The Lessons of Primo Levi #3


 The following entry from my philosophical journal, under the date I originally wrote it, continues my reflections on Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.   In the next post I will turn to Levi’s earlier book, Survival in Auschwitz, to complete this series of entries addressed to his work. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Levi, p. 196, in one of the citations he gives from Hety S., one of his German correspondents, one for whom he has great respect, on Hety’s visit to  Albert Speer after that later’s release from Spandau:

 He says, and I believe him, that for him the Auschwitz slaughter is a trauma.  He’s obsessed by the question of how he could ‘not want to see or know,’ in short, block everything out.  I do not think he’s trying to find justification; he would like to understand what, for him, too, it is impossible to understand.

It seems to me that Auschwitz being a trauma for Speer too–someone who was never subjected to life in the camps, and who even exploited those who were sent there–is worth reflection.  What does “being a trauma” mean, if even “for him” too Auschwitz “is” a trauma?  Isn’t it only insofar as we can free the notion of trauma from the trappings of what [historian Dominick] LaCapra calls “historical trauma,” and realize that trauma is a structural and structuring or “transcendental” matter [as literary theorist Paul Eisenstein might put it], that we can understand how, even for Speer, it could  be, and indeed was, “a trauma”?

Interestingly, on the next page, ending his discussion of Hety (and all his “letters from Germans,” as his chapter is titled), Levi observes that “among all my German readers she was the only one ‘with clean credentials’ [because of her Social Democratic background and her own biography] and therefore not entangled in guilt feelings.”  Yet it seems to me that, understood as I am currently trying to understand “guilt,” she is the only one who displays a clear and lucid–“authentic,” if one will–sense of guilt.  It is guilt in one way like Speer’s-namely, a refusing to seek to  justify oneself in the face of one’s guilt, but, rather, struggling on and on to assume it, to live it out.


A thought that just came, as I continued for a few moments to read more in Levi:  Auschwitz is non-negotiable.

Also:  There is only one trauma, but the names it bears differ (Auschwitz, World War I, “my broken leg,” etc.).


In the conclusion to his book, Levi begins by noting that, as the years since the Nazis pass by, the message that he and other survivors of the death camps try to carry becomes harder and harder to deliver, as new issues and problems come along (he mentions, p. 198, “the nuclear threat, unemployment, the depletions of resources, the demographic explosion, frenetically innovative technologies to which [the young] must adjust”:  the new names of trauma, as it were).  Nevertheless–indeed, all the more!–he and others continue to speak and to bear witness.

“We must be listened to,” he writes (p. 199).  “We must be listened to:  above and beyond our personal experience, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected  [Indeed so!], not foreseen by anyone.  [An impossible possibility!]. . . . It happened,  therefore it can happen again:  this is the core of what we have to say.”

It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.  (How like Camus in The Plague!)

Trauma is ever present.

Lest what he says be taken to support the likes of Bush and Cheney, who would make of that an opportunity to inflict more of the same–as would John McCain, for whom 9/11 was seen as an “opportunity,” namely, for doing exactly what he supported Bush in doing:  going to war wherever he wanted, under the banner of the “war on terrorism,” even if those attacked had nothing to do with 9/11–Levi goes on (p. 200) to write:  “It has obscenely been said that there is a need for conflict:  that mankind cannot do without it,” and, “Satan is not necessary:  there is no need for wars or violence, under any circumstances,” and, finally, “Nor is the theory of preventive violence [as in Bush-Cheney’s invasion of Iraq] acceptable:  from violence only violence is born. . . . In actuality, many signs lead us to think of a genealogy of today’s violence that branches out precisely from the violence that was dominant in Hitler’s Germany.”  The litany of consequent ills he gives on p. 201 then even pointedly includes the founding of Israel:  “Desperate, the Jewish survivors in flight from Europe after the great shipwreck have created in the bosom of the  Arab world an island of Western civilization, a portentous palingenesis of Judaism, and the pretext for renewed hatred.”

All those ills, including the Nazis themselves, arise from the refusal, in effect, to hear the message that Levi and other survivors have to say, of  the ubiquity of “it,” of trauma.

Here is the ringing last sentence of the book: 

Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all [of the SS and the other perpetrators of various degrees] were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans who accepted in the beginning out of metal laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride the ‘beautiful words’ [as another German correspondent, not Hety, called them in a letter to Levi] of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of  scruples favored him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery, and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

That last remark shows how the accumulation of guilt does not stop even with the Germans, or with the end of the camps, but continues to be deepened to this day.  Here, the guilt at issue–our universal, transcendental guiltiness itself–is indeed a matter of blame, not just of debt.