Hannah Arendt is one of the greatest political theorists of all time. Arendt was a German-American Jew who fled the Nazi regime in 1937 following an arrest, and two of her books in particular – 1951’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and 1963’s Eichmann in Jerusalem – remain among the best ever written about World War Two and the unspeakable horrors of Hitler’s regime. These were phenomenon that, given her brilliance and her life experience, she was so uniquely qualified to analyze that one almost could believe that she was born for this specific purpose. Of course, this is an idea that Arendt, given her wry cynicism and existentialist bent, would have vigorously disputed.
I do not believe in predestination either, for what it’s worth: still, the details of Arendt’s story are remarkable. Her teacher, mentor, and lover was Martin Heidegger, a Nazi who remained unapologetic and an advocate of German nationalism until the day he died (he was also widely considered one of modernity’s greatest philosophers, despite the opacity of his ideas and the obfuscatory prolixity of his prose). She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 but survived the experience. She lived in Paris before it was conquered, and then made the Atlantic passage to America. She lived at the hinge point of enormous historical forces, and was equipped with the awesome intellect, razor-sharp wit, and gallows humor to speak about them incisively.
Most people know Hannah Arendt for Eichmann in Jerusalem, her collection of reports from the 1961 – 1962 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, in which Israel convicted him of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to hang. It was in Eichmann in Jerusalem that Arendt, describing the bland blend of cliches that constituted the mild-mannered monster’s last words, wrote:
It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.
I am a keen student of politics and evil (but I repeat myself), and Arendt is one of my favorite writers. She was a fearless explorer of the darkest reaches of human depravity, and helped a shocked and disbelieving world come to grips with the grey, bloodless bureaucracy that undergirded the baroque cruelty of Europe’s death factories. Horror fiction has also explored the bloody shores of human inhumanity, often dressing the carnage up in ways that provide more exaggerated and easy-to-identify villains than reality offers. Some horror, however, tries to strike at the heart of what Arendt was speaking to. It does so by focusing on the evil of banality, if you will: the horror of the bureaucrat, the career civil servant of darkness, the humanity-blunting and thus monstrous subtext of all such structures.
A perfect example is The Cabin in the Woods (mild spoilers ahead). In Cabin, it is revealed that the titular cabin in the woods, with its collection of teenage archetypes and horror-movie ghouls, is a horror story for those teens but just a day’s work for a gaggle of tie-wearing, bespectacled office drones, mid-level functionaries in a vast conspiracy of elder gods and paper-pushers. It’s a brilliant trick, one that not only allows cheeky commentary about horror movie tropes, but also encourages us to think about the nobodies who make all sorts of horrors function, from the debt industry to the prison-industrial complex.
While it is less overtly concerned with “evil,” the vision of the afterlife presented in Beetlejuice by director Tim Burton is a dreary limbo of endless paperwork, crowded waiting rooms and long lines, and, of course, psychopomp bureaucrats. This is a tradition in horror-comedy that has long continued, with popular films like R.I.P.D. (based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name) and less-appreciated offerings like Monkeybone (also based on a comic – Kaja Blackley’s Dark Town).
The prototypical exploration of the evil of banality is Franz Kafka’s The Trial. It’s not generally recognized as a horror novel, but Kafka’s bleak vision of inhuman legal forces and petty authoritarians is certainly tinged by horror. The acid wit with which Kafka dissects both K.’s bourgeois fretfulness and the absurdity of a legal system top-heavy with unaccountable functionaries has a familiar flavor to horror fans. “The system” as portrayed by Kafka is certainly a monstrous enough villain, a many-headed beast all too willing to crush citizens beneath the weight and the good-natured brutality of its civil servants. In the world according to Kafka, it is not the mindless hunger of a predator that consumes our protagonist, nor is it the spiteful hatred of a masked slasher that fuels the executioner. Rather, the innocent are swallowed alive by the State, and dispatched by a man in a mask, to be sure – but one who is a duly appointed executioner backed by the full force of the legal establishment. This is a much more terrifying portrait of evil than some cackling, wild-eyed maniac or skulking boogeyman.
“The banality of evil” is a brilliant framing of political violence and the depravity that convulsed Europe in the 20th Century, and the community of political theorists rightly honors Arendt for its articulation. It may be equally important to rearrange the phrase as a way to reflect on how atrocities are made and remain palatable to the average citizen. Mass incarceration, concentration camps for immigrant children, a cruel and racist execution machine that often murders the innocent, police who very often murder the innocent: the everyday terrors of the system “working as it is supposed to” all too often blend into the background of American life – and that’s no coincidence. These horrors were designed to disappear, to become ubiquitous and banal. We would do well to meditate on the real-life horrors that live just beneath the surface of our boring reality, hidden in plain sight. Just as we have come to understand the banality of evil, we should contemplate the evil of banality, and never let atrocities become “normal.”