I just saw Barbara Sukowa play Hannah Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s film. (And no, Arendt’s ideas did not “change the world.”) Not terribly happy with the film, I went to look for the real deal and found this old 1964 interview from West German television, with English subtitles. The transcript of the interview with Günter Gaus was published in German, and then as “What Remains? Language Remains” in The Portable Hannah Arendt. I usually don’t like Youtube clips of talks by or with famous philosophers, but this one’s transfixing. Here is what thinking looks like. It’s slow and deliberative, not sharp and declarative, moving in circles, not straight lines.
You can see the interview at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsoImQfVsO4
The interview ranges broadly. There’s Arendt’s talking about the difference between philosophy and politics, about gender and philosophy. There’s her disdain for others, in particular her disdain for intellectuals, her disdain for philosophy and philosophers, as well as testy and defensive remarks about the Eichmann controversy, and the warmest words of love for Jaspers. She touches upon assimilation, anti-Semitism, Auschwitz, Germans and Jews and Judaism before and after the war. There’s a little bit about Zionism and Israel, but more about Germany and German. The interview concludes more philosophically with remarks drawn from The Human Condition. Expressed in tribute to Jaspers, they relate to worldliness and unworldliness, public self-exposure, risk and the starting of things, action and the network of relations, and then, and then, to the ultimate importance of trust, of trusting human persons.
But something doesn’t quite jibe, and you’ll see it in the interview, a painful disjoint between Arendt’s remarks relating to The Human Condition versus those relating to Eichmann in Jerusalem. About the Eichmann controversy, Arendt is not entirely persuasive, responding as if the problem was a problem of tone and false accusations. There is something sharp and closed in her judgments about Eichmann and the heads of the Jewish Councils that is at odds with the more open spirit that animates The Human Condition. It’s the one false note in the interview, this stubborn refusal to even understand the contours of the provocation she provoked. At issue was not so much the lack of love for a people, but rather the merciless moral substance of judgment by which she judged Eichmann one way and the heads of the Jewish Councils the other way. What I don’t myself understand here is this. Say what you want about them, the heads of the Jewish Councils tried to act politically situation of extremis for whatever combination of motives. They made what Arendt calls, speaking elsewhere in the interview about other things, a “venture” (in German, Wagnis, namely the kind of venture or wager involving risk, hazard, and chance). It’s a venture, one that could only have gone terribly wrong, but one that she should have understood more clearly and with a little more sympathy, by the measure of her very own thought. But she didn’t, and you wonder why. I think it has more to do with shame than with “self-hate.”
Watching the interview, as opposed to reading the transcript, you can see the strain as a contradiction begins to expose itself. In the interview, Arendt’s more general remarks about the Holocaust, the political, and those bitter words about the Eichmann controversy come first. What follows is peculiar. There are warm words about what she pictures as the intimate old worldless, i.e. apolitical Jewish world that existed just prior to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. And then come those words from The Human Condition that touch upon trust as the basis of politics and the human condition.
But that’s what makes no sense, because the former comments about trust stand in direct contradiction to what she herself says, what she herself knows about Auschwitz. This goes much deeper than the precariousness of the human condition, as since theorized by Judith Butler. For Arendt, Auschwitz outstrips political enmity. She says this in the interview. The Holocaust would represent the abyss and abjection that grind trust and the human condition into dust. Auschwitz throws the human condition into complete confusion. If you ask me, there’s no judgment, not of Eichmann, and not of the heads of the Jewish Councils that can sort this out, restore the polis and politics, “the world,” this “space of appearance,” and make it right.
And then you see it. This is what thinking looks like. After that last word, there’s silence, absolute silence. The camera continues to roll for about 8 interminable seconds. Arendt sits there motionless, as if struck dumb. Her eyes just blink, and her mouth saddens. There’s this sense of having stumbled into something deep, counterintuitive, and true about the human condition, counterintuitive and painful because it makes no sense in relation to the Holocaust and to Eichmann and the heads of the Jewish Councils. That’s the very last we see of Arendt in the film, her face and the image of her face, the human condition. The director then cuts to the music and to the closing credits. And you just sit there, amazed at and unsure of what you have just been given to see, the moving image of a thought, at what by now is a 50 year interval in the privacy of your own home.