Writing Controversy

On Nov. 1 2006, the American novelist, William Styron, died in his home on Martha’s Vineyard. Reporting on his death, The New York Times mentioned the storm of controversy surrounding the publication of two of Styron’s most celebrated books, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice.

Critics questioned the appropriateness of a white writer choosing to speak in the voice of an African-American slave, in Confessions, and in the case of Sophie’s Choice, were concerned that telling the story of the Holocaust through the experiences of a non-Jew diminished the significance of the Holocaust as an instrument of terror designed to eliminate European Jewry.

Such criticisms raise interesting questions with which many writers grapple not only in technical but also in ethical ways: What is an authentic narrative voice? How does one achieve that voice when writing about experiences outside one’s own immediate life? Who can speak for whom?

When I read the obituary in the Times yesterday, I was surprised to learn that when writing Sophie’s Choice, Styron had been influenced by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. But as I thought more about it, that influence made immense sense.

Eichmann is a haunting book. Originally commissioned as a series of articles written for The New Yorker, it became a meditation on morality. Arendt wrote it while she reflected on attending the Israeli trial of Nazi deportation coordinator Adolf Eichmann. In it she reached disturbing conclusions about who bore responsibility for the Final Solution.

Sitting in that courtroom in Jerusalem, Arendt said she was struck by an odd and disturbing thought--that the evil reflected in Eichmann’s crimes, the atrocities against humanity he committed, was the product neither of a madman nor a wicked man nor a monster, but an ordinary, normal human who had acted without thought. To Arendt, Eichmann was terrifying because he was “thoughtless.” The real trouble, she said, was there so many like him, terrifying normal people who made evil banal. She, a Jew, judged even members of the Jewish Council unfavorably because they had cooperated by giving names of Jews to the Nazis.

The controversy surrounding the publication of Eichmann raged for many years and the wisdom of Arendt’s tone and conclusions continue to be debated. Yet, the importance of what she wrote about the problem of evil warrants consideration, especially in light of the ease with which different groups target others for vilification today.

In Eichmann, Arendt painted a compelling portrait of what horrors can happen when we lose the ability to think. Without thinking, she said, we become quite literally homeless because we imagine both the strangers sitting next to us and even our kin to have become unbearably threatening. These “others,” become as much afraid of us as we are of them. And when that happens, it becomes possible for any one of us to do awful things. But, Arendt said, it is also possible for anyone to act courageously to prevent harm to others and Eichmann presents examples of many different groups and individuals, including Germans, who did so.

The debate about Styron’s work and Arendt’s raises large questions worth pondering: How can we narrate the complicated truths of the human experience? And if these complicated truths introduce ambiguity in the portraits we carry in our heads about “victims” and “evil-doers” can that ambiguity introduce a moment of hesitation, a moment where we think twice before targeting certain groups either for vilification or sainthood?