Last night a group of St. Mary’s faculty met to talk about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. At one point in our discussion I wondered aloud whether Beowulf was a Kantian.
Before elaborating on this apparently disconnected thought, let me tell you something about the group. The younger faculty who brought us together are interested in reading foundational texts that they’ve always heard about. Arendt’s groundbreaking work on the Holocaust made sense because my colleague Elizabeth Applegate in French wrote her dissertation on the Rwandan genocide and my colleague Barrett Emerick in Philosophy wrote his on the ethics of apologizing. Also in the group is novelist and Vietnam vet Wayne Karlin, who has written about massacres in Vietnam and pogroms in Poland. Not surprisingly, we have been having riveting discussions.
Last night we discussed the chapters where Arendt looks at the attitudes towards Jews in countries that Germany conquered and countries (like Italy) that were allies. Arendt holds up Denmark as the lone exemplar of how countries should have responded.
Denmark, she says, simply refused to go along with the Holocaust. Instructed by the Germans to make their Jews wear yellow stars, the Danes decided that all would wear stars. They refused to hand over the Jews, including Jews who had fled from Germany, and ultimately were able to smuggle most of them to Sweden. Because of their strong stand, the Germans supervising the deportations melted (to use Arendt’s metaphor) like butter in the sun. Indeed, they actively participated in the Danish deceptions and, after the war, the Danes pardoned the German commander, even though a Nuremberg court had sentenced him to death.
Arendt’s point, which I would dearly like to believe, is essentially that, when one takes a principled stand, the bullies lose confidence and back down. Had other countries done the same, she believes, far fewer Jews would have died. Unfortunately, instead they went along, or failed to protest, and the Final Solution fed on their lack of opposition.
My philosophy colleague talked about the Danes being Kantian, which is to say, they took a moral stance regardless of the consequences. Kant, Barrett said (I hope I’m doing him justice), notes that although you can’t control what others do to you, you can at least control how you yourself respond. Principle, not pragmatism, is the key. Barrett wondered whether Arendt isn’t trying to having it both ways with the Danes, arguing a connection between a principled stand and the good practical consequences that can arise from it.
This is when I brought up the Anglo-Saxon hero. In my book about Beowulf and rage in America (it will be available soon), I argue that the monster Grendel stands for the forces of social resentment, which in our society often take the form of racism and other kinds of prejudice. When people are taken over by Grendian envy and rage, they transform from our neighbors into monsters and lash out at their fellow citizens.
To defeat this rage, Beowulf stands tall and firm in his convictions. When Grendel reaches out his arm to rend and tear, Beowulf grasps hold of it and won’t let go. Confronted with such resolve Grendel, like the German commandant in Denmark, loses confidence in the resentment that drives him. Panicking, he tears himself free of a grasp that won’t let go and goes off to a dark place to die. This, I argue, metaphorically describes what happens to resentment when it faces a firmly held humane and tolerant vision. It retreats to a place deep within, making civil society possible.
Will the resentment that we are seeing in America today back down if we stand up to it as Beowulf does? It will certainly work better than the approach taken by Beowulf’s men. They lash at Grendel with angry swords–which in our case could be seen as angry words.
This has some application to the Trayvon Martin case, which I blogged on last week. When we respond to anger with anger, Anger wins, which is something to keep in mind as we consider how to respond to the rightwing extremists who are trying to demonize young Trayvon, the black teenager who was mistaken for an intruder by Neighborhood Watchman George Zimmerman and shot. Because he wore a hoodie and once was suspended from school for smoking pot and sometimes played a tough on his Facebook pages, we are predictably being told by the usual demagogues that he somehow deserved what happened to him.
It takes all our moral strength to resist responding in kind. If we dial up the temperature, however, the only victim is an open and accepting society. Martin Luther King understood this well.
Whereas if we stand strong with the firm handgrip of justice and respect, Grendel will waver. Or at least that’s what happens in the poem. Although I guess Kant would say that it doesn’t matter whether Grendel backs off or not. What matters is that we have stood for justice.
That’s not a bad thing to remember during this Easter week as Christians celebrate another man who stood his ground and refused to hate.