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Eugene McCarraher

The Incoherence of Hannah Arendt

Breaking the marriage between heaven and earth.

On a sunny March morning in 1962, a taxi bearing Hannah Arendt collided with a truck as it sped across Central Park. Awakening in the ambulance, Arendt moved her limbs, rolled her eyes, and tested her memory by recalling decades, stanzas of poetry, and telephone numbers. As she later described the episode to her close friend Mary McCarthy, "for a fleeting moment I had the feeling that it was up to me whether I wanted to live or die." While she "did not think that death was terrible," she also thought that "life was quite beautiful and that I rather like it."

Today, Arendt's brush with the Reaper might become another saccharine epiphany, denatured and packaged for the burgeoning market in "uplift" and "inspiration." Arendt herself would surely recoil from much of our "life-affirming" drivel. If it isn't advertising—"smell the roses" in our flower shop, "appreciate the little things" with help from our investment firm—it's an unwitting invitation to forget the larger concerns of politics, philosophy, and religion. Having spent her life pondering the carnage and futility of the 20th, most murderous of centuries, and having escaped calamities far worse than an auto wreck, Arendt might well admonish us that beauty is always bound up with the broader forces of history, whose evasion and neglect will inevitably rob the world of its deepest charms.

This rich and intelligent "love of the world," as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl characterizes Arendt's intellectual career, could hardly be more urgently needed or imperiled than it is in this very year, her centenary. It's a perverse and benighted time when worldliness is the stock-in-trade of bilious bon vivants like Christopher Hitchens. The last exponent of Arendt's kind of worldliness was Edward W. Said, who embodied, for many of us, that civilized and cosmopolitan humanism so often caricatured as haughtiness or sophistry. Both Said and Arendt enunciated stubborn and inconvenient truths, and detested the culture of euphemism ...

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