[lit-ideas] Eichmann's language

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas " <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 27 Oct 2007 11:37:54 -0700

J. L.,                


I ran across a section in Arendt?s book on Eichmann that should be of
interest to you:


Page 48-9: ?The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from
May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by
Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist ? provided he
is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but
outright funny.  Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because
it lies in Eichmann?s heroic fight with the German language, which
invariably defeats him.  It is funny when he speaks, passim, of ?winged
words? (geflugelte Worte, a German colloquialism for famous quotes from the
classics) when he means stock phrases, Redensarten, or slogans, Schlagworte.
It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents,
conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase ?kontra
geben? (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen?s
efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the
mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of
any other way to put it.  Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him
even in school ? it amounted to a mild case of aphasia ? he apologized,
saying ?Officialese [Amissprache] is my only language.?  But the point here
is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable
of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliche.  (Was it these clichés
that the psychiatrists thought so ?normal? and ?desirable??  Are these the
?positive ideas? a clergyman hopes for in those to whose souls he ministers?
Eichmann?s best opportunity to show this positive side of his character in
Jerusalem came when the young police officer in charge of his mental and
psychological well-being handed him Lolita for relaxation.  After two days
Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant; ?Quite an unwholesome book? ? ?Das
ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch? ? he told his guard.)  To be sure,
the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had
said was ?empty talk? ? except that they thought the emptiness was feigned,
and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though
hideous, were not empty.  This supposition seems refuted by the striking
consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated
word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did
succeed in construction a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it
became a cliche) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance
to him.  Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether
speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the
same, expressed in the same words.  The longer one listened to him, the more
obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an
inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.
No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he
was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and
the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.?


Question: Arendt is in the process here of building support for her
contention that Eichmann was a stupid man incapable of the demonic extremes
his examiners hoped to expose.  But can we generalize from what Arendt
writes in this paragraph?  Can we assert that people who in speech can?t
progress (or don?t want to progress) beyond clichés are incapable of (or
have difficulty) seeing reality from another person?s perspective?         




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