When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because of their refusal to join in is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.In such emergencies, it turns out that the purging component of thinking is political by implication. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge; it is the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And this, at the rare moments when the stakes are on the table, may indeed prevent catastrophes, at least for the self. (From The Portable Hannah Arendt)
Philosophers, like sports radio hosts, can really go on about nothing for a long time. Ipso facto…5. Voltaire, a good listener and solid thinker: “The ancient Romans built their greatest masterpieces of architecture for wild beasts to fight in.”
4. Galileo Galilei, not one to steer clear of controversy: “The sun,with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”
3. Hannah Arendt, clear and direct, puts men in their place: “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.”
1. Socrates, the grand-master of the dialectic: “Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is law and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.”
*For the record, the Bottom Five read likes this: Arthur Schopenhauer (gloomy!), Ayn Rand (repeats herself), Niccolo Machiavelli (one-trick pony), Rene Descartes (drones on and on) and Friedrich Nietzsche (way too intense).
It’s a challenge to think of a heroine who isn’t passive, either loving from afar or loving too hard.
And while these passionate characters are to be admired, they tend to limit us in our view of what it is to be a woman of substance. Where are the heroines to rival Odysseus, Atticus Finch and the Cat in the Hat? I offer you my Top Six.
6. Joy Adamson (Born Free) The co-protagonist of the Born Free series, along with Elsa the Lion, Adamson is more outspoken and independent in the books – to say nothing of real life – than offered on film.
5. Hannah Arendt (Hannah Arendt) The 20th-Century philosopher, as portrayed in Margarethe von Trotta’s 2013 film, is intimidating, uncompromising and could smoke anyone under the table.
4. Gloria (Gloria) Gina Rowlands’ portrayal in John Cassavetes’ 1978 film, a modern-day Fury, is striking in her combination of anger and sentimentality.
3. Chihiro (Spirited Away) Even after her parents are turned into pigs and her name is stolen, Chihiro wants to help everyone, including the evil witch.
2. Clytemnestra (Agamemnon) While it may be true that she has the blood of her husband and Cassandra on her hands, Aeschylus makes it clear that she has her reasons.
1. Doctor’s Wife (Blindness) The only hope offered in Jose Saramago’s post-apocalyptic parable is a woman willing to sacrifice herself for the good of everyone else. Imagine that.
It’s even true for Victoria’s Secret. All of that said, a tattoo can be good short form for an aspect of a character in fiction. It’s a device I am toying with at the moment in The Ark. One character is a video game addict. Another says little. And the last, ironically, overstates.
Hannah Arendt offers a devastating portrait of humanity in Eichmann in Jerusalem, an assemblage of five successive articles written in 1963 for The New Yorker. It is in this work that Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil”, positing that the mass murder perpetrated by the Nazis was not as much a thing of malevolence as it was of bureaucracy. She explains how words were used as weapons, to indoctrinate and then engineer the mass murders. Death camp architect Heinrich Himmler referred to the Holocaust as follows: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again.” Eichmann believed the “battles” to be geflugelte Worte (meaning “winged words” or words from classic literature), when in reality they were only the tools of propaganda.
In other words, not only does Eichmann not acknowledge the evil of his work, neither does he understand how the evil was disseminated. Arendt goes on to cite a story of a leader speaking to Bavarian peasants in 1944: “The Fuhrer in his goodness has prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end.”
Arendt’s text reveals how the people of Germany were indoctrinated as a cult, who were willing to go to the bitter end to satisfy their leader not out of malice but because “honor is loyalty”. Therefore it should not come as a surprise that Eichmann maintained his innocence in the extermination of millions; he and his Nazi brethren were gassed by their own words.
New York can be a distracting place, a tough environment to imagine isolation and
silence, which is where my head is supposed to be these days. That said, New York is a very good place to find inspiration from others. While the constant flow of art and ideas can be numbing, it can also fit pieces in the puzzle as well. Last week, we attended the closing night screening of the New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. The film was Hannah Arendt, an eponymous biopic directed by Margarethe von Trotta. The narrative is strong, as is the setting and atmosphere – more cigarettes smoked than in a season of Mad Men – but most memorable are the philosophical musings of Ms. Arendt. Credited with developing the idea of “the banality of evil”, Ms. Arendt’s pursuit of understanding is ferocious.She argued that the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was not so much an evil-minded villain as an unthinking bureaucrat only doing his job. Viewers of the film witness Ms. Arendt espouse her theories to attentive students, argue her points with colleagues, and most interesting of all, contemplate the complexities of humankind as she sits and smokes at home, staring into oblivion. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”