Friday, January 26, 2007

J. M. Coetzee on Norman Mailer's Hitler

at the New York Review of Books (no subscription required). Here are his conclusions:

The lesson that Adolf Eichmann teaches, wrote Hannah Arendt at the conclusion of Eichmann in Jerusalem, is of "the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil" (Arendt's italics). Since 1963, when she penned it, the formula "the banality of evil" has acquired a life of its own; today it has the kind of clich├ęd currency that "great criminal" had in Dostoevsky's day.

Mailer has repeatedly in the past voiced his suspicion of this formula. As a secular liberal, says Mailer, Arendt is blind to the power of evil in the universe. "To assume...that evil itself is banal strikes me as exhibiting a prodigious poverty of imagination." "If Hannah Arendt is correct and evil is banal, then that is vastly worse than the opposed possibility that evil is satanic"—worse in the sense that there is no struggle between good and evil and therefore no meaning to existence.

It is not too much to say that Mailer's quarrel with Arendt is a running subtext to The Castle in the Forest. But does he do justice to her? In 1946 Arendt had an exchange of letters with Karl Jaspers sparked by his use of the word "criminal" to characterize Nazi policies. Arendt disagreed. In comparison with mere criminal guilt, she wrote to him, the guilt of Hitler and his associates "oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems."

Jaspers defended himself: if one claims that Hitler was more than a criminal, he said, one risks ascribing to him the very "satanic greatness" he aspired to. Arendt took his criticism to heart. When she came to write the Eichmann book, she endeavored to keep alive the paradox that though the actions of Hitler and his associates may defy our understanding, there was no depth of thought behind their conception, no grandeur of intention. Eichmann, a humanly uninteresting man, a bureaucrat through and through, never realized in any philosophically full sense of the word what he was doing; the same might be said, mutatis mutandis, for the rest of the gang.

To take the phrase "the banality of evil" to epitomize Arendt's verdict on the misdeeds of Nazism, as Mailer seems to do, thus misses the complexity of the thinking behind it: what is peculiar to the everyday banality of a bureaucratically administered, industrially organized policy of wholesale extermination is that it is also "word-and-thought-defying," beyond our power to understand or to describe.

Before the magnitude of the death, suffering, and destruction for which the historical Adolf Hitler was responsible, the human understanding recoils in bewilderment. In a different way, our understanding may recoil when Mailer tells us that Hitler was responsible for the Third Reich only in a mediate sense—that ultimate responsibility lay with an invisible being known as the Devil or the Maestro. The problem here is the nature of the explanation we are being offered: "The Devil made him do it" appeals not to the understanding, only to a certain kind of faith. If one takes seriously Mailer's reading of world history as a war between good and evil in which human beings act as proxies for supernatural agents—that is to say, if one takes this reading at face value rather than as an extended and not very original metaphor for unresolved and irresoluble conflict within individual human psyches—then the principle that human beings are responsible for their actions is subverted, and with that the ambition of the novel to search out and speak the truth of our moral life.

Blessedly, The Castle in the Forest does not demand to be read at face value. Beneath the surface, Mailer can be seen to be struggling with the same paradox as Arendt. By invoking the supernatural, he may seem to assert that the forces animating Adolf Hitler were more than merely criminal; yet the young Adolf he brings to life on these pages is not satanic, not even demonic, simply a nasty piece of work. Keeping the paradox infernal–banalalive in all its anguishing inscrutability may be the ultimate achievement of this very considerable contribution to historical fiction.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry for delete. One of my terribly embarrassing typos. But thanks for the link. Arendt's banality of evil has interested me for a long while.

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  4. "To take the phrase "the banality of evil" to epitomize Arendt's verdict on the misdeeds of Nazism, as Mailer seems to do, thus misses the complexity of the thinking behind it."

    Agreed (!), despite her suspicions about Augustine, here her notion is exceedingly close to Augustine's notion of evil as a privation of being.

  5. I think Coetzee's problem isn't so much with the "banal" (of course it's banal) as with the "evil," which is sort of a catch-all term for avoiding (or simplifying) responsibility.

    Anyhow, I've gone on at length about it on my blog.

  6. linkery: