Fifty Years Later, Why Does ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ Remain Contentious?

Adam Kirsch in The New York Times:

Bookends-Adam-Kirsch-articleInlineFew controversial books remain controversial 50 years after they were published. But the storm of indignation that greeted “Eichmann in Jerusalem” when it appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, and then in book form, has not fully died down even now. Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann remains a classic, a touchstone in the 20th century’s thinking about morality and politics. But it is a classic constantly targeted for revision: David Cesarani challenged Arendt’s interpretation of Eichmann in his biography of the Nazi bureaucrat, as did Deborah Lipstadt in her study “The Eichmann Trial.” It’s no secret that reaction to “Eichmann in Jerusalem” has often divided along religious lines. Mary McCarthy, Arendt’s close friend, noted this fact in a Partisan Review symposium: “A gentile, once the topic is raised in Jewish company (and it always is), feels like a child with a reading defect in a class of normal readers — or the reverse. It is as if ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ had required a special pair of Jewish spectacles to make its ‘true purport’ visible.” To illustrate McCarthy’s point, compare her own characterization of the book — “a paean of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of ‘Figaro’ or the ‘Messiah’ ” — with Saul Bellow’s acerbic take in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”: “making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”

What made, and still makes, “Eichmann in Jerusalem” so inflammatory to some readers is in large part Arendt’s tone; but tone, in this case, is closely connected to substance. Arendt, who fled the Nazis in 1933 and again after they conquered France in 1940, was reckoning in this book with the evil that had claimed the lives of millions of her fellow Jews, and damaged her own life as well. To counter this injury with a display of pride was for her a moral imperative, a way of showing her utter contempt for Nazism. Indeed, the whole idea of the “banality of evil” is at bottom a way of denying Nazism any glamour or substance, of relegating it to the realm of nonbeing.

More here.