The Unforgiveable (2)

This post is the second of two on the same topic.

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He [the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 135 C.E.] had defeated the Bar Kochba rebellion; the Jewish state was destroyed once more. Now he meant to destroy also the inspiration, the Jewish religion: he passed an edict that made the practice of Judaism punishable by death.                                                                         Akiba defied Hadrian and went on living and teaching his Judaism, undeterred by Hardian’s edict. He was discovered, arrested, and tortured through a long night until, eventually, he died; but he kept on ignoring the torture and the torturer, singing the praise of his God, eventually to die with the divine Name on his lips.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, “Auschwitz as Challenge to Philosophy and Theology,” in To Mend the World (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. xli)


There are worse things than torture and murder. Torture and murder are not beyond guilt and atonement. They can be forgiven. Only what places itself beyond all guilt and atonement is unforgiveable. The unforgiveable is immeasurably worse than torture or murder—or, rather, it is literally incommensurable with them: there is no common standard in terms of which the offenses of torture and murder on one hand, horrible as they undeniably are, and a truly unforgiveable offense on the other can be measured.

That does not at all mean that torture and murder are permissible under some circumstances. They are not ever permissible, under any circumstances, for anyone, regardless of what the world may say. Those who commit them are obligated to confess their crimes, demonstrate their contrition, and ask for forgiveness, especially and first of all from their victims, living or dead—with no expectation, and certainly no right to expect, that such forgiveness will ever be offered. Nevertheless, precisely because they demand such confession, contrition, and request, murder and torture are not beyond all assumption of guilt and possibility of atonement, not beyond all request and hope for forgiveness. By whatever degree they may exceed other possible offenses for which forgiveness should be asked and might be given, they are still not beyond all reach of possible pardon.

In contrast, what is truly unforgiveable is not just worse in degree from what can be forgiven. It is worse in kind. We might say that the kind of evil that can be forgiven is only relatively evil, whereas the kind of evil that truly can never be forgiven is absolutely so. It is absolute evil, evil set loose (Latin solvere, “to loosen, detach”) from (Latin ab-) all limits whereby it might be delimited. Evil that can be resisted is not absolute evil. Absolute evil is evil that precludes the possibility of any resistance, just as it also precludes all possibility of being forgiven or atoned for. No pardon can reach it.

Accordingly, what is truly, fully unforgiveable—what places itself beyond all possibility of being forgiven by anyone or atoned for by anything—can only be that which deprives those it wrongs of any place to stand to affirm themselves in resisting what overpowers them, refusing to acquiesce to being overpowered. In the face of such truly and fully unforgiveable wrong, all one can do is stand firm in one’s resentment, and in one’s refusal to forgive, stand firm against all enticements to pretend to “forgive and forget” what is unforgiveable and therefore never to be forgotten.

To make such a stand, however, is no easy matter.


Strictly speaking, I do not and cannot know what I would be today if I had not been in the Camp. [. . .] I can, however, formulate a certain assertion and it is this: if I had not lived the Auschwitz experience, I probably would never have written anything. I would not have had the motivation, the incentive, to write. [. . .] It was the experience of the Camp and the long journey home that forced me to write.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce (p. 397)


In this cell, meditative hours spent in solitary writing and reading broke old molds, leaving me distraught and empty and forcing me further out on the edge for answers to my questions and pain. Psychic wounds don’t come in the form of knives, blades, guns, clubs; they arrive in the form of boxes—boxes in trucks, under beds, in my apartment when I could no longer pay the rent and had to move. Still, I was comforted by the thought that I was bigger than my box. I was what mattered, not the box. I lived out of a box, not in one. I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the “it” of their lives, to celebrate those who don’t have a place in this world to stand and call home. For those people, my journals, poems, and writings are home. My pen and heart chronicle their hopes, doubts, regrets, loves, despairs, and dreams. I do this partly out of selfishness, because it helps to heal my own impermanence, my own despair. My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (p. 244)


Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca both found their own freedom from the coercive power that overpowered them. They found it in the very depths of their imprisonment by that same power. One reclaimed his own dignity, and the power inseparable from it, as an inmate in a Nazi death-camp. The other did so as an inmate under solitary confinement in an American prison. Both reclaimed their own power from the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by overpowering that power turn, but by freely and fully abandoning all effort to overpower it—effort that is doomed always and only to give more power to that already overpowering power. They both triumphed over the coercive power that had overpowered them, not by coercion of their own, but by refusing any longer to be coerced. In that refusal, each bore witness not only to his having been abused but also to his own final victory over his abuser. They bore witness that coercive power could not defeat them, even though it might kill them, as, of course, it continued to have the power to do. They bore witness to the illusory nature of coercive power, even when that power proves fatal—as illusions, after all, can often prove to be.

The victory of their resistance over the power that overpowered them had nothing to do with that resistance being “successful” in ordinary terms. That is, to repeat something I have already said, Primo Levi and Jimmy Santiago Baca did not triumph over the power that had overpowered them by overpowering that power in turn. In that sense of victory, it was the Allied Powers who gained victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers in World War II, and not Primo Levi, who had no armies to send against Hitler’s. Nor did Jimmy Santiago Baca manage somehow to storm the Bastille of the American prison system and close it down; indeed, it is still very much in full, unfortunate operation.

Rather, the resistance that Levi and Baca put up to coercive power triumphed solely by the mere fact of it, the sheer fact of such resistance itself. It triumphed as the affirmation of the underlying dignity that expressed itself in and as such resistance. It triumphed in the same way that Jean Améry triumphed when he hit back against a fellow Auschwitz inmate, a Kapo, who hit him first. Améry triumphed even though he suffered a severe beating as a result of his resistance—a beating he survived, although in Auschwitz such a beating might well have cost Améry his very life, as it did so many others.

Interested readers may find Améry’s account of that incident in the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series, “Making Room for Community.” There they will also find further discussion of both Primo Levi’s and Jimmy Santiago Baca’s acts of resistance, which hit back against coercive power no less triumphantly than did Améry’s act of resistance, though neither Levi nor Baca answered one blow with another, as Améry did. What matters, however, as I discuss in that post, is not whether blows were exchanged, but whether resistance occurred as the sheer affirmation of human dignity, as it did occur in all three cases.

What I say in that previous post is far from all that needs to be said about the nature of resistance, and the universal obligation to nurture it. I will try to say a tiny bit more of what needs saying below, and I will probably devote a later post to saying yet more of it (a post I am currently thinking of calling “Sanctifying Life”). To prepare the way for that, however, I fist need to say a bit more about just what it is to which Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Jimmy Santiago Baca all three bear witness in their own diverse acts of resistance.


The world has forgotten. The world always forgets.

— Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World (p. 167)


Above everything else, in their three different acts of resistance, Améry, Levi, and Baca bore witness to, and for, those who had been stripped of all capacity to bear witness for themselves any longer. This observation is not new, but needs always to be made anew: It is for the sake of those unable to resist, that resistance is given to the rest of us; it is for the sake of those denied all further capacity to refuse, that we who retain that capacity are required to use it; and it is for the sake of those who have been deprived of every place of their own to stand that we who can still find such places are morally obligated to lay claim to them, and take our own stand.

Only in that way—in standing by our own resistance and refusal—do we heed the injunction never to forget. If the world always forgets, as Fackenheim says, then in order to remember we must place ourselves outside the world, in order to remind that world of what it has forgotten. Since the world always forgets, we can never let up on reminding it, which means that with Levi we must maintain our refusal to “forgive and forget,” with Améry we must keep faith with our resentment, and with Baca we must stay in our cells—which, as the desert anchorites of the early centuries of Christianity said, will teach us everything.

Each of us must find his or her own place to stand. No single place will hold us all.


Today, December 7, the day I am posting this, is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. My uncle was a pilot stationed in Pearl Harbor at Hickam Field Air Force Base on December 7, 1941. He actually piloted the first American fighter plane to rise in the air to answer the Japanese attack that day. I still have an old copy of the front page of the local Denver paper carrying his picture the next morning. He was not physically harmed that day, and did not die till many years later, but he carried the memory-scars of that day with him for the rest of his life.

In putting up this post today I would like it to serve as a remembrance of my uncle and of all those scarred by that day, December 7, 1941—“a day that will live in infamy,” as Franklin Roosevelt soon proclaimed. My hope is that my post may serve as a reminder, at least to myself, than genuine remembrance is much more than, because completely different in kind from, merely visiting graves or hanging out flags or the like. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. In doing such things, however, we should always remember that remembering itself is no easy thing. Visiting graves is a worthy remembrance only when it insists on leaving those graves open.

The Unforgivable


Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offence, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it. It is an inexhaustible fount of evil [. . .].

—Primo Levi, The Truce (pages 188-189 of 1987 Abacus dual edition with If This Is a Man)


Neither Primo Levi nor Jean Améry, both of whom survived Auschwitz, ever forgave those responsible for Auschwitz, and all that that name has come to represent. Améry clung to his “resentments,” as he called them himself. He repeatedly insisted upon them publicly, including in an essay in At the Mind’s Limits bearing that title. Being of a different temperament and having a different writing style, Levi did not speak of “resenting” what had been done to him. Nevertheless, he was no more willing to forgive than was Améry.

Yet both Levi and Améry expressed a conditional willingness to come to a sort of peace with those responsible for the crime of the Holocaust, the very crime to the finally unforgiveable nature of which both always insisted on bearing witness. Améry and Levi each stipulated conditions under which he would be able to offer such peace to those responsible for that unforgiveable crime.

Levi even spoke of “forgiving” the perpetrators if the conditions he articulated were ever met, but only then. In the fourth of the five posts that make up my preceding series on “Making Room for Community,” I already cited a passage from Levi’s “Afterword” to the 1987 Abacus dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce—his chronicles of his days in the Nazi death camps and his odyssey of eventual return to Italy after being liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops—in which he lays all that out. The passage is worth citing again here (from page 382 of that Abacus dual edition):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive a single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

As for Améry, early in his essay “Resentments” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 70):

Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but also more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.

SS man Wajs from Antwerp, a repeated murderer and an especially adroit torturer, paid with his life. What more can my foul thirst for revenge demand? But if I have searched my mind [or “spirit”: in German, Geist] properly, it is not a matter of revenge, nor one of atonement. The experience of persecution was, at the very bottom, that of an extreme loneliness [the collapse of all trust, all sense of security, a collapse that comes with “the first blow” of the fist of coercive power against which one can offer no effective defense, as Améry discusses in “Torture,” an earlier essay in the same volume]. At stake for me is the release from the abandonment that has persisted from that time until today.


