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July 15, 2013

A movie that depicts intellectuals isn’t necessarily intellectual. There’s more real cognition at work and on display in Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” and Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder”—neither of which depict people who make a living from intellectual pursuits—than in this movie, which comes off as a sort of soft-core philosophical porn. “Hannah Arendt” titillates the craving for the so-called intellectual life while actually offering little intellectual substance.

The New Yorker: “‘Hannah Arendt’ and the Glorification of Thinking” by Richard Brody, May 31, 2013.

Richard Brody’s essay on Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt is well worth reading, whether one agrees with it or not. It covers such themes as the use of anecdotes to tell historical events, the cinematic representation of intellectual labour and, more importantly, Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), which was first published in The New Yorker. Brody, who feels Arendt’s philosophical analysis of the trial was too cold, concludes with the following words:

The cumulative effect, then, of “Eichmann in Jerusalem” is overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience. As such, the book reflects the absolute darkness of the Holocaust, its unassimilable otherness. From her philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.

Brody’s legitimate concerns echo, to some extent, those expressed by Primo Levi in an appendix he added in 1976 to his 1947 book Se questo è un uomo (If This Is A Man). I have already used this excerpt in an essay I wrote a year ago precisely on the topic of incommensurability (see “On the threshold of knowledge: Pythagoreans, incommensurability and the experience of modernity”). I am not aware of an existing English translation for Primo Levi’s appendix, so I am relying on a French translation instead:

Peut-être que ce qui s’est passé ne peut pas être compris, et même ne doit pas être compris, dans la mesure où comprendre, c’est presque justifier. En effet, «comprendre» la décision ou la conduite de quelqu’un, cela veut dire (et c’est aussi le sens étymologique du mot) les mettre en soi, mettre en soi celui qui en est responsable, se mettre à sa place, s’identifier à lui. Eh bien, aucun homme normal ne pourra jamais s’identifier à Hitler, à Himmler, à Goebbels, à Eichmann, à tant d’autres encore. Cela nous déroute et nous réconforte en même temps, parce qu’il est peut-être souhaitable que ce qu’ils ont dit —et aussi, hélas, ce qu’ils ont fait —ne nous soit plus compréhensible. (Si c’est un homme, tr. by Martine Schruoffeneger, Paris: Pocket, p. 205).

• • •

The five-part series of Arendt’s essay Eichmann in Jerusalem are available for free at The New Yorker archive (see Part I on February 16, 1963; Part II on February 23, Part III on March 2, Part IV on March 9 and Part V on March 16). Although advertisement is understandably what allow the magazine to publish Arendt’s report in the first place, the juxtaposition of her account of Eichmann’s trial alongside consumer products (such as RCA new color television and Zenith new remote control) is somehow awkward (the same remark applies to John Hersey’s essay Hiroshima published later that year).

It is possible to get an “unglorified” idea of who (and how) Hannah Arendt was through audio and video recordings available online. I would recommend the following three.

  • The Hannah Arendt Collection offers audio excerpts of a lecture on “Power and Violence” Arendt delivered on December 11, 1968 at Bard College. There’s a 20 mins excerpt of the lecture itself, followed by 37 minutes of questions and answers with the audience (to download the mp3 files, right-click and “Save Link As”: Speech, Questions and Answers)

  • “Hannah Arendt im Gespräch mit Günter Gaus” (“Hannah Arendt in conversation with Günter Gaus”) is a 60 minutes television interview broadcast on October 28, 1964. In this interview, Arendt offers a broader and maybe more intimate introduction to herself and her work. The transcript, in German, is available at RBB Online. The video embedded below has English subtitles.

  • On October 1973, two years prior to her death, Roger Errera interviewed Arendt in New York. The result is a 50 minutes filmed co-produced by ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française) and INA (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel) which was first broadcast on July 6, 1974 as part of the series Un Certain Regard. In the recording, Arendt exposes her views on the political specificities of the United States. The questions were asked in French and Arendt answered in English. However, in the broadcast version ―which I believe is the only one available online― Arendt voice is dubbed-over with a French translation. YouTube has different versions: one has added Spanish subtitles and another has added German subtitles. On his official website, Roger Errera provides a complete transcript of Hannah Arendt’s original answers in English (the transcript was produced by U. Ludz in 1995: PDF).

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