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Here’s How to Demonize Thinking

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Richard Brody writes of “Hannah Arendt,” the new movie by Margarethe von Trotta, “The movie, unfortunately, doesn’t do Arendt justice”—a rhetorical gambit that suggests at least a fair-minded inquiry into Arendt’s thought. But Brody then proceeds to accuse Arendt of a propensity toward “monstrous abstractions.” Her tendency toward abstraction occurs despite what Brody calls  “her meticulous pileup of facts,” which has such “a terrifying, implacable, unbearable power” as to render her book “overwhelming, incommensurable, alien to human experience.” Brody repeats the widespread error that Arendt accepts “at face value” Eichmann’s claim not to be an anti-Semite. Arendt, Brody writes, misses the “mystery, ambiguity, vastness, complexity, and horror” of the Eichmann trial. Arendt and von Trotta, Brody writes in a synthesis of reality and fiction, both make “the same mistake” of setting up “’thinking’” as a special category of activity.” Arendt, pace Brody, “writes from the point of view of a philosopher, not of a journalist”—as if that critique explains her mistake in thinking that “thinking” might be important. The only half-positive sentence about Arendt comes in the last line where he concedes: “From [Arendt’s] philosophical, historical, and journalistic failures, Arendt created an accidental literary masterwork despite itself.” If von Trotta’s movie doesn’t do Arendt justice, one wonders what Brody would think necessary for the movie to do her justice.

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He tells us. To do Arendt justice, von Trotta should have focused on “giving small gestures and daily labors grand scope.” He actually says that Arendt should be more ridiculous and less dignified: “Von Trotta preserves Arendt’s dignity to the point of dehumanization, depriving the protagonist of any trait that could render her ridiculous.” He insists on seeing more of her regular life with family and friends, after acknowledging that von Trotta’s movie does offer a balanced insight into the importance of Arendt’s friends in her life. The implication is we want more gossip and less thinking, a portrayal of the chatty girlish Hannah rather than the austere chain smoker. Aside from the misogyny in such a statement about one of the great thinkers of the 20th century who happened to have been a woman, Brody here exhibits his fundamental lack of understanding of all things concerning Arendt. For Arendt was not the least bit interested in “small gestures and daily labors.” She was a thinker of surprising and unexpected deeds that, she argued, can only be measured by their greatness. Nothing chatty here.

What galls Brody above all is that a serious movie is made about a serious thinker that takes seriously precisely what is unique (for better or worse) about Arendt—her insistence on being different and apart. Arendt called herself an “intentional pariah,” someone who sought freedom and independence by standing aloof from society. Brody finds such moral seriousness silly and Arendt’s insistence on self-thinking brings forth his disdain for what he dismisses as the false “gleaming nobility of the life of the mind” that diverts us from the truth of “the turmoil of regular life.” Von Trotta’s movie, with the extraordinary assistance of Barbara Sukowa’s acting, nails this most essential characteristic of Arendt’s persona to perfection. For that achievement of cinematic, biographical, and intellectual fidelity, Brody skewers both von Trotta and Arendt.  The exploration of uniqueness is apparently something Brody cannot abide.

The absolute low point of his rejection of Arendt’s idea of thinking comes when he expresses through multiple examples his complete discomfort with thinking itself. As A.O. Scott and others including myself have argued, the genius of von Trotta’s movie is the setting to screen not a theory of thinking, but the act itself. For Brody, this is no accomplishment. This is because for him thinking is nothing special. Thinking, he argues, is banal. It is, as he writes, commonplace and, in the end, common. Thus thinking and showing thinking both are easy:  “Actually, the work of thinking is easy, almost effortless, to show—it’s what almost every movie is made of.”

