This piece appears in the upcoming issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal: The Epistolary Issue, No. 21
The language of letters is rife with its own banalities, small talk tics endemic to the form. Profound tragedy throws the mundane into sharp relief. In some cases, the tragic trivializes the ordinary, sends it shriveling up into its own smallness. But in other cases, the aura of the tragic exposes the tragedy within the mundane. Such is the case in the second letter in the correspondence, such as we have it, of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, two of the 20th century’s leading German-Jewish thinkers. (Though Arendt and Scholem died in 1975 and 1982, respectively, their 25-year-long correspondence, edited by Marie Luise Knott, was not published in Germany until 2011; it arrived in the United States in 2017, in Anthony David’s translation.) When Arendt composed this second letter, Scholem had already moved to Palestine, and Arendt was on her way to safety in the United States. In the first letter, from 1939, Arendt had written of her concern — and her hope — for their mutual friend, Walter Benjamin:
I’m really worried about Benji. I tried to line up something for him here but failed miserably. At the same time, I’m more than ever convinced how vital it is to put him on secure footing so he can continue his work. As I see it, his work has changed, down to his style. Everything strikes me as far more emphatic, less hesitant. It often seems to me as if he is only now making progress on the questions most decisive for him. It would be awful if he were to be prevented from continuing.
In the letter that follows, a year and a half later, Arendt finds herself tasked with the duty of passing on the news that her fear has come to terrible fruition. She writes:
Walter Benjamin took his own life on September 29 in Portbou on the Spanish frontier. He had an American visa, but on the twenty-third the only people the Spanish allowed to pass the border were those with “national” passports. I don’t know if this letter will reach you. In the past weeks and months I had seen Walter several times, the last time being on September 20 in Marseilles. The report of his death took nearly four weeks to reach both his sister and us.
Jews are dying in Europe and are being buried like dogs.
This letter is a brutal, bracing document: the report of a mutual friend’s suicide that doubles as a dispatch from the midst of the ongoing extermination of European Jewry. When I first read it, the sentence that cut me the deepest was neither the grimly restrained report of the suicide that opens the letter nor the poetic, almost biblical, flourish with which it ends, but rather the utterly banal, epistolary readymade at the missive’s heart: “I don’t know if this letter will reach you.” In one sense, Arendt writing this line is an easily understandable, practical matter. The uncertainty of receipt haunts every letter, but in this case, the particular conditions of World War II exacerbated the anxiety. Arendt did not know whether the letter would reach Scholem, and the sentence straightforwardly presents this fact. But the sentence also conveys something stranger at the core of this common sentiment. What is the sense in writing a sentence that will lose its meaning if the letter is, in fact, not received (in which case it will not be read by its recipient), but that, if it is received, will prove irrelevant (in which case it will have reached its recipient after all)? The semantics of the sentence are such that either possibility negates them. What can be made of an expression that contains this kind of dual illegibility?
It is, perhaps, a gesture toward the fundamental uncertainty at the heart of the intimacy established through letter-writing. Epistolary correspondence is always an act of reaching out in which the letter might not reach its intended recipient. Of course, this is true in the literal sense to which Arendt’s sentence most obviously and immediately refers, especially in the war-torn time during which Arendt and Scholem began their correspondence. But beyond this, the line highlights the way in which a letter is always an attempt for a person to come across despite distance — not only the distances of time and space, but also the subtler ones that separate us.
If it weren’t already clear from the circumstances of their lives as Jewish émigrés who had fled Germany (Arendt settled in New York City, Scholem in Jerusalem), both correspondents are explicit in their letters about the value of the communication as a salve for the world rupture through which they felt themselves living. In a 1942 letter, the first to Arendt after she made her way to New York, Scholem sets the stage for their correspondence to contain more than matters of historical or intellectual interest. He writes, “And don’t disdain writing to me about your daily goings-on. The world has become so torn apart that each and every detailed report from a different country is cause for great joy, especially when it comes from you.” In her response, Arendt echoes and advances Scholem’s sentiment. “It is a real comfort,” she writes, “to still be hearing from friends. Such letters are like minutely thin, strong threads. We’d like to convince ourselves that these threads are able to hold together what remains of our world.” She ends this letter with the request that Scholem should “be certain to write, and in detail,” and with a re-invocation of the analogy of letters to threads. “Until we see each other again,” she writes, “we don’t want these thin threads to tear.”
