“I’m Obviously Quite Unpleasant”
Final words from Hannah Arendt.
BY JENNIFER RUTH
[This review was originally published in the winter 2014 issue.]
HANNAH ARENDT: THE LAST INTERVIEW (Melville House) is a brief but satisfying experience. The four interviews collected here have appeared before, but read together they deliver a strong impression of the who of Arendt. We know the what already. At least we think we do. Arendt is a brilliant but arrogant philosopher whose “mind [is] infatuated with its own agility” (Norman Podhoretz). She is a courter of controversy whose “psychologically obtuse” discussion of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem outraged many (Mark Lilla). She is the “perpetrator of the notion of ‘totalitarianism,’” which became “the key weapon of the West in the Cold War ideological struggle” (Slavoj Zizek). Each of these whats come up in one way or another in this volume, and are roundly trounced by the who.
Let’s take them one by one.
(1) Arendt is an arrogant philosopher. No. Wrong. Turns out she’s an arrogant political theorist. I’ll return to the question of Arendt’s arrogance in a minute, but let’s address the issue of disciplinary identity. The question of whether Arendt is a philosopher or political theorist arises on the first pages of the book, which consist of the first few minutes of Gunter Gaus’s 1964 interview for his show Zur Person. Gaus begins clumsily and—at least to contemporary ears—almost offensively by asking Arendt if she views “her role in the circle of philosophers” as unusual given that she is a woman. She protests not because she’s irritated by the immediate focus on her gender but because “her profession...is political theory.” “I neither feel like a philosopher,” she says, “nor do I believe that I have been accepted in the circle of philosophers, as you so kindly suppose.”
Those familiar with her work—The Human Condition and Between Past and Future, in particular—will understand her point here. Arendt understands the Western philosophical tradition to have been inspired by a revulsion to politics. Throughout her work, in varying degrees of detail, she tells a story about Plato and Socrates. When Socrates was wrongly condemned, Plato gave up on democracy in disgust. Henceforth, people should be governed by philosopher-kings with privileged access to Truth. Truth, posited as something independent of the politics of men, becomes a tool with which to manipulate the unruly masses whose judgments have proven unreliable. This is an oversimplification, but you can see from it why Arendt assumes she would not be welcome in “the circle of philosophers” that she’d built an oevre around insulting. And she would not want to be considered a philosopher, with a philosopher’s inbred disdain for politics, because she considered politics deadly serious—consider her first-hand experience with the twentieth century’s totalitarian catastrophes—and not some dirty activity one does when not gifted enough to reflect on Truth.
Now, about that arrogance, or what Marie Syrkin called in the pages of Dissent her “high-handed assurance.” What strikes one is Arendt’s grace in handling Gaus’s patronizing opening move. It’s not that she’s gracious exactly—she is not solicitous of Gaus or affable—but there’s an undeniable grace in her directness and patience. She handles each part of the question (philosopher/political theorist, the status of being a woman) in turn, betraying no sign of irritation or impatience. (Visual confirmation of this can be had by watching the interview.) When Gaus insists, “I consider you to be a philosopher,” she responds, “Well, I can’t help that, but in my opinion I am not.” Her own identity is something about which others will have their opinion, just as she has hers.
Throughout The Last Interview, Arendt displays a generosity that seems one and the same as a striving for impartiality. One can understand how this impartiality, and her wonderful lack of feminine tics of self-deprecation, might come off as cold arrogance at times. As one moves through the interviews, however, this disposition looks much more like a commitment to one’s own thinking and to the right and responsibility we all share to think and judge for ourselves. Her equanimity as she’s thrown one oral grenade after another does not read like defensive superiority, but like a hard-won practice of trying not to take things personally. A continual battle to be free of that narcissism that, entering an intellectual exchange, deforms it.
