Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

Thoughts on Violence

14 Jan

In my post yesterday on Irving Howe, I linked to an essay I wrote about ten years ago on language and violence. Several readers expressed an interest in the piece, so I’ve decided to repost some excerpts from it here; the full version is here. Though it came out in 2006, it speaks, from a distance, to some of the issues we’re currently wrestling with in France and elsewhere.

* * * * *

In 1965, George Steiner asked, “Is there any science-fiction pornography?”

Mostly rhetorical, the question was a typically Steinerian prompt to a typically Steinerian rumination on the relationship between sex and language. With its ability to alter “the co-ordinates of space and time” to “set effect before cause,” science fiction would seem the natural workshop of pornographic invention.

But it wasn’t. “Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited,” Steiner wrote. “There just aren’t that many orifices.”

These limits necessarily meant there was precious little, and certainly nothing new, to say about erotic arousal. “The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series”—and thus there could be no science-fiction pornography, at least not in the sense of “something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience.”

Yet, here we are, more than thirty years later, swimming in porn, with the pool growing larger—the images more startling, the words more fanciful—by the day. Cybersex has probably not altered the coordinates of time and space, but the union of telephone and computer has certainly introduced new dimensions to an old experience. Far from exhausting the capacities of language, porn now seems to occupy entire continents of discussion; the blogger’s “money quote” is only the most recent outpost.

Steiner may be right that all this talk is doomed to be repetitive, but repetition does have its pleasures, not all of them the same. Ironically, Steiner may have anticipated this verbal plenitude in his own essay: whatever his misgivings about the possibilities of a public language about sex, the title of his piece, “Night Words,” not to mention its fevered pitch and prose, did hint at a coming Esperanto of eros.

It should be no surprise that violence, sex’s Siamese twin, should inspire a similar performative contradiction from our leading intellectuals. How many times have we been told by writers that violence is a nullity about which there is nothing interesting or new to be said, only to discover, from these very same writers, that there is much that is both interesting and new to be said about it?

Throughout her career, Hannah Arendt spoke at length, often imaginatively, about violence, without ever questioning her notion that “mute violence” was sheer redundancy. Elaine Scarry began The Body in Pain with the claim that pain’s “resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is”—and then spent more than three hundred pages demonstrating, sometimes inadvertently, that that was not the case.

Perhaps Robert Paul Wolff expressed this contradiction best when, in his 1969 essay on the topic, he opened with the following disclaimer:

Everything I shall say in this essay has been said before, and much of it seems to me to be obvious as well as unoriginal. I offer two excuses for laying used goods before you. In the first place, I think that what I have to say about violence is true. Now, there are many ways to speak falsehood and only one to speak truth. It follows, as Kierkegaard pointed out, that the truth is likely to become boring. On a subject as ancient and much discussed as ours today, we may probably assume that a novel—and, hence, interesting—view of violence is likely to be false.

With due respect to Arendt, it is difficult to accept her proposition that violence is mute when philosophers expend so many words trying to figure out what it is. When, after all, is the infliction of pain an act of violence as opposed to an exercise of force, power, coercion, or punishment? Must violence be intentional? Must the pain it administers be physical? Does violence require a perpetrator—and a specific act—or can it be the damaging effect of a faceless system?

The debates over whether what happened at Abu Ghraib was “torture,” “abuse,” or “misconduct”—and who or what was ultimately responsible for it—suggest that these language games are not wholly academic. And though jurists and civil libertarians may object to the conflation of language and violence entailed by the notion of hate speech, that conflation probably expresses a commingling of categories we simply cannot escape.

How can we square this notion of violence as a linguistic nullity with the riot of talk that surrounds it? The example of pornography might prove instructive. The sexually forbidden naturally provokes a sense of titillation and curiosity, which, when satisfied, is succeeded by feelings of mute depression—whether because it is only the taboo that makes the sexual act in question exciting or because a proper acquaintance with the act reveals that it is not all that one imagined it would be.

Perhaps violence operates in a similar fashion: when we hurt or destroy a feared or hated object, we experience a sense of loss because the object that aroused such passion within us is now no more or is sufficiently subdued to claim our attention no longer. As Forster wrote in A Passage to India, “The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same; the latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.”