What Améry’s resentment demands is not revenge. The resentment to which he insists on clinging is not a desire to strike back at those who struck him, causing them harm in return for the harm they caused him. The justice he seeks is not that of “an eye for an eye.” His resentment is not the harboring of “bad memories,” that is, of the desire to make “bad use” of the memory of what was done to him by doing the same back to his persecutors.* Indeed, if such harboring of bad memories is what one means by “resentments” (as is not uncommon), then Améry is actually free of resentments. To understand what he is saying, in fact, we must put out of play that common way of taking the term. What is at issue for him is something very different from resentment understood as the harboring of such “bad memories.”

“The moral person,” such as Améry himself, does not demand revenge for wrongs he has suffered. Rather, as Améry writes two pages later (page 72): “The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a fellow human being.”

It is important to note the similarity between what Améry says here about how the criminal who has been “nailed to his deed” can then rejoin the human race, and what Levi says above, when he remarks that the enemy who, not just in words but above all in deeds, has become conscious of his crimes thereby ceases to be an enemy. Far from seeking revenge, harboring bad memories, or desiring retribution, it turns out that what both Levi and Améry want is something very different. In truth, they want full reconciliation. Neither will settle for anything less than that the enemy cease to be an enemy and become a neighbor (as Levi puts it), or that the criminal be cleansed of his crime and thereby rejoined to the community (Améry). What both want, lies “beyond guilt and atonement,” to use Améry’s original German title of At the Mind’s Limits. It lies, therefore, beyond all possibility of “forgiving and forgetting,” at least in any usual understanding of those terms. It belongs to what is finally unforgiveable, and can never be forgotten.


The world, which forgives and forgets, has sentenced me, not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 75)


Not long after making that remark about the world and its ways, Améry repeats what he has already said about wanting something beyond guilt and atonement. “It can be a matter,” he writes (page 77), “neither of revenge on the one side nor of a problematic atonement, which has only theological meaning and therefore is not relevant for me, on the other.” On the reader’s behalf, he then asks: “What then is it a matter of—since I have spoken expressly of a settlement in the field of historical practice?”

Améry tells us he is not seeking revenge through abusing in turn those who have first abused him. What is more, he tells us that he came out of Auschwitz no more of a “believer” than he was when he went in—which is to say that throughout it all he remained void of any religious faith—and therefore has no concern with such purely religious questions as atonement is typically taken to be, namely, a question of somehow “getting right with God” after one has “sinned.” Yet he still speaks of seeking a “settlement,” as one might speak about a legal issue, a matter in which one seeks “justice”—justice not as meted out by some Father in some Heaven, but as can be sought and found at the level of concrete “historical practice.” Accordingly, the question to be asked is just what would constitute the grounds for such a “settlement” at the level of such “historical practice” itself.

“Well then,” writes Améry in answer, “the problem could be settled” by conjoining two things, one on the side of the plaintiff, as it were, the accusing party, and the other on the side of the defendant, the accused. Settlement at the level of historical practice could be found “by permitting resentment to remain alive in the one camp,” the camp of the aggrieved, accusing plaintiff, while simultaneously keeping alive the “self-distrust in the other camp,” the camp of the accused—the very self-distrust that is itself “aroused by” awareness and acceptance of the plaintiff’s resentment.

Thus, the settlement of the case of such an unforgiveable wrong as the Holocaust would be neither a forgiving nor a forgetting of what had been done. It would be no such thing. Rather, it would be an honoring of the living memory of what had been done—a memorializing of it—in and as the honoring of the very resentment the survivors continued to feel, on the one hand, and the self-mistrust, the continuing self-suspicion, that full acceptance of such resentment would awaken and keep awake in those responsible, on the other. Only then would peace prevail and reconciliation occur —beyond all questions of guilt and atonement, forgiving and forgetting.


Just what might such a reconciliation actually look like, a reconciliation in which the resentment of one party is honored by the other, in whom the resentment of the first has at last awakened a self-distrust that must equally be honored? A reconciliation effected by allowing the wound of resentment to remain open in those who had been wounded, while opening and keeping open an answering wound of self-mistrust in those who had done the wounding? Granted that honoring the resentment of the wounded—rather than compounding their wounds in the rush to “forgive and forget,” so that everything can “get back to normal” for everybody else—requires opening in turn, and keeping open, a wound of self-distrust in those who wounded them. But just what would it actually be, to do that: to open and keep open such a wound of lack of self-trust in the perpetrators of the initial offense?

With regard to the particular offense at issue for Améry, that of Auschwitz and all that went with it, here is the answer he gives right after raising the question (At the Mind’s Limits, pages 77-79), an answer worth quoting at length:

Goaded solely by the spurs of our [that is, the survivors’] resentment—and not in the least by [any supposed] conciliatoriness [on the part of the perpetrators] that, subjectively, is almost always dubious and, objectively, hostile to history—the German people would remain sensitive to the fact that they cannot allow a piece of their national history [namely, their shameful Nazi past] to be neutralized by time [or by monetary reparations paid to Israel or others, we might add]. If I remember rightly, it was Hans Magnus Enzenberger [an important German author and cultural figure who was born in 1929 and grew up in Nazi Germany] who once wrote that Auschwitz is Germany’s past, present, and future. But unfortunately he is not what counts, for he and his moral peers are not the people. But if, in the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised, then Germany, as a whole and also in its future generations, would retain the knowledge that it was not Germans who did away with the dominion of baseness. It [the German people] would then, as I sometimes hope, learn to comprehend its past acquiescence in the Third Reich as the total negation not only of the world that it plagued with war and death but also of its own better origins; it would no longer repress or hush up the twelve years [of Nazi rule] that for us others really were a thousand [which is how long Hitler promised the Third Reich would last], but claim them as its realized negation of the world and its self, as its own negative possession. On the field of history there would occur what I hypothetically described earlier for the limited, individual circle: two groups of people, the overpowered and those who overpowered them, would be joined in the desire that time be turned back and, with it, that history become moral. If this demand were raised by the German people, who as a matter of fact have been victorious and already rehabilitated by time, it would have tremendous weight, enough so that by this alone it would already be fulfilled. The German revolution would be made good, Hitler disowned. And in the end Germans would really achieve what the people once did not have the might or the will to do, and what later, in the political power game [of the “Cold War”], no longer appeared to be a vital necessity: the eradication of the ignominy.

