Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Darling Amanda rushes to the defence of Harry Potter. Plainly you should not read this for fear of making your brain turn to yoghurt. I didn't, but the last sentence caught my eye - 'I don't know if it was intended to read that way, but it did read that way, and the movie captured the whole banality-of-evil (right down to the way that torture suddenly seems justified overnight) theme to a T.' That phrase 'banality of evil' gets everywhere. People are drawn to it because, I suppose, it involves a kind of double vengeance - 'You - Hitler, Bush, Blair, whoever - are not only evil, you're also banal.' Evil is doubly condemned by being not only wrong but also in bad - or, at least, shallow - taste. The phrase was born in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt saw in Eichmann a dull deskman, just doing his job. He remained banal until his execution by the Israelis. He was banal but also evil and from this, she inferred, that evil itself was banal. Indeed, her later gloss on the phrase indicated that she thought a certain shallowness was the necessary attribute of the evildoer since deep thought would turn anyone away from evil. This is absurd. A deep thinker can obviously do evil. You may argue that he is being shallow when he does the evil, but that is to balance a very large upturned pyramid of assumptions and wishful thinking on a very small, fleeting and, in fact, impossible point of psychological analysis. What I think Arendt - and all her casual quoters - actually mean is 'the evil of banality'. They don't like the look of what they see as banal, so they associate it with evil. This amounts to a domestication, a shrinkage, of evil, and it provides the satisfaction of a child when the monsters have been chased out of his bedroom. The success of the phrase, in short, lies not in its truth but in its offer of easy consolation. Or, to put it another way, if you think there's something banal about evil, you don't understand the word.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 1:55 pm