HANNAH ARENDT/MARTIN HEIDEGGER by Elzbieta Ettinger. (Yale University Press: $18.50; 139 pp.) A warm summer night in Los Angeles. Their eyes met across the crowded cafe. He was reading “The Bridges of Madison County.” She was reading the letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Ah, well.
When they met, in 1924, Heidegger was 35, the father of two boys, and a professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg, Germany. Arendt was 18 and his student. In 1933, Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and Arendt left Germany, disgusted by his decision. This, the first book about the relationship, tells the story told by the letters.
Heidegger spent the last several decades of his life backtracking and denying his relationship to Nazism, and Ettinger seems as, if not more , interested in forcing his face to the mirror than she is in the effect of the relationship on Arendt or on each’s work. His letters “contain lyrical stanzas bordering on kitsch,” his “language mirrors the change he underwent when reason gave way to passion,” revealing a “conventional sentimentality if not lowbrow taste.”
Heidegger’s lifelong manipulation (mostly in letters, since he held Arendt at a physical distance for almost 40 years) reinforced what Ettinger refers to as a “ ‘slavish’ streak in her. An independent and unconventional woman, Arendt still saw men . . . in their traditional role.” Indeed, the most fascinating part of the book (the part that deserves its own book!) is the blind spot in Arendt’s love for Heidegger, her willingness to apologize for him and to nurture the black hole in her personality that admires him in spite of his Nazism. This is the woman, after all, who wrote “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” We’ve had the appetizer; now, could somebody please write the main course?