Hannah Arendt's 1964 TV interview: a partial translation into English
In 1964, Hannah Arendt engaged in a one-hour interview with Günther Gauss who was a bit akin to Charlie Rose in the US. The interview was broadcast on German public television and contains some true gems. I have not been able to find an English translation which is why I’m providing my own translation of parts of the interview below. A version of the video with English subtitles exists but these subtitles are often imprecise and sometimes right out wrong. I hope that some of you out there will enjoy her comments.
Here is the video (with useful but flawed English subtitles):
Here is my translation (subheadings added for clarity):
Thinking vs impact: shared understanding as a source of identity and sense of belonging
ARENDT: What is central to me is the process of thinking itself. When I have that, then I am personally quite content. When I then succeed in expressing it adequately in my writing I am also content again. Now you’re asking about impact. It is - if I may say so ironically - a male question. Men always eagerly want to have impact; but I view this in a way from outside, so to speak. Shall I strive for impact? No, I want to understand. And when other people understand, in the same sense as I have understood - then it gives me a satisfaction, a sense of belonging (Heimat).
“An alienation among people”
ARENDT: The need to understand, that was there from very early on. You see, the books were all there at home, one could just pull them out of the library.
GAUSS: Did you have, besides Kant, reading experiences which you can particularly recollect?
ARENDT: Yes. First, Jaspers “Philosophy of Weltanschauung”, published, I think, in 1920. I was fourteen then. After that I read Kierkegaard and so those got coupled.
GAUSS: Is that where theology came in?
ARENDT: Yes. This got coupled then, such that these two belonged together for me. I only had qualms how one goes about this when one is a Jew. And how this works out. I simply had no idea, you know. So I had grave worries which then resolved themselves without much ado. Greek is another matter. I always loved Greek poetry. And poetry has played a big role in my life. So I took Greek as well because it was the most convenient. I read that anyway.
ARENDT: No, that is exaggerated.
GAUSS: Your intellectual gift, Ms. Arendt, so early practiced - did you occasionally get separated through it, as a pupil or as a young student, in maybe painful ways from the normal behavior of your environment?
ARENDT: It should have been this way, had I known about it. I was of the opinion, everyone is like that.
GAUSS: When did you become aware of this misconception?
ARENDT: Relatively late. I don’t want to say it. I am ashamed. I was indescribably naive. Partly this was because of my domestic upbringing. One never talked about it. One never talked about grades. This was considered inferior. All ambition was considered inferior, at home. In any case, I was not really conscious of the issue. It maybe sometimes became conscious to me as a kind of alienation (Fremdheit) among people.
GAUSS: A strangeness that you think emanates from you?
ARENDT: Yes, exclusively. But that has nothing to do with gifts. I never associated that with gifts.
GAUSS: Did this occasionally result in contempt for the others in your youth?
ARENDT: Yes, that happened. That existed very early already. And from such contempt I sometimes suffered. Because: that one actually shouldn’t do that, and that one actually not ought to and so on…
“What remains is the language”
GAUSS: You live in New York. Your husband whom you married in 1940 also works as a philosophy professor in America. Now the academic community that you now belong to again - after the disappointment of the year 1933 - is international. Nevertheless, I would like to ask you whether you miss the Europe before Hitler that will never exist again. When you come to Europe: based on your impression, what remained, and what is unsavably lost?
ARENDT: The Europe before Hitler? I have no longing - that I cannot say. What remains? What remains is the language.
GAUSS: And what does that mean to you?
ARENDT: Very much. I always consciously rejected losing the mother tongue. I always kept a certain distance both to the French which I spoke very well at the time, and to the English which I write in today.
GAUSS: That I wanted to ask you: you write in English today?
ARENDT: I write in English but I never lost the distance. There is an enormous difference between the mother tongue and another language. In my case I can put it terribly simply: in German I know a rather large part of German poems by heart. They always somehow move in the back of my mind; that of course can never be achieved again. In German, I allow myself things that I would not allow myself in English. Well, sometimes I allow myself now in English too because I’ve become cheeky but in general I have retained this distance. In any case, the German language is the essential thing that has remained, and that I have also always consciously retained.
GAUSS: Even in the most bitter of times?
