Eiland, Howard and Michael W. Jennings. “Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life”, Belknap, 2018.
An Elusive Intellectual
Walter Benjamin was perhaps the twentieth century’s most elusive intellectual. His writings cannot be categorized and his improvised existence provides food for thought. In this new biography, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings give us a comprehensive portrait of the man and his times
This is a compelling, well-written, and accessible biography of an uncompromising and enigmatic writer and public intellectual. In the work I have done on Hannah Arendt, I could not help but notice that she was especially fond of Benjamin and took his death very badly.
The book provides excellent background on the influences and background to Benjamin’s works such as Critique of Violence and the Arcades Project. It draws on a multitude of sources, including his correspondence with dear friends. This biography offers surprising details and welcome nuances to the basic outline that many readers may already know.
This 800 plus page book teaches about modernity through the eyes of Walter Benjamin as well as the history of the early and mid-twentieth century as seen through the eyes of intellectuals who had the courage to comment on society.
Benjamin was the son of a well-to-do family who could be described as a geek as well as a charismatic and courageous man. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings have produced a classic. A Critical Life is an essential companion to Benjamin’s works and a literary work in its own right.
Theater for the New City
Crystal Field, Executive Artistic Director
ARENDT-HEIDEGGER: A LOVE STORY
by Douglas Lackey
directed by Alexander Harrington
September 27 to October 14, 2018
Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt were leading intellectuals of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, they had a passionate affair. In the 1930s, Heidegger became an ardent Nazi while Arendt became an ardent Zionist. Nevertheless, after the war, they still continued to correspond and to meet. Douglas Lackey dramatizes their relationship. The dialogue and action of the play go beyond known facts, but everything in the play is consistent with them.
WITH Alyssa Simon* as Hannah Arendt Joris Stuyck* as Martin Heidegger Stan Buturla* as Ernst Cassirer Alexandra O’Daly* as Elfride Heidegger and Students
Stage Manager Marsh Shugart Set and projection design by Lianne Arnold Costume design by Sidney Fortner Lighting Design by Joyce Liao Co-Video Designer/Associate Scenic Designer Asa Lipton
Associate Producer Courtney Fenwick
September 27 to October 14, 2018 Theater for the New City 155 First Ave (between 9th and 10th Sts.) Thurs – Sat at 8:00 PM, Sun at 3:00 PM $15 general admission, $10 seniors and students Box office: (212) 254-1109 Smarttix (212) 868-4444
Krimstein, Ken. “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth”, Bloomsbury, 2018.
A Graphic Look at Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century and a hero of political thought who was largely unsung and often misunderstood. She is best known for her landmark 1951 book on openness in political life, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” with its powerful and timely lessons that make it very relevant today.
Arendt led an extraordinary life. She endured Nazi persecution firsthand and survived harrowing “escapes” from country to country in Europe. She was a friend of such luminaries as Walter Benjamin and Mary McCarthy, Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. She was a woman who finally had to give up her unique genius for philosophy, and her love of a very compromised man (the philosopher and Nazi-sympathizer Martin Heidegger) for what she referred to as “love of the world.”
New Yorker cartoonist Ken Krimstein’s brings us a strikingly illustrated portrait of a complex, controversial and courageous woman whose intelligence led her to brilliant insights into the human condition.
I am a huge fan of Arendt and was so when it was not the best time to be one. To be in the same room with Arendt was to be in a room with greatness and the few times that I was able to do so gave my life a whole new meaning. Ken Krimstein brings us a deeply moving graphic memoir about the life and thoughts of Arendt. We see clearly hear that through her words, Arendt taught us about how to live in the world, the meaning of freedom, the perils of totalitarianism, and our power as human beings to think about things and not just act blindly. There is a lot to know about Arendt and Krimstein explains her ideas clearly and with humor and in doing so we see why they still resonate.
