Arendt Debate (Continued)
In their Books Essay (Summer 2013) on the Hannah Arendt controversy, Daniel Maier-Katkin and Nathan Stoltzfus refer to a review of mine in The New York Review of Books nearly 50 years ago that triggered a debate. According to their account, I was deeply impressed if not overwhelmed by a book by Jacob Robinson that I had reviewed. Robinson had discovered 400 mistakes Arendt had committed, and I had therefore called Robinson “formidable.”
The irony clearly escaped your authors. True, Robinson with his lawyer’s mind was indeed formidable if compared with Arendt, whose book is deficient in factual knowledge and judgment. Robinson was familiar with the facts of the Holocaust, whereas Arendt’s knowledge at the time seems to have rested on one book (Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews) and what she had learned at the Jerusalem trial. But as an attempt to refute Arendt, Robinson’s book was pathetic. I said this in a response to Arendt’s long critique of my review of Robinson’s book: “With all his knowledge of matters of detail [Robinson] did not come to grips with the basic issues, and for this reason his book is disappointing.”
It would be helpful if the authors would admit that they never read my review (or forgot what they read) but read only what Arendt wrote about it, and that there was no intention on their part to distort the record and make me say the opposite of what I was saying.
Washington, D. C.
Daniel Maier-Katkin and Nathan Stoltzfus understate the malevolence of Martin Heidegger. Few accuse Heidegger of being an Eichmann, but the attitudes and actions of Heidegger and his peers enabled the Third Reich. Here are but a few facts the authors left out.
During his tenure as rector of Freiburg University (beginning after Hitler was in power barely three months), Heidegger, of his own volition, began the university’s era of Nazi racial-cleansing laws. He ended faculty elections of his own position of rector (instead, he requested that the Nazi minister of education appoint one) and denounced numerous professors to the Nazi government. He remained close to Eugen Fischer, the head of the Institute of Racial Hygiene and the employer of Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “Angel of Death,” until at least 1960. Heidegger was a vocal Nazi proponent until his death in 1976. In a 1949 lecture on technology, he compared murdered Jews to agricultural products.
After the war, Arendt, cognizant of the Nazi genocide and Heidegger’s Nazi proclivities, defended him in a de-Nazification hearing. It was Arendt who began the relationship in 1950 with Heidegger (not vice versa). She even initially supported segregation during the U.S. civil rights movement and refused to be associated with the feminist movement.
The authors’ conclusion that evil can “turn up anywhere” is correct, but they are misguided when they imply that genocidal “evil is banal.” Rather, for Arendt it was banal, since if it were not, she could not have justified her relationship with Heidegger, her unrepentant Nazi mentor.
Hanna Arendt wasn’t worth all the controversy she created. Her characterization of Eichmann as exemplifying the “banality of evil” was plausible to an extent, but so what? Her opinion was merely an impression gained from observing Eichmann at the trial, not the result of serious study.
More infuriating was her claim that the local Jewish leadership councils in occupied Europe collaborated with the Nazis and actually made the Holocaust more horrifying than it would otherwise have been. Lucy Dawidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews, probably the most authoritative work on the Holocaust, wrote, “This extraordinary argument on behalf of chaos derives from total ignorance of the historical evidence.” Dawidowicz deplored Arendt’s “penchant for grand philosophic schemata.”
Indeed, Arendt was given to dramatic speculation rather than earnest scholarship—a posture I assume she gained from her German academic training. Her much-vaunted Origins of Totalitarianism is a prime example of her technique—not a shred of evidence to support her theory. I don’t understand why her work commanded so much attention and upset so many people.
CARL H. ZIMMERMAN
“Hannah Arendt on Trial” correctly conveys that banality can be used to facilitate evil, but Arendt’s pseudointellectual notion of the Nazis’ banality of evil has been and will always be insufficient and incorrect.
While evil is not necessarily banal, trivial, commonplace, and the product of thoughtlessness, it is necessarily the product of radicalness at some point, and necessity is very important in philosophy. Had Arendt been barred from writing her philosophy dissertation on the religion-loaded topic of Saint Augustine’s concept of love, she might have known better, although I suspect she was a lost cause under any circumstance.
Santa Monica, California
I always take Hannah Arendt’s side in the perennial “banality of evil” debate. But it requires some pseudoscholarly hocus-pocus to construe her argument as condemnatory of Israeli policy, and one can’t help wondering at the motives of your authors. But then, perhaps there is an element of jest here. After all, they refer to Norman Podhoretz as “journalist” and Carlin Romano as “literary critic,” getting things upside down.
Nice photo of Arendt, though.
Lansing, New York
I must disagree with Richard Restak’s assertion (“Laughter and the Brain”) that humans alone have the ability to appreciate humor based on the discrepancy between a joke and the scripts our minds create from past experiences.
In an oft-cited passage of The Education of Koko, Francine Patterson and Eugene Linden write about a time the gorilla Koko was asked to identify the color of a white towel, a common type of exercise. Rather than signing “white,” a color she had correctly identified many times before, Koko began to insistently sign “red” despite the trainer’s protests. Finally, Koko pointed to a small piece of red lint on the towel and made an expression that, apparently, indicated amusement.
Restak states that apes “cannot shift back and forth between multiple mental interpretations of a situation.” On the contrary, in processing the trainer’s question and the towel’s true color, and then intentionally misinterpreting the question, Koko did just that.
Richard Restak notes that humor can be a helpful antidote to fear, but he does not go far enough. Commenting on the atmosphere of paranoia, political correctness, and general uptightness in our society, Jaak Panksepp, an important researcher in neuroscience and emotion, called ours “an era of fear.”
Most of us have seen how humor can dissolve the fear and—more important—dissolve the resultant tension and even paranoia that erupts between people. When you’ve seen it in operation firsthand, it seems like no great stretch to believe humor could not only save an argument but might save a marriage, stop a gang fight, prevent a war.
New York City
Adventures With Aging
I’ve never met Emily Fox Gordon, but I must have accidentally brushed up against her, at which time she did a Vulcan mind-meld peek into my travails. Word for word, her “At Sixty-Five” mirrored my own physical adventures with aging. It was astonishingly accurate and made me feel great because it reminded me that we must all share the same human experience.
Photo and Credit
In the Winter 2013 issue (page 113), you reproduce a very fine portrait of Charles Baudelaire taken by the famous French photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, commonly known as Nadar, and credit the picture to the Mary Evans Picture Library. This is akin to crediting a quotation from Madame Bovary to the library where you obtained your copy.
In these days of photographic anonymity, when we are flooded with snapshots right and left, it becomes ever more important to honor the accomplishments of great (and not so great) photographers by giving them proper credit, even if they happen to be dead.
The nonfiction piece “Rites of Passage” by Steve Macone in the Summer 2012 issue was terrific. The turns of phrase, beginning in a matter-of-fact way but then taking a sudden turn—and yet ringing true—remind me of the writing of Raymond Chandler.
My favorite: “I found fishing to be the one hobby timeless and genuine enough to keep me marginally tethered to the world, like when a felon comes out of his cell to do watercolors.”
DAVID L. CLARK
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