Hannah Arendt‘s Eichmann in Jerusalem was published fifty years ago, in 1963, and it’s still provoking controversy. The New York Times offers two interesting takes: one from poet-critic Adam Kirsch, the other from author Rivka Galchen, who incidentally, was a recipient of the William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction (we wrote about the prize here). Both focus on the use of language.
Kirsch argues that she’s misunderstood. Many objected to the inflammatory tone, but for Arendt, the medium is the message: “It’s not hard to see that for Arendt, this stringency was a form of respect. By holding Jews to what she conceived to be the highest professional and personal standards, she was treating them as full moral persons. For Eichmann, on the other hand, she had only contempt, refusing even to dignify him with hatred: He appears in the book only as a bumbling mediocrity, ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.’ But it’s also easy to understand how this tactic could appear, to readers still traumatized by the Holocaust, as an arrogant inversion placing blame on the victim while minimizing the criminality of the criminal. Eichmann would be a better book, perhaps, if Arendt were not so intent on demonstrating mastery over her material, and could admit that at times the only adequate response to the Holocaust was mute pity and terror.’”
Kirsch points out that the book has been, at times, a litmus test for gentile and Jewish sensibilities. Arendt’s chum Mary McCarthy characterized the book as “a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah“; Saul Bellow accused Arendt of “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.” Well, as we pointed out earlier, he didn’t like her much.
Galchen writes that “Eichmann spoke in a mix of canned speech, officialese and repetitions of his own formulations. Arendt sees this as a symptom and an abettor of his variety of evil. ‘The longer one listened to him,’ she wrote, ‘the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’”
She continued: “Nearly 15 years after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt wrote another long essay for The New Yorker, ‘Thinking,’ in which she tried to clarify and further analyze the ‘thoughtlessness’ of Eichmann. ‘Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality; that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts make by virtue of their existence,’ she wrote. ‘If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; Eichmann differed from the rest of us only in that clearly he knew of no such claim at all.’”
Buried in the comments section is an unusual reminiscence from Rudy Wein: “I had lunch with Hannah Arendt not all that long after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. I had read the New Yorker article, but was completely ignorant of the controversy. I was no doubt a soothing lunch companion, since I told her that I understood what she had in mind with ‘the banality of evil’ and agreed with her. So let me say, as no one really does in the above, what I think she meant by the banality of evil – that is the banality of Eichmann’s doing evil. And let me do so by pointing to the doing of evil that is not banal. Start with fiction: the baddies in the film Metropolis are explicitly, consciously aiming to kill, maim, undo those underground workers. Not banal. Himmler aimed at rounding up Jews, starving and killing them. Yes, he did what Hitler wanted done, but he was not following orders first and doing evil as a result; he aimed at doing that evil because he wanted it to happen. Eichmann, on the other hand, if anything like Arendt’s depiction is correct, followed orders first or, worse, induced what his superiors wanted done, for the sake of being the kind of bureaucrat that would be praised and, above all, be promoted. If doing good deeds would have accomplished that goal, Eichmann would have done good deeds. The fact of his evil’s banality doesn’t make it less evil or excuse it and, as I recall, Arendt agreed that Eichmann’s death sentence was fully justified.”
Read the whole thing here. And below, Margarethe von Trotta‘s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, starring Barbara Sukowa, pretty much makes the case for Galchen and Kirsch: