A few months ago I spent some time in the archives of Elzbieta Ettinger, author of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, a book about the intimate relationship between Arendt, a Jewish woman who wrote about totalitarianism and the Holocaust, and Heidegger, who had once been her teacher and who later became a member of the Nazi party. When it was published, Ettinger’s book caused a scandal in the world of Arendt scholars and set off a debate almost as heated as the affair itself had created when it first became publicly known. How could Arendt have become involved with such a man? More to the point, how could she have rekindled a friendship with him long after the war had ended?
Since I have been working on a memoir (Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt) that tracks Arendt’s influence in my own life and thinking, taking up, among other subjects, the meaning this affair had in Arendt’s life, and what it has made me think about my own life, I was familiar with, and critical of, Ettinger’s interpretation of the event. I also knew that Ettinger had intended to write a fuller biography of Arendt. But, for various reasons, she had separated out the Arendt/Heidegger story, publishing it in a short book. She never completed the longer biography. So when I learned of the availability of Ettinger’s archives I wondered whether anything else she might have discovered in her research would prove valuable for the book on which I was still working.
It turns out that the trip I made this past fall to the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, where the Ettinger archives are housed, was both a boon and a burden. What I uncovered in the archives is invaluable to my work. Interviews, letters, and other materials Ettinger gathered from those who knew Arendt will help me craft a more fully realized portrait of the person Hannah Arendt, who assumes the role of interlocutor in my memoir. But such bounty also proves a burden.
A few months earlier, thinking I was near the end of the revision process, I had determined to pursue self-publishing the manuscript in its then current form. But the wealth of materials I have just added to my ever-expanding research files has forced me to confront the difficult question of how these new documents might reshape my manuscript.
Part of the joy of writing is what you discover about what you really want to say in the process of revision. Searching for exactly the right phrase and precisely the correct shape for a paragraph you begin to uncover what you have been trying to say all along. My immersion of the Ettinger archives has brought me face to face with this process in the work of another.
Reading through several drafts of her unpublished work, and comparing these drafts with the research materials she used to create her work, I could literally see the author’s formation of her subject, watch her confront her resistance to an interpretation of her subject at odds with her own, and discover the places where she resolved to draw her own conclusions.
So, I am taking a deep breath and diving back into my manuscript again, convinced that the changes I will make will add depth to my story without fundamentally altering its shape. And since the story I am trying to tell is about the thinking relationship I have had for nearly thirty years now with Hannah Arendt, a woman long dead but one who has become even more alive to me now as a provocative, yet irksome, companion, whose life and work continue to make me think and rethink, write and revise my own, revising my manuscript one more time seems fitting. I do hope, though, it will be the last!
Perhaps like everyone, I have been riveted the last ten days by the stories coming out of Tunisia, then Egypt, and now Syria, Jordan and almost all other parts of the Arab world. And, like others, I have been eager to find more in-depth reporting than I can get from American newspapers. Although the reports in the New York Times have been extensive, and the related coverage on the Times web site, including some excellent opinion pieces on Room for Debate, have been informative and stimulating, I turned to Al Jazeera English for 24-hour coverage and some extraordinary analysis of the precedents for the revolution afoot.
One particular piece that I found extraordinary, not only because of its exploration of the role of social media in creating the foundation for change, but also because of the people whose brave stories are profiled is this video from “Witness”, a regular feature on the Al Jazeera English web site.
Listening to the youth in this profile recount how they used the internet and other electronic means of communication to spread the word about what has been happening in Egypt, I was reminded of some lines of Hannah Arendt’s. “The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be alive to tell the story…[T]he lesson of such stories is simple and within everyone’s grasp….[U]nder conditions of terror most people will comply, but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places, but it did not happen everywhere.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 233, emphasis in the original).
Of course Arendt was referring to the importance of stories of resistance during the Holocaust. But, as the stories in the video demonstrate, circulating the reality of what is happening under conditions of oppression in authoritarian regimes by whatever means available is critical. The circulation of these stories to those outside such a regime–those ‘many people in the world’ who can make oblivion impossible–is the very essence of political resistance and keeps alive the idea that not everyone complies with oppression. And that is why the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak moved to close off that communication. Except the stories keep getting out. Even in the face of tremendous risk.
