Why Hannah Arendt matters? Why Elisabeth Young-Bruehl matters?
Laudatio – Elisabeth Young-Bruehl 1946-2011 / Correspondences with Jerome Kohn
“Yes, I would like to bring the wide world to you this time. I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, to truly love the world, that I shall be able to do that now. Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theories ‘Amor Mundi’.”
The first time I heard the name “Elisabeth Young-Bruehl” was at a legendary bookstore in Jerusalem known as “Shatz” because it is located on a street of the same name, only a few blocks away from the both modern and ancient city center of West Jerusalem. I had walked into the store captured by the curiosity of the passer-by always invited to look into this place through the glass panels that run from ceiling to floor and that offer in plain sight, a peek into the thousands of books –old and new, that can be found in this place, for long already a landmark in Jerusalem culture.
At the time I was not even in my twenties and was a religious student in one of those Talmudic academies known as “yeshivas”, only a few blocks away from “Shatz” but yet located in a remote universe of thoughts and ways. It was not that I didn’t enjoy the long hours of discussions and the intense friendships that developed between the four walls of the Talmud and the Mishnah, as the tradition says, fenced by the authority of the Torah. The idea itself – of authority – was a difficult concept for me to grasp when I escaped from the yeshiva dorm at night, to give myself into the turbulent jolts of the rather provincial city that sometimes offered a lapse out of the eternal religious truth into other realities, both shallower and deeper at the same time.
I had read what at the time I considered a lot of philosophy – mostly Pre-Socratics and Heidegger – in the previous years before joining the religious institution in which I found myself always socially inept but intellectually and spiritually intact. Yet I felt that there was something missing not necessarily in the life of the mind but in the conversations with people that were often geographically located inside the fence of the Torah, even for the most private feelings.
Curious as I was, I decided to turn to philosophy again without being aware of the long journey that would await me. I had been curious about Hannah Arendt as far back as half a decade before those days when I half-read “The Origins of Totalitarianism” in the library where I took shelter from the inanity of schooling and only because of my passionate fascination with Heidegger, fostered by an unusual Greek teacher who used to smoke heavily in the classroom as she explained to us with great paucity aphorisms from the great philosophers and walked around erratically as if peripatetically set ablaze by what was on her mind, spoken with a thick Greek accent.
The experience of reading Hannah Arendt began with a book that had only appeared then, a collection of essays titled “Responsibility & Judgment” and though the book was written in that beautiful and thick prose typical of Arendt, and that I know recognize, I must confess that I understood next to nothing even though I read and re-read chapters and chapters, wondering if I could ever find a teacher that could explain to me all the intricacies in Plato, Tocqueville, Machiavelli and many others.
That was the moment when in an attempt to remedy the curse of my ignorance, I read Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, bought from Shatz with the little money I had at the time and which I devoured from cover to cover in one or two days, lying on my bed at the yeshiva dorm and feigning illness as not to be called out for the interminable long morning prayers, then followed by three or four hours of Talmudic discussions, through which I dreamt myself elsewhere and wrote a journal that though childish, set the foundation for what I would do later on in life.
It was reading of Young-Bruehl’s biography the moment when I fell in love with Hannah Arendt and decided in a matter of days that there would be nothing more important for me than to read all of her works, understand all of her thoughts and be able to penetrate the issues that the biography had masterfully elucidated with a style – somewhere in between literature, observation and criticism – that I now recognize to be a characteristic feature in the Arendt scholars. It was the most important moment for the life of the mind in my case. All I wanted to do at the time was to pack my bags, get on a bus all the way to the gates of the Hebrew University in Mt. Scopus and ask for someone to teach me Hannah Arendt.
Life inside the confines of the yeshiva was rather comfortable and pleasant – very different from the insecurity and constant anxiety of the world – and being unprepared as I was for the challenges of philosophy, I decided to wait as someone who awaits a well-known and identifiable Messiah – the greatest fallacy – and often used to sit in the back of the large hall where the Talmudic discussions happened, placing single pages of Hannah Arendt’s texts inside the large Talmudic tractates and as I pretended to be absorbed in the words of Torah, I leafed through the mysterious philosopher’s words and flew to faraway places.
