Friday, October 15, 2010

Articulating InHumanity: Primo Levi

Fear makes us feel our humanity.
—Benjamin Disraeli [1804-1881], British prime minister & author 

I am constantly amazed by man's inhumanity to man.
—Primo Levi  [1919-87]

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919. He was trained as a chemist and graduated from the University of Turin in 1941. He was arrested during the Second World War as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944. His experience in the death camp and his subsequent travels through Eastern Europe were the subject of powerful memoirs, fiction and poetry. Mr. Levi died in Turin in April 1987.

In Primo Levi: A Life, George Jochnowitz, emeritus professor of linguistics at City University in New York, writes:
Levi was many things. He was a Jew, an atheist, and an Italian. He was a scientist with a doctorate in chemistry. He was the author of memoirs, stories, poems, essays, science fiction, and a novel. He was a man with very many friends, who nevertheless was isolated from the world by his depression. And he was 174517.
But he was more than the sum of his many parts. Mr. Levi gave voice to the unspeakable horrors that man inflicts upon man. His books, articles and memoirs are among the best, the most articulate in describing the daily life of people imprisoned by the Nazis during the Second World War. In his writings, you will find a clear voice, a voice of a scientist who has the rare gift of describing in both poetic and clear language the experiences of living in a regime where humans are made, well, un-human.  

All traces of their humanity is removed for the sake of expediency. Useless violence dehumanizes both guards and prisoners, Levi says. "Before dying the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt."

Yet, despite the inhumanity he suffered, Mr. Levi not only survived, but survived with individual dignity, as his writing suggests. Diego Gambetta, a sociologist at Oxford University, sums up Primo Levi's importance  in the canon of Holocaust literature in Primo Levi's Last Moments.
His writings on the Holocaust were fundamental in shaping many people's understanding of what it means to be a decent human being—their sense of the prospects for human survival, even under the worst possible conditions. That a figure of Levi's stature emerged from the fumes of arguably the most savage act of hatred and inhumanity to scar the twentieth century has been a powerful source of hope and strength. Philip Roth describes Levi's "masterpiece on Auschwitz," If This is a Man, as "his profoundly civilized and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained connection and tear him and his kind out of history."
Now, in Mr. Levi's case, he was writing about the inhumane measures that the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews, political dissidents, the gypsies and homosexuals, among others, whom the autocratic regime in power persuaded the majority of proper law-obeying citizens of Germany that such undesirables, rootless intellectuals, were an impediment to a society that was built on law and order. Soon, the German people received what they asked for and, in addition, as part of the Faustian bargain, what they did not ask for.

Consider what Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891):
As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. 
The end of the Second World War did not end tyranny and injustice. It has existed since the end of 1945. It exists today in many—too many—places in the world. The list of nations is well known. And, depending how one views the values of freedom, liberty, democracy and individual dignity, the list of nations might be longer today than 60 years ago. Even in nations that consider themselves democratic, the values of democracy enshrined in their Constitutions are being eroded, often by the same courts that are supposed to protect them.

Liberation is Difficult: Although Primo Levi suffered depression after his liberation from the Nazi death camps of the Second World War, leading to his suicide in 1987, he was an articulate voice on the ordinariness of brutality and violence.

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