Thursday, November 30

Philosopher Hannah Arendt’s parties harnessed the radical political power of friendship

Part of the Friendship Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Imagine it: New York City. The 1950s. An apartment building on Riverside Drive. Even before you reach the door, you can hear the buzzing, a clamoring hum punctuated by laughter. Inside, a dozen people sit in the living room, palming tumblers and martini glasses, alternating sips with a drag off their cigarettes. As the sun sets over the Hudson, there’s no cocktail party small talk; they are shouting with passion — though, you notice, no aggression or malice. The topic becomes briefly unintelligible as some slip into German and then, after glancing around the room at those who’ve fallen silent, back into English.

Books shoved into cases ring the room around the tweed-clad group, mostly men, mostly bespectacled, mostly recognizable from the lecture halls and barrooms and magazine offices around town, and in the middle of them all sits one woman with short, unmanageable hair and a wise smile: Hannah Arendt. This is her home, and this is the only place in the city you’d want to be.

The setting changed frequently, but from the 1940s to the 1960s, most weeks you could find a similar scene somewhere in New York. It was a recurring reincarnation of a tradition stretching back a century or more, to the European salons run by women, often Jewish women, with a keen interest in ideas, art, and people. This moveable feast went on for decades, with new faces, new concerns, but always the same goals: to find oneself among friends or frenemies, lovers and former lovers, colleagues and cordial nemeses, and hash out what was going on in the world while nourishing the soul (and the stomach, too).

This salon was made up of a group that historians would one day call the New York Intellectuals. Many were American Jews or Jewish émigrés from Europe. All of them wanted to understand the most fundamental things about life in a world that felt as if it had gone mad.

Only recently had the full horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust become known to the public. For a lot of the New York Intellectuals, the discovery felt like it split history in two.

A brilliant German Jewish woman, a philosopher by training, who had fled her homeland in 1941 and a few years later was publishing (in her third language, English) in journals like Partisan Review and Commentary, Arendt knew what was at stake. In 1951, she published a hefty book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which traced the roots of what was happening in Europe, from Nazism to Stalinism. In it, she wrote about what led to the rise of totalizing power, which erases people’s humanity by erasing their individuality. Totalitarianism tries to deny both individual citizens’ uniqueness and their ability to act collectively against systems of oppression. And most of all, it makes impossible what Arendt says makes us human. What was happening in that apartment over cocktails — the all-important act of thinking — is something that can only be done in conversation with the self, and with friends.

You can see why this group of intellectuals mattered to her. They helped her think, but they also modeled a crucial concept: Revolutions may be happening all over the world, but right here, in this little group, in this little apartment, among friends and frenemies, the subversive potential of friendship was constantly unfolding.

German-born American political theorist and author Hannah Arendt, pictured in 1949.
Getty Images

They came to gossip. They came to be seen, to engage in intrigue, to quarrel, to flirt, to test out new members of the group so they could laugh about them later. They drank, and sometimes they’d eat, too, but the main thing they took in was talk. And it wasn’t empty or small talk. Their cocktail parties became legendary not because of their extravagance or their spectacle, but because they were where the group thought together, as friends.

Arguing was a way in which to build a world and test out ideas on one another. These gatherings were a boozy still point in a world spinning off its axis. If an idea appeared in Partisan Review or Commentary or the New Yorker, or in a book that set the intellectual world ablaze, or ricocheted around a classroom at Bard or Columbia or Berkeley, it might have first been hashed out and honed over some very stiff martinis on Riverside Drive.

Even when there were fights, intrigue, and bad behavior, there was something fundamentally solid and generative about the gatherings. When you look at Arendt’s writing, you can clearly see that these cocktail parties were a key part to her understanding of how the forces that wanted to eradicate the humanness of humanity — forces she understood all too well — could be defeated at their own game.

By the time Arendt was famous, she’d come to believe that the project of life wasn’t to think about the world’s problems in order to solve them, since no single fix could be found. Instead, the goal was to keep thinking. Like most great writers, Hannah Arendt wrote about the same few topics over and over, refashioned and reconfigured to fit new circumstances. Maybe her most important recurring idea is amor mundi — the love of the world.

For Arendt, amor mundi means you can’t fool yourself about the world, closing your eyes to the realities of history and injustice. Instead, loving the world means working on two specific tasks. The first is doggedly insisting on seeing the world just as it is, with its disappointments and horrors — and committing to it all the same. The second is encountering people in the world and embracing their alterity, or difference.

That last piece — loving people for their difference — is essential to Arendt’s thinking and her friendships, as well as her social gatherings.

“Arendt sees friendship as allied to politics: not as a substitute for politics, nor as a way of doing politics, but as a condition necessary for the survival of politics as she understood it,” writes Jon Nixon in his book Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Friendship. “Friendship is what lies between the private world of the familial, tribal, and religious affiliation, and the political world of institutional and association affiliation based not on family, tribe, or religion but on equality.”

The idea of friendship being necessary for politics is strange to ponder. But for Arendt, politics was not a totalizing identity marker.

Yet, just as importantly, she wasn’t saying that friendship with people “across the aisle” is somehow going to save us, or that all politics have the same impact on humans. Instead Arendt means something slightly different: that friendship with other people (including those you generally agree with) subverts power. Friendship — in which people see and recognize one another’s differences, affirm and challenge those differences, and ultimately grow — pushes back against tyrannical forces that try to deny our individuality and dignity.

As Nixon puts it, “Through our friendships we learn to relate to one another as free and equal agents and, crucially, to carry what we have learned from those friendships — by way of the exercise of freedom and the recognition of equal worth — back into the world.”

