Gotham Diary:
15 April 2014

I was done with Dept of Speculation, yesterday, by the end of lunch. I liked it, really, because, even if the protagonist aroused my disapproval, she did so in an interesting way. She also seemed to be learning, by the end, to be a less self-centered person, thus freeing her attention for dealing with unconsidered prejudices. (Her husband’s background — he comes from “Ohio,” and his family is a “whole blond band” — excites both her envy and her contempt.) But it was a line from the Acknowledgments page that arrested me somewhat more than even the most startling statements in the novel proper:

Thanks to my agent, Sally Wofford-Girand, who stood by me all these years and knew just when to wrench this thing out of my hands…

That is the narrator/wife in a nutshell: someone who needs to have something wrenched out of her hands.

My surmise is that Dept of Speculation is a hit — with the critics, at least — because it folds beautifully narrated vignettes into a matrix of stand-up comedy. It is not difficult to imagine an adaptation for the stage.

So, now: back to Hannah Arendt. The state of play so far: I have read five major works (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Between Past and Future, The Human Condition, and On Revolution) and one book of commentary, Margaret Canovan’s Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought, which tops everybody’s list of must-reads, alongside Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of The World (which I have not read). It was Canovan’s book that I had in mind when I compared reading about Arendt to flying (reading Arendt herself is like crawling).

And this is the state of why — why the obsession with Hannah Arendt?: When I read Eichmann in Jerusalem last year, which I did because the fiftieth anniversary of the controversial book’s publication was something of a chattering-class event, nothing more eggheady than that, I found Arendt’s insistence upon the importance of thinking — not systematic thinking, or reasoning, really, but, as she puts in The Human Condition, “thinking what we do” — truly admirable, and I wanted to give her kind of thinking another try. I had been somewhat bewildered by The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I read about nine years ago (I had thought that it was longer ago than that), and discouraged by the book’s leftish critique of imperialism, which I agreed with overall but which struck me as somewhat doctrinaire — a reaction to which I’m prone whenever Karl Marx is mentioned. Eichmann in Jerusalem seemed to have a far more cogent grasp of the catastrophe that motivated Origins. In between these two books, of course, Arendt wrote the three others that I’ve now read, in which she worked her way out of Marx. Indeed, they take the place of a book that she planned but never wrote on the totalitarian aspects of Marxism.

What I discovered, as I read Arendt, was that nobody else even approaches her compellingly articulate analysis of the political problems facing the United States right now. And, make no mistake, the United States never had a more passionately devoted citizen.

You will not be surprised to hear that I am seeing references to Hannah Arendt everywhere. There are two, or at least there appear to be two, in Dept of Speculation itself. The first occurs on page 6.

Life equals structure plus activity.

Can this be mistaken for anything but a vernacular expression of the Arendtian idea (note well that I’m not actually quoting) that “humanity occurs in a world of institutions that support political action”? And then, on page 56,

It seems to me a useful but impressive phrase along the lines of “The Human Condition” or “The Life of the Mind.”

Those are both the titles of books by Arendt.

And then, on the front page of yesterday’s Times, there was a story by  Jason Horowitz, “Obama Effect Inspiring Few to Take Office.”

“If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window,” said John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. “That opportunity has been lost.” He said the youth who came of voting age around the time of the 2008 election have since lost interest in electoral politics, and pointed to a survey he conducted last year among 18- to 29-year-olds. Although 70 percent said they considered community service an honorable endeavor, only 35 percent said the same about running for office.

“We’re seeing the younger cohort is even less connected with him generally, with his policies, as well as politics generally,” Mr. Della Volpe added, referring to Mr. Obama. Sergio Bendixen, who worked as a pollster for Mr. Obama, blamed a social media-addled generation accustomed to instant gratification for the drop-off. After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, he said, “They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.”

It was electrifying to read this within days of digesting the passages in Arendt’s On Revolution in which she shares Jefferson’s concern that there was no space in post-revolutionary America for most Americans to exercise their political freedom, and her endorsement of the third president’s call for a return to the “ward system” that preceded the Revolution — the network of town meetings that not only elected provincial legislators but also oversaw the bulk of local government. Mr Della Volpe’s survey’s figures for community service and running for office suggest that young people are vitally aware of the loss of power that polarizing party politics has inflicted on established government institutions. I would suggest to Mr Bendixen that he is barking up an empty tree. Arendt would have rejoiced to learn that “the generation” is not “all that ideological.” She loathed ideology.


When I came home from lunch, there was a package that I didn’t even have to open to know what it contained. The return address named the “Friends of the Santa Fe Library.” The Friends, it seems, decided to de-acquisition its copy (can the library have possessed more than one?) of  Hannah Fenichel Pitkin’s The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social, and I happened to be in the market when they were selling. I was both impressed that the Santa Fe Library owned such a book and dismayed that it wanted to get rid of it. I suppose that what happened was that, somewhere along the line, a librarian neglected to read the subtitle, and acquired the book thinking that it was a pop-culture title, only to find out that it is so not. Or that it is about pop culture, but very, very obliquely.

“The Blob” is Pitkin’s name for the strands of inconsistent thoughts that Arendt packed together and labeled “the social,” or, sometimes, “society.” What was worse, Arendt invested this mass with the very same monstrous and deterministic powers that she chided other thinkers for dreaming up. Arendt asserted that “the social” was devouring both the public and the private spheres of life almost as if it were an alien from outer space, and she offered no suggestions about how to stop it. Pitkin believes that The Blob comprises genuine social problems, not just a bundle of notions that Arendt failed to work out, and her book is an attempt to clarify and deal with those problems. So far, it is, like almost everything that I’ve read about Arendt, comfortably lucid.

It’s important to clear up The Blob as part of understanding Arendt’s thinking because it took the place of a confrontation with economic matters for which Arendt had little but contempt. It was still possible, in the middle of the last century, to omit from political discussion any more extensive consideration of the economy than the assertion of the general right to home ownership. That is no longer the case; as Arendt herself feared might happen, the economic has swallowed the political. What do we do now? How can we put down organized money and revive the republic? I’m curious to see if Pitkin is right, and that the clues will be found in the anatomy of The Blob.