“Here there is no why”: on re-reading Primo Levi

Desperate times call for great books.

Primo Levi, a Jewish prisoner arriving at Auschwitz, is thirsty. He reaches to break off an icicle with which to sate his thirst and a guard snatches it away. Levi asks, “Warum?” (Why?) The guard replies, “Hier ist kein warum.” (Here there is no why.)

Primo Levi

If This Be A Man is unquestionably one of the great books of witness. It’s a terrifying memoir about Levi’s time in the death camp. No description I can offer will do justice to this book, but I want to tell you why I chose to re-read it now.

The book provides the perfect example of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil.” It’s the tiny, everyday details that drive home the horror: the agony of the workday in ill-fitting wooden shoes; not wanting to be first in the soup line because the top of the pot contains only water; the sleep-sapping problems of sharing a bunk with a prisoner who has a weak bladder.

The situation turns ordinary people into thieves and rascals and, eventually, monsters. And then Voltaire springs to mind: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

The world is in the process of going mad. Brexit and the U.S. presidency; oppressive regimes in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey; France contemplating putting a blatant racist in power; Russian shenanigans in the U.S. election and at home; Israel; Syria; sixty-five million refugees. Somehow the human race has picked up a virus. This is when great literature does its work of healing.

Above all I re-read the book for the idea contained in this sentence:

We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – the power to refuse our consent.

The refusal of consent is happening everywhere. In my corner of the world it manifests itself in anti-pipeline protests, Black Lives Matter gatherings, scientists’ marches, American Civil Liberties Union meetings. It’s happening in Washington, Chicago, New York, Standing Rock, even tiny Silver City, where I live.

Our situation is a world away from that which Primo Levi faced. But we must never forget how quickly civilization can disintegrate.

Only fools learn nothing from the past.

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