Friday Night at 8: Pearl Fishing

This essay speaks of the political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt.

All quotes are from Elisabeth Young-Bruel’s wonderful biography of Arendt, For Love of the World.

And my method in writing on this difficult (at least to me!) subject are taken from Arendt’s own hard won sensibility about philosophy — that after two World Wars, so much of the theories and philosophies that were given such respect showed their own inability to reach the people, to prevent war, and so the question arose, what use were they?

For a Jew who was brought up in Germany and studied philosophy at the finest universities in Marburg and Heidelburg, and who after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 spent years as a stateless person in Paris and the United States, her “ivory tower” learning left her with a far different view of the value of the learning of the past.

She stopped looking for either categories of thinkers or historical influences, thought genealogies, and she developed a method as informal as the title she gave it, “Perlenfischerei,” pearl fishing.  The pearls that were full fathom five beneath the historical surface were the sea-changed, rich and strange jewels she sought.

I think we are at a similar time in history now, and I find Arendt’s words resonate with me.

This essay is a work in progress.  If it seems unintelligible, the fault is entirely mine.  I am no scholar, nor do I have academic credentials.

I’m heartened a bit, though, that Arendt’s second husband, Berliner Heinrich Blucher, had no academic credentials either (though plenty of political experience), and yet they made quite a team when it came to Arendt’s books.

Hannah Arendt’s university years, from 1924 to 1929, were exactly the years of greatest stability for the troubled Weimar Republic.  By the summer of 1924, the government’s program of economic stabilization had brought to a temporary end the worst period of inflation, and a change of government in financially troubled France had reduced the Germans’ feeling of being surrounded by vindictive extortionists.

German academic philosophy in the 1920s was dominated by individuals and groups who were looking for a way to stabilize philosophy’s currency, to replace a motley collection of inflated isms with a grand and certain Ganzes, a whole, an embracing ism.

Looking back over twenty  years to the factions that flourished during her university years, Hannah Arendt put the matter succinctly: “Philosophy was either derivative or it was a rebellion of the philosophers against philosophy in general, rebellion against, or doubt of its identity.”  She rejected both the derivative metaphysicians and thoses who renounced philosophy in favor of a vague and misty irrationalism, and she went the way of the rebels who doubted philosophy’s traditional identity.

It was an exciting time at the universities in Marburg, Germany as well as Heidelburg, Germany, where Arendt studied.

But then Hitler came to power, and in 1933 she and her second husband, Heinrich Blucher, fled to Paris and then, later, to the United States.

You probably know of Hannah Arendt by the famous expression “the banality of evil.”

But what I want to write about is her notion of “parvenus” and “pariahs.”

Hannah Arendt is no easy read.  The only book of hers I ever read was “The Life of the Mind,” her one book, written shortly before her death and never completely finished, on philosophy.  The rest of her books were of political science, informed by her years as a stateless person (refugee) and as a Jew.

It was in her years in Paris, after having fled Germany, a stateless refugee, with no citizenship, that we see the evolution of this notion of parvenus and pariahs:

Arendt saw the prominent Jews of France take a posture of quiet maneuvering behind the scenes to accomplish political ends. Anti-semitism was strong in France and it was not uncommon throughout Europe for leaders in the Jewish community to advocate “inconspicuous, behind-the scenes diplomacy.”

During Hitler’s rise, immigrants who had fled other countries felt such diplomacy “sounded like a call for tactics already shown to be hopelessly inadequate in their home countries.  The Consistoire [the “major religious association of native — and often upper-class — Parisian Jews”] opposed all the actions Hannah Arendt supported — attempts to boycott German goods, efforts by the Ligue Internationale contre l’Antisemitisme to publicize anti-Semitic laws and activites in Germany, and the demonstrations (in 1936) in support of David Frankfurter, a young Jew who assassinated the head of a Swiss branch of the Nazi party.”

For Arendt:

…the Rothschilds — regardless of their personal qualities and good intentions — were of the type she called “the parvenus.”  In her terms, a Jew could be either a parvenu or a pariah, and she made it very clear in discussions and later in her writings that she thought only a pariah could develop a truly political consciousness … After the war (WWII), she distinguished the “social realm” (home of parvenus) and the “political realm” (home of pariahs) and looked only to the latter for any truly revolutionary renewal.

One thing Arendt said that, to me, expresses this notion of parvenus and pariahs is in speaking of the rights of man, which we always refer to as “inalienable” and “endowed by our Creator,” etc.  She had a different and very political view:

“The Rights of Man,” she argued, “had been defined as ‘inalienable,’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments; but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.”

I think of undocumented workers here in America, whose human rights are disregarded, as in Postville Iowa, of the ravages of genocide in Darfur, of minorities in nations where civil rights are not guaranteed by law.