How this shall come about in actual practice, every German may picture for himself. This writer is not a German and it is not for him to give advice to this people. At best, he is able to imagine vaguely a national [German] community that would reject everything, but absolutely everything, that it accomplished in the days of its own deepest degradation, and what here and there may appear to be as harmless as the Autobahns. Remaining within his exclusively literary frame of reference, Thomas Mann once expressed this in a letter: “It may be superstition,” he wrote to Walter von Molo, “but in my eyes the books that could be printed in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless and one ought not to touch them. An odor of blood and disgrace clings to them; they should all be reduced to pulp.” The spiritual reduction to pulp by the German people, not only of the books, but of everything that was carried out in those twelve years, would be the negation of the negation: a highly positive, a redeeming act. Only through it would our resentment be subjectively pacified and have become objectively unnecessary.


In responding to what Améry says in that passage, we want to be cautious. We need always to remember that those are the words of a bitterly resentful man, one who clung to his resentment throughout his entire life after Auschwitz. We would be remiss ever to forget that.


            I travel through the thriving land, and I feel less and less comfortable as I do. I cannot say that I am not received everywhere in a friendly and understanding manner. What more can people like me ask than that German newspapers and radio stations grant us the possibility to address grossly tactless remarks to German men and women, and on top of this be remunerated for it? I know: even the most benevolent will finally have to become as impatient with us as that young correspondent cited earlier who is “sick and tired of it.” There I am with my resentments, in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Cologne, and Munich. If you wish, I bear my grudge for reasons of personal salvation. Certainly. On the other hand, however, it is also for the good of the German people. But no one wants to relieve me of it, except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it. What dehumanized me has become a commodity, which I offer for sale.

—Jean Améry, “Resentments” (At the Mind’s Limits, page 80)


Primo Levi did not speak of “resentments” the way Jean Améry did. Nor did the former tend toward such expressions of bitterness as the latter shows in passages such as the one above. Yet when we put aside differences of temperament and expression, it is often the case that what the two have to say really comes down to the same thing. So it is with what the two of them set out as the conditions that would have to be met, if they were to be reconciled with those who committed, or by failing to act permitted to be committed, what Levi calls “the offense,” and Améry calls “the ignominy”—namely, the unforgiveable crime of “Auschwitz,” in all that that name has come to represent.

As a condition for such reconciliation, Améry proposes that the German people—past, present, and still to come—embrace the equivalent of a self-imposed Morgenthau Plan. That was the plan for postwar Germany named for Henry Morgenthau, the United States Secretary of the Treasury who first proposed it in a memorandum entitled “Suggested Post-Surrender Program for Germany,” written sometime during 1944, the last full year of World War II. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be reduced to the status of a “pastoral state,” one no longer able to wage any sort of serious modern warfare, by destroying entirely the German armaments industry and the whole industrial might of the nation, most especially the industrial plants and equipment in the Ruhr, the very heart of Germany’s industrial power. Once the Cold War heated up, which happened within a few months after the Allied victory and the end of WW II, political expediency quickly induced the Western Powers—now locked in a new enmity, this time with their recent ally, the Soviet Union—to abandon any such plan as Morgenthau’s. Motivated by the pursuit of their own security in the face of the newly discovered threat of what Ronald Reagan would eventually label “that evil empire,” those to whom fell the victory in the west at the end of World War II were quick to abandon the project of reducing to pastureland the now vanquished German nation, and in the process were just as quick to cease giving any real priority to continuing the “de-Nazification” of Germany.

What Améry proposes, if he is to be reconciled with the Germans, the very people who brutalized him and so many others, is not that a new Morgenthau Plan be developed and imposed upon Germany from the outside. That would not satisfy him. It would not pacify his resentment. Rather, only if the German people imposed such a plan upon themselves, as an act of contrition and penance for their ignominious offense, would the resentment of Améry and the others whom the Germans overpowered be stilled.


That, of course, is not in the least likely to happen. Améry himself was perfectly well aware of that. “Nothing of the sort will ever happen, I know,” he writes (At the Mind’s Limits, page 79), just after articulating his conditions for reconciliation in the passage above.

But what about Levi? What about Levi’s requirements for forgiveness, laid down in his “Afterword” to the dual edition of If This Is a Man and The Truce, where he says he will not forgive “any of the culprits”—which includes, he argues elsewhere in the same source, the entire Germans people as a whole, who, if they did not know about “the offense,” were accomplices anyway, since their very ignorance was willful, a not wanting to know—until those culprits themselves first show, not only with their words, but above all in their deeds, that they have “become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and [are] determined to condemn them, uproot them, from [their] conscience and from that of others”? Are those conditions really any less stringent than Améry’s? Are they any more likely ever to be met?

