Roth and Arendt, Together for Eternity05-27-2018
Roth and Arendt, Together for Eternity
In 1973, two years before Hannah Arendt died, Philip Roth wrote her a short letter. “I’ve been reading your edition of Walter Benjamin’s essays with fascination. I thought you might be interested in a recent piece I’ve done on Kafka…It would be nice to get together with you again. I’ll be back in New York in the fall–Perhaps we can have dinner then.” Roth, who passed away last week, will be spending a lot of time with Arendt now, as he will be buried near her in the Bard College cemetery. According to an anecdote related by Bard’s President, Leon Botstein, Roth requested to be buried in the Bard cemetery so that he would be able to talk to his friend and Bard faculty member Norman Manea, who plans to be buried in the Bard cemetery as well. Arendt and Roth will have much to discuss. As Corey Robin relates, they lived eerily parallel lives. —Roger Berkowitz
“Both were denounced by the Jewish establishment—at roughly the same time, in remarkably similar terms—for pieces they had written for The New Yorker. Long before Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth antagonized the Jewish community with his short story, “Defender of the Faith,” which appeared in the magazine in 1959. Describing the controversy, Judith Thurman writes:Robin highlights numerous biographical and thematic resemblances uniting Arendt and Roth. None, however, more apt than their attitudes towards comedy.
‘It sparked a violent reaction in certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. Roth was vilified as a self-hating Jew and a traitor to his people who had given ammunition to their enemies by seeming to reinforce degrading stereotypes….Yet rabbis denounced Roth from their pulpits, and a leading educator at Yeshiva University wrote to the Anti-Defamation League to ask, “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”’
“Finally, there is the question of comedy. In her 1944 essay on Kafka, Arendt observed that laughter “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” In the same way that it was important for Mel Brooks to be able to laugh at Hitler, so was it important for Arendt to be able to laugh at Eichmann. It was her way of divesting his evil—any evil—of grandeur, of any claim to gravitas or depth. One of the funnier moments in Eichmann in Jerusalem comes near the end:Form more information visit: http://coreyrobin.com/2015/06/09/hannah-arendt-and-philip-roth-parallel-lives/
‘Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.”’Only Arendt would have paused long enough to note the hilarity of the statement. “No ‘time to waste'”: Where the hell did he have to go? But there’s another irony. In making that statement, Eichmann thought he was proving his superior cast of mind, his impatience with anything so childish as the Bible. But instead of showing off his mannish impiety, he came off looking like the preposterous efficiency obsessive he was, fretting in even these last minutes of his life over a possible misspent second. Eichmann’s final words similarly betrayed his attempts to prove himself the hard thinker, the refuser of silly comforts:
‘He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläuber, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.”’At the end of my essay on Arendt, I talk about how uneasy she was made by the Zionist bid for sovereignty in Palestine. Reflecting a deep ambivalence in the Jewish tradition, Eichmann in Jerusalem—as well as Arendt’s essays on Zionism—can be read as a warning of what will come to the Jews from that having kind of power, that kind of possession over the land and its people. But in a 1964 interview with Joachim Fest, Arendt holds out for a different kind of sovereignty, a different path to power. In response to the question of whether, in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem, in pursuing the truth as she saw it, she hurt people’s feelings (remember, she was withering on the topic of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis), Arendt says:
‘There’s no question about it: I have wounded some people. And you know, it’s somehow more unpleasant for me when I hurt people than when I get in the way of organizations and their interests, right? I take this seriously…You see, it’s my view that the legitimate feeling here is sorrow…There’s nothing I can do about it. In fact, in my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things, since that’s a way of playing them down… I also think that you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.’It’s the classic statement of a powerless people: to offer laughter as a kind of sovereignty, a triumph over one’s own powerlessness. It is the comedy of the oppressed against the oppressor—and of the oppressed against herself. That, too, is part of the Jewish tradition. (Oppressed people tend to be witty, Saul Bellow is supposed to have said—again, a quote I can’t confirm.) Against the sovereignty of the state, Arendt offers the sovereignty of comedy. That puts Arendt in some surprising company: of not only the chorus of Jewish comedic voices coming into their own in postwar America—Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce—but also a young writer of scathing satire from Newark.”
