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Germany, 1975. Two women near the end of their lives come together at the bedside of an old man, after having spent the last fifty years vying for first place in his heart. While one of the 20th century's greatest minds slumbers in the grip of nightmares, the two enemies sit in a nearby room and declare a truce. One is the man's wife, a woman who has always played her role as the devoted mother and the obedient, bourgeois Hausfrau to the Great Man and the tyrannical husband. The other is his former student and ...
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Germany, 1975. Two women near the end of their lives come together at the bedside of an old man, after having spent the last fifty years vying for first place in his heart. While one of the 20th century's greatest minds slumbers in the grip of nightmares, the two enemies sit in a nearby room and declare a truce. One is the man's wife, a woman who has always played her role as the devoted mother and the obedient, bourgeois Hausfrau to the Great Man and the tyrannical husband. The other is his former student and lover, nearly twenty years his junior. She is the Jewish intellectual consumed by her clear-sightedness. He is the brilliant and famous philosopher, now tormented by his Nazi past.
In this wide-ranging score, each performer has an individual theme, yet each shares some of the notes of the others. But, above all, this fugue for three voices reveals the mark of the greatest tragedy of the century: for the characters are Martin Heidegger, his wife Elfriede, and Hannah Arendt.
Catherine Clément skillfully paints a chiaroscuro portrait of forbidden love, recreating a famous love affair while turning the subtle intricacies of philosophy into memorable, enduring fiction.
Freiburg im Breisgau
Federal Republic of Germany
August 15, 1975
"God in Heaven!"
The elderly lady was struggling with her umbrella. A gusty shower slapped her wrinkled cheeks, lashed at her skirts, ravaged the snapdragons in the garden. She pressed a finger to the buzzer at the front gate.
No stirring in the house at the end of the path. A second try went unanswered. Annoyed, the elderly lady banged on the wooden slats and shouted a name: "Elfriede! Elfriede! I'm here."
Dragging footsteps. The bolt drawn. Out stepped another old woman, sheltered by the porch. "It's you," Elfriede said, not moving. "I wasn't expecting you so early, Hannah."
"Quite a tornado, I must say! And in the middle of August!"
"A summer storm," Elfriede pronounced, not leaving her spot. Her eyes swept over the flooded garden and its ruined flowers, then over the old woman with the hooked nose, muddy shoes, and bags under the eyes, who looked more than ever like a stubborn goat.
"Are you aware it's raining, Elfriede?" Hannah's tone was sharp this time.
Hannah Arendt, the arrogant Jewess, the American, Elfriede said to herself. Shall I warn her? No. No, it's her turn to suffer. "Don't budge. I'm coming."
And she only had to get an umbrella, open it with deliberate slowness, and walk across the garden. Hannah was fuming.
"You're soaked clear through," Elfriedesaid. "Come on now. Oh! Excuse me." Their frames unruly, the umbrellas collided. Hannah lowered hers, muttering.
"It was an accident," Elfriede sighed.
"Walk ahead of me," said Hannah. "I'll follow you."
"As usual," Elfriede muttered.
Buffeted by the wind, they scurried up the path together.
Elfriede Heidegger, the German, the lawful wife, Hannah thought to herself. She who guards the door and leaves me outside. This time will I get to see him without a fuss?
"Here we are," said the lady of the house. "Hang your raincoat on one of the pegs and take off your shoes. You'll see some slippers—"
"Ah, yes, I know. Where is he?"
"Do you want to see him right away?"
"But ... Yes, of course," she replied, surprised. Hannah thought, She's suggesting it on her own! Is he unwell? No, she would have used that to keep me out. No. There's something else. Then, out of the blue she asked Elfriede, "Is the bottle ready?"
"The one he promised me to celebrate my Danish prize! You know, the Sonning Award. A nice bottle of wine. In the letter he wrote in July, he—"
"I'm not up on things," Elfriede snapped. "I don't have to show you, you know the way."
"But you're not going to be with us?"
"Not this time," said Elfriede.
Hannah's heart started to pound. When was the last time she'd seen him one-on-one? At least twenty years ago, or more? Not since ... not since 1950, to be exact. Twenty-five years.
Whenever she crossed the Atlantic and returned to Germany, Hannah paid Martin Heidegger a visit. On these occasions, Madame would stand guard. Never far away, always ready to burst in. Keeping track of how long they talked. Every time, Martin gave in.
