coetzee on mailer


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 clichéd 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.”

more from the NY Review of books here.