Hannah Arendt on Eichmann:
A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance
ONE OF THE many ironies surrounding Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial* is involved in the fact that it should have been serialized in the New Yorker so short a time after the appearance in the same magazine of James Baldwin’s essay on the Black Muslims. A Negro on the Negroes, a Jew on the Jews, each telling a tale of the horrors that have been visited upon his people and of how these horrors were borne; and each exhorting the prosperous, the secure, the ignorant to understand that these horrors are relevant to them. The two stories have much in common and they are both, in their essentials, as old as humankind itself-so old and so familiar that it takes a teller of extraordinary eloquence, or else of extraordinary cleverness, to make them come alive again. Baldwin is all eloquence; there is nothing clever in the way he tells the story of the Negro in America. On the one side are the powerless victims, on the other the powerful oppressors; the only sin of the victims is their powerlessness, the only guilt is the guilt of the oppressors. Now, this black-and-white account, with the traditional symbolisms reversed, is not the kind of picture that seems persuasive to the sophisticated modern sensibility-the sensibility that has been trained by Dostoevski and Freud, by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, by Eliot and Yeats, to see moral ambiguity everywhere, to be bored by melodrama, to distrust the idea of innocence, to be skeptical of rhetorical appeals to Justice. And indeed, not even Baldwin’s eloquence, which forced many of his readers to listen for once, could overcome the dissatisfaction many others felt at the moral simplicity of the story as he told it. For as he told it, the story did not answer to their sense of reality; it was an uninteresting story and a sentimental one.
About the Author
Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 56 years.