The incredible popularity of Hannah Arendt in recent years is likely traceable to her reflections on themes such as totalitarianism, loneliness, and lying in politics. Her work is thought to be relevant to our modern political and cultural situation. And it is. But Arendt’s importance today goes beyond her substantive insights into our political condition. Perhaps her greatest import for us is as an exemplary thinker. Her books and essays are efforts to “think what we are doing”—a phrase repeated regularly in her writing. What sets her apart is her incredible effort to think for herself, the Selbstdenken that she praises in others such as Lessing and which she personally embodies. Arendt relishes in being a pariah thinker, one who always looks upon the world from external and outsider perspectives. When she writes: “There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous,” Arendt celebrates the power of thinking to tear down all certainties; she refuses membership in any school or movement. Thinking for Arendt is “the thinking activity.” It takes place in the “gap between past and future.” The closest metaphor she can find to thinking is the breath of life itself.
I am reminded of Arendt’s example as a thinker while reading William Deresiewicz’s recent appreciation of Arendt’s contemporary, Harold Rosenberg, which begins:
A single sentence sufficed to seal my veneration for Harold Rosenberg. It comes in the midst of the bravura conclusion of “The Intellectual and His Future,” an essay from 1965. “One does not possess mental freedom and detachment,” it reads, “one participates in them.” Here was a dictum worthy of adoption as a creed. “Intellectual” is not a title, an honorific, or a job description. It is a daily aspiration.
Rosenberg shared Arendt’s demand for independence and refusal of the trend. Deresiewicz adds:
The argument occurs in “The Herd of Independent Minds,” his great essay from 1948. The point of the title is not that the liberal elite is afflicted by groupthink (which is not to say that it isn’t) but that it thinks of itself as a group. Mass culture, Rosenberg says, is predicated on the idea that everyone is alike, and it makes us over in its image, so that we come to see ourselves as alike. But there is also such a thing, he says, as “anti-mass-culture mass culture,” the mass culture of the elite: “’significant’ novels,” “’highbrow’ radio programs,” “magazines designed for college professors” — the culture of “seriousness” and “social relevance.” Characteristic of all mass culture is “the conviction that the artist ought to communicate the common experience of his audience.” But since there is no common experience, the result is “contrived and unseeing art,” rendered through a set of formulas, “by which the member of the audience learns from the author what he already knows” — “that together with others he is an ex-radical, or a Jew, or feels frustrated, or lives in a postwar world, or prefers freedom to tyranny.”
By the same token, mass culture, including the anti-mass-culture of the educated herd, “must deny the validity of a single human being’s effort to arrive at a consciousness of himself and of his situation” — must be hostile, that is, to genuine art. For “the genuine work of art…takes away from its audience its sense of knowing where it stands in relation to what has happened to it” — takes away, that is, the accepted versions of history, the official accounts of identity. It “suggests to the audience that its situation might be quite different than it had suspected.” It brings us into a truer relationship to reality, but it brings us there, perforce, as individuals. “Along this rocky road to the actual it is only possible to go Indian file, one at a time, so that ‘art’ means ‘breaking up the crowd’ — not ‘reflecting’ its experience.”