The Philosopher and Her Kisses


Stephanie DeGooyer in the LA Review of Books:

A PHONE RINGS in Hannah Arendt’s home study. Her husband, the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher, answers. It’s William Shawn, Arendt’s editor at The New Yorker. Arendt signals that she is not home — her report on the Eichmann trial is overdue — and occupies herself at the typewriter. Blücher moves to the hallway where Arendt unexpectedly emerges to playfully chastise him for not kissing her goodbye. Blücher avers: “Never disturb a great philosopher when they are thinking.” Arendt, embracing him, replies, “but they cannot think without kisses.”

This is a scene from Hannah Arendt, the 2012 biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta and distributed by Zeitgeist Films about the political thinker’s personal life after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, her notoriously misunderstood book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. We watch as Arendt weathers the hostility over her phrase the “banality of evil,” which seemingly made Eichmann’s crimes unexceptional and implicated Jewish council leaders in the extermination of millions of Jews. The American novelist Mary McCarthy features prominently as Arendt’s witty and faithful friend, while Blücher sustains her with kisses and wise counsel. In one odd moment, Arendt appears to draw courage for her own public ostracism by reflecting on a prior conversation with Martin Heidegger about his Nazism. (Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933 and stayed a member until it was dismantled in 1945. The nature of his involvement with and the degree of his belief in the Nazi program remains a subject of controversy.)

Hannah Arendt makes academic life alluring, almost sexy. Richard Brody, in his review for The New Yorker, calls the film “soft-core philosophical porn.” Von Trotta, he says, “titillates the craving for the so-called intellectual life while actually offering little intellectual substance.” Indeed, Arendt’s immaculately stylized Riverside Drive apartment is arguably the star of the film, even though no academic today, much less a refugee such as Arendt, could even dream of such an address. But beyond the film’s window-dressed intellectualism is a more important ethical question about how the life of a philosopher, particularly a female philosopher, should be portrayed. In presenting Arendt as a philosopher who cannot think without kisses does von Trotta suggest that Hannah Arendt — the theorist and champion of active, public, political life — can only be viewed meaningfully in her private habitat? Are the thoughts of the female philosopher only as good as the kisses that interrupt and sustain them?

More here.