Does Hannah Arendt’s Reading of “The Human Condition” Pass or Fail the Schlemiel Test?


Who we are, in many ways, has to do with how we appear to others.  The interpretation of our actions by other people may determine how we think of ourselves and how we will be regarded by what Hannah Arendt – the Jewish-German philosopher- calls “the world.”   Furthermore, for Arendt, “who” we are – as opposed to “what” we are – is to be found in the space of appearance (how we disclose or are disclosed to others).  And that space is the space of the world.    And this appearance and its interpretation are all based on action – what Arendt – citing the Latin – calls Vita Activa (the “life of action”).

While I find all of these philosophical readings of identity interesting, I wonder how (or whether) Arendt’s readings of identity, appearance, world, and action would pass what I call the schlemiel test.     But before we subject her readings to the “schlemiel test,” let’s briefly introduce them.

In the opening of chapter five of her book (aptly titled “Action”), The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt introduces “human plurality” as the condition for the possibility of “both action and speech.”  Writing on plurality, Arendt argues that it has the “twofold character of equality and distinction.”  On the one hand, if “men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them.”  On the other hand, we have distinction: “if men were not distinct,” they would “need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood.”

Of the two elements, Arendt is most interested in what makes us all distinct.  And what makes one distinct, as we can see above, is speech and action:

A life without speech and action…is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.  (176)

Arendt gives such weight to speech and action that she associates it with a “second birth.”  For Arendt, this second birth is perhaps the most important aspect of the human condition:

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.  (176)

This second birth evinces the power of freedom since our “insertion” of ourselves into the “world” is a free act.  Arendt says that it “responds” to our “first birth” by “beginning something new of our own initiative”(177).   This leads Arendt to her theory of identity which basically posits that “who” we are is determined by this “initiative” to “insert” ourselves into the world.  Our “distinct” character – our “who” – comes out by way of action.

Action, argues Arendt, has a revelatory power if and only if it is accompanied by speech:

Without the accompaniment of speech…action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject.  (178)

Arendt calls people who perform without speech “performing robots”(178).   Their “speechless action” will be perceived as “brute physical appearance.”   For Arendt, there is nothing unique about this since nothing unique is “disclosed.”  Hence, Arendt’s principle:

In acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.  (179)

Speech – together with action – is a “disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is”(179).    But there is a lot at stake: this who can become a what.   As Arendt says, one must “be willing to risk” the disclosure (180).  The risk is that one’s appearance to the world may be rejected; and one may not find a place in the world of plurality as a “who” but as a “what.”  Regardless, without speech action loses its “revelatory character”(178).  And once one speaks, one risks one’s identity and puts it before the world (as the court of judgment).

We are now ready for the schlemiel test.

Arendt had a love/hate relationship with the schlemiel (I have been pointing this out in this blog and I will be writing more on this in my book and in forthcoming essays on the topic).  What I glean from a book like The Human Condition is not so much the identity of the schlemiel as the anti-thesis of the schlemiel.  To be sure, I wonder if Arendt’s criteria for being “distinct” could be applied to the schlemiel.

First of all, the schlemiel, as Arendt points out in other works (which I will be discussing in my book), does not live in the world.  Arendt points out that the Jewish people didn’t have the privilege of being-in-the-world since they were excluded from the world and history.  The schlemiel is – more or less – a move in the direction of the world and history, but it falls short.   The schlemiel – as pariah – has meaning in its opposition to the world.  But, as I have pointed out in an earlier blog entry, Arendt (and she also claims Kafka) dreamt of a world where Jews could be “normal.”    But, that’s the point, it didn’t have that world only because the world couldn’t take the words and actions of Jews seriously.

In other words, I suggest we read the schlemiel against Arendt’s Greek model for the world (which I discussed above; to be sure, there is no mention of the schlemiel or the Pariah in The Human Condition; it is a Greek kind of text and openly takes a lot from the ancient Greeks and their passion for the world, politics, and action).   If we do this, we will see that the schlemiel falls short of her model for identity.

Taking this suggestion to heart, we should take a close look at the schlemiel’s character vis-à-vis Arendt’s criteria for being-in-the-world.  To begin with the schlemiel doesn’t understand the meaning of the risks he or she takes with this or that word which compliments this or that action.  This implies that their actions really aren’t risks.  If we look at a schlemiel like Gimpel, for instance, we see that his act of trusting everyone is a risk.  Although everyone lies to him and laughs at him for trusting them, it is still a risk.  But it’s not conscious.  He naturally trust people, it seems; otherwise, there is something in him that drives him to trust others.  But what we see is that the world is at fault.  The world that Arendt so  prizes is the very world which rejects the trust that a Jew like Gimpel has for it’s plurality.

In addition, the schlemiel’s actions and – as Arendt might say – the words that “reveal” the “who” are always – from the perspective of the world – wrong.  This would imply that the schlemiel will not be regarded as a “who” so much as a “what.”   He is defined by his failure to speak and act in a proper manner.

In other words, the schlemiel fails Arendt’s identity test.

But, on the other hand, her reading of speech, action, and identity fail the schlemiel test.  They do so because the schlemiel is someone who speaks by way of indirection.  The schlemiel is in the world but not of the world.  And this difference is a challenge to the Greek model that Arendt so lovingly quotes.  The irony of it all is that Arendt herself – like the schlemiel (who stands between the Jewish and the Greek) is a Greek-Jew.  She, however, identified more with the heroic model of the Greeks.  But that model can only work if one’s speech and actions are heard; if they are not, then one will, in her view, just be a robot: whose physical actions appear and are seen but are ultimately just “brute facts” of one’s physical existence.  The fact that they are not backed up by speech (the kind of speech uttered by the hero) means that these actions have lost their “revelatory character.”   The schlemiel is not a “who” – he is a “what” (that is, he is defined as a fool who lacks power and agency).

The schlemiel, in this view, evinces a brute, robotic (read mechanical, in the sense meant by the philosopher Henri Bergson) kind of existence.  But this is far from the case.  His existence is more revelatory of injustice – which challenges the world – than heroic words and deeds.  The schlemiel – an outsider/insider – has an important place in the world.  And this place is based on the fact that it’s challenges are neither heroic nor conscious.  As Ruth Wisse says, he’s an “unlikely hero.”  He is the kind of hero that we won’t find in the pages of The Human Condition.   And that’s the rub: he fails one test (the one posed by Arendt), but wins another.

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