Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hannah Arendt

I woke up this morning and realized that I didn't have to drive anywhere today. And that I won't have to drive anywhere at all tomorrow either - or the next day - or any day - for the next 10 days.  To me, that's almost an earthly analogue to paradise!

Well, probably paradise may be too strong a term. What it really is, of course, is urban living. The  joys and satisfactions of urban living are manifold - among them, being able to walk places, high quality public transit, lots of places to walk or transit to, and always lots of people on the street. And also "arty" movies - like Margerethe von Trotta's latest film Hannah Arendt, which I saw this afternoon downtown at the Quad Theater. 

Hannah Arendt (1906-1976) was one of those brilliant German-Jewish "Weimar" intellectuals who made such a dramatic impact in American intellectual life. The film does a great job of portraying the academic and social environment in which Arendt and her colleagues worked and lived and conveys a sense of what it meant in that time and place to make "thinking" one's vocation. (Some of my own best professors as an undergrad at City College were emigre European intellectuals; one of the best was a wonderful old German-Jewish "Weimar" Marxist.) 

Arendt's most influential work , addressing one of the central political and moral concerns of her era, was The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). This film, however, takes place (apart from a few flashbacks to her relationship with Martin Heidegger) a decade later and centers around Arendt's response to the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, which she attended and analyzed in a series of articles in The New Yorker, and which were then published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). I myself can remember Eichmann's trial. I was in 8th grade at the time. Needless to say, however, it wasn't till over a decade later when I was a grad student that I actually read Arendt's books (and took note of the controversy she caused).

Arendt's main point was to identify the "banality" of Eichmann's actions - indeed of Eichmann the man, a miserable mediocrity who, far from being some satanic ideologue, seemed to be someone who didn't really engage in thinking at all. Evil committed "without motive or conviction, without a wicked heart or demonic words" was, of course, still evil, but was what she called "banal." She was severely criticized for this claim, for supposedly analyzing the issue solely as a philosopher. She defended herself by saying that anyone "trying to put pen to paper on this subject" had a responsibility to understand and that understanding is not the equivalent of forgiveness. 

Her commitment to analysis was complicated further by the facts the trial had brought out about the activities of some local European Jewish leaders. In her intellectualism, she here mainly saw herself as reporting the facts in all their complexity and ambivalence. But it was a super-sensitive subject, and she was attacked as honest analysts of social problems sometimes are for "blaming the victim." (She probably could have moderated her intellectualism a bit and maybe should have been shown more sensitivity to the rawness of her readers' emotions). In a sense, her experience anticipated our contemporary discomfort with the notion of facts, whenever they challenge our feelings.

The issues Arendt raised about the nature of evil, of personal responsibility, and of the moral collapse of a culture which abandons thinking remain central to any serious consideration of contemporary moral and political life. With the wisdom of her European generation now passed from the scene, how well equipped are we today to consider these issues?

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