Amour and Armour: A Conversation with Lyndsey Stonebridge

Samantha Rose Hill interviews Lyndsey Stonebridge about her new book “We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt's Lessons in Love and Disobedience.”

Amour and Armour: A Conversation with Lyndsey Stonebridge

We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience by Lyndsey Stonebridge. Hogarth. 368 pages.

SINCE THE PUBLICATION of Lyndsey Stonebridge’s latest book in January, We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience, I’ve had the pleasure of dancing in and out of her book tour in London and Oxford. This interview is a part of our ongoing conversation. As we exchanged letters, we remained acutely aware of the fast-changing political situation: the rising death toll in Gaza, elections in the United Kingdom, the emergence of a mass global protest movement, and the long shadow cast by the impending US presidential election.

At a time when our world is being rocked by political violence and civil disobedience, We Are Free to Change the World appears like a time-out, echoing Arendt’s axiom to stop and think what we are doing. Part biography of Hannah Arendt, part personal narrative in search of what Arendt’s work might teach us today, Stonebridge’s book asks readers to engage in the work of imagining. What does it mean to imagine a different world? And what might we do to bring about real political change?

At the heart of her conversation with Arendt is the quiet observation that to live in this world, to love it, and to act in it, one must be vulnerable—vulnerable to others, vulnerable to physical and verbal harm, vulnerable to death. Is there a way to harness that vulnerability and turn it into a form of political power? And what happens when the biographer places vulnerability at the heart of her narrative about a female thinker? What happens when she begins with that most private part of the self—the body?


SAMANTHA ROSE HILL: I want to start at the beginning. You begin your book with the image of Hannah Arendt in a hospital bed. She’s just been in a horrible car accident. Her ribs are shattered, her teeth are cracked, her face is scarred, her body is broken. She tells her best friend Mary McCarthy that, despite everything, she’s in good spirits. She feels a bit like a little kid. Why did you choose to begin there? We often hear words like guilt, dignity, or virtue in politics, but vulnerability and shame still seem to belong to the innermost private realm. How are you thinking about the relationship between vulnerability and politics?

LYNDSEY STONEBRIDGE: Arendt had that car accident in Central Park in 1962. I’d never paid it that much attention before. When I was younger, it was the bold and fearless Hannah Arendt who drew me: the woman who said she’d laughed out loud at Adolf Eichmann and who, in her final interview (with French journalist Roger Errera), wore large sunglasses and a bright yellow dress and insisted she was not—contemptuous wave of her cigarette—having any of this raison d’état business (the context was the Pentagon Papers).

But as I wrote my book, a different Arendt came into view, and I began to see how her political toughness was there in order to protect the frailty that she saw at the heart of the human condition. Recently, I came across a passage in a 1957 letter she wrote to her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers that sums this up beautifully. “Alienation and rootlessness, if we only understand them aright, make it easier to live in our time,” she writes. “And we certainly should allow ourselves that little bit of relief. They’re like a skin that grows onto us from the outside. And because of that skin, we can afford to remain sensitive and vulnerable.”

This blew my mind. “Alienation and rootlessness” describes her thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), right? A radical sense of dispossession was the reason people became so vulnerable to lies, conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, and, finally, totalitarianism. Alienation and rootlessness are the bad things. But here she’s saying something else: that they might also be useful. What’s going on? Now, Arendt knows that the denial of reality is the first step towards tyranny, so she’s never going to try and wish some alienation and rootlessness away, because she knows that’s incredibly dangerous. Instead—and look at those metaphors of skin, touch, intimacy—she is saying that maybe there’s a distance that allows us to remain sensitive and vulnerable—that is, human.

So, yes, sure, of course vulnerability belongs to the private realm in her thought, but what she’s after, too, is a politics that can nourish and protect vulnerability. There are perhaps two ways we can think about politics and vulnerability with this in mind. On the one hand, the consequences of a political denial of vulnerability—we perhaps need a stronger word than denial here—are evident everywhere, and are frankly terrifying. Even before what’s been happening in Gaza, we could see in Putin and, to a lesser extent, in Trump, a puffing, posturing of power, a pseudo-power meant to give the impression that vulnerability could be conquered (the feminist critic Jacqueline Rose, following Arendt, calls this “impotent bigness”). And in Israel and Gaza, we have an absolutely catastrophic response to vulnerability: a bloody, awful massacre, followed by a politically and morally insane war of brutal annihilation. Climate change denial—the inability to face up to the extreme and present realities of a damaged planet—is part of this too.

But on the other hand, when you have no choice but to see the world for what it is (achingly frail) and your situation in it, which for many is a position of powerlessness, this is also a place for beginning, and that’s what Arendt was doing in her hospital bed: working out how to begin again. I was extremely touched (there’s that metaphor again) when the Palestinian writer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh quoted my gloss on Arendt on this point: “It is when the experience of powerlessness is at its most acute, when history seems at its most bleak, that the determination to think like a human being, creatively, courageously, and complicatedly matters the most.” Violence, Arendt would say, is one response to powerlessness—violence will change the world, but the most likely change it will bring is only more violence. Beginning again, with the recognition of vulnerability but also of the courage, realism, and commitment necessary to a true politics, is another response.