ARENDT: Always. I always thought, what can one do? It wasn’t the German language after all that had become crazy. And secondly: there is no replacement for the mother tongue. One can forget the mother tongue. That is true. I have seen it. These people speak the foreign language better than I. I still speak with a very strong accent and I often don’t speak idiomatically. Those people can do it. But it will be a language in which one cliché is chased by another because the productivity that one has in one’s own language gets cut off when one forgets that language.
GAUSS: And so the Jewish people was an apolitical one?
ARENDT: I wouldn’t fully say it that way because the communities were of course also political to a certain degree. The Jewish religion is a national religion. But the notion of the political still only applied with very large limitations. This world loss (Weltverlust) that the Jewish people in its dispersion suffered and that, like with all pariah peoples, created a very peculiar warmth among those who belonged to it. This changed when the state of Israel was founded.
GAUSS: Did something get lost whose loss you lament?
ARENDT: Yes, one pays dearly for freedom. The specifically Jewish humanity in view of the world loss (Weltverlust) was something very beautiful after all. You are too young, you will not have known this anymore. It was something very beautiful: this “standing-outside-of-all-societal-relations”, this complete absence of prejudice which I have experienced very strongly especially with my mother who practiced this toward Jewish society as well. All of that has of course suffered great damage. One pays for the liberation. I once said in my Lessing Speech…
GAUSS: In Hamburg in 1959…
ARENDT: Yes, that’s where I said: “This form of humanity will not survive the day of liberation for more than 5 minutes”. See, this also happened to us.
GAUSS: You don’t want to turn it back?
ARENDT: No. I know that one has to pay a price for freedom; but I cannot say that I enjoy paying it.
“All thinking is contemplation”
GAUSS: In one of your most important works, the Vita Activa or the “Active Life” you reach the conclusion, Ms. Arendt, that modernity has dethroned the sense of community i.e. the sense for the primacy of the political. You declare as the modern societal phenomena the mass human’s (Massenmensch) uprooting (Entwurzelung) and abandonment and the triumph of a type of human who finds her pleasure in the mere work and consumption process. I have two question in this regard. First: To which extent is such a philosophical insight of this degree dependent on personal experiences that initiate the thinking process in the first place?
ARENDT: I do not think that any process of thinking exists that would be possible without personal experience. All thinking (Denken) is contemplation (Nachdenken), thinking the thing, no? I live in a modern world and of course I have my experiences in the modern world. Besides, this has been recognized by many others as well. See, the thing with only working and consuming, it is so important because in that an absence of world (Weltlosigkeit) manifests itself again. One does no longer care how the world looks.
GAUSS: World always understood as space in which politics arises?
ARENDT: Now cast much wider still than the space in which things become public: as the space in which one lives and which has to look decent. In which, of course, also art appears. In which everything appears possible. You recollect, Kennedy has tried to extent the space of the public in very decisive ways by calling the poems and other scapegraces into the White House. So this all could still belong into this space. In working and consuming, however, the human is really completely thrown back onto himself.
GAUSS: Onto the biological.
ARENDT: Onto the biological and onto himself. And that’s where you have the connection with the abandonment. In the work process, a peculiar abandonment arises. I cannot here in this moment go into it more deeply, that would reach too far. And this abandonment is this becoming-thrown-back onto oneself (auf sich selbst Zurückgeworfenwerden), in which in a sense the consuming substitutes all actually relevant activities.
The venture and contingency of engaging the public
GAUSS: Allow me a last question. In a commemorative speech to Jaspers you said: “humanity is never won in solitude and never through giving one’s opus to the public. Only who takes one’s life and one’s person along into the venture of the public, can achieve it.” This venture of the public, a quote from Jaspers respectively, what does it consist of for Hannah Arendt?
ARENDT: The venture (Wagnis) of the public seems clear to me. One exposes oneself in the light of the public, and that as a person. Even though I am of the opinion that one ought not to appear and act in public being reflected onto oneself, I still know that in every acting the person gets expressed in a way as in no other activity. Whereas speaking is also a form of acting. So that is the one. The second venture is: we take something on; we cast our thread into a web of relationships. What comes of it, we never know. We all depend on saying: “Father, forgive them for what they’re doing, because they do not know what they’re doing”. That applies to all actions. Simply, very concretely, because one cannot know it. This is a venture. And now I would say that this venture is only possible through trust in humans. I.e. in a difficult to grasp but fundamental trust in the humanity of all humans. Otherwise one could not do it.