She was an émigré intellectual who lived through dark times, leading a life of the mind. Krimstein turns a wartime adventure tale into a coming-of-age story, a graphic novel of ideas, a political biography, and a meditation on the importance of truth.
To some it might seem counterintuitive that Hannah Arendt who was known for her fiercely independent and pioneering philosophical writings, should be the subject of a cartoon biography, but Ken Krimstein shows that it could be respectfully done. He sends “a fundamental, crucial message regarding Arendt’s thinking about the world and the possibility of a recurrence of the thoughtless, meaningless evil of destruction that appeared in 20th century totalitarian regimes”.
Basically, this is a biographical work that stresses Arendt’s lifelong search for a way to understand the world around her. We look at Arendt through three escapes. Before he does this, he looks at the social trials of Arendt’s childhood and youth, the beginning of her need and desire to understand, and her infamous relationship with her professor/philosopher Martin Heidegger. Arendt’s three escapes include one from Berlin in 1933 after being arrested for doing research for a Zionist organization. Her second escape was from France in 1941 after she was able to get away from an internment camp during Germany’s invasion. Her third escape came while Arendt lived and worked in New York.
It is clear that Krimstein admires Arendt very much and takes a particular line in presenting her life and character. Heidegger seems to occupy Arendt’s thoughts too much and too long after they lost contact. Krimstein uses Heidegger to illustrate arguments that Arendt has with herself in later years. She gave us the phrase “the banality of evil,” and this is a very true way to look at human drive.
Krimstein is faithful to the known facts of Arendt’s life and certainly gives her a long overdue placement in the world of 20th century philosophers. “If she had done nothing else but contribute the concept of “the banality of evil” to our discourse, Arendt would have earned her place in our thinking processes… and, yes, as the book makes clear, she did much more.” Arendt was a complicated person and a complicated Jew in life and thought. Told from the perspective of Arendt herself, the book is a probing look at the many dimensions of fidelity to truth that she sought to uncover in humanity. We gain insight into the Arendtian perspective as well as a sense of its relevance to today. We must be “cognizant to not let demagogues and opportunists co-opt the democratic values that are essential to maintaining civil liberties.”
Benhabib, Seyla. “Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin”, Princeton University Press, 2018.
Exile and Migration, A Philosophical Look
Seyla Benhabib examines the intertwined lives and writings of a group of prominent twentieth-century Jewish thinkers who experienced exile and migration. These include Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, Judith Shklar, Hans Kelsen, Emmanuel Levinas, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. These philosophers and intellectuals who were informed
by their Jewish identity and experiences of being outsiders, taken as a whole produced one of the “most brilliant and effervescent intellectual movements of modernity.” These thinkers faced migration, statelessness, and exile because of their Jewish origins, even if they did not take positions on specifically Jewish issues personally. The sense of belonging and not belonging, of being “eternally half-other,” led and caused them to confront essential questions: “What does it mean for the individual to be an equal citizen and to wish to retain one’s ethnic, cultural, and religious differences, or perhaps even to rid oneself of these differences altogether in modernity”? Benhabib concentrates on and isolates four themes in their works: dilemmas of belonging and difference; exile, political voice, and loyalty; legality and legitimacy; and pluralism and the problem of judgment. I have always found it interesting that Jews have been regarded as people with one voice and “that we all think alike”. We know that is far from the truth and we see this in our daily lives. We also see I here among the illustrious names that appear in this study. What I do love is that they influenced one another and they will be the first to say so. I find this even more interesting when we look at the names of our thinkers here and while they do not share the same thoughts, they do share that they think. When Benhabib shows us here is the valuable plurality of their Jewish voices, most of whom developed their universal insights in the face of the crises of this new century.
We look at key aspects of German-Jewish thought in the twentieth century and we see affinities and differences in the lives and work of intellectuals confronting the pressures of exile, statelessness, and migration. We understand that we must consider the political challenges of our time as real and viable. The intellectuals here were quite a force in the twentieth century. In most cases, they were Jewish refugees and exiles and who still speak eloquently to timely political and philosophical issues.
