Gotham Diary:
6 December 2013

This morning was so dark and dispiriting — and we were up so late last night — that, instead of making the bed, I got back into it. When I wasn’t dozing, I was reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. After a few hours of this, various events along the alimentary canal brought my day into focus, and here, accoutered with sandwich and slippers, I am.

I had been a regular reader of The New Yorker for the better part of a year when the first installment of Hannah Arendt’s “Report on the Banality of Evil” appeared the magazine. I don’t recall deciding not to read it; I may even have given it a try, and then given up, defeated by Arendt’s allusive manner — writing about the most enormous horror of modern times, she was not about to begin with a précis of events — as well as by her tone of mordant, at times comical, contempt, which is by no means focused exclusively on the defendant and his Nazi past. I’d have missed the references, and passed out on the ironies. The book was in every way too old for me.

But there was, or must have been, I’m sure, a certain additional peculiarity to my resistance. What the Nazis had done to the Jews was an abomination, everybody knew that; and yet I lived in a town where realtors uniformly advised Jewish inquirers that no house within the sacred square mile of Bronxville would be sold to them. This was one of our civic achievements. My mother, in any case, was quite proud of it. She was not shy about expressing her anti-Semitic views. The vague but persistent feeling that there was something wrong with these views made me very uncomfortable (she was my mother, after all), and as long as I myself lived in Bronxville I preferred not to think about them. The thinking would start later in 1963, when I packed off to prep school, which abounded in Jewish classmates. In February, when Eichmann began its serial run, I almost certainly felt that it would scold me for something that I hadn’t done.

I’m reading the book now because — presto! — it’s fifty years old, and everyone’s getting a word in. So far, I subscribe without reservation to Arendt’s core idea, which is that truly thinking people could never have committed such atrocities; if you disagree, then you don’t understand what thinking really is. I also accept her portrait of Adolf Eichmann as a bureaucratic clown, a doofus whose braggadocio was concocted from stock phrases and decked out in borrowed plumes. I haven’t reached the most controversial part of the book, in which Arendt comes down hard on the Judenräte, the Jewish “elders” who helped the Nazis “organize” the Jews.

One thing that can’t be said of Arendt, I feel, is that she was a “self-hating Jew.” She no more struggles against her Jewish ancestry than she does against her gender. It is not the most important thing about her, certainly; she is most passionate about the soundness of her intellectual life. She was the kind of idealistic Zionist who could only be dismayed by the disappointments of the actual Israel. She belonged where she wound up, here, in Manhattan, although by that I don’t mean that she deserved the drubbing that she got from American Jews, whose principal settlement has always been this city, after everyone had a chance to read her Report. Mary McCarthy made a very interesting remark about the character of the debate (I can’t find it, so I’ll have to paraphrase): one felt either like the only child in a room full of reproving adults, or the other way around. People on each side claimed that there was something that their opponents didn’t, or wouldn’t, understand. Philip Rieff (in The Nation) and Mark Lilla (in The New York Review of Books) both argue that Arendt was, at best, “tone deaf.” But Eichmann in Jerusalem refuses to be bewildered by the Holocaust, and I admire that.

The Holocaust was the purest expression of the nationalistic passion that infected Europeans during the French Revolution. Tribes and “peoples” had always been recognized, but no one had ever seriously considered building states atop them.  Quite the reverse: civilized life, in (admittedly slave-bound) classical antiquity, was seen as post-tribal. When you became a Roman citizen, it didn’t matter if your mother tongue was Latin or Greek or something else: you were Roman. Why this broke down in the early modern period I’m not quite sure, but the emergence of England’s maritime power must have had something to do with it. England was a natural “island nation,” notwithstanding the inconvenient persistence of Celtic aboriginals. France was just the opposite, a small heartland along the valleys of the Seine and the Loire, surrounded by ambiguous marches. Without a monarch to unite them, the French fell back on being French, even though most subjects/citizens weren’t. But there had always been a France, for ages and ages anyway. There had never been a Germany, and fashioning one out of the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire called for a lot of invention. In retrospect, it seems obvious that these new Germans would inevitably need to define themselves by expelling the Jews. That was indeed Eichmann’s original objective: “helping” Jews to leave the Reich. The war made genuine emigration difficult — impossible, really — but Eichmann kept going, shipping Jews from here to there. What happened “there” was not his department.

This isn’t to say that Eichmann wasn’t a criminal, that what he did was somehow excusable. But what he and the other actors did on the Nazi stage was made possible by the virulence of the terrible sickness of nationalism that infected the general population, and that the interventions of a racist American president, Woodrow Wilson, wrongheadedly exacerbated at the end of World War I. (“National” is, after all, what the party’s nickname comes from.) What happened in Germany could happen anywhere similarly afflicted. And it does.


I am haunted by a passage from late in The Golden Bowl. It’s about the Prince, and his imperturbable self-possession in the wake of being confronted by his wife’s awareness of his infidelity.

He had taken from her on the spot in a word, before going to dress for dinner, all she then had to give — after which, on the morrow, he had asked her for more, a good deal as if she might have renewed her supply during the night; but he had had at his command for this latter purpose an air of extraordinary detachment and discretion, an air amounting really to an appeal which, if she could have brought herself to describe it vulgarly, she would have noted as cool, just as he himself would have described it in any one else as ‘cheeky’; a suggestion that she should trust him on the particular ground since she didn’t on the general. Neither his speech nor his silence struck her as signifying more or signifying less, under this pressure, than they had seemed to signify for weeks past; yet if her sense hadn’t been absolutely closed to the possibility in him of any thought of wounding her she might have taken his undisturbed manner, the perfection of his appearance of having recovered himself, for one of those intentions of high impertinence by the aid of which great people, les grands seigneurs, persons of her husband’s class and type, always know how to re-establish a violated order.

What came into my mind as I read this was the Marschallin counting, in the third act of Der Rosenkavalier, “eins, zwei…” and sending the Baron back to the boonies. Copying out the passage just now, I think of another Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, in which grandiose elements commingle with vulgar ones.

There’s no doubt in my mind that those two titles, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Ariadne auf Naxos, come out of the same box of classical allusion.