Thursday, April 14, 2011


Hannah Arendt opposed autocratic government in her homeland, left Europe to escape imprisonment, arrived in New York without resources, ignorant of the language, lacking skills that would provide her with a good income, and forced to make the best of a bad situation. Her experiences parallel the men who emigrated to New York following the failure of the German Revolutions of 1848. America in the latter half of the 19th century was generally kind to its German immigrants and the Forty-Eighters — the five whose lives I've described — flourished.[1] Like her, they were well-educated and highly articulate. They found it easy to write, but, for the most part, did not take up writing as their main occupation. Like her, they remained true to their early beliefs and were active in their new country as progressives. They opposed political corruption and advocated reforms to correct the many injustices suffered by people less fortunate than themselves. Like her, they

-- were (again for the most part) adamantly independent in thought as well as political affiliation,
-- understood the central place of cultural institutions in civic life,
-- found New York to be a congenial place to live.
Like her, as young immigrants, they set out to establish themselves during a time when a clash of opposing ideologies produced horrible battlefield slaughter and dislocation of millions of destitute people. The Forty-Eighters saw the beginning of class-based political struggles which continued in Arendt's lifetime.

Yet she was much unlike them. The Forty-Eighters knew poetry and revered the famous poets, but were not themselves poetical, showed no inclination to put in words what the great poems meant to them. They were practical thinkers, not, as she was, a passionate one. They were all socially prominent, active in politics and deeply involved in numerous business ventures; they all became sufficiently well-to-do as to be able to enjoy leisure. They traveled widely. They often used their influence to advance their own interests, but, as often, what they did benefitted others without much benefitting themselves. Their paths to prosperity were hardly smooth ones — there were panics, there were attempts by competitors to impoverish them; there were temptations, to which they sometimes succumbed, to squander their savings on foolhearty ventures, and there were times when even government agents conspired against them. Nonetheless they were able to attain modest wealth, or better, and were disposed to use their leisure to advance worthy causes.

Although she mixed freely in the world of the New York intelligentsia, Arendt wasn't a clubby person. You can't picture her in your mind's eye singing gay German songs over frothy steins. It's hard to imagine banquets being given in her honor by her close friends, complete with lengthy tributes given as toasts by prominent guests. The Forty-Eighters enjoyed eating and drinking together and they did give one another such large scale social events. They spent Sunday afternoons roistering in New York's German beer gardens. The sang in weekly gatherings of Liederkranz. They enjoyed their lunches and dinners in the city's restaurants and clubs.[2]

More significantly, the Forty-Eighters could not have imagined the transformation of a repressive form of government they knew and loathed — conservative autocracy — into a radical new and far worse one — totalitarianism — with fundamentally perverted moral values. And, much less, they could not foresee the uncountable murders committed by the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and others.

Arendt was a political philosopher. She studied public persona and power relationships in societies and nations. As a political theorist she would not have been expected to show a deep interest in literature and it therefore it may seem a bit odd that she loved poetry. Political theory concerns itself with the power relationships, governance, and the conflicts of people in class, tribal, and cultural groupings, and poetry is a form of literature which is often taken to be personal, private, and free of at least external factiousness. All the same she revered the famous poets and worked hard to put into words what it was that makes their best work penetrate your waking and sleeping existences, give you shivers, cause you to stop and think, stop and feel deeply emotions that seem to have, and perhaps really do have, elemental authenticity.

She became friends with W.H. Auden, deeply read his poetry, and, on his death, wrote feelingly about the man and his worth.

There seems much that separates Arendt and Auden — woman and man, German Jewish pariah and English Anglican member of a conforming middle class, theorist and poet — yet they had much in common. They were both well educated, both immigrants from societies that had become alien to them, both secularized but paradoxically deeply religious, and both outsiders at odds with dominant social norms.

Both felt strongly, as Arendt put it, "the grimness of the present," burdened as it is both with the atrocities of the past and with a future which could as easily be worse as better.[3] Yet neither was pessimistic. When Auden died, Arendt wrote that his power as a poet came from his capacity to express his assent to life in the present, this grim present. She wrote of his capacity to sing a "praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man's condition on this earth and sucks its strength out of the wound"[4] She shared this capacity. As early as 1929, in her Ph.D. thesis, she wrote about expressing gratitude for the gift of life, however miserable be this existence. The writing is a complex analysis of St. Augustine's consideration of the many forms of love: Godly, carnal, charitable, self-regarding, ... and ways in which a certain kind of love, caritas, permits a person to be unworldly pure and still fully participate in the world's chaotic disturbances. This concept of love requires facing up to reality and acknowledging one's own faults and the world's. It is not a passive giving in, but active and engaged.[5]