Another Look at Eichmann
As I was sitting here preparing my new lecture on Hannah Arendt, I received an email telling me about the new film Eichmann film, “Operation Finale”. What struck me is that this is the second time in five years that while preparing to teach about Arendt, a film is released in which her presence is felt. The first, of course, is the wonderful biography directed by Magarethe von Trotta and starring the amazing Barbara Sukowa and now this. Surprisingly, these films do not make my job easier since they give me added resources. While the names Arendt and Eichmann come together often in the same breath when looking at either personage, this new film is all Eichmann. I must say that “Operation Finale” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking and I would love to know what Arendt would say about it.
“Operation Finale” is the story of Peter Malkin and his role in capturing, guarding, and transporting the man who orchestrated the Final Solution to Jerusalem and it is a thrilling adventure even knowing how it ends.
Director Chris Weitz pushed all the right buttons to give us a tense psychological drama that rarely vacates the room where Malkin and Eichmann spent nine days in a battle of wits. He has chosen a wonderful cast to tell his story. Oscar Isaac is Malkin, a man whose courage overrides. Lior Raz is the Mossad’s chief, Isser Harel; Mélanie Laurent is Hanna, a guilt-ridden doctor who cannot help but wonder if the Hippocratic oath covers the forced sedation of a Nazi war criminal. Nick Kroll is Rafi Eitan, the operation’s straight man whose covers injury and pain with jokes. Almost all of the agents that were sent to Argentina to capture Eichmann had lost loved ones because of him and nearly all have, at one time or another, to go into his room and end his life.
Weitz lets them all simmer together. Inside the safe house, dinners lead to tense confrontations as the team, like the audience, struggles to deal with the man they must guard and have tied to the bed in his underwear and who shows no remorse about what he did. There is no banality of evil here. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Eichmann is imperious, menacing, and vulnerable at the same time and even “when sitting on the toilet, surrounded by Mossad agents and delivering a monologue about defecation. Klaus (Joe Alwyn), Eichmann’s son reminds us that his father had done no wrong and that the pain that he feels as a son for a missing father is very real
“Operation Finale” is a dance between captor and captive, and Isaac and Kingsley shine as two men who understand that they’ve no choice but to allow the other his humanity. To convince Eichmann to sign the papers needed to get him on the flight to Tel Aviv, requires his consent. To get this, Malkin has to allow his prisoner a shot at dignity, be that a smoke and a shave or real emotional intimacy. Eichmann, in turn, tries to find favor with Malkin by asking him about his sister Fruma who had been executed in a forest by the machine Eichmann had helped design. Eichmann begs for news of his own family and lets out a blood-curdling scream when he realizes that no harm has come to his wife and his sons. Eichmann manipulates empathy as he struggles to convince Malkin that he’s capable of feeling his pain. But he may not be: in flashback we see him as a manipulative ogre wearing eyeliner, an SS uniform, and an overcoat as he stands “haughtily above pits stacked with bodies, like a ghoulish rock star on a stage looking down at his fans”. This is the picture that stays with us. As the two men try to figure each other out, so do we, making this a film filled with suspense even for those who have read all there is to read about Eichmann’s trial and execution.
This is both a cinematic and emotional achievement. Weitz allows us to entertain Eichmann’s reasoning as well as Malkin’s, and he trusts us to find our own way out after having spent time listening to a personable and very convincing Nazi. This film is a study in unruly “and the extremes we sometimes go to when we strive for or run away from our just deserts.”
Hannah Arendt said that the longer one listened to Eichmann, the more obvious it became that he did not have the ability to speak or to think from someone else’s point of view. He could not be communicated with and this was not because he was a liar but because he “was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” Weitz sees Eichmann differently and his Eichmann is demonic because he knows exactly how to think from the standpoint of his interrogator, and knows, too, how to use this skill as a weapon. He sees no reason to empathize other than to gain an upper hand and this makes him all the more human and all the more terrifying. He and others like him can cause death and misery even though they are capable of not doing so. There are men like this everywhere.
