Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Eating the scroll

Something was started in the first three verses of Ezekiel 3: Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.”/
So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this scroll./
 And He said to me, “Son of man, feed your stomach and fill your body with this scroll which I am giving you.” Then I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.
The theme of eating the scroll, the book, the document derives, in the West, from the prophets. This is a radical reworking of the sensual spell of the book, with its obsessive visuality, into that most intimate of bodily moments, eating. The line: “Then I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth” is, to me, peculiarly moving. The scroll, the book, the screen on which I type these words, are all very dry. If they were not arid, they would not serve as platforms for letters. But the notion that the scroll’s dryness, which would make it repulsive, turns to something as sweet as “honey in my mouth” – this is a higher ideal than Mallarme’s notion of everything is meant to be contained in a book. That book is still high and dry; everything loses its savor. I prefer the scroll that is ingested and sweet.
Bob Dylan’s Eat the Document is a typically obscure reference – Dylan was a great reader of the Bible – to, perhaps, Ezekiel 3. But I think that the great meditation on Ezekiel three is contained in Unamuno’s “novella”, How to Make a Novel, which piles a commentary on a commentary on Unamuno by Jean Cassou, the latter of whom claimed that Unamuno’s genius was for commentary, that it was all, ultimately, commentary. To which Unamuno replied with a ramble about commentary that brought him to the truth of literature – that books are meant to be eaten.
“And the Letter we eat, which is flesh, is also the Word, which does not mean it is also idea, that is, skeleton. It is impossible to live on skeletons: no one can find nourishment from a skeleton. That is the reason I tend topause  at random in my reading of books of all kinds, among them the book of life, the history I am living, and the book of nature, and at every vital point.”
We gnaw around the bone. I do like the idea that some extract a skeleton from a book, and some eat it to find if it is like honey, or wax, or bitterness. I fear much of my own writing is wax. But I hope some is honey.

Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Addendum to the protohistory: on an agent provacateur

Gersholm Scholem, in his exchange of letters with Hannah Arendt, accused her of being one of those Weimar leftwing Jews who objectively strenghthened  anti-semitism. Specifically, he referred to Kurt Tucholsky: “I cannot refute those who say the Jews deserved their fate, because they did not take earlier steps to defned themselves, because they were cowardly, etc. I came across this argument only recently in a book by that honest Jewish anti-semite, Kurt Tucholsky.”

Surprisingly, Arendt not only replied that she was not an anti-semite at all, but that Tucholsky was not one, either: Besides, I am happy that I misunderstood your phrase about my belonging to the Jewish people. You mention the « antisemite Tucholsky, and if I undestand correctly, established a link between the two. In as far as Tucholsky is concerned, I do not at all share your opinion. An antisemite is an antisemite and not a Jew for whom it may happen, sometimes, that he expresses himself in critical terms on Jewish matters, and it doen’t make any difference if he is right or wrong.”

There is a lot of bad faith in Scholem’s mention of Tucholsky. I don’t believe he just recently came across some “argument” by Tucholsky recently; Tucholsky, after all, was one of the targets of Walter Benjamin’s Left Melancholy review-essay, in 1931; moreover, Tucholsky’s satire of the upper class bourgeois Jewish German culture, in the Mr. Wendriner stories, were not about “Jews” as such, but about how a particular class, invested in German nationalism, refused to recognize the seriousness of anti-Semitism and was compliant with a call to order that ran counter to the enlightenment ideal of tolerance for all creeds. That ideal was, of course, also one that Israel was countering in its own way in Scholem’s time – and seventy years later, the ethno-state that has emerged in Israel finds its allies more in Hungary and Saudi Arabia than in any distant descendent of the enlightenment.

For German intellectuals, Tucholsky is a sort of touchstone. Unlike Karl Kraus,  Tucholsky has never made any serious inroad into the Anglosphere: there’s no Jonathan Franzen translation of Tucholsky. But Benjamin’s 1931 Left Melancholy essay, ostensibly a review of Eric Kästner’s poems that groups  Kästner  with Tucholsky,  has left a mark.

To my mind, the Left melancholy article is Benjamin at his Zhdanovian worst. Although ostensibly a review of Kästner’s poems, it does not mention a single poem, or quote a single line. It dismisses the job of, well, actually reviewing the poems by saying that these poems flit through newspapers and magazines like fish flit through dirty water: in the claustrophobic space of a book, the poems are out of place. That is a promising start that goes nowhere, because Benjamin wants to use Kästner as a type – the literary Leftist. Unserious, disengaged from working class politics, a product of the decayed bourgeoisie. That Benjamin is himself a member of the decayed bourgeoisie, the son of a prosperous assimilated German Jew, is left aside. The mention of Tucholsky is definitely flitting – like a minnow darting through cloudy invective: “With the worker’s movement they had little to do. They are much more the counterpart to the feudal mimicry that was so admired in the Wilhelmine era among reserve officers, a phenomenon of bourgeois disintegration. The left radical journalists of the type of Kästner, Mehring or Tucholsky are the proletarian mimicry of the bourgeois collapse. Their function is, from the political point of view, to make cliques instead of parties, and from the literary point of view, to make fashions instead of schools, while economically, they are not producers but agents.”

The argument that a group known for its anti-military activity are really analogous to reserve officers  thuds along, using a paradoxical rhetoric of saying that x, which claims to be the opposite of y, is really in cahoots with y, and takes its job as making  analogies, not arguments. The analogies, in the time honoured tropes of the demagogue, can then be used to condemn.  The honor and hierarchy, feudal values to which the officers pretended to adhere, are one thing; what values are being mimicked – and in a proletarian way – by the left radical authors? As we peer into that analogy, we see that it is made more for the insult and injury, and less for the concept: it is impossible to make sense of a proletarian mimicry of bourgeois collapse, unless what is being hinted at here is that these authors are adopting the values of a lumpen proletariat of pimps, prostitutes and hoods. This is one way of explaining the left radical demand for sexual freedom and the abolition of laws against abortion and homosexuality, and it would go along with the reactionary tendencies in Stalin’s Soviet Union at the time. But Benjamin himself can’t get that out of his mouth – because he knows that saying it explicitly would align him with the worst characteristics of the right.

Benjamin’s whole essay is composed in this din, where argument gets lost in aggression. At its lowest point, when Benjamin compares the suicide of an expressionist poet to “dumping” stock on the stock market, the Zhdanovian polemic truly takes on the mask of  the gutter press, in which Tucholsky and other left radicals are “Jewish swine.” Benjamin should have been more superstitious:  can only write such things if one is certain of never committing, or having to commit, suicide. A curse is unleashed here which comes back to haunt both the victim and the perpetrator of this essay.

Tucholsky, of course, could take care of himself. I do not know if Tucholsky mentioned this essay in some letter. I doubt it, as the “review” was refused by the Frankfurter Zeitung, Kracauer’s paper, and published in Gesellschaft, which I believe was edited by Horkheimer. Tucholsky in 1931 was a much bigger personality than Benjamin; but the terms of Benjamin’s criticism converge, in an odd  way, with Scholem’s latter accusation that Tucholsky was “objectively anti-semitic”. It is an odd thing, and perhaps due to the perverse power of the satirist’s negativity, that these criticisms seem by some fate to tread in the rhythms of  Tucholsky’s own satires. Around the time  Scholem and Arendt were discussing Tucholsky,  Golo Mann, that pompous cold warrior, summed up the problem with Tucholsky in rhetoric that uncannily sounds like the plea for a gentleman’s agreement – that is, for   a quota system for Jews. Mann does use the J word. What he says is there is a place for these nay-sayers like Tucholsky and, before him, Heine, writers who “in the positive sense of the word believe in nothing… men of high gifts, we are thinking for instance of Kurt Tucholsky. We confess that he lacks the tact, modesty,  and restraint of a firmly affirmative tradition, even a creative one; yet in the in spiritual household of the nation it is good there are some such critics, some such verse makers, some such sociologists, but not too many of them, and that in the twenties there were rather too much than too few.”

