In Stranger from Abroad: Hanna Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, I found remarkable words about ‘love, despair and emerging,’ which I believe worthy to share in this short book review.
The times in which these words came about were the days before, during and after World War II in Germany. The setting, a university. Our two protagonists are the Jewish 18-year-old university student Hannah, and Martin, the Teutonic and Roman Catholic professor of philosophy, married and father of two sons. Within a short time, the two were doing more than keeping academic company. A note from Heidegger went: “Dear Miss Arendt, I must come to see you this evening and speak to your heart.”
The feelings were so high that Heidegger was empowered to write to Hannah:
…love is rich beyond all other possible human experiences…because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves…Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to our selves and unconditional faith in the other…The other’s presence suddenly breaks into our life—no soul can come to terms with that. A human fate gives itself over to another human fate, and the duty of pure love is to keep this giving alive as it was on the first day.
The ‘nature of being’ being Heidegger’s great obsession and fascination, he has thought out a paradigm of the ‘being’ of love, not in an academic paper, but in a love letter. Heidegger, purported to be the 20th century European thinker. Heidegger, “the name [that] traveled all over Germany like the rumor of the hidden king,” is how Hannah put it.
The two corresponded and visited throughout Hannah’s life, with a major hiatus during her years of escape from Nazism. They connected again after the war, Hannah an American citizen by then and academic (and yet to become a controversial social analyst with her meme the “banality of evil”), and Martin, living privately, discredited and silenced for years because of his alignment with the Nazi party.
Maier-Katkin refers to Heidegger’s observation of human life as “only moments of existence.” Though Arendt felt dread, she did not go the distance to Martin’s “finality of ends”/“being toward death.” She had her own theory of life, “her own awareness of the endlessness of new beginnings made possible only by the disappearance of the old.”
Nevertheless, Hannah also had her childhood fears and confessed in a note that her “ability to embrace existence was compromised by existential panic, awareness of being [as] instantly generating fear of the impending, all-encompassing nothingness of death…stealing with the hidden uncanniness of a shadow across [my] path.”
Maier-Katkin quotes Arendt writing of herself in the third person that “she had fallen prey to fear of existence itself…[and a] sense of being hunted…ran through her as if she were dead flesh.” Indeed she had been hunted by the Nazis.
Martin responded to Arendt: “There are shadows only where there is also sun; and sunshine, beloved Hannah, is the foundation of your soul, before which I am helpless—made helpless by your elementary joy and by your shy, resolute persistence.”
“It was not,” writes Maier-Katkin, “only Martin’s love that fortified Hannah’s courage; it was also his thinking which begins by not running away from the anxiety that arises when Being is confronted with the void and the groundlessness surrounding existence. Only by embracing the inevitability of nothingness can humanity appreciate the moment of existence and become capable of embracing its possibilities of love and freedom.”
Maier-Katkin says that Arendt “was always grateful to [Martin] for the lesson that it is necessary to approach life with firm determination to confront ultimate questions, and for his nonnegotiable position that serious human thought must dwell persistently on first and last things.”
I do not see Heidegger as ultimately sanguine or upbeat, though he might be very stoic. Heidegger appears to be saying: Realize resolutely “the Being of things and the meaning of life in a universe without a transcendent God, consisting only of moments of existence.”
This brings to mind a sort of denouement of an ancient age of faith, played out long ago, lost in the mists of the past.The oracle of Delphi, as her twelve hundred year tenure closed down under the weight of the Christian hegemony, offered these words of realization:
Tell to the king that the carven hall is fallen in decay
Apollo has no chapel left, no prophesying bay,
No talking spring.
The stream is dry that had so much to say.
Arendt emerges, says Maier-Katlin, in contrast to Martin, by reaching “back into the shared world of social life and politics into which people make their brief appearances through the accidents of birth, which remain behind after their deaths, and which must be loved because there is no other.”
Without her solution, Hannah would have been left with only the “banality of evil” (Hannah’s famous and controversial dictum), which indeed, is just what she and Martin and all the world had to face nonetheless, as the Nazis perpetrated terrors exceeding even ancient and historical defilements. At the personal level for Hannah, Martin would lie to her (he had other affairs) and his passion flagged. And worse yet, he succumbed to the seduction of the satanic Fuhrer. As rector of the University of Freiburg for one year, it was Heidegger who signed the letters of dismissal of Jewish professors, which also resulted in the retired Dr. Husserl losing his pension. Husserl had recommended Heidegger for the post of rector.
So here I close with some awareness that Hannah and Martin thrashed about with their agnostic encouragement in their own way. But surrounding these two souls there lay strewn on all sides the dreads, the ruins and the broken temples of their century.
Originally published December 11, 2013 at: http://www.santafe.com/blogs/read/love-despair-emerging-within-the-temple-ruins