Into the Light

Into the Light

Nick Serpe: The Celebrity of Hannah Arendt

In a rather peripheral passage in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described how Central and Western European Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gained access to high society and culture:

To live in the aura of fame was more important than to become famous; thus they became outstanding reviewers, critics, collectors, and organizers of what was famous. The ‘radiant power’ [of fame] was a very real social force by which the socially homeless were able to establish a home.

The powerful glow of celebrity, according to Arendt, provided these intellectuals with an entry point into a social life from which they had been previously excluded, and a means to build bridges of criticism and culture between societies.

Before the 1951 publication of Origins, Arendt was a candidate for her own sociological category: a Jewish intellectual inhabiting the margins of another culture’s renown. In the 1920s, she studied under German philosophical giants Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, but was forced to flee for France in 1933 and then for New York in 1941, where she soon fell in with the New York intellectuals gathered around the Menorah Journal and the Partisan Review. After her powerfully written study of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, she began to edge in on fame. But it was her 1961 ?reports? on the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker that moved her to the center of American intellectual life.

Arendt soon learned that the light of publicity could be a harsh one. In reviews (including one in Dissent?s pages by Marie Syrkin) and symposia (including one organized by Irving Howe), her reports and the book they spawned, Eichmann in Jerusalem, were attacked from all angles. Her tone was unnecessarily flippant and ironic; the portrait of the mass murderer was sympathetic and amoral; and worst, she had castigated Nazi-organized Jewish committees (Judenr├Ąte) for their role in the Holocaust.

Arendt?s interpreters may never cease debating the truth of this third and damning critique, but Nathaniel Popper?s recent essay in the Nation, ?A Conscious Pariah,? clears away any doubts about the source for Arendt?s claims: Raul Hilberg?s The Destruction of the European Jews, published in 1961. The book is far longer than Arendt?s, and its author ?toiled for nearly a decade in the archives of the Nuremberg trials and other collections of recovered German documents? before writing it. Arendt cited the book numerous times in Eichmann, including in those passages on the Judenr├Ąte. But to Hilberg, the citations were insufficient. Her work, he believed, bore so many ?striking similarities? that ?he tallied them on an accounting spreadsheet?–a task that he stopped only after realizing how much Arendt had, in polite terms, ?relied? on his own exhaustive research.

For this and other reasons, according to Popper, no one ?nettled? Hilberg more than Arendt. In his 2007 autobiography, he wrote, ?Who was I, after all?…She, the thinker, and I, the laborer who wrote only a simple report, albeit one which was indispensable once she had exploited it.? Popper has admirably provided a portrait of this unjustly forgotten and ?exploited? historian. But one wonders if his essay might also have nettled Hilberg. Ostensibly about Hilberg, and accompanied by an almost-full page photo of his stern and spectacled visage, the article is equally concerned with the considerably less-forgotten Arendt. She, too, receives a photo next to the essay; and as for the article itself, she lurks in nearly every paragraph.

Popper tells us how similar Hilberg was to Arendt and how they differed; he describes what Hilberg thought of Arendt and what she thought of him; he shows how they are now both understood and misunderstood. Readers will understand at least one thing after they?ve put down the essay: If it weren?t for Hannah Arendt ?the thinker,? the Nation would probably not have published an essay on Raul Hilberg ?the laborer.?

The lingering memory of an erstwhile controversy only goes so far to explain Arendt?s current celebrity. Her well-known romance with Heidegger continues to satisfy those who like their sex scandals cerebral. Her rich and, in certain moments, even lyrical style (all the more remarkable considering that English was not her first, nor her second, language) still attracts readers and grants her a rightful spot in public intellectual life.

And, of course, there are her ideas. Arendt?s writing bursts with insights hard to contain in a neat theoretical edifice, so that even those reading her with sympathetic eyes often find much with which to quarrel. The sprawling scope of her thought means that all interpretations of Arendt are in some way incomplete. There is always more to say, and often in unexpected fields of study (I recently overheard two students discussing the importance of her thought to architectural theory).

The cursory glance above suggests both compelling and superficial reasons for our fascination with Arendt–but in any case, it is a fascination that goes beyond reverence for scholarly achievement. Popper’s article attests to this. He doesn’t refer to any book written more recently than 2007 or offer a tie-in to current events that would explain why we?re reading his essay now. There is only the ever-titillating fame of Hannah Arendt, whose radiance has deigned to cast light upon Hilberg the obscure.