Against Compassion: Post-traumatic Stories in Arendt, Benjamin, Melville, and Coleridge

Arendt Studies 6:223-246 (2023)
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The paper suggests that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s arguments against sympathy after the French Revolution, Walter Benjamin’s claims against empathy following the traumatic shock of Modernity and the First World War, and Hannah Arendt’s critical take on compassion. after the Holocaust are similar responses to singular historical crises. Reconsidering Arendt’s On Revolution (1963) and its evocation of Hermann Melville’s novella Billy Budd (1891), I show first that the novella bears the traces of an essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Appeal to Law” (1809). Then, drawing on Walter Benjamin’s writings on trauma in Illuminations (1968, edited by Arendt), I discuss the political importance Arendt attaches to the proper way of telling a story, at a time when “the communicability of experience is decreasing” (Benjamin, Illuminations, 86). Through the analysis of Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and Arendt’s “heartless” report on the Eichmann trial (1963), I equally show that, according to Arendt, testimonies must be narrated, or rather performed, in a dispassionate, dry, and compact manner so that they can be historically and politically relevant.

Author's Profile

Andrea Timar
Eotvos Lorand University of Sciences (PhD)


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