Reflections on Literature and Culture, criticism by Hannah Arendt (Stanford Univ Press)

Hannah Arendt has been called the most formidable public intellectual in post-WWII America, despite the possibility that some of the reflexive reverence she elicited derived from her status as a remnant of a lost Kultur. The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition are still listed on college syllabi, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, still provoking debate about "the banality of evil," was taken up again during the trial of Saddam. (It's been suggested that had Goebbels been picked up by the Mossad in Buenos Aires, he might not have seemed quite as banal as Eichmann.)

But so many of her observations of Eichmann are chillingly sharp: "Officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche." I've recited this sentence silently during many a corporate meeting. Again: "Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all." These comments, misinterpreted as rationalizations of evil, have been the focus of some critics who have preferred to ignore Arendt's outrage at "the reluctance evident everywhere to make judgments in terms of moral responsibility."

arendt1.jpgOne needn't make a great leap from these political observations to relate them to culture and the arts. In The Life of the Mind she wrote that thinking serves "to undo, unfreeze, as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought -- words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines) ... The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics." With Reflections on Literature and Culture,, we finally have all of Arendt's important work as a critic at our disposal. Here we can see Arendt apply her passionate thinking to artists and works that embody such thinking.

arendt2.jpgIn "Berlin Salon," Arendt discusses the role newly assimmilated, educated Jewish women played in the social life of high culture in 19th century Germany. In these years, the actual underlying situation wasn't apparent until it was played out in the 20th century: a high degree of cultivation cannot protect you from political reality. This is an experiential value in Arendt's critical work.

In her introduction, Susannah Gottlieb writes that Arendt's essays on Randall Jarrell and W.H. Auden focus on those poets' abilities to "summon a kind of strength that consists in sheer vulnerability." And even better, Arendt drew from Auden that "just as the sedentary philosopher makes a fundamental distinction between the stance of the spectator and and that of the agent, the peripatetic poet draws a corresponding distinction between compassion for those who suffer and obfuscating doctrines that claim to know how all suffering can be eradicated."

arendt3.jpgA strange response: There were always reservations about Arendt's philosophical and political works, despite her criticism of those who minimize moral responsibility, mainly because her views on humanity itself were candid, complex, and unflattering to great "doctrines," both liberal and conservative. Her position was similar to the "peripatetic poet" described above. Now think about the contemporary American poet, either too eager to flatter his/her own humanity, or too intent on relinquishing a fidelity to expression of a lived and shared existence.

arendt4.jpgReflections on Literature and Culture bristles with keen, challenging thought. Topics include culture and politics, Rilke, Kafka, French existentialism, Brecht, Broch, Zweig, Sarraute, Dinesen, Dostoevsky, Auden, Jarrell, Mann, Kipling -- 34 essays in all. Arendt believed that culture and politics are dependent on each other -- and that great artists play the critical role as fraternal counterpoints to politics.

She writes, "In the realm of the cultural, freedom is manifested in taste because the judgment of taste contains and communicates more than an 'objective' judgment about quality. As a judging activity, taste brings together culture and politics, which already share the open space of the public realm." One reads this book wondering if our current culture still acts as a complementary if contentious partner to politics, or if politics has managed to overwhelm and convert the culture to its own religion.