Interviewing Hannah Arendt must have been tough work. She questioned even the most basic premise of a question, as in her very first exchange with journalist Günter Gaus in a 1964 interview newly published in Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview. Gaus nonchalantly calls her a philosopher, and Arendt immediately (but politely) takes him apart:
I am afraid I have to protest. I do not belong to the circle of philosophers. My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory. I neither feel like a philosopher, nor do I believe that I have been accepted in the circle of philosophers, as you so kindly suppose.
Arendt is now perhaps best remembered for her book about World War II war crimes, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It's controversial in part because Arendt tries to strip Eichmann and other Nazis of their bogeyman status, revealing them as nothing so much as bland bureaucrats. She didn't absolve them of their evil deeds, but she did strenuously make the case that they were ordinary people.
For those who believed that she somehow trivialized the Holocaust, Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany in the early 1930s, recalls later in her interview with Gaus what it was like to learn for the first time about what was happening at Auschwitz:
My husband is a former military historian, he understands something about these matters. He said don't be gullible, don't take these stories at face value. They can't go that far! And then a half year later, we believed it after all, because we had the proof. That was the real shock.
Naturally, the claims that she didn't understand the pain visited on the Jewish people by the Nazis hurt her on a personal level. Interview is a collection of four dialogues with Arendt, and in most of them she defends the thesis of Banality against critics. You can hear a kind of pleading hiding behind her normally assured voice here:
Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he was stupid. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality. There's nothing deep about it—nothing demonic! There's simply the reluctance ever to imagine what the other person is experiencing, right?
But Arendt's intellect can't be captured by any one topic for very long. In between her thorny monologues, she stops to appreciate the simple beauty of the English idiom "stop and think" ("Nobody can think unless they stop," she marvels) or to resurrect the 18th-century idea of "public happiness," which suggests that taking part in public life "opens up" a "dimension of human experience that otherwise remained closed." There's a playful, even joyous side to Arendt in these interviews that often failed to rise to the surface of her writing. Not all of Melville House's Last Interview series of books are exceptional—the David Foster Wallace entry was especially disappointing—but this volume serves as a meaningful portrait of Arendt and a useful introduction to her work for beginners.