So that’s why I began with Arendt bruised and battered—to make the connection between sensitivity and vulnerability and courage, politics, and beginning again. I’d also just been in a very similar accident, and at exactly the same age as Arendt, so you might say I was very open to how the world looked from the perspective of a middle-aged woman with her face and teeth smashed in.

“Touch” is a word Arendt uses a lot throughout her work. In The Human Condition (1958), she writes, “Whatever touches or enters into a sustained relationship with human life immediately assumes the character of a condition of human existence. This is why men, no matter what they do, are always conditioned beings.” She is making the point that nothing is inherently political, nothing is born into this world with some kind of original sin.

In her letter to Jaspers, I think she is saying that alienation and rootlessness serve as a skin that protects us from the more violent touch of ideology, that it is an evolutionary defense mechanism grown in response to constantly being touched by politics. I’m reminded of a line in the Errera interview where she says that “laughter helps one to find a place in the world, but ironically, which is to say, without selling one’s soul to it.” Laughter seems to be to part of that skin too. A way for that inner self to protest against and perhaps repel those conquering forces.

Putin, Trump, Netanyahu. At the moment, as I write this, more than 34,000 Palestinians have been massacred. The hostages do not seem to be a priority. College and university presidents are letting the police loose on student protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and handcuffs. We are at a tipping point. Elections in the United Kingdom, a presidential election looming on the horizon in the United States. I want to ask: How thick does our skin have to get, Hannah? How does one maintain a perspective of moral complexity and personal responsibility in this moment? How can we retain our humanness when the world is showing us how terrible it can be?

Well, yes, exactly: the danger must be that our skin grows so thick that there is no space left inside for sensitivity and vulnerability (or for thought and solitude, Arendt would add). We would be creatures made entirely of armor. The image that comes to mind is Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play Rhinocéros, about the takeover of a village by the “rhinoceritis movement”—i.e., a totalitarian movement. Eventually everyone in the village (except for one person) turns into a rhinoceros, and the play concludes with the onward march of the thick-skinned that Ionesco, like Arendt, experienced firsthand in 20th-century Europe. Ionesco wrote his play in 1959, so about the same time that Arendt was writing that letter to Jaspers.

I agree with you about laughter and especially about irony. Maybe sharing a sense of the absurd is a way of wearing our skin more lightly? She quotes Brecht in that Errera interview too, if I remember rightly: “The great political criminals must be exposed and especially exposed to laughter.” The thing about irony, as Arendt understood so beautifully, is that it is deadly serious. Schlegel in Lucinde (1799) says that irony exists for the purpose of expressing profound seriousness (“A joke is free and universal”). W. G. Sebald said that irony “operat[es] on the borders of what language can convey.” Arendt operates exactly on that border; irony is her way of keeping the brokenness of the modern world on the page and in her voice—of keeping distance but still being in the conversation. This is partly what the ironic tone in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) was about—a doubling of a voice of appalled despair, which is why she said that three minutes before certain death, she would still be laughing at Eichmann.

But in the Errera interview she also says that she knows that in her Eichmann reports she struck a note that many could not cope with—people didn’t want an ironic conversation about the Holocaust. She says that her laughter was “innocent” and “unreflective.” It’s an odd comment (and recalls her own criticism of Brecht’s naivety). I hear vulnerability again in that confession, and possibly regret. Not that she’d ever change her mind about Eichmann—she’s going to be laughing until her death—but there’s a worry, too, about what happens when irony—like skin—fails to do its protective work.

Thinking about humor is perhaps another way of phrasing the question about the spaces of political life, and about what happens when the fences that keep us human collapse. What happens when the laughter isn’t funny anymore? Do you remember Melania Trump’s hideous and profoundly unfunny coat—“I really don’t care[,] do u?”—which she wore to visit imprisoned children in Texas? The death of irony, many said at the time, and they were absolutely right. We live in unironic and ungenerous times. This isn’t simply vicious and unpleasant; it points to a lack of depth—a kind of flatlining of the inner senses. Arendt thought it was possible to be human so long as we kept the distinctions between realms (private, public, political, etc.) clear. Right now, I’m not so sure.

At this moment, the main mood instead seems to be one of quite overwhelming but largely unspoken grief, as though we’re mourning both the loss of the lives of others and—which is possibly worse in the long run—the loss of our responsiveness to others. The loss of humanness—perhaps of touch, to go back to your quote from The Human Condition.

On a possibly more hopeful note, this also takes us back to the theme of powerlessness. In 1964, Arendt wrote that it takes a certain “moral quality” to even “recognize powerlessness […] to face realities and not to live in illusions.” But then she says that it’s exactly in that recognition that we might find strength “or even power”—the power to begin again, the always and forever possibility of action, which we are seeing, among many other places (Iran and Georgia come to mind), across university campuses this summer.