The impossibility of my mediocre patience began to show rapidly as cracks made their way into my religious faith with worrying and fatal symptoms: The discovery of homosexual love embodied in a Catholic priest from Austria whom I often saw at night when I escaped into the turbulent world of the Old City, the mosques, the smells of baklava and frankincense, the Franciscan pilgrims; then there was also the increasing anxiety over one’s autonomy, the desire to be free, to think for oneself and to lead a different life than that offered by reality – to resist it by all means. Soon enough I found myself exiled and evicted from the community of faith and with nothing but Hannah Arendt’s books and Young-Bruehl’s biography.
It wasn’t a lack of religiosity or atheism what drove me but rather heresy – the desire to ask many questions. In the coming years, hopping between philosophy classes and other types of religious seminaries, whose education I found as inane as I had found my secondary school years when I ran after Heidegger and Greek philosophy. Nothing seemed able to meet the level of engagement offered by Hannah Arendt which I had learnt to appreciate through Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Even though in the course of the following years I met many great men and women, scholars and writers, that teacher I had been looking for was nowhere to be found to this very day and whenever the world turned its back on me, I found shelter in Hannah Arendt as if she had become a portable home that I could take with me anywhere.
At the time, naïve as I was about the practical and institutional demands of academic life – to which I never submitted to this very day – I decided to keep looking for the keys into Hannah Arendt’s world and even for a brief while, I exchanged some letters with Jerome Kohn, who had been Arendt’s last teaching assistant at the New School for Social Research. I remember that Jerome Kohn responded to my letter saying to me that he thought there was no such a thing as a “way” to study Arendt’s ideas on judgment and that when he himself tried to do that, he spent a lot of time reflecting upon specific works of art.
Half a decade has passed since then, but that insight has remained with me through the years and makes Hannah Arendt the unavoidable guest today when I reflect not only about the Arab Revolutions in my articles but also when I take delight in contemplating the works of art of my great artist friends. In his first letter he quoted his little poem written by Arendt in 1954, that is one of the only poems I’ve ever learnt by heart and that come to mind whenever I think of the work of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl that I came to know later: “Ich liebe die Erde / So wie auf der Reise / den fremden Ort / und anders nicht”. Who knows if Hannah Arendt ever felt at home in the world as she expressed it to Jaspers? I remembered then having written then to Jerome Kohn telling him that this was the point where I disagreed with Young-Bruehl’s biography.
Later on, innocent as my view was, I wrote him about whether it wouldn’t be the case that as much as there’s a banality of evil – the most famous thesis of Arendt, re-worked from her radical evil of an earlier period when she wrote “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – there was also a banality of good and he replied this to me: “I am impressed by what you say about the banality of goodness – by which, I take it, you mean good works. About that, I think Hannah Arendt would agree”. That might have been one of my happiest moments in those years. He went on to explain: “Do you remember in “The Human Condition” how she differentiates between goodness and good works? Following Jesus of Nazareth, she says that the goodness of good works – however useful they might be for a variety of purposes – vanishes as soon as the works appear in the world. She goes further than Jesus when she says that the attempt to make goodness appear in the world is not only fruitless in itself but is also destructive of the space of the appearances.”