Most surely, the answer is no. As Améry says, “Nothing of the sort will happen.” Nothing of the sort happened in the past. Nothing of the sort is happening now. Nothing of the sort will happen in the future.

Accordingly, whoever aspires to be what Améry calls a “moral person” must honor both Améry’s resentment and Levi’s refusal to forgive. To honor them, on one’s own one must actively resist the whole world’s silence, while simultaneously maintaining suspicion toward one’s self for possible complicity, intentional or not, in keeping that silence.

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To be continued.

* See the discussion of amnesty—especially with regard to Gorgio Agamben’s treatment of it in his recent book Stasis—in my post, “Making Room for Community (2).”

Making Room for Community (4)

This is the fourth in a consecutive series of posts under the same general title.

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


The same anxiety is visible everywhere, the same deep panic, provoking the same upwellings of dignity, and not indignation.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated by Robert Hurley (Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 14)


. . . an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

[I]n spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to If This Is a Man and The Truce, dual edition (London: Abacus, 1987, pages 382, 386)

When one part of a community has harmed another part, reconciliation between the two parts is impossible without forgiveness, taken as the resolution on the part of those harmed not to make “bad use” of their memories of the harm done them—use of those memories for feeding the desire to harm in turn. Such forgiveness, neither forced nor feigned but freely given, is itself only possible for those who have managed to free themselves from the constraints against giving it.

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

In cases such as civil war, such victory belongs first to those who are on the winning side, as Arsinius and his fellow democrats were in the Athenian civil war against “the Thirty” in 403 BCE. The resolution of amnesty then declared by the victors for the vanquished was the “invention of amnesty,” according to Giorgio Agamben in Stasis, as discussed in my second post of this same series. That resolution on the part of those who won the war did not of itself effect full reconciliation between them and those they had just vanquished, but it made such reconciliation possible. Full actualization of that possibility had to wait for a response—perhaps never forthcoming—of genuine contrition on the part of the losing side. Some of the vanquished no doubt experienced such contrition, and were fully reconciled with the community of the city as a whole. However, some no doubt were not, and continued to plot for a return to power. At any rate, as Agamben observes, civil war remained as a permanent possibility within the reestablished peace, a possibility the leaving open of which was foundational for that very peace.

What about very different sorts of cases, however? How does victory come then?

To take one prime example, what about cases such as Primo Levi’s after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II? That liberation from the Nazi death camp system was not by itself sufficient to bring about Primo Levi’s liberation from his own constraints against offering forgiveness to his German tormentors. After the camp was liberated and Levi returned home to Turin, and continuing on until the time of his death (which many think was a suicide) in 1987, Levi remained unwilling and unable to forgive those who had brutalized him and his fellow survivors, and killed millions of others. To the end of his life, he refused—with entire, convincing justice—to forgive those who had brutalized and killed so many in the camps. He refused to forgive not only the individual Germans directly responsible, from Hitler to the lowliest Auschwitz guard subjecting inmates to routine degradation. He refused, as well, to forgive the German people as whole, that people who—as Levi writes in the afterword to the 1987 Abacus reissue of the joint publication of If This Is a Man and The Truce (his chronicles respectively of his internment at Auschwitz and of his eventual return trip home to Turin)—if they did not know what was happening in the camps, did not know because they did not want to know: they were willfully ignorant.

The first line cited above as an epigraph to this first section of today’s post comes at the very end of a paragraph that begins by remarking that, despite the absence throughout his writings of any judgments containing “expressions of hate for the Germans” or of a “desire for revenge” against them, Levi would not want his “abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” The full paragraph then continues (page 382):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive as single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

So what about Primo Levi? That is, what about cases such as the victims of the Holocaust, or those who bear witness for them, as Primo Levi did? Where does forgiveness, and with it the reconciliation for which it opens the way, belong in those cases?

Or what about cases such as that of Jimmy Santiago Baca?


            To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards.

. . . as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It had been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act. Despite the guilt of letting a lot of solid convicts down, not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (Grove Press, 2001, pages 166, 169)

The forgiveness towards the whole world, himself included, that Jimmy Santiago Baca eventually experienced in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, as he describes it in the passage with which I ended my preceding post of this series, could only come to him once he had found a place to stand in order concretely and effectively to resist his oppression, and thereby emerge victorious over it. Forgiveness issues only from dignity, not from abjectness; and before one can forgive offenses against one’s dignity—truly forgive them, and not just be forced to feign forgiveness—one must reclaim that dignity itself, reclaim it from those who have tried to take it away and claim it solely for themselves.

In a system such as that within which Jimmy Santiago Baca had always been forced to live, it took a truly unusual combination of circumstances for him ever to recover his own dignity, and with it the power to forgive. Initially subjected to such deprivation by the facts of his birth, and then abandoned by his parents when he was ten, he lived first with his grandmother, then in an orphanage, before ending living on the streets. When he was only twenty-one he was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to prison, where he spent six and one-half years, three of them in isolation.

It was not until he finally found his way to a place to stand where he could refuse any longer to take part in the system that brutalized him, that he was at last able to reclaim what was always rightfully his to begin with: his own dignity. In turn, it was only then that he was able to begin the journey in freedom that eventually led to his experience of forgiveness—toward his parents, himself, the whole world—in the cathedral in Santa Fe.

