I have been reading Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s stellar biography, Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World, in preparation for an upcoming NEH summer seminar on “The Political Theory of Hannah Arendt: The Problem of Evil and the Origins of Totalitarianism” at Bard College. This morning’s reading introduced me to the roots of Arendt’s distinction between parvenus and pariahs. As Young-Bruehl points out, Arendt came to this distinction through experiences with the elitist Parisian Jewry of Robert de Rothschild, who “argued that the influx of immigrants [who were escaping Nazi persecution] presented several grave dangers to the Jewish community [in France]” (p. 120), and through Kurt Blumenfeld’s Zionism and Bernard Lazare’s brave support of Alfred Dreyfus during the Dreyfus Affair (p. 121). Parvenus were socially ambitious and only political to the extent that it protected their social status, but pariahs were socially conscious and politically active, they were “politically conscious pariahs” (p. 121). This distinction carried over into Arendt’s later distinction between the social and political realms in The Human Condition. The social realm was the realm of the parvenu, and the political realm was the realm of the conscious pariah (p. 122). But what does it mean to be a politically conscious pariah, is there a difference between being a pariah and being an outcast or an outlaw?
Vincent van Gogh’s Irises (1889) has always possessed a triumphant quality for me. It was painted by a pariah in an asylum. Van Gogh had voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in Saint-Rémy, France after his self-mutilation, where he hoped to heal. In the painting, amidst the vast sea of blue irises being blown about by the wind, a lone white iris stands erect, as if in protest, triumphantly resistant. This seems an apt illustration of Arendt’s conception of the politically conscious pariah. Conscious pariahs resist the “winds” of conformity and stand erect like Bernard Lazare during the Dreyfus Affair, or Karl Jaspers in Nazi Germany. They are beautiful in their peculiarity, and there is something tragically heroic in their non-conformist stance that inspires hope, but also melancholy because of their inevitable suffering. But is every social outcast a conscious pariah? Is it enough simply to be odd or strange?
For Arendt, being a social outcast did not constitute one as a conscious pariahs, one had to take a stand, to refuse assimilation, and enter the realm of political action. As Young-Bruehl related in her Preface to Hannah Arendt: For the Love of the World, “In Hannah Arendt’s personal lexicon, wirkliche Menschen, real people, were ‘pariahs.’ Her friends were not outcasts, but outsiders, sometimes by choice and sometimes by destiny. In the broadest sense, they were unassimilated. ‘Social nonconformism,’ she once said bluntly, ‘is the sine qua non of intellectual achievement.’ And, she might well have added, also of human dignity” (p. xv). To be a conscious pariah means to think, speak, and act independently of all the forces that demand conformity, whether social, political, or religious. It means to stand triumphantly like a singular white iris amidst a sea of blue flowers, to resist conformity. But, being a conscious pariah also requires action—that peculiar human activity, which Arendt described in The Human Condition as “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, [and] corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (I.1, p. 7). Conscious pariahs, in their courageous non-conformity, remind us of our absolute singularity as human beings, and they resist all forces that seek to obscure or annihilate this singularity.