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Jillian Steinhauer: Hannah Arendt’s Passionate Thinking

June 19, 2013

Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic yields an insight that’s fresher than “the banality of evil,” and just as true.

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Image courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

By Jillian Steinhauer

Four months ago, I attended the closing night of the New York Jewish Film Festival. I was alone, and not long after I arrived, I looked around the lobby and began to notice something about my hundreds of fellow attendees. My suspicions mounted as I made my way into the theater, a member of the last group called. Finally, scouring the rows for a free seat with a good view, it became definitively apparent: I was the youngest person there, by at least a decade.

Now you may be thinking that, ahem, I went to the closing night of the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center, a prime event for middle-aged-to-old Jews living on the Upper _______ Sides, and what did I expect? But I can’t help thinking there was something, too, about the movie we were all seeing that played a part in attracting such an age-specific audience.

That movie was Hannah Arendt, a new German biopic (made last year, which opened in New York this May) about the woman of the same name, the political theorist, philosopher, writer, teacher, public intellectual, and, as one friend recently referred to her, “the patron saint of the New School.” (She taught there for 12 years, and the university devoted a center to her in 2000.) Arendt, who was born in Germany in 1906, got off to an impressive start, studying with philosopher Martin Heidegger in college. Less impressively, the two also had a tumultuous, on-and-off romance, which was controversial not least because of their age difference — Arendt was 18 when it began, Heidegger nearly twice that, and married. Then of course there’s the fact that Heidegger went on to be a card-carrying Nazi, while Arendt, who was Jewish, was forced to flee from them. And yet she rekindled some kind of relationship with him after the war (it’s not clear if it was romantic), an action that seems to evidence the anti-Semitic tendencies she’s been accused of having had throughout her life.

This is writing that could cut you.

Arendt escaped the Nazis by first going to France, and then to the United States in 1941. Although she briefly returned to Germany after the war, most of the second half of her life was spent in America, where she taught variously at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the New School, Yale, and Wesleyan. She published six major texts/books, the most famous among them arguably The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, a report on the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann in Israel that was commissioned by The New Yorker. The new biopic, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa as Arendt, focuses on this article, the period of its commission and writing, and the now incredibly famous ideas contained therein.

Even if you don’t know much about Arendt, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the phrase she coined in her Eichmann treatise: “the banality of evil.” Here’s a passage from the book (which is a longer, mostly unedited version of The New Yorker articles) that illuminates the concept:

And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill’ …. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it—the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom … and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

Listen to that bitter sarcasm! That icy tone! This is writing that could cut you. (How on earth she forgave Heidegger is mystifying.) Throughout the piece, she applies the idea of ordinary evil not just to your average German during the war but also to Eichmann himself, writing at one point, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”

Eichmann presented himself as a bureaucratic drone because it was his best defense, and Arendt fell for it.

This, it should be noted, was how Eichmann presented himself to the court: as a lowly bureaucrat—terrifyingly normal—who was simply following orders when he shipped millions of Jews and others off to their deaths. In the years since the trial and Arendt’s report, it’s become clear that she was completely wrong about him; in reality, he was a far more involved, calculating, and enthusiastic Nazi. Eichmann presented himself as a bureaucratic drone because it was his best defense, and Arendt fell for it. Regardless of the truth of its origin story, however, the concept of the banality of evil has stuck because it’s brilliant. It’s been invoked to help us wrap our heads around pretty much every horrifying world event since, from Hutus macheteing their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda to Bosnian Serbs terrorizing and raping their Croat friends.

In fact, at this point, “the banality of evil” is such a truism that some people want to banish it, which is a far cry from how it was first received. (Novelty is still everything.) Arendt’s report on the trial pissed off a lot of people, many of them Jews and New Yorker readers, who thought she was too easy on Eichmann while being too harsh on the Jews themselves (the report includes a particularly harsh passage criticizing Jewish leaders for making the Nazis’ job easier). The movie Hannah Arendt is about all of this: Arendt’s witnessing of the trial, the process of writing and reaching her conclusions, the controversy that ensued (she almost lost her job at the New School), with only a small bit of personal drama thrown in.

Based on something Heidegger says, Arendt has an epiphany: she realizes that what he does, and what she would like to do, is passionate thinking.

It is, essentially, a movie about an idea—a treatise, perhaps even a kind of visual essay, albeit one written through the lens of biography. Consequently, not much happens except arguments and conversations. She smokes a terrifying amount of cigarettes. In the final scene, she simply lies down on the couch, her face set in perpetually thoughtful motion, and then the credits begin to quietly roll.

These qualities may explain in part why the audience at my screening skewed toward middle age—the slow pace, the harkening back to an earlier time. It may also be a simple case of younger people, barring those in critical writing and theory programs, not knowing who Arendt is. A completely unscientific Facebook and Twitter poll I conducted on this question brought in very mixed results (and I, being a critic, know a lot of people who pride themselves on writing and thinking critically).

