Sunday, February 25, 2007


In “The New York Review of Books” J.M. Coetzee reviews Norman Mailer’s imaginative biography of Hitler, “The Castle in the Forest” (

Coetzee quickly raises the question: Is it possible that some humans are born evil? Or if not at birth, then when do certain individuals ‘turn’ evil? How?

These are philosophical questions, and as such they are far too rare these days in the West. That’s so because the current and only acceptable mode of our societal discourse is not at all equipped to handle such complex and fundamental inquiry. Keep it ‘simple’ and keep it on the surface: this has been the gameplan of the revolutionaries of the Left as it has been of the manipulators from the Right. Keep it simple and on the surface, and let those acceptable emotions (shock, outrage, in-your-face, etc.) roll!

The natural ‘subject’ of the National Crime State is ‘the victim’, and the ‘natural’ and now obligatory discourse of ‘the victim’ is comprised solely of retelling the cause of the pain (with or without proof) and then limning one’s feelings about what has happened to one. On the basis of this discourse, huge chunks of the foundational supports of Western, Constitutional, democratic society and culture have been ripped away; rescuing people from the Horror can be rather destructive work, as we now know from the Iraq adventure.

In response to such questions as the nature of evil in the world and the source of individuals’ bad acts, a mere recitation of one’s own alleged experiences of being badded-against and one’s consequent feelings about it are very largely ineffectual. But in reality one must, like the sturdy sea-dogs of the Age of Sail, engage the threat resolutely and efficiently and – one hopes – victoriously; so one has to face ‘evil’ and come to grips with it: where it comes from, how it works, how best to deal with it. But then, ‘sturdy sea-dogs’ are not what the National Security State, or the National Nanny State, or the National Imperial State, or the National Corporate State, or the National Crime State really want: those ‘states’ want obedient, stable, steady and unquestioning herbivores, ungulants that will eagerly swallow whatever their shepherds see fit to push their way.

And of course, if it’s hard enough to figure out what to do with any individual’s evil(s), what do we do with a government’s ‘bad’ acts? It seems that governments have arrogated to themselves in the moral realm the prerogative they enjoy in the economic realm: just as they control the money so they can’t be held to the usual budgetary responsibilities that individual citizens are, so too they can’t be held to the same moral standards that individuals are. And it seems that a lot of citizens are no longer well-prepared to perceive or to explain (even to themselves) just what it is that is wrong with that gambit.

But judging the morality or immorality, the ‘good’ or the ‘evil’ that a government does, is hard enough; courage of a special sort is required to speak Truth to Power. What happens if your culture no longer accepts that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are acceptable categories of judgment? Or that ‘judgment’ is not an acceptable activity? Or that such abstractions as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – let alone ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ – don’t really exist anyway? What happens then to the already-quivering flame of Courage? And if there is no Courage to defend it, what happens to Truth? And if there is no Courage to oppose it, what will limit Power’s voracious, predatory hunt to find whom it may devour?

These are all great questions, says Coetzee, but not ones that biographers are happy to face: after all, how much can we really ‘know’ about another human being? Which is a very modest and wise question to pose. But in the long and multifarious rush to raise up an enemy or a ‘perp’ about whom we may enjoy ‘simple and pure clarity’, haven’t both Left and Right, secularist and fundamentalist, immodestly barreled right on through the flashing roadblocks? What did one need to know about ‘men’ except that they were all rapists, only that some haven’t been found out yet. What did one need to know about Muslims or Iraqis, except that they were … well, it turns out they weren’t so simply and purely construed after all. We simplified our own picture of them, but – perversely – they actually didn’t take the trouble to conform to the picture we had in our collective mind. Imagine our surprise when we actually came into their presence and …

This false ‘simplicity’, this ‘clarity’has not been achieved by the long twilight struggle of sustained effort to understand enough so as to formulate the most useful questions, and then to start the process of answering the questions. It has been achieved by the childish gambit of sweeping the troublesome pieces of the board, conceptually, and then – addict-like – surfing the ‘high’ that such a skipping-homework tactic temporarily provides.

The media, ‘journalists’, ‘the press’ have pandered to this as business and bottom-line concerns: they have turned The People into audiences and into ‘consumers’ who have to be kept happy. And this is a genuine, if untrumpeted, disaster for Us and for the Republic. And, as stated in several of the recent “Moyers” Posts here, the media started to slide in the decades of the Democrats’ desperate and blank-check pandering to the Identities and the Advocacies, resulting in ‘advocacy journalism’, which is the erection of professional imbecility into a plan: the role of the media in the Republic is not to make the case for this or that still-unsettled agenda (let alone a dozen serially); it is to report the facts and the truth as very best the reporter can discern them, and let the People deliberate. But such is not the method of revolutions, and the media had their fun surfing those waves, abandoning Truth and the Republic for fun ‘on the cutting edge’ of ‘elite’ thought.

Yet even a decade before all that, as Glenn Garvin points out in the March 2007 issue of “Reason”, Herbert Matthews of “The New York Times” declared that a reporter’s “passion” was as important as his objectivity, and on that basis, romanticized an almost powerless and isolated young Fidel Castro into a public-relations sensation back there in the very late 1950s. It is a sign of Matthews’ Bushian stubbornness (or would we want to say his manliness and persistence?) that up until his death in 1977 Matthews insisted that Castro wasn’t a Communist and that he was bringing only good to the Cuban people, even after Castro admitted candidly that he most certainly was a Communist and had lashed his steadfastly blood-thirsty regime to Moscow.

Mailer isn’t actually doing a biography here, in the accepted sense of the word. He is doing a sort of ‘imaginative’ biography; to him, the ‘truth’ reached poetically has never been inferior to the ‘truth’ reached through the observation and determination of this or that fact. Artistic license in the service of truth is a verrry potent but also potentially explosive mix: only people who really know what they’re doing should be doing it. In order to achieve a ‘truthful’ result, you have to be dedicated and long-practiced – indeed a participant in – the stream of Truth that like the jetstream itself barrels along Up there, invisible to the earthbound and the horizontally-confined. Otherwise, there is a very strong tendency to simply use ‘poetic license’ as an excuse for whatever you want to do, rather than in order to describe whatever it is that you somehow sense that Truth is doing.

And once you’ve yawed off down that path, there’s no telling where you’ll end up: if you want to be seen as a winner and so claim Unitary authority to declare major hostilities ended – say – but you really don’t know what the Truth of the hostilities might be … you could wind up spending a long long time trying to force Truth into the little box you’ve made for it, the one you want it to fit in, and wind up just making a box for yourself. Or – if you’re big enough – a whole bunch of boxes for the little people who tried to follow your path to ‘truth’ because you told them to.

Hitler, Coetzee thinks Mailer is going for, was deeply attracted to the ‘great man theory of history’. That theory – which may seem alien, and is perhaps unknown, to many nowadays – presumed that the real ‘history’, the great deeds that set the course of large events, was made by this or that ‘great man’, not by the majority, the common people, the ordinary and mediocre people, just trudging through their days. Whether Hitler was weak and trying to compensate by identifying with a ‘Great Theory’ (which would make him a sorta ‘great man’ by osmosis) or whether he was somehow ‘evil’ and his so-called ‘great’-ness was merely the morally demented power of someone serving true evil … who can tell? We can ask the same questions about the neocons, so recently seen trying to pose in Great Man (and that goes for the woman among them) poses for “Vanity Fair”. Are they cocky weaklings or evil servants of the demimonde?

But much to our enrichment, Coetzee brings up “two drifters on the fringes”: Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and Stavrogin in Tolstoy’s “The Possessed”. In each of these two characters his respective author was trying to come to grips with those human beings “who think they can take a shortcut to great-man status by divorcing goodness from greatness and committing what they fancy to be great crimes”.

How long has it been since Americans even realized that these were the stakes and possible moves in the game? What generations of Americans can look at the sentence and even discern the issues, let alone work toward an answer? Is there a difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’? What would make ‘good’ distinct from and different from ‘great’? What would the ‘long way’ around to ‘great-man status’ be? Is it possible to “shortcut” the way? Or ‘a’ way – is there more than one way to take the shortcut? If you can be ‘great’ even if you commit a crime … what does that say about the desirability of ‘greatness’? Can you be ‘good’ even if you commit a crime? If your intentions are ‘good’? Is that even possible? Or if there’s more to you than the part of you that commits the crime? Is that possible? Even if it’s possible, is it important enough to matter? To whom?

Closely related to that gravid binary, is the Romantic conception of ‘genius’ as being a free agent, indentured neither to ‘good’ nor to ‘evil’, but existing in a realm beyond good and evil. Does such a realm exist? Can anything exist free of the ‘judgment’ of good or evil? Can any human being exist ‘there’, wherever one is free of the judgment of being ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or at least of having one’s acts thus adjudged? If all it takes to ‘achieve’ the status of ‘moral genius’ or ‘moral superman’ is to commit a crime so great that it will prove its perpetrator to be above such mediocre matters as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ … then what is the value of being such a genius or superman? Is submission to the judgment of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ a sign of mediocrity? Is the ability to function beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil’ a sign of greatness and genius? If not in a person, could it be in a government? Can governments even ‘be’ immoral? ‘Evil’? ‘Good’? Or can only people be? Why?

There was a time when the questions could as least be raised, and searching for an answer – even a provisional one – was considered a worthwhile investment of one’s time and effort. If such is no longer the case, how did it come about thus? Is it a desirable state of affairs that it has come to this? If it isn’t, how might we try to recover what has been lost?

Coetzee notes that “Hitler was obsessed with his place in history”. More tellingly, Hitler tells Speer “For me there are two possibilities: to succeed with my plans entirely, or to fail. If I succeed I will be one of the greatest men in history – if I fail, I will be condemned, rejected, damned.” I think that here we can see a hugely dangerous and toxic synergy brewing: A) Rather than focusing on the substantive challenge of mastering his own self in the present Moment in Time that he inhabited, Hitler escapes such ‘presence’ to himself by investing his energies in the (largely irrelevant) matter of how he would be judged in the (ephemeral) opinion of future generations. B) In order to prove his ‘greatness’ he sets himself a problem that is admittedly ‘great’, the better to ‘prove’ his own greatness. C) He effectively avoids the actual and classically hard work of working through the ‘great’ problem he has thus set himself – that of climbing the Ladder of Perfection toward Goodness and Greatness – by not only cutting out Goodness but by embracing the far more quick-burning and accessible primality in the human (and his own) personality: crime and evil can be just as legitimate a demonstration of ‘greatness’ as any achievement of morality and ‘Goodness’.

Thus you get to remain a moral adolescent while claiming the mantle of a long-struggling adult whose maturity has been achieved through the hard, sustained soul-work of years. This is a gambit that is hardly unique to Hitler (Dostoevsky and Tolstoy saw it, and they weren’t the first); it is also a gambit that quite obviously did not die with Hitler. It is a gambit to which American culture is particularly susceptible. As we are now beginning to realize. It is deeply similar to the immature and unripe fundamentalist psyche; it is hell and gone from the patient and persistent soul-shaping that has always been the ideal of the Kathlik vision.

And in a display of adolescent-mentation masquerading as adult strength, Hitler insists to Speer that A) there are only two possibilities and B) those are that either he utterly succeeds or he utterly fails. There is no nuance, no middle-ground, no room for the long, slow, torturous Climb that is humanity’s effort at its best. Instead there is the either-or, white-black, yes-no oversimplification that is indicative of maturational incompletion and unripeness; predictable in an adolescent, of concern in a chronologically older person; downright dangerous in chronologically older persons who have rigidly retained that incompletion and who have yet (American culture – business, military, political – enables them) attained great power: socially, financially, militarily, politically.

Hitler, Coetzee observes, surfs the Romantic notion that ‘genius’ raises one above the common herd, freeing someone thus gifted from the constraints of ‘ordinary’ life. Of course, it is one thing – and a desiderandum – to so shape one’s spirit that it can more easily respond to the invitations of Grace; like a sea captain who keeps his hull clean of barnacles, his rigging and sail in good order, and carefully steers so as to take full advantage of the wind. But – and here Romanticism ceased to work for our good – it is very much another thing to presume that a person who might thus enjoy a more vivid and palpable sense of Life’s fundamental Vitality – “Grace” as them Kathliks would say – is thereby free of all the moral restraints which classically define humanity at its best.

‘Classical’ and ‘perennial’ don’t mean ‘ordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ is not the same as ‘mediocre’ (another mistake the adolescent Boomers made when free-love was considered ‘cutting edge’ and they were young enough to make that hay while that sun was shining; but then, let’s not forget the teen generation of the 1920s). The Flatness of the postmodern world-view is now pervasive in our culture and our education through the awefull synergistic workings of the past four decades of Theory and the strategic pressures of the National Consumer State and the National Security State and the National Crime State.

