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MLN 118.5 (2003) 1317-1323

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Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb, Regions of Sorrow—Anxiety and Messianism in Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003. 301 pages.

"There is nothing new under the sun" —Ecclesiastes

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt quotes this passage from Ecclesiastes and comments: "The melancholy wisdom of Ecclesiastes . . . does not necessarily arise from specifically religious experience; but it is certainly unavoidable wherever and whenever trust in the world as a place fit for human appearance, for action and speech, is gone" (Regions of Sorrow, 146). In Regions of Sorrow—Anxiety and Messianism in Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden, Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb brings together the writing of Arendt and her good friend, W.H. Auden, to open what, despite all odds, I will call a new perspective on the post-World War II transatlantic experience. Both writers, in various ways, are faced with this lack of trust, yet each struggles to maintain a "fragile hope" in seeking to articulate the concerns of their age. Gottlieb's book presents extensive readings of her two primary authors. Devoted to nuances of language and theoretical precision, her readings address the major concerns of twentieth-century philosophy and poetics: question of form, the possibility of action, the experience of law and freedom, the displacement of people, the role of poetry, and the possibility of a future. While the friendship between Arendt and Auden serves as the point of departure, Regions of Sorrow (a phrase quoted from Milton) effectively places their texts in communication with each other without apostrophizing subjects or relying on the reality of psychological entities. Their relationship functions as a kind of complementary obverse to the (failed) communication between Celan and Heidegger, [End Page 1317] for example—a focus of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's Poetry As Experience, also published in Stanford's series, Meridian—Crossing Aesthetics, edited by Werner Hamacher. Gottlieb's book remains true to the series' interest in Dichten und Denken, its interdisciplinary focus, and its rigorous resistance to current "market trends" in literary studies. Gottlieb establishes a series of terms, drawn from the texts, that link the philosophical, critical and poetic texts into a series of relations: rule by law and decree; expansion and contraction; temporality, poetic innovation, and messianism; promise, forgiveness, and praise. Developing these terms, which function somewhere between figures and concepts, Gottlieb delivers astute and insightful readings that are relevant to major political questions even today while still remaining close to the specificities of the texts in question. The book is an original contribution to the many efforts to understand the problems of communicability, poetry and language after the Holocaust: "Auden and Arendt seek to develop articulate responses to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century that are at every moment responsive to the incapacity of language in the presence of outrageous brutality" (5). Like her writers, Gottlieb maintains an "inconspicuous" hopefulness without succumbing either to utopianism or historical pessimism. The terms of the subtitle—Anxiety andMessiansism—lay out the space of this hopefulness. Anxiety is a prominent theme throughout the book, for it characterizes the fluctuating condition between actuality and possibility, between stability and the absolute fluidity of totalitarianism, between the articulation of history and the potential speechlessness—the stuttering—towards which messianism tends, along with poetic language.

Chapter 1, "The Spaces of Anxiety: Arendt's 'Origins of Totalitarianism," analyzes Arendt's text in terms of a correlation between spatiality and language. The very possibility of language is grounded in the possibility of "taking a stand," or "having a point of view"—that is, of occupying a position in space. Arendt analyzes the displacement of stateless people, of exile and homelessness, in terms of this loss of language: "statelessness destroys the specificity of spaces understood as necessary conditions for the possibility of perspectives and position-taking, expressed the language of points of view" (33). The establishment of a spatial position is correlated with the focus on specificities rather than universals; Arendt argues, Gottlieb shows, by way of exception or the extreme position...


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