Issue 5 Evil Winter 2001/02
The De-demonization of Evil
The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem after the last war.1
Beyond the controversy over Arendt's book, there are thus several "afterlives" to the "banality of evil" thesis quite independent of Arendt's analysis. The investigation of the conditions for evil in modern society, and of detecting the "little Nazi within us," affected various fields beyond political theory and philosophy.8 The Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, for instance, conducted a series of experiments where average individuals were instructed to administer electroshocks to research subjects when the latter failed to perform simple tasks. These research "subjects," placed in cubicles not unlike the famous glass booth sheltering Eichmann from attacks by former victims during his trial, were paid actors who feigned physical pain when receiving the "electroshocks," which in reality carried no current. Milgram found that most individuals willingly administered near-lethal doses of electricity if such action was prescribed in the research guidelines: "After witnessing hundreds of ordinary people submit to authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt's conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine…: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process."9 In response to his amazement and the intense media storm over his experiments, Milgram's wife wryly remarked, "so there are a bunch of Eichmanns in New Haven."
Earlier, Arendt had been dismayed when German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger suggested that fascism is horrible not because it occurred in Germany but because it could happen anywhere. Arendt was very clear that Eichmann's behavior arose in the specific setting of the totalitarian state of Nazi Germany. German playwright Heiner Kipphardt similarly thought he was correctly extending Arendt's analysis in his play Brother Eichmann when he juxtaposed scenes set in Eichmann's cell with interview excerpts of a US fighter pilot in Vietnam, a police officer in the American South shooting tear gas to disperse black schoolchildren during riots, and former Israeli defense minister (and current prime minister), Ariel Sharon, explaining an Israeli attack on a Palestinian refugee camp. In a bizarre fusion of Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis with the theme of Jewish self-hatred, the 1975 Hollywood film The Man in the Glass Booth stars Maximilian Schell as a Jewish Holocaust survivor who mistakes himself for a Nazi criminal posing, in turn, as a Jew in post-war New York, and whose true identity emerges in a climactic scene inside the glass booth in a Jerusalem courtroom. The notion that evil is not radical but might manifest itself in the most mundane guises had taken hold.
When the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, accused Arendt in a famous letter, written after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of lacking ahavat Israel (love for the Jewish people), she curtly asked whether Scholem could quickly provide her with a history of the uses of this concept.10In effect, she turned Scholem into a research assistant now saddled with an assignment (to which he, incidentally, never responded). Arendt explained that the notion of an allegiance to a group—particularly one to which she would be bound by birth—is highly suspect for her since it smacks of self-interest. Her love, Arendt sharply remarked, was reserved for her friends. Scholem was deeply dissatisfied with Arendt's response. The question Scholem did not fire back at Arendt in their polemical and even hostile exchange was whether she, in turn, could provide him with a history of her concept of "the banality of evil." Indeed, this question regarding the provenance of Arendt's most famous coinage should have been of great interest to Scholem, who had written in his "95 Theses on Judaism and Zionism," presented to Walter Benjamin on the occasion of his twenty-sixth birthday on 15 July 1918, that "evil has no history."11
In spite of the amazing provocation of Arendt's phrase, however, virtually no commentator has tried to determine its provenance. In discussions of Arendt's book, emphasis is shifted almost instantly to the polemics around it, to Kant's "radical evil," or to Arendt's discussion of evil in other works. Judging by the literature, Arendt's "banality of evil" seems not only to have been plucked out of thin air but remains there, an attention-grabbing phrase that is unworthy of her sharp intellect, or merely a rhetor-ical but philosophically inessential instrument in her polemics against the Israeli prosecutor's characterization of Eichmann. The "banality of evil," however, has a history.
