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Reading ‘The Drowned and The Saved’

May 03, 2020

The Drowned and the Saved is the last book that Primo Levi wrote before his death. In these essays, Levi reflects on the Nazi concentration camps with a more analytical approach. Whereas his previous books, If this is a Man and The Periodic Tables, are more autobiographical.

I find in Levi’s writings a rare balance of precision and humanity. Precision in narration and reflection: there is never exaggeration of facts nor unchecked emotion, as his tone stays measured. Humanity in comprehension: there is a willingness to understand and not to judge, and one can always the emotional warmth below the surface of his carefully chosen words.

The following passage is from Chapter 3, The Shame:

There is another, greater shame, the shame of the world. In a memorable line, much quoted, in this regard and others, John Donne wrote that “No man is an island,” and that every death bell tolls for us all. Yet there are those who turn their backs on their own transgressions and those of others, to avoid seeing or being touched by them. This is how most Germans behaved in the twelve years of Hitler, in the illusion that not seeing was not knowing, and that not knowing relieved them of their own share of complicity or connivance. But we were denied the shield of wilful ignorance, T. S. Eliot’s “partial shelter”: we could not not see. We were surrounded by the sea of suffering, past and present, and its level rose each year until it almost drowned us. There was no use closing our eyes or turning our backs, because it was all around us, in every direction, as far as the horizon. We could not or would not be islands: the righteous among us, whose number was neither higher nor lower than in any other human group, felt remorse, shame, and sorrow for the wrongs that were committed by others, not by them, but in which they felt implicated, because they felt that what had happened around them, in their presence, and in them was irrevocable. It could never be washed away. It would prove that man, the human race—we, in other words—was capable of building an infinite mass of suffering; and that suffering is the only force created from the void, with neither expense nor effort. All it takes is a refusal to see, to hear, and to act.

It is the victims who feel shame, not the villains. The victims feel shame, because they have suffered, and have witnessed the sufferings of others without being able to give any help. The villains don’t know what shame is, for they take pride in causing afflictions , though later they may feign innocence. As Leopardi says,

Men are shamed by the insults they receive, not by those they inflict.

From Chapter 4, Communication. Even in today’s ‘society of communication’, this passage remains extremely relevant.

The Jews, who were the quintessential enemies—impure, sowers of impurity and destroyers of the world—were forbidden the most precious form of communication, with their country of origin and their family. Those who have experienced exile, in any of its many forms, know how much suffering follows when this nerve is cut. It gives rise to a fatal impression of abandonment, together with an unfair resentment: they are free, so why don’t they write to me, why don’t they help me? We thus had the opportunity to understand clearly that on the great continent of freedom the freedom to communicate is an important province, like health, whose value can be understood only by those who have lost it. This suffering is not only at an individual level: in the countries and in the eras in which communication is obstructed, all other freedoms wither quickly. Debate dies of starvation, ignorance of others’ opinions spreads, and imposed opinions are triumphant. A well-known example is the mad genetics preached in the USSR by Trofim Lysenko, who, in the absence of opposition (anyone who disputed his theories was exiled to Siberia), jeopardized harvests for twenty years. Intolerance leads to censure, and censorship increases ignorance of other people’s reasons and thus intolerance: it is a rigid vicious circle that is hard to break.

(to be continued)