I then wrote a long and complicated – rich in everything but clarity – letter in which I laid out a systematic view relating the value of the good deeds of that banality of good to Kant’s moral philosophy by saying that “Now if we understand that the usefulness or purposiveness or a deed, particularly a good one, vanishes as soon as the work leaves the world of absolute free will (thought) and enters the world as “it is” (action). My misunderstanding was due not only to a very poor reading of both Kant and Arendt but also to the fact of being clouded by philosophy, to put it mildly, to understand that this had to do more with thinking for oneself and without “crutches” – to use Arendt’s expression – than with any reading of Husserl, Kant or Descartes that I might have been involved in at the time. Jerome Kohn was kind to respond to my enlightened ignorance with something that has become forever useful when trying to understand what happened with the promise of politics and of renewing the common world that came with the felicitous Arab Spring:
“What Hannah says is that regardless of how useful it may be in and for the world, the goodness of a good work vanishes as soon as it appears in and for the world, the goodness of a good work vanishes as soon as it appears as good. This has nothing to do with Kant’s moral philosophy… For Arendt this makes doing good essentially religious and anti-political: it is the loneliest of all activities, without even the company of oneself, and so lonely, in fact, that it would be unbearable without the presence of God as its witness”. Casual as this comment was, and although it didn’t occur to me to re-read it in several years, this was exactly what came to my mind when I wrote different articles about the uprisings in the Middle East, this time with the particular case of Bahrain in mind. From Jerome Kohn I learnt to call her simply “Hannah”, what I quickly had to unlearn when at a seminar in which I had to present a brief lecture on Arendt’s “Thinking and Moral Considerations”, and all the scholars burst into hysterical laughter when I called her that way…
But of what good is this good if it serves no ulterior purpose? It seemed to me as if reading this letter together with Arendt’s “On Revolution” had revealed to me that it was the emphasis on the redemption of individual people and not of the world, what turned Bahrain’s uprising into a stalemate out of which no solution seems visible in the horizon. It wasn’t the renewal of the world of men as such what was at work here, but rather, the fact that the uprising meant no harm, it only meant good in the worst possible manner: The political was destroyed by turning politics into a private affair of the household and the private affairs of the household into political causes. How to release public affairs from such utter meaninglessness? That question would remain unanswered until now.
In my following letter I wrote about Mary McCarthy, whose novels I had begun reading while I was still at the yeshiva – though secular literature was strictly forbidden and what in yeshiva slang is termed “toilet reading” – explaining how they had helped me get a better understanding of Arendt’s world and also about St. Augustine whom I had loved much when I was younger. I concluded my letter by saying that “Good works destroy the world as we know it: the space in between people. In that sense the otherworldly nature of good deeds turns rather anti-worldly and therefore makes it impossible to feel at home”.
Once again confirming the thesis I have expounded time and again this year about the loss of the revolutionary treasure when the aims of revolution extend beyond the political into questions of instrumental and social nature. Mr. Kohn appreciated the insight and remarked that “One day you and I will have to sit down and talk about all the ideas in your letter--especially about Augustine, who of course was a tremendous influence on Hannah Arendt”. I never met Jerome Kohn and neither did I continue the conversation with Augustine; what remains true however is how those ideas helped me shape the concepts with which I would later on tackle the political experience of this century and that would be expressed in my cautious but optimistic reservation about the current events in the Arab world. It seemed to me as if I didn’t entirely grasp at the time the crucial form that those letters would take in my subsequent work as a journalist on the complex world of politics and culture in the Middle East.
On that very year was the occasion of the 100 years of Hannah Arendt’s birth that my mentor at the time – Prof. Eveline Goodman-Thau – celebrated with a conference in Berlin which I was unable to attend but which I attended in spirit having shown at the film a movie about Hannah Arendt’s life which I made with images from the most diverse parts of Arendt’s life set against the background of Hannah Arendt’s own voice speaking about her teacherKarl Jaspers and his integrity before and in midst of the European catastrophe. Jerome Kohn wrote me a last letter on December 17th 2006: “Have been away for two months, and in Berlin I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking a lot with Eveline Goodman-Thau. We spoke of you, very highly, and I greatly enjoyed the film you made which was shown, at the old Synagogue, at the opening of Eveline's conference. When I was told that you made the film in just one day, I was duly impressed! I'm sorry you were not there in person, but you were very much there in spirit.”
That was the last time I corresponded with Jerome Kohn and although those were brief exchanges spread in the course of a single year, I believe they constituted the entirety of my “political education” on and with Hannah Arendt; a message handed out to me from faraway in time that would serve as the basis of things that remained dormant in between a couple of emigrations and a hundred other books and daily entanglements, so that they would never gain a form until 2011. Looking back at the correspondences, they are really the bulk not of an interpretation but of an experience of the thought of Hannah Arendt that would still have the relevance to guide one’s thought through times as uncertain as those that preceded the great wars through which Hannah Arendt lived.