Arendt, it is claimed, did not personally invent the phrase. In a reversal of the common structure of male author and female companion/secretary/muse, Arendt's husband Heinrich Blücher, a fellow German exile and professor of philosophy, proposed the phrase to his wife. It has been suggested that Arendt's notion of "evil" was shaped by her husband's experience of daily persecution and violent harassment as a Communist in Hitler's Germany, and that the emphasis placed on the banality of a functionary's behavior originates in a Marxist, systemic view of Hitler's crimes that presumably differs from a particularly Jewish angle. In light of the grave misunderstandings prompted by the phrase, Arendt added an afterword to her book explaining that the "banality of evil" does not diminish guilt for the Nazis, but instead heightens their responsibility by prying their deeds from a quasi-theological and irrational realm (in which "evil" is frequently located) and placing them firmly into lived reality governed by human laws. In a letter to German philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt remarked that in conversations with Blücher she realized that "evil" might manifest itself as a "superficial phenomenon."12 Blücher had experienced the Nazis' methods of daily harassment, intimidation, and brutal treatment of political opponents firsthand; these direct actions carried out by violent thugs could not be relegated to the realm of metaphysics. In a strange, backhanded invitation for Arendt to disavow or even retract her controversial phrase, Jaspers wrote that Blücher invented the "phrase 'banality of evil' and now blames himself that you have to pay for [in the controversy over Eichmann] what he started."13
But Arendt investigated the "banality of evil" because that "phenomenon… stared one in the face at the trial," and not because her husband gave her some strange ideas.14 Her arguments are explicitly directed against the notion, advanced by state prosecutor Hausner in opening arguments, that Eichmann was the "executor of some mysteriously foreordained destiny, or, for that matter, even of anti-Semitism…."15 For Arendt, this idea would remove the crimes from their political and historical context. For Hausner, Eichmann's deeds constituted only a further step in a history of the Gentiles' trans-historical hatred of the Jews. This characterization of Jewish history as a narrative of persecution, with the Holocaust as a culminating pogrom in a Europe where the promise of assimilation had lulled Jews into a false sense of security, served to identify Zionism and Israeli nationalism as the only options for Jewish survival in modernity. Arendt objected to the corresponding ideologically motivated characterization of Eichmann as the incarnation of a "foreordained" evil. Her notion of the "banality of evil" is a polemical rebuttal of the strategic demonization of Eichmann for political and ideological purposes.
Arendt was not one to retract a provocative idea, even when it was deliberately distorted or appropriated for the wrong ends. She did not accept Jaspers', implicit invitation to disavow responsibility for the problematic phrase by declaring her husband its inventor, but stressed how her analysis of Eichmann's "banality" indicts the man more severely than the standard practice of demonizing him—which would relieve us of the difficult analysis of what permitted Eichmann to carry out his deeds with a clear conscience.
Very few texts are better designed to irritate. It's with undeniable stiffness, and not without a kind of perversion, that [the author] represents this stiff, perverse and unsatisfying totality that is nothing other than [the subject of the study] itself.16
These words, part of a sustained attack on a book detailing the moral shortcomings of a quintessentially bourgeois subject, are not part of the campaign against Arendt's Eichmann. Instead, Georges Bataille aimed them at Jean-Paul Sartre's assessment of the poet Baudelaire, which caused a controversy comparable to that produced by Arendt's Eichmann. In his Baudelaire, Sartre condemned the author of The Flowers of Evilfor having abdicated responsibility for his actions. Sartre was particularly repulsed by Baudelaire's recourse—which he viewed as a disavowal of responsibility—to "the Devil" and "Hysteria" as the causes for morally reprehensible deeds. With biting sarcasm, Sartre described Baudelaire's self-stylization as a perpetual victim of his circumstances:
[Baudelaire] is no more than a marionette whose strings are being manipulated... At bottom it matters very little whether he attributes his actions to the Devil or to Hysteria; the essential [thing] is that he is not their cause but their victim. After that, we notice that he has, as usual, left the door open. He doesn't believe in the Devil.17
For the existentialist Sartre, Baudelaire's renunciation of responsibility for one's action was inexcusable. Make no mistake here, Sartre warns his readers, Baudelaire does not even believe in the existence of the "Devil" or the unadulterated evil on which he blames his deeds. Baudelaire's lack of faith in unadulterated evil puts his "Devil," as the cause of actions in which he has no investment, in a line with other such figures that are themselves empty of significance and yet prompt extreme actions: Poe's "Imp of the Perverse"; a box of Twinkies; an order from "above"; the system in which the individual does not necessarily believe. In light of his notion first developed in Being and Nothingness of an "original choice" by which man can exercise his freedom, Sartre finds Baudelaire's evasiveness appalling. Sartre's existentialist psychological reading of Baudelaire, which provoked outraged responses that, in their vehemence, rivaled the attacks on Arendt's Eichmann, culminates in the assertion that Baudelaire equated "his destiny" with free choice, that he embraced whatever happened to him in one gesture as both inevitable and as his desire.18 Sartre condemns Baudelaire for deliberately refusing to alter his sense of self, for not letting "an accident or the intervention of chance" change his understanding of "this life which was so closed and narrow."19 Above all, Sartre attacked the way Baudelaire resigned himself to the external conditions of his life and then blamed these very conditions for his deeds.
