Intellectual all-star Kristeva (Possessions, 1998) offers this study of Arendt as the first installment of her new trilogy on female genius (the next two will deal with Melanie Klein and Colette).
Kristeva begins provocatively, questioning the very existence of the female genius and purposefully leaving the question unanswered. Her stance is doubly provocative in relation to Arendt, who would seem to qualify as a genius by anyone’s standards. Born in Linden, Germany, in 1906, Arendt was an intellectual prodigy who quarreled with her schoolteachers so relentlessly that she was eventually expelled for insubordination. This bad start notwithstanding, she went on to earn a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and became the protégé (and lover) of the influential philosopher Martin Heidegger. She first emerged as a major figure in philosophy and intellectual life with the 1951 publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism, a monumental work that argued against humanity’s own absurdity (in response to the cultural degradation of fascism, communism, and WWII) and offered a critique of the prevailing school of existentialism. But this is not a biography; Kristeva’s portrait takes the form of an intellectual dialogue between Arendt and herself. She integrates a full range of Arendt’s philosophical work into her study, and includes many texts that illuminate aspects of Arendt’s private life (including her correspondence with Heidegger and husband Herman Clucher, and extracts from the diary of Arendt’s mother). The portrait that emerges is quirky, intentionally subjective, and finely detailed.
Not a volume to be picked up lightly, unless you enjoy tussling with sentences heavily laden with philosophical jargon and esoterica—but Kristeva fans are a diehard and hardy bunch, and they’ll find plenty to be excited about here.