After von Trotta’s Arendt

Notes after seeing Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (and doing a little reading)

Version 2.0: As revised 27 June 2013

Taking clues from Hannah Arendt (2013), directed by Margarethe von Trotta; screenplay by Pam Katz and von Trotta; cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Barbara Sukowa in the title role.

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By William Eaton

(1)   In seeing plastered across Paris posters advertising Hannah Arendt, I wondered how one could possibly make an engaging feature film about this philosopher, focused as she was on totalitarianism, the moral value of thinking, and an approach to politics favored by disempowered elites. Was the director, Margarethe von Trotta, going to follow David Cronenberg’s approach to Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (A Dangerous Method), mixing intellectual history and sex, offering the teenaged Arendt talking ontology naked in bed with her mentor, the philosopher and future Nazi Martin Heidegger? (A quote from a love letter the Aryan professor wrote to his adoring Jewess: “I wish I could run the five-fingered comb through your frizzy hair.”)

(2)   But no, turning its back on the erotic, and on how we not only wish to destroy “the other,” but may also find her or him irresistibly alluring, von Trotta’s film, intentionally or not, takes up one of Plato’s central questions. This is the relationship between, on the one hand, intellectual theorizing and reflection and, on the other, action in the more complex realms where social pressures, relationships and emotions hold sway (or where their influence is more easily recognized). As regards Plato, while many of his dialogues have Socrates engaging fellow Greeks in vigorous intellectual reflection, the interlocutors chosen by Plato tend to be people well known in his time to have acted, later in their lives, in reprehensible or disastrous ways. It may be that Plato was trying to soften the reputations of either Socrates or of these interlocutors, some of whom were his relatives; another result is to call into question Socrates’s teaching. It can well seem that reflecting on the good has little good effect on people’s behavior. Similarly von Trotta’s film can lead a viewer to wonder about the value of Heidegger’s and of Arendt’s teachings. But ultimately the question is about us, our own capabilities and behavior, to include about our capacities to stand up to or at least extract ourselves from governments and other social structures that are abnormally murderous or oppressive. As Arendt asked in her work on “Thinking and Moral Considerations” (here from The Life of the Mind):

Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass or attract attention, regardless of results and specific contents, . . . be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually “condition” them against it?

(3)   The film comes to this question by boiling Arendt’s biography down to:

(a)  The virulent negative reactions of Jewish intellectuals to one or two of Arendt’s assertions in her 1963 New Yorker articles subsequently published as Eichmann in Jerusalem; and

(b)  How Arendt, in turn, privately and publicly reacted to these reactions.

As refracted by this movie, in the midst of its presentation of Arendt’s coverage of Nazi senior official Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity (among other things), Arendt’s overarching assertion is: If instead of cooperating with Nazi efforts to round-up Jews in Germany and eastern Europe, Jewish leaders had resisted, or, better, organized a campaign of resistance, half as many Jews might have ended up being killed during the Holocaust. The philosopher Seyla Benhabib has written that “of all the thorny historical and moral issues touched upon by Hannah Arendt,” it was this assertion that “earned her the wrath, rejection, condemnation and contempt of the established Jewish community.” Von Trotta’s film recalls the following, most controversial line from Eichmann in Jerusalem: “To a Jew [the] role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the whole dark story.”

(4)  Most of these notes will concern aspects of von Trotta’s presentation of Arendt that seem quite right to me. But I must pause to note that it would have been easier to accept this movie’s concern with Jewish leaders’ role (huge, modest or tiny) in the destruction of their own people if the film had not been made by an apparently non-Jewish German (and notwithstanding that von Trotta was working with an apparently Jewish-American co-writer). In the movie theater, a space not for reflecting but for responding emotionally, I could not help feeling that a point of Hannah Arendt was to spread the guilt. Instead of 6 million deaths weighing on von Trotta and other non-Jewish Germans, Arendt provided an opportunity to offload 3 million of the deaths onto the Jews themselves, or onto their leaders, leaving just an equivalent amount of murder for non-Jewish Germans to bear.

Both from the film and my reading I have gotten the sense that Arendt’s work suffered at times, and that her career and status were “advanced” at times, as a result of a penchant and talent for making provocative assertions. Actress Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt recognizes privately that some of her judgments may have been faulty, either for intellectual or emotional reasons. But her pride blocks her from admitting this publicly. Further, Benhabib’s article on Eichmann in Jerusalem has helped me recognize that Arendt’s use of English could be idiosyncratic (at best). For example, she famously accused Eichmann not of “stupidity” but of “thoughtlessness” (and “remoteness from reality”). Correspondence subsequently made public has revealed that by “thoughtlessness” she meant not, say, a neglect of others’ feelings or needs, but rather an inability to think (or could these come to the same thing?). These inputs have helped me understand Arendt’s “darkest chapter in the whole dark story” phrase, which, from at least one perspective (“dark” as sinister, rather than “dark” as hidden), is somewhere between ridiculous and offensive, and also thoughtless and remote from reality. Surely, “to a Jew” and to many another, the gassing and shooting of millions of civilians was a darker aspect of the Holocaust than whatever role Jewish leaders may or may not have played in the deportation process.

But again, what disturbed me as I watched the film was having a non-Jewish German returning, fifty years later, to the question of Jewish leaders’ collaboration with the Nazis. Why had von Trotta made this choice? In an interview posted on the Web by the Goethe-Institut, she says that she and Pam Katz, the co-writer, had originally thought to tell Arendt’s whole life story, but then decided to reduce it “to four vital years.” Yes, but why these four?

(5)  To the film’s credit, one can find within it at least two good answers to this question. One answer emerges from the fact that it is often possible to see the life of a human being, be she a rare talent or an ordinary person, as encapsulated in or entirely colored by a single incident (or space of time). Thus, for example, it might be possible to make a film about the dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins, and even about his dances, that was built around his “naming names” to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. From this perspective, the argument underlying von Trotta’s film would be that the virulent reactions to Arendt’s assertion proved to be the major event of her life, perhaps defining her role in twentieth century intellectual life, but above all helping her recognize (or glimpse in her heart of hearts?) who she was as an intellectual, a German Jew, and, let us say, as a social animal, a person interlinked with friends, family, and colleagues.

(6)   But again, the more interesting way to view von Trotta’s film is as a meditation on the relationship between thinking (as a reflective and fundamentally rational activity) and how people—philosophers in particular, but hardly just philosophers—act in other parts of their lives. Thus, for example, the film presents Heidegger lecturing his students, a young Arendt among them, about how philosophy is about thinking and has nothing to teach about how to live. After the war is over, when a much older Arendt confronts him about his having joined the Nazi party, he returns to this idea. Philosophy has been his specialty. When it came to living, he offers, clearly he was not so gifted and had a lot to learn.

Arendt of course did not join the Nazi party, but this fact does not give us sufficient grounds for judging whether reflective thinking helped condition her against doing evil. I would also note at this juncture that, as I understand it, the moral value of such thinking, if moral value there is, lies not in any conclusions to which it might bring the thinker, but rather in benefits of engaging in the process. In this regard Arendt is in line with “Socratic intellectualism,” by which (yes, paradoxically) the good lies in thinking about what the good might be, and this notwithstanding the realization that human beings are not capable of knowing what the good is. (At the very least, we could say, people who spend a good deal of their time in reflective thinking will have that much less time to spend killing or otherwise harming others, but I do not recall Plato’s Socrates saying anything about this, and this would be to overlook the fact that sins of omission can often be as consequential as those of commission.)

(7)   All this said, as the text moves to its next stage, these notes are now going on to focus on product rather than process; that is, on whether, or to what extent, Arendt’s thinking about Eichmann and evil was itself good, i.e. good thinking. The justification for this turn is as follows. Arendt’s analysis was that Eichmann did evil as a result of failing to think. Or as, in a 1963 letter to the journalist Samuel Grafton, she put it more positively and in the context of our behaviors, “We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think; that is, by reaching another dimension than the horizon of everyday life.” Were we to decide that this analysis of the source of evil-doing was incorrect, then the cure—more, deeper thinking—would be suspect as well.

(8)   My sense is that at the present moment history is judging Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and the banality of evil to have been both insightful and naïve, and distorted by justifiably strong emotions and by the rough times out of which her analysis was born. I will also suggest at various points below that there were ways in which Arendt’s rigorous philosophical training, with Heidegger and others, distorted her thinking. Among the realities she overlooked in her trial coverage:

(a)  The extent of the role played by self-interest, narrowly defined, in human behavior.

