I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Banality of Interviews: Hannah Arendt

by Joe DeMartino
Dec. 9, 2014

Hannah Arendt smokes throughout her hour-long interview on Zur Person, and this dates it more than almost any other aspect of the whole thing. Her interviewer smokes as well. Smoking indicates a certain discursive climate, a kind of expansive relaxation one would expect from a mid-20th century intellectual. It’s also weird to see a casual smoker on television when we’ve successfully banished them to the alleyways outside bars, but that’s another matter entirely.


She stares at her nails while answering one question and pauses for five seconds before answering another. She speaks in full paragraphs and doesn’t restrict her answers to anything quotable or viral. The camera focuses on her almost entirely -- the only cuts are to different angles. There’s no sense of forced combativeness or point-scoring -- just an attempt at an understanding.


Which is to say, watching it in 2014, it’s super weird.


It’s not impossible to find a good, lengthy, low-on-bullshit interview, but they tend to live on the Internet*. At best, you’ll find something like Inside the Actors Studio, filmed in front of a live audience and reliant on the force of host James Lipton’s personality. They’re good for a reasonably entertaining look into craft, but would probably fall apart if you subjected someone like Arendt to the reactions of a crowd.


*Like, say, this one.


At worst, you’ve got five-minute bully segments on cable news, refined abattoirs where the interviewee is prey, an ass for the host to kick repeatedly and savagely until commercial. An invitation to be interviewed on a program like that is nothing more than a chance to be fuel for the machine that powers the host’s aura -- a chance, in effect, to pump up his (it’s usually his) bonafides as a Tough Guy and a Truth-Teller among whichever demographic happens to require a ritual humiliation of the enemy to get through the day. You’ll be interrupted and edited. There will be sneering. You will be used and disposed of, your legacy a condensed version posted to YouTube and passed around the appropriate blogosphere in which you are Owned, Destroyed, or Humiliated.


Sometimes they’ll be nicer, though. Sometimes the video will only refer to you as having been Decimated.


So yes, seeing a quiet -- almost sleepy, really -- interview where the subject talks for minutes at a time is jarring. It’s not like Zur Person is the only place where this has ever happened (here’s Ayn Rand being interviewed by Mike Wallace in a more combative but similar style), but I feel like the tone here has something to do with when and where this took place. Louis C.K. pointed out once that when people say bring up that American slavery ended around 140 years ago, in context that’s not very long at all -- it’s basically just two old ladies living and dying back-to-back. Arendt is just one not-particularly-old lady in this interview, but it’s conducted in 1964 -- not even twenty years since the end of the Second World War and the fall of Nazi Germany. She had lived eventfully through the rise of Hitler, had been active in opposing the regime, was arrested and forced to flee after a fortuitous escape. A year prior, she had coined the term “banality of evil” while reporting on the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and suggested that even an individual powerless to stop a political crime has the ability -- and perhaps the obligation -- not to comply with it. For a country that had set the world on fire so recently, perhaps it might have been best to give Arendt the floor.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.