What We're Reading: George Steiner02-12-2020
By Samantha Hill
The commanding literary critic George Steiner died at the age of 90 last week.
When Hannah Arendt went to study with Martin Heidegger, he was known as the “magician from Marbach,” because he made Plato and Aristotle come to life. As Arendt later reflected, people went to study with Heidegger to learn how to think. In an insightful and graceful essay, George Steiner takes on Hannah Arendt’s relationship with Martin Heidegger, in a review essay of their correspondence: “The Magician in Love.”
Ineluctably, there attaches to Heidegger’s work and person their involvement with National Socialism. Though perhaps less committed than that of Plato to the tyrant of Syracuse, though certainly less engaged than was Sartre’s Stalinism and Maoism, Heidegger’s performance during the ten months following Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933, and his silence after 1945, induce a particular nausea. It is the dimension of the work, the aura of the persona which render unavoidable the question as to whether or not Heideggerian thought and discourse are infected at the root. The life cannot be simply dissociated from the great archipelago of the Werk.
Does this meshing justify the mounting interest, by no means innocent of prurience and journalistic kitsch, in the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger? The celebrity of the protagonists, the wider political and philosophic circumstance do make for a special case. But I am not certain that this “frankness as never before” (Pound’s clairvoyant phrase) does not violate legitimate privacies. To intimates, to a small circle round Arendt and her confidante, Mary McCarthy, in Manhattan, to such witnesses as Karl Jaspers and Paul Tillich, the affair, at least in its outlines, was long known. These res privatae were made public in 1982 in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s often worshipful biography, Hannah Arendt: For love of the world. That book alluded to the survival of a major correspondence, preserved at the National Literary Archive in Marbach, but closed to inspection and publication. For reasons which still remain opaque, Mary McCarthy, one of the executors of the Arendt Literary Trust, allowed access to the material, though on the proviso that Heidegger’s letters could not be directly quoted. The consequence was the publication, in 1995, of Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, a narrative unfortunate in almost every respect (see my review, TLS, October 13, 1995), but widely noticed. Faced with a plethora of gossip, foreseeing such fictions as Catherine Clement’s Martin et Hannah (gossip used with adroit intelligence), Hermann Heidegger, son and editor, has chosen now to release these Briefe 1925-1975 well before the originally intended deadline in the coming millennium.