C(ecil) P(hillip) Taylor Robert Brustein

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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The difficulty with [Good] … is that it poses an all-too-familiar question and then completely fails to grapple with it.

The question is how generally ordinary and relatively decent people could have participated in or even tolerated Nazism, and I wonder if it needs to be asked again. Hannah Arendt first brought it up in her book on Eichmann; that perfectly normal family man, Rudolph Hess, who was also commandant of Auschwitz, provided some answers in his memoirs; Hochuth's The Deputy carried the question to the stage and Styron's Sophie's Choice to the novel; it was even mentioned in Bent, Martin Sherman's play about homosexual prisoners in the concentration camp. Mr. Taylor writes as if we were totally innocent of any previous work on the subject, as if he had stumbled on it anew.

Taylor … wrote Good, he said, in response to a deeply felt trauma; but his characters react to atrocities with all the passion of people in lounge chairs discussing the test match scores. It may be that Taylor, an assimilated English Jew, was incapable of imagining absolute evil; or it may be that the language of the educated English upper classes is incapable of expressing outrage. I mean, how hateful can people be when they are identified as "Nahzis." Taylor, at all events, hasn't found much evil in these "Nahzis." Describing the origins of Good, he admits it was impossible for him to see "the Third Reich's war on the Jews … as simply criminal," especially when he equated these "anti-social activities" (his test match phrase for the Final Solution) with the "Peace Crimes of the West against the Third World—my part in the Auschwitzes we are all perpetrating today." The carelessness of the analogy, not to mention its imprecise language, staggers the mind, but it may explain why Taylor's treatment of the rise of Nazism is so surprisingly mild. (p. 24)

Taylor's design is clear but, to my mind, utterly muddleheaded. If we are all capable of participating in such atrocities, then nobody is to blame for them, because when everyone is potentially guilty, then no one is guilty. To force his point, Taylor is obliged to treat the most dreadful events in the most casual manner, but when you see people responding to "anti-social behavior" in a reasonable, bemused, and condescending fashion, then you soon realize you are not in Germany but England…. One leaves the theater comforted by the thought that, because of their detached national character, the English could never have produced Nazism; the question is whether this detachment is helping to understand it. (pp. 24-5)

Robert Brustein, "This 'Money-Got, Mechanic Age'" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), in The New Republic, Vol. 187, No. 19, November 15, 1982, pp. 23-5.∗