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Amor Mundi: Friendship Versus Banality

Friendship Versus Banality

George Prochnik explores the deep friendship between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. “WHEN GERSHOM SCHOLEM, the humanist scholar of Jewish mysticism, first met the philosopher Hannah Arendt in the 1930s he was bowled over by her intelligence and delighted by her character. To Walter Benjamin, he wrote excitedly that Arendt was rumored to have been Martin Heidegger’s most brilliant student. To another friend, he described Arendt as “a wonderful woman and an extraordinary Zionist.” He was moved by her work as director of the Paris office of Youth Aliyah, which helped refugee Jewish children from all over Europe get to Palestine. The fact that Benjamin — Scholem’s intellectual idol, the man he would later say taught him what “thinking really means” through his own “living example” — came to value Arendt’s writing and conversation imbued her with a special aura of intellectual gravitas.” After Arendt published her essays on Adolf Eichmann, Scholem could not forgive her. And yet the depth of their friendship allowed them to have an extraordinary exchange of letters exploring Scholem’s disdain for Arendt’s belief in the banality of evil. Prochnik sees deeply into the depths of their disagreement:

“Nestled inside Arendt and Scholem’s discussion of the nature of evil is a controversy over language. Scholem implies that the cool note of urbane wit Arendt employs not only fails to capture the essence of the event she is witnessing, but actually contributes to the project of dehumanization that Eichmann helped actualize. She loses sight of her subject in the sparkling exercise of her own cleverness. Ironically, in accusing Arendt of practicing facile mockery at the expense of real engagement with the events in Jerusalem, Scholem is charging Arendt with the flipside version of the crime she pins on Eichmann himself: thoughtlessness. Only in Arendt’s case it is an excess of linguistic dexterity that fouls up her thinking rather than the deficit she perceives in Eichmann.

Arendt’s diagnosis of Eichmann’s banality was not intended to minimize the harm he inflicted, as she attempted repeatedly to make clear in response to attacks against her work, but to underscore his mediocrity. In Arendt’s view, Eichmann’s astonishing superficiality, on display throughout his trial, could be understood as even more ominous than the character of some classic satanic figure since it represented an easily communicable strain of wickedness. Eichmann’s banality underscored the susceptibility of unremarkable men and women to becoming collaborators in spectacular crimes under pressure of the right kind of leadership and within the self-contained moral universe of bureaucratic systems that enabled perpetrators to shuck off their sense of personal responsibility. As Arendt wrote Scholem, having watched Eichmann in action she had ceased to believe in the idea of “radical evil” that had been part of her philosophical lexicon in her earlier work on totalitarianism. Evil, she now proposed, had no depth, “and therefore has nothing demonic about it. Evil can lay waste the entire world, like a fungus growing rampant on the surface.”

Face to face with the phenomenon of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt became convinced that his actions betrayed not a monstrous personality, but a total inability to think for himself. And her principal evidence for Eichmann’s cognitive ineptitude was his spluttering language. Over and over, Arendt marvels at the stupendous infelicity of Eichmann’s word choices and his reliance on stock phrases. “Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, ‘Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language,’” Arendt recounts at one point. However, she continues, “officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.” The ghastly incoherence of Eichmann’s hackneyed speech reflected the unoriginality of his mind, a thought process fatally clogged with grandiose, vacuous slogans.”

Scholem overlooks that Arendt did not write the slogan “the banality of evil.” She wrote a book about what she called the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” For Arendt, evil is rooted in an attack on the depth of language that disarms thinking. Scholem took Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann as intellectual gymnastics.

Prochnik disagrees with Scholem. He also understands the weaknesses of critiques of Arendt’s book by Bettina Stangneth and others that Eichmann was a frothing anti-Semite. Prochnik rightly sees that Stangneth’s book does not succeed in making that case. But Prochnik argues that Arendt has made a different mistake:

“What Arendt missed above all was the possibility that mediocrity could be performed, and that the man under trial for his life might be a versatile shape-shifter, constantly adjusting his clown act to make his character appear — not innocent of the acts he was accused of — but potentially exculpable by virtue of inanity.”

We may never know if Eichmann’s mediocre simplicity was real or feigned. But we do know that simplicity has the power to do great evil. We also have an extraordinary example of the depth of thinking in the letters between Arendt and Scholem, edited by Marie Luise Knott. A translation of these letters is scheduled to appear in October.

Simple Power

Masha Gessen has a simple insight. President Trump’s attraction to many is his simplicity, his refusal of intellectual or nuanced opinions, whether feigned or real. For Gessen, simplicity “is one way an autocracy can come into being. In other words, it is Mr. Trump’s insistence on simplicity that makes him want to rule like an autocrat. Militant incompetence and autocracy are not in opposition: They are two sides of a coin.” Gessen, who will be a speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Crises of Democracy,” understands that autocratic leaders are popular because they excel at telling stories that are desirable as they are simple.

