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Daphne Merkin

The Importance of Being Hannah Arendt

Daphne Merkin on a brilliant new film presenting Hannah Arendt in the midst of the Eichmann trial and the 'banality of evil.'


I have never been sure what to make of the phrase “the banality of evil"—whether it is, in fact, a revelatory concept or a catchy but psychologically tone-deaf one-liner. “The mediocrity of evil” might have been truer to what Hannah Arendt was trying to get at in her utter incredulity about Adolf Eichmann’s lack of, well, charisma, but it lacks the contemptuous pizzazz of the actual wording. Then again, it was impossible to grow up in a Jewish-identified household in the early ’60s in America and be unaware of Arendt's famous—or was it notorious?—formulation, even if that was all you knew of the complex, dense, and not entirely readable account she wrote of the Eichmann trial.


Her report appeared first in five installments in February and March 1963 in The New Yorker, where it was eagerly (and, I would imagine, somewhat horrifiedly) devoured by people like my parents, though I was way too young to actually recall its impact other than as a vague impression of some kind of intellectual stir. My parents were both German Jews, like Arendt, although, very unlike Arendt, they were both religiously observant and ardently Zionist. (My uncle on my mother's side was in fact an assistant to Attorney General Gideon Hausner, who aroused Arendt’s disdain from the start.) In later years, I would hear about Arendt from William Jovanovich, her publisher and mine, who was very fond of Arendt—fond enough to fly her up to his summer home in La Malbaie, Canada. Bill's wife, Martha, also seemed to like Arendt, far more than she did Mary McCarthy, another summer guest, of whom she once observed to me: "She ate up all of the fresh raspberries from the garden, leaving none for Bill."...


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The Daily Beast | July 11, 2017.

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