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To bring home his point, Brody offers six links to putative examples of thinking on display in movies. The first is to an actress peeling a potato for 150 seconds, an exercise in the profundity of mundane life. The second extols the virtue of killing and violence for masculinity. The third, from Murnau’s silent “The Last Laugh,” shows Max Schreck in emotional agony. The fourth, from “Bringing up Baby,” has Katharine Hepburn tricking Cary Grant into coming over and helping her with a leopard. You get the idea. There is no thinking going on in these scenes. That is apparently Brody point: thinking doesn’t exist except in the most mundane and calculating of ways.

Brody’s antipathy to the act of thinking is flagrant. He writes: “The movie’s sanctimonious depiction of “thinking” as something greater than what the regular run of people do is one of the signs of its artistic failure.” But Brody’s defense of the common man is misplaced, for Arendt in no ways denies that run of the mill people can think.  On the contrary, she imagines that uneducated people raised with traditions and character are frequently more thoughtful than intellectuals. Those trained in ideas and abstractions are uniquely susceptible to the power of rationalization and the sway of ideologies in ways that those relying on common sense are not.

That everyone can think does not mean that we all do. Thinking, Arendt insists, is rare. It is fundamentally distinguished from reasoning. It is not the same as calculating. It is also not the same as being creative, intelligent, inventive or smart. Thinkers are not necessarily intellectuals. Above all, thinkers are distinguished from “problem solvers,” those educated persons of “great self-confidence” who are uncommonly adept at convincing themselves of their infallibility. Thinking doubts and puts up obstacles. Its primary effect is to raise questions rather than offering answers.

We need to understand that by thinking Arendt means something specific. Thinking means, above all, Selbstdenken—an untranslatable German word for “self-thinking,” or thinking for oneself. It is the act of having a conversation with oneself in which one acknowledges the basic moral premise that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. Such thinking is free from social conventions, clichés, and oversimplifications. Thinking is also quite distinct from social science, which seeks answers precisely in the kind of normalization of unique actions that thinking rebels against. Only thinking, Arendt argued, has the potential to remind us of our human dignity and free us to resist our servility. Such thinking, in Arendt’s view, cannot be taught: it can only be exemplified.

We cannot learn thinking through catechism or study. We learn thinking only through experience, when we are inspired by those whose thinking enthralls us—when we encounter someone who stands apart from the crowd.

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Brody’s review dismisses Arendt’s understanding of thinking with an unknowing wave of his hand. He reduces thinking to an emotional scream—like the agony on Shreck’s face— or cunning—Hepburn knocking over a tea set and pretending a leopard is attacking her. Brody doesn’t much like thinking and finds it pretentious and overly intellectual.  So he makes fun of those who strive to write or make films about thinking, calling what he won’t understand “soft-core philosophical porn.”

At another point, Brody cites interviews with Claude Lanzmann to raise questions about Arendt’s portrayals of the Jewish leaders who collaborated or cooperated with the Nazis during the war. There are legitimate disagreements one can have with Arendt on this issue, and von Trotta’s film gives these opposing views full voice, something a reader of Brody’s review would never learn. In the film two of Arendt’s dearest friends turn away from her and Hans Jonas lambasts her for unfeeling arrogance in refusing to see the moral and practical tragedies of Jewish leaders during the war. Jonas is right to point to Arendt’s arrogance, and von Trotta confronts that arrogance head on, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether such independence is called for. Jonas’ critique of his friend is more blistering—and more insightful—than anything Brody might add.

Hannah Arendt was neither a saint nor infallible. She may in the end be wrong about the power of thinking to save or dissuade people from doing evil. Neither I nor the Arendt Center has an interest in holding her on a pedestal. The Center regularly publishes posts and essays critical of her work; on our blog you can find a collection of reviews of “Hannah Arendt,” the movie, with critical reviews that raise meaningful questions about both her and the movie. I have no problem with criticizing Arendt intelligently. Such criticism, however, demands some baby steps toward taking Arendt seriously. Brody merely crawls around throwing sand.

You can read Brody’s review here.

-RB

Posted on 5 June 2013 | 1:36 pm

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