Yes, it wasn’t the authoritarian judges letting those paramilitaries go free who murdered leftists, but it was those without a sense of, well, restraint who satirized these judges who made it all go to hell. Perhaps called their fate up on themselves!
Twelve years before Benjamin’s Left Melancholy article, Tucholsky published what some of his critics consider to be a manifesto – in the key of Nein. It appeared in the journal he co-edited, the Weltbuehne: Wir Negative.

Tucholsky starts out by an implicit question: is it just his character, or has there emerged, in post-war Germany, a collective spiritual negation? From his experience as an editor, he finds that the negations to which he is attached seem to pop up in the work of his contributors. Of course, this is an elementary survey bias, but nevertheless there is something this bias touches.

His starting point is revolution. In 1919, Revolution did not seem so far away – one could take a train to Russia and see it in action. Tucholsky did not: instead, he looked around Germany.

“If Revolution means collapse, we we had one: but one must not expect that the ruins will look different than the old buildings. We had failure and hunger, and those responsible have gotten away with it. And there stand the people: they have ripped down the old banners, but there haven’t been any new ones. “

In 1931, from Tucholsky’s viewpoint, the people who got away have now come back, twice as bad, and the positive response on the left, the opposition in particular of the Communists,  has been grossly inadequate. For all Benjamin’s talk of the writer as producer versus the writer as agent, the social fact of a changed media system made the productivist notion archaic. The nineteenth century, where Victor Hugo could plausibly dream of employing his pen to overturn a government, had been buried by a new, symbol-pushing form of capitalist enterprise.

It is not that Tucholsky was not an activist. In fact, his book against the German culture and military was so disturbing to the system that even after World War II and the fall of the Berlin wall, Kohl’s government was trying to censor Tucholsky’s phrase: Soldiers are murderers with laws making it against the law to “discredit the military.” This was in the 90s, when Benjamin had long been absorbed into academia.
Tucholsky proposes, in this essay, a thought experiment: suppose the war had gone another way, and Germany had won? Would the people have been happy? And his answer is that, given the situation today, in 1919, given the spiritual conditions, many of them, including the workers, probably would have.

It is a rabble rousing document, this manifesto for the negatives, but it is very conscious that it has no rabble to rouse – that the point is to make that rabble. To raise its consciousness.
“We cannot yet say yes. We cannot reinforce a consciousness that forgets from on high the humanity in human beings. We cannot encourage a people to do its duty only because for every toiler a mirage of honor has been created that only hinders essential work. We cannot say yes to a people who remain today in the frame of mind that, had the war somehow come to a happier end, would have justified our worst fears. We cannot say yes to a country obsessed with collectives and for whom corporate bodies are elevated far above the individual. Collectives merely provide assistance to the individual. We cannot say yes to those whose fruits are now  displayed by the younger generation: a lukewarm and vapid species infected with an infantile hunger for power at home and an indifference toward things abroad, more devoted to bars than to bravery, with unspeakable antipathy for all Sturm und Drang—no longer bearable today— without fire and without dash, without hate and without love. We are supposed to walk, but our legs are bound with cords. We cannot yet say yes.“

This is much more predictive of the world Benjamin was entering in the 30s than his dismissal of left melancholics as a slumming annex to the bourgeoisie. Like many manifestos, it dates itself; and yet the heart of the thing – the refusal to accept the idea that the world that exists at present is our only alternative and the goal towards which we have been striving – is still hopelessly valid. If Tucholsky was “mourning”, it was not because he had some love for a dead and gone thing, but for a thing that never came to be, even as it obviously should have been. What obviously should have been is, I would say, the crisis we face on all fronts today. Tucholsky is still relevant, not as an academic good but as an agent provocateur.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

A protohistory of the "banality of evil"



I admire a certain kind of essay that takes a phrase or even a word and attempts to find the backstory for it. I’m thinking here of Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on Estrangement from the Wooden Eyes collection, or of Nicholson Baker’s wildly eccentric essay on “Lumber” in the Size of Thoughts – a terrible title, that is, of the collection, by the way. The cross between historically valid investigation and a sort of tarot where words are the cards you turn over is a difficult cross to pull off. You have to have a wide reading, the kind of physical sensitivity to words that most people have to faces, and an ability to bluff. The greatest instance of this kind of essay is, I think, Robert Merton’s investigation of Newton’s phrase, ” I have seen more because I sit on the shoulders of giants”: On the Shoulders of Giants: a Shandean postscript. The Shandean essay is my favorite kind of essay, obsessive, divagating, willfully obscure. It is the inheritor of Montaigne’s original essayistic impulse; or perhaps I should say Plutarch’s.

