Thursday, June 29, 2006

Primo Levi Revisited

Some more Insights from Primo Levi

Over the last few days I’ve finished Primo Levi’s book on Auschwitz.  I was greatly moved by this book and by the objective style of the author who really had the ability to transport me there, to begin almost to feel the existential angst felt by the inmates.  It’s a powerful book, and a brilliant testimony to the human spirit and to the magic of the faculty of the imagination to capture such horrors so well.
I was intrigued and enlightened by his contention that “the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.” (87) He also contends that there were only two types of men at Auschwitz – the saved and the drowned.  There were no in-betweens.  The drowned were those who were called “musselmans”, Auschwitz slang for those non-beings who had given up the will to fight, they were the walking dead.  The saved, on the other hand looked out for themselves alone and who by “savage patience and cunning” found “a new method of avoiding the hardest work…he will try to keep his method secret…he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival.” (88) Needless to say, there was absolutely no moral code within the camp.  Then I read of the grotesque and absurd idea of the men taking a test in chemistry in the hopes of being “employed” in the chemical laboratory based in the Buna factory.

Then this story – obviously a story that separates the saved man from the masses of the drowned non-entities:  “Clausner shows me the bottom of his bowl.  Where others have carved their numbers, and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: “Ne pas chercher a comprendre.”  

People disappeared in Auschwitz on a daily basis, if not hourly, and were as Levi puts it, “cancelled from this world.”  

Then I’m brought back to Levi’s survival strategy with these words:  “We are old Haftlinge: our wisdom lay in  ‘not trying to understand’, not imagining the future, not tormenting ourselves as to how and when it would be all over; not asking others or ourselves any questions.” (116)

Or this interesting insight into languages, or rather the subversion of languages:  “In fact we were the untouchables to the civilians…they hear us speak in many different languages, which they do not understand and which sound to them as grotesque as animal noises.”  (120-121)

“If the lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing…” (123)

One thing I am overwhelmed by is the German or Nazi desire to make lists constantly, no matter how miserable the situation was for inmates, and further, no matter how near the end of the war was – they were making lists even as they could hear the enemy fire getting closer and the ground shaking!
And the ubiquity of the horrible nature of death: “In full darkness I found myself fully awake.  “L’pauv’-vieux” was silent; he had finished.  With the last gasp of life he had thrown himself to the ground: I heard the thud of his knees, of his hips, of his shoulders, of his head.”  (172)
Survival according to Levi depended on knowing German and entering the camp in good health.  Added to that you had to have a lot of luck.  I remember the great mathematician and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking maintaining that how one fared in life was simply a matter of luck at bottom.  He was referring to the fact that he had developed the horrible disease of motor neurone disease, but was quite stoical in his attitude.  No need bemoaning the fact, just get on with living.  
All in all Levi’s book is a fascinating, enlightening, challenging and disturbing read.  All good literature can and must do that for the reader.  I am thankful to have read it and will hold its wisdom in my soul as best I can.
I also bought another few books recently while out walking: - Big Numbers by the husband and wife scientific team of Mary and John Gribbin.  It’s a fine book to dip into and to marvel at the beauty and complexity of numbers and the universe they attempt to describe in their specific symbolic way.  I also bought a marvellous book in tribute to Sr Stanislaus Kennedy who founded Focus Ireland, the organization that supports the homeless.  She has also gone into the area of helping refugees also.  There was a beautiful article in that book by Fr Peter McVerry, SJ, brilliant and sharp and with an edge.  This is no surprise given the fact that he works with homeless young men, and has devoted decades of his life to this task.  The title of his article is brilliant: “God is Unfair, Thank God”.  This is an apt title and so true.  What McVerry is getting at is that God’s ways are not our ways.  I’ve heard it put this way: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  McVerry illustrates his article with loads of stories from the Gospels, how God shows mercy to those whom the rest of us would not.  God pays all his servants the same wages no matter how much work they have done.  We’d all feel cheated would we not by this type of justice?  Yes, I liked this article, and I positively loved his definition of Christianity along these lines: “If the Jewish faith proclaimed a God-whose-compassion-is-observance-of-the-law, Jesus proclaimed a God-whose-passion-is-compassion.  (An Easter People, edited by John Scally, Veritas, 2005, p. 53)  I also was spellbound by Brendan Kennelly’s poetry and by the headier philosophical article by the philosopher-poet John O’Donohue in the same book.  I am also reading Dorothy Rowe’s excellent book The Courage to Live: Discovering Meaning in a World of Uncertainty (Harper Collins, 1994).  This book is much more detailed and much more complex is its exploration of the psychology of belief, the purpose of life and how essential it is that people have a meaning to their lives whether this be expressed in overtly religious terms, psychological, ethical or simply humanistic terms.  With such a personally assimilated and formulated meaning a person lives a more authentic and less stressful life.
The above photo is of one of the guard towers at Dachau.

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