on Unlearning With Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott (Other Press)

Forty years after her death, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) remains a favorite target for those who dislike -- and generally misunderstand -- her views toward Judaism and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. At the same time, Eichmann in Jerusalem, her account of his 1962 trial, continues as the most widely read book on the Holocaust. Describing Eichmann as a “buffoon,” Arendt claimed that “he had no motives at all except an unusual assiduousness to do anything to further his career … he simply had never imagined what effect his actions had.” By suggesting that Jewish leaders in Europe had failed to reckon with the ramp-up toward the Final Solution, Arendt cast a shadow on Holocaust narratives, depriving the passion play of an archetypal villain.

EichmannTrial.jpgFor her critics, Arendt is the ultimate stylist of “blame the victim” mentality and a gullible explainer of evil. It has been said, for instance, that if the Mossad had picked up Joseph Goebbels in Buenos Aires in 1960 and brought him to trial instead of Adolph Eichmann, Arendt would not have regarded the former’s evil as banal. But as she pointed out to Gershom Scholem, one of the many intellectuals who accused her of insufficient love of her own people, “the Eichmann trial was concerned with an individual,” an anti-Semite like his peers but an un-Goebbels-like functionary.

“The use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers,” wrote Ron Rosenbaum in Slate in 2009. “And when applied to Eichmann … the phrase was utterly fraudulent.” Richard Brody repeats (but adds nothing) to this charge in a 2013 column in The New Yorker. Yet even David Cesarini’s Becoming Eichmann (2004), exhaustively researched and often critical of Arendt’s “biases,” not only fails to weaken her case, but is ultimately subsumed within it. In his final chapter he writes, “Eichmann appears more and more like a man of our time. Everyman as génocidaire.

ArendtCover.jpgIn Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, journalist and editor Marie Luise Knott mounts a confident defense of her subject by way of “inquiries into how Hannah Arendt awakens delight from suffering and light from ancient dread.” Knott structures her approach on four attributes – the inclination to laughter, the power of translation, the reinvention of forgiveness, and the act of dramatization. In response to the failure of European culture to prevent its own destruction, and the monstrous success of criminals and their minions who could neither be adequately punished nor forgiven, Arendt exerted herself to create “a new pact between language and life.” “Unlearning” entailed allowing “the reality she encountered to shake and confuse her.”

But like Arendt’s other ardent supporters, Knott is obliged to begin with Eichmann – and the possibility that “Arendt allowed herself to be fooled” by his testimony. Laughter, says Knott, is Arendt’s response to the bland, factual horror of him. She adds, “Arendt’s laughter was the laughter of incongruence, the laughter that erupts when facing absurdity.” But Karl Jaspers, whom she quotes, suggests that mockery was one of her abiding signatures: “Everything that presents itself as solemn, weighty, and pretentious in today’s world because the object of her laughter, and thus the bearers of this solemnity find Hannah Arendt unbearable.” As Knott observes about the response to the Eichmann report, “Arendt was attacked first and foremost for her ironic tone.” She derided Eichmann for his ordinary loathsomeness within a totalitarian system; she derided Stefan Zweig for an inability to imagine a world beyond his obliterated values.

Arendt.jpgArendt arrived in the United States in 1940 at age 34 (she fled Berlin for Paris in 1933) and became a citizen in 1951. In New York, Arendt thought in German, wrote in English (“the primary language of her public voice”), and had her work translated back into German “which she then used for subsequent editions of the English works.” Knott illuminates the challenges Arendt and other émigrés faced. For these exiles, “the difference in linguistic expression alone will always be an obstacle, or rather, a threshold the émigré must cross at every moment, in every word and gesture.” The demanding process of adopting language and processing it through translation allowed Arendt to discard depleted concepts and find new terms for tormented times.

In the years immediately following the fall of Berlin, both the Allied and Russian occupiers quickly forgave or at least ignored the misdeeds of thousands of former Nazis and enlisted them to help administer the divided country. Forgetting had become a new European pastime. Arendt rejected the traditional concept of forgiveness for one based, writes Knott, on “a political ‘remedy.’ Life could simply not go on if people were not constantly releasing each other from the consequences of what they had done. Such forgiveness, in contrast to the one-sided devotion of brotherly love, offers the possibility that a deed can cease having consequences.” Thus, forgiveness must include action, a pact to enact change. Eichmann’s mentality, then, represents the impossibility of that enactment – and for me casts doubt on the dominance of laughter in Arendt’s response to him. (My grandfather, imprisoned in a Vichy camp for three years, used to say of the French, “I can forgive, and I can forget. But then I remember.”)

Arendt3.jpgThe final chapter on “dramatization” suggests that Arendt kept writing and speaking out in order to prove the fact of her existence and disrupt the overpowering force of history. Arendt believed the “productive arts” of poets and historians lead the way toward understanding and reacting to the metaphysical terrors of the times. Yet Arendt seems not to have recognized writers such as Paul Celan, Edmond Jabès and others who radically retooled the language out of the griefs of the war, and she was notoriously dismissive of Freud and psychoanalysis. She concluded that Heidegger, Jaspers and Maritain had not "come to conceptual grips with the shock of what never should have occurred," and she accused the Existentialists of abandoning philosophy for politics, but she was several steps behind the wave of structuralist/post-modernist theory. If she mocked Zweig for benightedness, she also was conventional in her own fashion. She honored poets (Jarrell and Auden were close friends) but there was little of the lyrical in her own expression.

Unlearning With Hannah Arendt is accessible even to the reader who is unfamiliar with the philosopher. The author’s foundational quartet of laughter, translation, forgiveness and dramatization may be provisional, and Arendt’s native habits of thought may have simply matured rather than dramatically changed. Nevertheless, Knott’s design allows for a broadly informed view of Arendt’s output and attitudes. This is a work of citation more than discovery.

Tony Judt said that Hannah Arendt at her best was “attacking head-on a painful topic; dissenting from official wisdom; provoking argument not just among her critics but also and especially among her friends; and above all, disturbing the easy peace of received opinion.” Her ear, attuned to the manipulation of tone and nuanced provocation, was her greatest asset as a writer. In her essay on Kafka, she wrote, “Prophets are always prophets of ruin, and necessarily so because catastrophe can always be predicted. It is always salvation which is the miracle, not ruin; only salvation, and not ruin, depends upon the freedom of man and his capacity to change the world and its natural course.”

Therefore, she would not prophesy salvation, and for that her enemies called her views ruinous.

[Published May 13, 2014. 160 pages, $22.95 hardcover. A $13.95 paperback edition will be published on April 14, 2015.]