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Hannah Arendt & the Complexities of Loving
Jack Pemment considers the strange attraction between two deep minds.
The difficulty in explaining one’s love for another person in the ‘in love’ sense is rivaled only by trying to write about it. I think there is a strange infinity to such love, involving endlessly falling, a complete surrender of the self, where even language seems to become superfluous, giving the poets an uphill struggle to produce something credible. But who needs language when you have the complete understanding and empathy of another? Yet these moments of ‘infinity’ are anything but infinite. And when love goes, it happens quick, it happens hard, and it seems to abscond with a large part of ourselves. Loving others, loving oneself, even loving symbols and ideology, are enough to keep people tingling with purpose and buzzing with meaning. So we can see that, whatever love is, it has to be the strongest motivator, the most authoritative enabler, and the commonest of common denominators for all human behavior. With love, we would die to protect it. Without love, we would die to find it. Love is riddled with these paradoxes.
Hannah Arendt (1906-75) by Gail Campbell, 2023
I’ve deliberately framed love in this way because I think this recognition of its paradoxical nature is integral to understanding relationships that are often perplexing to those on the outside. We have all come across couples that have left us wondering how they could possibly still be together. What is the elusive factor that makes these people put up with each other, even as they seem to delight in tearing each other apart?
Recently I came across the paradox of love in the relationship between Hannah Arendt (1906-75) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Both Arendt and Heidegger were among the most prominent minds of the Twentieth Century. The political philosopher Arendt is perhaps best known for her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, and for her analysis of totalitarianism, and Heidegger was a phenomenologist whose groundbreaking work reflected on the human sense of being.
Their relationship was problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Arendt was Jewish, and Heidegger, a few years after his romantic entanglement with her, joined the Nazi Party. Secondly, Heidegger was a married man with young children. In addition, Heidegger was seventeen years Arendt’s senior. He was her professor when she was an undergraduate at the University of Marburg.
There is no doubt that through his teaching, the charismatic Heidegger inspired Arendt in the most profound way, and at a crucial time in her philosophical development. She called him “the hidden king [who] reigned in the realm of thinking.”
That kind of powerful intellectual influence is scant in all our lives. When we encounter it, especially while young, perhaps the temptation to fall in love is strong. Such a celebration of cerebration is a wondrous moment of intellectual freedom, and a landmark in our cognitive development. It makes me wonder if the sheer ecstasy of intellectual liberation can itself open one up to giving oneself to the liberator. I’m pretty sure that it was for these reasons that the young Arendt was not shy about becoming involved with her married professor; and Heidegger no doubt basked in the adoration of his brilliant and beautiful student.
After the affair, Arendt married Günther Stern in 1929. After the Nazis came to power in 1933 her world crashed around her. Antisemitism and political repression led to her arrest by the Gestapo, and then she fled with her mother to Paris, where she was safe for a few years. She divorced Stern in 1937 and met Heinrich Blücher, who became her second husband. After Germany invaded France, the couple were eventually rounded up and put in separate camps. Fortunately, they were able to escape, flee to Portugal together, and book passage to New York, where they would live for the rest of their lives.
Despite all this, Arendt remained in contact with Heidegger. Although she was dismayed when he joined the Nazi Party, and heard stories that he was starting to treat his Jewish colleagues such as Husserl with disdain, she would still find ways to defend him. After World War II, Heidegger struggled to maintain his academic standing because his reputation had been wrecked by his involvement with the Nazis. But Arendt continued to fight for him, and used her own academic reputation to help restore his credibility.
Arendt and Heidegger continued to need each other for the duration of their lives. Heinrich and Elfride, their respective spouses, even seemed to accepted this as necessary for their wellbeing. This would make many spouses in otherwise monogamous relationships feel queasy, but Heinrich and Elfride apparently loved their partners so much that they could come to terms with it out of respect.
All this raises the question, is there something different about leading an intellectual life that requires a different understanding of love? The needs of an intellectual do seem unique. Intellectuals often experience loneliness and isolation, and perhaps meet few people in their lives who are fully able to ‘get’ them. A rare occurrence of the melding of minds does therefore come with a degree of euphoria, and both parties are likely to fight to remain within talking distance. Arendt and Heidegger were intimate with each other’s thought processes and schemas for framing the world. In addition, there’s something enduring about intellectual intimacy compared to, for example, short term physical desire. If you both occupy a corner of the conceptual universe that nobody else is capable of entering, there seems to be an almost infinite, boundless, and exhilarating journey awaiting you both that will outlive the cartilage in your joints. If this journey also began within a crucible of shared feelings and desires, the need for each other will remain cemented in the soul, in spite of where life takes you. So I maintain that the love life of the intellectual is the most complicated love of all.
© Jack Pemment 2023
Jack Pemment is a science writer and author, and can be found on Substack.