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  • Eichmann, Empathy, and Lolita
  • Leland de la Durantaye


Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, "for relaxation." After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant: "Quite an unwholesome book"—Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch—he told his guard. 1 Though we are not privy to, and nor does Arendt speculate upon this officer's intentions, it is difficult to imagine that they were limited to procuring Eichmann a little "relaxation." The tale of a homicidal madman writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack—could hardly have been very relaxing for someone at that moment writing his own memoirs and himself awaiting a trial with similar stakes.

We might imagine other intentions on the part of Eichmann's guard. Could the gesture have been ironic? Or was it motivated by a dark curiosity—something of the order of an experiment? The sulphurous halo of Nabokov's book was still burning brightly in the popular consciousness of 1960. 2 Might Eichmann's guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain—he who impassively organized the transport towards certain death of countless innocents—would coldly, even gleefully, approve the various and vile machinations of Nabokov's creation?

This is all only speculation. In Arendt's account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann's radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As [End Page 311] Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State. But whatever the motivations of Eichmann's guard, whatever Eichmann's degree of comprehension, and whatever congratulations Eichmann might have deserved for his disgust, the incident raises a question for the study of Nabokov's finest work which has yet to be answered.


Before turning to this question, let us remain with Arendt and her notorious reader for a moment. Arendt notes elsewhere that it appeared to her that Eichmann was nearly "aphasic." She comments that, "when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché," and that, "his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else." Arendt offers here nothing less than a definition of thought itself. "To think" is glossed (". . . namely") by Arendt as, "to think from the standpoint of someone else." Though as a definition of thought, it is hardly impressive, it nevertheless expresses something essential about Arendt's conception of thought and thinking. (3) In her view, thought is to be placed under the sign of intellectual empathy, under the sign of living in the strangeness and wonder of another's world. (Though Arendt does not mention the connection, both the language she wrote Eichmann in—English—and her native one—German—make special provision for such a sense, as he or she who is "thoughtless" is not her or she who is incapable of some form of cognition or calculation, as "thoughtless" people can indeed be very clever and very clever people have been capable of great "thoughtlessness.")

Thought is thus a communal, not individualistic, thing. 4 This point is important as, though Adolf Eichmann was unlikely to have seen much of himself in the irreverent and urbane genius of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, nor in the latter's strange eloquence, Eichmann the man and Humbert the character of the first part of the novel (to leave the repenting Humbert of the book's last pages out for the moment), share an essential trait. What Eichmann the man shares with Nabokov's literary creation is the inability or unwillingness "to think from the standpoint of somebody else." The evil they share is the...


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