Paul la Farge has a review of Littell’s The Kindly Ones in the newest issue of The Believer. Criticized as too encyclopedic and too sadistic (the protagonist is an SS officer that killed his mother and stepfather, anally rapes his sister and enjoys his job overseeing the Lublin concentration camp) la Farge, agreeing with those sentiments, wants to find out why it is such a compelling read.
La Farge seems particularly captivated by the encyclopedic nature of the book. Max Aue, the protagonist, is painted by la Farge more as a scanner and less person, taking in everything and remembering everything with inhumane clarity in a strategic realism– a “refusal to sort important from unimportant”. (4)
There is then a meander through Eichmann’s trials and Arendt’s reporting of the trial culminating in her Banality of Evil. To avoid the banality of citing the banality (la Farge’s joke, not mine) he paraphrases it (well done, in my opinion) as “the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away…?” (6) Why is this banality, this overemphasis of information over knowledge so compelling? La Farge does not venture a guess except to cite the constitutive lack, that people are intrinsically incomplete. This is also the reason la Farge claims The Kindly Ones is so compelling: “it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.” (8)
I do not believe la Farge is honest when he says this method is persuasive to the lazy, young or sad. La Farge was compelled by The Kindly Ones and I doubt he would group himself into those pejorative labels. Instead, it is quite likely that la Farge believes all people are compelled by the constitutive lack and consequently all people find the totalitarian story compelling. This is where la Farge’s argument breaks down: psychoanalysis can reduce people’s urges to a primal cause but all people then interpret the solution to that same cause differently.
Some may be drawn to the totalitarian state and yet others may be drawn to classic auto shows while some are drawn to Furry Conventions or picking navel lint. In a strict reduction we may appear alike but we all manifest differently. The constituent lack does not explain why The Kindly Ones is compelling. La Farge knows this problem exists for his argument which is why he sets out the purpose of the essay with a qualification that denies the very exigency for the purpose: “The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers[emphasis mine]. The question I want to ask is, why?” Why does the question need to be asked if this book, like all books, is about preference?
What la Farge’s essay completely overlooks in the success of The Kindly Ones is style. I am surprised to see this error in a post-Seinfeld world. Jerry and George launched a sitcom about nothing. They realized that content is irrelevant as long as the writing is good. People want to be entertained and what they find entertaining is nearly irrelevant. ER also provided this lesson. Critics and producers told Michael Crichton the show was to jargon filled. Too technical. Crichton correctly took the chance that people were engaged not by the accuracy of a technology but by compelling characters and stories. No content can sell and too much content can sell. It’s all about storytelling. La Farge spends no time talking about style. He does, however, cite (4) a passage towards the end of the book to demonstrate his scanner theory, but the passage really demonstrates less realism and more style. Good writing sells even if, nay especially if, we hate the protagonist.
La Farge’s essay is useful for other questions though. His description and paraphrasing of Arendt’s banality of evil is one of the better concisions I have ever encountered. La Farge also provides a persuasive account, not at all unlike Erich Fromm’s, of why people are drawn to submission. There is also a nice walk through ancient Greek literature particularly the Orestes (otherwise known as The Kindly Ones.) The best part of la Farge’s essay though is a theory about information and knowledge drawn out of Arendt’s theorizations. Eichmann had information about the camps he oversaw but he did not know the camps. This break is helpful when analyzing our own world for resistance to change.
For example, Easterly has recently decided to take on the critics who call poverty a human rights violation. He claims a human rights violation is best reserved for when a victim and a perpetrator can be (easily?) identified. Easterly then says that while he knows how bad poverty is that these calls are counterproductive. I will admit that history is on Easterly’s side but that is only because the game is rigged. The transcript of success can only measure immediate causes and their effects. The larger calls which shape policies are ignored and the ‘true’ human rights violations are treated as deus ex machina. Easterly’s criticism fails because of the information/knowledge distinction la Farge raises. Easterly has information about the ravages of poverty but he does not know poverty. If he knew poverty he would be more adamant about solving it if for no other reason than he would not sit in his current position en-privileged by the very poverty he wants to fight.
In conclusion I offer William Blake’s words in “The Human Abstract”:
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
Easterly, William. (2009). Aid Watch, http://blogs.nyu.edu/fas/dri/aidwatch/2009/06/paul_farmer_and_the_human_righ.html.
la Farge, Paul. (2009). A scanner darkly. The Believer, 66, 3-8.