There’s a nice echo between armor and amour. Let’s talk about both. Central to your book is the idea that we must put ourselves in the place of another, to go wandering in our imagination, as Arendt put it (borrowing from Kant’s Critique of Judgment). Can you talk us through what it means to have thick skin and how that might help or hinder us in imagining ourselves in the position of another? Arendt’s misguided attempt to put herself in the position of a Black mother in the American South during desegregation comes to mind.

I love that echo between armor and amour, since Arendt so often pirouettes—sometimes dangerously—between love and defensiveness. Her version of Kant’s “enlarged mentality” insists that we train ourselves to visit the perspective of others: not to empathize (she was always on the side of politics, not pity) but to grasp just how different we, and our opinions, are from one another. But, as with all matters of the will, that effort can go awry. When Arendt objected to the campaign for school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and, in particular, to Elizabeth Eckford’s long lone walk, she thought she was defending Eckford, the children, and education as a nonpolitical space. But you’re right, she was also letting her own vulnerability—her memories of being a Jewish kid amid rising antisemitism—and, yes, possibly love, leak into her judgment.

“Misguided” is right, but I think you can see how that Kantian world of common sense and judgment that she is so committed to simply cannot contain the realities of racism—including Arendt’s own. The poet and philosopher Fred Moten really clarified this point for me. He writes that Arendt cannot—chooses not to—see Eckford: “Neither the ‘Negro girl’ nor her actions appear to Arendt. Eckford is unseen because she is neither seen nor heard to see.” The irony is, of course, that Eckford was precisely enacting the “promise of politics” so dear to Arendt: courage, action, visibility—acting from a position of vulnerable powerlessness to claim political citizenship. That is more or less what she says when she later writes to Ralph Ellison, who criticized her “Olympian” arrogance in this matter, and she tells him that he’s right. I didn’t get the aspect of sacrifice, she says; I did not see.

I want to go back and ask: What is the difference between indifference and grief these days? Is the burden of our grief so heavy that indifference is needed to simply go about life? Is that what Arendt is talking about when she talks about our inability to be shocked? Is indifference an expression of being overwhelmed—the idea that there is too much to care about? My suspicion is that mass indifference is a reflection of what Arendt called the “atomization of the masses,” and the extent to which people feel isolated from one another, and so incapable of acting in a meaningful way that might bring about real change. I want to add that in this political moment, that’s why I find the student protest movement so hopeful.

The invisibility of the powerless is also a way into your final question about the difference between grief and indifference. Yes, the “atomization of the masses” makes either meaningful collective grief or collective action seem almost impossible. I was rereading her essay on the cosmopolitanism of her former professor, and lifelong intellectual companion, Karl Jaspers, the other day. “The solidarity of mankind may well turn out to be an unbearable burden,” she says there. Faced with grief, terror, and horror—inhumanity—“it is not surprising that the common reactions to it are political apathy, isolationist nationalism, or desperate rebellion against all powers that be.” We can’t carry the “unbearable burden,” so the choice seems to be between cynical pessimism and “reckless optimism.” Not good back then, and certainly not good now. But if the collective banners of humanism, or even of social democracy, are now tattered, and even if our grief is inarticulate, this doesn’t mean that change, new beginnings, and meaningful action are not possible. The demise of ideologies might be the trigger for a more active politics.

So, I share your hope about the student protest movement, but with some qualifications. In the US context, it’s significant that an apparent “foreign policy” issue has “come home to roost” (to adapt Arendt’s phrase for the humiliation of Vietnam). That’s new and obviously important in terms of domestic politics. But I also wonder what Arendt might have made of the sight of so many masked student protestors. What does it say about the state of a polity when you’re scared that your actions might irreparably damage your ability to finish your education, get a job, and make an economic life? It’s a grim sight, and a world away from the politics of visibility and creative agonism that she prized. In this sense, the spectacle of masking is also a marking out—a paradoxical unmasking of exactly what the United States has become.

I also suspect that the most “Arendtian” politics right now are happening outside the United States. Look at how Generation Z have taken the lead in the Georgia protests; look again at the creativity and tenacity of the resistance to Russia. Look—and talk to me of courage—of the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests in Iran and Kurdistan. “Be prepared for freedom,” these movements insist again and again. This too, in the end, is the main lesson that the bashed-up, vulnerable, flawed Hannah Arendt has for us in the 21st century. “The conditions of human existence cannot explain who we are or tell us how to be for the simple reason that they never condition us absolutely,” she wrote in The Human Condition. In other words, and despite all, “we are free to change the world.”


Lyndsey Stonebridge is a professor of humanities and human rights at the University of Birmingham (UK) and a fellow of the British Academy. Her previous books include Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees (2018), winner of the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize and a Choice Outstanding Academic Title; The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg (2011), which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for English Literature; and the essay collection Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights (2021). She is a regular media commentator and broadcaster. She lives in London and France.

LARB Contributor

Samantha Rose Hill is the author of Hannah Arendt (Reaktion Books, 2021) and the editor and translator of What Remains: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt (Liveright, November 2024). She is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research in New York City. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksLit HubopenDemocracy, and the journals Public SeminarContemporary Political Theory, and Theory & Event.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!