Besides following the news about Belarus Free Theater’s production in the “Under the Radar Festival”, New York City, and commenting on the positive reviews it received, I have been drawn to related stories in different venues. Both here in San Diego, at Coronado High School for the Arts, and in Waterbury, Connecticut, at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School, productions of plays that have important social messages about history, including the history of bigotry, have come under scrutiny.
At Coronado HS for the Arts, the play in question was The Laramie Project. While drama teacher, and the play’s director, Kim Strassburger, had gone to great lengths to involve the school and community in creating a moving production, some families thought the material too controversial for their students to attend. Worse though was the proposed–and ultimately squelched–protest by the notorious Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church. (Phelps’ actions in the past, for those of you who don’t remember, have included protests at the funerals of members of the military, and gay pride celebrations.)
Responding to the WBC’s intended protest, the school district acted to obtain an injunction against the WBC. The result: the protest was cancelled and tonight’s scheduled performance should happen without incident.
Besides the support that Coronado demonstrated for the importance of the production and the lessons it carried, what was most exemplary was the documented learning that students at the school had experienced during the rehearsal process. As one student actor commented in response to those who thought the play inappropriate for a teen audience: “I would say high school and college students are at the peak of their insecurity and uncertainty, so if we aren’t the kids that are supposed to see this and stop our actions, who are? Once you’re older, you’re already firm in your beliefs, but we are the generation who can change.”
Lessons learned. And some may not be learned if David Snead, the superintendent who is trying to block the Waterbury Arts Magnet’s production of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” has his way. The New York Times reported that Nina A. Smith, the Waterbury drama teacher, had worked hard “to ensure that the play and its moments of offensive language are understood in context and viewed as a learning experience. She prepared a study guide for classes to talk about the play, and was organizing post-performance talkbacks so the cast and audience members could discuss the work. She also opened rehearsals to the parents of the cast and crew.”
We need more such educational arts programming in our schools. I hope to explore these and other issues in my upcoming summer seminar for school teachers on the political theory of Hannah Arendt. I encourage interested educators to apply!
And, just as a final bit of news about why art matters to politics and vice versa…I note that there will be a benefit performance of the Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter, on Jan 17, 2011 at New York’s Public Theatre, featuring a stellar cast. And a parallel event at Washington D.C.’s Theatre J (where I first saw Kate Fodor’s Hannah and Martin, a play I went on to produce in San Diego).
A quarter century after its original release Claude Lanzman’s epic film Shoah, opened again this month in New York. Although, as Lanzman explained in the New York Times, his film has never “stopped being shown” in Europe, its availability in the United States has been limited, if not non-existent. Later this year, the nine-hour long film will make its way across the country and to the west coast in the new year. For now, those of us not in New York will have to be content to read commentaries about it (or perhaps rent it from Netflix, though the impact of viewing on the big screen is the distinctive experience of the film, which I, for one, have not yet had).
Besides in the New York Times, the re-release has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and The New York Review of Books, among others. Having read all these reports, to my mind, Timothy Snyder’s commentary in NYRB raises a point missed by the others, and relevant to Lanzman’s own commentary that the film has largely disappeared from the American landscape…until now.
Snyder gives a very favorable review of the film as film and credits its impact on raising awareness about the Holocaust, especially generating sympathy for its victims. (“Holocaust” is a word, by the way, that Lanzman assiduously avoids because he considers it inapt: what happened, he says, was not a “burnt offering to a god” [the literal meaning of Holocaust]; it was “a catastrophe, a disaster, and in Hebrew that is shoah.” (New York Times, Dec. 6, 2010))
“Viewers’ identification with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust was not at all something Lanzman could take for granted in 1985,” Snyder writes. But then Snyder poses an equally important question for us to keep in mind today: does identification with the victims “truly [bring] us to some moral understanding of the tragedy itself. Perhaps it would make more sense for those of us who were not in fact victims to also try to identify with the bystanders?” Lanzman, Snyder claims, “makes such an alternative experience of the film impossible” because his main examples of bystanders are “toothless, uneducated, anti-Semitic Polish peasants, names absent or misspelled, impossible objects of identification.” (NYRBblog, December 15, 2010)
“Impossible objects of identification.” The phrase reminded me of the equally impossible object Hannah Arendt crafted in her brilliant, polemical portrait of Adolf Eichmann, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Sitting in that Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt said she was struck by an odd and disturbing thought—that the evil reflected in Eichmann’s crimes, the atrocities against humanity he committed, was the product neither of a madman nor a wicked man nor a monster, but an ordinary, normal human who had acted without thought. To Arendt, Eichmann was terrifying because he was “thoughtless.” The real trouble, she said, was there so many like him, terrifying normal people who made evil banal. She even judged members of the Jewish Council unfavorably because they had cooperated by giving names of Jews to the Nazis. Both her refusal to cast Eichmann as a monster and her refusal to remain silent about Jewish cooperation made the object Arendt was trying to portray–the pervasiveness of evil and the “normalization” of its practice–an “impossible object of identification.” Her effort to politicize the role of the bystander seemed to have been derailed by her own rhetoric.
