The Cynicism of Paraphrasing: A Review of “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt”

Isaiah Berlin thought Hannah Arendt was one of the most overrated thinkers of the 20th century. He predicted her mild fame would flame out quickly after her death in 1975. Berlin has proven a poor prophet.

In the half-century since her passing, Arendt has become the most widely read and most passionately loved political thinker of the 20th century. She refused the title of philosopher, but her works are widely taught in philosophy and politics courses. She was excommunicated from the Jewish community for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, but she is a staple of Holocaust and Jewish Studies. Arendt distanced herself from feminism, but she has become a feminist icon. The “Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought” is given annually by the Heinrich-Böll Foundation. Beyond the academy, Arendt is the subject of and inspiration for operas, plays, poetry, paintings, and sculpture. There are streets named after her in Germany, France, and Israel and a “Hannah Arendt” bullet train connects Stuttgart with Hamburg. Thousands of books are dedicated to her writing and thought. Dozens of radio and television documentaries explore the banality of evil and her insights into democratic and revolutionary politics. “Hannah Arendt,” the 2012 biopic by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa was critically acclaimed and surprisingly successful.

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt by Ada Ushpiz

Why has Arendt proven so enduring and popular? Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a new movie directed by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, offers one answer. While most artworks about Arendt focus on her incredible life story — her escape from Nazi Germany, her love affair with Martin Heidegger, and the controversy surrounding Eichmann in Jerusalem — Ushpiz argues that Arendt’s popularity flows from the visceral relevance of Arendt’s thinking.

Vita Activa opens as would an argumentative essay, announcing its thesis on three imageless black and white slides. The film begins with a definition of Arendt’s phrase “The banality of evil.” Ushpiz then offers a catalogue of major Arendtian themes, arguing that her insights into “the prevalence of totalitarian elements in non-totalitarian regimes,” “the danger of ideology, any ideology,” “the need for pluralism,” and “the banality of evil” are deeply relevant in the world today.”

While the film features interviews with renowned scholars, the overwhelming majority of the film is dedicated to Arendt’s words. Long segments show Arendt speaking in television and radio interviews. When Arendt’s recorded voice is unavailable, the Canadian actress Allison Darcy gives voice to Arendt’s writing; in more than 30 extended quotations, Darcy reads Arendt’s sentences, quoting Arendt in extended arguments about refugees, totalitarianism, ideology, and evil.

It is a testament to the power of Arendt’s ideas that a documentary based on her words can both achieve a major theatrical release and receive critical acclaim. New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who calls the movie “a vigorous and thoughtful new documentary,” highlights two of the film’s main theses. First, he notes that Ushpiz rightly situates totalitarianism amidst the rise of imperialism, the challenges to nation states, and emergence of refugees in Europe after WWI. Second, he writes that Ushpiz highlights Arendt’s argument that central to the totalitarian form of government is a preference for a “lying world of consistency [that] is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

The fictional nature of totalitarianism is a response to the homelessness, rootlessness, and loneliness of modern society. Friedrich Nietzsche famously remarked that man can bear any pain and suffering so long as he believes that suffering is for a purpose. Arendt saw the modern world as deprived of the traditional and religious verities that give individuals purpose. Without a sense of meaning, modern mass individuals are particularly susceptible to lying worlds of consistency, the offering of fantasies that give purpose to their complicated, messy, and senseless realities. For Arendt, totalitarianism provides a fictional identity so that individuals can escape the tragedy of their lonely lives.

The masses follow ideologues, Arendt writes, “not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.” The genius of Nazi propaganda about the Jews, she argues, was that it gave Germans a self-definition and Identity. Nazi ideology

“gave the masses of atomized, undefinable, unstable and futile individuals a means of self-definition and identification which not only restored some of the self-respect they had formerly derived from their function in society, but also created a kind of spurious stability which made them better candidates for an organization.”

The powerful need to believe in the ideology of a movement to secure self-respect goes a long way to explaining Arendt’s understanding of Adolf Eichmann (it also can help explain in part the passionate movements driving the support for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders). Eichmann came from a middle class family that fell on hard times after WWI. He was a lost soul. Seeking firm ground, Eichmann joined various secret societies and movements throughout the early 1930s. The fact that he eventually found his sense of purpose and pride in the Nazi party was less a matter of ideological conviction than a product of circumstance. Surely, he would not have succeeded as a Nazi without a base level of anti-Semitism; but it was not anti-Semitism that made Eichmann a Nazi. It was the combination of a deeply felt human need for meaning, provided in this case by an ideological movement, along with a thoughtlessness that allowed Eichmann to fully internalize the lying world the Nazis created.