Once, only once, Martin had braved the wifely prohibition. In 1950, in Freiburg, it was Martin and Hannah, just the two of them. It was after Hannah's exile, after the extermination, after the birth of Israel, after the war. After Martin had been found guilty of Nazism, ruined. And twenty-five years later, Martin and Hannah were going to see each other tête-á-tê-te!
Yes, ever since Madame had learned of Hannah and Martin's adulterous affair, Madame had been on sentry duty. Camp Heidegger's chief guard never let down her surveillance. Entrenched, Martin was a prisoner in his own house.
"Go on, dear, go in," said Elfriede, her arms crossed. "No, not in the office. That way, by the window. In the dining room."
Hannah and Martin
Hannah closed the door gently.
He was seated before the casement window, a blanket over his lap, the usual black cap on his head.
"Hello, Martin, it's me! Weather you wouldn't send a dog out in! How are you?"
He didn't turn around, he didn't get up; he, always so courteous, almost stiff in his formality. Hannah didn't finish her sentence; hesitantly, she approached him. Was he asleep? No, he cleared his throat.
"I'm here, Martin." Her words resonated in the room. "Behind you. Very close to you."
No reply. The old lady went around the chair. "Martin," she whispered. "It's me."
He gazed at her, the unsteady look of an old man. His eyes were dull. "So tired," he mumbled. "Ears gone."
"You, who've gotten after me so often for my loud voice!" She spoke with a forced heartiness. "You can't have become deaf in just one year, Martin. Did you get my letter? I wrote I'd be visiting today."
He waved the question aside and started to cough.
"You have a cold," she realized. "Elfriede didn't tell me you were ill."
The coughing fit turned into wheezing. Mouth open, Martin stared into space, looking anxious.
"Take slow breaths," she said, placing her hand on the old man's chest. "Like that. Good, Martin."
Little by little, he caught his breath. Then he moved his tongue over his dry lips, closed his eyes, and said nothing.
"Still that recurring asthma," Hannah said. "Don't worry, I won't light up. Do you feel better?"
The old man rested his head on the back of the chair and did not answer. Hannah sat down across from him. Martin's face was quite expressionless.
"Come now," she whispered. "Don't act like a baby. The crisis is past. We're going to be able to have a heart-to-heart talk at last."
Not a quiver, not a twitch. Martin was made of stone.
"Look at me, at least! You haven't fallen into one of your depressions, I hope? Martin, open your eyes!"
Only the hands showed signs of life, stroking the woolen lap robe.
Hannah said to herself, So this is why his wife left me alone with him. The bitch. Holding his hands tightly, she said aloud, "Martin, don't give way to despair again. Your work is not finished! You are the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. What reason do you have for sinking into this horrible abyss? Pull yourself out! In the old days you wrote such beautiful letters about my hands. Don't you still feel their warmth? Smile at me!"
Nothing. Tears in her eyes, Hannah released his hands.
The brilliant mind, the romantic heart that only she knew, they had flown away! The genius whom she had loved all her life, was he really just an old man with his head bowed? Not a single glimmer of intelligence. To what region of Being had Martin fled?
No, she was not going to abandon him to his silence. Noiselessly Hannah checked the door to see if Elfriede was listening. Then she came and sat down opposite Martin again, took a handkerchief from her purse and blew her nose vigorously.
"Martin, listen," she said, turning to the familiar form of address. "I haven't call you `du' for a very long time. We haven't talked one-on-one since ... since our last night together. I don't know if we'll see each other again. If you hear me, raise one finger, I beg of you."
The hands with the age spots gripped the lap robe.
"This may be our last time!" Hannah shouted. "You have to know that I've never stopped loving you! Do you understand, Martin? Ever since 1924, in Marburg ..." Hannah clenched her fists and waited.
"When you became a Nazi," she began, suddenly lowering her voice, "I thought I was over you. I stood firm until the end of the war. Then, there I was, coming back to you, and now I'm back again."
He had stirred. Imperceptibly, but he had stirred.
"You are here," she whispered. "I know it. Now I have to find out, Martin. Did you think about me in those years? Tell me, did you end up forgetting me?"
The old man's head fell forward.
"So, that's it," she said. "We are very much alike. I haven't succeeded in erasing you from my life. Me, the German Jew. That's how it is, I can't help loving you. It's the same with you. Am I right?"
A little sigh.
"I'm sixty-nine and you're even older. Don't abandon me," she begged. "Try ... I've always helped you. Tell me I'm not mistaken. Tell me I'm still the one passion of your life. Martin! Say it!"
