The Banality of Evil, in prose and film

Vita Activa Poster

Preparing for the NEH summer seminar for schoolteachers on the political theory of Hannah Arendt, I urge the summer scholars who will soon be in residence at UC-Davis to read Eichmann in Jerusalem in advance. Although this book is more easily accessible than many other of Arendt’s writing, its argument is nonetheless complex.

Eichmann in Jerusalem is also among the most controversial of Arendt’s works, not least because of the way she portrayed the character at the center of the trial. “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster, ‘ but it was difficult indeed not to suspect he was a clown.” (p. 54) What she saw in Eichmann was something she termed “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” (p. 252) And this banality was not limited to Eichmann but had become pervasive: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” (p. 276) That the level of evil represented in genocide, a crime against the human condition itself, could become “normalized” or banal, Arendt took to be the most horrifying conclusion one could drawn from the Holocaust.

The “banality of evil,” this most frequently misunderstood of concepts, will be at the center of our discussion of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Recently, the Israeli filmmaker, Ada Ushpiz, has made it the narrative anchor in her new documentary on Hannah Arendt: Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. The film can be seen in New York City at Film Forum, and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle’s Monica. If you are in either area, I encourage you to see it. Check the schedule; it might be playing nearer to you.

In the mean time, I have just published on the Los Angeles Review of Books “The Idea of a Common World: Ada Ushpiz’s “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt,” which reviews the film and interviews the filmmaker.

I look forward to your comments on the film and my essay.

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