meditations on a "problematic quote"

A. signalled the following “problematic quote”, found in Hannah Arendt’s “On Humanity in dark times: Thoughts about Lessing”:

"All this is another way of saying that the humanitarism of brotherhood scarcely befits those who do not belong among the insulted and the injured and can share it only through their compassion. The warmth of the pariah people cannot rightfully extend to those whose different position in the world imposes on them a responsibility for the world and does not allow them to share the cheerful unconcern of the pariah. But it is true that in "dark times" the warmth which is the pariahs' substitute for light exerts a great fascination upon all those who are so ashamed of the world as it is that they would like to take refuge in invisibility. And in invisibility, in that obscurity in which a man who is himself hidden need no longer see the visible world either, only the warmth and fraternity of closely packed human beings can compensate for the weird irreality that human relationships assume wherever they develop in absolute worldlessness, unrelated to the world common to all people."

A problematic paragraph indeed, one that can be linked to Arendt’s alleged lack of compassion (one of the more controversial aspects to be found in her writings). It is a troubling paragraph, but chilling and incomprehensible only at first sight.
Because Arendt’s apparent shrinking from compassion and from “the warmth of the pariah” becomes altogether less revolting when put in the context both of her writings about the political consequences of marginality and of her revolt against being denied a place in the world.

One of Arendt’s first books was the intensely idiosyncratic biography of Rahel Varnhagen, a “meditation on marginality” as it has been called. (1) Varnhagen, a Jewish woman living in early 19th C Berlin, had a brilliant mind and personality, but her race, gender and lack of wealth condemned her nevertheless to a life on the fringes of official society. Cut off from solidly sanctioned means to express her talents in the public sphere, she ultimately had to “live her own life altogether inwardly”(2), escaping into ‘worldlessness’, frequent flights of fancy and in convoluted, self-pitying introspection.

Arendt, also a brilliantly intelligent Jewish woman, living in the inimical Germany of the 30s, profoundly identified with Varnhagen and seems to have taken her life as a personal cautionary tale. Arendt did not want to get trapped in the “inner consequences of marginality”(1) which at best might gain “sympathy of the compassionate observer”(1), but would not ever permit one to claim one’s rightful place in the world.

In this light one can understand how Arendt proudly adopted a tough morality and upheld, for herself and others, strict standards of ‘hardening oneself against self-pity’ (not wholly unlike the Nietzschean aristocratic pride...).

Arendt's shrinking from sentimentality and compassion can also be traced back to the quite valid political insight which she gained from the Jewish plight in Europe: ‘soft’ human rights are not enough, compassionateness is not enough to guarantee people’s dignity. Political action is required to obtain full civil rights and full citizenship. For Arendt “soft” qualities such as warmth, empathy or even sympathetic art can not be a substitute for ‘hard’ political justice. Thus Arendt is very sceptical about the capacity of fleeting sentiments, however lofty or compassionate, to form a durable basis for either moral or political justice.

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (3) Arendt picks up again the theme of societal marginality and its consequences, and describes how “defamed people and classes” are not granted a place in the world as a matter of fact but are forced to make a gruelling choice: choosing the way of either the pariah or the parvenu.
The choice between on the one hand “the privileges of pariahs [...] : humanity, kindness, freedom from prejudice, sensitiveness to injustice” and on the other hand “the qualities which the parvenu must acquire if he wants to arrive – inhumanity, greed, insolence, cringing servility, and determination to push ahead”. And Arendt wistfully concludes “Since Rahel Varnhagen’s unique attempt to establish a social life outside of official society had failed, the way of the pariah and the parvenu were equally ways of extreme solitude, and the way of conformism one of constant regret” .

So Arendt’s insights into the plight of pariahs is not about revolting callousness as opposed to compassionate understanding, but rather about a revolt against being marginalized and cast out of the world. It is about claiming the right to play a role in the world, also for those who do not belong to the dominant societal “castes”.

