... I was given pause by Martin Amis’ afterword to his powerful new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” where he probes the “why” of Hitler and quotes both the icicle passage and another from Levi:
“Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify. Let me explain: ‘understanding’ a proposal or human behavior means to ‘contain’ it, contain its author, put oneself in his place, identify with him.” Levi, referring to Hitler, Himmler and the rest, goes on: “Perhaps it is desirable that their words (and also, unfortunately, their deeds) cannot be comprehensible to us. They are non-human words and deeds, really counter-human.”
Maybe Amis didn't intend this, but his words amount to a kind of anti-intellectualism — maybe better to say counter-intellectualism — of evil. It's OK that we can't understand it; it's better to just stand against it and get rid of it. Never mind that the whole point of understanding something is to know where it begins and where it ends, where it comes from and what it affects, and how best to attack it in the first place.
Why else, I guess, would Amis sneak in that "almost", that wonderful little weasel word that allows him to back out of the whole thing on a moment's notice — as, in a metaphor my programmer friends would appreciate, one might roll back an uncommitted database transaction just before it steamrolls thousands of rows.
Understanding is not justification, period. I'll go so far as to say that to conflate the two is to make a good part of modern intellectual discourse impossible. Approval of another's position is an act, not simply a sentiment you express — and maybe the expression of a sentiment is by itself an act, but it's not one of anywhere nearly the magnitude nor the influence of other kinds of approval.
Why Amis bothers to equate understanding with justification is, I think, a sign that he isn't actually doing any real thinking on the subject. He's being contrary, and for people without any real ideas that's often one of the quickest shortcuts to the appearance of profundity.
Authors rarely impress me with the depth of their intellectual rigor, and I suspect that's because they don't see themselves as thinkers. They see themselves as artists, where the lively expression of any one idea is as good as the lively expression of any other. Sometimes the expression is so lively and vivid that it's forgivable; Dostoevsky was known less for the originality of his thought than the fire with which he dramatized it. But those are things that can only be assigned from the outside. You can't hang a sign reading "GENIUS" around your own neck as a talisman against foolishness.
Tibor Fischer pointed out — and in a discussion of Amis himself, no less! — "One of Amis's weaknesses is that he isn't content to be a good writer, he wants to be profound; the drawback to profundity is that it's like being funny, either you are or you aren't, straining doesn't help. This ache for gravitas has led to much of Amis's weaker work: Time's Arrow and his writing on nuclear war (it's horrible, isn't it?)."
Some ideas are just plain bad, and so it's hard to take someone seriously if they make noises about being a thinker but don't do much actual thinking.