(b)  The self-interest behind the just-following-orders defense Eichmann offered at his trial, a defense that duplicated that offered by Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. (The journalist Michael Massing has written that, given Eichmann’s evident organizing and negotiating skills, Arendt’s characterization of him as an unthinking cipher “is simply not credible.” In a recent New Yorker post about the movie, Richard Brody wrote that Arendt had made “the mistake of taking Eichmann at his word.” Certainly von Trotta’s film gives the impression that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann.)

(c)  The extent to which mass murder and ethnic cleansing were not invented by the Nazis, but have been all too frequent in human history. Hardly scratching the surface of human history, we might note the Turks killing the Armenians, the decimation of the peoples of the “New World,” the Catholic Church’s efforts to suppress the Cathars which led to the death of half a million French people in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Thirty Years War in which one-third of the population in certain parts of Germany were wiped out. (N.B.: The Holocaust may have been instrumental in helping us get in touch with this aspect of our history, though this getting in touch took some decades, and such grim realities are easily forgotten or ignored. I come across a fair number of well-educated Americans who are not Holocaust-deniers, but who would like the event to now fade, a bad dream.)

(d)  The politics of the Jewish people and of the post-war world and the feelings of so many of her friends and colleagues.

As regards this latter (d), one on one with her friends, and when confronted with Eichmann in his glass box in the Israeli courtroom, Sukowa’s Arendt is not thoughtless at all, but sensitive, caring, and empathetic, and yet when she is in philosopher mode, she appears to leave her and others’ emotions and social roles far behind. This detachment, for example, allowed her to rightfully criticize the proceedings as a “show trial,” insisting that “the purpose of a trial is to render justice, and nothing else.” And, so detached, she failed to appreciate the trial’s larger justification: to increase, via media coverage, global public understanding of the Holocaust, a task that the Nuremberg Trials, and indeed fifteen years of post-war life, had, all too neatly, skipped over.

(9)   Toward the end of the movie Arendt is shown defending her analysis of Eichmann in a lecture hall filled with her students and colleagues. One of her closing arguments is that Nazism and totalitarianism more generally had distorted not only the thinking and behaviors of non-Jewish Europeans in the 1930s and 1940s, but also of Jewish Europeans during this period. Von Trotta’s Arendt says this to explain her charge (which was based on historian Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews) that Jewish officials, among other things, provided the Nazis “lists of persons and of their property” and supplied “police forces to help seize Jews and get them on trains”. (Brody writes of “the mind-bending fear that Jews in Nazi-occupied countries faced, and their desperate desire to preserve a sense of order that might save them from the ambient madness.” Personally, I would return to self-interest and what Kant called our unsocial sociability: What will most people not do, and particularly in desperate situations, to get in with the powerful, fit in with the group, and save their own skins?)

Arendt does not extend her analysis this far, but we can, and we might imagine that von Trotta and Katz also wanted to make this point: If Arendt’s argument about how the Nazi period distorted people’s thinking is valid, then the argument must apply to its author, Hannah Arendt, as well. Her own thinking must have been distorted. And it might also be, as the film’s Heidegger has proposed, that there is unbridgeable gap between philosophy (or reflective thinking more generally) and the rest of life, and/or it may be that this theory, too, along with other Nazi-era theories of Heidegger, Arendt and many another were stunted and twisted by the toxic soil out of which they arose.

From this perspective, however, it would be naïve for us to imagine that it was only in the Nazi period—or only in times of overt war? of mass murder? of the predominance of a single faith, be it Nazism, Medieval Catholicism, global capitalism, or modern science and technology?—that human thinking becomes distorted or simply shaped by the circumstances within which it arises. And it would seem that, more generally and relatively unchangingly, basic features of the human predicament—our mortality, our interdependence, the weight of consciousness, the confusions of language, the resulting desperation to preserve an illusory sense of order to avoid the ambient madness—all have roles to play in stunting and twisting our thinking and our other activities.

(10)   All this said, it is also certainly the case that, with her conception of the “banality of evil,” Arendt called the Western intelligentsia’s attention to a potential danger of modern, bureaucratic life. Monstrous deeds might be done by doers who were “quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither monstrous nor demonic.” Eichmann’s failing, she argued, was that his mental activity was almost entirely devoted to two tasks: rising within the bureaucracy within which he found himself and, as part of this, arranging for the efficient transportation of millions of Jews and others (to places where, it so happened, most all of them were killed). In the movie Sukowa-Arendt says: “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before.”