And so we drift—from dirty talk to silence, from violence to the void.

But there may be a less exotic explanation for our contradictory attitude toward violence, particularly political violence, which is what most concerns writers on the subject.

On the one hand, we like to think of violence as the antithesis of civilization, law, morality, and rational discourse. On the other hand, political violence requires, as Arendt herself acknowledged, organization and planning among men and women, who must be in agreement about what they are attacking and how they will attack it. It requires instruments of hurt and pain, which are the products of written if not spoken design. It is regulated by law and structured—some would say constituted—by social mores. It must be justified by reference to some higher purpose: God, the Revolution, the State. No wonder we talk—and talk— about violence; the only wonder is that we think we don’t.

[What followed was a discussion of a book on violence by William Pfaff. I’ve omitted that discussion here.]

Why is it that when confronted with extremist violence and its defenders, whether on the right or the left, analysts resort to the categories of psychology as opposed to politics, economics, or ideology? Pfaff is certainly not alone in his approach: consider the recent round of psychoanalysis to which Al Qaeda has been subjected or Robert Lindner’s Cold War classic, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which featured an extended chapter on “Mac” the Communist.

Psychological factors influence anyone’s decision to take up arms or to speak on behalf of those who do. But those who emphasize these factors tend to ignore the central tenet of their most subtle and acute analyst: that the normal person is merely a hysteric in disguise, that the rational is often irrationality congealed. If we are to go down the road of psychoanalyzing violence, why not put Henry Kissinger or the RAND Corporation on the couch too?

There is more than a question of consistency at stake here, for the choice of psychology as the preferred mode of explanation often reflects little more than our own political prejudices. Violence we favor is deemed strategic and realistic, a response to genuine political exigencies. Violence we reject is dismissed as fanatic and lunatic, the outward manifestation of some inner drama. What gets overlooked in such designations is that violence is an inescapably human activity, reflecting a full range of concerns and considerations, requiring an empathic, though critical, attention to mind and world.

I was recently reminded of this bifurcated approach to violence by two articles in the same issue of The New Yorker. In one, a profile of Oriana Fallaci, Margaret Talbot tells how Fallaci’s father inspired and encouraged his teenage daughter to work against the Fascists in Italy. Roused by her father’s example, a pig-tailed Fallaci “carried explosives and delivered messages” and led escaping American and British POWs across dangerous minefields.

When Fallaci’s mother later discovered what her daughter had been doing, she scolded her husband, “You would have sacrificed newly born children! You and your ideas.” But then she softened: “Well, but I had a feeling you were doing something like that.” Talbot relates this story without comment, allowing it to serve as the capstone of a charming—and entirely political—tale of one family’s idealistic rebellion against evil.

At the back of the magazine, David Denby takes a different tack with a vaguely similar story. This time the setting is the Middle East, and the topic is a new documentary, “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber,” a dense political history of suicide bombing.

Denby is not interested, however, in the politics of the bombers: “The real center of interest, for me, at least, lies in the families of the young men who died.” But his interest is frustrated by the refusal of these families to express their grief in public, leading him to wonder whether they have any grief at all.

One Iranian mother says of her son, who died in battle (presumably on a suicide mission during the Iran-Iraq War), “He became a martyr for God.” Such statements lead Denby to conclude that the parents “speak as if the boys had attained a purely official identity, as if they were not their own dead children.” (How these comments are any different from a Midwestern father telling a reporter, twenty years after the fact, that his son died defending his country in Vietnam, Denby does not explain.) Denby is equally frustrated by the fact that the parents insist on seeing their sons’ destruction through a political or religious lens and that “any kind of psychological explanation is ignored.”

Now, Talbot is a reporter and Denby is a critic, and they may not share the same opinion about political violence or the proper response of parents to the death of their children. Fallaci, moreover, managed to survive her ordeal while the sons in the film are dead. Indeed, survival and death were their respective goals. But something tells me that these factors alone do not explain the magazine’s opposing accounts of political violence—one emphasizing its humanity, the other its freakishness, one its politics, the other its psychology (or the lack of it).

