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Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Jerome Kohn Truth, Lies, and Politics: A Conversation EY-B: W HEN JEROME KOHN AND I FIRST MET HER— AND EACH OTHER— IN A spring and summer 1968 seminar at the New School, Hannah Arendt was 62, smoking away nervously and talking with that astonishing intensity and energy of thought. During the “cascade of events” (to use one of her phrases) of that spring—Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assas­ sination, student riots in Paris, the occupation of Columbia University (and a less dramatic sit-in at the New School itself), Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—there was certainly a great deal for her to talk about in our seminar, which had the title “Political Experience in the Twentieth Century.” The part of the twen­ tieth century cascading by was never far from our minds as we focused in the course on the period through the Second World War and the midcentury totalitarianisms, about which she had, of course, written the discussion-setting work, The Origins ofTotalitarianism. We thought we would begin this conversation1by talking about that course, “Political Experience in the Twentieth Century,” as an introduction to Hannah Arendt’s way of thinking since it is crucial to have some feeling for her way of thinking in order to grasp what she had to say about our conference theme, truth and lying and the media. This was certainly not a class like any other in the philosophy department; it was worldly—about and for the world. The texts for the Copyright © 2007 Jerom e Kohn an d Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. social research Vol 74 : No 4 : Winter 2007 1045 seminar reflected her remarkably wide reading and were quite a mix— everything from novels to drama to history, all arranged to explore the experience of an imaginary person, bom in 1890, who might have come into public life, into politics, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the First World War. She was making, as it were, a biography of an imaginary person, although we always thought that there was a very specific referent in her husband Heinrich Bluecher, who had had political experiences close to the ones she was re-creating n her imagi­ nation. Bluecher, born in 1899, was a crucial decade younger than her imaginary subject—so he had missed serving in a war that left over 7 million of his countrymen dead, wounded, or missing (65 percent of the German forces), along with 9 million Russians, 6 million French, and more than 3 million from Great Britain and its empire. Altogether, from all over the world, 37 million soldiers dead, wounded, or miss­ ing. Her husband was not the “unknown soldier” Arendt conjured: a man who had slogged through years of horrendous—and quite sense­ less—trench warfare, experiencing for the first time in history aerial bombardments and chemical warfare. But Bluecher was familiar with the older brothers’ common experience of complete disorientation, confusion, lostness, and he shared the common determ ination to change the world with a revolution, from the left (like all those inspired by the Bolsheviks) or from the right (like all those who would gather around he Nazi banner). His entry into politics came in the wake of the war, during the brief German Revolution of 1919, when the 20-yearold Bluecher associated himself with Rosa Luxemburg’s faction of the German Social Democratic Party and the nascent network of councils or Rate that sprang up in the revolution, and he stayed active until Rosa Luxemburg was brutally assassinated and Germany headed off decisively toward the destruction of what little political life existed, a descent into violence and a culture of lying. JK: Hannah Arendt’s first words in the seminar were: “No theories! Forget all theories! We want to be confronted with direct experience, 1046 social research to relive this period vicariously.” She then distinguished thinking, which she said would certainly be required of us, from encompassing our thoughts in theories, which she said would be difficult for us to resist. In other words, she was reviving the ancient Greek distinction between thedria...


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