Literature and the Banality of Evil

This is a guest post by Tony McKenna. Tony is a Hegelian Marxist philosopher whose writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, New Internationalist, Monthly Review, New Left Project, Counterfire and the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

Fiction is unique.  The central criterion for literary creation is not the availability of a given content but its absence.   A historian may look at a centuries` old mansion and yearn to penetrate its secrets; to discover its precise age and to derive a realistic account of the day to day routines of the people who once lived there.  To shed light on it.  But to a writer of fiction the same house proves alluring for the very opposite reason, for its dark inscrutability, its mystery – as those are the factors which spark the imagination; they make us consider what shapes might be lurking in its murky shadows, what ghosts rattle around in its secret cellars or undisclosed attics.  It is privation, the lack of a coherent content which focusses our creative power and forces it to intercede; the imagination is driven to fill the void with its own forms.

This is simultaneously the most wonderful and the most terrifying element about being a story writer.  On the one hand you don’t need expensive stuff.  You don’t have to rely on lab equipment or any other set of pricey paraphernalia beyond the cost of pen and paper.   And yet…and yet…despite the humbleness of your tools you can create, quite literally, anything.   You can call into being spaceships or monsters or even whole worlds which put into the shade anything Hollywood with all its sleek, slick CGI generations might dream of.   An empty page presents us with an infinity of possible wonders untrammelled by the limits and finitude of our actual existences.   The writer J.M Barrie made the unfortunate mistake of growing old but Peter Pan, on the other hand, – he will remain young forever.

At the same time there is a cost.  As any creative writer knows, that blank page, replete with its infinity of potential, is also capable of exacting a terrible price – submitting the writer to its infamous ‘tyranny.’     The essayist who is bereft of ideas can always find a new topic or situation to hand, in a newspaper or on TV, to analyse and comment on, but in the case of the creative writer – they have to call into being the situation itself; the characters and plot.  Their process is the stark pain of birth, the harsh bright of a brand new day.

And all too often it is an abortive process; the character or situation you devise is not able to rise to the level of fictional being, of believability, and you realise you have just spent the last week or month or year labouring in vain. This, assuming you are able to alight upon an idea in the first place, to perform the miracle which the creative act constantly demands; that is, the creation of something from nothing, the filling of that empty page with  the depleted reserves of your imagination day after day after day.  Is it any wonder writers of fiction have acquired a reputation for alcoholism?

And the sad truth is that few fictional writers will ever be published, let alone acquire the status of a Stephen King or Rohinton Mistry.   Worse still the art of creative writing itself is something which is increasingly looked down on, derided or dismissed. The recent proposals of Michael Gove, for example, to implement more poetry into the primary school curriculum were met with almost universal contempt.  On a recent edition of Question Time, the panellists were challenged to recite a poem from school which had most helped them in their careers; the implication being an almost satirical one – a sense that the lofty airy fairy poetic imagination could have little connection to genuine social accomplishment.

And yet, literary creativity and the indulgence of imagination are not simply abstract, unworldly pleasures to be enjoyed by those with their heads in the clouds.  These things have an eminent practical value too and are important to the function of the social order just as much as the science based subjects, though in a radically different way.

Having witnessed first-hand the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase – ‘the banality of evil’.  In articulating this, she didn’t mean that evil acts were now so common-place that they appear to us as ordinary and every day.   Rather, she argued, the forms and structures of National Socialism had affected a new degree of separation between the individual subject and the life and thought of others.

The death camp guard was able to carry out their day to day routine, not because they were inherently evil, but because he or she was acting within the mechanics of a bureaucracy which had successfully abstracted them from their victims.  The guards would focus on the minutiae and the immediacy of bureaucratic routine to such an extent that they lost the broader capacity to imagine what the situation of the victims actually felt like.   The ‘banality’ of evil to which Arendt refers lies, ultimately, in its lack of imagination.

Perhaps the truth of this is in some-way validated by another of Nazism’s ritualistic horrors – the burning of books.  Certainly the regime wanted to supress any currents of information which ran counter to its own social philosophy – political thinkers in the Marxist tradition were particularly targeted.   But a diverse set of literary works was also used to feed the flames.  It wasn’t simply about eliminating information which had an antagonistic character to the regime, though this was a prime consideration. Rather the ritual implies something more profound; that is – the burning of the creative imagination itself.   For this was key to the security of the regime itself, it needed to assure its ‘banality’ in order to function.

The lazy, fashionable anti-intellectualism which regards the products of our creative imaginations as somehow inessential to the real world – is critiqued most effectively, perhaps, by a simple consideration of those places where the imagination has been reduced to ashes.

  1. Then again, the literature the Nazis didn’t burn didn’t noticeably dissuade them. ‘When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps… to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.’ (Eagleton, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’, 2nd Ed., p. 30, on the idea that literature might be morally improving.)

  2. michael reidy

    Thanks Tony, it’s so pleasant in philosophy to get away from banal trolley problems. Your ‘fictional’ writer sound like a writer that is a resident in a work of fiction, an imprecision which I presume was not your intent. Likewise tools of any sort cannot evince ‘humbleness’, only persons can. There are humble tools however.

    Can the writer go directly after the unconscious? He can but not with any great success. Creative writers are surprised by the layers that exist in their plain descriptions. The lines must first be written for the matter that is ‘between the lines’ to be read. Even works that have been written by others can change the meaning. Borges in his Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote might write a new Quixote that was word for word the same as the other one, or something like that.

    Like the fox in The Little Prince the unconscious can only be glimpsed.

  3. thanks for the comments (and the grammatical corrections Michael provided)I agree too with Michael’s comments about the unconscious; it certainly isn’t the case that fictional writing stems wholly from the unconscious. But certainly the unconscious and imaginary play a greater part (perhaps historical novels dealing with real historical figures provide something of an acception to this)

  4. It always concerns me when people (academic or not) look down upon creativity as though it is some frivolous exercise merely to entertain. I would have asked whoever it was on Question Time that asked the panel to recite a poem from school which had most helped them in their careers to recall an instance in ANY aspect of their life when they used Pythagorean Theorem to their advantage. Yet Mathematics is still considered an important core subject and at year 9, application of said theorem is reserved for those who are expected to progress on to a C-grade or above at GCSE (in other words, someone thinks its pretty important). I am writing this with a Physics and Mathematics background and I cannot stress enough the importance of the ability to create an abstract universe when learning or exploring these topics, the practice for which comes from such things as creative writing. You cannot explain one of the fundamental axioms of mathematics without the word ‘imagine’ – parallel lines never meet. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Pythagoras et al all employed their imaginations when creating the founding principles of modern maths and physics. To degrade the use of one’s imagination, is to degrade freedom of thought and the consequences of that are indeed plain to see wherever there is oppression.

  5. The myth of the “Nazi death camps” would certainly refute any idea of the improving effects of literature, art, music, religion or of intellectual or moral culture generally. Indeed, this conflicts with everyday experience. That is one good reason amongst others to look more closely at the evidence for the nature of these camps, which is in large part very different in quality from that usually alleged. I would recommend for example Carlo Mattogno’s Treblinka: Extermination Camp or Transit Camp (2004), or Auschwitz, the Case for Sanity (2010).

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