Merton, in his preface, placed the Shandean essay in the category of the comic – a framework through which to view the real. However, it is obscene to view mass murder through the comic – obscene in all its etymological fullness: obscaenus from the Latin, ill-omened or abominable. Yet the inexorable logic of the backstory endures in the profane and the obscene, the serious and the most terrible. Hell itself cannot abolish narrative – hence, all the story-tellers in Dante’s Inferno.
Still: I hesitate. In a letter to Hannah Arendt after the publication of her book, Eichmann in JerusalemL a Report on the Banality of Evil, Gersholm Scholem wrote: “There is in the Jewish tongue something that one can absolutely not define, but which is perfectly concrete: what the Jews call Ahabeth Israel, love for the Jews. And of this quality one perceives nothing with you, dear Hannah, no more than with so many intellectuals who come from the German left. An analysis like yours demans, if you will alllow me to say so, the most unfashionable type of objective and meticulous treatment, just there were profound emotions enter into play and must be invoked, as in the case of the murder of a third of our people – and I consider you totally as a member of this people, and nothing other. I do not have sympathy for the style of lightheartedness – I mean in English, flippancy – which you so often exhibit in this regard in your book. There is an inconcevable inadequation between it and the thing of which you speak.”
An inadequacy. But, is there a possible adequacy?
I’m not sure I have all of the equipment to take that Shandean path like Merton – whose book runs to 290 pages, a mock heroic scrapbook - but nevertheless, I want to try to tell the backstory of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the banality of evil.

Eichmann in Jerusalem was published first, over various issues, in the New Yorker. Arendt is trying out a new position here, that of reporter. This is Arendt’s most controversial work, starting with the subtitling phrase, which seems to have the uncanny quality of the already said. Adam, my cinephile son, gifted me with a word a week ago: re-quel. This is when a movie is redone with the same characters and situations, but differently. The banality of evil has a certain requel quality.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” Arendt wrote, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
I will put aside the controversy over whether Arendt took Eichmann’s word too literally when he testified he was not anti-semitic. I will come back to that. This is not where I’m starting. I’m more interested in the relationships, here, between evil, banality, and the normal.
In journalism, they say to put the hook in the first graf. In writing suspense stories, they say to put the twist at the end. The twist. The flip. I’m going to take a leap here. In the case of the banality of evil, I want to explore a certain flip side: for there is another phrase that haunts Arendt’s subtitle. “The evil of banality.” This phrase comes out of Gogol and the Devil, one of the great essays in Russian literature, written by Dmitri Merezkhovsky in 1906. I use the word “great” – but who am I?
Thomas Mann: “After the War, I heard from Alexander Eliasberg that Mereschkowkij …fleeing the Bolshevik powers, had found himself in Warsaw, and planned to come to Germany, to Munich, and visit me. Dmitrij Meschkowskij! The most brilliant critic and world-psychologist since Nietzsche! Whose books on Tolstoi and Dostojewskj had made such an inextinguishable impression on me in my twenties, and whose unexampled work on Gogol I had never put away!”
I ran across this essay for reasons I cannot now remember, reading the English translation in Robert Maguire’s 1976 collection of essays on Gogol. Gogol for the twentieth century. I had never heard of Dmitri Merezkhovsky (or Meschkowskij – the transcription of Russian names changes over time and languages, which gives the discussions of the Russian authors in English an underlying... fishiness, as though we were talking of people who cross the border with different names).
Did Arendt read Mereschkowskij? .

