Reflections on Arendt’s Denktagebuch

The atmosphere around the Hannah Arendt Center this week has been jovial yet intense. Ten Arendt scholars have gathered to read closely Hannah Arendt’s Denktagebuch, loosely translated as her “Book of Thoughts.” We meet every day for two sessions, each 150 minutes, with no breaks.

One participant leads a discussion about a selection of the book. The sessions have been riveting. The plan is to bring out a book that collects essays based on these presentations. It will be called Reading Arendt’s Denktagebuch.  We hope it will appear around the time that the English translation of Arendt’s Denktagebuch is published.

The Denktagebuch is a “unique artifact,” as one participant put it during our opening dinner. It is comprised of two, thick, beautifully rendered, hardcover volumes that together contain over 1,200 pages. It is not really a book, but is comprised of individual entries that Arendt wrote down in 28 notebooks over 23 years from 1950-1973. The entries are chronologically arranged (except for a thematically organized final book containing Arendt’s notes on Immanuel Kant’s thinking about judgment). The whole, masterfully edited by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, contains extensive scholarly apparatus at the back.

One question we have asked is how to read the Denktagebuch. Some participants have chosen a particular chronological period and sought relationships and associations amongst Arendt’s entries. Others identified recurring themes that Arendt returns to over the years, such as the relation between truth and metaphor, Kant’s theory of judgment, and the connection between action and thinking. A few of our sessions have used the Denktagebuch to elucidate passages from Arendt’s published work—this is especially fruitful since a full 500 pages of the Denktagebuch reflect entries from 1950-1954, the time when Arendt was at work on The Human Condition. Some excavated ideas are largely absent from the published work but vividly present in the Denktagebuch—for example love, reconciliation, and grammar. Finally, we have tried reading the Denktagebuch as a proper book, namely as a book of short aphorisms or poems, each standing on its own and yet fitting into the totality that is Arendt’s thinking.

The origin of the Denktagebuch is interesting in itself. Arendt traveled to Germany in the winter of 1949-50 as the director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her mission was to search for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The Commission recovered 1.5 million Jewish books under Arendt’s leadership, part of what Leon Wieseltier calls “a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity.” During her visit, Arendt wrote “The Aftermath of Nazi-Rule. Report from Germany,“ which was published in Commentary. Also while in Germany, Arendt visited her old teacher, mentor, and lover, Martin Heidegger.

We know from Arendt’s correspondence with Heidegger that they spoke at length about language, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and served for about one year as Rector of Freiburg University. He abandoned many of his Jewish friends and colleagues and promoted a philosophical version of Nazism before he resigned in 1934. The Heidegger case is complicated and controversial. Heidegger was a Nazi, but what kind of Nazi he was is not a simple question; there is no better account of the complexity of Heidegger’s Nazism than Tracy Strong’s powerful and nuanced retelling of the affair in his recent book Politics Without Vision.

In the 1940’s Arendt was deeply critical of Heidegger. Her visit in 1950 provided an opportunity to think through her proper response to his activities. Shortly after her return to New York City in March1950, Arendt received a letter from Heidegger (along with some love poems) that read, in part:

I am happy for you that you are surrounded by your books again. The line with “the burden of the logs” is in “Ripe and dipped in Fire”—around the same time you probably wrote it [presumably a lost letter—RB], I had been thinking about the burden of logs.

The reference is to a poem “Reif Sind” by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem is about memory, the past, and the question of whether to recall the past or to live in the present. One of the poem’s central images is of the burden of logs that one carries on one’s shoulders.

Shortly after Arendt receives Heidegger’s letter, she begins her Denktagebuch, with the opening line:

The wrong that one has done is the burden on one’s shoulders, something that one bears because he has laden it upon himself.

That Arendt would initiate her book of thoughts with a meditation on the burden of past wrongs is not surprising. After all, she had recently finished the manuscript for The Origins of Totalitarianism—originally entitled The Burden of Our Times—which explored not simply the elements of totalitarianism, but more importantly the burden that such a past, a recent past, places on people in the present day: to comprehend and come to terms with what men had done as well as to acknowledge what any of us is capable of doing again. And, of course, she had just returned from a reunion with her past in Germany and Heidegger. The past is this burden that we bear on our shoulders, and Arendt begins her Denktagebuch with a reflection that is at once personal and yet also deeply abstract and universal.

The question of how to respond to the burden of wrongful deeds is woven through Arendt’s writing. What is fascinating is that in the first pages of the Denktagebuch and then throughout the 1,200 pages, Arendt continues to think about the response to wrongs as a kind of reconciliation. This is surprising because reconciliation is not an idea prevalent in much of Arendt’s published work.

In an article published last year, I explore the meaning and sense of reconciliation in Arendt’s thinking. In it, I argue,

By focusing on Arendt’s discussion of acts of reconciliation and also of non-reconciliation—her response to her reunion with Martin Heidegger in 1950, her judgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to Adolf Eichmann, her account of Jesus’ forgiving and not-forgiving of petty and colossal crimes in the Gospel of Luke, and her reconciliation to life after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher—I show how Arendt places the judgment for or against reconciliation at the center of political action. Above all, I argue that the question—”Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?”—is, for Arendt, the pressing political question in our age.

There are not many articles published on the Denktagebuch in English. My article, focusing on the first seven pages of Arendt’s notebooks, offers a glimpse into one way the Denktagebuch can help expand and enrich our reading of Arendt. You’ll have to wait a bit for the book Reading Arendt’s Denktagebuch, but for now you can read “Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World.”

You can also read this account of the Denktagebuch by Sigrid Weigel, at Telos (payment required).

You can also watch a video of Ursula Ludz discussing editing Arendt’s work here, from a talk she gave in 2010 at the Hannah Arendt Center.


Posted on 15 June 2012 | 11:37 am

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