Still, if we’re being honest, I was a little bored. Not because of the acting, which (with the exception of Megan Gay as New Yorker editor Francis Wells, who seemed to be trying to bludgeon audiences with her fake wise-guy New York accent) was excellent. The movie clocks in at just under two hours, and even for someone like me, who knows Arendt’s work and finds this story fascinating, it dragged. Or perhaps it dragged because I already knew this story and didn’t learn much new. How many conversations can you watch, how many cigarettes smoked, how many sessions at the typewriter? (On the other hand, the scene of her and New Yorker editor William Shawn, played by Nicholas Woodeson, going over edits face-to-face at a table was thrilling. Oh, how I long for those days.)

And yet, when the film ended and the lights came up in the Walter Reade Theater, I found myself tearing up. I had been bored, and I had also been inexplicably moved. How? (Or rather, why?)

Channel one’s feelings into something so cerebral as thought. That this can be done is a revelation. Thought as an emotional exercise.

The answer, I think, lies in the scene that stuck with me most: a flashback, an episode when young Arendt visits Professor Heidegger in his office. They haven’t yet begun their affair, but you can see clearly how it all started here—Arendt’s adoration of him and the trajectory he would set her on for the rest of her life. I can’t remember the exact dialogue, but based on something he says, she has an epiphany: she realizes that what he does, and what she would like to do, is passionate thinking. Channel one’s feelings into something so cerebral as thought. That this can be done is a revelation. Thought as an emotional exercise.

That phrase, “passionate thinking,” has resonated with me in the months since I saw the film. It’s bounced continually around in my head and taken up residence in a small corner of my brain, making itself known again every few weeks. I used it when I spoke to a group of aspiring high school art critics last month. As it was for the movie version of Arendt, it’s been an epiphany for me, and like “the banality of evil,” I find it to be a rapturously clear articulation of something that for a long time was floating around nameless in my ether.

We live in a time of passion more than passionate thinking. I’m not trying whine about the internet or our collective ADD here, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that in a time of such shortened attention spans, emotions rule. They have to: the best way to grab someone’s attention is to make her feeling something. Memoirs abound, as do personal essays, as well as personal reviews of everything from pens to potholders to prisons (yes, really) on Amazon and Yelp. That many more people have public outlets for their voices now is unquestionably a good thing. But it also means we all have to shout a little louder, or be a little wilier, to get others to notice us.

Arendt’s writing is driven by a relentless logic. It’s mesmerizing even when it’s dense; it bowls me over even when it bores me—just like the film.

I love reading a good personal essay, and I have something of a mild obsession with memoir comics and graphic novels. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be a career personal-essay-writer, that enviable person with the coolest job in the world who combines firsthand stories, universal lessons, and cultural commentary in my hilariously clever writing, a la Sarah Vowell or Sloane Crosley. In fact, I think I still tell myself that. But when I sit down to write, what comes out instead are long, involved art reviews and cerebral discussions of books, with personal bits thrown in here and there. I am, it turns out, a passionate thinker. And in that phrase from the film, I found a justification of my whole professional existence—an existence I question every time I read a heart-wrenching personal essay written by a woman on a site like The Rumpus and wonder why I’m not doing that. Why I don’t have stories like that. Why I can’t write like that. Now, at least, I have Arendt.

It’s not that personal essays can’t be logical or filled with sound thinking; in fact, the best ones usually are. But even those essays ride on the currents of human drama—they tell stories, offer a lesson. They’re built to convey firsthand experience. They make you think, but only after they make you feel.

For Arendt, on the other hand, thinking is the whole show. It’s not just the film version of Arendt, either: though I’m far from a scholar of her work, the sampling of her books and essays that I have read bears the theory out. Arendt’s writing is driven by a relentless logic, a force of her will that seems to plow the words across the page from inception to completion. In On Violence, for instance, she stacks her arguments and theories one atop the other for 120 pages. By the end, she’s somehow turned a house of cards into a cement foundation. To read Arendt is to feel like she’s simultaneously daring you to disagree with her and ignoring you. The writing is mesmerizing even when it’s dense; it bowls me over even when it bores me—just like the film.

When I was nearing the end of graduate school (where I first read Arendt), I went to the Union Square Holiday Market and bought finger puppet fridge magnets for two of my closest friends from my program. One was of Sigmund Freud, for the friend who’s obsessed with psychoanalysis, and the other was of George Orwell (whom we also read in grad school), for the friend who loves his clear, clever prose. I also bought one for myself: a little caricature of Hannah Arendt. At the time, I honestly couldn’t articulate why I’d chosen it; I had enjoyed reading Arendt but hadn’t given the matter much thought. It just felt intuitive that she was the one I wanted watching over me in my apartment every day as I left grad school and began the struggle of trying to be a writer. Now I understand.

Hannah Arendt plays at Film Forum in New York through Thursday June 20 and is in limited release nationwide.

Jillian Steinhauer is senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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