To combat this kind of wickedness is to put no burden on our emotions and to be free to explore our own emotional reflexes. “Operation Finale” lets us do just that.
Fifteen years after World War II, a team of secret agents comes together to track down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust. It was Eichmann who organized the transport of Jews from countries all over Europe to concentration camps where millions were murdered. After the war, he fled to his home country of Austria and then moved to Argentina. The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad uncovered the whereabouts of the infamous Nazi in 1960, and teams of Mossad and Shin Bet agents staged a raid to capture the war criminal and brought him to Israel to face crimes against humanity and the Jewish people. He was sentenced to hang and was executed in 1962 and remained unrepentant all the way to noose. This is the story of the manhunt for one of the most diabolical war criminals of the 20th century.
Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann and Oscar Isaac is Peter Malkin, the Mossad member and head of a group of Israeli spies who took him down. Eichmann had murdered Malkin’s sister and her children so he had his own personal interest in capturing the man. He was sentenced and executed by hanging. Writer, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal was instrumental in finding the location of Eichmann. The reaction of the world to the entire affair was as different as can be imagined and debates took place about Israel’s right to extradite and try the man for crimes against humanity. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” and her theory of the banality of evil both hurt and helped her career as a political philosopher and perhaps even tarnished her reputation as one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century.
In the newly released trailer, we see Eichmann supervising the mass murder of hundreds of concentration camp prisoners, then defending his actions in a voiceover, “You have no interest in what I have to say,” he says. “Unless it confirms what you think you already know. My job was simple: save the country I love from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”
Chris Weitz directed the drama from Matthew Orton’s screenplay about the capture of Eichmann, who organized the transport of Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps, where an estimated 6 million people were killed.
In the same trailer, Isaac’s Peter Malkin is warned,” If you succeed, for the first time in our history, we will judge our executioner… If you fail, he escapes justice, perhaps forever. I beg of you, do not fail.”
The film also stars Lior Raz, Melanie Laurent, Nick Kroll, Joe Alwyn, Haley Lu Richardson, Michael Aronov, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Torben Liebrecht, Mike Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Pêpê Rapazote. “Operation Finale” opens in theaters on August 24, 2018.
“About Executing Eichmann”
On December 15, 1961, in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. Eichmann had been a major player in the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps, and the judgment of the court was largely met favorably. However, a group of Holocaust survivors and intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, Hugo Bergmann, Martin Buber, Yehuda Bacon and Gershom Scholem, called for Eichmann’s sentence to be commuted. By opposing Eichmann’s execution, they felt they were defending the values of Judaism, and raised questions about Jewish morality, and the very nature of a Jewish State.
“About Executing Eichmann” examines their arguments, bringing together texts, eyewitness accounts, archival footage, audio recordings, and materials from the time, along with discussions amongst contemporary Israeli historians and philosophers, including historians Anita Shapira and Hanna Yablonka, and philosophers Moshe Halbertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.
Not many remember this debate but it was central to its time and shows how relevant the issues continue to be today, and why we should revisit them.
Florence Jammot’s riveting documentary explores the moral and philosophical questions raised around Adolf Eichmann’s trial and execution. The film juxtaposes the two overarching themes of vengeance and justice as it explores the drama behind the attempt of a group of Jewish intellectuals to spare Eichmann’s life. Using letters, court footage, and eyewitness testimonies, Jammot reveals the astonishing true story of Buber, Scholem, Arendt, Bacon, and others who lobbied Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi not to execute Eichmann, but rather to commute his sentence. Their thoughts revolved around how could death of one man atone for the deaths of six million and if Israel had the authority to pass judgment on behalf of all Jews. Since Eichmann’s indictment was (for the most part) crimes against the Jewish people, how could he receive a fair and unbiased trial in Israel? Jammot explores each of these questions interview style, and allows her speakers generous time to make their points. Her choices of commentators make the film.
