On Arendt and Loneliness

Towards the end of one of the seminars I taught on Jewish thought this past semester a student told a story, which seemed quite apropos to Arendt's conclusion to The Origins of Totalitarianism. They recounted the experience of struggling with heavy bags to find a seat on a train.  As they passed by, each person turned away or pretended not to notice. The student wrestled through and eventually found a place to rest. Then a man from Peru made eye contact - a moment of recognition that led to a conversation. Just four weeks prior the man had been beaten to an inch of his life by thugs, destroying his guitar in the process. Yet, of all those in the crowd, he reached out to connect.

This example perfectly sums up Arendt's notion of loneliness. Unlike solitude loneliness occurs in the experience of displacment and dislocation from others. The paradox being that loneliness requires another person and is accentuated in what Arendt calls "the masses." Part of Arendt's enduring relevance is due to this common experience in cities and factories today. Furthermore, as was the case in Melissa Raphael's work on The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, the moment of recognition is crucial to Levinas' notion of "the face." Even clearing the mud from another person's face can be redemptive if its aim is to recognize them as a human being anew and as an end in themselves. This is especially true when we find ourselves in situations where people are treated as mere things or dispensable beasts. 

Arendt's conclusion to The Origins of Totalitarianism, focused on the link between loneliness, terror and ideology. As we discussed, she asked her readers to think in their experience, not just follow the cold logic of ideas. She encouraged communication between a plurality of human beings, not just those bound together by common appearance or history.

In many respects, I hope our class discussions this semester embodied those aims.

As it happens, the Blake Prize is on tour at Newcastle University's Art Gallery at the moment. Well worth visiting, and there is one piece in particular that echoes the seminar conversations that occurred this semester. In particular, Franz Kempf's "The Outrageous Has Become Commonplace," which was this year's winner for human justice and can be seen on the Blake's website along with all the others.