Merezkhovsky is not a name that stands out for the non-specialist reader. But rest assured, his name graces many a novel that now lies gathering dust in the Dewey Decimal section of major libraries, ones that were once read even in the U.S. and advertised in the papers. He is mainly known now as the husband of Zinaida Gippius, whose poems and prose are appreciated not only by Slavic studies graduate students but by, well, general readers in Russia and elsewhere. Her posthumous reputation, like any other, has waxed and waned, but it particularly waxed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is even an English language biography out there, which I take to be a mark of recognition.
Of her husband, though, there is no English language biography. That would have surprised the literati of the period between 1900 and the 1920s, for during this time Merezkhovsky was one of the most translated of Russian authors, the successor, supposedly, of the great 19th century Russians. His book on Gogol, which contained the essay Gogol and the Devil, was translated in 1911 into German – as were most of his novels and pamphlets. First for Piper Verlag in Munich, and in the 1920s for other presses. Piper, however, is important. Piper published the collected works of Dostoevsky, in German translation, with introductions by, in some cases, Merezkhovsky. The couple Merezhkovsky and Dostoevsky was implanted in the German literary mind of the Weimar generation. One can almost be as certain that German intellectuals had run into those introductions as one can be that American readers of classic paperback books of my generation – the seventies – had run into the name Leavis if they read the Penguin paperbacks of the Victorian novelists. To paraphrase Shelly, those who write the introductions are the secret rulers of the world. Or perhaps they are the secret sharers of that power.
Merezkhovsky’s writing was also abundantly translated into French and English during the first half of the twentieth century. The New York Times reviewers mentioned his name as the inheritor of the mantel of Dostoevsky and Tolstoi. In particular, he was read for that mixture of spirituality and history embodied in his trilogy, The Death of the Gods (which included a novel on Leonardo da Vinci, a figure of perennial interest to Americans on up to the days of the Da Vinci Code). The gloominess, the sexiness, the sprituality! Echt Russe, na?
Bennett Cerf’s Modern Library, that great series of books to which I owe a lot of my education, published the Romance of Leonardo da Vinci in the thirties, with a translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, whose translation of Gogol’s Dead Souls was singled out by the very nitpicky Vladimir Nabokov as an extraordinarily fine work. But it was in Germany that Merezkhovsky made his mark. An essay, a book could be written about the different ways France and Germany received and distributed an image of Russian literature and through that, of Russia and the “Russian character”. That essay is beyond me. It would not be Shandian.
In the early 30s, when Mann was researching sources for his Joseph trilogy, he took very seriously Merezhkovsky’s book, The Secret of the East.
By that time, things had gone seriously wrong for Merezhkovsky both personally and as a writer. He and Grippius had chosen exile after 1920, leaving in their wake a trail of violent pamphlets comparing the Bolsheviks to Antichrist. This was, in fact, his second period of exile – the first had come after the failure of the revolution of 1905. It should be said that Merezhkovsky was no cutout reactionary – he had honorably opposed Russia’s entrance into war with Austria and Germany, foreseeing the disaster to com (as did Rasputin – one of the reason Rasputin has a demonic reputation in the West is because his neutralist sympathies made him a target for British and French propaganda. If Czar Nicholas II had paid more attention to Rasputin and less attention to his generals, the course of Russian history would have been changed, perhaps, for the better. Or perhaps the rotten, pogram-ridden regime would have raced the Nazis to the lowest circle of hell). Merezhkowsky and Gippius were closest to the Cadets and other Russian liberals, among whom he must have known Vladimir D. Nabokov, the father of the novelist. They went to the same school. From Petersburg he moved to Paris with Grippius. They were a power couple in the Russian exile community.
Yet that community was well aware of the criticisms thrown at Merezkhovsky as the “leader” of the symbolist/modernist movement in Russia even before World War I, especially since the hurlers of said criticisms were Bely and Blok, the heavy hitters of the silver age. The Bs had been promoted, early in their careers, by Merezkhovsky, and in turn they piled a certain contempt on him. The usual literary patricide. The sons overthrow the fathers and eat them. And it is true, Merezhkovsky and Gippius had a good bit of windbaggery in them, and were pretty easy for the young bucks to puncture.
Particularly because of sex. Sex, sex, sex. They were among the intellectuals who introduced the principle of “free love” into the culture of St. Petersburg, with the aid of their sometimes ally, Vasilli Rozanov. But Rozanov’s eroticism – which proclaimed sex without God – was definitely not Merezkhovsky’s, who proclaimed sex as a mystical union with the divine. From Nietzsche and Baudelaire Merezkhovsky picked up the idea that Christianity had destroyed the pagan enjoyment of the flesh, introducing a culpability that perverted every sex act. These hothouse fin de siècle circles – how easy it is to condescend from the heights, or depths, of our gonzo porn age! When Balabanov’s film Of Freaks and Men came out in 1998, the reviewer in the New York Times described its sepia stained recreation of early twentieth century erotica (in a narrative that obviously references Rozanov) as quaint. Yet these debates about free love are, as well, about desire as an identity – setting the switches for the way sexual desire has become an identifying category today.
Three moments.
First moment. In the winter of 1924, according to Hans Jonas, Heidegger fell on his knees and begged Hannah Arendt to become his lover. In the summer of 1925, he wrote her a letter in which he reported that he read volume one of Der Zauberberg in one blow. In another letter, he asks Arendt to bring the second volume with her when she visits his house, so they can read it together. As the critic Reinhardt Mehring puts it, Martin and Hannah’s relationship did not take the platonic course of Hans Castorp and Clawdia Chauchat.

