Sunday, May 26, 2019

Thickness of Soul and the Banality of Evil

Dear Bea,

I am hoping to revive my Flannery O'Connor Online Book Club, which I began last year but let languish after I became as busy as I was from October through April.  The next story we're supposed to discuss is "The Life You Save May Be Your Own", but it's one of the more difficult ones, and I've read it three times, but I think I'm getting close to being able to talk about it.

The main character in that story is despicable - but nice.  Nice, that is, in a kind of conventional, commonplace aw-shucks kind of way.  Which reminds me of what I wrote yesterday about the Problem of Evil, Jordan Peterson's encounter with it and the suburban Catholic insouciant ignorance of it.  Hannah Arendt is famous for writing about "The Banality of Evil", how horrible things can be done under the cover of a kind of thickness of soul.

Eric Voegelin picks up on that in his book Hitler and the Germans.  I decided to read this book because Voegelin refers to Fr. Alfred Delp in it - one of the few Catholic clerics in Germany to resist the evils of the Nazis (and Delp paid for this resistance with his life).  For years I had swallowed the myth that the Catholic Church did its best to help the Jews and that it only kowtowed to Hitler in the hopes of saving the lives of German Catholics.  But the evidence indicates that this is not true.  The Protestant and Catholic churches were both complicit in the Nazi regime.  How could this be?  Could it be that the Banality that runs rampant in our suburban parishes in 2019 was the same Banality in the 1930's and 40's that enabled what Arendt called The Banality of Evil?

In any case, the main character in Flannery's story is so banal, so "petit bourgeois", that he is not even fully aware of his own dark side, even when he deliberately exercises it.   He believes his own conventional cliches.  He does a dreadful deed while maintaining (for the most part) his glib equanimity.  We have known people like that.  God help us, we have sometimes been people like that.  Banality of Evil indeed!

And, yes, that brings us to MLK.  I was as upset about the Martin Luther King story as you were (which Rod Dreher gave a fair account of).  And of course it's true.  Don't fool yourself.  It fits the pattern of what we've known about King's personal life for decades, though of course rape is far worse than serial adultery or plagiarism.

And I'm not so sure we can write it off as glibly as you are inclined to.  Yes, the man did great things, but how can a Christian minister agitate for the Dignity of Man, if he has no regard at all for the Dignity of Woman?  How can a man who had "been to the mountaintop" have spent so much time sniffing around the pits of hell?  How can a man who preached racial equality as a kind of fulfillment of God's commandments have treated these same commandments with contempt?

Yes, yes, I know, we're all sinners, all a mixture of good and bad.  But we're dealing here with what I called above a "thickness of soul", with what Voegelin calls a "pneumopathology".  And occasionally Reality pops the Unreality Bubble - which is what happens (or almost happens) in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own".  But ... spoilers!  So I'll sign off.

My regards to Malcolm.  And tell him he's right.  "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is better than any letter I'll ever write - to you or anybody.  But we are more than our letters, aren't we?

And sometimes less.

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