Friday, December 06, 2013

Hannah and her Detractors

We took a flutter last night on 'Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt, remembering the kerfuffle over Arendt's New Yorker reportage on the trial of Nazi mass murderer Adolph Eichmann.   I think the best thing you could say about it is "inoffensive," maybe "workmanlike."  Barbara Sukowa held one's attention in the title role and Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy was as annoying as McCarthy probably was in real life (that's a compliment).  But if you remember the Arendt/Eichmann episode, you wouldn't have learned anything new, and if you don't, the film probably won't inspire you to dig any deeper.

I do remember the episode and I remember feeling that Arendt had it pretty much right from the get-go.  As Arendt argues (I think), too often, evil is not outlandish, unworldly.  It's just stuff that people do--evil stuff, but still stuff.  FWIW,  you can say pretty much the same about good; cf. Marcel Ophul's pendant account of French resistance to the Nazis,  memorialized in The Sorrow and the Pity, where heroism is no more saintly than Eichmann's crimes are devilish. I suspect that Arendt came away winners in the long run (one reason the episode is forgettable); indeed I always thought that some of the outrage against her had a perfunctory air as if some of her critics found it politic to attack her even though they didn't have their heart in it.

But the movie did set me reflecting a bit on Arendt's career as a whole.  The book I take to be her iconic showpiece --The Origins of Totalitarianism--pops up on any number of lists of "great books" for the 20th Century. But does anybody read it any more?  Can anybody serve up a sufficient 50-word summary?  Or has it receded to the status of period piece, like Jack Paar or the Kaiser-Frazier auto brand?  Okay, grant that most, perhaps all, works of political/social theory begin as period pieces.  But some quintessential period pieces--Machiavelli might be the best example--have a way of transcending their period, to establish some lasting value.  Can the same be said for OT?

As to the rest of Arendt's work, there's a lot of it I can't evaluate because I haven't read it.  I do remember the character sketches or occasional pieces brought together in Men in Dark Times and I once again savor a curious truth: sometimes a writer's best work is his (her) more modest or less pretentious stuff: as a long-form journalist, she was actually quite good.

I also remember The Human Condition, not least as  orderly and systematic  in the way OT seemed to me not to be.  This may or may nor be a compliment--orderly Dickens is not Dickens at his best.  But her distinction between "work" and "action" (i;.e., "politics") does stick in the mind.   I do take some wry amusement for her Aristotelian contempt for mere "labor," the chores that you need to accomplish to get yourself through the day.  As a person who once cooked for a living, I am still a little startled to see her classify cookery as mere labor.    It cannot achieve dignity, she argues, it leaves nothing that endures.

Well.  Maybe last night's dinner is not something I wish to contemplate this morning.  But she seems utterly to have failed to grasp that while cooking may not endure, still cookery does.  The skill, the practice, the cuisine: no nation can call itself great if it lacks a great cuisine.  So if they invite for dinner at Hannah's--go for the conversation,  but stop for a burger on the way.

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