The story of The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem is the story of these threads stretching, holding strong — and ultimately tearing. Perhaps this was, and always is, inevitable. One of modernity’s great letter writers, Franz Kafka, in a rightly famous epistolary passage that seems to presage Arendt’s “I don’t know if this letter will reach you” (which, shed of its mundanity, acquires the grave resonance of a Kafka aphorism), questions the possibility of letters’ ability to reach anyone. In a letter to Milena Jesenská, Kafka writes (in Philip Boehm’s translation):
How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. Writing letters, on the other hand, means exposing oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily waiting precisely for that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way.
Here Kafka conceptualizes letter-writing as a futile communicative pursuit in the shadow of what is possible in physical proximity to another person, whom “one can hold on to.” (Despite his gloomy vision of what can come across in a letter, Kafka conducted his love affair with Jesenská almost entirely through epistolary encounters; the two met in person only twice.)
Scholem and Arendt, too, understood letter-writing in relation to the face-to-face encounter, though their analyses of the relation tended to be less dire than Kafka’s. In a diary entry, a young Scholem mused about the possibility of the “messianic moment” in letters, which are, as editor Marie Luise Knott describes, “simultaneously the place of both deferred and expected encounters.” Indeed, both kinds of encounters play a role in Arendt and Scholem’s correspondence. In the early years, while the war still rages, they look forward to meeting immediately after its end. Arendt, in a letter from January 1945, writes that she has sent Scholem some copies of articles that they might discuss when they’re finally able to see one another. She adds, wistfully, that “the only question now is in which cafe [they’ll] meet,” and that the meeting will occur at “five o’clock sharp.” She goes on: “This is gallows humor, for the question of when we’ll see one another again is beginning to play an ever-greater role for me personally — the Greeks rightly located the dramatic heart of tragedy to be the scene in which people recognize each other again.” She ends the letter with an acknowledgment of the relationship between letter-writing and face-to-face encounters and a reminder of the playfully set time: “Write soon — letters are a kind of surrogate. And don’t forget: after the war, five o’clock sharp!”
A few letters back and forth later, in August of that same year, Scholem mis-alludes to Arendt’s meeting time in a comment about the meeting’s unfortunate deferral. “As you can see,” he writes, “our plan to meet five minutes after the end of the war must be postponed, even though the war is already over in Europe.” Even in this gesture toward the relationship between written correspondence and encounters expected and deferred, there has been an error that shows something of the havoc that distance can wreak on communication. Arendt, for her part, picks up Scholem’s mistake without comment. She ends her response to this letter, in September of the same year, with this: “It’s now five minutes after war’s end and we still haven’t managed to make a date at the cafe around the corner.”
In a letter from November 1946, Scholem reports back from a trip from Europe:
My experiences in Europe were very gloomy and depressing, and I was extremely despondent by the time I returned home. In my opinion, there is a catastrophic chasm opening up between various Jewish communities in Europe, America, and Palestine. There is no overcoming this through any conceivable theory. Everything is falling apart, and people don’t understand one another.
This chasm gaped between Arendt and Scholem, too, as formerly European Jews who had left for the United States and Palestine, respectively. The greatest source of tension between the two friends — and, ultimately, the source of the dispute that put an end to their friendship — was rooted in this distance. Arendt’s increasingly critical relationship toward Zionism clashed with Scholem’s increasingly uncritical relationship to it. This disagreement irrupts into the otherwise companionable correspondence twice, each time as a result of something Arendt has published with which Scholem takes issue. The exchanges around these disputes, in which these two profound Jewish thinkers wrestle with what is likely the most historically important Jewish idea of the 20th century, contain the most interesting material in the correspondence. Sadly, though perhaps not incidentally, they are also the exchanges in which the two thinkers, in their inability to come across to one another, wear away at the threads that bind them.
