests that others have the same problem.
But to paraphrase the great Samuel Johnson, we are not here to sell a parcel of potboilers, but to open the possibility of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. So think of box office potential! Think of the collision and collusion of giants! There are models to follow:
Voice Over : And now for the very first time on the silver screen comes the film from two books which once shocked a generation. From Emily BrontĎ's 'Wuthering Heights' and from the 'International Guide to Semaphore Code'. Twentieth Century Vole presents 'The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights'
Imagine the film! Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, using language indeed, with much the same sweep and actually the same awkwardness as Heathcliff and Cathy and the baby in the pram, using semaphore flags. The screenplay leaps out of the page, warmed by the lovers’ very own molten words, except for short linking passages convention requires.
Now, again for the very first time on the silver screen— a déją vu story of forbidden love between two giants of thought, of star-crossed passion that survived a war-torn world, a love that spanned half a century and two Continents, a guilt that dared not speak its name and shocked a generation…
Wide shot: the little university town of Marburg an der Lahn, November. Gables, students, frothy steins of beer, Oompah band. Julie Andrews, mountains in the background, Marty Feldman and peasants. Cut to a study:
Martin Heidegger (Russell Crowe, professorial, mustache, monocle, wedding ring, awkwardly pulling up his lederhosen): You have lost your “disquiet,” which means you have found the way to your innermost, purest feminine essence. Someday you will understand and be grateful—not to me—that this visit to my “office hour” was the decisive step back from the path toward the terrible solitude of academic research, which only man can endure—and then only when he has been given the burden, as well as the frenzy, of being productive.
Hannah Arendt (Gwynneth Paltrow, albeit eighteen years old, fiery, intense, ready for more) Perhaps this change from longing to fear brought about by the destructive desire for power, this slavish-tyrranical self-violation, might seem clearer, more comprehensible when one considers that, at least in part, an age that was so depraved and hopeless also created opportunities for monstrousness (sic), all the more as a naturally fastidious and cultivated taste more fiercely and consciously resisted the loud, extreme, and desperate efforts of an art, literature, and culture that were basely and mindlessly pursuing their illusory existence in extravagance that verged on shamelessness (aside, sotto voce: See? I can do it too)
M.H. The demonic struck me! The silent prayer of your beloved hands and your shining brow enveloped it in womanly transfiguration. Nothing like it has ever happened to me… You saucy wood-nymph!
H.A. Attaboy! Whooeee!
Cut to: gathering war clouds. H.A flees to New York. M.H. in uniform makes Nazi speeches. Stock footage: kaleidescope of Hitler, tanks, bombs, concentration camps, D-day, ruined cities. H.A’s wedding (incidentally, to the one person who, silently, comes out of it with decency intact).
H.A. (to theologian Karl Jaspers, out of shot) He really was the most atrocious liar, and a potential murderer.
H.A. Cooey! I’m back!
M.H. I am delighted to have the chance to acknowledge our early encounter as something lasting, and to take it up now in the later part of life. It would be wonderful if you came out to see me this evening around 8 o’clock. My wife, who knows about everything, would also like to welcome you. Unfortunately she is unable to do so this evening (wink to camera).
E. H. (Mrs Elfride Heidegger, Lotte Lenya as in From Russia with Love, Nazi uniform, incipient mustache). Take that you Jewish, Gypsy, Chinese Other! (hurls china at H.A)
H. A. There is a guilt that comes from reserve; it has little to do with lack of trust. In this sense, it seems to me, Martin and I have probably sinned just as much against each other as against you. This is not an excuse. You did not expect one, after all, and I could not provide one either…We will see each other again soon.
M.H. It is best if you do not write now and do not come visit either. Everything is painful and difficult. But we must bear it.
Freiburg. Elegiac, autumn mists. Muted, minor Oompah music.
M.H. Proofs…Royalties…Translation rights…Sales…Auctioning manuscripts…Can you manage it all for me? Especially in America, where the punters are, although that has nothing to do with Elfride forgiving you. I am so incompetent with money which lies beneath the high pure Alpine air of thinking, although I do believe—Mein Gott! thinking is hard— that I can offer you 0% agency fees, but the interest on the 4.5% debentures should be discounted against the escrowed accumulated tax offset. Elfride sends best wishes.
PS. Being is still firing on all cylinders, except where are concerned other people, commerce, the modern world, science and common-sense, all of which suck.
H.A. Ooooh! Aaah! Again I melt.
Crowd of Students, Priests. Pomos and others hermeneutically challenged: Hooray for M.H.!
H.A. This escapade, which is mostly called the “mistake” today—after the bitterness has subsided and, above all, the numerous false reports have been revised somewhat—has multiple aspects, including, among others, that of the period of the Weimar Republic, which, to those then alive, did not, by any means, appear in the rosy light in which it is seen today…Of course Heidegger recognized this “mistake” after a short time and then risked considerably more than was common at German universities back then…dissolve.
Students, Priests, etc., and H.A., all fade. Camera lingers on E.H, remembering escapades, enigmatic smile on her face. Fadeout, END.
I don’t see how it can fail, especially as there is a lot more dialogue in this volume, simply ready to be picked up, by the yard. The only difficulty is knowing whether it should be in black and white, or in color.