When my exchanges with Jerome Kohn came to an end and after having become very critical of Young-Bruehl’s biography – being at home in the world, Messianic strains and in particular the overarching Jewish nature of her hermeneutics; disagreements which have been confirmed by more recent literature on Arendt, such as the work of Liliane Weissberg, Dagmar Barnow & Susanna Gottlieb – I felt that I needed to venture into a different field of visualization to understand whether the message of Hannah Arendt had any relevance for the modern world: It is often the case with philosophy that things come and go in seasons, some being more fashionable than others on a certain year and then quickly forgotten the next, as if the pieces of a runway collection.
I came to realize that there were many troubling aspects in Arendt’s thought that I wouldn’t be completely sure that could stand the test of time and whether they could become relevant after the generation of the Holocaust to which I didn’t belong not even by close. I didn’t know if it was really necessary to mend or repair loose strains in her philosophical thought and even then didn’t believe it was possible. I needed Arendt to be relevant for the modern world especially because I didn’t have any academic affiliation nor did I belong to any school or had any teachers and if anything had to learn how to think in the open with nothing but the help of books and of course of other people, that might have been in turn, as misguided as I may have been. If I could re-write the letters I sent to Jerome Kohn in 2006, I would definitely change absolutely each and every comma and would ask very different questions. I understand now how wrong I was not only because of asking questions that were only technical but also because of placing myself in a Romantic position to try and understand the thought of a person who battled against this self-same Romanticism throughout her whole work.
That was when moment – after I finally left Israel, never to return until present – when as if in my eyes mending thorny aspects in her earlier biography, I came to know Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s “Why Arendt matters?” written also in 2006 and that since then became a Bible not of scholarship but of reality, whenever it was necessary to translate Hannah Arendt into our contemporary situation and strictly philosophical as the book is not, I understood it as one of those Talmudic commentaries that elucidate a difficult passage in the Bible with the greatest brevity. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was what we would call a strange bird in the world of academic philosophy and to my delight, would avoid each and every trap that has been proposed by nearly all interpreters of Arendt that following the accepted procedures of academic thought, focus on narrowly defined parts of her thought in order to make a cause for as just as narrow theoretical framework that is nowhere to be found in Arendt.
In her book, Young-Bruehl doesn’t introduce Arendt to the academic or lay reader; neither does she construct a full framework of reference to study her books. Instead, she is offering a friendly and (modern) historically-informed view of what could we do with Arendt’s work today. The most remarkable aspects that she introduces and that should never be forgotten whenever we turn to Arendt are, if I may mention them in broader terms:
- The importance of thinking poetically: It is improbable that there is another think that can bring this into full view as Hannah Arendt did. In her thick prose, the prominent place of literature and history is not only an aesthetic device but an integral part of her thinking strains, she is going wherever there can be found a source of truth, which she distinguishes as not the task of philosophy but of poetry. In thinking poetically Arendt humanizes the formal structures of thought by bringing them into larger surfaces of human experience. Here I am reminded how in an exchange of letters already published, Jerome Kohn mentions to Young-Bruehl how in a seminar they both took with Arendt, they didn’t read a single text of political theory.
- Terror is not an enemy: Young-Bruehl’s reflections based on the reading of Arendt’s most political texts and her own experience of our times (particularly after 9/11) she explicitly says that the “war on terror” in which the free world has been engaged since 2001 is a self-defeating enterprise because terror is a means/method and not an enemy or a place. There’s terrorism and terrorists in every country, beyond national and cultural borders and the current image on terror serves the purpose of building psychological and social constructions in binary ways. These insights are not new in Arendt since they were present in her work during the last years of her life as she reflected on the experience of the war in Vietnam and what she calls, the latest addition in the arsenal of follies. This aspect of Arendt’s work highlighted by Young-Bruehl remains in my opinion the most relevant of all and the best overlooked. The new fundamentalisms are not fundamentally religious – that all revolutionary momenta in our times have demanded nothing but freedom attests to the poorly religious nature of our world – but adaptations of religion for supranational purposes. From this disease no monotheistic religion is free – Judaism, Islam, Christianity – and the three of them are subject to the same trend. Lastly she speaks about the anti-political nature of terror (for which Islamic terrorism is the best and clearest example) that doesn’t aim to seize the political but to ultimately destroy it; not to mention the fact that since McCarthyism and the “Red Scare”, it is not unheard of to use terrorism to fight terrorism as much as totalitarian means to fight totalitarianism.
