Some choice passages from J. M. Coetzee's "Portrait of the Monster as a Young Artist" (great title), a review of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest (NYRB, Feb. 15, 2007):
All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks.
Normally a society can tolerate, even look benignly upon, a layer of autodidacts and cranks on the fringes of its intellectual institutions. What is singular about the career of Hitler is that through a confluence of events in which luck played some part, he was able not only to spread his nonsensical philosophy among his German countrymen but to put it into practice across Europe, with consequences known to all.
It is not too much to say that Mailer's quarrel with Arendt is a running subtext to The Castle in the Forest. But does he do justice to her? In 1946 Arendt had an exchange of letters with Karl Jaspers sparked by his use of the word "criminal" to characterize Nazi policies. Arendt disagreed. In comparison with mere criminal guilt, she wrote to him, the guilt of Hitler and his associates "oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems."
Jaspers defended himself: if one claims that Hitler was more than a criminal, he said, one risks ascribing to him the very "satanic greatness" he aspired to. Arendt took his criticism to heart. When she came to write the Eichmann book, she endeavored to keep alive the paradox that though the actions of Hitler and his associates may defy our understanding, there was no depth of thought behind their conception, no grandeur of intention. Eichmann, a humanly uninteresting man, a bureaucrat through and through, never realized in any philosophically full sense of the word what he was doing; the same might be said, mutatis mutandis, for the rest of the gang.
To take the phrase "the banality of evil" to epitomize Arendt's verdict on the misdeeds of Nazism, as Mailer seems to do, thus misses the complexity of the thinking behind it: what is peculiar to the everyday banality of a bureaucratically administered, industrially organized policy of wholesale extermination is that it is also "word-and-thought-defying," beyond our power to understand or to describe.
If one takes seriously Mailer's reading of world history as a war between good and evil in which human beings act as proxies for supernatural agents—that is to say, if one takes this reading at face value rather than as an extended and not very original metaphor for unresolved and irresoluble conflict within individual human psyches—then the principle that human beings are responsible for their actions is subverted, and with that the ambition of the novel to search out and speak the truth of our moral life.