As Brody writes, Arendt’s real target was not so much the Holocaust as “faceless bureaucrats who do their jobs with no sense of their place in the world” and our “presumptive detachment from [our] intellectual, humanistic, or philosophical roots.” Similarly, in an essay occasioned by the fiftieth anniversary of Arendt’s book, the philosopher Judith Butler wrote, “Arendt wondered whether a new kind of historical subject had become possible . . . , one in which humans implemented policy, but no longer had ‘intentions’ in any sense.” Like a carriage horse with blinders, we might say, Eichmann focused on moving ahead successfully, in rough harmony with the system in which he found himself.

From one perspective, Arendt’s analysis here is all too correct. In his narrowly self-interested doing of his duty, though not in the results of his actions, Eichmann’s behavior was indeed typical of many bureaucrats, both past and present. In my little corners of the world, in the several bureaucracies in which I work and publish and in which my son is schooled, my sense is that many of the staff, and indeed many of my fellow New Yorkers of all social classes, do a good deal of reflective thinking, sometimes in conversation with others and perhaps particularly in the privacy of our own internal dialogues and dreams. During his trial Eichmann himself claimed to be a devoted reader of Kant (as Arendt herself was), and of Kant’s moral philosophy in particular. But as with Eichmann and Heidegger, at least, so with the people I know: there is often a disconnect between our more profound reflections and our other behaviors, and these other behaviors would seem to be guided above all by self-interest narrowly defined, by the human desire to get ahead and have more for oneself and one’s family. While our understanding of happiness is limited at best, we are relentless in our pursuit of it, for ourselves, and often at the expense of others. Few of us are directly shipping anyone to their deaths, but there are of course many indirect ways of killing and doing physical harm (see, for example, the selling of various toxic drugs, or industrial and construction “accidents,” toxic workplaces), and there are many ways of killing the soul or the spirit, consuming the lives of other human beings.

In the midst of all this, it must be said, the ethical consequences of our actions, or how these actions might be judged by some circumstance-independent or power-structure-independent set of values, do not count for very much. And we concern ourselves yet less with whether a circumstance-or-power-structure-independent set of values can in fact be established, or whether, in either a Kantian or Existentialist sense, the actions of an “I” can create values, and whether we like these values or not. By and large we (the Steve Jobses of the world included) move ahead with our own blinders firmly attached, following paths laid out by the job or capital markets or by advertising, consumer culture and current customs and status symbols more generally. Even our private reflections, and notwithstanding however ethical or self-critical they may be, follow the dictates and fashions of our times.

(11)   But, contra Arendt, I would ask: how much of all this is really new or modern? Certainly human individuals did not have to await the advent of bureaucracy to slaughter one another en masse or to act in viciously self-interested ways. If there is a human nature, there seem few things so deeply rooted in it as a capacity to act in cruel and anti-social ways if and when the human organism feels, rightly or wrongly, that so acting will, in however perverted a manner, make him or her (and her or his family, group, corporation) richer, more powerful or secure, more prominent. We are touching here on the vision of humanity outlined by Kant in the late eighteenth century and on the age-old concept of original sin which informed his thinking. “From such crooked wood as man is made, nothing perfectly straight can be built,” Kant famously wrote in his Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht (Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View). And, “propelled by vainglory, lust for power and avarice,” we human beings use all our powers to achieve a rank among our fellows, whom we “can neither endure nor do without.” This is not a vision of evil as something superficial or promoted by bureaucracy or other social structures, modern or ancient, nor indeed does Kant in his “Idea for a Universal History” hold out the hope that reflective thinking might prove the cure. In speaking of the “ungesellige Geselligkeit des Menschen” (the unsocial sociability of human beings), Kant is talking about a very deeply rooted thing: our (narrowly self-interested) natures or essence.

(12)   As an intellectual, I am hardly immune to the Romantic appeal of Arendt’s vision of the ethical value of reflective thinking, and not least in the current world in which unreflective opportunists and conformists seem to be helping steer or push Homo sapiens sapiens and many another species over this or that cliff. Participating in groups, be they of intellectuals or of others, I often have the feeling that I am one of the rare people who indeed has an independent set of values or whose responses are informed by such a beast. But, as Mark Twain is said to have said, “Nothing needs reforming so much as other people’s habits,” and I suspect there are lots of my colleagues who have a sense of singularity and superiority quite similar to my own. And I find my own position yet more laughable (and yes, paradoxical) since I simultaneously respond in accordance to what I feel is a situation-independent set of values and do not believe that such a thing really exists or has a rational basis. I am afraid that “independence” of thoughts or actions is a privilege that members of some social classes enjoy in a much more compromised fashion than they (we) realize.