- Distinction between acting/making and violence/power: This last part is less clear today than ever and remains the most complex part of Arendt’s political thought which goes back all the way to criticize Plato and Aristotle and accordingly all the tradition of Western political thought. Here we are faced with the constitutive elements not of a theory but of a discernible understanding of human action that is not strictly reduced to political means/ends as in the work of Hobbes that strange as it might seem to those philosophically educated, is very much alive in the United States and everywhere else, actively promoted by political parties, think-tanks and policy experts.
All of the above can be summed up with the following words of Young-Bruehl: The elements of Totalitarianism have continued to be with us, even in the most secure democracies, but they no longer take their mid-20th century form. The writing is on the wall: Ideologies that explain all of history (Christian and Islamic fundamentalism), total terror in which politics disappears from the scene (as it is the case in many parts of the world) that then deteriorates into the superfluousness of peoples: homelessness, statelessness and the lack of rights to have rights. In this sense, Arendt’s work remains as valid today as it was the decade after Auschwitz and might still be read as an open book to understand and interpret the unprecedented legacy of the 20th century: That novel form of government known as Totalitarianism.
Hannah Arendt didn’t propose a theory of anything and this is what is so difficult for scholars to handle: The insights that are proposed here and highlighted by Young-Bruehl constitute an exemplary testimony to the use of human faculties but it doesn’t propose solutions and it doesn’t theorize theoretically – paradoxical as it seems – but rather, points in the direction of concepts much more basic such as trust, forgiveness and promise that ultimately release the world and action – good and bad – from the meaninglessness that I had discussed once with Jerome Kohn.
This is the part where Elisabeth Young-Bruehl becomes as relevant as Arendt not as an interpreter but as a thinker on her own right: Her turn to psychoanalysis that might have been in stark contrast with Arendt’s own view is no traditional lapse into the Romantic world of self-crafted and crafted-by-others individuals but rather, it is in a world of such emotional impoverishment, a possibility of action and of a public space in a world where both have disappeared. I haven’t read anyone argue the same, but I believe strongly that the particular emphasis of Arendt of story-telling as the intermediary between theory and action itself (distinguished from praxis) must have had a great influence on Young-Bruehl when she entered the world of Freud and turned indefinitely to the practice of psychoanalysis. This story-telling is no mere exercise in poetics: Story-telling is the basis on which human action is liberated from endlessness and enters a richer visual field in which the world is offered to us as a promise – fragile and temporary but true in the sense that as Young-Bruehl writes: Without reality shared with other human beings, truth loses all meaning.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in her life and in her thought rescues the value of friendship as that home in the world for those without traditional families, communities or religious settings. It is here precisely that she begins to love the world: She turns the practice of psychoanalysis into a form of education; this education consists not in imparting information but rather in helping or enabling individual human beings to avoid the escape into an inauthentic self lost in sentimentality. The avoidance of these psychological trap enables people to enter at last or re-enter the world and to make a case for what Susan Sontag tireless argued in the context of art: There is no distinction between feelings and thoughts – thought is feeling and feeling is thought – because thinking, as Hannah Arendt always pointed out, is the condition not of life but of being humanly alive and obviously the precondition of being able to judge our place and situation in the world.
Her work is not only very loyal to the legacy of Arendt – if there can be said to be one – but also the confirmation of that “decent world” that Arendt envisioned: One in which in spite of the overriding anxieties with which we are faced, it is possible to think in the open without fear. Now that both Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl are gone, we are left with a little more than fragments that other than enlarge the size of our bookshelves, should serve as an inspiration to think decently, that is, to think always for its own sake and not in the ultimate pursuit of other ends. If I could sum up the work and the life of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, I would say that it was “care for the world”. The task of this care was to keep the fragile world from disintegrating and falling into disjointed entities not bearing responsibility for their actions so that in returning to the world and making part of its larger orders of truth and truth, of happiness and unhappiness, it will be possible to hand out to the next generation a place to live with others – the world. That task is now handed to us while Young-Bruehl, like Hannah Arendt, has perhaps mused to herself the words of Cato the Elder that she herself wrote at the end of her teacher’s biography from which she drew so much inspiration: “To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.”