Thursday, May 7, 2015

Thinking about Thinking (and getting muddled)

Last night I had to stop the DVD during the final speech in Hannah Arendt (2012 Germany, dir. Margarethe von Trotta), because I was so moved and weepy, I needed to catch my breath. 

The movie is about philosopher Arendt's controversial report on the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann. (You know, he was in charge of running the mass deportations of Jews to concentration camps.)

Published as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt's original articles are viewable in the New Yorker magazine archive-- not the easiest way of reading them, but it's interesting to see them in their original setting, accompanied by ads for luxury items.

Eichmann's defense, famously, was that he was just following orders, legal orders he had taken an oath to uphold.
In the movie Arendt says of him, 
"In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments."

Below: Arendt watching the live broadcast of Eichmann in the press room. Director von Tratta said she set it there so she could show the the real footage of Eichmann (if nothing else, the movie is worth watching to see it). 
Later learned that Arendt really did spend much of her time in the press room she could smoke!

In the movie's final speech that moved me so much, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) gives an impassioned, romantic defense of the Art of Thinking:
"We usually call thinking being engaged in that intent dialogue between me and myself. .... 
The manifestation of … thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strengths to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down."
I felt so grateful that someone was championing thinking (in a movie!). And since I heard of it as a teenager, Arendt's idea of the "banality of evil" has been really important to me:
 the idea that evil isn't necessarily an act of will on the part of sexy Satanic sorcerers (as Hollywood portrays it) but is the thoughtless act of dull bureaucratic functionaries like Eichmann, who have emptied their minds to be filled up by others. 

If Evil is the work of people like Voldemort, well, I'm off the hook. After all, I'm not that powerful. 

But if evil is more a matter of omission---of failing to take action or failing to think, of handing over that ability (to think, to act) to other people or institutions (because it's easier, or because we don't trust ourselves)...

That's me.

Similarly, if doing good is not the realm of superheroes alone, but comes about through the ordinary acts of ordinary people, then I am encouraged that I, too, can be/do good.

But when I went to bed after seeing the movie, I felt suspicious of my emotional reaction. It reminded me of how I felt about The Lives of Others, another romantic German film. 
They're both emotionally rousing, like listening to Beethoven.

But do I really believe that Thinking (and Art) manifests in the "ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly"?

No, I don't.
NOT thinking may open you to being manipulated into doing stupid, bad things, but Thinking isn't necessarily a remedy.

Obviously being a great thinker didn't stop Arendt's philosophy professor and the lover of her youth, Martin Heidegger, from joining the Nazi Party. (I don't know enough about Arendt to go any further with this debate though.)

You don't have to be a great thinker to do Good. The people I worked with who lived with dementia were no longer capable of intellectual thought, which requires time, but they could still feel compassion and do Good in the moment. If someone was upset, for instance, others would offer comfort.

Not being able to think well does not lead to evil or mean you can't do good. 
But letting other people think for us is a different matter.
-Isms of all kind work that way: adherents empty their brains and substitute other people's thinking for their own. 

Maybe the group-think is good: 
Let's all pull together to recycle garbage! Here, we, the government, will make it easy so you don't have to think about it.

Or maybe it isn't: 
Let's all buy water in plastic bottles! Here, we, the ad agencies and drink companies, will make it easy so you don't have to think about it.

Is buying plastic bottles of water evil?
No, "evil" is the wrong word.
What's the word for unthinking, short-sighted actions that cumulatively do great harm? 

Hm... "Stupid"? 

So, have I circled back to what I said I didn't agree with---that thinking "manifests in and ability to tell right from wrong"? 

Well, even if it can (no guarantees), it doesn't give you power to act on that ability. 
I'm always bemoaning along with St. Paul, Why don't I do the good I want to do? Like, I just bought a bottle of Vitamin water the other day, surely one of the stupidest products. But, hey, I was thirsty.

This is a central problem of being human. It's not the same as "evil," though. Stupidly buying plastic is far, far removed from loading human beings on trains and sending them to their death.

And I have now thought myself into a state of confusion. :)
I'll post this, and in a while, maybe I'll realize more clearly what I think. Or not.

At any rate, I loved Hannah Arendt--whether I agreed with all of it or not, it is wonderful to see a movie that makes me think.

Also, you can think of nice things to make with plastic bottles:

 Plastic Bottle Sculpture in Rio, from 70 Things to Do with Plastic Bottles.
"Loved it" film review in the Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life by J. Hoberman, the former Village Voice film critic: Hannah Arendt, Guilty Pleasure.

"Hated it!" review by Richard Brody in the New Yorker: "Hannah Arendt and the Glorification of Thinking"


Zhoen said...

Thinking can lead down any path, good or evil. Only when wed to compassion is it reliable. Independent variables, I think.

Circumstances don't necessarily mean anything, those with every opportunity to add to the evil, can rise above it.

See Albert Göring.öring

Fresca said...

ZHOEN: Well, how bout that? Hermann's nicer (much!) brother! I had no idea---thanks.

Not to be flippant, but here's a variable I notice about the brothers: their astrological signs.

Albert was a Pisces (like you and me)
Hermann was a Capricorn (like Nixon).

bink said...

Cool about Albert Goring being a subversive.

If only thinking did manifest in the ability to tell right from wrong and beautiful from ugly!

I've seen very stupid people who have a much more highly developed sense of right and wrong, than some fairly bright (though perhaps misinformed and uneducated?) people.

I've found those same stupid people have sometimes been more open to discovery (which might be thinking?) because they know their limitations and are willing to explore beyond.

Sometimes smart people can be so sure of their brilliance that close their minds (yes, I am thinking family here) and quickly become so rigid as to appear stupid.

We watched the Hannah movie last night, BTW. Very good, though I can't imagine what anyone who wasn't already familiar with H.A. would have an easy time following it.

Fresca said...

BINK: Yeah, I wondered about that, how much the movie would work for people who didn't already know HA---
I could see the movie trying to introduce the character & her history for people who didn't know, but not to the extent that "The Imitation Game" did, for instance: I thought that film was actually a little too dumbed-down for people who did already know the story.