The Language Remains06-11-2020
On September 16, 1964, Hannah Arendt sat for an interview on German TV with Günther Gaus. Arendt and Gaus are both chain smoking through the interview in which they talk about the Holocaust, philosophy, feminism, Jewishness, exile, and of course her book on Adolf Eichmann. When Gaus asks Arendt what remains for her from the Germany she grew up in before the war, she answers:
"The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains.... For myself I can put it extremely simply: In German I know a rather large part of German poetry by heart; the poems are always somehow in the back of my mind. I can never do that again. I do things in German that I would not permit myself to do in English. That is, sometimes I do them in English too, because I have become bold, but in general I have maintained a certain distance. The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved."
The Interview has come to bear the title "What Remains? The Language Remains."
The conversation between Arendt and Gaus turns to truth and the question of whether all truths should be spoken in public. Against Arendt, it had been argued that she should not have published in her book an account of those Jews who cooperated with Nazis. Such a question, Arendt suggests, is a question of "what is legitimate" and what is "still open to discussion." When someone asked her whether, If she had anticipated the outcry over her book, "wouldn't I have written the Eichmann book differently? I answered: No. I would have confronted the alternative: to write or not to write. Because one can also hold one's tongue." Silence is always an option. But once one decides to write, one has to say the truth, especially those "truths of fact."
This question of whether to speak unpopular opinions is of course a present question. If one dissents from a common sense about some shibboleth, there are predictable charges of heresy and calls for consequences. Should, for example, the New York Times have published an oped by Senator Tom Cotton, one that argued in favor of using federal troops to keep order against potentially unruly protesters? The Times has apologized for the "incendiary" headline "Send In the Troops" and for failing " to offer appropriate additional context — either in the text or the presentation — that could have helped readers place Senator Cotton’s views within a larger framework of debate." It has also fired two editors who it says allowed an oped with errors to appear. Should the Times have been silent and not printed the oped? Or was publishing it an important contribution to the factual truth of the moment, that many people in the country believe strongly in using the army to maintain law and order? Michelle Goldberg has a helpful oped of her own examining this question of when and whether to speak or to remain silent.
Arendt, for her part, argues that the truth must be spoken. But Arendt suggests that instead of truth, the interest in speaking is one of impartiality, the idea that came into the world when Homer celebrated not only Achilles, but also his enemy Hektor. And to illustrate her point, Arendt recites three lines of German poetry from Schiller's Das Siegesfest.
Wenn des Liedes Stimmen schweigen
Von dem überwundnen Mann,
So will ich für Hectorn zeugen...
[If the voices of song are silent
For him who has been vanquished,
I myself will testify for Hector..."
In distinguishing impartiality from ideas of “objective truth” through poetry, Arendt makes manifest how it is that language, a rich and vital knowledge of poetic language, is integral to her thinking. To read Arendt, and even more to listen to her speak, is to see how her language lives and breathes in her body and her mind. Which is why it is so helpful not only to read a transcript of Arendt's interview, but also to watch her speak it. Luckily, you can do so.
The interview between Arendt and Gaus is published as the first chapter of the essay collection Essays in Understanding; tomorrow, the Arendt Center's Virtual Reading Group will begin to read Essays in Understanding together Friday, June 12th. Given the importance of Arendt's language, it is highly recommended that you also watch the interview (with English subtitles). The reading group then continues weekly on Fridays at 1 pm EST. You can register here.