Every culture has its martyred heroes—from the first wave of soldiers at Omaha Beach, whose only goal was to wash ashore, dead but with their guns intact so that the next wave could use them, to Samson declaring that he would die with the Philistines—and its demonized enemies, its rational use of force and its psychopathic cult of violence. And in every culture it has been the job of intellectuals to keep people clear about the difference between the two. Mill did it for imperial Europe. Why should imperial America expect anything less (or more) from William Pfaff, let alone David Denby?

But perhaps we should expect our writers to do more than simply mirror the larger culture. After all, few intellectuals today divide the sexual world into regions of the normal and abnormal. Why can’t they throw away that map for violence too? Why not accept that people take up arms for a variety of reasons—some just, others unjust—and acknowledge that while the choice of violence, as well as the means, may be immoral or illegitimate, it hardly takes a psychopath to make it?

The Touchy Irving Howe

13 Jan

Last night, I was trying to find a comment I had remembered Irving Howe making about Hannah Arendt, and I found myself holed up, late into the night, with a volume of his criticism. I run into these sorts of detours a lot. I set out for a destination, and before you know it, it’s 2 am, and I’m miles away from where I need to be.

I’ve read Howe’s criticism many times before, but I never noticed just how touchy he is about what he perceives to be the haughtiness of authors and critics. Howe is sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the power dynamics of fiction and criticism: how writers look down on the people they’re writing about or the readers they’re writing for, how they create scenes and settings in which the sole object is to put on display the superior sensibility that conjured them.

The first time I noticed this tendency in Howe was in his essay on George Steiner’s In Bluebeard’s Castle, which he reviewed in Commentary in 1971:

A phalanx of crucial topics, a tone of high-church gravity, a light sprinkle of multilingual erudition, a genteel stab at prophecy—it’s easy to imagine the strong impression Mr. George Steiner’s lectures must have made when first delivered for the T.S. Eliot Memorial Foundation at the University of Kent. And now, when we read his first sentence announcing that his book is written “in memoration” of T.S. Eliot, we are prepared for some decidedly high-class prose.

High-class prose. Well, I thought to myself, it’s Steiner, who is a terrible snob, often embarrassingly so. Even when he’s talking about fucking, Steiner can’t help sounding pretentious (“The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”)

But then, as Howe goes on, the resentment gets hotter. He circles back to that tittering audience at Kent, those eminent and English souls, sylvan and stupid (“smiles of appreciative concord flit through the auditorium”). He can’t shake that image of the well-heeled Steiner: “Not for a moment does this cause him to strain his syntax, lose his cool, or breathe an ill-mannered rasp.” At times, he gets ugly: “His style, in all its mincing equanimity.” That word: mincing.

I moved onto Howe’s essay on Lukács and Solzhenitsyn, which appeared in Dissent in 1971. Howe wrote a manifestly sympathetic introduction to Lukács’s The Historical Novel back in 1963. Howe clearly respected Lukács then. And even in this later essay, even with his criticism of Lukács’s political compromises and apologias for Stalinism, he still respects Lukács.

But the respect and the criticism are eclipsed by something else. A simmering contempt for Lukács’s “silken” captivity that reaches a boil in Howe’s conclusion. There Howe dwells on what seems like an over-reading (or at least an undefended reading) of Lukács’s use of the word “plebeian.” Lukács’s Stalinism, Howe suggests, is a function of his snobbery; his real sin is a condescension that cannot be contained.

But Lukács, like Steiner, is a mandarin, I thought, so perhaps Howe’s temperature is understandably raised.

Then I got to Howe’s epic broadside against Philip Roth (upon which Roth took some fun revenge in The Ghost Writer The Anatomy Lesson.) Roth was/is no mandarin, but he gets under Howe’s skin. So much so that we find Howe, midway through the essay, speaking like an outraged attorney on behalf of his clients, the aggrieved middle classes of Roth’s early fiction. “Even a philistine character has certain rights,” Howe thunders. Accusing the author of “not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault,” Howe defends the Patimkins against Neil Klugman, Mrs. Portnoy against Alex, the Jews against Philip Roth.

What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground.

For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self.

Their [Roth’s characters] vulgarity is put on blazing display…the ridicule to which she is subjected…immobilizing the Patimkins…straight-arming all the other characters…

Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story [“Eli the Fanatic”] finally comes apart.

There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author.

