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Martine Leibovici Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: A New Kind of Narration in the Impasses of GermanJewish Assimilation and Existenzphilosophie ON THE PROBLEM OF GERMAN-JEWISH ASSIMILATION EXEMPLIFIED IN THE l if e of Rahel Varnhagen (see Grunenberg, 2003: 34). That was the first title in Hannah Arendt’s mind when, circa 1929 in Berlin, she began writing the book that would be published in 1957 under the English title Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess.1 Before fleeing to the United States, she was able to complete the book in Paris, adding the last two chapters while there, and the manuscript was saved thanks to Käte Fürst’s escape to Palestine before the outbreak of the war. An immi­ grant in America, Arendt feared the book had been lost, so she wrote to Kurt Blumenfeld, asking him to call Käte Fürst to find out what had happened to it. The manuscript was finally returned to her in New York in 1945. Hermann Broch and Karl Jaspers read it then; both tried in vain to have it published. Not until seven years later did the opportunity for publication finally arise through the offices of the Leo Baeck Institute, at which Arendt had been an early associate, a relationship that contin­ ued until 1963. When Hermann Broch read Arendt’s manuscript in 1947, he wrote the following to her: “Es ist ein neuer Typ von Biographie [. . .] die social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 903 abstrakte Biographie [.. .] alles ist textilisch: ein Gobelin" [It is a new kind of biography . . . an abstract biography. . . it’s all woven: a Gobelin tapes­ try] (Broch, [12/14/1947] 1996: 65). The term textilisch is very interesting here. It reminds us of Penelope’s web, one of Arendt’s favorite meta­ phors for describing trains of thought. Moreover, could Broch have been thinking of Pallas Athena, the goddess ofweaving, the figure who, according to Barbara Hahn, stands at the dawn of a story that began in the mid-eighteenth century and ended with World War II? It is the metaphor for the fighting and thinking woman, which constitutes an oxymoron when associated, as it is in Paul Celan’s poem, with the word Jüdin: die Jüdin Pallas Athene. A number of Jewish women invented a singular way of entering into German culture; singular in that no tradi­ tion in Judaism or in Germany had shown them the way. One of the first, Rahel Varnhagen, who mentioned the goddess in her letters, was called “the German Pallas Athena,” while being recognized as a Jewess. “Wenn eineJüdin die deutsche PallasAthena sein kann, wird konträres verklam­ mert” [Ifa Jewess can be the German Pallas Athena, opposites will have been clamped together], writes Barbara Hahn, and her description of the specificity Arendt uses in telling Rahel’s story recalls a weav­ ing. Rahel Varnhagen never wrote a book, only letters and a diary, in which she unsystematically mixed narration and reflection, political and philosophical thoughts. Arendt’s biography is true to heterogene­ ity of this kind: her biographical writing offers no synthesis, jumping from systematic representations to individual experiences, and then to historical events or even social context (Hahn, 2002: 17, 208-209; see also Nordmann, 1994 on the specificity of Arendt’s biographical writing). Nevertheless, Broch’s use of the word abstrakt (abstract) is not necessarily a compliment. It is intended not only to designate a phil­ osophical deformation, but also to say that Arendt omits details that could interest the reader: Ich will nicht nur wissen, wer mit wem geschlafen hat, sondern will auch Adresse und Datum: was Sie machen ist abstrakte Pornographie [Iwant not only to know who slept with whom 9 0 4 social research but also the address and date. What you’ve done is abstract pornography] (Broch, [12/14/1947] 1996: 66). Such a critique is all the more interesting as Arendt, while answer­ ing to Jaspers’s early objections from 1930, wrote to him that she had chosen the genre of biography precisely because she could not say what she wanted to in abstracto: What this all really adds up to—fate, being exposed...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 903-922
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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