Had Lanzman included the other part of Jan Karski’s story, the wartime courier whom Lanzman interviews, who had entered the Warsaw ghetto with the mission of carrying the stories of the Jews forcibly settled there to the West, Snyder contends that “we might then have to see our countries, in some limited but nevertheless significant measure, as among the bystanders.” If we simply identify with the victims, “we are simply looking away.” And, her critics certainly thought that had Arendt told the story of the role of the Jewish Councils in the context of a different narrative, or at a different time, it might have been differently received. After all, she relied on Raul Hilberg’s already available monumental Destruction of the European Jews for evidence of much of what she wrote about the Councils. And the reception of his book was quite different from the controversy generated by Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Yet, to both Lanzman and Arendt, the kinds of stories they needed to tell were stories that they thought needed to be told at the time, and in the manner, that they told them. And so, when we approach these stories today, I think we need to find ways to read them anew.
What needs to be brought to the foreground is awareness of what we are trying to avoid by refusing to identify not only with the victim, but with the perpetrator as well as with the bystander. If we can take up all those positions, perhaps we will no longer be able to look away not only from the suffering of others, but from the actions of those responsible for bringing it about, including ourselves.
Today I received notice from the Hannah Arendt Center Academic Director, Roger Berkowitz, that the videos of Bill T. Jones’s dance, Floating the Tongue, and of the conversation following the performance between Bill T. Jones and Roger had just been posted on the Hannah Arendt web site.
I was excited by the collaboration that had developed between Jones and the Arendt Center, a collaboration that was the result of Jones’s residency, now in its second year, at Bard College, and his work with the performing arts community there. And eager to watch the dance and listen to the ensuing dialogue. And, since I studied dance for so many years, this particular event is especially important to me as an artist and a thinker.
Bill T. Jones at Bard College: Floating the Tongue from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.
Bill T. Jones and Roger Berkowitz: A Public Conversation from Hannah Arendt Center on Vimeo.
Both of these “documents” indicate to me something of the extraordinary breadth of associations being made to Arendt’s work.
“Is it really possible to show the ‘internal landscape’ [the mind's interior?], while performing?” asks Bill T. Jones. And how might this be different in different art forms, I wondered? What, for instance, about thinking do we externalize in the written word? The visual art object? And how do these engage differently (or not?) those who observe or interact with these objects?
As Roger Berkowitz engages in dialogue with Bill T. Jones, we can begin see the difference between what Arendt called ‘thinking’ and the process of ‘cognition’ that she associated with the brain’s activity. Thinking and meaning-making go hand in hand. And they are not automatic, mechanistic processes. If they become automatic, they become something else. “Thinking stops us,” Roger says, paraphrasing Arendt. “But that is one of the great problems with thinkers like Arendt,” Bill responds. “Did she live in her body?”
All of which raises the question, important for us to consider, what is thinking as an embodied activity? And did Arendt give enough consideration to thinking as embodied activity? Interestingly, passages in The Life of the Mind about the role of the senses might open up new avenues to explore in Arendt in relation to these questions.
While pondering these topics, I came across an article by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books. Judt was an historian and trenchant critic, who recently died from complications caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease. “The vocal muscle,” wrote Judt, “for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”
I hope to explore some of this issue of embodied thinking in future writing. and perhaps, also, in performance.