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Joanne Cutting-Gray HANNAH ARENDT'S RAHEL VARNHAGEN Hannah Arendt fled Nazi Germany in 1933, a year she called the end of Jewish history. She was 27 years old at the time and carried with her a manuscript that was later to become the peculiar biography of an eighteenth-century German-Jewish "pariah," Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833). The Life of a fewish Woman, subtitle of the biography by Arendt, distills the largely unpublished Varnhagen correspondence and marks the impact of that life upon German-Jewish history.1 Published more than "half a lifetime" later in 1957, it assays the politics of form in a highly unusual manner. By expunging all detail in order to analyze Varnhagen's introspection, Arendt implicitly questions selfhood as the form for identity and as the appropriate form for biography. She reveals that seeking to preserve the self determines the blank dumbness of an unnarratable life. Rahel Levin (Antonie Friederike Robert) Varnhagen, or simply "Rahel " as Arendt calls her, lived a life as complicated as her many names. The tortured relation she had to her identity, her insatiable preoccupation with self, reflects an effort to eradicate herJewishness by baptism and marriage and becomes a paradigm of a story about a woman lost to a sense of others and herself. Neither rich, cultivated, nor beautiful, Rahel lived her unhappiness fervently, with an ecstasy that made her appear to others as startlingly original. This helps to explain how she came to preside over the most important intellectual salon in Germany during the late eighteenth century. Princes, intellectuals, and artists flocked to her attic apartment, attracted by the impenetrable spectacle of her despair. Rahel's intensity pulled others into her orbit—including, one-hundred years later, the intense and self-absorbed Arendt at the beginning Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 229-245 230Philosophy and Literature of her university education.2 Each woman suffered the private failure of a love affair complicated by the broader, historical issue of racial identity that connected their lives. Prewar Nazi Germany taught Arendt what Varnhagen learned during the period of German-Jewish assimilation in the nineteenth century—"one does not escape Jewishness."3 It is no wonder that, in analogous moments of personal and civic upheaval , Rahel Varnhagen and Hannah Arendt "corresponded," the one by writing letters about her life, the other by giving that life to a world. Like Arendt, Varnhagen was unclassifiably exotic, an unattached, Jewish female seemingly without a history, aligned with no one and nothing. If"Jewishness" meant letting life "rain upon" her, Rahel Varnhagen let it strike her "like a storm without an umbrella." And like Arendt, she refused to hide the traits and talents of her personality under cover of morality and convention. Her letters are not self-congratulatory , for she never wittingly chose notoriety. Indeed, she spent much of her life trying to escape the stigma ofJewishness that marked her destiny. Notwithstanding the milieu of nineteenth-century German romanticism that drew the biographer toward her subject, various events surrounding the text make more compelling narratives than Varnhagen 's life: how the manuscript survived World War II, Arendt's emigration to the United States, and, especially, the public and private influence of Martin Heidegger.4 At the age of 18 (1925), Arendt had discovered Varnhagen during her brief love-affair with the 35-year-old philosophy professor at the University of Marburg. Though Heidegger would later call Arendt the "passion of his life" and inspiration for his work—he was writing Being and Time during that period—his brush with Nazism precipitated their breach. Since the Heidegger-Arendt correspondence remains closed, much about their youthful relationship and life-long intellectual affair remains a mystery open only to speculation . From Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, we know that Varnhagen's story became a consolation to her in her sorrow, a means ofgiving significance to the ambiguities of a private relationship as it was caught up in public history.5 Certainly Heidegger's retreat from political events for the sake of thinking was as strong an influence on Arendt's political development as was Varnhagen's retreat from her Jewish destiny. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to expect...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 229-245
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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