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Isaac Babel: Anthropologist of the Human Soul and of Human Cruelty

Jan. 23 2018

Reviewing the recent translations of Isaac Babel’s work by Val Vinkour and Boris Drayluk, Gary Saul Morson explains the unique genius of the Soviet Jewish writer who was executed at Stalin’s orders in 1940 at the age of forty-five:

There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For [the American critic Lionel] Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of [Babel’s best-known cycle of stories], Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, ḥasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything. . . .

The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, a pseudonym Babel himself had used while among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes, . . . scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” . . .

Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike. Everyone kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and “counterrevolution.”

Read more at New York Review of Book

More about: Arts & Culture, Communism, Isaac Babel, Literature, Russia, Soviet Jewry

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals