It’s been a tough week: the Boston Marathon Bombing on the public stage, and closer to home, the death of a friend, colleague and great scholar, Aristide Zolberg (I will be publishing tributes, including my own, later this week), and a memorial service for my wife’s uncle Ed Gruson.
“Uncle Eddie” was an extraordinary man, sophisticated and warm, a bit of a rascal, but also a man of high moral principle in his private and public affairs (dating back to his marching in Selma, Alabama as a young man). My special relationship with Ed: he was the ideal reader, with a deep commitment to understanding the world, a trained biologist and urban planner, author of the birding book Words for Birds, who read broadly and seriously, with a sense of responsibility. Anticipating the end about a year ago, he gave me his complete collection of the works of Isaiah Berlin. Making sense of the chaos, while thinking about meaningful lives, is a challenge. Ed knew that thinkers like Berlin and Hannah Arendt, thinkers in dark times, to paraphrase Arendt’s most beautiful book, are important guides.
And as it happens, I did have a related treat planned for myself at the end of the grim dark tunnel of a week: off to see a movie, the Arendt biopic. It is a good movie, though it’s far from perfect. It powerfully and accurately depicts passionate thought. That is a real accomplishment, pushing the film form: “filmed thinking.”
As I prepare this post, I read two very good positive reviews, one in the distinguished Der Spiegel, the other in the more bohemian, Bitch Media. They highlight the film’s accomplishments, recognizing the great direction of Margarethe von Trotta and the superb performance of Barbara Sukowa, and they applaud how the film tells the story of the great controversy surrounding Arendt’s writing, her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann and her invention of the notion of “the banality of evil,” which she uses to depict Eichmann as the modern everyman, the thoughtless bureaucrat. The film also neatly portrays Arendt’s love affair and ongoing relationship with Martin Heidegger, in my judgment properly presenting it as an unsolved puzzle.
Arendt’s thought is the hero of the film, embellished by her love of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, her friendship with Mary McCarthy, and her apartment, filled with books, wine, cigarettes and émigré conversation, including between Arendt and Han Jonas, another famous New School philosopher. He couldn’t stand her relationship with Heidegger, dating back to the times they were students together, and in the film it seems that they irrevocably estranged over her Eichmann report. After Arendt’s death, I heard Jonas’s telling improvised and unrecorded commentary on Arendt at a memorial conference at NYU. Said Jonas: “Hannah thought that if she exaggerated an insight, it would become true.”
Of course, there were compromises in the film, which I find very interesting. The most significant, but understandable, is that Arendt is defined by her major public and private controversies, Eichmann and Heidegger, while the range of her original thought is named, but not revealed. Certainly this is an effect of the limits of film and the need to appeal to viewers who don’t know much about Arendt and her cultural world.
But thinking of Uncle Eddie and Ary Zolberg, there is a more telling problem. Arendt’s thinking is a little bit too good in this film, while those who oppose her are a bit too bad.
I admire Arendt. She is my favorite political thinker, as I will explain in my next in-depth post, “Hannah and Me.” Yet, even though her insights concerning the banality of evil are extremely important, explaining the cultural support of tyranny large and small, beyond the Holocaust, Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann is not “the truth” as the film’s Hannah declares. Arendt exaggerated her position, in Eichmann and many of her other books. Her factual reports were not always sound. On these and other grounds, Ary Zolberg was highly critical of her masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism. And while she may have been right about how thoughtlessness and irresponsibility explain the success of the Nazi death machine, and that the Jewish leadership was implicated, her tone indicated that her feelings for the Jewish people were ambivalent. I think I remember talking to Ed about this.
The movie depiction and Arendt herself may have been right when she asserted that we best confine our love for specific people and not a people, but the way Arendt portrays the Israeli prosecutor and judge, and the masses of Jews of Europe in her text, was problematic. Her tone was wrong, while her philosophy was difficult, challenging and of lasting value. The thought in the end won me over as I will explain in “Hannah and Me.” Her thought is there for us to consider and qualify at the end of this tough week, as we try to make sense of the Boston Marathon Bombing and the Brothers Tsarnaev, not only her notion of the banality of evil, but also her ideas about ideology and its relationship to terror.