Ushpiz highlights Arendt’s complicated understanding of totalitarianism as a lying world. In one extended quotation in the film, we hear these words attributed to Arendt:

“Before they seize power and establish their world according to their doctrine, totalitarian movements conjure up a false ideological and consistent world. Which is more in tune with the needs of the human mind than reality itself…What the masses refused to recognize is the random nature of reality. They’re predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere laws and eliminate coincidences and spontaneity by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence, which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda and ideology thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency, logic is its core.”

Ushpiz displays her attentiveness to the importance Arendt places on a commitment to factual truth as a barrier to the rise of totalitarianism. It is precisely because totalitarianism seduces with lies that we must uphold and defend facts. If totalitarianism is rooted in a thoughtless acceptance of a fictional world, the best inoculation against it is a courageous insistence on acknowledging the messy and often painful reality that is denied by ideological simplifications.

And yet in this quotation about the dangers of lying consistencies, there is a germ of a problem that plagues Ushpiz’s Vita Activa. For in the very quote in which she gives voice to Arendt’s fear of a de-factualized and totalitarian world, Ushpiz chooses to change the facts, the words that Hannah Arendt wrote and published in black and white.

The quotation read in the movie is in fact an altered version of what Arendt wrote. Here is the quotation as Arendt fashioned it.

“What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence, which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency…Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrine, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

Why does Ushpiz reorder Arendt’s sentences without alerting us to the change? Why does she change “fortuitousness” to “random nature”? And why does she change Arendt’s phrase “totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency” — one of the most iconic and felicitous of Arendt’s many quotable aphorisms — to read “totalitarian movements conjure up a false ideological and consistent world”?

Ushpiz had an editor go over Arendt’s text to make it read better, to simplify it, to make it more accessible to a film audience. Doing so would be understandable in a fictional film, but it is dishonest in a documentary. Still, we might wish to excuse these changes as minor. Do they change the meaning of what Arendt says? Not materially. And, yet, we should worry about these changes for two reasons.

First, the ease and deceptiveness with which Ushpiz has chosen to alter the factual reality of Arendt’s words is a direct refutation of Arendt’s insistence on the need to deal with a complicated and messy reality, whatever it may be. Thinking, for Arendt, is in part the practice of resisting simplification. Ushpiz’s understandable desire to clean up Arendt’s words — the factual reality of what she wrote — violates the very sprit of Hannah Arendt’s work that the film’s subtitle — “The Spirit of Hannah Arendt” — promises to uphold.

Second, it turns out that her decision to change the factual record of Arendt’s words and sentences is extensive, shockingly so. After an analysis of the quotations used in the movie, I can say that Ushpiz changes Arendt’s words in every single one of the more than 30 extended quotations. While many of these changes are cosmetic and minor, some are not.

For instance, the character of Hannah Arendt in Vita Activa says at the beginning of one extended quotation: “Denationalization and xenophobia became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics.” Arendt instead wrote: “Denationalization became a powerful weapon of totalitarian politics.” Here Ushpiz simply adds the word “xenophobia.” Why? Ostensibly to buttress her argument that nationalism and nativism — present worries in world politics — are connected to totalitarianism. By adding xenophobia, Ushpiz gives the Arendtian quotation added relevance.

But Arendt does not write about xenophobia. In fact, Arendt rejects the usual confusion of nationalism with totalitarianism. She argues that totalitarianism is associated with the breakdown of the nation-state and thus with internationalism and imperialism, both of which are opposed to nationalism. Since nationalism is limited to the borders of the nation state, it does not seek total domination. Nationalist movements may require that Jews, the bourgeoisie, or immigrants be expelled or deported from a state; this is of course bad. But nationalist movements have limits; they do not demand genocidal extinction. Only an imperialist or global and thus supra-national movement can be totalitarian. Ushpiz’s addition of the word “xenophobia” seeks to make Arendt relevant to current debates. In doing so, it simplifies Arendt’s, already often misunderstood, argument about the unique dangers of totalitarianism beyond nationalism.

The more serious of Vita Activa’s rewritings of Arendt’s words occur in the numerous quotations concerning Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial and the banality of evil. Ushpiz introduces the theme through a series of letters between Arendt and her teacher and friend Karl Jaspers. In one letter, the film has Arendt say:

March 1961. My beloved, adored teacher. The Eichmann trial, against which you’ve voiced your reservations at the outset, has now happily or unhappily thrown our plans out the window. But my dear and honored friend, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t go and see with my own eyes this real life disaster unfolding with all of its uncanny vacuousness. Don’t forget how early I left Germany, and how little of this I really experienced directly. Many years ago, I described the totalitarian system. It was always the system rather than the individuals that I was referring to. And if you look at the system as a whole, every individual person, indeed because a cog, small or big in the machine of terror. Now I wanted to know who Eichmann is, insofar as he was a free agent, who had the freedom of choice, and for this reason the whole small cog theory is irrelevant. This probably was my most powerful motive to go to Jerusalem.