“We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.

But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader.

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

Mayoral Revolutions

Eric Westervelt interviews Micah White, one of the original founders of Occupy Wall Street who has come to argue that protest is not the way to make political change. Rather than protest, White argues that the best path revolutionary change is through running for Mayor in rural America.

“I ran for mayor (in November). It was probably one of the most fascinating experiences in my life and it was a huge growing experience for me. Nehalem’s a microcosm. The reason why I lost the election I think is so much tied in to what’s going on nationally and globally right now. First of all, just to give people a sense of what happened, I got 20 percent of the vote which I think is actually pretty amazing as someone who’s a black American in rural white Oregon speaking about revolution. I wrote a book with revolution in the title, I’m a former Occupy guy. Still, one out of five people voted for me.

The basic platform wasn’t vote for Micah White. It was instead this idea of, “Let’s create something called a Nehalem’s People’s Associations and before each city council meeting let’s go to those people’s associations, let’s get together with our neighbors and let’s talk about what city council should do the following day. Let’s move power away from city council to these Nehalem People’s Associations.” I told people, “If I’m elected mayor, then I will basically abide by the decisions of the people who come to these meetings.” I had five of them before each city council meeting over the course of five months. There were so many people who showed up. We passionately debated things. People were on both sides — against and for. It was like the first time, I think, that people from across the political spectrum who live in this tiny town sat in the same room together and debated things like, “Change is happening in our community. How do we navigate it? What do we want it to look like in the future?” and all this kind of stuff. It was really beautiful.

What did the opposition do? It’s the same thing that happened on the national level. All of a sudden I was hit with fake news. All of a sudden there’s these rumors going around. People started asking me, “Are you a satanist?” I was like, “Whoa. First of all, what is even a satanist?” People literally believed I’m doing Satan worshiping exercises somewhere. I had no idea how to respond to that. It was like Pizzagate, if people remember that. All of sudden people were convinced that there was a child pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza place in D.C. It’s like that. They were just convinced I was a satanist!”

Patron Saint of Lost Causes

Mariana Alessandri resurrects the quixotic early 20th century philosophy of Miguel de Unamuno as important for a political moment increasingly characterized by despair:

“While it’s technically true that Quixote lost his final battle, which prompted him to regain his senses just before his death, he is most beloved for his madness — for “tilting at windmills,” for dreaming impossible dreams. Even Unamuno, who, before the war had celebrated Quixote’s deathbed conversion to sanity, afterward repented. The war triggered in Unamuno the realization that, in hopeless times, quixotic lunacy could save people from the paralysis that often accompanies defeatism.

For the rest of his life, Unamuno urged his fellow Spaniards to practice quixotism, which meant adopting the moral courage necessary to fight for lost causes without caring what the world thinks. Today, when much of society and politics — both in and outside the United States — looks like a lost cause to a great number of people, we might do well to consider Quixote’s brand of lunacy.

Abandoning his senses — or rather, his common sense — freed up Quixote to engage in fruitless tasks like charging windmills. In the most famous scene of the book, his squire, Sancho Panza, warns Quixote that the giant he is tempted to charge is just a windmill, and, as such, should be left alone. Sancho’s common sense tells him that fights that are sure to be lost are not worth fighting. Yet it is that same common sense that continually keeps Sancho from engaging with the world; likewise, it keeps us from engaging in what are perhaps the worthiest of causes: the lost ones.”

Home Illustration

Cartoonist Chris Ware admires Saul Steinberg:

“As a cartoonist myself, I am dismayed that there’s little in the show I can steal, the crossover in the Venn diagram of the image-as-itself versus as-what-it-represents being depressingly slim. I am painfully aware that in comics, stories generally kill the image. But Steinberg’s images grow and even live on the page; somewhere in the viewing of a Steinberg drawing the reader follows not only his line, but also his line of thought. Describing himself as “a writer who draws,” Steinberg could just as easily be considered an artist who wrote; as my fellow cartoonist Lynda Barry puts it, his “drawing went not from his mind to his hand but rather from his hand to his mind.” Or as Steinberg himself declared at the beginning of a 1968 television interview, “[my hand explains] to myself what goes on in my mind.”