In the film there are two important informational omissions: Eichmann’s trial was the first one to be televised in history and that Eichmann has been the only person in Israeli history to be executed.
Jammot’s film is not for the novice, as it provides little background information. It assumes that the viewer has knowledge of not only the Holocaust and Eichmann’s role in it, but also of the various Israeli statesmen and intellectuals involved. For those who are familiar with these events of the early 1960s, the film is a wonderful work. Particularly moving is the large segment given to painter Yehuda Bacon, an Auschwitz survivor, who conquers his own demons and petitions for Eichmann’s life to be spared.
Bernstein, Richard. “Why Read Hannah Arendt Now?”, Polity, 2018.
Since reading Hannah Arendt as an undergraduate many years ago, I have always felt in awe of her—– she was a great mind and even when I did not agree with her, I understood from where she came. Of course there were sections of her “Eichmann in Jerusalem” that infuriated me but probably because I understood what she was doing and I am fascinated by the fact that many young Israelis now see as a titular mind.
In fact, there has been an extraordinary international revival of interest in Hannah Arendt. Perceptive of dark tendencies in modern life, she knew that they would continue to plague us. She developed a concept of politics and public freedom that remain a critical standard for judging what is wrong with politics today. I am quite sure that why Arendt has once again become popular is because of her profound insights that aid us in thinking about those dark times and where the light is today. Author Bernstein examines “her thinking about statelessness and refugees; the right to have rights; her critique of Zionism; the meaning of the banality of evil; the complex relations between truth, lying, power, and violence; the tradition of the revolutionary spirit; and the urgent need for each of us to assume responsibility for our political lives.”
This is a compact little book that contains a great deal how today’s world has been shaped. Arendt spent her life looking at the meanings of the burdens that exist in the world and had no fear of publicly attacking them. It would be extremely interesting to see how she would react to the Trump presidency. You can be sure that she would have had something to say about it.
Arendt, Hannah. “Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975”, edited by Jerome Kohn, Schocken Books, 2018.
Searching for Meaning
I often have a difficult time explaining to others my obsession with Hannah Arendt and there are still many, many Jews who fault her because of her writings about Eichmann. We do not have many thinkers like Arendt and love her or hate her, I doubt that anyone can deny that she was one of the greatest minds to write and philosophize. I remember attending one of her lectures and feeling like I was witnessing greatness.
“Thinking Without a Banister” refers to Arendt’s description of her experience of thinking and she thought without any of the traditional religious, moral, political, or philosophic pillars of support. Arendt was her own support. The book includes topics on many subjects and from many varied writings: the essays, lectures, reviews, interviews, speeches, and editorials. All of these taken together, exhibit the relentless activity of her mind as well as her character. In these writings, we see the person Arendt was and who has hardly yet been appreciated or understood.
Hannah Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and lived in America from 1941 until her death in 1975. Her life and her thought spanned much of the twentieth century. She did not think of herself as a philosopher even though she studied and maintained close relationships with two great philosophers—Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger throughout their lives. She was a thinker who sought the meaning of appearances and events. She was a questioner rather than an answerer, and she wrote what she thought, hoping to encourage others to think for themselves. She was courageous and she found courage woven in each and every strand of human freedom.
“In 1951 she published The Origins of Totalitarianism, in 1958 The Human Condition, in 1961 Between Past and Future, in 1963 On Revolution and Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1968 Men in Dark Times, in 1970 On Violence, in 1972 Crises of the Republic, and in 1978, posthumously, The Life of the Mind. Starting at the turn of the twenty-first century, Schocken Books has published a series of collections of Arendt’s unpublished and uncollected writings, of which Thinking Without a Banister is the fifth volume.”