Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.

Yet More Aphorisms

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.  —C. S. Lewis

“We are all guilty” is actually a declaration of solidarity with the wrongdoers. —Hannah Arendt

Anyone can tell the truth, but only very few of us can make epigrams. —W. Somerset Maugham

History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought. —Etienne Gilson

Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space…. But time is the heart of existence.  —Abraham Heschel

We, the Refugees

Hannah Arendt was not afraid of making a few jokes. I thank her for it. We, the Refugees has a peculiar but particular beat. Humorous in its own way. I hope you, dear reader, take a moment to read it. Or skim it. Here is an alternate link. She alights from one gem to another. “No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way.” Then, at another point, “One may be surprised that the apparent uselessness of all our odd disguises has not yet been able to discourage us.”

It is surprising to me that her essay does not have a more substantial audience. It’s never been more relevant. It seems exactly like the type of document a professor, perhaps exploring marginal viewpoints in history (migrant farmworkers, anyone?), would use in his or her lecture. Maybe her whiteness precludes her from serious consideration. Oh well. Here is Giorgio Agamben.

The reasons for this impotence lie not only in the selfishness and blindness of bureaucratic machines, but in the basic notions themselves that regulate the inscription of the native (that is, of life) in the legal order of the nation-state.

[…]

That there is no autonomous space within the political order of the nation-state for something like the pure man in himself is evident at least in the fact that, even in the best of cases, the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state.

Anyhow, happy reading.

Some More Aphorisms

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. —T. S. Eliot

The isms go; the ist dies; art remains. —Vladimir Nabokov

Man’s world is infested by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue. — R. G. Collingwood

History speak truth to every age, in every time, every time. —Hannah Arendt

I tremble when I think God is just. —Thomas Jefferson

 

Half a dozen ps…

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as ‘normal’–‘more normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him,’ one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was ‘not only normal but most desirable’–and finally the minister who had paid regular visits to him in prison after the Supreme Court had finished hearing his appeal reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be ‘a man with very positive ideas.’ Behind the comedy of the soul experts lay the hard fact that his was obviously no case of moral let alone legal insanity.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

I think this quote, and her book, is particularly noteworthy in light of Rolling Stone’s latest cover.

Our present cal…

Our present calendar, which takes the birth of Christ as the turning-point from which to count time both backward and forward, was introduced at the end of the eighteenth century. The textbooks present the reform as prompted by scholarly needs to facilitate the dating of events in ancient history without having to refer to a maze of different time reckonings. Hegel, as far as I know the only philosopher to ponder sudden remarkable change, saw in it a clear sign of a truly Christian chronology because the birth of Christ now became the turning-point of world history. It seems more significant that in the new scheme we can count backward and forward in such a way that the past reaches back into an infinite past and the future likewise stretches out into an infinite future. This twofold infinity eliminates all notions of beginning and end, establishing mankind as it were, in a potentially sempiternal reality on earth. Needless to add that nothing could be more alien to Christian thought than the notion of an earthly immortality of mankind and its world.

–Hannah Arendt, “Willing” (footnote), The Life of the Mind