A new book about Hannah Arendt reveals the playful side of one of the 20th century's most celebrated thinkersby Jonathan Rée / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
At first glance, Marie Luise Knott’s study of Hannah Arendt looks slight, even frivolous. Instead of weighing in on the big Arendtian topics—totalitarianism, revolution and anti-Semitism—Knott prefers to dally with side-issues such as the waywardness of translation, the ambiguity of forgiveness, the indirection of poetry, and the surprise of a gust of laughter. As a further hedge against solemnity, she illustrates her remarks with whimsical cartoons, teeming with multilingual puns. Yet it is hard to think of any other book on Arendt that gives out half as much light, not to mention joy.
The problems Knott explores came together in Arendt’s notorious account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the unreconstructed Nazi official who was apprehended in Buenos Aires in 1960 and transported to Israel to face trial for crimes against humanity. But the process was always going to be about much more than the guilt or innocence of a second-rank Nazi bureaucrat. It was designed to establish, once and for all, the truth about the murder of six million Jews in Hitler’s death camps: as well as silencing the deniers, it was meant to dispel feelings of guilt amongst survivors, and heal the internecine suspicions that threatened the unity of Judaism in Israel and elsewhere. It would be, in the best sense of the word, a show-trial, marking the coming of age of a progressive, democratic Jewish state.
The proceedings opened in a converted theatre in Jerusalem in April 1961, and lasted five months. The judges were seated on the stage, with Eichmann in an enclosure of bullet-proof glass, looking puzzled but officious, fiddling with his glasses, adjusting his headphones, and occasionally taking notes like a conscientious schoolboy. There were live radio broadcasts and continuous video recordings, with provision for a large and often unruly audience and excellent facilities for journalists, including the charismatic and assiduous reporter for the New Yorker.
Arendt was well qualified for the assignment. For one thing she had grown up in Germany at the same time as Eichmann—both of them were born in 1906. In addition she was a Jew, who had been arrested and detained in 1933 for distributing Zionist leaflets in Berlin, before fleeing to Paris where she worked with Jewish refugees until she was bundled off to an internment camp in 1940. She escaped the following year, and eventually made a home for herself in New York, earning a living as an editor and journalist, and learning to use the English language with fluency and reckless verve. In 1950 she became a US citizen. Arendt was only 26 when she got out of Germany, but as Knott shows, she was already passionately engaged with the brightest new ideas in poetry, philosophy, and progressive politics. She had studied with the two pioneers of Existenzphilosophie, Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and would always cleave to the existentialist axiom that the human world is a creature not of natural processes rooted in the past but of free actions directed to an open future.
Her originality lay in applying this idea to politics, which she would always portray as a noble vocation rather than a lowly chore. Politics, for her, was essentially a creative activity, opening up an artificial realm in which natural inequalities count for nothing, and citizens are free to discuss their differences and resolve them through negotiation. In The Origins of Totalitarianism—the eccentric but insightful book that established her reputation as a political theorist in 1951—she argued that Nazism and communism were “essentially identical,” in that both of them expressed a fear of political processes and a fanatical determination to stifle their inherent unpredictability. But as far as Arendt was concerned, the pathologies of politicophobia were not confined to totalitarian states: liberal democracies were subject to the same tribalistic temptation to neglect the outlooks of others and withdraw into self-certainty, self-indulgence and self-pity. Political citizenship was a fragile construction and it had to be handled with care.
A reporter with Arendt’s background was not going to be perfectly impartial; but her prejudices could be expected to line up with those of the reasonable, left-leaning, cosmopolitan readership of the New Yorker. She took it for granted, for example, that the trial was legitimate, even though the offences of which Eichmann was accused took place before the Israeli state came into existence, in territories beyond its jurisdiction. And when Eichmann was eventually sentenced to death, she expressed her satisfaction with characteristic robustness: “Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the Earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations … we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the Earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
When her reports started to appear, however, they caused outrage. She found herself reviled and ostracised as a crypto-Nazi, an apologist for Eichmann, and a traitor to the Jewish people.
Arendt had indeed criticised the hammy histrionics of a trial where the prosecutor was allowed to indulge an extravagant “love of showmanship” while calling a stream of witnesses whose testimony, though full of pathos, had no bearing on the charges before the court. She also protested at the marginalisation of non-Zionist Jews, and dwelt provocatively on the supposed “collaboration” between Jewish leaders and Nazi authorities. On top of that, she contested the idea that the death camps were the natural culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism: they were, on the contrary, a facet of 20th-century totalitarianism, whose appetite for extermination was not confined to Jews, but extended impartially to other minorities too.
