The Hannah Arendt Guide to Friendship


Saul Austerlitz in The New Republic:

Hannah Arendt was a good friend. When she was a teenage girl, she was forbidden by her mother and stepfather from visiting an acquaintance named Anne Mendelssohn, but she went anyway, walking to a nearby town at night, throwing pebbles at Anne’s window, and cementing a lifelong friendship. She came to the rescue of her friend and intellectual sparring partner Mary McCarthy after she suffered a traumatic miscarriage, as Jon Nixon tells us in his engaging biography, Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship, and again while she was going through an emotionally draining divorce. She sent care packages to her former teacher and mentor Karl Jaspers when he and his wife were stuck in Germany, impoverished and hungry, after the war. She protected her husband Heinrich Blucher, as much a friend as a romantic partner, during his professional difficulties as an academic.

Arendt’s web of allegiances opens up a new avenue of approach into her career. More than a bodiless thinker, or a walking scandal, Arendt is depicted here as a woman hungry for companionship, and for the exchange of ideas. It also opens up an area of inquiry into the complex and under-explored dynamic of friendship. “Friendships are not the application of some theory of friendship,” Nixon writes, “nor do they rely on an ongoing reflective meta-dialogue between the friends regarding the nature of their friendship. … There is a great deal that is appropriately and courteously implicit in friendship.” Nixon intends Arendt to be an exemplar of what he repeatedly hints is a now-lost era.

Arendt saw friendship as a middle ground between the solitude and solipsism of internal dialogue, and the terror of the public square. It was a protected space in which ideas could be unveiled, sanded down, hardened, and polished. Her friends were her intellectual compatriots, and her boundless loyalty toward them was also an expression of her deep-seated appreciation for their kindnesses. Friendship was an intensely appealing concept for a woman who spent much of her life as a refugee among refugees, a Jew expelled from her country of birth, adrift in foreign countries. It was a protective amulet, as well as a symbol of the higher values crushed under the boot of totalitarianism. Nazism’s mission was “to eradicate totally any trace of human freedom,” and friendship’s playfulness and compassion was a symbol of rebellion against fascism’s inhumanity.

More here.