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Michael P . Steinberg Hannah Arendt and the Cultural Style of the German Jews BETWEEN BERLIN AND VIENNA In October 1943, in New York, halfway through her 18-year trajectory as a stateless person but already as a master of idiomatic, polemical English, Hannah Arendt composed a withering review of a popular memoir written by a fellow émigré thinker. The book was Die Welt von Gestem (The World ofYesterday). The author: Stefan Zweig, born in Vienna in 1881 and recently a suicide in his place of exile—Petropolis, Brazil. The famous biographer and storyteller had attracted significant atten­ tion in the double Liebestod he staged along with his second wife. That attention peaked with the publication of his suicide note, in which he declared his inability to live outside the bounds of his native language. Arendt, who could so easily have sympathized with Zweig’s predic­ ament, instead turned on him with surging venom. The fact that he pinned his existence to his native language did not move her. Arendt’s own bilinguality was a function of both linguistic and emotional prow­ ess. She held onto German even as she mastered English. After all, she told a German interviewer in 1964, it was not the language that went crazy (see Arendt, 2000). Zweig’s attachment to his native language was, for Arendt, a symptom of his regressive sentimentality, the emotion that governed his sense of the world in general. He had never under­ stood the world he lived in, she wrote, and, moreover, he showed no understanding for the past he now brought to life with inflamed nostal­ social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 879 gia in The World ofYesterday. He confused political dignity with personal and social privilege; such had been his own undoing. In his writing, he confused the aesthetic and aestheticizing claims of Habsburg Vienna with social and political reality. He took his models from the stage and thought that the world of the Burgtheater carried a revival of demo­ cratic Athens: the rebirth of the polis that had once produced the art of tragedy, the polis that in fact lodged at the core ofArendt’s own norma­ tive political philosophy. But the theatrical world of fin de siècle Vienna that Zweig compared to Athens, Arendt asserted, was in fact its oppo­ site. It was—and here is her most devastating punch line—Hollywood. Zweig, wrote Arendt, overlooked the fact that the Athenians attended the theatre for the sake of the play, its mythological content and the grandeur of its language, through which they hoped to become the masters of their passions and molders of their national destiny. The Viennese went to the theatre exclu­ sively for the actors. . . . The star system, as the cinema later perfected it, was completely forecast in Vienna. What was in the making there was not a classical renaissance but Hollywood (Arendt, 1978a: 117). All Schein (appearance), she would have said were she still writing as a German philosopher, and no Sein (being). Arnold Schoenberg expressed this tension in his theoretical writ­ ings as that between idea and style. On stage he personified it in the opposing protagonists Moses and Aaron. The young Berlin-born artist and memoirist Charlotte Salomon built her life’s work around the same tension, choice or decision: Leben? Oder Theater?, which became the title and theme of her Singspiel, consisting of some 800 gouache paint­ ings with text and musical references recounting her life and the life and milieu of a privileged Jewish family in Weimar and early National Socialist Berlin (see Steinberg, 2007, esp. chap. 5; see also Steinberg and Bohm-Duchen, 2006). 880 social research Not that Arendt (or Schoenberg, or Salomon) was hostile to the theatrical. In fact, the political sphere she strove throughout her career to defend and restore depended upon on the performative abilities of its participant speakers. But Arendt’s theatricality is that of the speech act, not of the stage in a literal sense, where—pace performance stud­ ies—original utterances and originary deeds are not primarily at stake. (Indeed, they were less thinkable as such before the theatrical innova­ tions of the 1950s and 1960s, in which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 879-902
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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