One can’t overstate the importance of Steinberg’s working for reproduction, of his creating drawings to be disseminated to the mailboxes, laps, and, I guess, bathroom walls, of receptive readers and not, at least initially, to museum walls. The Museum turns on an eminently Steinbergian tool—the rubber stamp—and, as a lithograph, manipulates the idea of reproduction while pictorially lampooning and dissembling it. Identical figures are plunked out to represent visitors and viewers of (what else?) official stamps of approval; over the museum’s horizon, stamps rise like suns, the entire composition grounded and buttressed by illegible signatures and, of course, more stamps. As a visa-seeking emigré in his early life, Steinberg’s fascination with legal seals is easily understandable. Riverfront and Certified Landscape pivot on the objectively ridiculous but fundamentally necessary imprimatur of government made corporeal, territorially imprinted as a skein of walls and fences. Steinberg quietly added his own signature directly into the rather unaccommodating landscapes—are they farms, factories, or concentration camps?—rather than putting it in the traditional antiseptic nonspace outside the pictorial “border.” But in The Museum, Steinberg bundles the stamp’s sanctioning power and aesthetics into the frame of the art itself, stamping his own authorizing red imprimatur in that expected nonspace outside the image, along with his signature (legible, one notes) and, as a digestif, a blind stamp (a stamp without ink, visible by the impression it leaves on the page), just to snuff out any lingering doubt about the drawing’s authenticity and, by proxy, the artist’s own legitimacy.”

American Pastoral

Philip Roth remembers how literature helped him begin to feel American:

“What attracted me to these writers when I was a raw reader of sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen—I am thinking of, among others, Theodore Dreiser, born in Indiana in 1871, Sherwood Anderson, born in Ohio in 1876, Ring Lardner, born in Michigan in 1885, Sinclair Lewis, born in Minnesota in 1885, Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina in 1900, Erskine Caldwell, born in Georgia in 1903—what drew me to them was my great ignorance of the thousands of miles of America that extended north, south, and west of Newark, New Jersey, where I was raised. Yes, I had been born to these parents, in this time, with their struggles, but I would volunteer to become the child of those writers as well, and through my immersion in their fiction try to apprehend their American places as a second reality that was, to an American kid in a Jewish neighborhood in industrial Newark, a vivifying expansion of his own. Through my reading, the mytho-historical conception of my country that I had developed in grade school, from 1938 to 1946, began to be divested of its grandiosity and to unravel into the individual threads of American reality the wartime tapestry that paid moving homage to the country’s idealized self-image.

Fascination with the country’s uniqueness was especially strong in the years after the Second World War, when, as a high-school student, I began to turn to the open stacks of the Newark Public Library to enlarge my sense of where I lived. Despite the tension, even the ferocity, of antagonisms of class, race, region, and religion that underlay the national life, despite the conflict between labor and capital that accompanied industrial development—the battle over wages and hours that was ongoing and at times violent, even during the war—America from 1941 to 1945 had been unified in purpose as never before. Later, a collective sense of America as the center of the most spectacular of the postwar world’s unfolding dramas was born not just out of chauvinistic triumphalism but out of a realistic appraisal of the undertaking behind the victory of 1945, a feat of human sacrifice, physical effort, industrial planning, managerial genius, and labor and military mobilization—a marshalling of communal morale that would have seemed unattainable during the Great Depression of the previous decade.

That this was so highly charged a historical moment in America was not without its impact on what I was reading and why, and it accounted for a good deal of the authority those formative writers had over me. Reading them served to confirm what the gigantic enterprise of a brutal war against two formidable enemies had dramatized daily for almost four years to virtually every Jewish family mine knew and every Jewish friend I had: one’s American connection overrode everything, one’s American claim was beyond question. Everything had repositioned itself. There had been a great disturbance to the old rules. One was ready now as never before to stand up to intimidation and intolerance, and, instead of just bearing what one formerly put up with, one was equipped to set foot wherever one chose. The American adventure was one’s engulfing fate.”

Old Man Style

JP Lawrence goes to Austin to watch a dying style of basketball, peculiarly and particularly Filipino:

“Victor’s San Antonio-based over-40 Filipino basketball team are in Austin, Texas to try their luck in an Asian American basketball tournament for amateur club teams with players of Asian descent. The older players on Victor’s team play a uniquely Filipino form of basketball. His teammates call it, “gulang style,” aka “old man style,” aka “the way Victor plays.”

It’s a style of play common in the Philippines, learned on crooked rims and dusty streets. Gulang style is less about three-pointers and pick and rolls, and more about baseline trickery and sharp elbows to an opponent’s back when the referee isn’t looking. It’s a style out-of-step with the current American way of basketball adopted by younger generation of Filipinos.

“People have different styles of being good at what they do,” Victor says. “Some people like to dive in, some people like to shoot threes. Who’s a better basketball player, the guy who puts a lot of effort into scoring twos, or the guy shooting easy threes?””

Posted on 4 June 2017 | 9:30 am

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