Which takes us to (2) She courts controversy. The second interview published here was also conducted for a German TV show, Das Thema. The focus is her most controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Why, Joachim Fest asks, did she feel compelled to call out what might have been better left unsaid? The reference is to her (in)famous claim that had the Jewish Councils not cooperated with the Nazis, fewer Jews would have died. Her answer indicates that she has thought about this long and hard, that she has weighed the causing of personal pain against the documentation of facts, and only reluctantly has she come out on the side of documentation. She does seem a touch defensive here when she repeatedly reminds her interlocutor of the totalitarian approach to ugly facts—namely, their erasure:
I think that such is the historian’s task, as well as the task of people who live at the time and are independent—there are such people, and they need to be guardians of factual truths. What happens when these guardians are driven out by society, or driven into a corner or put up against a wall by the state—we’ve seen this happen in the writing of history. (64)
The Last Interview does not give us the material to develop a more nuanced understanding of Arendt’s answer. Maybe no single book could. What may not be clear in any isolated moment of Arendt’s conversation, but which becomes clear over the entirety, is that she is far from callously casual about the Jewish Elders placed in such soul-destroying conditions. She knows very well—and feels keenly—the judgment she’s making on them. Why does she do it? Because in her determination, no less than human freedom is at stake. We are always capable of being more than a bundle of Pavlovian responses to our environment, and more than the sum of utilitarian calculations to our circumstances: we make choices. These choices are the price we pay for freedom. When we are not held accountable to ourselves, we may emerge from the ruins blameless, but we deny our own agency—our own tiny contribution to the creation of a better future.
It might be melodramatic, but I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that everything of value for Arendt comes back to the basic idea, which is also a kind of faith, that we—not God, not the World Spirit, not materialist dialectics, not Survival of the Fittest—make our future. Arendt repeatedly said that the Holocaust is something we cannot reconcile ourselves to. Tragedy is the unfortunate confluence of events that we feel, heart-wrenchingly but resignedly, could not have unfolded otherwise. The Holocaust, in her view, is something more and less than tragedy. We cannot resign ourselves to the sum of innumerable moments in which people might have made different choices.
Still, Arendt should walk a mile in the Jewish Elders’ shoes before she presumes to judge, no? That she insists that we all have a responsibility to make judgments goes against the very grain of the nonjudgmental modernity we inhabit. Arendt, though, is desperate to figure out what small contribution she might make to the avoidance of future man-made catastrophes. To her, thinking and judging are the ongoing work we can do on ourselves to prepare for reality’s potential assault. “When the chips are down,” might we make less devastating choices if we’ve conditioned ourselves to think?
(3) She is a Cold Warrior. This one’s easy because it’s patently false. Forget the who vs. the what; just reading her in her books or in these interviews is all that is required.
To be a Cold Warrior is to be on one side—usually the capitalist one—of the capitalism/communism divide. Yes, by sketching the similarities between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes and calling those similarities totalitarian, Arendt gave the capitalist West a humongous gift. But Arendt herself is neither pro-capitalism nor pro-socialism. She wants to figure out what kind of economic-political configuration best supports a free populace. In the final interview of the book, she says:
Just as socialism is no remedy for capitalism, capitalism cannot be a remedy or an alternative for socialism. The contest is never simply over an economic system. . . For the rest, it has to do with the political question: It has to do with what kind of state one wants to have, what kind of constitution, what kind of legislation, what sort of safeguards for the freedom of the spoken and printed word; that is, it has to do with what our innocent children in the West call ‘bourgeois freedom’. . . There is no such thing; freedom is freedom whether guaranteed by the laws of a ‘bourgeois’ government or a ‘communist’ state.
Can we wipe the dust off our hands from that one now? Yes, for a handful of decades, the academic left didn’t have to read Arendt because she used the word “totalitarian” unironically. Surely we are no longer desperate deniers of gulags and Moscow show trials who are scared to think about what Arendt is actually saying about socialism?
Yes, Arendt is very much worth reading, given that she had gotten beyond the divide that defined the twentieth century and was trying to give us ways to think about new political-economic configurations. And these interviews are worth reading. It is possible that if you have little familiarity with her work, the who that jumps off the page might be a caricature. At one point, discussing the Eichmann book, she says, “I’m obviously quite unpleasant in the eyes of a great many people. I can’t do anything about that. What am I supposed to do?” It’s easy to see how this could be paraphrased as, “I call things like I see them. Deal with it.” But it can also be interpreted as, “I am trying to work through my thoughts honestly and offer them up, for what that’s worth. Please don’t shoot the messenger.”
Jennifer Ruth teaches film studies at Portland State University. She specializes in the Cold War politics of and in film from the United States, the former Soviet bloc countries, and China. She is the author of Novel Professions (2006) and, with Michael Bérubé, of Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom. From 2015 to 2017, she served as the editor of the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom.