February 17, 2007

"Case 40/61"

Scattered throughout Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem are several references to the trial reporting of Dutch author, Harry Mulisch. His account of the Eichmann in Israel has finally appeared in English as Criminal Case 40/61, the Trial of Adolf Eichmann: An Eyewitness Account (2005, University of Pennsylvania Press). If there is a necessary supplement to the "report on the banality of evil" it is this travelogue by Mulisch. His travels are, like Arendt's, intellectual journeys into the realm of the unprecedented and the implications of such destruction in the nuclear age.

But they are also accounts of his movements through Israel itself, a then-young nation, its multifarious constituencies searching for literal and figurative grounding. Once again that metaphor of foundation and certainty, once again its elusiveness. If Arendt's thinking considers thought itself, Mulisch is a master of living texture. He notes the traces of history pressing into the present. He writes as much about the landscape as the trial. In each image of what he sees, and what the Bible tells him once was, we hear the omnipresent tension that exists between the reality faced and the oscillating play of prophecy and memory. Between those realms there can be no reconciliation.

Two telling passages: the first about the white-housed villages in the hills two hours from Jerusalem. Russians, Moroccans, Poles, Persians, or Yeminites are clustered together in their tiny communities, bound by the respective languages. The center of gravity is the idea of the land they occupy:

"In the center of the circle there is a square nucleus with shops, schools, and recreation center. Only that center is Israel, the mortar, the melting pot, where people meet, where children play, where they are taught int he common language, Hebrew. That is why Israel's dramatic experiment, thought to be impossible, works, and it seems to be successful. Here one can learn the meaning of 'courage from desperation.' It is Sabbath: not a soul outside. Seeing the motionless white villages in the endless landscape, where Joshua once made the sun stop, I am filled with awe, while at the same time desperate desertedness is is creeping up on me, which is hiding behind this pioneer spirit: the double face of the persecutor."

The second from later pages perfectly cast by his ethnographic eye:

"In the hills around the city, there are Bedouin everywhere. There is one walking here, there are two sitting there; one is standing over there; another is riding his donkey. It is as if a movie director has distributed them, with a great sense for harmony, but it is their own instinctive feeling for space that makes them take possession of the landscape, in such a light way, without conquering it, without destroying it, despised by a people that should be able to remember that one ought not despise peaceful minorities."

Against this backdrop, like Arendt Mulisch is searching for a way to make sense of Eichmann's two faces. He uses actual images of Eichmann to suggest a point. One shows Eichmann in harsh shadows, eyes sinking to darkness. The other is evenly lit and presents an unremarkable figure, just a man, and a mood benign. The grim tones of the former picture lead us into the temptation to see the monstrosity emerging from within that man, making its way to the surface.

This, says Mulisch, misses the chilling recognition that it is the cool, distanced face that is the true pose of the killer who looks out quite contentedly, viewing without a flinch an accepted, natural order of destruction. And that image of the face twisted with shadows as if overcome with cancer? That image is the look of the witness, the one forced to grapple with the articulation of the "offenses" and their troubled (and troubling) formations and formulations.

In Arendt the argument is that Eichmann cannot grapple. He cannot think outside himself and therefore never does bear witness to what he has done, the destruction he helped bring about. Mulisch reads him differently. There may not be recognition of the crimes, but there has been, on that human heart, an unexpected "effect" and it demands of us a reckoning: "Now that there is . . . the tormented horror [writ on the face] I for one would not even throw the one-thousandth stone very quickly. This is the enigmatic face of the man, who, in 1939, gave the order to punish severely anyone who desecrated Theodor Herzl's grave in Vienna. Herzl was the founder of Zionism. At the thirty-fifth commemoration of his death, perplexed Jews saw a lone figure in civilian clothes at the tomb. It was Eichmann."