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Pierre Pachet The Authority of Poets in a World without Authority HANNAH ARENDT MADE THE ASSERTION FORCEFULLY AND WITH QUIET self-confidence, most explicitly in her article “W hat is Authority?”: “In the modem world authority has disappeared almost to the vanish­ ing point” (Arendt, 1968: 104). I make note of the “almost.” However, the texts she devoted to poets—I am thinking of Bertolt Brecht and Wystan Auden (who had ties between them, as Auden collaborated with Brecht in 1946 and later translated his play The Rise and Fall of the City ofMahagonny)—these texts, brimming with fervor, show that she regarded poets as having not just an exceptional gift, a “divine gift,” but, by virtue of this gift, a kind of authority that holds true for every­ one. It is to this particular kind of authority in the modem world that I should like to call attention. Arendt believed in poetry (diction, echoes, rhythms, rhymes). Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who quotes and translates several of Arendt’s poems, tells us Arendt started writing poems when she was 17 years old, dark poems that seem to seek consolation, through rhythms and recurrent resonances, for loss and for those moments that had been so dark in her life and in the world. They also seek elucidation and the solace elucidation provides (Young-Bruehl, 1982:478-489). Did her poems provide it? That is uncertain. But she continued to expect solace from poetiy, a kind of salvation. And not just for herself, but for everyone. Arendt was eager to familiarize herself with the culture of the English-speaking world, especially through its poetry: and thanks to the social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 931 poet Randall Jarrell, she came to know Auden’s poems, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Yeats. She liked Auden’s poetry (Young-Bruehl, 1982:191). When later she met him she thought highly ofhim, but said it was too late in their lives for him to become her intimate friend (Arendt, 2007: 294). Nevertheless, when he proposed to her after the death of her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, in the hope that she would take care ofhim, she was not outraged; she understood Auden’s miseiy as a betrayed lover and aging homosexual. She turned him down, but she was moved, seeing this as an instance of the pain caused by unrequited love. Arendt liked poets (just as she liked narrators); she quoted them, drew on them (Char, Kafka), praised them (Auden, Jarrell, Brecht—the latter with extraordinary lenience). Auden in turn read Arendt with enthusiasm, particularly The Human Condition, a book in which he was delighted to find elements of his own thought. (He wrote a review of it, “Thinking What We Are Doing,” published in Encounter in June 1959) (see Young-Bruehl, 1982: 371, 526 n.132). A surprising parallel can indeed be made between Auden’s and Arendt’s thinking, for Auden is both a poet and a profound and lucid essay­ ist (see his collected essays titled TheDyer’sHand), a thinker, indeed a politi­ cal thinker (which is also why he was so important to Joseph Brodsky, for example). The meeting of minds is particularly striking, for instance, in their common beliefthat in the contemporaiy world the public arena has disappeared as a place where a man’s actions reveal what he is, a theme that one might have thought ofas specificallyArendtian. In one ofhis apho­ ristic poems (“Shorts”), Auden gave memorable form to this obliteration of the distinction, to the blurring that violently projects public life into the intimacy of private life. Arendt quoted the poem several times: “Private faces in public places / Are wiser and nicer / Than public faces in private places” (Auden, 1966: 43). The end of the poem forcefully evokes, without explicitly denouncing it, the public exposure of the faces of private indi­ viduals and the totalitarian intrusion ofthe tyrant’s face—whether adored or hated, but having become intimate—in the heart of the home. But this applies to tradition too, and leads us progressively to our theme. 932 social research Both Arendt and Auden feel that tradition, in our world, has lost its classical value...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 931-940
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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