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Beware of Pity: Hannah Arendt and the power of the impersonal.


by Adam Kirsch

In 1999, the Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulić visited The Hague to observe the trials for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. Among the defendants was Goran Jelisić, a thirty-year-old Serb from Bosnia, who struck her as “a man you can trust.” With his “clear, serene face, lively eyes, and big reassuring grin,” he reminded Drakulić of one of her daughter’s friends. Many of the witnesses at The Hague shared this view of the defendant—even many Muslims, who told the court how Jelisić helped an old Muslim neighbor repair her windows after they were shattered by a bomb, or how he helped another Muslim friend escape Bosnia with his family. But the Bosnian Muslims who had known Jelisić seven years earlier, when he was a guard at the Luka prison camp, had different stories to tell. Over a period of eighteen days in 1992, they testified, Jelisić himself killed more than a hundred prisoners. As Drakulić writes, he chose his victims at random, by asking “a man to kneel down and place his head over a metal drainage grating. Then he would execute him with two bullets in the back of the head from his pistol, which was equipped with a silencer.” He liked to introduce himself with the words “Hitler was the first Adolf, I am the second.” He was sentenced to forty years in prison.

None of Drakulić’s experience in creating fictional characters could help her understand such a mind, which remained all the more unfathomable because of Jelisić’s apparent normality, even gentleness. “The more you realize that war criminals might be ordinary people, the more afraid you become,” she wrote. What Drakulić discovered, in other words, is what Hannah Arendt, at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, some forty years earlier, called “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Drakulić titled her book “They Would Never Hurt a Fly,” after Arendt’s description of a typical Nazi functionary who “does not regard himself as a murderer because he has not done it out of inclination but in his professional capacity. Out of sheer passion he would never do harm to a fly.” Arendt’s concept has become so famous that it is hard to remember how bitterly controversial it was when she first used it. Many readers resisted what looked like an attempt to trivialize the Nazis. “No banality of a man could have done so hugely evil a job so well,” one critic wrote. Yet even those who dispute Arendt’s judgment acknowledge her influence on the way we think about political evil. As long as ordinary people can be transformed overnight into mass murderers, we are still living in Hannah Arendt’s world.

It is an ambiguous tribute to Arendt, then, that her scholarly and popular profile is higher today than at any time since she died, in 1975, at the age of sixty-nine. In the past few years, a number of Arendt’s works have been published by Schocken Books, where she worked as an editor in the nineteen-forties. “The Origins of Totalitarianism” has been accompanied by several collections of essays—most notably “The Jewish Writings,” edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman, which includes Arendt’s wartime journalism. Scholars around the world have kept pace with a torrent of studies—on Arendt and international relations, Arendt and human rights, Arendt and the Jewish question. It is hard to name another thinker of the twentieth century more sought after as a guide to the dilemmas of the twenty-first.

Yet it is not just political theorists who find Arendt a source of fascination. The most intense curiosity about Arendt in the past few years has had less to do with her work than with her life. Above all, the publication in English, in 2004, of Arendt’s correspondence with Martin Heidegger, after decades of speculation about their relationship, brought renewed scrutiny to her intimate life. To a thinker who believed that the personal was emphatically not political, this kind of attention would have been very unwelcome. She derided the “pseudoscientific apparatuses of depth-psychology, psychoanalysis, graphology, etc.” as nothing more than “curiosity-seeking.” Yet Arendt’s deeply ambivalent relationship with Heidegger—her lover, teacher, and friend—has a more than personal significance, since it casts light on the most vexed issue in her work: her tangled relationship with Jewishness and Germanness.

Arendt’s legend—or, perhaps it is better to say, her image—has become as important to posterity as her theories. In part, of course, this is because Arendt is one of the few women in the traditionally male pantheon of political philosophy. It makes sense that it is feminist readers who find the most food for thought in Arendt’s image—even though Arendt denied that she was a feminist. Julia Kristeva devotes some pages of her recent book on Arendt to her changing appearance, as documented in photographs: from the girlish “seductress” of the nineteen-twenties, gazing poetically at the camera, to the confident intellectual of the fifties, whose “femininity . . . beats a retreat” as her face becomes “a caricature of the . . . battle scars” received during her public career.

Kristeva’s reverie on Arendt’s “psychic bisexuality” is not the kind of attention that gets paid to Kant or Heidegger. Yet it is a sign of the way that Arendt has emerged as something both more and less than a political theorist. The most rewarding way to read Arendt, and the best way to make sense of both the strengths and the limitations of her work, is to approach her as Michelle-Irène Brudny does in “Hannah Arendt: An Essay in Intellectual Biography”: “I definitely take Hannah Arendt to be less a political philosopher or a political theorist . . . than an author in the strong sense of the word.” Kristeva, still more emphatically, considers Arendt’s writings “to be less a body of work than an action.” Like so many Jewish writers of her generation, Arendt attempted in her work to shine the light of intellect on the extreme darkness she lived through. That she chose to do this in the most impersonal of genres—philosophy and history—rather than through memoir, or even poetry (which she loved to read, and wrote from time to time), is itself a clue to the immense psychological pressures that shaped her work and, in the end, partly disfigured it.

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