“The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly,” von Trotta’s Arendt says. “And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” In this regard we can note that Oscar Schindler, one of the great heroes of the Nazi period (and of the cinema), was not an intellectual, but rather an industrialist, Nazi party member and German spy, and an opportunist, drunkard, womanizer and exploiter of slave labor, and a risk-taker who enjoyed fouling up the system and defying authority. The source of his strength would seem to have had much less to do with thinking than with feeling, and more with having had a quite particular character type whose strengths and weaknesses combined to make him respond heroically in extraordinary circumstances, at a time when great heroes were greatly needed. I recall Calvin Trillin’s verse about New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and “9/11”:

At certain times, it now must be conceded,
A paranoid control freak’s just what’s needed.

And I wonder what history may come to say about Edward Snowden, who has recently called attention to the extent of US government surveillance of its citizens. Contra Arendt, it seems quite possible that any real hope for our species lies not with any independent, reflective thinking of which we intellectuals and bureaucrats may prove capable, but rather with the peculiar characters and emotions of a less readily categorizable few.

(13)   “When virtue has slept, she will get up more refreshed,” Nietzsche proposed in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human). Arendt’s writing about Eichmann and evil has been faulted for lacking that illusory wonder: scholarly objectivity. “Precisely because [Eichmann in Jerusalem] was so close to who [Arendt] truly was,” Benhabib writes, “it distracted from her equanimity and exhibited at times an astonishing lack of perspective, balance of judgment and judicious expression.” Certainly this is how I view Arendt’s comment that Heidegger’s Nazism was “finally, a matter of indifference.” And when she describes Eichmann as uneducated, mediocre, “a clown” and “a leaf in the whirlwind of time,” I cannot help feeling that this was in part an emotional refusal to accept (a) that we are all such leaves, and (b) the wind-blown power, even over the lives of great intellectuals, that the Eichmanns of the world exercise.

I recall how, growing up in an academic home in the 1960s, I often heard university administrators and high government officials belittled as not very bright or as incompetent. After I began working in the world, I came to feel that such comments revealed limitations of the belittlers. Out of self-interest and to protect their amours-propres, the professors I had overheard seemed to have misjudged the capacities, however corrupt or corruptible, required for rising to and serving in leadership positions. Even if you think that George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy was “only” a figurehead or spokesperson, . . . They were very good at these jobs (narrowly defined).

But I also take Benhabib’s judgment of Arendt to be axiomatic, more widely applicable. That is, I believe that the closer we humans approach to what concerns us most deeply, and, thus, to what we really want to talk about with others and with ourselves, the more “distorted”—or let’s call it human—our thinking becomes. And this axiom applies as well to the virtuous as to the vicious, to the brilliant as to the pedestrian. Given this, it is hard to agree with Arendt’s proposition that reflective thinking might be our salvation. Rather, and by way of conclusion, I will propose:

(a) Our ideas are born of and take their place in an ongoing dialogue with our fellow human beings and the world more generally. And thus we might say that (in some harmony with the cinematography of Hannah Arendt) we are in a world of smoke and mirrors, with each of us befogged and befogging, and bent by and in our turns bending the rays of light (and of darkness?) that come our way.

(b)  Thinking, philosophy, and intellectual work more generally lose track of truth when they turns their backs not only on the circumstances and social roles our thinking reflects and reinforces, but also on our emotions and the extent to which our ideas are themselves emotional responses.

None of this is going to give us scholarly objectivity. Rough notes might be our limit?

To put it starkly, we humans are in many ways a mess, and thus so is our thinking. And if, for helping us get to know ourselves better, we can here thank Arendt, Heidegger and von Trotta, along with Eichmann, the Holocaust and the reprehensible actions of some Jewish leaders during the Nazi period, none of this can take away either the guilt or the sorrow, or the fear (when and where is it happening again?).


Links & References

Image used at the top of this piece is a still from the film itself. According to the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing, in the United States the movie opened on 31 May 2013, on one screen, grossing $31,270 the opening weekend.

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