In this version of Arendt’s letter, the reason Arendt travels to Israel to see the Eichmann trial is her desire to “know Eichmann” and to understand him as a cog in the system of the Holocaust. But this understanding is only possible because of violent editing to Arendt’s letter; actually, the “letter” is in truth two letters pasted together, one to Jaspers and the other to the journalist Samuel Grafton. While addressed to Jaspers in the movie, the bulk of the quotation is actually from the letter to Grafton and reads, in Arendt’s original:

“When, many years ago, I described the totalitarian system and analyzed the totalitarian mentality, it was always a “type,” rather than individuals, I had to deal with, and if you look at the system as a whole, every individual person becomes indeed “a cog small or big,” in the machinery of terror…. In other words, I wanted to know: Who was Eichmann? What were his deeds, not insofar as his crimes were part and parcel of the Nazi system, but insofar as he was a free agent? … And it is for this reason that the whole small cog theory (the theory of the defense) is quite irrelevant in this context…. I have been thinking for many years, or to be specific thirty years, about the nature of evil. And the wish to expose myself — not to the deeds, which, after all, were well known, but to the evildoer himself — probably was the most powerful motive in my decision to go to Jerusalem.”

Amongst many changes in this quotation, Ushpiz changes “type” to “system.” But most importantly, Ushpiz simply leaves out the lines just before Arendt’s explanation of her motive for traveling to Jerusalem. Her motives were not to explore Eichmann as a free agent, but to expose herself to evil — “not to the deeds, which, after all, were well known, but to the evildoer himself.”

One recurrent criticism of Arendt is that she saw Eichmann as merely a cog and underestimated his evil and his anti-Semitism. I have argued extensively that this is not correct. Regardless, we need to deal in facts; when Arendt’s words are altered to suggest that her motivation for attending the trial is connected with the cog-theory, this lends credence, falsely, to the widespread belief that Arendt’s account rests on her understanding of him as a mere cog in a bureaucratic machine. Yes, Eichmann may have been a cog. But over and again Arendt denies this is relevant. Ushpiz includes those words in her edited version — “the whole small cog theory is irrelevant” — but her editing contradicts that very point by suggesting that Arendt went to Israel in order to understand whether Eichmann was a cog.

Ushpiz’s most consequent alteration of Arendt’s words comes in the most controversial line of the movie. After a clip from the actual trial in which Eichmann is heard to state that he was not an anti-Semite, the film then cuts to the voice of Darcy playing Hannah Arendt and saying of Eichmann: “Of course he wasn’t an anti-Semite. He never hated his victims.” Hannah Arendt is thus made to say that Adolf Eichmann was not an anti-Semite. If this were true it would give credibility to Arendt’s critics who argue that she was duped by Eichmann and believed his claim.

But once again, Ushpiz has edited the text to change factual reality. Arendt never writes that Eichmann is not an anti-Semite. The text Ushpiz refers to is from Eichmann in Jerusalem. There, in the context of a discussion of whether Eichmann was or was not mentally insane, Arendt quotes psychiatrists who said Eichmann was astonishingly normal. Then she continues:

“Worse, his was obviously also no case of insane hatred of Jews, of fanatical anti-Semitism or indoctrination of any kind. He ‘personally’ never had anything whatever against Jews; on the contrary, he had plenty of ‘private reasons’ for not being a Jew hater…. He went to considerable lengths to prove his point: he had never harbored any ill feelings against his victims…

Ushpiz maintains her rewrites capture Arendt’s intention. But to say that Eichmann’s hatred of the Jews was not insane and to insist that his anti-Semitism was not fanatical is hardly the same as saying that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite. Arendt never wrote that Eichmann was not an anti-Semite. On the contrary, elsewhere in the book Arendt says explicitly that Eichmann’s protestations that he wasn’t an anti-Semite are difficult to believe.

Arendt’s argument about Eichmann is not that he wasn’t an anti-Semite. Rather, she argues that his anti-Semitism does not explain his participation in genocide. Plenty of anti-Semites would rebel when asked to help murder millions of Jews. The question Arendt asks herself is why is it that Eichmann participated so willingly in genocide? For Arendt, to say it is because he was an anti-Semite is to avoid the difficult questions around the nature of evil within totalitarian societies.