You might say it’s a point in Howe’s favor—his almost intuitive grasp of the will to power of a writer, his willingness to stand up to the bully on behalf of the little guy—except that it recurs with such frequency that you begin to wonder whether the judgment is required more by the critic than his text. To turn Howe on and against himself, it’s as if he feels slighted by the writers he’s writing about, as if he needs to wrestle them into some properly belittled proportion.

You come away from Howe depressed. Not with enlightenment but with the sense that the world is ugly and small, that nothing can escape the irrepressible struggle for dominance, not even the words on a page.

In a throwaway line about Roth, Howe gives some sense that he knows this:

His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue says, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.)

It’s a moment of acute self-understanding. Yet it’s marred by one thing: the realization that Howe never took pleasure even in this, his momentary triumph over the object of his critique, even when that object was himself.

In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context

13 Dec

Lately, I’ve had the feeling that the push to contextualize and historicize in the humanities and some of the social sciences has become a stumbling block to thought itself, to new ideas and original thinking.

This is on my mind, I suppose, because next year, I’ll be giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History; I’m thinking of titling it “Against Context, Against History” or perhaps just “In Defense of Taking Things Out of Context.”

That needn’t be the case: ideally, historicism and contextualism should alienate us from a familiar past, should push us beyond conventional interpretations. They should force us to grasp the past in its pastness, and thereby render our present strange.

But things don’t always work out that way. Some of the historical impulse that seems so alive in academia today works against surprise, dulls our receptivity to the unexpected, makes both past and present unremarkable. I’ll admit this is an odd thought for me, since I’ve always considered myself a historicist. Yet…

Anyway, this March 10, 1948 entry from Alfred Kazin’s Journals crystallized some of my concerns about historicism and contextualism:

The primary type of originator, like Marx and Freud, who isolates a cause or phenomenon from the context of custom and analyzes it to the point where it gives us a new illumination of life. It does not matter how they may exaggerate this, how ungenerously they will denounce their opponents, or refuse to concede any qualifications of their thought from the outside. They have created a key image of ourselves which we can never lose. Their own enemies know it, too, for they continually pay tribute by draping their criticisms on the structure already provided here for them.

I never quite felt the urgency in Arendt’s famous discussion of the pearl diver in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. But I’m finding that the impulses at the heart of that essay are becoming increasingly felt in my work, as I try to think, for example, about economic theory as a mode of political thought, as I try to wrench that theory from its context and put it in dialogue with something outside the conversation of which it partakes.

So, some more Arendt (who was, incidentally, a close friend of Kazin) on Kafka and Benjamin, and a way of thinking about history that doesn’t make us slaves to context:

…he [Kafka] knew, on the other hand, that there is no more effective way to break the spell of tradition than to cut out the “rich and strange,” coral and pearls, from what had been handed down in one solid piece.

Thus the heir and preserver unexpectedly turns into a destroyer. “The true, greatly misunderstood passion of the collector is always anarchistic, destructive. For this is its dialectics: to combine with loyalty to an object, to individual items, to things sheltered in his care, a stubborn subversive protest against the typical, the classifiable.” [Benjamin] The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it.

Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the corals in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.

Saskia Sassen…Willem Sassen…Adolf Eichmann

6 Dec

Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.

I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.

At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.

What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”

As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.

Fainstein considers Sassen a good friend. She even had Willem Sassen to dinner (a “charming elderly gentleman,” as she recalls). Yet Sassen didn’t tell her about his history. Only later, in part through reading about Eichmann Before Jerusalem, did Fainstein, who is Jewish, come to appreciate its significance. “I wish she had told me,” Fainstein says, “and given me the option of inviting him to dinner or not on that basis.”

To me, this is really a story about secrets that aren’t secrets, fugitive knowledge that’s hiding in plain sight.

Update (11 pm)

Just because, judging by some of the early comments over at Crooked Timber, I want to avert a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.

Dayenu in Reverse: The Passover Canon of Arendt’s Critics

26 Oct

One of the more recent criticisms I’ve read of Eichmann in Jerusalem—in Bettina Stangneth’s and Deborah Lipstadt’s books—is that far from seeing, or seeing through, Eichmann, Arendt was taken in by his performance on the witness stand. Eichamnn the liar, Eichmann the con man, got the better of Arendt the dupe.

