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Hannah Arendt, The Man of Action, and She Who Watches

This piece is based on the experiences of Jane Kinzler when she was a student at Barnard College in 1967. We spoke several times, expanding upon her account, uncovering more details, before she passed away from cancer in November 2015. JJ (John Jacobs) was famous as a fiery campus radical on the Columbia University campus. He became one of the leaders of the 1968 occupation and strike, then one of the authors of the Weatherman Manifesto. He remained a fugitive while others in the Weather Underground surfaced, faced charges, rejoined the mass movement or were captured as a result of the attempt to rob a Brinks truck in 1981 as an act of revolutionary expropriation. JJ died of melanoma in 1997, never having surrendered, the only member of the Weatherman to have held out to the end. Hannah Arendt needs no introduction.

Jane met John at the Columbia library reading room during her junior year, the spring of 1967. They started dating, and he would come to her apartment on 370 Riverside Drive and they would listen to records and talk and make love. When they went for Chinese to the New Moon and the Moon Palace John would slip little pictures of Chairman Mao under his plate when he left, which she found very amusing and endearing. He was so dedicated to spreading the word (and picture) of Revolution. Meanwhile, she was hearing about the legendary JJ, the wildest, most daring revolutionary on campus, the Che of Morningside Heights. Her friends would tell stories about JJ, the craziest of the Crazies, a street fighter like the Motherfuckers from the Lower East Side. But only after they dated for months did she learn that John and JJ were one and the same. John Jacobs was the notorious JJ, but she could hardly believe it. He wasn’t fiery when they were together; he was mellow, thoughtful and at ease. He told her she was the one who first turned him on to pot; but she also found that hard to believe.

Many times, when John came by the apartment on 109th St and Riverside Drive he would put a tie on his blue work shirt. He would comb his fingers through his long tangled hair and go up a few floors to ring Hannah Arendt’s doorbell. He would be gone for an hour or so and come back with his mind on fire, his eyes sparkling, his wild hair seeming to give off sparks. John was already very intense, but after a little time with Hannah Arendt he was electric.

The philosopher had very mixed feelings about student revolutionaries, and their move toward more militant protests: she liked the energy of the young, their sheer courage, their “astounding will to action,” as John quoted her; they were the generation that could imagine worldwide destruction and could hear the ticking of the bomb, yet they had “supreme confidence in the possibility of change.” She told him that the whole idea of “a student rebellion almost exclusively inspired by moral considerations certainly belongs among the totally unexpected events of this century.” John thrilled at Arendt’s brilliance, and her praise.

But Hannah Arendt would also criticize radicals, especially Chairman Mao, and John would argue with her. She was writing on violence and thought the idea that, “Power grows out of a barrel of gun” was ridiculous. For sure, Marx knew about violence in history, but it was secondary, Arendt would argue; principally, it would be the contradictions within the old society that would bring it down. Mao’s words were thoroughly non-Marxist to her. Violence certainly precedes a new society, like labor pains, but it does not cause its birth, she explained. Power comes from the people’s support of the institutions of a country, by consent, or withdrawing consent. As John described it, Arendt thought violence is more often useless as a tactic. “Revolutions are not made,” she said. He puzzled over that.

When John told Jane of his conversations with the philosopher, acting them out, even their heated arguments, her heart would sail with delight. Of course, Hannah Arendt had written about Eichmann and his Jerusalem trial; she was the writer who famously described “the banality of evil.” She remembered how her father had been among the first to liberate Dachau, and so he saw that evil too. The trauma of that scene broke him, turned him into a withdrawn, mentally paralyzed person; when he witnessed the brutality of the Nazis, he became incapable of coping with the world. He would stay home all day, playing piano, practicing for a recital that would never take place. And when they moved from Manhattan to a Gentile neighborhood in a Long Island town and received hate messages – “Kikes Go Back to Brooklyn” – he played piano even more intently. She was in awe of Hannah Arendt for having given a word to the horror, for making evil banal.

She never would have pushed the buzzer on the philosopher’s door. It was just a couple of floors up, but she was too shy. She didn’t feel like the powerful locomotive of ideas that was John. She felt pretty banal herself, and too frightened to speak with Arendt. She remembered that when she went to tea at Barnard with Anais Nin (who wore wonderfully cool white go-go boots), the author told the Barnard girls (who had breathlessly read her diaries and her accounts of erotic adventures with Henry Miller and many others), “Girls, the confidence that you see now has taken years to develop.” And she thought, that’s certainly true of me, and I’ve got many years to go. She had been political long before college, sitting in at Woolworth’s for civil rights, wearing black armbands on May Day, sneaking into the Village to hear folk music at the Gaslight and Café Wha’, and go to 99 cent hoots at Town Hall. But she always felt like she was on the “Outside” looking “In.” She was observing her own life, standing off to the side, a thirteen year old kid watching the doings of the Big Kids from her own corner. It would be long before she could cultivate the confidence Anais Nin spoke about, probably more years than it took Anais Nin.

Maybe, though, she would meet Hannah Arendt in the elevator, “Oh, hi, I live in 5B. You know my boyfriend, John, the wild man with a tie,” or maybe she would bump into her in the lobby, or run into her on Riverside Drive in front of the building. She knew what she looked like from pictures, but they never met, no accidental encounters, nothing. How could they live in the same building but never meet? Did the great lady slip in and out in the middle of the night? Did she take the freight elevator? But that’s the way it was.

All the while, John could twist the tie around his neck and jump up the steps to ring her doorbell, completely cool; then he would come roaring back excited and high from all the intellectual wrestling. He would take off his clothes and slip on her quilted zippered floral housecoat and parade around Jane’s apartment, without underwear and barefoot, in front of her four good-looking roommates, and he would spout that he had an astounding will to action and other choice phrases. She and her roommates all enjoyed the show.

As he became more and more active in SDS, they began to drift apart. After all, he was busy with meetings and actions – driving out the CIA recruiters from campus and the like – and she kept observing all that happened from the sidelines, still outside. That summer she went traveling through Europe – sending John postcards from Greece, which he hated because the fascist generals had taken over but she liked irritating him – and before she left she let go of the apartment.

She never did meet Hannah Arendt.

Perhaps Jane could say she knew her, though, because of the little skits John would act out of their conversations, his tie flying in all directions or whirling in her housecoat like a dervish, taking Hannah’s role and then switching to argue back at her, processing the words, the logic, the gestures, all of it. Perhaps that way Jane could say she knew the Philosopher and the Man of Action at the same time. And all the while Jane was the Silent Watcher of them both.

We thank Contributing Editor Jeremy Varon for bringing this very special piece to us from its author.

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