Tuesday, April 20, 2010

2666 and Hannah Arendt

How comparable are the atrocities that makes up The Part About the Crimes to the Holocaust, which is featured in the following and final section of 2666, The Part About Archimboldi?

I want to tackle this via Hannah Arendt and her concept, perhaps inevitable to a discussion of 2666, of the “banality of evil.”  The phrase echoes in obvious ways with the crimes in Santa Teresa as portrayed by Bolaño: the repetitiousness of the section, while constantly horrifying, can in another reading be described as pointing to how banal such violence becomes.  The fact that they just become a part of the background for the people living in Santa Teresa has featured in a number of the posts by those involved in the group read the past few months.

Bolaño, moreover, seems to invite the comparison by putting the two atrocities back to back and, in this week's reading, by introducing the figure of Leo Sammer and his story of overseeing the murder of a group of Jews accidentally sent to him by apparent clerical error.  I’m no Arendt expert, but my understanding of her use of the phrase “banality of evil” was meant to suggest that the participation of minor authority figures and middle men, not to mention its large-scale architect Adolf Eichmann (whose trial was the centerpiece of the book where she coined the phrase), was ultimately not due to an extraordinary and unusual evil but a commonplace human tendency to simply do what you are told, even when that means killing others.  (I, probably like many others, am most familiar with Arendt by way of the reference to her by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who devastatingly demonstrated her ideas by having random strangers come into a room and agree to shock someone else to death simply because a scientist was there to tell them to keep pushing the voltage higher.)

Yet, the juxtaposition of the two atrocities also points to differences.  Sure, the regularity of the Santa Teresa murders becomes banal to an extent, and people let it slide into the background, but it didn’t seem like there were and Sammer figures lingering.  Indeed, there is absolutely no central organization to the murders—that’s why, despite the possibility of maybe several serial killers, it is so hard to end them.  Are the murderers in Santa Teresa being told by a higher authority to kill, and they just don’t have the willpower to resist?  It seems unlikely, except for murders possibly tied to narcos who might have underlings to dispose of things.  It is not a possibility highlighted in the section.

Indeed, the characters, besides Sammer, that could be more plausibly discussed in this context would be Reiter’s father and Reiter himself.  Both are serving in wars in which they don’t really believe.  This is highlighted with Reiter’s father when he hears Germany has lost World War I and responds, “good” (638), and it seems to be true of how Reiter ends up enlisted as well.  Even here there are, of course, differences: soldiers, and drafted soldiers at that, are not in the same position as middle-class administrators.  So how far can we really take this “banality of evil” comparison?  Is the text undercutting these differences or highlighting them—and does that matter?

As a postscript: Before beginning this post I did I quick Google search for other bloggers who had mentioned the Arendt connection to 2666 (at first glance, there were fewer than I expected, but I did not go especially deep in the stack).  The primary entry I found came from a blog others involved in the group read might find interesting: it is only two posts long, and the author claims to be…Boris Ansky.  So it is someone having a bit of fun, but they do have one particularly intriguing post making claims about real-world connections for the name Hans Reiter, in which they also briefly explore the Arendt connection to the character of Sammer.  If what "Boris" has to say is true, it makes for a fairly dark reading of Archimboldi: indeed, it would seem to validate the idea that Bolaño sees Archimboldi as equally implicated in the "banality of evil."


  1. Dan: Damn! You beat me to the punch. I've also been thinking of Arendt when pondering what to write next, so I may have more to say about this connection soon on my own blog.

    My first thought when reading the Sammer section was, this guy is Eichmann for sure: A petty bureaucrat, motivated less by a driving hatred of Jews than by a desire to do his job well, impress his superiors, and rise in the party hierarchy. Eichmann, according to Arendt, didn't think of himself as particularly anti-semitic, and it's interesting how little overt anti-semitism there is in this chapter. It's there, to be sure, but its nowhere near as foregrounded or even backgrounded as the misogyny etc. is in The Part About The Crimes.

    There's an interesting article on the Nation Magazine website that discusses the controversy that erupted around the publication of Eichmann in Jersualem, and that also explores the debt that Arendt owed to Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, in particular, her charge that the Jewish Councils that helped administer the forced emigration of Jews within Europe were virtual collaborators: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100419/popper
    This was just one of a number of extremely problematic and controversial arguments put forth in the book. One of the questions posed by Arendt--in ways that border on tasteless and insensitive--is just who can be considered a collaborator under a totalitarian regime? One can easily extrapolate this to the question of how do we judge the relative inaction of the citizens of Santa Teresa. Eichmann in Jerusalem also explores the psychological mechanisms by which Eichmann managed to short-circuit his own conscience. Bolano seems to be doing something similar in TPATC, but it’s a bit problematic since 2666 (for the most part) pointedly avoids rich psychological portraiture. Anyway, despite the book’s problems, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a great and provocative read, and also a model of morally engaged journalism.

  2. David--Thanks. Eichmann in Jerusalem has been on the backburner as one of those books I should really get around to reading for some time.

    And there is plenty more to think about with this topic, even moreso with the turn in the Sammer material taken in next week's reading. So I look forward to seeing your post!