The Disfigured Self: What Hannah Arendt Got Right


Paula Marantz Cohen in Tikkun:

In her epilogue, written for the book’s publication after its serialization in The New Yorker, Arendt took note of the way the work had been pilloried in many quarters. She protested, with a certain disingenuousness: “the clamor centered on the ‘image’ of a book which was never written, and touched upon subjects that often had not only not been mentioned by me but had never occurred to me before.” It seems true that the image rather than the content of the book was under attack, often, as Arendt noted, by people who had never read it, but, contrary to her protestation, I don’t think there were any subjects that didn’t occur to her. Everything occurred to her. That was her crime in the eyes of her detractors: she did not keep certain subjects off limits out of respect for the recent dead or for those whose trauma was still fresh. Her thought process required that these subjects be brought into play. As Philip Green, a critic who knew her, recently observed, she represented, whether she was right or wrong, “a model of how to think with difficulty but also with absolute integrity and fearlessness about issues that are difficult to think about clearly at all.”

Arendt’s thought process in Eichmann in Jerusalem seems an extension of that in her previous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. There, she drew a distinction between autocratic systems that consolidate political power, and totalitarian ones that consolidate social and psychological as well as political power. A totalitarian regime permeates all aspects of its citizens’ existence, and, through violence and fear, creates a society of accomplices. If Arendt was/is condemned for noting that Jewish leaders had a role in first helping with the emigration of Jews to Israel, then in saving some (and sacrificing others), and finally, in organizing deportation to the camps, she does so in order to explain the gradual, systemic degeneration that the Nazi state brought into being. The S.S. understood, she explains, “that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold … is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery.” The term “banality” as she used it in the subtitle of her book, refers to such behavior, that becomes part of everyday life in a totalitarian regime.

More here.