Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt by Katheen B. Jones
Recently an author and scholar, Kathleen B. Jones, gave me her book. Jones is a professor emeritas of women’s studies at San Diego State University, and her book, Diving For Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, alternates between fascinating biographical snippets and quotes from Arendt’s controversial career to Jones’ own autobiographical pieces which parallel Arendt’s.
Jones’ rendering of Arendt is unabashedly personal, and her way is my way, too, of reading and identifying with the main character so to speak. Through a tunnel of empathy and identification we can journey with even one of the densest philosophic thinkers of our time, making her accessible and part of our own lives. The personal connection, this identification is so often missing in biographies and it provides textures and nuances I never thought possible in non-fiction. It is the more honest representation of how we all read – to make ideas, and pieces of human life, even famous lives, ours too. Dissolving those barriers which keep us too much of at distance, identification, as in fiction, provides that classical sense of catharsis – even when it’s a complex author like Hannah Arendt and a complicated work of biography.
What sprang into my mind instantly reading A Thinking Journey was that when I was twelve years old, I watched the Eichmann Trial on television and saw and read Ms. Arendt’s provocative statement about the banality of evil. Controversial at the time, Arendt believed Adolf Eichmann typified the horror of the holocaust. She did not buy the defense’s position that all Eichmann was doing was “following orders” and she rejected this position as an excuse for the crime. Though she characterized him as a bureaucrat, and an anti-Semitic bureaucrat, those attributes didn't excuse him in Arendt’s mind, or even explain why he could do what he did. Arendt believed he knew what he was doing, she wrote, but he never stopped to think and examine it, or consider that what he was doing was morally obscene. The shocking truth for Arendt was that Eichmann never bothered to question whether following an order (from Hitler, the only true source of law at the time) was sufficient as an "ethical' action. She saw Eichmann not entirely as a sadistic monster but as an example of the banality of evil. Arendt also asked why some Jews were complicit with the Nazis, and why this fact had not been brought into focus and consciousness in the media. She created a fierce storm in the Jewish world for both these ideas. For her bold contentions and questions, she was ostracized in the Jewish community and confronted with statements like “You (Hannah Arendt) do not love the Jewish people, you do not believe in them. What kind of Jew are you?”
The real problem with Eichmann, for Arendt, Jones tell us, was that he wasn’t able to reflect on what he was doing. He was a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t think, a “thoughtless” man, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time” and he therefore couldn’t distinguish between sending people to gas chambers and doing his job as instructed by some authority. The real horror “wasn’t just Eichmann but how many others were like him,” Jones tells us, reiterating Arendt’s views, (Eichmann was a) ” terrifying normal, banal perpetrator of evil.” What had happened, both Arendt and Jones ask, to make people “so thoughtless”?
To me, as a young Jewish girl, Hannah Arendt seemed more Jewish than anyone else I knew, simply for asking those questions and presenting other philosophical, pressing questions, illuminating the holocaust as a set of paradoxes. Like Spinoza, she was the Jew who believed thinking was the difference not only of knowing and not knowing, but also of being capable of diagnosing “evil” and freeing oneself from stock assumptions. Adolf Eichmann was both a mass murderer and a banal clerk with no mind of his own, Arendt contended, and to me that felt achingly true. The participation of some Jews in aiding the Nazis revealed a complexity of paradoxes as well. It was a recognition that the propensity of all human beings no matter what race or religion, is to try to belong, to not be not a victim. but a member, and throughout history, traitors have held center stage. They elicit our disgust and outrage, but also our sense of common human weakness. To see Jews as a part of common humanity was, to me, not a betrayal but a confirmation that we, as Jews, can be both culpable and innocent, broadening a sense of Jews belonging to the family of man. Arendt forcefully restated she was a Jew and none of her ideas meant anything otherwise. Many tried to silence and condemn her ideas.
During the Hamas/Gaza war, my second cousin in Israel posted photos of innocent babies in Gaza playing by the waterside as Israel ordered airstrikes against them. As human shields for the Hamas, they were, nonetheless, innocent, he proposed. He was trying to protest what he saw as the use of excessive force by Israel. He was not saying that Israel didn’t have the right to defend itself, but that the causalities were, on a purely human level of perception, unimaginably high and we were caught in a kind of Arendt paradox. Israel had to defend itself, yes – that was clear as day – and yet the damages Israel causing were of the innocent and that is ethically unacceptable. We, as Jews, were trapped in a war where conscience was beginning to show its thorny presence, haunting us with images of these innocents who were slaughtered by our airstrikes. I agreed with my second cousin and said so on Facebook. Soon my Facebook thread was flooded with ugly comments, everything from calling me names I don’t want to repeat (out of pure taste), to someone actually posting a photo of a man vomiting on my thread. When I read Jones’ presentation of Arendt’s controversial statements about Eichmann, I couldn’t help but find some affinity and support for voicing potentially explosive alternate views. However grandiose on my part that sounds!
All this is to say Kathleen Jones, by writing about Arendt from a personal place (the book mixes Jones’ own autobiography with her smart and fascinating biography of Arendt herself), allows the reader to feel Arendt as a partner, a traveler in the same chaos of modern life we are facing now. Jones includes her own dreams, her lovers, and her struggle to mitigate ideas about feminism and when suddenly she switches back to Arendt’s biography, we are given a way into an understanding of this larger-than-life woman philosopher, as if Arendt is at our dining room table. If only more non-fiction biographies could combine the personal with the facts of a “great” person otherwise unreachable to us, I thought, as reading for me is always this process of identification and catharsis, a blending of the personal and hardcore factual world.
It’s an extraordinary book and I recommend it to anyone interested in how the mind of a brilliant woman can illuminate our own passageway into serious thinking, and not just “following orders”.
It is a testament of how fine this book is that my mind also reflected on how in my novel, Edges, ambiguity and paradox also formed my narrative. It brought me to a passage in “Edges” where my main character, a young girl of fourteen is in Jerusalem in 1963, is trying to understand the early beginnings of the Arab/Jewish modern wars.
In the drizzling rain, the Jordanian Hills seemed closer than when I tried to see them from the bedroom upstairs. They lay to the east, though named The West Bank. The boundary between Arab and Jewish regions were drawn by a fountain pen years ago when some British engineers came to canvas the rough land in the 1930’s, my aunt told me. The ink they used was green and so the border was called the “green line”. The border remained vague and uncertain, my aunt said, subject to weather and other forces. No one ever seemed to know where it started or ended, the barbed wire often arbitrarily strewn to make up for the lack of clearness. A little more than a hazy, outline in the distance there were thick layers of barbed wire on both sides of the border.
In Edges, Arendt’s concepts of paradox and ambiguity were profound to me, and tools for a deeper understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The lively free association possible in one’s mind that Jones’ book invites was a gateway into a vital, emotional landscape of possibilities.
“The world is full of stories, events, and occurrences, and strange happenings,” Arendt wrote. “Only if you can imagine what has happened anyhow and repeat it in the imagination, and only if you have the patience to tell and retell them will you be able to tell them well.”
This wonderful book taught me to be less afraid to find the personal in the in the political, and by doing so, to discover a connective artery to the heart of this beating world.