Although Sartre's reading of Baudelaire is reductive, even severe critics such as Bataille admit its "plausibility."20 Baudelaire understood Evil as that toward which man is drawn by "whims."21 He deviated from the Enlightenment notion that human nature is basically and inherently good, but might be tempted by evil. Nature is neither basically good (as it is for Sartre, which permits a choice to be evil) nor bad, but inherently ambivalent.
Nature teaches us nothing or almost nothing but instead compels man to sleep, drink, eat, and protect himself against the hostile elements. It... also... pushes man to kill his brother, eat him, lock him up, and torture him. As soon as we leave the order of necessity and need and enter into the realm of luxury and pleasure, we see that nature teaches nothing but crime.22
Since for Baudelaire nature "teaches nothing," "compels" man to act both morally and immorally, and "teaches nothing but crime," Baudelaire's evil is neither an interruption nor the norm; it cannot be reduced to Sartre's "acte gratuit," by which man can assert his fundamental freedom to act without motives, and thus independently. For Baudelaire, evil is not simply an act that suddenly erupts as a consequence of man's alienation from himself and his inherently good nature. It is also an inherent human trait. Although Sartre ignores the fundamental ambivalence in this Baudelairean notion of evil, Sartre shrewdly isolates the significance of Baudelaire's self-stylization as a perpetual victim of circumstances. Ultimately, Baudelaire is unclear about the precise nature of man's compulsion to commit evil. Sartre hones in on this ambivalence and identifies it, indeed, as a sign of Baudelaire's refusal to make a choice—a choice regarding the nature of evil, and a choice that would, by its mere possibility, serve as testimony to the possibility of human freedom.
In order to grasp the full significance of Sartre's Baudelaire, Bataille suggested, one must not get caught up in judging Sartre himself.23 Instead, it proves germane to recall the historical situation in which Sartre wrote his book. Sartre ruthlessly dissected the "quasi-legendary prototype of the cursed poet" in 1942 and 1943, during the German occupation of France.24 Occupied Paris, where Sartre is writing, presents a situation where dangerous choices are needed that would oppose the reigning system, where everyone has to claim responsibility for his or her actions, and where the freedom to choose should translate into deed.
Precisely because Baudelaire was so widely revered as a "cursed poet" celebrating le mal in a society engulfed in the profound moral and political crisis of life under Nazi occupation, Sartre was unforgiving about Baudelaire's implicit claim that he could not help but suffer a fate dealt to him. Indeed, Sartre's Baudelaire can be read as an angry wake-up call aimed at a largely complacent French public under Nazi rule. Sartre aims to dismantle the cult of Baudelaire because the author of The Flowers of Evil constitutes a dangerous sedative, an excuse for languid complacency, and the refusal to take responsibility for one's actions.
A gesture, a breath, a thought may suddenly alter the sense of the whole of the past—such is man's temporal condition. Baudelaire… did not want to be subject to the iron law by which our present behavior is continually modifying our past acts.25
Sartre saw in Baudelaire the quintessential bourgeois subject who displaces agency for his actions onto his surroundings. Baudelaire serves as the prototype for the functionary who ascribes responsibility even for his own deeds, which are meant as expressions of his free will, to the system. From Sartre's Baudelaire emerges, uncannily, the outline of the phenotype of Arendt's banality of evil: a criminality that is strangely devoid of an investment in or passion for the crime. For Arendt, Eichmann was characterized by:
...sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is "banal" and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.26
This lack of "diabolical or demonic profundity" also produced the climate of Baudelairean "Evil." Sartre describes this disturbing lack of interiority of the one committing such moral offenses (to which Sartre gives the label "crime"):
For with Baudelaire, the crime was concerted, carried out deliberately and almost under duress. Evil did not correspond in any way to abandonment. It was a counter-Good which had to possess all the characteristics of Good except that they appeared with a different mathematical sign in front of them. And since Good stood for effort, exercise, self-domination, we shall find all these characteristics in Evil.27
To fully grasp Sartre's criticism of Baudelairean evil, it is crucial to recall Sartre's emphasis on the fact that Baudelaire did not believe in "the Devil," whom he blamed for his actions. Baudelaire attributed his deeds to an agent whom he knew to be nonexistent. He carried out his deeds, as it were, without investment in a larger principle. Eichmann, in Arendt's analysis, "merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing."28 Indeed, Eichmann's banality resulted from the fact that he was characterized by "an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else."29
With regard to this deficiency, Eichmann is worlds apart from Baudelaire, whose "admirable intelligence" was never questioned by Sartre.30 But Eichmann's inability to think produced the very dilemma identified already by Sartre for the case of Baudelaire: that of a person who aspired to let his actions and the surrounding world coincide. Eichmann's refusal to let anything from the outside—an abstract notion of humanity or freedom of choice—alter his course of action produced a fundamental difficulty for Arendt. For those wrestling with the phenomenon of evil evidenced by Eichmann, "[t]o fall back on an unequivocal voice of conscience—or, in the even vaguer language of the jurists, on a 'general sentiment of humanity'—not only begs the question, it signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century."31
This "central phenomenon" was the individual who disavowed the notion of anything external that would alter his actions.
