Banal-Retentive

It is the centennial of Hannah Arendt’s birth and the business of commemoration and hagiography is in full-swing. Several prominent writers have taken to the page to re-assert her relevance to contemporary politics.

Arendt is certainly and revered and controversial figure, especially when it came to Jewish affairs where Arendt seemed of two minds. In Germany she was intimately involved with European Zionists but when she fled to America she adopted a prickly attitude when it came to organized Jewish life and a hostile attitude towards Zionism. She wrote very prescient essays in which she fretted about what kind of future a Jewish state would have surrounded on all sides by implacable foes and therefore forced to concern this new society almost exclusively with matters of security.

These tensions burst into an inferno of controversy in 1963 when Arendt published her much-anticipated chronicle of covering the trail of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem. In particular, she set tempers ablaze and friendships into ruin by her use of the (often misunderstood) phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the notorious exploits of Eichmann and his efficient command of the Nazi death machine. To Arendt, Eichmann’s mendacity and crimes were compelled more by bureaucratic imperatives than ideological poison. To her Eichmann was still the salesman for the Vacuum Oil Company in Vienna.

Her numerous critics were quick and right to point out that despite the fact that Eichmann looked like you and me, most of us would not say – as Eichmann did – that he “would jump into my grave laughing because of the fact that I have the death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” Saul Bellow acerbically remarked that, “banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience.”

But to many, the dispute over banality paled in comparison to her charge that the Jewish Councils established by the Nazis to temporarily rule over Jewish populations was evidence of European Jewry conspiring in its own destruction. The victims complicit in their own victimization. “Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis…To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.”

One fierce critic was Irving Howe. In his youth Howe had been Arendt’s assistant for a time when she was an editor at the Schocken publishing house, though they were never very close. In his exquisite memoir, A Margin of Hope, Howe reflects on why the controversy of the book was so intense, namely that it touched the raw nerve of American Jewish guilt about the Holocaust, an event that had not become the mainstream, de-Judaized phenomenon it is today. “It was as if her views, which roused many of us to fury, enabled us to finally speak about the unspeakable,” Howe wrote.

In this week’s issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Russell Jacoby celebrates Eichmann in Jerusalem as the work that should in fact provide the basis for our appreciation of Arendt. He notes that much of her other work, in particular the celebrated The Origins of Totalitarianism is needlessly opaque, bogged down under the strain of psychobabble. He makes the interesting point that there is significance to the fact that Eichmann in Jerusalem was initially commissioned as a series of essays for The New Yorker. “Perhaps writing for The New Yorker‘s legendary editor, William Shawn — famous as he was for his ruthless pruning — caused Arendt to shelve her philosophical bombast,” muses Jacoby.

But all of this is by way of Jacoby arguing against the tide of hagiography and for a more restrained, circumspect, and thoughtful critique of Arendt. Jacoby writes that her star shines so brightly today only because “the American intellectual firmament is so dim.” On this point he and Arendt, who never exhibited much warmth for American society and culture, may in fact be in agreement.

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