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Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, and the Importance of the Interior « Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
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“The French have become masters in the art of being happy among ‘small things,’ within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness which, in a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce today’s objects, may even appear to be the world’s last, purely humane corner.”


-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

During my first reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition, this particular quote attracted my attention, probably since I’m trained as an architect and sensible to these kind of imaginable, tangible examples. (I must also mention the very nice and almost poetic rhythm in the ‘construction’ of the sentences quoted above). The passage immediately reminded me of the famous text “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in which Walter Benjamin, among other things, links the importance of the domestic interior to the emerging impact of industrialization on the working people. Through the mutability of modernity, as symbolised by the arcades with their cast-iron constructions, Benjamin argues that the interior comes into conscious being to the extent that our life, work, and surroundings change. The interior of domestic life originates in the need for a place of one’s own: a small but personal haven in a turbulent world that is subject to constant change.

Acknowledging this development, the modern individual found himself confronting a new separation between living and working, between the (domestic) interior and the workplace. Here Benjamin stresses that in the workplace one deals with “real” life, (Although work is increasingly being carried out in bigger, virtual spheres.) whereas within the dwelling’s interior one harbours illusions. The interior is a safe haven, a familiar domain, in which one can cherish one’s personal history in an otherwise cold and threatening environment. “The interior is not just the universe but also the étui of the private individual,” Benjamin writes. The interior is so close to man that it is like a second skin – a perfect fit. It is geared to our rhythm (of life), and vice versa.

But there is more to it. Benjamin observes that the interior also offers meaning through living; it accommodates a story of personal remembrances. “To live means to leave traces. In the interior, these are accentuated.” In other words, there is no escape from life in the interior. Whereas in the public space those traces inevitably fade, in the interior they remain visible and tangible for the occupant. And that is crucial: people hold the interior close precisely because of the memories that attach to it. To be at home is more than to merely eat, sleep and work somewhere – it is to inhabit the house. That is to say, to make it your own, to leave traces.

It is possible to describe the interior in this perspective as a flight from the “real” world “out there,” but this overlooks the importance of the interior for this “reality.” Arendt’s quotation cited at the beginning of this article – which might be invoked alongside the same Parisian experience Benjamin analyzes – is part of her emphasis on the importance of the private realm vis-à-vis the public realm. A life lived exclusively in the bright glare of the public realm will fade, she states. It will lose depth, that is, its ability to appear into the world. It needs the private realm to recover, to reform, in order to reappear and once again participate in public. Although it may sound negative, darkness means first and foremost that something has been hidden from view. It is therefore shielded from the continuous maelstrom of public life.

Set against this backdrop, Arendt stresses the importance of one’s own household – or more to the point, one’s own home – as a necessary condition. This assertion is supported by the respect with which city-states once treated private property. The boundaries that separated each person’s space were observed most reverently, with the property inside treated as sacred spaces and things.

The darkness of the house and the blinding glare of the outside depend on each other. Indeed, they are inextricably linked. Distinct from family life with its protective and educational aspects, Arendt also takes this to mean that the private realm accommodates those things in life that cannot appear in public. She believes that the distinction between the public and private realms has to do with that which must be made visible on the one hand and that which must remain invisible on the other. What appears in public acquires maximum visibility and hence reality. However, there are some things in life that need to remain hidden: the intimacy of love and friendship, the experiences of birth and death. Both the physical and the romantic belong to the realm of necessity, Arendt claims. They are too closely tied up with the needs of the individual to be made a public matter. Put differently, the private realm provides space for the ineffable, the issues we cannot discuss or negotiate, or indeed the ones we cannot stop talking about. Those issues need a safe place, one among personal “things” and their memories.

If the importance of the interior is manifest anywhere, it is in the appearance of homeless people living like ghosts on the streets. Being homeless not only means living unprotected from wind and rain. It also means first and foremost not having a safe place where you can be more or less secure and sheltered, a place to which you can withdraw in order to recharge before re-entering the domain of uncertainty and danger.
These four walls, within which people’s private life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. They enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive. This holds good (…) for human life in general. Wherever the latter is consistently exposed to the world without the protection of privacy and security its vital quality is destroyed. (Arendt, The Human Condition)
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