The “Woman Thinker” and the “private habitat”

In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Stephanie DeGooyer writes about Ada Ushpiz’s new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. Before focusing on the 2016 film, the reviewer makes a critical mention of an earlier one, Hannah Arendt (2012) by Margarethe von Trotta:

In presenting Arendt as a philosopher who cannot think without kisses does von Trotta suggest that Hannah Arendt — the theorist and champion of active, public, political life — can only be viewed meaningfully in her private habitat?

The reviewer is suggesting von Trotta’s biopic is only a notch or two above trash, but that does not help answer her central question, how should “the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher… be portrayed?”

DeGooyer may not be aware of a Russian precedent. Released from a Soviet labor camp in 1933, Alexei F. Losev, the prominent Russian philosopher, turned to fiction and wrote The Woman Thinker, a short novel, in 1934. Although I haven’t read it beyond the first two pages, at the very start the narrator tells of something extraordinary: he has discovered a “woman-thinker,” who is a pianist and “belongs among the great as a thinker. As a musician-thinker.” She “does not peer into the depth but pierces it.”

Later on in the text, Losev describe the pianists’s everyday life, including her complicated relationships with men. He could not publish the novel but read it to his friends, who saw the work as a roman-à-clef. To those listeners, there was no doubt that the “woman thinker” was based on Maria V. Yudina, the great pianist. Other characters seemed unmistakably recognizable, too, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Yudina’s old friend and philosophic mentor.

Apparently, Yudina never spoke to Losev again. The reasons might have been more complex than just the novel: Losev’s disagreements with Bakhtin could have played a part. The Woman Thinker was written not by a pop fiction author but by a major-league intellectual, and yet was not quite a success at portraying “the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher.”

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