To carve out for himself that place to stand, the most crucial lesson he had to learn was how not to keep giving power to his own oppressors, continually enabling them, precisely by lashing out reactively against their blows. He says in the passage cited above that “as a kid” he at first responded to strikes against him as all kids do at first, when they do not yet have any option beyond “taking the hurt that [comes their] way.” But after a time he learned, as all kids given time do, another option, one that appeared better than just “taking” whatever harm comes one’s way. That was the option, as he puts it, “to strike back.”

The next sentence—and, even more, the entire context of the story of his life up to that point, as he has been telling it in A Place to Stand—makes it clear that what he means here by “striking back” is lashing out, as a cornered animal might. However, far from such lashing out allowing him to reclaim his dignity from those who have claimed it all for themselves, it merely gave them what they expected—and needed, to cement their dominance. Prison guards and administrators, most especially including prison wardens, expect exactly that. In fact, whether deliberately or not (since many such things are a matter of just drifting in the direction of the institution within which one works, rather than of deliberate, individual planning and decision), those who exercise authority over the likes of Jimmy Santiago Baca and other actual or potential “criminals” and convicts actually encourage such reactions, since it plays right into their hands. By lashing out, the oppressed do not opt out of the system of oppression, effectively resisting it. Instead, they reinforce it. Just ask all the “repeat offenders” who are kept constantly moving in and out through the swinging doors of our prison system, a system which if not deliberately designed for the very purpose of engendering repeat offenses may as well be.

Jimmy Santiago Baca soon learned just the lesson that the repressive system into which he was born wanted him to learn: He learned, “as [he] grew a little older,” to lash out whenever he was struck by the blows that continued to be delivered against him. After all, that seemed to be “the quickest way to get rid of the pain.” Given his circumstances, that was the only option he was allowed to become aware of, so it was the only one he really had, to avoid his own hurt: by diverting himself from it, to focus instead on hurting back in turn. Intelligent and quick to learn as he was, he learned that lesson well. That is precisely how and why he ended up in prison in the first place, then was kept there for so many years.

“Until now”: until one time when he finally found a place to stand. That one time at last he stopped giving power to those by whom he had so long been overpowered. “This time [he] didn’t lash out,” as everyone—everyone: those being conditioned no less than those doing the conditioning—expected. By not lashing out reactively “this time,” he “short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con in supposed to act.” Instead of lashing out again, “this time” Jimmy Santiago Baca just opted out of the whole system, simply by staying in his cell and refusing to go out and do the work assigned him.

Sometimes, the most powerful act of resistance is the refusal to act. Sometimes, it is precisely by not striking back that we in fact strike back most effectively.


Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense. [. . .] Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight [. . .].

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback by it, for he trembled in every limb. “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” said he. To which, I returned a polite “Yes sir”.

—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, pages 186-187)


I finally relearned what I and my kind often had forgotten and what was more crucial than the moral power to resist: to hit back.

Before me I see the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor. In Auschwitz he once hit me in the face because of a trifle; that is how he was used to dealing with all the Jews under his command. At his moment—I felt it with piercing clarity—it was up to me to go a step further in my prolonged appeals case against society. In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that in the end it was I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. [. . .] I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face. [. . .] I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, translated by Stuart Rosenthal (University of Indiana Press, 1977), pp. 90-91

The “roots” which Frederick Douglass “forgot,” precisely in order to remember something even more fundamental and important—the pledge he’d made himself while ill, not long before the confrontation he describes above, with the doltish and brutal slave overseer Covey—were his Christian roots. Specifically, at issue are the same roots as those to which Primo Levi refers, in the epigraph to the first section of this post, when he writes of a certain “Jewish and Christian precept,” namely that of “forgiving my enemy.” Douglass says that he had to “forget” that precept, which was part of his own rich heritage as a member of the African American slave-community, in order to honor his pledge to himself to resist the next time he was actively abused. He had to “forget,” which here means to suspend, to put out of play, one part of his inheritance, precisely in order to remember another part of that same inheritance—an older, even more deeply rooted part, one that actually made the other, newer part possible in the first place: his own human dignity, that very dignity he had now resolved to defend.

It is that very same dignity that will not permit Primo Levy to forgive the Germans, either as individuals or collectively, for what they did to him and millions of others in the Nazi concentration camp system. The inner logic of that system itself drove inexorably toward the elimination all possibility of resistance, and in the process drove that system and all who were responsible for it “beyond guilt and atonement” (as Jean Améry puts it, to translate the original German title of what appears in English as At the Mind’s Limits), and therefore beyond all possibility of being forgiven—at least by any human judge to borrow a way of speaking from Levi himself.

The point of resistance, in the sense at issue for Douglass, for Levi, and for Améry—and most certainly for Jimmy Santiago Baca as well—is not to succeed in overpowering in turn those who have once overpowered us. The point of resisting oppression is not to get a chance to oppress others in turn, either those who have oppressed us or innocent bystanders. The point is, rather, to reclaim one’s dignity.*


     Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”

Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”

The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground.  “I will not.”

—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribners,2014, p. 264)

Jimmy Santiago Baca had to learn to refrain from “lashing out” against his oppression in order to find a place to stand and truly resist. Frederick Douglass found his own place to stand and resist only in striking back against his immediate oppressor. The fictional Frederick of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel of guilt and redemption in World War II Germany, finds it in refusing an order to strike out against a defenseless prisoner in a German military prep-school run by an good Nazi headmaster, Bastian. The commandant has ordered each boy in turn to throw a bucket of freezing water on an already frozen and dying prisoner who has been chained to a stake on the school’s parade-ground. When his turn comes, Frederick refuses to follow the commandant’s orders. He resists by refusing to be an accomplice to the brutality.

