A while ago I devoted a post to my love of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, so you can imagine how pleased I was when I found out another Arendt piece was assigned for one of my seminars. However, rather than being one of her other famous texts, we were assigned a piece that was essentially Arendt’s “dissertation” or post-doc project of sorts, which was on a German Jewish woman named Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833), who became quite a well-known salonierre in Germany. Arendt’s archive was originally made up of pages upon pages of letter that Varnhagen had written to various family members, friends, and love interests over the years in which she candidly philosophizes on her outlook on life, her situation as a female Jew in Germany, and many other topics. Interestingly, Arendt’s research doesn’t simply focus on the way Varnhagen describes herself; instead, Arendt uses Varnhagen’s letters as a point of departure for her own meditation on ideas of representation, self-identity, history, and an incredibly wide array of topics.

Arendt actually had to put this project on hold as she had to flee Germany due to the events leading up to WWII; most of the book (minus the last two chapters) were completed in 1933. The final two chapters were written a little thereafter, but the book was not published until 1957, so there are a lot of interesting gaps in the writing of this. Since Arendt had to flee Germany, she also lost access to her archive of Varnhagen’s letters. She thus had to reconstruct the text from her notes on the thousands of letters that were lost to her.

As I’ve done in the past, I think the best way to get a sense of the writing here is to get a glimpse of the text itself. Here are a few of the passages that caught my eyes as I was reading along, but keep in mind that I had to pick out a handful out of tons of flagged-pages! I think this will give you a sense of the style of writing Arendt goes through in this text.

“Facts can be disintegrated into opinions as soon as one refuses to consent to them and withdraws from their context. They have their own peculiar way of being true: their truth must always be recognized, testified to. Perhaps reality consists only in the agreement of everybody, is perhaps only a social phenomenon, would perhaps collapse as soon as someone had the courage forthrightly and consistently to deny its existence. Every event passes – who may claim to know tomorrow whether it really took place? Whatever is not proved by thinking is not provable – therefore, make your denials, falsify by lies, make use of your freedom to change and render reality ineffective by will. Only truths discovered by reason are irrefutable; only these can always be made plain to everyone. Poor reality, dependent upon human beings who believe in it and confirm it. For it as well as their confirmation are transitory and not even always presentable.” (12)

“Dorothea Schlegel encountered life just once, when she met Schlegel and he loved her. But she at once abandoned life again by immortalizing this one moment. There was nothing in her life to narrate, because it had no story, because it stubbornly took its stand upon the experience of a single, swiftly passing moment. She simply threw her life away upon a moment.” (32)

“What happened to [Varnhagen] was more than merely the grief, which she might perhaps have been able to cling to daily and hourly, in order to prevent the natural continuance of life, the natural joy in the new day. Regularity is not so “absurd” as youth is inclined to believe. It alone guards one against confusing the grief with the bad experience. It alleviates the pure and unqualified lament – everything is over – and stops one from reviving the past again and again and experiencing it as present; keeps one from wiping out the attributes of reality and perpetuating what is transitory. Life itself, by going on, by refusing to show any consideration for the person who claims that everything is over, thrusts the past further back into the past with every passing day, thrusts it back but does not obliterate it.” (54)

“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time. In the opacity of foreign places all specific references to yourself are blurred. It is easy to conquer unhappiness when the general knowledge that you are unhappy is not there to disgrace you, when your unhappiness is not reflected by innumerable mirrors, focused upon you so that it strikes you again and again.”(66)

“Might not this one person die, and then would not all her communications be lost? Could she keep a check on this one person to whom she had poured out her heart to make sure that her words were treasured and not betrayed? After all, she was not living in any fixed tradition; she had no position in the world of men which guaranteed her permanence. Therefore she had to tread the road to history, which was open to her only on the basis of her life story, again and again. Her only guarantee of permanence lay in herself; only if she succeeded in remaining as she was, in preserving what she had learned, only if she felt the old sorrows with each retelling, did she have any guarantee that she could continue to transmit anything.” (111)


You might ask why this particular text is worth reading – aside from Arendt’s lovely writing and intellectually stimulating approach. Regardless of what your interests are, I think the historical condition of European Jews post-Enlightenment is an incredibly important question to consider, even for those of us (like myself) who work mainly in non-Eurocentric areas. A lot of modernity seems to be pushing back against the Enlightenment, revealing that the rationalizing project of the Enlightenment was more or less a failure, and led to many of the historical violence in the 18th century onwards. For German Jews in particular, the failure of the enlightenment becomes more concrete in the policies surrounding Jewish identity – namely, the double-bind of German culture: assimilation and emancipation. In other words, Jews were welcomed into society (i.e. emancipated), but only if they assimilated. Yet this promise was never truly kept, as many Jewish historians note, and the double-bind ended in the failure of assimilation – which, as Arendt articulates elsewhere, ended in the systematic destruction of German Jews. What other double-binds exist are we ignoring in history? What other promises are presented to minor subjects, with hidden clauses, that in the end tear their subjectivity away from them?

I do not study German Jewish history or intellectual thought, but I can clearly see how the questioning of ossified concepts, like the Enlightenment, helps all of us in our research. I think its worth delving into a variety of topics and texts, even if you think some fall way outside of your interests. As cheesy as it sounds, you may be surprised how much you learn from these texts or how much you simply enjoyed reading them.

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