In a long letter from January 1946, Scholem acknowledges the receipt of Arendt’s essay “Zionism Reconsidered” (which he tellingly mis-names as “Zionist Reconsidered”), thanks her, and writes, “I find myself in the extraordinarily disagreeable position of having to give you my opinion on the essay ‘Zionist Reconsidered,’ though I really don’t want to get into a life-or-death squabble with you.” He goes on to say that the essay “disappointed [him] so profoundly” and “somewhat embittered” him. Most of the rest of the letter is spent cataloging critiques, which range from the particular to the fundamental — for instance, he rebukes Arendt’s position on nationalism, writing, “I am a nationalist and am entirely unfazed by ostensibly ‘progressive’ denunciations of a position that people repeatedly, even in my earliest youth, wrote off as obsolete.” Scholem ends his letter with a mix of warmth and sarcasm. He refers to himself as “a longtime religious reactionary,” an ironic reappropriation of Arendt’s criticism of Zionism as reactionary. But Scholem is also frank about the rift this matter has caused between them and his desire to overcome it. He writes, “I’m counting on hearing from the more noble abysses in your heart. But we’ll never be able to connect through the arguments evidenced in your essay.”
Three months later, Arendt sent her response, in which she passes over some of the particulars to which Scholem attends and strikes straight to the heart of the matter: their disagreement over “nationalism” in theory and over its practical application to a Jewish nation-state. She asks, “how is it possible that someone can spend his life in the serious study of philosophy and theology and, ignoring all possible insights that can arise from these fields, can present himself as a believer in an ‘ism’?” On the issue of nationalism in practice as it pertains to Zionism, she writes:
[T]here is a very real danger that a consistent nationalist has no other choice but to become a racist. […] The metamorphosis of a people into a racial horde is an ever-present danger in our times. And you’ll surely agree with me that a racial horde has precious little to do with renewal, but it has a lot to do with ruin and destruction. […] I strongly believe that a Jewish nation-state would be a stupid and dangerous game.
Despite her directness, Arendt, too, ends her letter warmly. “So,” she writes in closing, “you should make your way here as soon as you can […] and let’s do our best to remain friends.” They do. In fact, their next exchange is among the sweetest in their correspondence. Scholem writes to Arendt from Paris in a letter that begins, “Mes chers amis — what a melancholic sight to be again in Paris and be reminded of the past days.” He does not mention their conflict, and it is easy to hear a meaning other than the explicit logistical one when he writes, “You will always reach me through the above address.” When Arendt responds, she also does not mention their impasse, and she expresses her desire to be with him:
You are probably already in Frankfurt. The sadness of Paris must have been nightmarish. I wish I could have been there with you. Even if it wouldn’t have helped at all, sometimes a witness from earlier times can at least help a person snap out of the unreality of melancholy.
Their disagreement lay dormant for nearly two decades, during which time their epistolary friendship flourished, until the publication of Arendt’s controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem, to which Scholem responded in a letter from June 1963. Scholem writes that, though “the book is not lacking in misunderstandings and errors,” he will concern himself only with its fundamental flaw, which is that, in Scholem’s view, the book unfairly treats the behavior of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. For Scholem, this reveals a deficiency in Arendt herself as a Jew. He writes, “There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete — what the Jews call ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, […] there is no trace of it.” Beyond this, Scholem takes issue with Arendt’s analysis of the justification for Eichmann’s execution and, crucially, with the very conception of “the banality of evil.” Near the letter’s end, Scholem writes, “I regret that, given my sincere and friendly feelings toward you, I have nothing positive to say about your theses in this work.”
The next month, Arendt responded at length, offering a point-by-point rejoinder. She agrees with Scholem’s assessment that she lacks ahavath Israel. She writes:
How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: first, I have never in my life “loved” some nation or collective. […] The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being.
