Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Irony of Arendt

Via Bob, I arrived at this article by Gertrude Ezorsky “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts” New Politics 2, 4 (1963).

As a reader of Hannah Arendt's books, which I have not yet exhausted by any means, it is always a surprise for me to realize that whatever impressions or opinions I formed about Arendt in the past, there is always another corner to turn. This passage interested me:

"One of Miss Arendt’s troubles is her conception of Zionism. ... Miss Arendt does not find Eichmann’s 1939 Nisko project inconsistent with his Zionist opinions—although that project called for a “Jewish state” in an area without water and ridden with cholera, dysentery and typhoid. The earlier Nazi policy was to rob Jews and let them emigrate to Palestine for there were few countries which would accept Jewish emigrants. This is the stage that Miss Arendt consistently characterizes as “pro-Zionist.” Were the anti-Semitic hooligans who chased Jews in the streets of Eastern Europe yelling “Go back to Palestine” also pro-Zionist? The directive to allow Jews to leave Germany for Palestine came from Hitler after he had studied not the Zionist classic, Der Judenstaat, but a Nazi tract of Alfred Rosenberg’s on the racial question. Was Hitler also pro-Zionist?"
The critic appears to read Arednt's description of Eichmann's "Zionist" sympathies at face value. When I was reading the book myself, I never for a second imagined that this was being stated straightforwardly. In fact, I had many misgivings about Arendt's representations and misrepresentations in the book of Judaism, of Gideon Hausner, of large chunks of Israeli society, of her unquestioning acceptance of dubious historical rumours as facts, her harsh and almost heartless treatment of the Jewish leaders. Arendt seems to have been quite bigoted on several fronts when it came to Jews whom she did not understand or seemed very remote from her own intellectual milieu. Nor would I rely on Arendt for historically-verifiable instruction at all (For example, an unquestioning belief that she shared with many contemporary Germans that Heidrich, the architect of the Final Solution, had Jewish blood, a falsehood she takes as fact and around which she develops d an entire paragraph about his death and supposed repentance). I also share in the vehemence at the unsuitability of brutal ironical voice she employed in the book, and which invoked unspeakable pain and helpless outrage in her Jewish readers. But I do believe that "irony" is the magic key word here.

It so happens that I have just begun to skim a book I was given by someone who knows I'm interested in Arendt, and came across a relevant passage which provides a plausible explanation for the way Arendt characterizes Eichmann's "Zionism".

From "The Writing on the Wall and other Literary Essays" by Mary McCarthy, in the chapter titled: The Hue and Cry, the author says:

"Smoothly and efficiently-almost peacefully. This was the fearful characteristic of the final Solution, and for this Eichmann, the transportation expect, was the perfect instrument. Of course sic psychiatrists pronounced him normal; he was normal and average and therefore perfectly fitted for his job, which was to "make the wheels run smoothly," in both a literal and figurative sense. His function was to normalize the Final solution. With his conceit and boasting, his pompous home-made cliches and "winged words," he was at once ridiculous and ordinary, for ordinariness carried to a zenith is absurd. No better example of the mass murderer who is at the same time the perfect family man (Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux) could be found than the ineffable Eichmann. One of his lawyers said he was like the mailman-a person you see every day on his methodical rounds and seldom notice. Naturally he got along well with Jews; it was part of his job to do so. Among the cliches he incorporated in his personality (to speak of his "character" would be a mistake) was the Some-of-my-best-friends cliche. That he would push this to the point of imagining that he had been converted to zionism (the Jewish final solution) was pushing the logic of the cliche to the nth degree of complacancy and self-delusion. How could abel have missed the irony in Miss Arendt's account of his "conversion"-a dramatic irony, furthermore, since when she tells the reader that Eichmann had been "promptly and forever" made a Zionist by reading a "basic book," she is dryly summing up a speaker who has no idea of the effect on an audience of what he was saying? It was Eichmann, alone in the world, who considered himself a good disciple of Herzl.

