Since I blogged about Arendt and Eichmann on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I figured I’d do the same on Erev Yom Kippur.
Actually, there’s a reason I’ve been thinking about the Arendt/Eichmann controversy of late: it’s heating up again. This time, prompted by the publication in English of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem. I’ve been reading the book, which offers a full-scale reconsideration not only of Eichmann but of how Eichmann presented himself at court in Jerusalem. In the background, inevitably, is Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Stagneth’s is an uneven book, which starts out with great promise (its opening set piece is almost worthy of Arendt), but performs the nearly magical feat of being both tendentious, maniacally repeating its argument over and over again, and wayward; it’s both polemical and dilatory.
One potentially fascinating angle of the book, which I haven’t seen Stangneth develop, at least not yet, is why Arendt wasn’t more interested in Eichmann’s performance at Jerusalem as a performance. Arendt, after all, had an especially theatrical conception of politics, understanding all that we do in the public sphere as a kind of performance, a mask we wear, a role we inhabit. And no one reading those opening pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem could fail to see just how theatrical is her sense of the “show trial” in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt refuses to apply those insights to Eichmann himself. Rather than see him as performing a part (Stangneth does a good job of showing that that is exactly what Eichmann was doing at Jerusalem), Arendt sees Eichmann as being subsumed by, or subsuming himself in, his role. That is, in part, his blankness, his banality, for Arendt. It’s understandable that Arendt would resist seeing Eichmann in Jerusalem as a performance: that is, after all, the point of her book. Even so, it’s a fascinating wrinkle in the story, one that I hope Stangneth will pursue at some point in the book.
Back to the Arendt/Eichmann wars. They seem to flare up every decade or so. What’s truly astonishing is that the wars continue today, more than a half-century after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. With the exception of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, what book has managed, 50 years later, to stir up so much wrath and rage? With books like the Bible or Capital, it’s more understandable: they, after all, are immediately linked to a political or religious movement. But Eichmann in Jerusalem is not.
Or perhaps it is… [click to continue…]