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Arendt in Jerusalem

Given the ease with which the term "banality of evil" is tossed around today, one would think that intellectual history never had a problem with Miss Hannah Arendt. So pervasive is her legacy as a preeminent political theorist and diagnostician … Read More

By / June 12, 2007

Given the ease with which the term "banality of evil" is tossed around today, one would think that intellectual history never had a problem with Miss Hannah Arendt. So pervasive is her legacy as a preeminent political theorist and diagnostician of the totalitarian psychosis that we forget how polarizing a figure she once was. Friendships were ended over opinions on Eichmann in Jersualem when this landmark work appeared in 1963. Arguing that the Nazi architect of Judeocide was little more than a workaday drone, morally illiterate in the language of his extraordinary task, and that Jewish Council leaders were complicit in their own people's extermination, Arendt herself became doused in obloquy. Everyone from Lionel Abel to Irving Howe was disgusted by her thesis. Unconveniently, her defenders almost all neatly fell into the Gentile camp (notable exceptions being Raul Hilberg, Alfred Kazin and Bruno Bettelheim), while her critics were mostly Jews. Make of that what you will, and bonus points if you can avoid attributing the obvious motives of anti-Semitism and chauvinism.

Michael Ezra has a helpful essay compiling the loudest and nastiest voices in l'affaire Arendt in the latest issue of Democratiya:

It was in Partisan Review that the most widely discussed debate by the 'New York intellectuals' took place. The literary critic Lionel Abel was invited to open up the discussion, and – as the editors conceded – his article was submitted as a 'frank polemic.' Abel launched an outright and full frontal assault on the book. The review was so hostile that William Phillips, the editor, who was a friend of Arendt, sent her a copy with a covering letter that betrayed his embarrassment.

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