Today’s date asks for a moment of reflection.
It happens that I’m absorbed in an old book, controversial in its day, one which doesn’t need a review from me. Instead, I’ll take my time mulling over Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem because there’s much here that deserves thought and careful attention. The book is subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil, and it documents Arendt’s coverage for The New Yorker of the trial of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann in 1961. The tension between her stately prose and the horror it depicts speaks for itself. The writer steps back, steps out of the story and gives it plenty of room to breathe.
The narrative dissects a foul act of imagination, one of history’s worst.
Writers of fiction know that whatever we imagine — good or ill — we’re capable of doing. Hopefully, our lives are guided by conscience; we park our bad stuff in the psyche’s underground garage and nurture our creations into their fullness of life. This process applies to everyone, not just writers. We conjure up images of happy things, and with a little planning, the imagined house gets bought, the imagined disagreement is resolved, the imagined vacation happens. Then there’s moral imagination, which is compassion — entering into the sufferings of others, reaching out to comfort and assist them.
One might have said that a bureaucrat like Adolf Eichmann had no imagination, obsessed as he was with paperwork, train schedules, and, most of all, following orders. I disagree. The catastrophe that befell European Jewry took planning. The machinery of death had to be pictured in the mind, regardless of whatever euphemisms were used to describe it. In 1942, the Nazis held a conference of all government ministries and civil service heads to plan out the “final solution.” Afterwards, drinks and lunch were served. It was reported that everyone was in a good mood. A “creative” outburst, however perverse and sociopathic, can do that, I suppose.
Somewhere in cyberspace, there’s a series of technical charts and graphs worked out by specialists at MIT. It was their effort to reproduce the engineering plans of those who, on this day twelve years ago, flew two planes into the World Trade Center. I came across this ephemera while google-searching something else, but my idle curiosity was smacked down by my ignorance of engineering. Baffled as I was by numbers and diagrams, my instincts as a writer told me what was going on. The technical specs were the outgrowth of a sick vision. The attackers first had to picture what was going to happen, to refine that picture as they went along. Like those Nazi officials, they had to anticipate the results with some satisfaction, to feel enthralled by their act of poisoned “creativity.”
Even Hannah Arendt’s rigourous inquiry can’t approach this terrible place in the human heart. This is the unfathomable problem of evil which so outraged Job and which continues to haunt the world.
On this day that grieves the imagination, I hope to spend some time contemplating those things that bring it to life. Everyone recalls the lovely blue skies of September 11th, 2001. That afternoon, I took a picture of my garden, so that I could remember what, in spite of everything, was born there, innocent and blessed. Maybe I’ll do the same today. This evening, I’ll be attending a book launch, a celebration of a writer’s imagined world.
It’s a summer day; it’s still summer. In spite of everything, there’s warmth, sunshine and rain to enjoy.
I’ve lived long enough to realize that much of life is mystery, that almost all of it is beyond me. This, of course, drives me to write.
If you can, take a moment to imagine something better for this world.
Have yourself a gentle day.