To be sure, any comparison of Baudelaire and Eichmann constitutes a scandalous abandonment of referential grounding. Although Baudelaire was no saint, his life was all but blameless compared to Eichmann, who commissioned the trains deporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to the death camps. Yet the refusal to investigate the provenance of the "banality of evil" based on the vastness of Eichmann's deeds constitutes a refusal to think about the specific kind of evil that surfaced in his trial. If Eichmann's "banality of evil" is conceptually sheltered, as if in a virtual glass box, from comparison with other investigations of banal evil such as Sartre's Baudelaire, the demonization of the Nazis effectively remains in place. Both Sartre and Arendt, while they disagree on other subjects, aim at de-sentimentalizing evil in the interest of thinking and analysis. For Sartre, the French public's addiction to Baudelaire kept them from making genuine choices during the Nazi occupation. Sartre explained in a radio interview with the BBC in 1944 that "we were never freer than under the Nazi occupation," by which he means that the occupation endowed every decision with existential significance, for or against a murderous regime. When the French public accepted their fate as something they could only suffer in the face of Hitler's guns, this stance found expression in the widespread conception of Baudelaire as "living a life he did not deserve."32 For Arendt, the demonization of Eichmann similarly sealed the "moral collapse" of Europe in a realm of unanalyzability and spared Europeans from examining their complicity in that collapse.
She thought that it was not Eichmann's "fanaticism" but his conscience, as a rigid adherence to internalized values, that made him carry out his crimes.33 For her, Eichmann failed to take note of what Sartre in his Baudelaire calls "a gesture, a breath, a thought [that] may suddenly alter the sense of the whole of the past" and permit a break with existing positions.
"Those few who were still able to tell right from wrong," Arendt concludes in her report on the banality of evil, "went really only by their own judgments, and they did so freely; there were no rules to be abided by, under which the particular cases with which they were confronted could be subsumed."34 Criticism, Baudelaire wrote famously, "ought to be partial, passionate and political, that is to say, written from an exclusive point of view but from the point of view that opens up the widest horizons."35 Sartre's and Arendt's books, on two manifestations of the "banality of evil," contain such exclusive points of view. In an unexpected parallel gesture of freeing themselves of existing opinion, the undeniably "partial, passionate and political" points of view expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem and Baudelaire reach beyond their respective objects of inquiry to discern something that is not limited to the realm of either literature or politics.
Instead of insisting, like others, that evil is radical, Arendt and Sartre attempted to counter the stupefaction which they saw descending like a fog over Europe after the war. Their books are reflections on the moral crisis prompted by World War II—a crisis they acknowledged but feared would lead to a revival of the notion of radical evil that would "defy the possibility of human judgment."36 This crisis results in large part from a wholesale loss of faith in divinity as controlling human existence. Arendt shrewdly noted that in response to the debunking of the divinely anchored model of the universe, there needed to follow a process of de-demonization of evil. "What has come to light," she wrote in response to the controversy over her book, "is neither nihilism nor cynicism, as one might have expected, but a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality."37
Ulrich Baer teaches in the Department of German at New York University. His books include Remnants of Song: Trauma and Modernity in Baudelaire and Celan, and the forthcoming Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma.
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