According to Abel, Eichmann must have thought about Nazism politically since he thought about Zionism. But Eichmann's "thought" was a parody of the idea of thinking. Had Mein Kampf been his "bible" he might have pressed a flower in it. His Zionist 'studies" has a function; they made him an expert, at least in the circles he moved in. they made him "stand out" from his co-workers-the life-object of all mediocrities. As a specialist in Jewish emigration, he was perfectly fitted, when the time came, to arrange Jewish Jewish emigration to the next world, to Abraham's bosom. Among his fellow-bureaucrats, he might have passed highest in a vocational aptitude test for a new job. A sadist, a monster, or demon would not have qualified for the position; these "undesirables" had their place in the Nazi system as jailers and editors of periodicals, but a man with Eichmann's responsibilities could not be a beast of Belsen or a Julius Streicher. The fact that Eichmann was squeamish , could not bear the sight of blood, was even an "idealist" permitted precisely that distancing from reality that facilitated the administrative task-a distancing that reflected the physical and psychic space between the collective will of the German people in the homeland and its execution in the east. If Eichmann seems to have been cordial, rather than the block of ice described by one witness, this was good public relations, for one of his duties was to allay the suspicions of the Jews and other foreigners he came in contact with, so that they too would be distanced from reality."

McCarthy's essay is disturbing on several levels. She seems to belittle Jewish concerns even as she acknowledges Jewish pain. But Jewish pain is marginalized and somewhat ridiculed, in her urgent need to defend her friend by any means at her disposal. Thus, we read that

"[Arendt] is expressing the same pain her Jewish readers felt in reading her summary of that "dark chapter" and for which they are ready to condemn her, as a tyrant used to condemn to death the messenger of bad news..."
So Arent's pain is fully appreciated but her Jewish critics' pain is
no more worthy of consideration than the irrational acts of some idiot tyrant.

McCarthy notices that
"So far as I know, all Miss Arendt's hostile reviews ... have come from Jews, and those favourable to her , from Gentiles ... "
But this perception does not really give her pause to look and look again, at least to try to see why such division is occurring. The long and the short of it is, she and her "Gentile" friends who "get" Arendt's meanings as they should be gotten, unlike her Jewish detractors who must misunderstand her, or do so deliberately for some reason or another we do not quite know. Perhaps a clue can be discerned in the way McCarthy dismisses one of Arendt's Gentile critics as:

"Richard Crossman, M.P., who has been championing the state of Israel since 1946 and who winters in Tiberias".
In other words, the Jewish Hannah Arendt is embraced by McCarthy and her many Gentile, thoughtful and truly sympathetic fellow-thinkers. Arendt is one of them, not one of those.

Reminds you of something?
"In the minds of the privileged Jews such measures taken by the state appeared to be the workings of a sort of heavenly tribunal, by whom the virtuous - who had more than a certain income - were rewarded with human rights, and the unworthy - living in mass concentration in the eastern provinces - were punished as pariahs. Since that time it has become a mark of assimilated Jews to be unable to distinguish between friend and enemy, between compliment and insult, and to feel flattered when an antisemite assures them that he does not mean them, that they, are exceptions - exceptional Jews. The events of recent years have proved that the "excepted Jew" is more the Jew than the exception; no Jew feels quite happy any more about being assured that he is an exception. " (Privileged Jews Author(s): Hannah Arendt Source: Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1946)
I believe it was indeed Hannah Arendt who mercilessly analysed the phenomenon of the "exceptional Jew" which she diagnosed and named when she was researching antisemitism in German society at the onset of the nineteenth century. More than any other Jew, she understood profoundly, on the intellectual and emotional levels, the meaning, the appeal, and pervasiveness, the harm, of this construct. And yet, such is the irony of fate, or whatever, that she is being cossetted, defended, coddled, toasted, for being an exceptional Jew.

No other author than Jane Austen, in my reading experience, has managed to draw with such meticulous detail, wit and, yes, cruelty, the stratagems and arts and shallowness of the female flirt in her novels. Yet I remember reading somewhere that both Jane and her sister, Cassandra, were known among their social circles as outrageous flirts. So Austen's portraits of the flirt came from a profound intimacy with this vice. Perhaps this is why we are not so angry with Isabella at the end of "Northanger Abbey". We do not feel happy for her downfall. Some of her author's empathy, though subversively employed, must have trickled through.

Perhaps we can regard Hannah Arendt in the same ironic light: that she, who so incandescently wrote about this pathology of the "exceptional Jew", would herself become in the ripeness of time and under the right set of circumstances, the beneficiary of the position about which she has written with such contempt and sympathy.


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