For the sake of his defense, the argument goes, Eichmann pretended to be a certain type of Nazi—not a Jew hater but a dutiful if luckless soldier, who wound up, almost by happenstance, shipping millions of Jews to their death.

Arendt heard this defense, and though she never accepted the notion that Eichmann was an obedient soldier (she thought he was a great deal worse than that), she did conclude that Eichmann had “an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” Eichmann was hermetically sealed off from the world, from the perspective of people who weren’t Nazis. Because the “more decisive flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view,” he “never realized what he was doing.” He knew he was sending Jews to their death; he just didn’t grasp the moral significance of that act, wherein its evil lay, how others, including his victims and their families, might see it.

According to evidence presented by Stangneth and Lipstadt, Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel was indeed a performance on Eichmann’s part. The truth is that he was a rabid anti-Semite who took initiative and on occasion defied the directives of his superiors in order to make sure even more Jews went to their death; at one point, Lipstadt reports, he even personally challenged Hitler’s order to allow some 40,000 Hungarian Jews to be released for emigration to Palestine via Switzerland.

At every stage of his career, Eichmann knew what he was doing. In power, he did it with zeal; out of power, in the dock, he tried to pretend that he hadn’t, or that if he had, that he had no choice.

Arendt’s vision of the banality of evil, her critics claim, rests upon a failure to see this, the real Eichmann. Eichmann the trickster, Eichmann the con man, rather than Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel.

As I’ve written before, I think there’s something to this argument about Arendt’s failure to apprehend Eichmann’s performance as a performance. Arendt sometimes, though not nearly as often as her critics claim, did take Eichmann at his word, and it never seems to have occurred to her that he would have had the cunning—and necessary self-awareness—to fashion an image of himself that might prove more palatable to the court.

But if Eichmann was indeed a liar, that, it seems to me, argues in favor of Arendt’s overall thesis of the banality of evil, not against it. Once you work through the implications of Eichmann the liar—as opposed to Eichmann the thoughtless schlemiel—it becomes clear that it is Arendt’s critics, rather than Arendt, who have not only failed to come to terms with his evil, but who also may have, albeit inadvertently, minimized what he actually did.

So let’s work this one through.

# # # # #

To repeat: At the heart of Eichmann’s evil, Arendt believes, was a certain kind of cluelessness about what it was that he did, which was rooted in his inability to see how his actions and statements might appear to another person, particularly someone who had been the victim of his acts. Eichmann might admit, as he did on the stand, that the Holocaust was “one of the greatest crimes in the history of Humanity,” but those were just words. He simply did not grasp the meaning of what he did. Or said.

Arendt offers plentiful evidence for this claim, some of which cannot be construed as lies on Eichmann’s part. After she writes that Eichmann “never realized what he was doing,” for example, she says:

It was precisely this lack of imagination which enabled him to sit for months on end facing a German Jew who was conducting the police interrogation, pouring out his heart to the man and explaining again and again how it was that he reached only the rank of lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and that it had not been his fault that he was not promoted.

That Eichmann thought he had found a sympathetic audience for his sob story of slights and snubs at the hands of the SS in the form of a German Jew—whose father, Lipstadt informs us, Eichmann knew to have been killed at Auschwitz; perhaps Eichmann even thought his interrogator might identify with him as a fellow victim of the SS—was an indication, Arendt believed, of his inability to think from “the other fellow’s point of view,” an inability that outlasted his time in the sun with the Nazis.

But it was when he was on the witness stand that Eichmann truly proved himself a thoughtless man. For when Eichmann presented himself in what he clearly thought was an exculpatory light he only wound up indicting himself even further. This, for Arendt, was the horror—and comedy—of the man.

Eichmann thought he was offering himself up (whether sincerely or not) to the court as a more palatable specimen, not realizing: first, that given what he did (and admitted to having done), there was nothing he could do or say that would redeem him; and, second, that the exculpatory examples he offered were only further confirmation of his evil.

Arendt writes, for example:

None of the various “language rules,” [the Nazis’ various euphemisms for their murderous deeds, what Eichmann called “winged words”] carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for “murder” was replaced by the phrase “to grant a mercy death.” Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain. During the trial, he showed unmistakable signs of sincere outrage when witnesses told of cruelties and atrocities committed by S.S. men—though the court and much of the audience failed to see these signs, because his single-minded effort to keep his self-control had misled them into believing that the was “unmovable” and indifferent—and it was not the accusation of having sent millions of death to their death that ever caused him real agitation but only the accusation (dismissed by the court) of one witness that he had once beaten a Jewish boy to death.

