FT : Harry Eyres On Banality

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, the political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil”.  Eichmann, responsible for the slaughter of millions of Jews, had the appearance and even the mentality of a petty bureaucrat or administrator, crunching numbers and logistics that could have concerned widgets but happened to involve the mass murder of human beings.  The former employee of the Vacuum Oil Company was examined by a team of psychologists who pronounced him perfectly “normal” – “more normal at any rate than I am”, as one of them said with black humour, “after having examined him”.  When Arendt wrote, humanity was still reeling from the first total war in history, from the revelations of the Holocaust, the pitiful starvation of inmates at Belsen, the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Evil loomed large and dramatic on the face of the planet, and it was something of a shock to find its incarnation in such commonplace, trite human beings as Eichmann and the thousands of others who were simply “obeying orders”.  Evil has not disappeared from the planet in the intervening years, but in most of Europe and in North America it has retreated from the limelight.  If finding banality was surprising for Arendt, it is now what we expect and what everywhere surrounds us.  We might feel grateful for small mercies and rejoice that today’s politicians do not stage Wagnerian rallies and line the streets with 100ft-high banners.  We find it reassuring to hear commonplaces uttered and we watch television programmes that are engineered precisely for that purpose (anyone caught saying anything difficult or original gets short shrift from Big Brother). 

But I am beginning to wonder whether Arendt’s formulation might not be reversed, and whether we should not concern ourselves more with the evil of banality.  One petty example is sports commentary.  At this time of year I turn couch potato for an hour or two each afternoon to watch tennis or listen to the cricket (I used to watch that, too, until it was sold down the river to Sky).  Cricket in particular has produced its fair share of poetic commentary, from the burred Hampshire lyricism of John Arlott to the bone-dry crispness of Richie Benaud.  But poetry, whimsy and originality are every day less in evidence.  Tennis commentators (apart from the admirable Frew MacMillan and the ever-more elusive John McEnroe) seem to be chosen for locker room bonhomie rather than any gift for language or analysis.  Commenting on the tattooed quotation from Dostoevsky that the maverick Serbian Janko Tipsaverich sports on one arm, the ever-trite Andrew Castle joked to the equally uninspired John Lloyd: “Oh, he’s intelligent too – that wasn’t what we used to read, was it Lloydy?”  The idea, it seems, whether you are a player or a commentator, is to be “one of the lads”.  Test Match Special, one of the truly great English eccentric creations, the one sports programme that comes into its own when play is suspended during breaks for rain, has been steadily losing its unique flavour, reminiscent of the genteel English surrealism of the Ealing comedies.  “There’s really nothing to say,” opined the New Zealand commentator Jeremy Coney recently – not a sentiment that could ever have passed the lips of the great Brian Johnston.  The most popular purveyor of classical music in the UK is Classic FM, the radio station that treats classical music as if it was chocolate – and not even good chocolate, but the kind of milky, sugary nothingness that should have been banned long ago by the EU.  The early evening offering on Classic FM is called Smooth Classics, as if the music of Beethoven and Schubert should slip down the gullet like baby food.

So the effect of banal commentary, and banal thinking in general, is to turn everything into undifferentiated pap.  What is banal is what has already been chewed over, a thousand times, by someone else, or thousands of others.  What is wrong with that?  In the 1950s, the Gestalt therapists Fritz Perls, Ralph Hefferline and Paul Goodman explored the connection between physical eating and spiritual nourishment: as adults, it turns out, just as we need to engage in an active process of selecting our food, biting, chewing and digesting, so “we need to be able to ‘bite off’ and ‘chew’ experience so as to extract its healthy nourishment … to the extent that you have cluttered your personality with gulped-down morsels of this and that, you have impaired your ability to think and act on your own.”  The danger of banality is an insidious one.  Banality weakens our intellectual, spiritual and ethical muscles, rendering us flabby thinkers, unable or unwilling to chew over the difficult matter of experience and make it part of us.  The connection between the banality of evil and the evil of banality is the danger of a surrender of our human powers of discrimination.  We always need to be discriminating, and we always need to be working on refining our powers of discrimination, or one day we might find we can no longer distinguish between a human being and a widget.

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0f455350-43ea-11dd-842e-0000779fd2ac.html

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