So I am pearl fishing.  

What I find compelling about Arendt’s work, that transcends the history of her life, of being a Jew in Europe during the World Wars, is her meticulous description of the differences between the social and the political.

As we speak of unity, of coming together, Arend puts forth a different view.  In speaking of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing a philosopher who lived in the 16th Century, and whose insights she had previously rejected, Arendt says (in a speech accepting the Lessing Prize in 1959):

Because Lessing was a completely political person, he insisted that truth can exist only where it is humanized by discourse … Every truth outside of this area [of discourses], no matter whether it brings men good or ill, is inhuman in the literal sense of the word: but not because it might arouse men against one another and separate them.  Quite the contrary, it is because it might have the result that all men would suddenly unite in a single opinion, so that out of many opinions one would emerge, as though not men in their infinite plurality but man in the singular, one species and its exemplars, were to inhabit the earth.

Should that happen, the world, which can form only in the interspaces between men in all their variety would vanish altogether.  For that reason the most profound thing that has been said about the relation between truth and humanity is to be found in a sentence of Lessing’s which seems to draw from all his works wisdom’s last word.  The sentence is:

Jeder sage, was ihm Wahrheit dunkt,

und die Wahrheit selbst sei Gott empfohlen!

Let each man say what he deems truth

and let truth itself be commended unto God!

In reading the above quote, it’s important to realize that Arendt wrote much about totalitarianism, and she wrote this in that context.

Yet for some reason the quote resonates for me in today’s world.

Yeah, pearl fishing.  We’ve seen since World War II that all our institutions and ways of thinking have not prevented the mess we are in today, environmentally, politically, socially.  Yet there are clues in the past — not authorities, but strange treasures in the detrius of our culture — that give glimpses of where to go from here.

I also believe there are equally luminous pearls to be found in the traditions of Asia, Africa, Latin America, of Native Americans, of all cultures.

So pearl fishing … and, as always, prowling.

If you have made it to the end of this essay, I congratulate you!  And I also wish everyone a happy Friday and a good weekend.


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  1. … in impeachment hearings today was from Elliot Adams (well, ONE of my favorite lines), and it’s only partial from live-blogging today:

    When our founders signed the Declaration, they weren’t worried about how much time there was … they were just worried that they were going to get hanged by the neck – yet they did the right thing.  Now gentlemen, it is your turn to stand up.

    Politics.  Yep.

    Heatwave in NYC.  And August is right around the corner.

    Cold beer.  Yep.

    • Robyn on July 26, 2008 at 02:49

    …lead me to dredge the following up.  Thomas was a complex person, a pacifist except for his Welsh nationalism, an anti-English Anglican priest, and devoutly…some might say rabidly…anti-consumerism.

    The Bright Field

    –R. S. Thomas

    I have seen the sun break through

    to illuminate a small field

    for a while, and gone my way

    and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

    of great price, the one field that had

    treasure in it.  I realize now

    that I must give all that I have

    to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

    on to a receding future, nor hankering after

    an imagined past.  It is the turning

    aside like Moses to the miracle

    of the lit bush, to a brightness

    that seemed as transitory as your youth

    once, but is the eternity that awaits you.


  2. and I’ve had lots of experience with that in my professional life.

    I just had a conversation last week with our program director as we’re in the midst of hiring for a new position. We prefer to hire people with degrees – mostly because its an important message to the kids we serve. But what they need to know to do the work…well, not much of that gets learned in school.

    And margaritas for me tonight. Yep!!!

  3. …I have to bring up Arendt’s secret affair with Heidegger, and bring up how that calls into question all of her writing on moral philosophy.  I’m a fan of her work, but there really can’t be much debate that she equivocates on many subjects where that relationship is directly relevant.

  4. This was a fascinating read.  Arendt brought about a perspective that I, in all my reads of that dreadful era, never, at least to my recollection, heard iterated — the notion of “parvenus” and “pariahs.”  Interesting!

    Although I understand the depth of this statement, I’m not sure I absolutely agree:

    Let each man say what he deems truth

    and let truth itself be commended unto God!

    To say the truth is to be at one with oneself, whether or not it is then referred to God — as though, thereafter, referring the matter to God somehow alleviates all further self-responsiblity from that point on.

    I do like the correlation to Elliot Abrams’ remark:

    When our founders signed the Declaration, they weren’t worried about how much time there was … they were just worried that they were going to get hanged by the neck – yet they did the right thing.  Now gentlemen, it is your turn to stand up.

    That was truly excellent!


  5. Elliot Adams to be Elliot Abrams (OMG! — must have neocons on my brain).  Sorry, just caught myself.  Mea culpa!


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