Friday, August 13, 2010

When Hannah met Martin

I earlier mentioned my fascination with Stranger From Abroad, in which Daniel Maier-Katkin tells the story of the long love (not a love affair, though it began that way) between the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Jewish "public intellectual" Hannah Arendt, most famous for her study of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I've finished the book now, and I'm still enchanted. What a great read! It might help if you were a sometime philosophy student, as I was in the 1960s, though to tell the truth I don't remember much of what was fed into me at the time. Perhaps what I needed was Professor Maier-Katkin at the lectern.

In Hannah's typewriter, on the last day of her life, was a sheet of paper from the book she was writing, with a quote from the Roman statesman Cato: "The gods love those who are victorious, but Cato loves the vanquished." From that, Maier-Katkin spins this splendid riff: "The gods bestow immortality on the victorious who get to write history and celebratory poems, but Cato, recognizing that the vanquished may have been every bit as brave and heroic as those who defeated them, and that their cause may have been as good or better, loves them, because he is human and his heart goes out to them in response to all they have lost."

It was the same, he suggests, with Hannah. While Martin Heidegger tacked with the times, joining the Nazis when they were on the rise, and repudiating them when they were defeated, his onetime student and lover kept to the true course throughout her life. It helped, of course, that she was Jewish: had she stayed in Germany, she would have been killed. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford



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