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


roxana said...

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ffflaneur said...

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Robin Bates said...

Arendt's suspicion of sentiment sounds a lot like the modernist suspicion of Victorian sentimentality following World War I (I'm thinking of writers like T. S. Eliot). In some ways I it's a very understandable response to the horrors of trench warfare (or, in Arendt's case, of rising anti-semitism). But just because it is understandable doesn't make it the best option. What if, instead of hardening the emotions to withstand the shocks that flesh is heir, what if one opened them up all the more. Opening the heart, not closing it in a defensive posture. Easy to say, of course.

ffflaneur said...

hey Robin, i'm also inclined to think it is a defensive reaction against great stress. A retreat in rational objectivity in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the horrors. That might also explain some of those allegedly "heartless" passages in Arendt's reports about the Eichmann trial.

Perhaps it takes saintly qualities to take on the sufferings of the world with an open heart, but without being crushed into despair & depression.