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Cover of book: Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman

Hannah Arendt
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman

In Rahel Varnhagen, reissued this month for the New York Review of Books Classics series, Hannah Arendt considers her subject “a rebel”. Written in the 1930s but not published until 1957, this intimate biography reflects Arendt’s own story of fragile love and precarity. Excluded as Jews and women, the otherness of both provided a basis for social criticism – the inability of their social worlds to live up to the promise of a universal community – and allowed them to “see life as a whole”.

Rahel Varnhagen née Levin (1771-1833) was an enigmatic figure of German intellectual life at the turn of the 19th century. This Romantic and Idealist literary and philosophical milieu, which included Goethe, Schlegel, Fichte, Hegel and Heine, was marked by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Varnhagen hosted salons in Berlin that allowed her to speak with others as an individual despite the disadvantages of being Jewish, a woman and poor. She was enamoured with Goethe, who showed her the “generalizing power of poetry”. Varnhagen’s own poetry lay in the letters written to her guests, and several thousand were published posthumously by her husband.

Arendt’s biography is striking for its sensitive portrayal of Varnhagen’s emotional life as well as for the early appearance of many of Arendt’s important philosophical concepts. The prose is markedly different from her later work and partially reflects a homage to Goethe. The book reads as if it’s taken directly from a diary, with accounts of Varnhagen’s appreciation of beauty and pleasure, and even deciphers her recurring dreams. For Arendt, “[w]hat interested me solely was to narrate the story of Rahel’s life as she herself might have told it”.

Most dramatically, Varnhagen’s life is marked by her failures in love and her desire for joy amid great sadness, recalling Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The reasons for Arendt’s sensitivity to this can be found in her own life. The book was written in the aftermath of her formative but tense relationship with Martin Heidegger and shortly before she fled Nazi Germany as a Jewish refugee in 1933. The manuscript was one of the few possessions she carried with her.

In Varnhagen, Arendt identifies the Jewish pariah, the rebel who resists the assimilation of the modern bourgeois world. The pariah fights for emancipation as a Jew and in solidarity with all oppressed people. On Arendt’s account: “Freedom and equality were not going to be conjured into existence by individuals’ capturing them by fraud as privileges for themselves. Rahel had remained a Jew and pariah. Only because she clung to both conditions did she find a place in the history of European humanity.”

Most significantly, both women understood profoundly that an exclusive community is too limited to be free. The Jewish pariah, says Arendt, can only find a home by holding fast to an internationalist community, defying exclusion and inequality.

Michael Lazarus

NYRB Classics, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman, Hannah Arendt".

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Reviewer: Michael Lazarus

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