1 June 2019: Hannah Arendt's Between Past and Future

A week out from the last reading of tour with my dear friend Zach Ozma and I am happily buried in books in my bed. While on tour I was toting around my copy of How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell, which a bookseller at Amherst Books had enthusiastically recommended to me before I left. This post isn’t about How to Do Nothing, but it pushes off from it, in that I am currently reading Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future, which had been sitting dormant on my shelf, because Odell mentioned Arendt[1], who showed up again (via Svetlana Boym’s essay on friendship) in a piece of a friend’s dissertation chapter. It might be mysticism or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but repeated mentions of a name or a text over a short period of time set off a little alarm bell in my mind.

I just finished the preface and the first essay. The cover of my penguin edition features an illustration of “Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways,” facing in two directions. I’ve read the preface, titled, “The Gap Between Past and Future” and the first chapter, “Tradition and the Modern Age.”

The cover of Hannah Arendt’s  Between Past and Future  and a sliver of thumb.

The cover of Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future and a sliver of thumb.


In the preface, Arendt invokes a line by René Char (“Notre heritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament—'our inheritance was left to us by no testament’”) and the résistance, as a way into talking about what it means to engage in politics, and a parable of Kafka’s so as to talk about what it means to exist in time. Through Char, Arendt writes about the idea of a nameless treasure, gained and lost by participants in the résistance. This phrasing, nameless treasure, forged collaboratively in Arendt’s encounter with Char, delights me! And the feeling is one I recognize through my own experiences, however partial, of Occupy Oakland.

I also associate Arendt with an old friend who I know from one of those houses with names on the music/poetry circuit in which I used to live and co-host a reading series in Oakland. She was adjacent to the poetry scene that I was in and was and is incredibly smart. She was more invested in political philosophy than poetry, but my sense of poetry is that it is philosophy-adjacent or vice versa, with occasional collapse between the categories (such as for example Wittgenstein, on the philosophy side, or Rosmarie Waldrop on the poetry side). Across this collapsible generic divide and, at the time across the hall, we had amazing conversations. I ended up in her Being and Time reading group. Rightly or wrongly, I intuitively associate Arendt with her and reading Arendt makes me feel close to my old friend, just as reading Arendt also reminds me of the Occupy era, the conditions under which this person and I became friends.

Arendt is actually a pretty incredible stylist. I’m coming in straining to understand her on her own terms as a political philosopher, but the construction of her sentences really is exquisite. Here’s an example from the chapter I’m currently reading (she’s using a stanza by Rilke to illustrate a concept): “Here even the mountains only seem to rest under the light of the stars; they are slowly, secretly devoured by time; nothing is forever, immortality has fled the world to find an uncertain abode in the darkness of the human heart that still has the capacity to remember and to say: forever” (Arendt 44). Yowza! She is one of those writers who seems to be in possession of the seven-league boots from the fairy tale, able to leap to and fro across the history of western metaphysics in a few short steps—both on the level of the sentence and the level of the essay.

In the first essay, “Tradition and the Modern Age,” Arendt takes up the question of tradition through an understanding of different conceptions of leisure, building to a question that raged into my youth in poetry (and I’m sure rages still): what is the relationship between contemplation and action?

She takes a Keywords method of approach, reinvigorating old words for old concepts, which have become tattered and worn and faded almost beyond recognition. What the hell does tradition mean? Not a lot more, even in the 1950s. In order to define it, Arendt brings in three modern thinkers who attempt to challenge tradition, Nietzsche, Marx, and Kierkegaard, who were themselves writing in the tradition of Hegel. From Arendt’s perspective, these thinkers all attempted a kind of inversion of traditional metaphysical principles so as to get someplace truly new, and in doing so, all succeeded in carrying a kernel of negation into their respective branches of tradition (e.g. Kierkegaard brought doubt deep into religious faith, etc.).

Though I am now officially not one anymore, this is an essay I would strongly recommend to grad students. If, like me, you have wondered why we have to talk about Hegel so damn much (which is another way of saying that I struggle to read his writing and understand why it was so significant to Marx), then you will probably find this work as useful as I am finding it. Arendt’s assumption that you have read the western philosophical canon from soup to nuts, evidenced in part by her casual smattering of ancient Greek—untranslated—into her work, causes her to leap from concept to concept, without laboriously showing all of her work in the way that renders so much contemporary academic writing ponderously dense. And I, one of her contemporary readers, trust her to, in part because the rules of writing are different across time as across the contemporary literary landscape—both the vertical temporal axis and the horizontal contemporary axis are made uneven by status.

I think I’m going to stop here for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Arendt as I work my way through this book. I’ve thrown up a few room dividers between what I’m reading, since I’m reading Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun for work, and re-reading Laura Moriarty’s Personal Volcano for a review I’m writing and I plucked a bunch of notebook books[2] from my shelves to help me think about writing a book proposal for publishing selections from my own notebook practice. Room dividers are flimsier than walls and moveable and not really soundproof, so perhaps my next post will be about how all of these texts sound together.

[1] I couldn’t remember what Odell was using Arendt for, so I looked up Arendt in the index of How to Do Nothing. The first instance is when Odell is talking about Peter Thiel’s tech libertarianism and BF Skinner’s Walden Two, which she opposes to Arendt’s The Human Condition, “…in which she diagnoses the age-old temptation to substitute design for the political process” (49). She goes on: “As Arendt observes, part of what these escapes from politics are specifically avoiding is the ‘unpredicatibility’ of ‘a plurality of agents.’” (52). The second instance is in Odell’s chapter “Restoring the Grounds for Thought” when she brings Arendt’s concept of “the space of appearance,” also from The Human Condition, into her discussion of context-collapse: “For Arendt, the space of appearance was the seed of democracy, and it was defined by any collection of people who speak and act meaningfully together. Although it is fragile, the space of appearance can arise anytime these conditions are met and they have to do with proximity and scale. ‘The only indispensable factor in the generation of power is the living together of people,’ Arendt writes, ‘Only where men live so close together that the potentialities for action are always present can power remain with them.’” (176).

[2] Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, translated by Peter Bush, Renee Gladman’s Calamities, two of Bernadette Mayer’s books, Nathanaël’s The Middle Notebookes, Danielle Collobert’s Notebooks: 1956-1978, translated by Norma Cole, Ayane Kawata’s Time of Sky & Castles in the Air, translated by Sawako Nakayasu, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, and Anaïs Nin’s Diary (1939-1945, because of the Char reference in Arendt—see! The flimsiness of the room divider!).

Zoe Tuck