Hannah Arendt famously described a phenomenon she called “the banality of evil”. Eichmann was or was not ‘ordinary’, but he was certainly a moral mediocrity: issues of Good and Evil did not seem to make an impression upon him or affect him; we might posit that he had found his ‘god’ – for all practical purposes – in an ‘organization’, and all that was then required was for him to stay within the lines set down by the organization and seek – as best he might – to advance along the course set down by the lines. So far so … typical; large numbers of human beings in complicated (not to say ‘advanced’) civilizations have instinctively sought this option as newborn creatures instinctively seek the mother’s teat. That the organization to which he attached himself was the Nazi extermination apparatus was already an issue beyond his imagination, a complication not necessary to introduce into his simplified, clarified life-plan. He would be reliable, constant, loyal – and that was more than many people could ever claim as employees and functionaries.

And therein lay the “banality”, I think. It was not Evil that was banal, nor the particular evils that he himself organized. It was Eichmann himself who was banal, morally banal. As his Fuhrer sought to avoid his own feared personal insufficiencies by seeking ‘greatness’ in ‘great things’, Eichmann sought to do so, and to impose some shape on his life and perhaps his own self, by seeking Order in a highly-organized, highly-circumscribed vision of what was and was not necessary in life; what was and was not necessary to ‘full’ humanity, human-ness, adulthood, manhood. Huge swaths of what we would call ‘human-ness’ were walled off and away in the service of a ‘life’ that he could manage. Perhaps also a ‘self’ that he could manage. Once therein ensconced, ‘the job’ – the ‘mission’ – was all that mattered. If he did that well, he would be happy enough.

That was the stuff of his banality, the locus of his mediocrity: his vision of human-hood and of his own self and (of course therefore) of other humans. The grasping of this point over the decades has been somewhat blunted by its contextual connection to the Holocaust. Otherwise it might more widely have been grasped, and early on, that many, many people in our civilization have chosen – functionally at least, although perhaps larded with religiosity or humanist sentimentality – this path, this vision, this shape for their life and their self. “Just doing my job” is surely one of the paving blocks to a certain hell, for oneself – ultimately – even as for others upon whom one’s action impose it. Indeed, “just focused on the mission” is a comment we are encouraged to hear when voiced by our soldiery. Yet as far back as the Nuremberg Principles it was clearly stated – and by a senior American jurist – that individual soldiers are indeed responsible for judging the essential legality of their orders, their ‘mission’. Even today this is being played out before our eyes in this country in the Watada court-martial case.

But if this banality is ever a threat in a highly organized and institutionalized civilization – and in a military without a doubt, then how much more toxic is this infection to a citizenry whose ‘immune system’ of a well-formed and well-informed mind and heart and character is largely compromised? What happens then?

We cannot afford mediocrity in this matter, even as we cannot afford the type of faux-‘greatness’ that refuses all harness, all trellising … and runs wild. Them Kathliks was always aware that wildness, in no matter how ‘good’ or ‘great’ a cause, was certain to bring disaster, to soul and to body, to mind and to spirit. The fetishization of wildness – stretching back in the Modern period to the Romantics and up into the Boomers and their ‘free love’ – has led to a pervasive and fundamental moral mediocrity as toxic as the Fundamentalist ‘greatness’ rantings so eerily similar to the floundering young failed artist in Vienna a century ago. And into such a vacuum far worse demons will most surely be drawn in to take up a late-ostrogothic residence in what is left of the life of the Republic. We may yet find ourselves mostly skipping the Caesars and going straight from Cicero to the edge of the Dark Ages.

It is Marxism, Coetzee notes, that doubts the ability of any individual human to impose his will on History. But then Stalin came along and changed all that, efficiently sawing off Communism’s ‘head’ and replacing it with his own; his cult of personality remains with us today in the North Korean polity, and bears a close familiar resemblance to the fundamentalistic attraction to the person of the Incumbent (is the President, in the fundy vision, like the Pope in the Kathlik vision: the designated representative of God on earth?).