The second moment. “When Heidegger took the post of Professor at Freiburg in 1928, he personally made sure that the library bought the complete Piper edition of Dostoevsky’s works. On his writing desk he even put a portrait of the Russian author.” “In the lecture on nihilism that he held at the beginning of World War II at the University of Freiburg, Heidegger quoted extensively from Dostoevsky’s "Pushkin Speech," completely subscribing to the Russian author’s analysis of the "negative" Russian man: "He is a man who is restless and will never content himself with the existing order, who does not believe in his native soil or its powers, who ultimately negates Russia and himself, who does not want to share anything in common with his fellow compatriots, and who, nevertheless, sincerely suffers from all this.”

The Third Moment. In 1950, Hannah Arendt visited Heidegger and his wife in Freiburg. In return, she got a letter from Heidegger that contains this remarkable, and typical, passage: “But that you were here and out of this “here” remain “there” has brought everything nearer, us and you. We both are at the same time now forced to see the growing threat of the Soviets, more clearly, brighter than the West sees it. Because now we are the immediately threatened. Stalin doesn’t need to declare war, as you believe. He is winning a battle everyday.”
A remarkable passage. Heidegger, the philosopher of the forgetting of being, forgets that his “ here” would have remorsely slaughtered Arendt, stripped her naked and sent her to a gas chamber, if she hadn’t fled to there. He knows that well enough – we read him in the Black notebooks complaining about the “shrieking” posters that the Allies put up in German cities, by which he meant the photographs of the camps. But in the Black notebooks he sees this as posturing and inauthentic. On the other hand, he certainly sees himself and his “here” as the victim of a threat now – the Soviets!
And rounding up with Stalin, he writes a sentence that could easily have come out of J. Edgar Hoover’s collected works on the Communist conspiracy. It is an almost perfect expression of the continuity between the Nazi anti-Bolshevism of the 30s and the Conservative Cold War anti-communism of the fifties. It doesn’t miss a beat, this language.

Hannah Arendt was the executive director of the European Commission on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction from 1948 to 1952. In 1949, she made a swing through Europe on its behalf. It was at that time that, as her biographer Young-Bruhl puts it, she “renewed” her relationship to Karl Jaspers. In 1951, her big book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, came out, and she became a “cover girl” – her face was on the cover of the Saturday Review, which at that time was the most read literary journal in America.

