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Illuminating, revealing, and tender throughout, this correspondence offers a glimpse into the inner lives of two major philosophers.

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Oct 26, 2018

Heidegger And Arendt

Martin Heidegger (1889 -- 1976) and Hannah Arendt (1906 -- 1975) were among the most influential Twentieth Century thinkers. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger remains best-known for "Being and Time" (1927) and for his later "turn" to poetry and exegesis. Hannah Arendt escaped from Nazi Germany and became and American citizen in 1951. She became a political philosopher and the author of books including "The Origins of Totalitarianism", "The Human Condition" and "Eichmann in Jerusalem." The long personal and intellectual relationship between Heidegger and Arendt is chronicled in this collection of letters written between 1925 -- 1975, published and annotated by Ursula Ludz.

In 1924, Arendt, a young and impressionable student, fell under the intellectual and personal influence of Heidegger at the University of Marburg. At the time, Heidegger was 35, married, a father, and working furiously on "Being and Time." The teacher and student began a passionate affair which gradually evolved into a lasting friendship.

The affair was intense on both sides. "I must come see you this evening and speak to your heart.", Heidegger writes to Arendt in the opening letter of October 11, 1925. In a much later letter of 1950, after the two had resumed contact after 25 years, Heidegger writes of a recent photograph of Arendt: "You do not realize that it is the same gaze that leaped toward me on the lectern -- oh it was and will remain eternity, from afar and intimacy."(letter no. 60) For her part, Arendt left Marburg abruptly in 1926 and soon thereafter made a bad marriage which ended in divorce. Arendt married her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, in 1940 and the marriage lasted until Blucher's death in 1970.

Ludz arranges the letters in the collection in three groups. The first group, headed "At first sight" covers the period between 1925 -- 1933 to include the love affair and its immediate aftermath. Notable in this group is the final letter, no.45 written by Heidegger in 1932 or 1933 in which he tries, in an unconvincing way, to respond to allegations of anti-semitism that Arendt had asked him about in a letter that has not survived.

In 1950, after an absence of 25 years, Arendt and Heidegger began to correspond, with Arendt visiting the philosopher and his wife, Elfride. This section of the letters, captioned "The second look" covers the period 1950-1965. Heidegger and Arendt have a difficult reconciliation, with Arendt struggling to allay the jealousy of Heidegger's wife, Elfride. Heidegger had at first concealed the affair from Elfride (research subsequent to the publication of this book shows that the Heidegger's had an "open marriage")and subsequently admitted to it. The issue, apparently, was the concealment. Heidegger and Arendt discuss in a restrained manner their former relationship, but these letters include a great deal of discussion of Heidegger's ongoing writings and reflections. Heidegger does not appear overly interested in Arendt's writings during this time. While the prose of the letters is restrained, Heidegger also wrote short poems for Arendt in these letters which, in their elliptical, philosophical way, testify to their former relationship as lovers.

The third set of letters, subtitled "Autumn" begins in 1966 and continues through 1975, just before Arendt's death. (An Epilogue includes correspondence from Heidegger on learning of her death.) These are intellectually the most interesting of the letters, as both Heidegger and Arendt discuss their ongoing writings and in a sometimes lively manner exchange ideas. The letters discuss the translation of Heidegger's works into English and their publication in the United States, Heidegger's organization of his unpublished papers, Heidegger and Elfride's move into retirement and Arendt's steadily increasing fame as a writer -- which Heidegger acknowledges at last. Heidegger continues to write and to quote poems and the two exchange and discuss their own books and the books of others. For example Arendt, sends Heidegger Melville's "Billy Budd", one of her favorite novels.

Most of the letters in the collection are by Heidegger, but Arendt more than holds her own. The lifelong influence of Heidegger upon Arendt comes through. The letters includes Arendt's famous lecture "Martin Heidegger at Eighty" delivered as a radio address on Heidegger's 80th birthday which Arendt sent to Heidegger as a birthday present. (Letter no 116) In this address, Arendt describes Heidegger's great influence of a generation of students, (especially herself) and his efforts to practice and teach thinking, among the rarest of gifts. She describes Heidegger's influence both in destroying traditional philosophy and in rehabilitating the nature of thought. The address also explores Heidegger's relationship with Nazism. Arendt attempts to downplay this part of Heidegger's life by calling it a brief mistake and by analogizing it with Plato's experiences with the tyrant Dionysus of Syracuse. Subsequent historical research has not been as gentle with Heidegger on this matter.

Both Heidegger and Arendt wrote these letters in a chaste style, but their early passion comes through. These letters will be valuable to those with an interest in either thinker. Reading these letters may also encourage exploration of the major works that Arendt and Heidegger intended for publication and for which they should be remembered.

Robin Friedman

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