Humanity in the form of fraternity invariably appears historically among persecuted peoples and enslaved groups [...] This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that the pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others. The privilege is dearly bought, it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world [...] that in extreme cases [...[ we can speak of real wordlessness”. (4)

And to understand why Arendt thinks this “loss of the world” so catastrophic, we only have to bring to bear upon the discussion Arendt’s love of the “world”, her “amor mundi”.
She attached a supreme importance to the world as a public sphere where people in all their diversity meet, act and compete as equals. Against the sheer transience of human organic life she posited this relative permanence of the world.
The world - with its political institutions, its public space, its cultural artefacts and manifestations – offers an “interspace”, i.e. a realm which, precisely thanks to the distance it puts between people, permits constructive interaction between a variety of viewpoints and people who, in all their diversity, meet as equals.
But to appear and act in this world, in this ”interspace”, one needs a certain measure of courage, the courage to abandon the safety of one’s private life amongst loving family and soul-mates.

In fact, in her depreciation of the private sphere vàv the public sphere of the world, Arendt goes perplexingly far (which, just as her alleged lack of compassion, is one of the more controversial aspects of her work).
And thus it remains one of the fascinating paradoxes in Arendt’s oeuvre how her career of writing and thinking about politics, action and about the World as a public 'interspace' is framed by, at the outset, the biography of Rahel Varnhagen ( “a meditation on marginality”) and, at the end, by an impressive tribute to “The Life of the Mind” .


(1) Peter Baehr – Introduction to the Portable Hannah Arendt
(2) Hannah Arendt – Rahel Varnhagen, The Life of a Jewess
(3) Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism
(4) Hannah Arendt – On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing

« J’aime, j’aime la vie » (Antwerp, Summer & Fall 1986)

At 20 one can still blithely ignore the lure of blazing summer days. And thus, on that sunny Saturday-afternoon in July , I found myself, deprived of any direct sunlight, lazing the day away in a ground floor flat somewhere in an Antwerp suburb. Lounging about in bed, reading Agatha Christie and with on the background the radio playing again & again the Belgian Eurosong winner of that year : “j’aime j’aime la vie”.

I had arrived there at 7 AM , with a girl I had befriended only a few hours before in a shady nightclub. Amidst the smoke & noise & general drunken bawdiness we had bonded at the counter over lines of tormented poetry we had been scribbling on stained beermats. Scribbling instead of reciting had been in order because of the thumping music, which forced my newly found friend to switch off her hearing aid if she wasn’t to be tormented with unbearably screeching sounds.

At closing time of the night club, we had left together, blinking at the bright morning light, and headed for the tram stop where decent early rising citizens were already gathering. She had asked whether I liked chicken and coca cola for breakfast, assuring me she still had plenty in supply at her place. So, instead of taking a lonely train back home after my night out (I lived in Louvain at the time, some 60 km from Antwerp) I joined her on a local tram, enjoying the rattling ride through early morning streets where I had never been before.

While seated at our 7AM meal of cold chicken and coke, she had happily explained she had to go to work in a store at 10 AM, but that I was very welcome to stay at her place until her return later in the afternoon. This capacity of hers to live through an entire weekend, fuelled only by chicken and coca-cola, ice-cold showers and the shortest of naps, never ceased to amaze me and surely contributed to my admiring fondness of her. Ah yes, she did seem to have so much surer a grasp of the good life than I had, but then, after all, she was already 25!

So there I was, lounging about on that summer Saturday, quite content with life, though slightly dazed for lack of sleep , waiting for her to return. I started exploring discreetly my surroundings, browsing books (lots of suspense novels, but also geography), looking at the photos placed on cupboards. Photos of friends, family and of herself at different ages. Funny how different she could look , depending on the haircut at the time of the snapshot , now brash & tomboyish with a short crew cut, then again sweet & girly with longer hair.

Having got bored with Agatha Christie and with “j’aime la vie” on the radio, I did venture outside the flat for a short while, looking for a store to replenish the coca cola reserves. Clutching the key she had entrusted to me, I strolled through unknown streets, dazzled by the white summer glare . But soon I took refuge again in the cozy semi-darkness of her flat, where the only light came in through French doors which opened to a small walled court.

