Samantha Rose Hill in Aeon:
What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience …
– From The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by Hannah Arendt
‘Please write regularly, or otherwise I am going to die out here.’ Hannah Arendt didn’t usually begin letters to her husband this way, but in the spring of 1955 she found herself alone in a ‘wilderness’. After the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism, she was invited to be a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. She didn’t like the intellectual atmosphere. Her colleagues lacked a sense of humour, and the cloud of McCarthyism hung over social life. She was told there would be 30 students in her undergraduate classes: there were 120, in each. She hated being on stage lecturing every day: ‘I simply can’t be exposed to the public five times a week – in other words, never get out of the public eye. I feel as if I have to go around looking for myself.’ The one oasis she found was in a dockworker-turned-philosopher from San Francisco, Eric Hoffer – but she wasn’t sure about him either: she told her friend Karl Jaspers that Hoffer was ‘the best thing this country has to offer’; she told her husband Heinrich Blücher that Hoffer was ‘very charming, but not bright’.
Arendt was no stranger to bouts of loneliness. From an early age, she had a keen sense that she was different, an outsider, a pariah, and often preferred to be on her own. Her father died of syphilis when she was seven; she faked all manner of illnesses to avoid going to school as a child so she could stay at home; her first husband left her in Berlin after the burning of the Reichstag; she was stateless for nearly 20 years. But, as Arendt knew, loneliness is a part of the human condition. Everybody feels lonely from time to time.