This is the sort of passage that makes critics of Arendt think, ah, there she goes again, giving Eichmann the benefit of the doubt, taking him at his word, assuming he’s more humane than he in fact was.

Let’s assume for the sake of the argument, however, that Arendt’s critics are wrong, that she was not taken in by Eichmann and that she had him, at least here, pegged right. Any reader of this passage can see that her point is not that Eichmann was humane but that he was morally and politically—and ultimately intellectually (though not psychologically)—deranged. That he could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions—something he admitted to on the stand, Arendt reminds us—but think that his crimes were mitigated by the fact that he neither caused people unnecessary pain nor ever laid a hand on a poor Jewish boy and in fact was genuinely outraged by any sign of cruelty by the SS: that for Arendt was a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done.

Now let’s assume for the sake of the argument that Arendt’s critics are right, that she was in fact taken in by him and that this was all a big lie for the witness stand. It doesn’t change her point at all; in fact, it only strengthens it. That Eichmann could willingly participate in a plan to exterminate millions but nevertheless think that the court would somehow conclude he wasn’t so bad because he didn’t cause people unnecessary pain nor ever lay a hand on a poor Jewish boy—and then, on the basis of that lunatic assumption, deceive the court in the hope that it might get him off or get him a lighter sentence: that too should be taken as a sign of his failure to recognize the enormity of his crime, to truly understand what he had done. For who but Eichmann could possibly believe that that mitigated his crime in any way?

Whether Eichmann believed what he said or was lying to save his ass, his failure to think—the banality of his evil—is demonstrated by the fact that he assumed there might be something he could do or say that would get him off the hook. Even at the moment when he was facing his own death, he couldn’t imagine the enormity of his crimes, how they would appear to others.

At the heart of Arendt’s assessment, then, is the idea that once Eichmann set down the path of mass murder of the Jews, nothing he did or didn’t do, nothing he said or didn’t say, could change, alter, soften, or otherwise mitigate that fact. It was that enormous. To think otherwise was not to understand the enormity of the crime.

One can cite other examples from Eichmann in Jerusalem. Like this one:

Bragging was the vice that was Eichmann’s undoing. It was sheer rodomontade when he told his men during the last days of the war: “I will jump into my grave laughing, because the fact that I have the death of five million Jews…on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.” He did not jump, and if he had anything on his conscience, it was not murder but, as it turned out that, that he had once slapped the face of Dr. Josef Löwenherz, head of the Vienna Jewish community, who later became one of his favorite Jews. (He had apologized in front of his staff at the time, but this incident kept bothering him.)

Again, the point is clear: if Eichmann is sincere, he’s a fool who punishes himself with the thought that he once slapped a Jew’s face but sleeps peacefully over the fact that he shipped millions of Jews to their death; if he’s lying, he’s also a fool who thinks that his performance of remorse over slapping a Jew would somehow weigh against, in the judgment of the court, his shipment of millions of Jews to their death. In either case, he hasn’t grappled with the enormity of his crime.

Arendt did not believe that this kind of cluelessness was peculiar to Eichmann; it was rife throughout the Nazi high command.

Himmler’s order in the fall of 1944 to halt the extermination and to dismantle the installations at the death factories sprang from his absurd but sincere conviction that the Allied powers would know how to appreciate this obliging gesture; he told a rather incredulous Eichmann that on the strength of it he would be able to negotiate a Hubertusburger-Frieden—an allusion to the Peace Treaty of Hubertusburg that concluded the Seven Years’ War of Frederick II of Prussia in 1763 and enabled Prussia to retain Silesia, although she had lost the war.

And far from seeing this thoughtlessness as a sign of the petty bourgeois origins of Eichmann, Arendt found it at the highest rungs of society. She could barely contain her disbelief at the aristocratic conspirators of 1944 who tried to kill Hitler but thought, like Himmler, that they could negotiate a “just peace” with the Allies that would allow Germany to keep Austria and the Sudetenland (the fruits of Hitler’s earliest crimes of aggression) and a “’leading position for Germany on the Continent.’”