A hand came up, robotlike, then dropped again.
Ah! I'm ridiculous. Talking to an apathetic old man about love. It doesn't make sense. No sense at all. He's unreachable. Well, I'm leaving. She stood up, hesitant. Then she leaned over and shyly placed her lips on the black cap. And she felt trembling fingers grasp hers. "Thank you," she said.
Their hands were still intertwined when the door opened.
"So, you've seen for yourself?" Elfriede asked. "Now, leave him be."
Not answering, Hannah kissed the old man's temple. He turned around abruptly, in his eyes the lightning flash of old. A sudden thunderstorm, soon over. He coughed. His cap slid down. His wife hurried to him.
"You're tiring him," said Elfriede, readjusting the cap. "Go on out, Hannah."
Once the women had left the room, the old man blinked and furtively rubbed his palm.
* * *
Door shut, finally. Women gone. Free!
Love you always ... Love you still ... Love me, Me-I, Me-I ... Tell me. Effort! Try! Say it! Tired, exhausted. Great love? Nazi, Nazism. Me-I, her forgotten? Silence! Depression, abyss? No, no, not at all. Apathetic, yes. Speech lost. Result, kiss, rub, fingers, touching, pleasure. Pretty good! A try, to see. Want to, a look, lightning, too hard ... Failed! Can't!
The two, the women, together. Without him. Armored, attacks, arrows. No target. Then? No ground gained. Roots, diving in, past, sighs ... distress. War, peace? Frontier, wasteland. Where to go?
Sleep. Not here. Like death. Die? Oh no, come on. Wait. Watch. Hold on.
"There you have it," Elfriede said. "You had to see for yourself. Martin isn't what he once was. You wouldn't have believed me anyway!"
"That's true," Hannah replied with a shudder. "What is wrong with him?"
"He's grown deaf. He has a cold, he's worn out. He hardly says a thing. Just disconnected words. He's quite old, you know."
"And depressed," added the elderly lady, sighing.
"Martin, depressed? Only once in his life has he been depressed, in 1946, when he was ... well, when he was unfairly accused."
"Denazification. That's what it was called. And I know he is often depressed."
"That's not so! He is just old."
"Once again, you are in error," Hannah's tone was chilly. "You have been wrong over and over. About him, about me, about us, and about Hitler."
"I beg of you, Hannah, not today ... I'm getting old, too. Let's not stand here in the draft. This hallway is freezing. Do you like coffee as much as ever?"
Hannah thought, He is lost. If Elfriede is acting so conciliatory, it's because Martin is about to die.
"We're going to the kitchen," ordered the wife, and she steered Hannah in the right direction. "You have to dry off, Hannah, and warm yourself."
Elfriede pulled out a chair, fetched the coffee pot, put on the kettle, set out cups, milk, and sugar, every motion as careful and deliberate as ever. "Yes, he's gone downhill in recent months," she said. "The doctor thought he'd had a mild stroke, but apparently it wasn't that. I'm the only one whose voice he responds to. Imagine, after so many years of marriage—"
"Ah, marriage, of course," Hannah sighed.
"No sarcasm, please, Hannah! These days, any little thing exhausts him. I know he's not going to be able to fall asleep tonight, because you were here."
"Really?" said Hannah, her heart joyful.
"I'm sure of it. He's very fond of you. But what a pity, Hannah!"
Never had they talked so calmly. Never had the two long-time enemies drunk coffee together in the kitchen. With her forget-me-not-blue eyes Elfriede was staring at Hannah. Wrinkled, bent, white-haired, her enemy was as beautiful as ever.
Slumped in her chair, Hannah said, "You talk of pity. I won't allow that. What an insult to Martin! Him, pitiful? He is too great—"
"Spare me. I'm no philosopher. I am not attached to words the way you are. I have great pity for him and I'm not ashamed of it. I am thinking only of my poor Martin. Seeing him in such a state—"
"The greatest mind of his era cannot fall apart," declared Hannah firmly. "He is still here, I sense it."
"No, he is no longer here. But he is still my husband, Professor Heidegger. Whether he loved you or didn't, that's not important. You will never be associated with his name. His work will stand. As for his private life.... People won't remember you, Hannah Arendt. Do you take milk?"
"Never," said Hannah, trembling with rage.
"And you still smoke as much?"
Hannah did not answer. War, until the last breath.
Copyright © 2000 Mary Tatem. All rights reserved.