Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt
This book’s history spans about ten years of research and writing. And if you count the number of years I have been engaged with the work of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, you could say it actually spans the entirety of my scholarly career.
Arendt was a minor figure in my last book, Living Between Danger and Love. But the role she played there as inspiration expanded into a major occupation ever since I finished that book.
When I was writing this book, I explored many memoirs. Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Elusive Embrace and Phyllis Rose’s My Year of Reading Proust came closest, in form, to what I wanted to achieve. Blending biography with memoir, I wanted to chart a course through key events in my own life that would map onto themes in Arendt’s life and work, illustrating the abiding significance of her writing for thinking about the dilemmas of modern living.
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter to give you a sense of the book:
Everyone wants to make sense of her life. Some of us do that by telling a story, just like I’ve tried to do, one sentence at a time. In the dusk of middle age, I chose a peculiar path. Surprising myself by reversing directions, I took a road I’d abandoned, and found myself exploring again the thinking and life of Hannah Arendt.
One of the most profound and controversial thinkers of the twentieth century, Hannah Arendt defied easy categorization. A brilliant political philosopher, who refused to call herself a philosopher, a woman who never considered her sex an obstacle in her life, a Jew who was called anti-Semitic, and a rigorous thinker who wrote passionately about hatred and love, Arendt tackled some of the thorniest moral and political questions of modern times. And she was as well known in literary and political circles for her brave, powerful prose, as she was among academicians for her philosophical arguments.
I’d first written about her more than three decades ago. Scribbled on my essay in red ink were notes to myself, scarlet traces of a heated dialogue with Hannah Arendt. What had so bothered me then?
In her remarkable essay on authority, Arendt made the bold claim that “authority has vanished from the modern world,” and with those words she parted company with the Western tradition of political theory, the very tradition in which I’d been trained. In it, everyone had always agreed “on one essential point: authority is what makes people obey.”[i] And on that point, she’d said everyone had been fundamentally mistaken.
The first time I read that essay in my now well-worn copy of Between Past and Future (1969) Arendt’s bold thinking dazzled me. She traced the fundamental misunderstanding of authority all the way back to the Greeks. In her view, it was Plato and Aristotle who were the villains; those early philosophers of the polis hadn’t developed an appropriately political notion of authority. Instead, they simply slid the idea of authority as “domination and subjection, command and obedience, ruling and being ruled” from the private into the public realm.
Since I was then looking for a fresh way to view authority, I followed Arendt’s argument but then stopped suddenly in my tracks when I realized she had no real objection to a fundamental distinction between public and private life. In fact, she affirmed it.
Reading The Human Condition, which she’d published in 1958, further incensed me. Arendt dismissed relationships and activities in the private sphere of everyday life as politically irrelevant and, it seemed to me at the time, even thought them less important to our humanity than what we do and say in public. That claim rankled my feminist core. I shook my fist at the book. Wasn’t the personal also political? Didn’t creating equality for women in the public arena depend on ending patriarchal relations in the private sphere? I certainly thought so; in fact, I had devoted my entire career to the project of gender equality, which to me meant changing what happened in the “home” was as essential to women’s freedom and equality as whether or not women got to be seen and heard in public.
Thus provoked, I took up the challenge Arendt’s writing represented and confronted her arguments directly. As refreshingly original as her conceptualization of authority was I considered it of limited use—if not downright threatening!—to my project in feminist theory.
Yet, no matter how much I argued against her, I had to admit I admired her writing. In other essays written in those years, I find myself circling around and then diving deeper into Arendt’s writing, each time retrieving some pearl of insight, which shifted my understanding and made me reassess my position. And for the next decade or so I turned to her again and again for inspiration, or just to have a tenacious thinking partner to joust with. But what really threw me was when Arendt thrust herself into my consciousness to become an especially disconcerting interlocutor during the process of writing a memoir.
She wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time I penned a line bordering on an all too confident assertion, I’d hear her voice in my head. “Dive deeper, you’re not really thinking,” it said.
At the time, her intrusion made no sense. After all, I thought, hadn’t Arendt once claimed that thinking and emotional introspection were radically opposed? That should make it pretty much impossible for any insights she had to offer to be useful for the emotionally resonant work of confronting the meaning of anyone’s personal past.
Yet the more I considered Arendt’s life and contemplated the peculiar structure and context of her writing, the more I discovered things that startled and intrigued me. In between the lines of her essays, I began to hear a kind of musical score of life stories. And so, following its rhythms and chords, I embarked on a thinking journey with the traveling companion I’ve now come to call “Hannah.”
Nearly two decades after my first encounter I discovered another Hannah in between the lines of her writing; a Hannah who, intentionally or not, confessed truths about herself, revealed blind spots and displayed emotions she might rather have kept hidden. And when I found that Hannah, she drew me into an intimate and not always welcomed partnership, a disquieting dialogue between two women, one long ago dead, about what and how the heart knows yet prefers to keep to itself. I let my imagination go visiting, entering her life and her work, and began to see the world and my own place in it from an altogether different perspective, asking more and more questions while wondering what Hannah would say.
Through imagined conversations with this Hannah, I began to retrieve anecdotes from her life and mine, finding meanings in them I believe are more universal than applied only to my particular case. Like Hannah, who got caught up in thinking about her own life while writing her biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a nineteenth century Jewish woman who became the host of an important Berlin intellectual salon, reading and writing about Hannah’s life and work caught me up in my own, revealing things I had tried to keep even from myself.
So this is the story of my thinking journey with Hannah, a tale at once political and personal, singular and common. Diving below the surface of her writing, the narrative arches and bends, assembling vignettes about Hannah and me into a collage of life stories, a kind of intellectual and emotional scrapbook of travels I took with Hannah through tangled memories of love and action and thought. A collage of life stories; or, in musical terms, a fugue.