Of Banality and Romanticism
To the Editor:
Irving Howe’s reply [“Letters from Readers,” February] to criticism of his “Hannah Arendt and the New Yorker” is in itself as apt a commentary on Mr. Howe’s article and on his view of Hannah Arendt’s thesis in general as one could wish. His criticism of Miss Arendt’s thesis—objective and empirical as it appears to be—is shown in his letter to be founded on nothing more than extreme subjectivity in pursuing the question of man’s inhumanity to man and on an almost romantic conception of human nature. “I do not for one moment believe that I—or Hannah Arendt or Rachelle Marshall—could ever be an Eichmann,” says Mr. Howe. The refutation is so flimsy as to be absurd. What bearing does the emotionally inspired testimony of one intellectual have on Miss Arendt’s contention that given certain conditions ordinary human beings can bring themselves to perform the most monstrous acts? Where Miss Arendt is tough-minded and objective, Mr. Howe is romantic and subjective; where Miss Arendt attempts to discover how it happened that thousands of ordinary people participated in or consented to barbarity on a vast scale, Mr. Howe is content with the fatalistic belief that Eichmann and men like him are intrinsically Evil; where Miss Arendt assumes that all human acts can be rationally explained and thus possibly prevented, Mr. Howe takes refuge in the irrational and futile belief that human beings are either incorruptibly Good or hopelessly Bad.
That Mr. Howe finds Miss Arendt’s view of Eichmann banal only testifies to his romanticism. The idea that human beings can be conditioned to be either good or bad clearly does not appeal to him. His protestations against Miss Arendt’s implied view that human character is largely socially determined are reminiscent of the anti-Darwinist protestations against the idea that man was descended from the apes. Neither is a pleasant view for man, in his conviction of supremacy and uniqueness in the universe, to contemplate. It is much more comfortable to go on believing non-rational presumptions of Good and Evil than to confront the reality of man’s nature—a nature which is not good or bad but malleable.
Miss Arendt’s view, then, is one which admits the possibility of a solution to the problem of human brutality; Mr. Howe’s view—for all, its emotional appeal—admits none. It tends to reduce itself to the desperate cry that “whatever is, is.” It occurs to me that the world has suffered enough as a result of such fatalism about human nature; it is clearly time for some realism. Miss Arendt has attempted to provide that realism, and all that Mr. Howe finds to say in reply is: “not me.”
New York City