The Imagination of Evil

 by on December 7, 2013
Dec 072013

It has become quite the fad to criticize Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem for not going far enough in its condemnation of Eichmann and for failing to identify sufficiently with the victims. Richard Brody has done it before and he expresses a similar critique again in his Hannah Arendt’s Failures of Imagination. He tells us how recently published interviews with Arendt confirm his criticisms of a cold, snobby intellectual who failed to condemn Nazism sufficiently.

I’ve read through the article several times to make sure I’m not missing anything, and it seems like Brody’s argument is this: Arendt lacks imagination in her characterization of Eichmann, which means she’s a snobby intellectual who doesn’t appreciate the gravity of Eichmann’s crimes, and her lack of emotion means she can’t understand the depth of evil done to Jews. A couple of examples will suffice:

Her mechanistic view of Eichmann’s personality, as well as her abstract and unsympathetic consideration of the situation of Jews under Nazi rule, reflect her inability to consider the experiences of others from within.

her own reluctance, in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” to imagine her subjects’ experiences in terms beyond the intellectual substance of their discourse or the political implications of their actions.

There’s a word for what’s missing in “Eichmann in Jerusalem”: emotion. For instance, Arendt is reluctant to imagine Eichmann’s death-hatred of Jews, the fear and despair that Jews who were compelled to serve on Jewish Councils felt in the presence of Nazis.

That’s really the bulk of the argument. A few comments by Arendt from interviews only serve to supposedly reinforce these characterizations of the person. Since she wasn’t one to retract or apologize for statements, no matter how controversial, Brody takes this as further proof of her intellectual detachedness from the horrors of evil. I’ll admit to initially feeling a certain sympathy for Brody’s view. When faced with crimes so great and incalculable as the Holocaust, there is a natural emotional response, and we look for that response in others as a sign of sympathy. But the emotional response quickly loses its utility when we attempt to understand the historical events that occurred and look for lessons that might help us create a future in which such events no longer occur.

In the end, his argument comes down to two ad hominem non sequiturs: Arendt’s lack of emotion means she lacks understanding; and her subtlety in response to Eichmann means that she sympathizes with the criminal. Due to his obsessive focus on the imaginative and emotional as moral measures of our response to evil, Brody seems to have completely missed the central ideas of Eichmann in Jerusalem: (1) thoughtlessness, lack of judgment, often leads to evil acts, and (2) the categories of absolute evil and absolute innocence are imaginations that don’t help us understand how evil comes about historically.

We would like to believe Brody. We would like to believe that evil comes with all the recognizable characteristics of legend and film, that an emotional response to the appearance of evil is our best response. Unfortunately, those desires can deceive us. Eichmann isn’t an idea; he’s not a personification of evil writ large. Eichmann is the man and his acts, the unconscionable moral failures and the trappings of a mundane ideologue. Arendt’s point is that we can’t understand him–we can’t understand totalitarianism in general–in the categories of absolute evil and absolute innocence. Reliance on such categories results from intellectuals and cultural critics whose imaginations make idols, positive or negative, out of human history. Idealized, absolute categories may seem attractive to us at first, in our emotional response to overwhelming events, but these categories quickly lose their interpretive power once we begin the process of understanding.

In his critique of Arendt’s lack of imagination, Brody unknowingly becomes an example of the intellectual pitfall that often plagues our understanding of history and that Arendt wants to challenge. That pitfall is the idealization and idolization of human criminality. This imagination of evil, exacerbated by portrayals of criminals in the media and film as other-worldly, creates an environment in which one is not allowed to respond to evil with any degree of subtlety. The word ‘evil’ itself becomes troublesome, carrying with it all the images and idols of evil as antagonist and anti-hero of myth. Arendt’s phrase, ‘the banality of evil’, was merely an attempt to destroy the idol of the imaginative concept of evil and return the crimes of human history to their proper context.

To believe that the only correct response to Eichmann is an emotional, hyperbolic one is merely prejudice against a certain character, and to make the book about Arendt’s character is about the most uninteresting reading one could offer. Though the irony and dry humor she employs at times may be inappropriate for some, and though she may not go into the graphic detail of events that others would prefer, it will take more than flimsy attacks on her person to demonstrate that Arendt had something more nefarious in mind than provoking us to think about how totalitarianism can produce a thousand Eichmanns, how a thousand Eichmanns can commit such horrible crimes, and how anyone, if not vigilant in their judgment, could become an Eichmann under such circumstances. Aren’t these the important questions to ask in the case of Eichmann?

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