[8 May 2014]
“There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.”
In 1961, philosopher Hannah Arendt delivered one of the most controversial statements in contemporary history, upon expressing her belief that Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann wasn’t driven by anti-Semitism or insanity to commit the unspeakable crimes he committed. Instead, she proposed, he was proof of the banality of evil, which meant that he might not have been innocent, but he wasn’t precisely guilty, either. Eichmann, she suggested, had just been following orders and adhering to the law under the Nazi regime.
Her report from the Eichmann trial, which first appeared in The New Yorker and later took book form, led her to become one of the most loathed modern thinkers, with some accusing her of being a self-hating Jew. However, at the center of her fascinating theories lies something that goes beyond her views on this particular issue. Arendt saw the world in a way no one else did, or perhaps in a way no one else dared to speak about.
In Unlearning with Hannah Arendt, author Marie Luise Knott proposes that Arendt quite simply learned how to “unlearn” things in order to see them from a completely fresh perspective, and more than that, she dissects this process in order to help us better understand Arendt’s work. “This book is about breaking loose from such bias and the territory of freedom gained thereby,” she establishes. “The pathway of thought we will sketch have need of poetry, which in its nakedness and directness invades analytic language and allows it to open up; Arendt rejects instruments of comprehension that have proved dull or irrelevant. She allows them to go missing, she unlearns them”, she continues. Knott believes that Arendt’s work will become richer the more distance we have from the historical context in which she created it, its many layers only allowing future generations to indulge in her critical thinking.
With this in mind, Knott analyzes four specific fields unlearned by Arendt, which also serve as chapters to divide the book: Laughter, Translation, Forgiveness and Dramatization. The first chapter welcomes us with an unwelcoming gesture as it reminds us that Arendt found Eichmann’s transcripts to be “laughable”. The philosopher explained how funny she thought he was, because his entire life was a cliché. Eichmann, she learned, had always been a follower, someone unable to create his own particular thoughts.
Knott reminds us that Arendt was attacked because of her ironic tone, “where the horror was blackest and the confusion deeper she resorted to burschikose ironie, which she described as ‘my most precious inheritance from Germany.’” Arendt’s perception of thoughtlessness as the ultimate joke clearly offended those who saw nothing worth chuckling about when it came to the thousands of Jews (and others) Eichmann had helped murder. Her work was classified as arrogant and alienating, but Knott explains that Arendt’s humor might have come not from a place of inhumanity but “the special happiness we feel when we have finally found the right metaphor for something that has been nagging us for a long time.”
As she goes into Arendt’s take on Translation, underlined in the book as “the oddly circuitous path”, Knott elaborates on Arendt’s perceptions as an emigré, “among the challenges émigrés face is the step-by-step entry into the language, culture and politics of their new country,” she explains, something which has nothing to do with assimilation. Arendt spent her entire life worried about what she called “the language problem”, leading her to confess that even though she wrote in English in latter years, she never stopped feeling distant from it. “She discovered that it was incomparably easier to make a philosophical statement in German than in English” explains Knott, before continuing on to how the philosopher eventually realized that she was able to channel different aspects of herself in each of the languages she was writing about.
As Knott goes further into dissecting Arendt’s unlearning processes, the book turns from a scholarly collection of essays into a strangely enjoyable trip into someone’s psyche. Knott almost allows herself to channel Arendt and the book acquires a rich, inviting tone that makes it impossible not to keep on turning page after page. The chapter on forgiveness especially, seems to have been written to have one return to it time after time, “remorse, the wish that something had not happened, is for Arendt an impossibility, for it is precisely our incapacity to undo our actions that, in her eyes, guarantees human existence and reaffirms that we have truly been alive” she adds.
Perhaps Arendt didn’t mean for her work to be analyzed under such scrutiny and/or be dissected in order to become easier to digest, but this is no “Hannah Arendt: For Dummies”. Knott’s clever analysis of Arendt’s work reveals a humanity that’s almost touching. The author isn’t precisely defending Arendt’s alienating viewpoints. Rather, she’s sharing with us the pleasures that can still be found in others’ thoughts—once we set aside our prejudice.