We live in an age where the technology of propaganda makes possible what Arendt called the “mass manipulation of fact and opinion as it has become evident in the rewriting of history, in image-making, and in actual government policy.” Whether disseminated by governments, corporations, poets, or filmmakers, images “can become a reality for everybody and first of all for the image-makers themselves.” That is why Arendt believed that facts are precarious and that is why she argued that factual reality must be treated with care.

Amidst the controversy surrounding her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt saw that most of the vitriol had little to do with her book and more to do with an fictitious image disseminated about her book. Her critics accused her of blaming the Jews for the Holocaust. She did not. They accused her of defending or excusing Eichmann. She insisted he was guilty, said he must be expelled from humanity for his crimes, and called for him to be killed. They said she denied he was evil. She on the contrary sought to understand the nature of his evil. And they said she was duped by him and did not understand he was anti-Semitic. She assumed he was anti-Semitic, but did not think anti-Semitism an adequate explanation for his genocidal crimes. Her critics, Arendt argued, either did not read her book or read the book influenced by an image of the book publicized by an organized movement dedicated to discrediting the book and Arendt herself.

Hannah Arendt

Arendt’s intense popularity today means that everyone has an interest in claiming an image of Arendt for their cause. Arendt is loved by liberals and equally claimed by conservatives. She is embraced as a democrat but also inspires anarchists. Theorists of identity turn to Arendt’s writings on the dehumanizing dangers of assimilation. Revolutionaries invoke her claim that revolutions are the one path to the foundation of freedom in the modern world. And after decades of being excommunicated from Jewish debates, Arendt is now lauded by Jewish thinkers trying to imagine another path towards peace in the Middle East. That so many opposed interlocutors embrace Arendt is not a mark of her inconsistency, but rather her independence. She is one of the rare free thinkers in the tradition of political thought. She does not think from out of a system, but begins with events like totalitarianism or the rise of the social sciences or the success of the American Revolution, and asks how we are to think about the implications and meanings of these events. Her insights follow from foundational ideas, but they are anything but doctrinaire.

With popularity, however, comes the danger of popularization. Writing about the danger of adapting classic texts for mass culture, Arendt argues it is not a problem to print cheap editions of Shakespeare or Goethe because the words remain the same; the popular editions do “not affect the nature of the objects in question.” But the situation is different when “these objects themselves are changed — rewritten, condensed, digested, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture spreads to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment.” The danger of rewriting cultural texts is that the very texts we hope to disseminate and support are thereby dissipated and destroyed in the process of being consumed. Cultural texts are part of our world; they lend permanence and immortality to our common intellectual tradition. These texts can survive obscurity and even mass dissemination. But when those texts are rewritten for popular consumption, they lose their worldly permanence.

Vita Activa is not kitsch. It is hardly consumerist. On the contrary, it is a challenging and thoughtful movie. For most viewers, unaware of the changes and manipulations it brings to Arendt’s words, the movie will likely whet interest in Hannah Arendt and, one hopes, spur them to open some of her books. There is no doubt that the movie does capture much of Hannah Arendt’s passionate love for thinking deeply and provocatively about hard questions. There is much in the movie worth seeing and being moved by.

And yet, the easy and at times thoughtless inattention to the factual reality of Arendt’s words risks stripping them of their materiality, their permanence, and their worldliness. Whether it is in the name of public accessibility, or to fit Arendt’s words to one particular understanding, Arendt’s words are simplified and replaced; and new sentences are simply invented. What emerges is not Arendt’s words, but an image of Arendt; it is a serious and well-argued image, but an image nonetheless.

It is, of course, inevitable that any essay, fictional film, or documentary offer an image. And there is no one true interpretation of Hannah Arendt. But a documentary — as Vita Activa calls itself — promises that its interpretation is at least based on facts. When a thinker’s words are silently reordered, cut, summarized, or simply made up, it is easy, too easy, to think that the words themselves are optional, that what matters is not the words and sentences Arendt wrote but the personal interpretation of the critic. The result is not that Arendt will necessarily be misunderstood, although she may, but that we come to accept the dangerous fact that misunderstandings are excused, that there is no true understanding and no truly Arendtian version of her texts.

The danger in the manipulation of facts is that it blurs the clear boundary separating fact from lie. As Arendt writes, “the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.” The danger, in other words, is that all truth claims become contested and the result is cynicism, a refusal to believe that there is in truth a stable factual world. And it is cynicism that, by undermining all claims to stable and factual truths, makes possible the coherent fantasies that undergird totalitarian government.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

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