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September 08, 2008


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Great post, Peony Tang! As was your post about Yasushi Inoue's Tun-Huang. And a great blog. Do you happen to know what the original Spanish of "People think life is the thing but I prefer reading" was? Though come to think of it, Borges may have said or written this in English, which was one of his many languages.

Hi Paul! Thank you so much for commenting. Did you happen to notice I included your post on Chinese translations for the history carnival?

The quote, by the way, came from the BBC In Our Time program (which I linked to and really recommend) Borges and his many languages-- he was struggling to learn arabic during the very last few months of his life. He also loved Switzerland...


The description of Adoph Eichmann as 'just a cog in a machine' is not, as I recall, Arendt's.

Rather, Arendt carefully traces how critical Eichmann was to developing and implementing the "Final Solution"-- from the macro decision that the concentration camp was more "cost-effective" and expedient, than expatriation to Madagascar or elsewhere; to technical innovations and necessities such as the co-ordination of train routes and schedules (with Speer's production machine) to move bodies and materials necessary to operate the death camps; to the terribly macabre-- solving the technical challenge of disposing of bodies quickly enough,-- if you can't move them, dispose of them, the system "backs up" and you can't kill more-- in order to murder six million people.

These were Eichmann's unique and terrible crimes; read Eichmann in Jerusalem, and perhaps The Nazi Doctors, for the details-- there's also a volume by a Polish author in the 80s, which I haven't read in many years, which underlines the disturbing point that Eichmann was the first to bring the "personal information" of a population into a catalogue in one room -- that you couldn't run and manage the Holocaust without this.

What Arendt claimed-- which she underlines with the fact that Eichmann had a Jewish lover-- was that Eichman was incapable of "seeing things from the other person's point of view"-- of imagining what it was like-- of putting himself into another's mind or experience-- a capacity necessary for political action and the existence of the political realm itself. He-- his flaw, perhaps a modern flaw, or the consequence of totalarianism, or (this is not Arendt:) just a vicissitude of history-- was the banality of his lack of vision, his self-ishness, the cognitive flaw that meant he could not think in a particular way--

Albert Speer admits to as much in the first pages of his memoirs from Spandau-- I wish I had the passage at hand-- and it comes off somewhat differently. Hours upon hours he, and his contemporaries, put into architectural studios during his youth and afterwards-- a way of life-- little did they learn to consider political or moral questions, just 'technical'(*) ones. This-- this-- was his flaw, the huge flaw, the failing the architects brought to Hitler's regime.

One more quote from those pages-- that I don't have to struggle to remember the words of-- "Hitler was first and foremost an architect, and war, architecture by other means."

But I won't delve into that complexity.

(*) This is the English phrase; I'm not sure the word Speer employeed has the Gr. techne as its root.

Hi Ken,

Thank you so much for reading and for leaving such a thoughtful comment. Arendt's banality of evil is talked about in terms of this cog in the wheel analogy (and the engineering analogy) so often in so many places that honestly I was not aware that these were not her words. Either way, I think the analogy appropriate for it suggest the *thouhtlessness* (and self-ishness) of their acts.

And that Eichmann had a Jewish lover (I didn't know this) further boggles the mind, does it not?

It is even more depressing really-- the analogy to architecture and architects.

Did you happen to see the New Yorker article (Sam linked to it)?

One reason why I do in fact love Hannah Arendt is that she didn't turn away from the ugly facts and sought to examine them-- and I think she was quite right in linking atrocities to an alienation-- a lack of both heart and imagination.

Way behind time's horizon, I want to echo Paul Frank's comment and also say Great Post! And especially in combination with Under a Flame Tree... Obviously not enough just to read people (Arendt) without seeing and fingering the fabric into which they're woven...

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