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RAHEL VARNHAGEN by Hannah Arendt Kirkus Star

RAHEL VARNHAGEN

The Life Of A Jewish Woman-revised Edition

By Hannah Arendt

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1974
ISBN: 0156761009
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Intellectual history as biography; and biography as the reconstruction from letters and diaries of the inner life and passions of a Jew disenfranchised on account of "infamous birth." As the center of a salon of Jewish intellectuals in Berlin, Rahel nee Levin was an arch-Romantic who championed Goethe, advising a friend to read him "as one read the Bible in distress." At a time when the fact that someone could be melancholy accredited him as a decent human being, Rahel wrote that "my assigned task was life" and threw herself into a series of improbable relationships with men that yielded misery, "higher suffering," and disgrace -- that burden of disgrace that in the symbolism of her dream world was equivalent to Jewishness. Her fate was to unconsciously transmute (writes Arendt) "the attempt to assimilate, the effort to climb and to set one's house in order, into a love-affair." After her last-chance marriage in middle-age to a much younger, slightly boorish man of "priestly fidelity," she arrived: from Rahel Levin she converted to Friedrike Varnhagen von Ense -- Christian, citizen, noblewoman, wife of a government official -- only to discover that it had been just her exile and her unhappiness that made her what she was and gave her, in Arendt's words, "a place in the history of European humanity." An argument, then, against assimilation, completed, according to the author's preface, "when I left Germany in 1933." Arendt's insight into the psychology and the situation of pariah and parvenu is essential.