What matters in all these and similar cases is to find the way no longer just to react but rather truly to resist. To resist is what counts, regardless of whether that resistance takes the form of striking or of refusing to strike, as circumstances require. Either way, in resistance oppression itself is struck, and subordination is refused.

Frederick’s fictional resistance took the same form Jimmy Santiago Baca’s real one did: a refusal to follow coercive authority’s orders. Both refusals led to painful consequences, however. Never does that invalidate the resistance, however. To repeat something already said above, the point of resistance is not to overpower what has overpowered one, but to find one’s way to the reclamation of one’s own freedom and dignity. The free can still be made to suffer and die as the price for that reclamation. Indeed, it is always in the interests of coercive power to make them do so. That helps to maintain order.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, is made to suffer isolation and repeated postponements of release from prison even despite his having “rehabilitated” himself completely—not only with no help from the prison system, but with that system actively working against him—teaching himself to read and write and becoming a regionally and nationally recognized poet while still incarcerated. If the warden of the prison where he was entombed had had his way, Jimmy Santiago Baca would still be there. From all the evidence, that warden still resents it that his erstwhile prisoner is no longer imprisoned. It is indeed hard to overestimate the resentment of the privileged toward the unprivileged.

Frederick, the character in Doerr’s novel, suffers even more severe consequences for his refusal. He is subjected to the prep-school equivalent of what the Nazis came to call “special treatment” in the camps. In swift reaction against Frederick for his refusal to obey orders, Bastian, the school commandant, singles him out and makes an example of him by repeatedly unleashing all the other, “good” German students to chase him for invented offenses against school discipline. Finally, at the end of one such chase Frederick is no longer able to outrun them, and they manage to catch him. They then beat him so severely that he becomes permanently cognitively impaired, reduced to little more than a vegetable.

Primo Levi tells yet another story of another resister, another real one to go with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is simply killed for resisting. The story, which occurs at one point in The Drowned and the Saved (Indiana University Press, 1980, pages 41-42), is that of a “newcomer” to Auschwitz, that is, a newly arrived inmate who has not yet learned the lessons that one must learn very quickly at Auschwitz to have any chance for surviving even for a while. The newcomer at issue had arrived at the camp “when he still had his full strength,” and with it the power to assert his own dignity. He soon did just that, in an act of resistance. “He had been beaten when the soup was being distributed,” such beatings being everyday occurrences at Auschwitz. But they were not everyday yet for the newcomer, who “dared to shove the distributor-functionary” in turn. In reaction to such hauteur, “the latter’s colleagues rushed to his aid, and the culprit was made an example of by being drowned, his head held down in the soup tub.”

As Levi himself observes here and in a number of other places in his writings, it is hardly any wonder that, under such circumstances as existed in the Nazi camps, the telos of which was to eliminate the very possibility of resistance, there was so little rebellion in the Nazi camps. The wonder is rather that there was any at all, which there was.

Just before telling the story of the newcomer drowned in the soup tub, Levi observes (page 41) that in the camps it was “an unwritten and iron law” that Zurückschlagen, which literally means “striking back,” will not be tolerated: “answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression, and anyone who commits it must be made an example. Other functionaries rush to the aid of the threatened order, and the culprit is beaten with rage and method until he’s tamed or dead. Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

Picking up the same thread again after telling the story of the soup-drowned newcomer, Levi goes on a bit later to write (page 42): “ It is a duty of righteous men to make war on all underserved privilege.” That duty is owed by all, to all, but most especially to those who have been deprived of the very possibility of participating in such a “war”—deprived of the very possibility of affirming their own dignity by striking back at all. Ernst Bloch said, famously, that it is for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us. So, too, is it for the sake those who have been stripped of their dignity and denied all power to resist oppression that we must affirm our own dignity by striking back against oppression.

Of course, the easier, softer way is just not to let oneself know about the oppression in the first place, remaining willfully ignorant. Then one can avoid all responsibility—at least, as Levi would put it, before any human tribunal.

*     *     *     *     *     *

This series on “Making Room for Community” will continue with my next post.

* On the other hand, power that goes beyond all possibility of resistance, and thus beyond all possibility of those subjected to it ever reclaiming their own dignity, goes beyond all guilt open to forgiveness and redemption, and becomes truly unforgiveable—a topic to which I plan to return eventually, in a subsequent post.

The Lessons of Primo Levi #4


My preceding three posts have contained entries from my philosophical journal addressing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved.  Below are entries in my journal for two days, with the original dates of writing, addressing Levi’s earlier book, Survival in Auschwitz.  This post completes the series of entries from my journal devoted to Levi’s work. 


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, translated by Stuart Woolin (New York:  Simon and Schuster, Touchstone edition, 1996) p. 44:  “. . . it is in the normal order of things that the privileged oppress the unprivileged:  the social structure of the camp is based on this human law.”  (Cf. The Drowned and the Saved, p. 41.)

P. 60:  recurrent dream he and other prisoners have is of being freed and trying to tell one’s story, but not being heard:  “. . . my listeners do not follow me.  In fact they are completely indifferent:  they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there.  My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word.”


Ch. 9 is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” the title of Levi’s last book.  On p. 88, he offers the following characterization of “the drowned,” after remarking that, outside the camps, it is rare to encounter any “drowned”:  to be drowned is to experience a complete exhaustion of all one’s resources, and to come to complete “shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life.”


