Stranger From Abroad, by Daniel Maier-Katkin
I’ve been made to read both Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger for many a college course, but it’s only recently that I learned the two philosophers had been both lovers and long term friends. Since Arendt was a German Jew who went into exile in the ’30s and is best known for her work on The Origins of Totalitarianism and her report on the Eichmann trial, which inspired her now famous theory of the banality of evil, and Heidegger was an influential existential philosopher and intellectual who joined the Nazi party and lent a semblance of legitimacy to their endeavor, my mind was pretty much blown by this new information.
Though reading Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness did not quite satiate my desire to understand how such a relationship could work on a personal level*, Daniel Maier-Katkin did a great job of exploring the intellectual relationship between the two, and the manifold ways in which the work of each influenced that of the other. Well, actually, after reading Stranger From Abroad, it seems that Arendt was much more influenced by Heidegger than he was by her, though she was regularly involved in his philosophical projects.
Their relationship began when Hannah Arendt was a student in Martin Heidegger’s class, where she was inspired by his way of thinking about thinking. To Arendt, throughout the subsequent affairs, relationships, and marriages to others, and the fall-outs and reconciliations that would span the rest of their lives, Heidegger became emblematic of what had happened to the Germany and the Germans she had known, and of the frightening capabilities inside the most civil and ordinary of people that totalitarianism is capable of utilizing.
Though Daniel Maier-Katkin does a nice job of weaving the philosophies of Arendt and Heidegger into the general narrative of the book, he does not always dig deep enough into the ways in which these philosophies might have influenced their actions. It was always the places I craved specificity that were notably vague. Arendt was focused on the possibility of new beginnings and love: how might that have affected her early relationship with Heidegger? Heidegger saw death as the absolute point in time which implied the essence and value of human life: when Maier-Katkin writes that Heideggers’ method of existentialism “made contact” with Nazism, what is the exact point of contact, and what exactly does that contact imply? The only time I felt close to satisfied with his explanations of the overlap between Arendt’s and Heidegger’s philosophies and their actions is toward the end of the book, when he points to Arendt’s thinking that reconciliation “must be a possibility in a world in which action is capable of producing new beginnings” (p. 231), that forgiveness is the only unexpected action which breaks a chain of social immobility, and that lasting friendship is “the foundation of all humanity” (p. 348) in explaining the ways in which Arendt’s thinking might explain her ability and willingness to reconcile with Heidegger.
I was also annoyed, mostly in the first hundred pages or so, with needless repetition on Maier-Katkin’s part, as well as some clumsy sentence structure and more vagueness. He says a few times that Arendt was constantly thinking both with and against Heidegger, for example, without ever really explaining what that means in any practical manner. But as the subject matter turned from early romance to the emerging nature of 20th century totalitarian regimes and the introduction and controversial reception of some of that century’s most influential philosophical and political theory, I was more willing to forgive him and immerse myself in contemplating a fantastically confusing, intriguing, and productive relationship between two strong people with stronger minds.
*Honestly, I just don’t see what Hannah Arendt saw in Martin Heidegger. I can’t understand how the intellectual challenge he posed to her could make up for all the lying, arrogance, stubborness…and, uh, Nazi-ness. That all those things could make him subject to her theoretical and philosophical work, I can see, but that she would really want him as a close, personal friend through it all? Must take a lot of…something, on her part, that I don’t think I have. Is it a form of rare trandscendental power, or misguided sentimentality? In many circles, the debate continues.