Hannah Arendt and Philip Roth: Parallel Lives

In the second half of the twentieth century, a writer of uncommon gifts travels to Israel. There, the writer, who is Jewish and fiercely intellectual, attends the trial of a Nazi war criminal. When the trial’s over, the writer writes a book about it.

No, it’s not Hannah Arendt. It’s Philip Roth.

Arendt and Roth led oddly parallel lives.

Both were denounced by the Jewish establishment—at roughly the same time, in remarkably similar terms—for pieces they had written for The New Yorker. Long before Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth antagonized the Jewish community with his short story, “Defender of the Faith,” which appeared in the magazine in 1959. Describing the controversy, Judith Thurman writes:

It sparked a violent reaction in certain quarters of the Jewish establishment. Roth was vilified as a self-hating Jew and a traitor to his people who had given ammunition to their enemies by seeming to reinforce degrading stereotypes….Yet rabbis denounced Roth from their pulpits, and a leading educator at Yeshiva University wrote to the Anti-Defamation League to ask, “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”

Sound familiar?

(Speaking of Yeshiva: The university was the site of an infamous confrontation between Roth and his enemies in 1962, one year before the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Sharing the stage with Ralph Ellison and another writer, Roth was forced to defend himself and his work. First question: “Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?” It went downhill from there. Not unlike the 1964 public forum on Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt had the wisdom not to attend.)

Both Arendt and Roth were prominent targets of Irving Howe, Gershom Scholem (“This is the book for which all antisemites have been praying”), and Norman Podhoretz. Again, for remarkably similar reasons.

Harold Weisberg was one of the first to note the parallels, in a short piece on Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Spring 1964 issue of Partisan Review:

Jewish attitudes toward Miss Arendt and her book have been varied. No doubt, some have slandered her, but even at the hands of the most zealous guardians of the American Jewish establishment she has fared no worse than some critics of the American Jewish community—Philip Roth, for example.

While writing my piece and the Eichmann controversy, I thought a lot about these parallels. In my original draft, I included some material on the Arendt/Roth connection, and as I was revising the piece, I thought about ending it with a lengthier discussion of the connection. But as my editor John Palattella wisely pointed out, the piece already had a large cast of characters; introducing Roth at the end would only add to the chaos of an already crowded stage. So I left out the entire discussion.

But after the piece came out, I was contacted by Ira Nadel, a literary scholar at the University of British Columbia, whom I met for coffee last week. Ira is writing a biography of Roth and was kind enough to send me a rich and informative paper he’s written on the Arendt/Roth connection. Here are just some of the biographical points of convergence that Ira identifies in his paper.

1. Roth enrolled in the University of Chicago PhD program in English in Fall 1956 (he had earlier received a master’s degree from there). Arendt lectured at the University of Chicago in the spring of 1957. Though Roth dropped out after a term, he stayed on there to teach and write.

2. In 1958/1959, Roth wrote a three-act play, “Coffin in Egypt,” about the Jewish leader of the Vilna Ghetto, who collaborates with the Nazis. The character is straight out of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

3. In August 1963, the Princeton sociologist Melvin Tumin wrote Roth about Arendt’s Eichmann text, “Don’t spoil your summer by looking at it again. I know you liked it the first time,” suggesting that Roth had read and appreciated the work, at least when it appeared in The New Yorker.

4. Roth and Arendt began a correspondence in 1973. In one of his letters, Roth tells Arendt that he’s been reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which Arendt edited (and wrote a famous introduction to). He also gives her a copy of his essay, “Looking for Kafka.” (Kafka was one of their shared interests.) He ends the letter: “It would be nice to get together with you again,” suggesting they already had met in person.

5. In the 1970s, Roth taught a seminar on “The Literature of the Holocaust.” Arendt was on the syllabus.

6. In 1983, People Magazine ran a profile of Roth. The profile included this description of Roth’s life with Claire Bloom in London:

There he stays at her Victorian row house in Chelsea, surrounded by Staffordshire china and proper English prints. He takes long walks by the Thames, gripes about the faulty central heating and stretches out on Claire’s canopy bed to devour the stack of varied books on the night table, a small but imposing hillock whose crest consists of a biography of Robert Lowell, Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, and The Jew as Pariah by Hannah Arendt.

7. Not about Roth and Arendt but interesting nonetheless: William Styron claimed that Sophie’s Choice was inspired by an incident (a woman forced to choose which of her two children will live, will shall die) that Arendt reported in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In actual fact, Nadel observes, Arendt had reported the story in Origins of Totalitarianism. Styron also claimed Eichmann in Jerusalem was “a kind of handbook” for him. Arendt possessed her own copy of Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Beyond these biographical tidbits, I think the connection between Arendt and Roth is threefold.

