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Unlearning with Hannah Arendtby Marie Luise Knott
Synopses & Reviews
Where the horror was blackest and the confusion deepest, she resorted to “uninhibited irony,” which she once described to Joachim Fest as “my most precious inheritance from Germany—or more precisely, from Berlin.” Old friends abandoned her. When Gershom Scholem wrote to her, “I would just like to say that your portrait of Eichmann as a convert to Zionism is only conceivable from someone with your deep resentment of everything having to do with Zionism,” she answered, “I never made Eichmann out to be a ‘Zionist.’ If you missed the irony of the sentence—which was plainly in oratio obliqua, reporting Eichmann’s own words—I really can’t help it.”
Irony is her means of holding experience at arm’s length in order to think about it, a protection against panic and powerfully aggressive impulses that would only interfere with her judgment.
Moreover, behind the tone of the Eichmann book lies a quite real laughter that overcame Arendt as she read the transcripts of his interrogation. “I’ll tell you this: I read the transcript of his police investigation, thirty-six hundred pages, read it, and read it carefully, and I do not know how many times I laughed—laughed out loud! People took this reaction in a bad way. I cannot do anything about that. But I know one thing: Three minutes before certain death, I probably still would laugh.” As a test, she had taken at face value what she saw and what Eichmann said about himself: nothing but clichés whose “thoughtlessness” so shocked her that she burst out laughing, thereby outraging not just the Jewish world.
"German political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906 — 1975) took the philosophical line of questioning to the extreme when she advised that we not just question, but unlearn what we know. Journalist and translator Knott focuses on four concepts Arendt extensively unlearned — laughter, translation, forgiveness, and dramatization — drawing on her books, essays, and conversations and correspondence with other thinkers of the time. Through unlearning with Arendt, laughter transforms from a reaction to a comical situation to a way of identifying absurdity, evil, or serious matters. Forgiveness becomes a necessary path to the future instead of a mere forgetting of the past. Language proves to be limiting, especially when rebuilding politics or law with imprecise terminology. But Arendt's bilingual life, alternating between English and German, identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each. Intent on showing Arendt's words to be re-readable and re-learnable, Knott does the same with her own overview of Arendt's reeducation. (May)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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