As Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher waited in Montauban, France in the summer of 1940 to receive emergency exit papers they did not give into anxiety or despair. They found bicycles and explored the beautiful French countryside during the day and delighted in the detective novels of Georges Simenon at night. In the words of Helen Wolff: ‘Hannah, in her high-spirited way, made of this anguishing experience a kind of gift of time.’ It was ‘a hiatus within a life of work and duties’.
Which is not how one might be inclined to act when their life is in peril. What enabled Arendt to make a gift of time during such an anguishing experience?
It wasn’t hope.
Arendt was never given to hopeful thinking. As early as 1929, she saw what was happening in Germany, and lost friendships because of it. She despised what she called ‘opportunistic politics’, which ‘leaves behind it a chaos of contradictory interests and apparently hopeless conflicts’. And she turned away from any notion of messianism that might offer redemption in the future. After the war, in a letter to the American philosopher Glenn Gray, she wrote that the only book she recommends to all her students is Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Written by the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, the devastating memoir details life under Stalin’s regime and the struggle to stay alive. (In Russian, nadezhda means hope.) Arendt called it ‘one of the real documents’ of the 20th century.
Many discussions of hope veer toward the saccharine, and speak to a desire for catharsis. Even the most jaded observers of world affairs can find it difficult not to catch their breath at the moment of suspense, hoping for good to triumph over evil and deliver a happy ending. For some, discussions of hope are attached to notions of a radical political vision for the future, while for others hope is a political slogan used to motivate the masses. Some people uphold hope as a form of liberal faith in progress, while for others still hope expresses faith in God and life after death.
Arendt breaks with these narratives. Throughout much of her work, she argues that hope is a dangerous barrier to acting courageously in dark times. She rejects notions of progress, she is despairing of representative democracy, and she is not confident that freedom can be saved in the modern world. [Continue reading…]