At the same time that Arendt describes this great gulf between herself and Scholem, she also emphasizes their closeness by including a parenthetical remark that draws upon their intimacy as friends as well as their intimacy as thinkers engaged in complementary intellectual projects: “(by the way, I would be extraordinarily grateful to you if you could tell me when this expression began to play a role in the Hebrew language and literature, when it appeared for the first time, and so on).” This closeness is clear, too, in the way she signs the letter: “In old friendship.” This disagreement — again over incompatibilities in their visions for the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust — carries on, unlike the one that preceded it, and continues to develop in the letters that follow. It is clear that the old friends are having difficulty seeing the matter from one another’s point of view, though the warmth between them does not appear to dissipate.
In light of that warmth, the final letter in the correspondence, from Scholem to Arendt, comes as something of a shock. In a letter from July 1964, he writes to Arendt to tell her that he’ll be in New York to deliver a lecture on their friend Walter Benjamin. He is anxious that he has not heard from her in some time. He writes, “I don’t know how to interpret your silence — I haven’t heard from you since last fall.” He seems hopeful that a face-to-face encounter might restore what they’ve lost. “If we want to see one another again,” he writes, “this will be the opportune moment, if you are in New York at the time.” He gives her the details of where to reach him and writes, in closing, “So perhaps we’ll see one another again!” As far as we know, they never did. The distance between them proved insurmountable. If letters exist, as the young Scholem had written, in relation to encounters expected and deferred, it seems fitting that this correspondence reached its wrenching end in a meeting one party expected and the other, through silence, deferred indefinitely — and thus eternally.
Scholem, in a postscript to his letter critiquing Eichmann in Jerusalem, dated the day after the composition of the letter itself, writes:
Dear Hannah, I wrote the above yesterday evening, and I hope it reaches you somewhere. Do you have anything against my publishing this letter, perhaps by removing its epistlatory character and printing it in the third person? These questions relating to your book are of interest to far more people than just the two of us.
In her response, Arendt assents but “advise[s] against transforming it using the third-person voice.” She is, she says, “not at all opposed” to the publication of Scholem’s letter as long as it is printed alongside hers, with the epistolary character of the exchange preserved. For her, “the form of letters” is inseparable from any insight to be found in the words therein. “The value of our debate,” Arendt explains, “is that it takes place as an exchange of letters and is carried out on the foundation of friendship.”
Here we get a glimpse, in the moment in which Arendt and Scholem’s epistolary relationship — and their friendship — begins to collapse, of the transformation of their correspondence from a private matter to a public one. Though there is no way she could have known this, by insisting on the unique characteristics of the epistolary form, which cannot, as Scholem had suggested, rightly be simply “removed” from a piece of writing, Arendt was reminding Scholem of something he had, as a young man, known well. In the diaries of his youth, he had extolled the letter form in no less than exalted terms. Scholem writes (in Steven E. Aschheim’s translation):
Among the greatest and most elevating phenomena is the liberation that a letter produces in one, like some absolute religion. The freedom of the letter is perhaps the highest freedom that writing which is not the Bible can achieve. At the beginning of every letter that deserves the name stands the Schechinna [the presence of God] and, imperceptibly, sings the most audible song
The tragic irony is that, in their final failure to come across to one another, Scholem and Arendt have begun the work of coming across to others beyond them. Now that their letters have been published nearly in their entirety, this is their legacy. They are no longer letters as such, but letters as literature. I have come to think of the central drama of the letter as crystallized in the question: Have I come across? If this is so, then what question might capture the central drama of the published correspondence, of the epistolary exchange as for someone other than its participants? Perhaps it’s this: Has what might have come across between these thinkers come across to us? Of all that passed between these thinkers — these friends, these writers of letters — what has reached us?
The risk of not reaching and of not being reached is the very basis of the epistolary form. When Arendt, in her letter to Scholem reporting the tragic fact of Benjamin’s suicide, wrote, “I don’t know if this will reach you,” she inscribed the danger of illegibility that grounds legibility, the distance that makes intimacy possible. What comes across in her words is the uncertainty of coming across. Might this suggest a standard by which to evaluate a correspondence as a literary text? What reaches us in the letters of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem is, in part, the sense of how they could not reach one another and cannot quite reach us either. What arrives is precisely the non-arrival. But this is not nothing. It is even its own kind of triumph.