Friendship and Humility on Campus
Speaking before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, Robert George invoked the great judge Learned Hand, who said that “the spirit of Liberty is the spirit of being not too sure one is right.” George understands that Learned Hand is pointing to the “virtue of intellectual humility in light of the inescapable reality of human fallibility.” He invokes Plato’s discussion of the true friend in his Gorgias to illustrate the proper humility of intellectuals:
“I think the proper attitude for us to hold is the attitude Plato teaches us to adopt, especially in the Gorgias. Socrates’ attitude in that dialogue strikes me as exactly the one we need to emulate if we are to be good scholars and teachers. We must always be on the lookout for, and be open to, the true friend, that is to say, the person who will confer upon us the inestimable benefit of showing us that we are in error, where in fact we are in error. The true friend, in correcting our mistakes, does us the very best service. We need to see that, and we need to help our students to see it. The person who sees his intellectual adversary as an enemy to be defeated, rather than as a friend joined with him dialectically in the pursuit of a common aim, namely, knowledge of the truth, is already off the rails. He is in grave danger of falling into the ditch of sophistry."A friend, as the word’s etymological connection to freedom suggests, is one who frees others to be their best. A friend should, of course, care for you. But he or she must also be honest enough and direct enough to tell you the truth and free you. Today, we too often imagine friends simply as supporters and commiserators and forget that friends are those who can tell us when we are wrong. That is one reason why people are increasingly only friends with those with whom they politically agree. George argues that at colleges, we must treat students not simply as friends to be supported, but also as friends with whom we can have frank and difficult discussions. Because we are refusing to do so, he argues, our colleges and universities are failing their students. —Roger Berkowitz
“In referring to these cases of campus illiberalism you may have noticed that I spoke of this illiberalism as the way the problem I am concerned about “is most vividly manifest today.” In other words, the denial of speaking opportunities, the disinviting of speakers due to their opinions, the disruption of meetings and shouting down of dissenting speakers, are what get the attention of the public. But these are merely some manifestations. The core of the problem is this: Many institutions are letting the side down when it comes to the transmission of knowledge by failing to ensure that our students, at every level, are confronted with, and have the opportunity to consider, the best that is to be said on competing sides of all questions that are in dispute among reasonable people of goodwill. They are permitting prevailing opinions on campus to harden into orthodoxies, orthodoxies that go largely unchallenged, leaving students with the false belief that there are in fact no disputes on these matters among reasonable people of goodwill. At the core of our problem is the toxic thing that provides an environment in which illiberalism flourishes and can be expected to manifest itself in the ways it manifests itself today, namely the phenomenon of groupthink. We fail to understand the depth of problem, or appreciate the danger it poses to intellectual life, if we take a static view of knowledge, thinking of it as information that is passed into the mind of the recipient who records it there and draws upon it as needed. This is worse than an oversimplification. The transmission of knowledge very often goes beyond the acquisition of information (or skills) and requires the engagement of the knowledge seeker with competing perspectives and points of view. It also requires certain virtues, including open-mindedness, respect for what Mill called “liberty of thought and discussion,” intellectual humility—humility of the sort one can possess only insofar as one appreciates, and not merely notionally, one’s own fallibility—and love of truth. It is the task of colleges and universities, precisely as institutions of learning, to expose students to competing points of view and to foster in them those virtues. That is necessary not because there are no truths to be attained, but, rather, because the pursuit of truth and the deeper appropriation of truths and their meaning and significance, requires it.”Form more information visit: https://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/George-Princeton-Statement-Free-Speech-II-5-22.pdf
The Life of the Mind
Allison Stanger, testifying before the same Committee, argued that the solution to the problem of engaged and critical discourse on college campuses means standing for the importance of free expression for the life of the mind.
“The university must insist on the unfettered pursuit of truth or lose its raison d’etre. College presidents must stand firm on the importance of freedom of expression for the life of the mind and insist that their institutions uphold the ground rules for the pursuit of truth. Here it is important to remember that young student radicals are not likely to be compromisers by definition, and because they are still developing, they may not know as much about how the world operates as they think they do (that is why they are getting an education). College administrators must therefore have the strength of character to listen empathetically, but also to safeguard the evidence-based world when activists challenge the university’s core mission, even when students of color, who have earned the right to be angry, believe they are defending their very humanity… Professors must model the behavior we want to see from our students, which means that we must all strive to be better listeners who are also open to learning ourselves. We must learn from the emotions we encounter, while at the same time affirming that liberal education ends when emotion is valued more than reason. Saying that something is true simply because it’s how people feel is what allows community to be defined in opposition to free inquiry. Our celebration of the life of the mind, however, should not blind us to the work that still needs to be done in this country, as James Baldwin wrote, to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” With respect to our students, we must equip them with the tools to fight injustice and unfairness in all its manifestations. We must deliver an education that allows them to realize that reason and logic, so often used against them, can in reality be weapons of the weak against the powerful. This is not to deny the place of emotion in education, which can be harnessed for improvement of both ourselves and the university. The voices of the marginalized must be amplified and heard, while remembering, always, that extremism in all its permutations is ultimately the denial of empathy’s importance for human flourishing.”Form more information visit: https://oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Stanger-Middlebury-Statement-Free-Speech-II-5-22.pdf