There is no way back

October 14, 2006

“The reason why we are unable to predict the result and the end of an action with certainty is that an action has no end.”

– Hannah Arendt (from: “The Human Condition”, German edition: “Vita Activa”)

The Arte channel in Germany brought a long portrait of the German-American political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) yesterday. Looking for a quote for one of my business school courses, I found the quote above (my translation from the German – though the original is in English), which left a deep impression on me. She distinguishes between processes that have a material result (a product) and others. “Nothing that is ever done, can be taken back” could be a short form of her statement.

Why am I posting this here? – Because a female student of mine complained about another professor: “Somehow he looks down on women – I cannot really pin him down, I just feel it”. That made me think on whether and how I exclude women in my class, and I realise that, in my weekly quotes, I only ever quote male artists, scientists etc. So there: next week’s quote will be Hannah Arendt.

It is interesting to see her on TV (there are a number of interviews from the 1960s): she seems so different from other women on TV – they are so terribly well-behaved these days! Everybody is! During the sessions, she smokes incessantly, hits the armchair with her right hand in the rhythm of her sentences, she speaks a lot. Some of this is a change in TV interview culture in the past 50 years. Some of it is her personality and fate (a Jewish emigrant to the U.S., who lost her father at age 6). Some of it is her role as a thinking women in a culture, and at a time, when people still were not used to seeing women succeed publicly, and certainly not in philosophy. She does not come across as very traditionally “feminine” when she opens her mouth – she radiates intensity and passion for thought.

It would be interesting to show interviews with Hannah Arendt to my female clients and ask them for their impressions, in particular in comparison to how they believe they are permitted to express themselves in public!

And here is the counterpoint, a quote by the admirable (for me, anyay) British novelist Fay Weldon – not known to be very well behaved (thank God):

“The New Women! I could barely recognize them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they live! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn’t bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don’t like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn’t suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them.”

Of course, Weldon exaggerates to provoke and stir up discussion. She comments on the passing of time. It sounds shocked only at first reading – she really admires these women. Who define themselves more through their actions than through the mirror-image of society. They do what men have done ever since – why shouldn’t they? Perhaps quite a bit more like Hannah Arendt, and less like Elizabeth Bennett.

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