Hannah Arendt revisited.

If I had to pick the best political thinkers of the century, Hannah Arendt would have to top the list. No one else — not even my personal journalistic hero, Walter Karp — ever asked so many original questions, and delved so deep into the answers. More than a mere philosopher, Arendt was “a storyteller, like a guide in the catacombs of history,” as Greil Marcus put it. Immensely well-read, she picked her way through each essay as if cliches were land mines, ever on the hunt for whatever it was she really thought.

Her writing is lucid enough, but it often takes me several rereadings to figure out what she meant; the flow of her argument sometimes seems more fanciful than logical, as if she were leaping from point to point without pausing to make logical connections. In her 1963 masterpiece, On Revolution, she dreams her way back into the French and American Revolutions in search of their meaning, and comes up with answers that no academic scholar — or Marxist — would ever countenance. Does that mean they were wrong? To paraphrase a much-overquoted movie line, is academia equipped to handle the truth?

The true mark of Arendt’s power and originality is that she remains, to a surprising degree, detested. I’ve been thinking about her because I just stumbled on a remembrance of her by the poet Robert Lowell, and it’s a remarkable piece, as generous and understanding as virtually every other piece about Arendt I’ve read has been prissy and judgmental. And it’s beautifully written. Lowell’s account of how he got lost on his way to Arendt’s apartment the first time he went there reminds me more of my own impressions of New York City than anything else I’ve ever read, and it’s only a paragraph long.

He also remembers a terrifying moment. In 1963, Arendt wrote a remarkable book about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal who was seized and put on trial in Jerusalem that year. The book, which Arendt once admitted she wrote “in a curious state of euphoria,” pursued Eichmann’s career as a thoughtless bureaucrat with deadpan relish. You read the book’s cool collecting and recounting of facts with a growing sense of helplessness, knowing what’s coming — and yet Arendt doesn’t let her mask slip. Then, at the end, Arendt turned around and spoke in the voice of some cosmic judge, saying what no real judge could ever say, in the only convincing argument for any use of the death penalty I’ve ever heard:

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And 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 — as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world — 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.

But the book infuriated people. Not only had Arendt identified Eichmann as an empty suit who did what he did for no reason — not a demon, but a terrifying vision of what any of us might become if we fell into the wrong circumstances — but she condemned Jewish leaders for cooperating with the Nazis. This did not go over well:

When Hannah’s Eichmann was published, a meeting was summoned by Irving Howe and Lionel Abel, normally urbane and liberal minds. The meeting was like a trial, the stoning of an outcast member of the family. Any sneering overemphasis on Hannah, who had been invited but was away teaching in Chicago, was greeted with derisive clapping or savage sighs of amazement. Her appointed defenders drifted off into unintelligibly ingenious theses and avoided her name. When her tolerance was eloquently and unfavorably compared with Trotsky’s, Alfred Kazin walked self-consciously to the stage and stammered, “After all Hannah didn’t kill any Jews.” He walked off the stage laughed at as irrelevant and absurd. His was the one voice for the defense. I admire his bravery, and wish I had dared speak. Half my New York literary and magazine acquaintance was sitting near, yet their intensity was terrifying, as if they were about to pick up chairs.

It could be said, as one critic of Arendt did, that there was something “heartless” about her tone. But Arendt did not write to make anyone feel better. She understood that truth was seldom a pleasant, sensible thing. Her refusal to cover up that fact is surely part of why no one can write about Hannah Arendt these days without adopting that smirky, patronizing tone, as if independent minds are all well and good for the young but the rest of us have moved on.

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One Response to “Hannah Arendt revisited.”

  1. alina Says:

    I love her too. Would you like to review Eichmann in J. for my website? Very informal review style– anything goes.

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