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Once we realize how little of Arendt’s banality thesis hinges upon whether Eichmann was a liar or a believer of his own bullshit, we begin to see that there is something peculiar about the claim that Arendt was taken in by Eichmann.

As a simple empirical observation, the claim is perfectly plausible and unobjectionable, and indeed, as I’ve already said, can shed some interesting light on Arendt’s other ideas about performance and lying.

But Arendt’s critics want to use Eichmann the liar as a cudgel: not against Arendt in error (most philosophers make errors) or even against Arendt the dupe. No, they want to make Arendt into, if not an abettor of or apologist for evil, than at least an evader or minimizer of evil, who denies the wickedness of the Holocaust by insisting on the banality of one of its perpetrators.

Richard Wolin makes the point simply and directly:

It is at this point that the ultimate stakes of the debate over Eichmann’s “banality” emerge most clearly. For if Eichmann was “banal,” then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined.

And should the implication not be clear, he makes it plain:

What should have been clear then and should certainly be clear now is that if the Holocaust was banal, then it was not evil.

It’s not clear how any of this follows logically (if Jefferson was a benevolent slaveholder, does slavery become benevolent?), but Arendt’s point was just the opposite: the Holocaust was evil, Eichmann was banal, and the terrifying puzzle at the heart of it all—she called it “fearsome, word-and-thought-defying”—was how could such a smallness be a source, if not the source, of such a terrible largeness?

Lipstadt is more balanced and circumspect in her final judgment of Arendt, but she too ventures into some strange territory.

Lipstadt begins with a claim about Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem that, on its own terms, is straightforward enough:

Her work, even as it tried to explain critical aspects of the most extensive genocide in human history, submerged the most fundamental and indispensable elements of this event. She ignored the bedrock of the Holocaust: the long, tortured (torturing) history of anti-Semitism.

Nor, however, can one dismiss the way in which she so seamlessly elided the ideology that was at the heart of this genocide. She related a version of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism played a decidedly minor role.

Unlike some of her defenders, I think Arendt does underplay Eichmann’s anti-Semitism. (Oddly enough, a similar charge could be leveled at her Origins of Totalitarianism, a book that has never aroused the kind of wrath and rage that Eichmann has.) Unlike her critics, however, I don’t see Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism as the moral failure on her part that they apparently see it as. I simply think she was wrong, and while her error is symptomatic of certain blinders she had, those are not the sort of blinders that should turn Eichmann or its author into an occasion for an exorcism.

But for Lipstadt and other critics, they are. For Arendt’s refusal to see Eichmann’s anti-Semitism is part and parcel of her fraternization with, even indulgence of, the anti-Semitism of her friends and lovers.

Hannah Arendt spoke with many voices. One modulated itself for the likes of Mary McCarthy and her set, many of whom delighted in and felt liberated by a Jew’s severe critique of Ben-Gurion, Israel, and her fellow Jews. Her comments freed them from having to self-censor when they spoke of Jewish matters….This Arendt may also have been subliminally writing for her teacher and former lover, the revered philosopher Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ejected Jewish professors from the university where he severed as rector, affirmed Nazi ideals, and never recanted his wartime actions.

At one point, Lipstadt even compares Arendt to Eichmann:

She was guilty of precisely the same wrong she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She—the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value—did not “think.” She wanted to provoke her readers to re-evaluate their assumptions, but she either did not care or did not fully consider how her caustic comments might be heard by them.

(It never seems to have occurred to Lipstadt that the only reason we (and she) are still talking about Eichmann in Jerusalem a half-century after its publication is that, for all of its caustic comments, the book has managed, like all great works of political theory, to consistently provoke its readers to reevaluate their assumptions.)

Hovering around the edges of these statements is the suggestion that Eichmann in Jerusalem enabled a genteel anti-Semitism—liberating the long suppressed feelings of Arendt’s goyish friends—and trafficked in its far more malignant forms, channeling the spirit of the Nazi Heidegger and mirroring the thoughtlessness of the Nazi Eichmann. In other words, sleeping with the enemy.

