The Lessons of Primo Levi #1

April 17, 2009

As last summer was drawing to a close, I began reading some of the texts of Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor who’s reflections on the Nazi camps and his experience in them has deep and lasting importance for the effort to think trauma.  Below is the first of a number of entries from my philosophical journal, with the date I originally wrote it, addressing his work.

 

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1988; Vintage edition 1989), p. 40, on “the grey zone” (the title of this chapter of the book):

It is naive, absurd and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims:  on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself [reference to the system of privilege wherein some inmates help victimize other inmates, especially the Zugang, the newcomer], and this all the more when they are available, blank, and lacking a political or moral armature.

He goes on to observe that we need to learn how to think of this “grey zone” [wherein the very distinction between perpetrator and victim becomes–very intentionally on the part of the perpetrators–blurred] appropriately, “if we want to know how to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us, or even if we want to understand what takes place in a big industrial factory.”  My emphasis on that last clause, which, I think, is in tension with the preceding “if” clause [namely, “if we want to defend our souls when a similar test should once more loom before us”].  After all, we do not, by what his closing clause says, need to wait for “a similar test” to arise:  it is already here.  Indeed, insofar as the big factory is hardly autonomous, it [the “test”] is already and everywhere present in the age of technology, as Heidegger saw.

What’s more, doesn’t the very endeavor, suggested by his first “if” clause, to  prepare oneself or to defend oneself against such a “test,” end up engendering or aggravating the very thing against which it seeks to defend itself?  Isn’t that very effort at defense what made the system of “privilege” in the camp emerge in the first place?

At any rate, once formed, then it [privilege] defends itself and the system of privilege (!), as he  observes on the next page (41):  “Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

 

P. 53:  “Conceiving and organizing the squads [i.e., the Sondercommando] was National Socialism’s most demonic crime. . . . This institution represented an attempt to shift onto others–specifically the  victims–the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of  innocence.”  The same mechanism, in a less brutal manifestation, is present throughout contemporary society. It is essentially what the abuser does to the abused wife, for instance–when he conditions her to believe she “brought it on herself.”

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