First, there is the theme of doubles and impostors. In Operation Shylock, narrator Philip Roth travels to Israel, where he observes the trial of John Demjanjuk and has to endure the ordeal of an impostor acting in his name. Right there, as Bonnie Honig pointed out to me in an email, we have an interesting point of contact. As I explained in my piece on Arendt/Eichmann, one of the charges many of Arendt’s critics have made against her—Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem is the most recent version—is that she got taken in by Eichmann the impostor. Eichmann, they say, put on a show at his trial, pretending to be the schlemiel he was not. The real Eichmann was a vicious and cunning anti-Semite, not the hapless clown Arendt described. (I seem to recall that Arendt was also interested in how identical twins unsettled her theory of natality, the unprecedented novelty of each and every newborn, but now I can’t find the passage anywhere. Well, it’s late.)

Second, one of the motifs of Operation Shylock is narrator Roth’s ongoing attempt to establish the credibility of his own existence against that of the impostor Roth. “Up against reality,” says narrator Roth, “I had at my disposal the strongest weapon in anyone’s arsenal: my own reality.” That is also one of the themes of Eichmann in Jerusalem: the difficulty—and importance—of establishing the credibility of one’s own existence. Eichmann, says Arendt, had almost no sense of reality, no sense of right and wrong, apart from the opinion of others. His others, that is: the higher-ups in the Nazi hierarchy. And while Arendt is scorching on the subject of Eichmann’s conformity to his superiors’ views, she carries on, in good Rothian fashion, her own counterpoint to the problem of conformity. It is critical, she says, that as we form our own opinions about the world, we attend to the views of others about that world. Attending to those views, without getting lost in them, is the foundation of human judgment. The counterpoint of these two lines—Eichmann’s dissolution in the views of others, the necessity of attending to the views of others without getting lost in them—is the music of Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Finally, there is the question of comedy. In her 1944 essay on Kafka, Arendt observed that laughter “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” In the same way that it was important for Mel Brooks to be able to laugh at Hitler, so was it important for Arendt to be able to laugh at Eichmann. It was her way of divesting his evil—any evil—of grandeur, of any claim to gravitas or depth.

One of the funnier moments in Eichmann in Jerusalem comes near the end:

Adolf Eichmann went to the gallows with great dignity. He had asked for a bottle of red wine and had drunk half of it. He refused the help of the Protestant minister, the Reverend William Hull, who offered to read the Bible with him: he had only two more hours to live, and therefore no “time to waste.”

Only Arendt would have paused long enough to note the hilarity of the statement. “No ‘time to waste'”: Where the hell did he have to go? But there’s another irony. In making that statement, Eichmann thought he was proving his superior cast of mind, his impatience with anything so childish as the Bible. But instead of showing off his mannish impiety, he came off looking like the preposterous efficiency obsessive he was, fretting in even these last minutes of his life over a possible misspent second.

Eichmann’s final words similarly betrayed his attempts to prove himself the hard thinker, the refuser of silly comforts:

He began by stating emphatically that he was a Gottgläuber, to express in common Nazi fashion that he was no Christian and did not believe in life after death. He then proceeded: “After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again. Such is the fate of all men. Long live Germany, long live Argentina, long live Austria. I shall not forget them.”

At the end of my essay on Arendt, I talk about how uneasy she was made by the Zionist bid for sovereignty in Palestine. Reflecting a deep ambivalence in the Jewish tradition, Eichmann in Jerusalem—as well as Arendt’s essays on Zionism—can be read as a warning of what will come to the Jews from that having kind of power, that kind of possession over the land and its people.

But in a 1964 interview with Joachim Fest, Arendt holds out for a different kind of sovereignty, a different path to power. In response to the question of whether, in writing Eichmann in Jerusalem, in pursuing the truth as she saw it, she hurt people’s feelings (remember, she was withering on the topic of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis), Arendt says:

There’s no question about it: I have wounded some people. And you know, it’s somehow more unpleasant for me when I hurt people than when I get in the way of organizations and their interests, right? I take this seriously…You see, it’s my view that the legitimate feeling here is sorrow…There’s nothing I can do about it. In fact, in my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things, since that’s a way of playing them down…I also think that you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.

It’s the classic statement of a powerless people: to offer laughter as a kind of sovereignty, a triumph over one’s own powerlessness. It is the comedy of the oppressed against the oppressor—and of the oppressed against herself. That, too, is part of the Jewish tradition. (Oppressed people tend to be witty, Saul Bellow is supposed to have said—again, a quote I can’t confirm.) Against the sovereignty of the state, Arendt offers the sovereignty of comedy.

That puts Arendt in some surprising company: of not only the chorus of Jewish comedic voices coming into their own in postwar America—Sid Ceasar, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce—but also a young writer of scathing satire from Newark.


  1. kt June 14, 2015 at 3:32 pm | #

    A thought-provoking take on the “popular” character that some orgies of political violence can acquire:


    A powerful challenge to the Arendtian “banality” thesis.

  2. thomas masarik June 26, 2015 at 10:19 am | #

    another excellent piece on arendt…,

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