Because, Coetzee sees, “the verdict of history, in Stalin’s eyes, pivoted on who wrote the history books”. Nor is that an insight that originated with Stalin, or died with him. Many individuals and – woe to us – nations, have figured that such a gambit would ensure their success, regardless of their actual record “on the ground”. Indeed, the Incumbency in those now distant salad-days of 2002 and early 2003 (as distant now as 1938 was to Berlin of 1944), asserted with prideful confidence that it ‘made’ history, and the rest of the world – ordinary and mediocre – would just have to deal with that (and accept its assigned place in the scheme of things).

“Hitler disdained manual labor because he thought it incompatible with his status”. Hitler’s status was the one he had assigned himself, as ‘genius’. One thinks of a certain more recent silver-spooned but unripe scion who disdained not only manual labor but any sort of self-exertion, any effort at self-extension whatsoever, seeking instead to surf a diaphanous wave of boozy bonhomie and of the appearance of character and competence. If you’re born rich, then you’ll write the history book, and anyway, there’s no such thing as Truth anyway, or Character, or Virtue (he had only to listen to ‘cutting edge’ Left and Democratic and Advocacy theory to pick up that particularly convenient bit of wisdom). And one could always draw into one’s life such ‘brains’ as were required: they could be hired by the family money or they might seek admission to one’s inner circle the better to admire one’s rump-ish gestalt. Hey, whatever.

Coetzee then follows that thought through (in a way Hitler himself probably never did, not being given to introspection – and perhaps wisely so). Hitler, realizing by his early twenties that he would not easily be a success as an artist, opposed socialism because he himself, raised in the status-conscious world of the Austrian and German middle-classes, feared “being sucked into a lumpen proletariat of workless rural migrants streaming into” his world.

But this also ties into Chris Hedges’ concerns about American Fundamentalists: not really ready for the hard field-work of ripening, they have declared themselves ‘saved’ (‘maturity’ being as incorrect and repugnant to their world-view as it is to the revolutionaries of the Left). On the basis of this (self-declared) ‘status’ they already seek to ‘leave behind’ all of those of whatever economic class who do not truckle to their vivid, violent, faux-‘vital’ religious illuminations. And as if that weren’t problem enough for us today, any significant economic downturn – and it is hardly inconceivable – will further threaten their self-image and their sense of status and place in this materialist American society, the Flatness of which is not effectively expanded by their signature adolescently violent fantasies that are passed off – even to themselves - as a ‘religion’ capable of ‘saving’ them a-n-d (shades of the Puritans and the Calvinists!) rewarding them in this life. The ‘ugly American’ whose face was shown to the so-called ‘developing world’ half-a-century ago is now showing its face to its fellow citizens, and if the economy tanks, then ‘ugly’ is going to be the least of the problems the fundamentalistics will pose for our society and our polity.

And on top of it all, Hitler – seeking somehow to define himself and preserve his self-image and status – determined that he would succeed “at all costs”. This phrase is also one that did not die with him. We’ve heard it not so much from the unripe macho-boyos (it’s a tad too grammatically taxing) but from the equally unripe but far-better read neocons. “At all costs” is a mind-set far too dangerous to be set loose among the give-and-take of a democracy, too antithetical to the patient, never-fully-achieved slog up the Ladder of Perfection that is the Kathlik ideal. No wonder that it has flourished as the evil-twin of the already-morally dubious Revolutionaries of the Identities, reinforcing images of imperial decisiveness and resolve and the total-dedication of the committed religious fundamentalist.

And yet, finally, as interesting and confounding as Hitler’s psyche is, the man himself would have remained only an unripe and feral oddling, never affecting the lives of more than a few equally unbalanced, certainly far-weaker personalities. But then the German economy – which had been doing a splendid turn in the mid-‘20s – tanked utterly in the Great Depression. The widespread economic destruction of most of the German middle-class, the bourgeoisie, the burghers, the well-to-do farmers, the craftspeople and the steadily-employed industrial workers … the vacuum created by the loss of the middle class and its ethos, sucked Hitler up and into the center of German politics, and with that turn of the wind – canny sea-captain – he cooperated to the fullest extent of his energy, nor did he deny himself the Romantic, great-man advantages of being freed from any concern for morality or the rights of others or loyalty or humility or subjection to any law or Law. After all, he would write the history books that would last for the next thousand years.

He lasted just twelve years, once he got into power. History will never forget him. But the question for Us today is: have we? Already?

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