Tag: Hannah Arendt

Mary McCarthy’s Macbeth

Friday, 30 October, 2015 0 Comments

“The idea of Macbeth as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself. Macbeth has no conscience. His main concern throughout the play is that most selfish of all concerns: to get a good night’s sleep.” With those three sentences written in 1961, Mary McCarthy challenged the traditional reading of Macbeth, the man, the murderer, the monarch. He was your everyday bureaucrat, just doing his job, she declared in “General Macbeth” (PDF 108KB).

Two years after McCarthy’s essay was published, Hannah Arendt questioned the common belief that anti-Semitism was what motivated the key Nazi pen pushers. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” proposed that conformism was at the heart of top-level Hitlerian wickedness. Maybe evil is simply a function of thoughtlessness, Arendt suggested. Mary McCarthy didn’t use the “banal” word in her meditation on evil, but we know Arendt admired the essay and her interpretation of the efficient SS-Obersturmbannführer is in keeping with McCarthy’s interpretation of the man who would be King of Scotland. Mary McCarthy is brilliant here:

“Macbeth has no feeling for others, except envy, a common middle-class trait. He envies the murdered Duncan his rest, which is a strange way of looking at your victim. What he suffers on his own account after the crimes is simple panic. He is never contrite or remorseful; it is not the deed but a shadow of it, Banquo’s spook, that appears to him. The ‘scruples’ that agitate him before Duncan’s murder are mere echoes of conventional opinion, of what might be said about his deed: that Duncan was his king, his cousin, and a guest under his roof. ‘I have bought golden opinions,’ he says to himself (note the verb), ‘from all sorts of people’; now these people may ask for their opinions back — a refund — if they suspect him of the murder. It is like a business firm’s being reluctant to part with its ‘good will.’ The fact that Duncan was such a good king bothers him, and why? Because there will be universal grief at his death.”

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a perfect team in Justin Kurzel’s new filming of Shakespeare’s noir masterpiece. His big screen Macbeth is a physical, atmospheric work made all the more chilling by a Scotland of snow, sleet, biting wind, bitter frost and badness and madness.


Transatlantic thoughts on Thanksgiving

Thursday, 28 November, 2013 0 Comments

Much to the chagrin of the traitor Snowden and the tyrant Putin, another Thanksgiving has come around and, despite their worst efforts, the United States persists. And it will, to the despair of those who have made a trade out of wishing for its decline and fall. Typical of this lot is Al Jazeera America, which shed crocodile tears recently with “The consequences of US decline.” The fons et origo of this recurrent irrationality is, of course, the Guardian, and it piled in earlier in the year with “Decline and fall: how American society unravelled.” To understand what’s behind this wishful thinking, it’s worth rereading an essay that Hannah Arendt wrote in 1954 for Commentary Magazine.

Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” was originally part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the Transatlantic relationship. Arendt asked: “What image does Europe have of America?” She answered that the image is based on two myths. Firstly, America is less the New World than the personification of the Old World, the place where European dreams of equality and liberty are realized; secondly, America is the land of plenty. It is this second myth that powers the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor.

Decline “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call ‘reactionary,’ whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” And so it is 58 years after Hannah Arendt’s “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” was published. Except that there’s a new myth doing the rounds: American decline. For all engaged in peddling declinism, Josef Joffe has some sobering news. The publisher-editor of the German weekly, Die Zeit, exposes The Canard of Decline in the November/December issue of The American Interest.

The source of modern declinism, says Joffe, can be found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the horrific slaughter that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” The same laboratories that produced the blessings of pharmacology invented poison gas. The scientists who created good also enabled evil. The result was an anti-scientific theory about the “death of progress” took hold in Europe. America, however, the epitome of progress, is the embodiment of the rebuke to that theory. Josef Joffe writes:

“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of ‘false consciousness’ built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.”

Decline, writes Joffe, ‘is as American as apple pie.” But for the day that’s in it, we’ll have a slice of pecan pie and wish all our American readers a happy Thanksgiving.

Pecan pie