An unclassifiable figure in the world of ideas, Hannah Arendt provoked both adoration and controversy. A compulsive smoker and an unpretentious woman, she could conceptualize the twentieth century through the publication of books such as The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958) and The Crisis in Culture (1961).
If we know of her intellectual rigour and her political position, it would be surprising to discover, in 2015, her lyrical need to talk about love, of the passage of time, of nature and solitude. The publication of a collection of all her poems in French for the first time, from her early years in Germany to her last in New York, is an opportunity to soften our views and to try to see the woman in a different light — to discover her with an approach that is more aesthetic than analytical and to appreciate her improvisation of words, her impressions and feelings.
Karin Brio, the German literature specialist says, “The poetry of Hannah Arendt is not confined to her passionate love affair with Heidegger,” although the poems dazzle with a particular emotion (“I think of him and I love him,” she says in the poem End of Summer). The path that took Hannah Arendt to poetry was of a more distant past.
As a little girl, Hannah carefully copied in a notebook her favorite poems and, at the age of 12, she had a library dedicated to the art of poetry where Homer, Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schiller, Rainer Maria Rilke René Char mingled. “The poets are the voices for her and right from a tender age those voices resonated in everything she did,” explains Karin Biro.
“The exact opposite of the image I had of Hannah”
In a biography of this German philosopher released in 1982 and written by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt’s poems are alluded to only in a few lines as if she has never written a line of verse. This prejudice is “deplorable,” growls Karin Biro, who, on discovering the lyrical writing of the philosopher fifteen years ago, felt stupefied: “What I read was the exact opposite of the image I had of her.”
In the collective imagination, Hannah Arendt is an austere woman. The publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) plunged the Jewish exile at the heart of a lively debate where she found herself accused by people, including some Jewish intellectuals who were her friends, of ” not loving her own people.” Although the film-director Margarethe von Trotta softened the stereotype of a rigid thinker in her biographical film on Hannah Arendt, we still retain the image of a feisty and uncompromising woman.
On exploring Hannah Arendt’s poetic universe, the reader is lulled by a rather soft and melancholy tone, which never dissociates happiness from pain and love from solitude. “The feet hanging over pathetic glory / I also dance, free from weightlessness / I enter into darkness, into space / A space repressed by past times.”
If Hannah Arendt has been influenced by her reading of the romantic poets, her life is punctuated by tragic events that shaped her personality, events like the death of her father after three long years of agony when she was only seven and later her deportation, separation and exile. There are no poems in this book that recalls the death of her father, but in each fleets the sadness of a little lost girl, searching in vain her own land.
“Happy is he who has no country”
“Happy is he who has no country”, the title of the collection and of one of the poems, means that Hannah Arendt found little delight in the typical bitterness of the romantic poet. Feeling far away from everything, she had no choice but to face her fears and create her own happiness.
That’s how she is, “the girl from elsewhere”, which is the title of her favourite poem by Friedrich Schiller, a poem that echoes Hannah’s landing in the United States after her escape from Nazism and into the arms of her second husband, her beloved Heinrich Blücher. When we feel the anguish of being lost, only love can serve as a remedy. She writes so beautifully about statelessness at the end of her life: “In perfect confidence about the unfamiliar / Near the stranger / There in the distance, I put my hands in yours.”
If Hannah Arendt’s poems are considered unimportant, as with her biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, they also miss her philosophy. For Arendt, poetry is a continuation of a theoretical reflection which when confronted with the limits of logic, escapes with the poem. “The Thinker speaks about being, the poet speaks of the sacred”, said her teacher, Martin Heidegger, in “What is Metaphysics?” That statement depicts a German tradition of dialogue between philosophy and poetry, both of which reside in the same house as does language.
“Our heritage is not preceded by any testament”
Open any annexure of Arendt’s works, and it will be clear that this tradition is respected there, you will find as many poets there as philosophers. The preface to the “Crisis of Culture” also begins with a quote from René Char, “Our heritage is not preceded by any testament,” a sentence on which she will dwell in many of the following pages, finally leaving with the poet the privilege of opening the field to reflection.
Hannah Arendt did not publish the poems in her lifetime. However, before she died she had taken them one by one, corrected and partly typed them as if she had been preparing them for being read. It took Karin Biro over ten years to put all of them together and finally establish the truth which, he would make us remember, had been, in the eyes of Arendt, not a gift, but a construction.
Heureux celui qui n’a pas de patrie. Poèmes de pensée,
par Hannah Arendt.
Translated from the German by François Mathieu,
poems collected, annotated and presented by Karin Biro
Born in Hanover in 1906 Hannah Arendt studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger before taking refuge in France and then in the USA. She died in 1975.