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Levi, Auschwitz, pp. 129-130, tells of fellow prisoner Kuhn, who prays thanks to God after a “selection” that has not selected him.  P. 130:  “Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, nothing at all  in the power of man can ever clean again?”  (Levi adds:  “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”)

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.

The Lessons of Primo Levi #2


The entry below from my philosophical journal is the second one concerning Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, with the date I originally wrote it.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Levi, p. 159, on rebellions throughout history:  “There were a few victorious rebellions, many were defeated. . . .”  But as Dori Laub suggests (see my entry for 8/15/08 [and that I recently posted]), it depends on the criteria one uses for “victory” and “defeat.”  Levi’s sentence ends:  “. . . innumerable others were stifled at the start, so early as not to have left any trace in the chronicles.”  Well, it is precisely because they are “victorious,” perhaps, that they must be stripped from the chronicles whenever possible.  History is written by those in power, for the most part-history as chronicles, at least.  Whether they are the “victors” is, however, debatable.

P. 160:  “The image so often repeated in monuments of the slave who breaks his heavy chains is rhetorical; his chains are broken by comrades whose shackles are lighter and loser.”  Yet his own book recounts how it was the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz who rebelled.  Their chains were indeed “lighter and loser” [than other inmates, and least in one obvious way], but they were themselves still slaves, as his own analysis rightly emphasizes.  He even refers back to this later on this same page.  So his point is really that revolt occurs, as many Marxists taught, not when things are at their very worst, but when a bit of relief comes along:  the pressure-cooker phenomenon, one could say.

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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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Trauma, Addiction, Resilience and the Like


My philosophical journal from last summer continues with entries on the essays collected in The Unbroken Soul (H. Parens, H. Blum, and S. Akhtar, eds., Lanham, MD:  Jason Aronson, 2008)  In the entry below, with the date of original writing, I begin with a response to something I happened also to read in the New York Times that same day, pertaining to addiction.  Then I return to The Unbroken Soul, above all to a valuable contribution by Henri Parens, one of the editors of the collection and himself a survivor of a concentration camp in Vichy France.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

The cover-story of the New York Times Magazine for, today:  “Me and My Girls,” by David Carr, the Times’ media columnist, on his years as “a drug dealer and crack addict” who (in 1989) “found that becoming a parent [of twin girls to a crack-addict mother who lost custody to him eventually] can save your life” (as the blurb on the Magazine’ s cover says).  P. 34, in response to the idea that drugs changed him:  “But drugs, it seems to me, do not conjure demons; they reveal them.”

Applies to all  trauma, at least within limits I have yet to get wholly clear about–not just addiction, which I increasingly see as linked to/rooted in trauma.


Ira Brenner, “On Genocidal Persecution and Resilience,” in The Unbroken Soul, pp. 80-81:  “Like resilient sapling trees that have had to grow at unusual angles in order to bypass obstructions to sunlight, those who at a young age endured genocidal persecution have followed their own turning and twisting paths in order to grow.  From chronic psychosomatic disturbances in the very young to characterological disturbances in the older ones, many have bypassed certain developmental tasks but have nevertheless functioned well unless illness, loss, or old age set in.  In addition, their survivor ordeals are indelibly imprinted in their psyches and may repeat themselves in symbolic or in actual scenarios until they die.”

The will to recover:  the making good of the evil.


The Unbroken Soul, Henri Parens (camp survivor in Vichy France), “An Autobiographical Study of Resilience:  Healing from the Holocaust,” p. 87:  “Can we adjudge everything that grows vigorously to be resilient [e.g., even rank weeds]?”

Also, same page to the following one (pp.87-88):  Primo Levi’s “characterological depression, biographically proposed by Carole Angier (2002) to be of pre-Holocaust origin, which continued [here he has a note, which I’ll get to below] after the Holocaust may have led him to suicide.”  The note he gives [to this passage] (on p.115) is confirmed by my own experience that, when my life is at its worst, my physical health is [often] at its best–or, more directly, by my experience last year when, during my recovery [in hospital and then in rehab] from my [serious] bike accident [on the kind of bike one pedals], I found my allergies and, more pointedly, my seborrhea, to let up, leaving me to focus on my broken bones:  “Remarkable and yet to be explained, according to Janet Maslin, who reviewed Carole Angier’s biography of Prima Levi (New York Times, Thursday, June 13, 2002), Angier believes ‘that Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it.'”  Parens goes on to  cite as well how camp “inmates tended not to develop common colds (despite exposure to severe weather conditions), nor common ailments:  rather, many died of typhoid and of starvation.”  On Levi’s depression, my often made observation that my superego [tends to] let up on me by not making me [somehow act out judgment against myself] so much when my life [is] going poorly strikes a truth, I think, insofar as depression, addiction, etc., have dimensions of self-punishment built in. 

Parens, p. 103:  “For me as well as for others, healing from the Holocaust has left painful scars, but it has also led to much good. . . . Both give evidence of resilience since scars too are evidence of healing.”


Page 108, Parens quotes a second time (the first is at the beginning of his essay, on p. 88) a line from Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz (1947/1996, p. 142):  “The comrade of all my peaceful moments . . . –the pain of remembering . . . attacks me like a dog the moment my conscience comes out of the gloom.”  Does this testify more to his survivor guilt, or to the twisting of it by, and in service of, his depression?