On September 1, 1949, Jaspers wrote her a letter in which he commented on Heidegger: “ He is completely absorbed in speculation about Sein ; he spells it Seyn. Two and a half years ago he was experimenting with “existence” and distorted everything thoroughly…. Can someone with an impure soul – that is, a soul that is unaware of its own impurity and isn’t trying to expel it, but continues to live thoughtlessly, in filth – can someone in that kind of dishonesty perceive what is purest?”
On September 29, 1949, Arendt wrote back: “Heidegger: because human beings are consistent, I at any rate, I was pleased. You are right a thousand times over in each of your sentences. What you call impurity I would call lack of character – but in the sense that he literally has none and certainly not a particularly bad one. At the same time, he lives in depths and with a passionateness that one can’t easily forget. The distortion is intolerable, and the very fact that he is arranging everything now to look like an interpretation of Sein und Zeit suggest that it will all come out distorted again. I read his letter against humanism. Also very questionable and often ambiguous, but still the first thing of his that comes up to his old standard (I’ve read him here on Holderlin and also his quite awful, babbling lectures on Nietzsche).”
The feeling that, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was dealing with a specter – a transparency. Behind the person of Eichmann, there was a characterless man:
“Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal” – “More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable” – and finally the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be “a man with very positive ideas.”

And this bit, in the reply of Arendt to Scholem’s letter, quoted above : And to connect immediately the last point, I will begin by 'Ahabath Israel (you would do me a great favor if you would tell me when this notion began to play a rôle in Hebrew and in the written tradition, when it appeared for the first time, etc.) You are perfectly right to say that I have no “love” of this kind. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, that I have never in my life « loved » a people or any kind of collective : neither German nor French nor American, nor for the working class or whatever falls in this price range. I only in fact love my friends, and I am totally inapt at all other kinds of love. But secondly, this kind of love for the Jews is suspect to me, being a Jew myself. I don’t love myself, no more than I love that which composes my substance, in one way or another. »
The first claim in this passage makes some sense. But the second claim, it seems to me, needs some unpacking. Why would the love of oneself be more suspicious to Arendt as a Jew? Is it because this kind of love is only commanded when the object is God? To make the object the Jews is, here, to make an idol of a collective. One doesn’t get far into the prophets to see that all idols must be torn down. Yet to carry this fear to the length of refusing to love herself or the “matter” that composes her substance seems an ascetic position that one doesn’t often associate with Arendt. Of course, at this moment in her life she is driven by the feeling that her book on Eichmann is being intentionally misread, so to Scholem she might be exaggerating. However, the Talmudic resonance here is even more emphasized as she continues this paragraph: “To make you understand what I mean, I would like to tell you of a discussion with Golda Meier, who, in passing, I must say pleased me greatly, so much so that I beg you not to think that there is any personal animosity in what follows: We were speaking of the absence of separation of religion and state in Israel, which is for me ominous, a situation she defended. She said to me, in substance – I can’t recall the exact wording: Understand that, in as much as I am a socialist, I don’t believe in God, I believe in the Jewish people. I reckon that this is a horrible phrase, and I could not respond because I was too shocked, but I could have retorted: the greatness of these people has in the past been to believe in God, and to do it in a manner so that the love of God depasses the fear of God. And now the people only believe in themselves? What do you think will happen with that? In brief, in this sense, I do not “love” the Jews and I do not “believe” in them, I only belong to this people naturally and factually.”
Here I think I am eavesdropping on a struggle that has become more and more visible: the struggle for an identity, for a loveable larger self that one can claim, that one can then be loved within. I am straight, I am gay, I am a Jew, I am a white Protestant, etc. Against which the modernist impulse to impersonality makes its case – that the wound to narcissism is, in a strong sense, the origin of all good things, a necessary harrowing.

The method of indirection to find direction out. Hamlet’s detective work.
A quotation on banality from Gogol and the Devil: “Everyone can perceive evil in great violations of the moral law, in rare and unusual misdeeds, in the staggering climaxes of tragedies. Gogol was the first to detect invisible evil, most terrible and enduring, not in traged, but in the absence of everything tragic; not in power, but in potence; not in acuity and profundity, but in inanity and planarity – in the banality of all human feelings and thoughts; not in the greatest things, but in the smallest. … He was the first to understand that it is the Devil who is the smallest thing that exists, and seems big only because we ourselves are small…”