Wanting to make myself useful I had done the dishes and was just clumsily vacuuming when with a start I heard the front door opening. She seemed happy to still find me there, laughing at my zealous, though rather incompetent, dash at household tasks. That night we did not go out again, but instead stayed in, drinking coke and talking, talking, talking the hours away.

She told how it had taken years before her incipient deafness had been recognized as such. As a child she had long lived in her own bubble, quite puzzled by the world and the people around her, who in their turn were puzzled by her strange ways, thinking she had autistic tendencies before at last discovering that hearing troubles were at the root of her isolation. In a very matter- of- fact tone she explained how she had learned to navigate the world with its speech and its myriads of sounds, using a combination of lip-reading and hearing-aids of ever increasing strength to match an ever declining hearing ability.

She was very attached though to the sounds that she did capture – I remember how she always got all excited when catching the far-off drone of a plane, she would interrupt whatever she was doing and run out into the little court, scouring the sky for a glimpse of that plane. And on her night-table she had a huge black ghetto-blaster alongside piles of Mike Oldfield music-cassettes. “Tubular Bells” – that was the music apparently best tuned to the reach of her hearing aid.

And all through our talking, she also listened intently to me, not ever getting impatient with me, not even when, as the night wore on, I got lost in over-cerebral ruminations about life, philosophy , Bach and the universe. She explained that she loved watching my face and eyes while I went on like that, thus gauging my genuine love of all I talked about rather than being concerned with the increasingly abstruse quality of my ranting. Which was really a very sweet thing of her to say to the naive -ponderous person I was (and still am).

Oh, we sure saw a lot of each other that summer! Broadening the roaming circle of our nightly escapades also to other cities and other dubious venues. We would for instance take the last train to Ghent together, spending the night there, a night full of encounters with other youthful nighthawks. And sometimes extending our night-city-trip into the day. I remember us walking about bleary-eyed In Ghent, on a Sunday morning in August, only barely escaping arrest by a overzealous policeman when doing something foolish with a national flag we had been prying loose. Sometimes we would be lounging about until the afternoon, basking in the sun on crowded terraces, fending off exhaustion with an extra dose of greasy fries.

In September I went for a 3-week holiday in Portugal with friend. So contact was broken for almost a month, though never was she nearer to me than when I was watching a small boy playing alone on a pier in some port-city in Portugal. It was not just his blond crew-cut that reminded me of her, but also the intense concentration of this little boy, his passionate self-absorption in his lone playing - very much, I think, like the lonely kid she had been.

And then came the new academic year in Louvain with its much dreaded stress of both a hostile curriculum (economy) and a set of particularly intimidating bourgeois fellow-students. In the meanwhile, she, having broken her leg (I can’t for the life of me recall how and when) went to stay with her parents for a while.
So circumstances didn’t facilitate our communications, it moreover still being the era of slow letters, with their unnerving tendency to fatefully cross each other. Thus it happened that, once upon a very cold weekend in late November, I went to Antwerp only to find she wasn’t home.

Still having her key, I let myself in. The flat was cold, a half-empty thermos and a coffee-cup trailed on the table. How strange it was to be alone again in her flat, full of traces of her habits which I had come to know so well. I stayed there for the night, laying awake most of the time - partly because of the cold ( not knowing how to light the gas radiator) and partly because I was so alert to any noises, vaguely hoping to hear her coming in after all.

The next morning I left a note on the table and took the tram to the center of Antwerp to have breakfast in a riverside-café.
Drinking cup after cup of coffee I watched the gray foggy river, with a boat slowly sailing by, accompanied by screeching seagulls. Peering into that gray expanse, wondering about a blank future, I could not know that many years later I would be shocked by someone saying with a shrug about a withered friendship ” oh well, people come and go”.
And still less could I know that, even more years later, I myself would have come to terms with this coming and going of people, not out of cynicism, but because I would have learned that at least in our memory these transient human relations enjoy some relative permanence.