# # # # #

There’s no question that Arendt herself believed that the Nazis had committed a crime of massive proportion and that Eichmann had a major, if overstated, hand in that crime. And unlike Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and a great many others in Israel and elsewhere, Arendt had no doubt that Eichmann ought to hang for his deeds (even Ben-Gurion, Lipstadt claims, had momentary doubts about that). Even if Arendt underplayed Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, even if she got his banality wrong, she was absolutely clear that he had helped perpetrate one of the greatest mass murders in history, that he was a moral catastrophe of the highest order, and that he should hang for his crimes. None of these final judgments of hers was dependent on her assessment of his anti-Semitism or banality. For Arendt, it was enough that he was a mass murderer and an ethical catastrophe that he should hang.

So why all the high dudgeon of her critics? Why this operatic suggestion from them that by minimizing his anti-Semitism and insisting on his banality Arendt was somehow letting Eichmann off the hook? It’s almost as if, to these critics, sending millions of Jews to their death, and being a moral catastrophe, is not in fact enough. Certainly not enough for Eichmann to hang.

The reaction of Arendt’s critics makes me wonder whether Eichmann the liar might not have had a point, whether there might not have been a method to his madness on the stand. His gamble on the stand was that if the court could see how little he enjoyed his work, how little taste for blood he actually had, how upright he was in the execution of his duties, they’d let him off the hook.

Whether this was a strategy or the truth wouldn’t have made a difference to Arendt. In either case, she would have concluded, he was guilty of mass murder; in either case he was a moral catastrophe; in either case, he was banal; in either case he should hang; in either case he was evil. But maybe what her critics are saying is: if he was a mass murderer and banal, if he was a mass murder and not anti-Semitic, then somehow his crimes really would be less. As Wolin says, no banality, no evil.

At Passover, we sing a song called Dayenu. Dayenu means “it would have been enough,” it would have been sufficient, it would have sufficed. We sing it in honor of all the things God did for us, as Jews, in the Exodus and after that. After we cite each one of these things God did for us, we say, Dayenu, it would have been enough. The cumulative force of the song is that just one of these things would have been enough, but God did so much more. Had God only led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough. But God also led us across the Red Sea. And had God only led us across the Red Sea, it would have been enough. But God also drowned our enemies there. And had God not only drowned our enemies there…you get the picture.

It seems as if, for Arendt’s critics, there’s a kind of reverse Dayenu at work. Their Passover canon goes like this: Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe, it would not have been enough. Had Eichmann only been a mass murderer who was also an ethical catastrophe and would have been hanged for his deeds, it would not have been…you get the picture.

Adolph Eichmann: Funny Man?

22 Oct

One of the criticisms often made of Hannah Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial was that she found Eichmann to be so unintentionally funny. Throughout Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt can barely contain her laughter at the inadvertent comedy of the man. Many at the time found this distasteful; since then, her ironic appreciation of Eichmann’s buffoonery has been a sign, to Arendt’s critics, of her haughty indifference to the suffering he inflicted.

Yet, in reading about the trial, it’s quite clear that Arendt wasn’t the only one who found Eichmann funny. So did the courtroom, which periodically broke out into laughter at the accidental hilarity wafting down from the witness stand. As Deborah Lipstadt reports:

This was not the only time Eichmann seemed oblivious to how strange his explanations sounded. Servatius [Eichmann’s lawyer] asked him about a directive he had issued ordering that trains deporting Jews carry a minimum of one thousand people, even thought their capacity was for only seven hundred. Eichmann claimed that the seven-hundred figure was calculated on the basis of soldiers with baggage. Since Jews’ luggage was sent separately, there was room for an additional three hundred people. The gallery erupted in laughter.

Laughter, Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.” Those moments of laughter in Eichmann in Jerusalem—and in the courtroom—did not reflect an indifference to cruelty or suffering but a will to divest them of their unearned gravitas.

Laughter does not minimize evil; it denies evil the final word.

References No One Seems to Have Checked

2 Oct

Amos Elon on how Eichmann in Jerusalem was treated after its publication:

Hand-me-downs from one critic to another drew on alleged references in the book which no one seemed to have checked. The argument was by no means restricted to academic circles but exercised young and old, historians, philosophers, journalists, as in the case of [Anthony] Grafton’s father; priests of several faiths; atheists; community functionaries; and professional propagandists.


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