All this was bad enough, but Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s personal culpability caused even more indignation. The trial had been intended to expose the defendant as a monster of moral depravity, but as far as Arendt was concerned he seemed more like a foolish old clown—not so much Iago as Bottom the weaver. The only language he understood was Amtsprache or “officialese,” and he never had the slightest inkling of “the other fellow’s point of view.” He was “genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché,” said Arendt, and his linguistic limitations appeared to be “closely connected with an inability to think.” He was a willing agent of evil, who nevertheless saw no evil, heard no evil, and spoke no evil; and for that reason he presented a “moral challenge.”
Arendt was appalled by Eichmann’s abject wretchedness, but in retrospect she found in it grounds for hope: it suggested that evil arises from stupidity, obtuseness and atrophy of the imagination rather than deliberate or deep-rooted malice. When her reports were serialised in the New Yorker in the spring of 1963, she rounded off the fifth and last instalment with an uncharacteristically grandiose reference to something she called the “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” She offered no justification for the phrase, which some would see as a sneaky attempt to excuse Eichmann’s crimes. But if it was opaque, it was also memorable, and when her articles were reprinted as a book the phrase “banality of evil” was included in the title, creating the impression that the work was a tendentious treatise of moral theory, rather than an impassioned account of an unusual political trial.
Arendt always maintained that she wrote as a reporter, critic and commentator, or on occasion a political theorist—but never as a philosopher. She did not go in for painstaking dissections of concepts or discriminating discussions of alternative worldviews: she preferred to observe events unfolding around her and describe exactly what she found. Her method, if it can be called that, is eloquently conveyed in the central scene of Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film Hannah Arendt—a passage which uses archive footage of Eichmann in the dock, looking like a baffled clerk struggling to expedite a procedure whose meaning eludes him, spliced with images of Arendt herself, wonderfully played by Barbara Sukowa, as she gazes at him and tries to find the words to describe his incomprehension.
If Knott is right, then the way Arendt looked at the world had more to do with poetry than with philosophy. Her sensibility was formed by the poems she adored when she was young, and she would remain a disciple of poets all her life—of Bertolt Brecht and Rainer Maria Rilke in the first place, and also of a wide range of poet-friends including Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell and WH Auden. Arendt’s English may not have hummed with literary allusions as her German did, but she was capable of using it with the power of a poet, or as Knott puts it, with “the ability to allow the reality she encountered to shake and confuse her.” She was a poetical animal as much as a political one; and the politics was in the poetry.
Knott clarifies the affinities between poetry and politics with an excursion into the problem of forgiveness. Arendt had a long-standing fascination with Christian notions of forgiveness, which seemed to her to require a strange and perhaps sinister complicity between the humble petitioners who seek it and those superior beings who have it in their gift. But then she started to think of forgiveness as a political transaction rather than a religious one, and after observing Eichmann for several months she was able, in Knott’s words, “to relearn forgiveness as the foundation of politics.”
Forgiveness is always painful—it requires us to put away our cherished grievances—but as far as Arendt was concerned, it offers us the only hope of new beginnings in politics: we must forgive one another or die. Forgiveness is complex as well: it involves an exquisite choreography of remembrance and forgetting, of reproachfulness and love. Forgiveness is also arbitrary, even impulsive, but if it cannot be coerced by force of arms or force of argument, it may sometimes be sparked off by poetry, with its generous power to “shake and confuse.”
Last but not least there is laughter. Arendt seems to have been incapable of talking without chuckling, and when you look out for it you will find the same quality in her prose. What her critics found most unforgivable in her account of Eichmann was her confession that she regarded him as a beliebiger Hanswurst—a silly old sausage—and that the mere thought of him could make her burst out in guffaws. To her critics, this was a damaging confession, but if Knott is right then Arendt’s laughter “loosened a moral fabric that theologians, philosophers and scholars had woven all too tightly.” Her laughter was alert to the “wisdom of poetry” and alive with “the promise of politics.” If the world is to have any chance of changing, we may need to unlearn our solemn self-righteousness and find out how to laugh.