Reading Arendt and Solnit

Earlier this spring I was fortunate to spend several weeks in Germany. I visited with old friends and also traveled around, finding every opportunity I could to practice German. But I had another agenda during my visit: I wanted to learn more about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and also how Germany itself understands that part of its history. Among other sites, I visited Buchenwald, a museum in Erfurt about the German firm Topf and Sons (which manufactured the crematoria installed in Buchenwald and Auschwitz), the Nuremberg Trial Memorial, and the Stasi museum in Leipzig. Of course I wanted to learn about the history in and of itself, but I was interested even more in how my experience might help me better understand what’s going on in the United States in particular and the world more generally these days. I’m definitely not the first to see some analogies between Germany in the 1930s and the United States today. On the local front, I found some parts of the history of Leipzig from the 19th to the 21st century in Leipzig’s Old Town Hall particularly unsettling as I think now about political and cultural dynamics in several communities that I once thought of as home.

In all of this, one point jumped out at me: the interrelationships between individuals and the larger community. How individual actions were often crucial – and there were definitely some individuals who shouted for justice – but how at times community forces were so strong that many individuals simply couldn’t find the courage to go against decisions that they wouldn’t have made on their own.

One of my reading projects early in retirement – in the middle of Trump’s presidency – was working my way through several books by Hannah Arendt. I had read bits and pieces of her work over the years, and had long thought I should read her more deeply and thoroughly. I was buried in her writing for several months, reading The Life of the Mind, The Human Condition, and several essays in Thinking without a Banister. During that time, I happened to be having dinner with some of my wife’s colleagues, one of whom had recently finished a PhD focusing in part on Arendt’s work. I talked with her about my interest in Arendt, and mentioned that I’d likely be picking up The Origins of Totalitarianism in the next couple of months. I was surprised by her response. “No,” she said, “I think you shouldn’t be reading that now.” I asked her to explain why. I don’t remember exactly what she said, except that she seemed reluctant to address the question directly. I didn’t press for a clear response – I didn’t know her at all, and she seemed a bit uncomfortable – but my impression was that she thought I would find it too depressing to read, given the current political climate.

I can’t say that that conversation was the primary reason that I’ve avoided reading the book since then, but I’ve not read it. It’s not so much that I decided not to read it as that each time I was ready to move into a new book Arendt’s book was not the one I chose.

Throughout my time in Germany, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism stayed on my mind. Despite my dinner companion’s hesitation, and because Arendt’s name comes up in so many discussions of the current political scene, I thought returning to Arendt might help me to understand a larger context for much of what I was learning. And, in fact, I was hopeful (and perhaps naive) enough to think that she might help me to see that circumstances and trends in the early 20th century were so different from what’s going on today that we – that I – don’t need to fear the worst. While riding my bicycle earlier this week – how many decisions and insights come to me while riding! – I finally decided that I need to read The Origins of Totalitarianism. This morning, I took the book off the shelves and settled down to read.

The first paragraphs of the preface to the first edition, written in Summer 1950, were startling:

Two World Wars in one generation, separated by a chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.

Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that anything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.

On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilizations is at the breaking point. Although it may seem better preserved in some parts of the world than in others, it can nowhere provide the guidance to the possibilities of the century, or an adequate response to its horrors. Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the center of such events than balanced judgment and measured insight. The central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, than by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism.

I would quibble with some details, perhaps most especially the implication that one might reasonably hope for a restored world order with its traditions – again, like many others, I would say that whatever order existed structured a world in which many people suffered at the hands of others. But the general tone of Arendt’s writing captures well the uneasiness I feel about where we are and where we’re going.

However, it’s important to remember that Arendt wrote these words in 1950. She’s describing there a world that emerged from events in the 1930s and 1940s, not the earlier times. Almost seventy-five years after she wrote that preface, I find myself thinking that we still depend on “political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest” – though I would hasten to add that I have in mind long-term self-interest, and not the narcissistic focus on short-term interests much more common. (As an aside, I have to say that I’m somewhat amused to remember thinking in the early 1970s that we couldn’t possibly have a president worse than Richard Nixon.)

I wonder, though – how do I avoid the choice between believing in an unavoidable doom, on one hand, and giving into reckless optimism, on the other? How do I – one small person – engage in a way that offers some realistic hope of pushing and pulling us into a better future?

I don’t have an answer. But I see that as a central challenge that we have to face. So, I’m going to read Arendt. Perhaps she’ll help me to understand. At the same time, though, I’m responding to the call from another book, from another woman whose work I’ve grown to appreciate: Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. From her foreword to the third edition, written in 2015:

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, one that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïvete,” The Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked. And Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to “Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformations, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams.” It’s a statement that acknowledges that grief and hope can coexist. … Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.

Funny – when I decided to include the bit from Solnit, I didn’t see the startling contrast between my “one small person” and Cullors’s insistence on the collective. Once again, here’s that relationship between individuals and community. I think there’s a lesson for me there. Something for me to keep in mind as I read and reflect on the writings of these two insightful women.