Rahel Varn­hagen: The Life of a Jew­ish Woman

Han­nah Arendt; Clara Win­ston and Richard Win­ston, trans.

  • Review
By – June 14, 2022

Han­nah Arendt began her slim, but psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly com­plex, biog­ra­phy of Rahel Varn­hagen dur­ing the Weimar Repub­lic and fin­ished it in 1955, over twen­ty years after she had start­ed it. Arendt nev­er lost sight of the project — when she first arrived in the Unit­ed States in 1941, she imme­di­ate­ly inquired about the man­u­script, which had been entrust­ed to her ex-hus­band for safe keep­ing, and its where­abouts. The book didn’t receive a U.S. edi­tion until 1974, and one gets the sense that, in the forty years she worked on the project, Arendt was liv­ing almost along­side Rahel. The depth of her devo­tion to the project is itself a memo­r­i­al to Rahel Varn­hagen, a liv­ing embod­i­ment of her life’s work.

Rahel Varn­hagen was born Rahel Levin in 1771. She served as a key fig­ure in Berlin’s cul­tur­al land­scape; although she nev­er received a for­mal edu­ca­tion, Rahel was a gift­ed cura­tor and host­ed salons known for wel­com­ing a wide vari­ety of thinkers, from artists to politi­cians. It was her Jew­ish­ness, par­tial­ly, that made Rahel approach­able; she was an out­sider and there­fore un-intim­i­dat­ing to writ­ers and per­form­ers, them­selves self-con­scious. The same out­sider iden­ti­ty that allowed her to thrive as a stew­ard of cre­ative thought, how­ev­er, caused Rahel an acute sense of iso­la­tion. Even­tu­al­ly, Rahel left Berlin and mar­ried a Chris­t­ian man (he lat­er devot­ed him­self to pre­serv­ing her impres­sive­ly large cor­re­spon­dence that, when pub­lished, became one of the most famous books by a woman of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry). Even after her mar­riage and con­ver­sion, though, Rahel con­tin­ued to feel the shame of her iden­ti­ty — an iden­ti­ty she felt was innate and inescapable — and spent her life in some­thing like psy­cho­log­i­cal exile, aware that she, as a woman born Jew­ish, would always be regard­ed as foreign.

In her review for The Recon­struc­tion­ist, writer Sybille Bed­ford called Arendt’s biog­ra­phy curi­ous­ly oppres­sive.” Indeed, the book almost imme­di­ate­ly seems to engage in a three-way wrestling match between the read­er, Rahel, and itself. One wades rather than floats through the text; one feels the des­per­a­tion of Rahel’s exis­ten­tial explo­ration of her­self as a Jew, Ger­man, and woman acute­ly. In addi­tion to pon­der­ing ques­tions like the inevitabil­i­ty of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the biog­ra­phy is high­ly emo­tion­al. Arendt depicts Varnhagen’s love affairs and friend­ships with deep emo­tion, often weav­ing togeth­er let­ters and diary entries (which, Arendt writes, in any case nev­er told more than she would have in her let­ters”). This is not a tra­di­tion­al por­trait of a life, but rather the recon­struc­tion of a mind.

In her effort to depict Rahel, Arendt reveals much of her­self. Her tone betrays crit­i­cism of Rahel’s effort to anni­hi­late her­self and her ori­gin” and at times she seems to lose patience with her sub­ject. Rahel exhibits an extreme ver­sion of a very human impulse, to under­stand her­self through oth­ers, and one gets the sense that she would have found Arendt’s biog­ra­phy to be a par­tic­u­lar­ly fit­ting trib­ute. Had not her life been a ghost sto­ry only because she had nev­er encoun­tered any­one of equal rank who could have con­firmed the fact that she, too, was real’?” Arendt asks at the end of the book. Arendt’s trib­ute to Rahel is, per­haps, the very solu­tion that her sub­ject need­ed in order to stop try­ing to shed her Jew­ish­ness. Through her work, Arendt has pre­vent­ed Rahel from becom­ing a ghost.

Discussion Questions