Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness

Robert Eaglestone finds little narrative fire in a gossipy account of a life-shaping relationship

August 5, 2010

I am not planning to read any of the Cheryl Cole biographies. While they may teach me about media politics, or about the human condition, or give me an insight into her hit Fight for this Love, I'm just not that into celebrity gossip (don't panic! It's OK! I'm allowed not to be - I'm an academic).

I am, however, very interested in Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Or rather, to clarify the typical academic shorthand, I am interested in the philosophy of Heidegger, in the thought of Arendt. To study Shakespeare means to be interested in his plays and poems, not him: what we learn about Darwin - about his interest in dogs and dog breeding, for example - is key to explaining the genesis and methodology of On the Origin of Species.

This is not to say that someone's life has nothing to do with his or her work, but that these links are complex, often obscure, and need to be treated with care to avoid simply becoming post facto justifications or, worse, just gossip. This is, sadly, where Daniel Maier-Katkin's Stranger from Abroad fails, despite its best efforts and intentions: it is a book of academic celebrity gossip.

In 1925, when Arendt was a student, she and her professor, Heidegger, began a love affair. This is now almost mythologised and is the subject of books, plays and a novel. It could easily be turned into a Hollywood movie ("Decadent Germany - before the storm! She was the brilliant Jewish student! He was the famous professor, soon to join the Nazis! Their passion was forbidden! And destructive!").

This affair is often used to attack Arendt, who is still an astonishingly controversial figure, as if she remained somehow for ever in hock to Heidegger. In this more sympathetic book, the affair is taken to be the fulcrum of Arendt's whole life. However, it seems to me that the issue of importance here is not this "celebrity gossip" ("'This Girl Must Go!' says Elfride Heidegger") but the intellectual impact of Heidegger's work on her own.

His contemporary reputation was as the "hidden king of thinking". The British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, no friend of European philosophy, reviewed Heidegger's major work Being and Time and suggested that he "shows himself to be a thinker of real importance by the immense subtlety and searchingness of his examination of consciousness, by the boldness and originality of his methods and conclusions and by the unflagging energies with which he tries to think behind the stock categories of orthodox philosophy and psychology".

The exposure of Arendt to the "boldness and originality" of Heidegger's thought was clearly central to her own intellectual work, as it was to so many others (to Jean-Paul Sartre, to Emmanuel Levinas, to Paul Celan, to generations of thinkers and writers). This is not to say that she (and others) were simply apostles of his: quite the contrary, certainly in her case. But this thinking formed the base camp from which she set out.

Moreover, this "gossipy" issue masks another, much more serious matter: that of Heidegger's Nazism and Arendt's relation to this. Heidegger's infamous address as rector of Freiburg University is a Nazi document and his denazification, in which Arendt played a part, is suspect. But what is not clear - and is still a matter of considerable dispute - is what this means for his philosophy. Is Being and Time a Nazi work? There is no simple answer.

Both these matters take the book to the edge of an interesting and currently "hot" area: forgiveness. Maier-Katkin makes it clear that Arendt's developing and unfulfilled thought on this clearly has much to teach us. Yet while he obviously has much of importance to say here, there is not enough of it. Moreover, as biography, the book almost elides the complexity of forgiveness: forgiving someone for treating you badly in love and forgiving someone for being a Nazi are clearly not the same thing.

It's hard to see quite where this book fits. For the specialist, there are simply better biographies of Arendt available, and better books on Heidegger, which draw (unlike this one) on new sources. For the general reader, Heidegger and Arendt are quite recondite subjects, and the pedestrian style of the book, filled with cliche, means that the slow plod through Arendt's life, with occasional summaries of her meetings with Heidegger, never catches narrative fire. No sense of the intensity of these meetings comes off the page, no sense of precisely why it may have been that their affair was life-shaping. The short summaries of their thought - bravely attempted - are not that revealing for the general or specialist reader.

I learned little from this book, apart from gossip, and you know what your grandma said about gossip.

Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness

By Daniel Maier-Katkin

W.W. Norton, 304pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780393068337

Published 4 May 2010

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