Sunday, January 18, 2009

Arendt and Specificity

The New Yorker, January 12, 2009

from Adam Kirsch's article on Hannah Arendt, "Beware of Pity":

When she came to write about Rahel's [Rahel Varnhagen's] life, then, Arendt brought to it a passion and a personal commitment born of her own experience. No one could have believed more seriously than Rahel in the cultivation of the spirit. Yet to Arendt she appears as merely the victim of a terrible illusion--"the hapless human being, the shlemihl, who has anticipated nothing." The lesson that Arendt drew was that a beautiful soul is not enough, for "it was precisely the soul for which life showed no consideration." To live fully and securely, every human being needs what Arendt calls "specificity," the social and political status that comes with full membership in a community.

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As she wrote in 1941, "One truth that is unfamiliar to the Jewish people, though they are beginning to learn it, is that you can only defend yourself as the person you are attacked as. A person attacked as a Jew cannot defend himself as an Englishman or Frenchman. The world would only conclude that he is simply not defending himself."


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