True amor mundi recognizes that our problems will never be fixed, that there is no perfect theory or principle that will unlock the puzzle of existence and solve our problems. And, Arendt writes, that’s why politics exists. In politics, we come together, committed to the world, willing to raise our eyes and look at one another, to debate and critically discuss the world, continually working our way toward what we would like it to become, knowing the work will never be “finished.” Doing so requires us to see one another as individuals with equal dignity but very different ways of being. Our idiosyncrasies make us who we are, and those unique traits and eccentricities empower us to care for one another. We see how someone is different from us, and we choose to love that difference, thus expanding our love beyond ourselves.

So, politics is where we focus on everything that happens between all the individuals who make up a society. It’s where we repair the threads that bind us together. Yet, it’s balanced with the knowledge that while people see the world differently for different reasons, we can’t make up stories that paper over our reality. Racial history, class oppression, gender discrimination, prejudices of all kinds — we have to own up to them all. That’s how we start to generate freedom.

That requires us to think and talk with others — and sometimes drink and eat with them, too. How can one person, in their specificity, grasp the enormity of history and existence?

We are dropped down into a broken world, where humans hurt one another. To love the world, Arendt says, we need “oases” where we can retreat and be renewed. Those oases include art and music and poetry and dinner tables and cocktail parties and, perhaps most importantly, friendship.

That’s why friendship was everything to Arendt. It is the strongest of oases, the one that keeps us from turning inward on ourselves and away from the horrors of the world. It is where we learn to appreciate others not for the ways they are the same as us, but for how they’re different from us. It is where we overcome the horror of isolation, but also avoid becoming just another face in the crowd, lost in the collective. Friendship is the connective tissue that builds us into a true society and saves us from being overtaken by totalitarianism.

Arendt famously poured herself into making and maintaining friendships — even with people whom she might reasonably have been expected to abandon over her life. Her most strange, uncomfortable, even problematic friendship was with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, her former professor and, some believe, the great love of her life. They conducted a passionate, clandestine affair for a couple of years, beginning when he was 35 and she was 18 (and still his student). The relationship waned after Arendt left town to study with Karl Jaspers (who would ultimately become an even more valuable mentor for her). Heidegger then joined the Nazi Party, apparently enthusiastically. In spite of this fact, in the years following the war, Arendt — now married and living in New York — tried to reestablish contact, and for her whole life would doggedly pursue a friendship with Heidegger, seeing him for better or worse as a profitable intellectual partner, if not a romantic one. By all accounts he was, it seems, a rather exasperating man to befriend.

A much more satisfying friendship came in the form of Mary McCarthy, the writer and critic, though the friendship was almost ruined from the start. They first met in 1944, on one hazy Manhattan night in a bar. They’d both been brought there by friends — McCarthy by the art critic Clement Greenberg, with whom she was having an anemic affair, and Arendt by Greenberg’s brother Martin, her coworker at Schocken Books, where she was working as a secretary. McCarthy (married at the time to the critic Edmund Wilson) already had made her reputation. Arendt was still new to New York and was just beginning to publish in some of the most incisive, radical journals headquartered there: Partisan Review, The Nation, Commentary.

That night, Arendt talked animatedly about the United States, how it was still malleable and unfinished compared to her native Germany, a young country finding its footing. That kind of force would appeal to McCarthy, a woman who had built her life on having an opinion and stating it boldly, but with charm.

The pair didn’t become friends that night. In fact, the next recorded interaction between them, in 1945, was an outright disaster. They were at — what else? — a cocktail party, and McCarthy made a crack about Hitler calculated to scandalize her more sanctimonious friends. She expressed that she felt sorry for Hitler, an absurd man who wanted his victims to love him. Arendt was incensed. “How can you say such a thing in front of me — a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp!” she exclaimed, and then stormed out. Any chance of a relationship between the two seemed impossible.

But in the airtight, insular world of their intellectual circle, with mutual friends and mutual interests, they inevitably kept crossing paths. One night, after they both attended a gathering, they ended up standing on the same subway platform, no doubt waiting for one of those interminably delayed late-night trains that make you feel suspended in time, especially when you’ve had a bit of gin. Each had found in debates that they were frequently on the same side against the rest of the room. “Let’s end this nonsense,” Arendt finally said to McCarthy, breaking a three-year silence. “We think so much alike.” They made amends. And thus a friendship was born that would last the rest of their lives.

Their relationship, assiduously maintained by the pair until Arendt passed away in 1975 — after which McCarthy put aside her own work to prepare Arendt’s unfinished book, The Life of the Mind, for publication — is an ideal model for what Arendt thought friendship could do. Friendship is a place for public happiness, a give-and-take that is receptive to the world and to others. So friendship is revolutionary. It confronts and rebukes totalitarianism. Thinking and sharpening one another helps stave off evil; in friendship, we encourage one another to think. “It is within that place — the place of friendship — that friends are able to explore the truth of their opinions by ‘talking things over’ and through the ‘give and take’ of conviviality,” Nixon writes. Friendship in Arendt’s thinking, he later notes, is a “microcosm of the polity — not seeking to replace or juxtapose itself against the polity, but sustaining and modeling it.”

I learn from Hannah Arendt that a feast is only possible among friends, or people whose hearts are open to becoming friends. Or you could put it another way: any meal can become a feast when shared with friends engaged in the activity of thinking their way through the world and loving it together. A mere meal is a necessity for life, a fact of being human. But it is transformed into something much more important, something vital to the life of the world, when the people who share the table are engaging in the practices of love and of thinking.

Alissa Wilkinson is a senior culture reporter at Vox. This essay is adapted from her new book Salty: Lessons in Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women (Broadleaf Books, 2022).

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