Merezkhovsky’s essay is never named by Nabokov in his book on Gogol. That would be showing his receipts, so to speak. It would be a cool-hunter admitting to listening to some tacky group or singer. Yet once I read Merezkhovsky's essay, I began to feel that it cast a shadow over Nabokov’s book. The book came out in 1961. In 1962 Pale Fire came out, and was reviewed rapturously by Mary McCarthy in The New Republic. Did Arendt read the Gogol book?
The answer is yes. We know this because McCarthy corresponded with Arendt about Pale Fire. Arendt answered like this: “There is something in N which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of “more intelligent than.” There is something vulgar in his refinement, and I am a bit allergic against this kind of vulgarity, because I know it so well, know so many people cursed with it. But perhaps this is no longer true here. Let me see. I know only one book of his which I truly admire, and that is the long essay on Gogol.”
Chichikov, as Nabokov says, is not strikingly evil in himself. “Morally Chichikov was hardly guilty of any special crime in attempting to buy up dead men in a country where live men were lawfully purchased and pawned.” Which makes it all the more interesting how the Devil gets into the case: “The dead souls he is buying are not merely names on a slip of paper. They are the dead souls that fill the air of Gogol’s world with their leathery flutter, the clumsy animula of Manilov or of Korbochka, of the housewives of the town of N., of countless other little people bobbing throughout the book. Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representation of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades, “our Mr. Chichikov” as the Satan and Co. firm may be imagined calling their easy-going, healthy-looking but inwardly shivering and rotting agent. The poshlust which Chichikov personifies is one of the main attributes of the Devil, in whose existence, let it be added, Gogol believed far more seriously than he did in that of God.”
Scholem accused Arendt of being “flippant”, and there were many reactions to the book’s tone, which seemed to create such confusion that she was often accused of mocking or condemning the Jews for going like sheep to the slaughter in the camps and the countryside – when, in fact, she was reporting the words of the prosecutor, who in turn was voicing a certain thematic in the Zionism of Ben-Gurion’s Israel, one in which the Jews of Europe were, precisely, accused of a cowardice that the Jews of Israel would rebuke in act and word. But it is still an interesting tone, not often used by Arendt, except in her private correspondence.

And this is Mr. Sammler from Bellow’s novel: “Do you think the Nazis didn’t know what murder was? Everybody (except certain blue-stockings) knows what murder is. That is very old human knowledge. The best and purest human beings, from the beginning of time, have understood that life is sacred. To defy that old understanding is not banality. There was a conspiracy against the sacredness of life. Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience. Is such a project trivial? This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilization itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the twentieth century – to denounce it in terms invented by Germans. Making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”

It sticks in the throat, banality. The Germans, the blue-stockings, the pure human beings, the impure, the characterless. To not even have a bad character as you trade flesh and blood people for money – one of Eichmann’s proudest achievements. Although of course he was prouder of the killing system he helped make ever more efficient.
At the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt deals with Martin Buber’s concern that Eichmann’s execution – which he was opposed to – would serve to “expiate the guilt felt by many young persons in Germany”. She throws her rebuke to Buber in a parenthetical aside that tells us how much the other side of the banality of evil – the evil of banality – keeps the system going.
(It is strange that Buber, a man not only of eminence but of very great intelligence, should not see how spurious these much publicized guilt feelings necessarily are. It is quite gratifying to feel guilty if you haven’t done anything wrong: how noble! Whereas it is rather hard and certainly depressing to admit guilt and to repent. The youth of Germany is surrounded, on all sides and in all walks of life, by men in positions of authority and in public office who are very guilty indeed but who feel nothing of the sort. The normal reaction to this state of affairs should be indignation, but indignation would be quite risky – not a danger to life and limb but definitely a handicap in a career. Those young German men and women who every once in a while – on the occasion of all the Diary of Anne Frank hubbub and of the Eichmann trial – treat us to hysterical outbreaks of guilt feelings are not staggering under the burden of the past, their fathers’ guilt; rather, they are trying to escape from the pressure of very present and actual problems into a cheap sentimentality.) Professor Buber went on to say that he felt “no pity at all” for Eichmann, because he could feel pity “only for those whose actions I understand in my heart,” and he stressed what he had said many years ago in Germany – that he had “only in a formal sense a common humanity with those who took part” in the acts of the Third Reich. This lofty attitude was, of course, more of a luxury than those who had to try Eichmann could afford, since the law presupposes precisely that we have a common humanity with those whom we accuse and judge and condemn.”

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...