Friday, December 6, 2013

The banality of overtheorizing

Richard Brody has taken another stab at Hannah Arendt's reputation as a thinker on the web site of The New Yorker  (“Hannah Arendt’s Failure of Imagination”) – this one occasioned by the release of a new book with interviews (including her last) and a new documentary. Unlike Arendt’s notorious diagnosis of Eichmann, Brody’s take-down seems spot on. He claims Arendt’s “mechanistic view of Eichmann’s personality, as well as her abstract and unsympathetic consideration of the situation of Jews under Nazi rule, reflect her inability to consider the experiences of others from within.” So Eichmann came out as a quasi-automaton and a mere cog in the machine, and Jewish leaders who were pressed to collaborate with the murderous Nazi regime appeared almost equally guilty of the tragedy which befell their community.

Brody’s most damning sentence is this: “There’s a word for what’s missing in Eichmann in Jerusalem: emotion.” And this judgment seems to apply to Arendt’s interviews, too – as she harps about the campaign organized against her and her book; and blabbers casually about the “terrifically interesting things” some Germans were able to conjure up in their minds so they could go along with Hitler and the monstrous freak show whipped up around him. Brody thinks Arendt’s hallucinations of a conspiracy against her prompted by the ironic tone of her prose represent “a self-delusion of a very high order.” I guess this could apply more generally to Arendt’s nerdy, “heavily theoretical and utterly impersonal view of Eichmann” and other key “actors” in the Holocaust. Come to think of it, the hallmark of delusion – even in the clinical sense – is precisely the loss of affective contact with “reality” and the lived experiences of others (and of oneself).