Arendt and Auden sought to show this unifying love in their own work. Auden expressed the idea more than once, but probably most succinctly in the need to "make a vineyard of the curse." The line appears in his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats. In it, addressing Yeats and invoking his own powers and those of all great poets, Auden asks the poet:
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse...[6]
Arendt copied out this poem when preparing notes for her essay on Auden at the time of his death. Of the last couplet — "In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise." — she said "Praise is the key-word of these lines, not praise of 'the best of all possible worlds' — as though it were up to the poet (or the philosopher) to justify God's creation &mdash but praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man's condition on this earth..."[7]

In a note card she typed while preparing her remembrance of Auden, Arendt seems to have acknowledged that this love that is expressed as holy praise is elusive and the poet or philosopher who sings this praise — who can "bless what there is for being" — is, paradoxically, no less a mortal soul than any other. The card quotes without comment Auden's famous line: "Poetry makes nothing happen." In the essay she helps us understand this line by quoting Auden's statement that "mad Ireland hurt [Yeats] into poetry" and reflecting it back on Auden — he also was hurt into poetry.

The same card quotes a phrase Auden used to express an immanent God, present but elusive, easily misperceived or not perceived at all. The phrase is "At his holy insufflation" and she adds one that follows about a "bubble-headed creature" whose sense of identity with holiness screens him off from elbow-jostling men and women in the streets and roads.[8] Auden reminds the reader that God chose man as receptical for the grace of the Holy Spirit. He asks what if God had chosen some other creature; have you ever considered what might be the result? Arendt knew and saw that Auden knew as well, that what I'm calling holy praise could not be simply willed into existence, not attained by training or right living. There is something more needed — a facing up to, and even praising an awkward and frequently unspeakably ugly reality — but how to do that they do not say.

These note cards by Hannah Arendt can be found in the The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress

"At his holy insufflation"


{Auden in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten; source: wikipedia}

{Hannah Arendt, German Postage Stamp of 1988; source: wikipedia}


Some sources:

Reflections on literature and culture by Hannah Arendt, edited by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Love and Saint Augustine by Hannah Arendt (University of Chicago Press, 1996) an edited version of the thesis Arendt wrote under Karl Jaspers in 1929.

Love and Saint Augustine reviewed by George McKenna

What St. Augustine Taught Hannah Arendt about “how to live in the world”: Caritas, Natality and the Banality of Evil by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott (pdf)

"Reflection on the Right to Will": Auden's "Canzone"and Arendt's Notes on Willing by Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb

"Reflection on the Right to Will": Auden's "Canzone" and Arendt's Notes on Willing
Author(s): Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb
Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Spring, 2001), pp. 131-150
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon
Stable URL:

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, Preface to the First Edition

The origins of totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994)

Wonder and Gratitude in the Thought of Arendt by Richard J. Gill

"Thinking What We Are Doing," a review of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, by W.H. Auden, in A company of readers: uncollected writings of W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling edited by Arthur Krystal

In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W.H. Auden

The Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress

The Cambridge companion to W.H. Auden edited by Stan Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

W. H. AUDEN: FROM MYTH TO PARABLE by Edward Mendelson

Selected poems by W.H. Auden (Vintage, 2007)



[1] My great-grandfather was one of the five Forty-Eighters. I've written frequently about his life in New York. See, for example, this post: an obituary. I've also made a family history web page that takes its focus from life: Louis Windmuller and Family. Here are links to three posts about the four other Forty-Eighters and one about their wives: The four men were Carl Schurz, Henry Villard, Abraham Jacobi and Oswald Ottendorfer.

[2] There are lots of sources attesting to this love of communal eating, drinking, and speechifying. See for example: Banquet to the Honorable Carl Schurz, Banquet in Honor of Dr. Jacobi, Annual banquet, of the New York Chamber of Commerce, Herr Windmuller Confesses, and Club men of New York: their occupations, and business and home addresses: sketches of each of the organizations: college alumni associations (Republic Press, 1893).

[3] From the introduction to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism: "We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain."

[4] "Remembering Wystan H. Auden, Who Died in the Night of the Twenty-eighth of September, 1973," in Reflections on literature and culture by Hannah Arendt, edited and with an Introduction by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb

[5] She puts forth this argument in her Ph.D. thesis of 1929, Love and Saint Augustine by Hannah Arendt (University of Chicago Press, 1996) an edited version of the thesis Arendt wrote under Karl Jaspers in 1929.

[6] The extract is from In Memory of W. B. Yeats by W.H. Auden

[7] Same source as note 4.

[8] The phrases come from Auden's poem "Bucolics, I Winds (for Alex Leger)". Here is the context:
That Pliocene Friday when,
At His Holy insufflation
(Had He picked a teleost
Or an arthropod to inspire,
Would our death also have come?)
One bubble-brained creature said:--
‘I am loved, therefore I am’--:
And well by now might the lion
Be lying down with the kid,
Had he stuck to that logic.
-- Selected poems by W.H. Auden (Vintage, 2007)
I had to look up the word insufflation, it's a pumping of air into an orifice or a breathing in. OED gives this quote: "With the insufflation of his soul, Adam received also the grace of the Holy Spirit." (J. W. Burgon in Fortn. Rev. Apr. 593, 1887).


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