Holocaust Survivor Primo Levi on Human Nature, Happiness and Unhappiness, and the Interconnectedness of Our Fates
“A country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.”
By Maria Popova
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” Rebecca West wrote in her extraordinary 1941 treatise on survival and the redemption of suffering. One such unrelenting inquirer into the nature of his barely survivable fate was the great Italian Jewish chemist and writer Primo Levi (July 31, 1919–April 11, 1987), who was thrown into a Nazi death camp shortly after West set her timeless words to paper. Arrested as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, Levi lived through the Holocaust and transmuted his horrifying confrontation with death into a humanistic force of justice and empathy under the lifelong conviction that “no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis.”
In Survival in Auschwitz (public library), originally published as If This Is a Man, Levi wrests from what he witnessed and endured profound insight into some of the most elemental questions of human existence: what it means to be happy, why we habitually self-inflict unhappiness, how to fathom unfathomable suffering, where the seedbed of meaning resides.
Of the forty-five people crammed into the train car that took Levi to Auschwitz, which he notes was “by far the most fortunate wagon,” only four survived. Toward the end of his memoir, in diaristic form, he offers a harrowing perspective barely imaginable to any free person:
This time last year I was a free man: an outlaw but free, I had a name and a family, I had an eager and restless mind, an agile and healthy body. I used to think of many, far-away things: of my work, of the end of the war, of good and evil, of the nature of things and of the laws which govern human actions; and also of the mountains, of singing and loving, of music, of poetry. I had an enormous, deep-rooted foolish faith in the benevolence of fate; to kill and to die seemed extraneous literary things to me. My days were both cheerful and sad, but I regretted them equally, they were all full and positive; the future stood before me as a great treasure. Today the only thing left of the life of those days is what one needs to suffer hunger and cold; I am not even alive enough to know how to kill myself.
It takes an extraordinary person to not only survive such a devastating extreme of inhumanity but to emerge from it with the awareness that existence always leans toward equilibrium. Reflecting on his experience in the camp, Levi writes:
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.
With an eye to his own experience in the camp, he adds:
It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after. It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation; for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.
Mining once again the reality of the camp for universal human truth regarding the larger reality of life, Levi considers the root of our self-generated unhappiness — a kind of habitual infinite regress of discontentment:
Human nature is such that grief and pain — even simultaneously suffered — do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective… This is the reason why … man is never content. In fact it is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.
Levi contemplates how a particular dichotomy of human nature revealed itself in the camp:
There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men — the saved and the drowned. Other pairs of opposites (the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the cowards and the courageous, the unlucky and the fortunate) are considerably less distinct, they seem less essential, and above all they allow for more numerous and complex intermediary gradations.
This division is much less evident in ordinary life; for there it rarely happens that a man loses himself. A man is normally not alone, and in his rise or fail is tied to the destinies of his neighbors; so that it is exceptional for anyone to acquire unlimited power, or to fall by a succession of defeats into utter ruin. Moreover, everyone is normally in possession of such spiritual, physical and even financial resources that the probabilities of a shipwreck, of total inadequacy in the face of life, are relatively small. And one must take into account a definite cushioning effect exercised both by the law, and by the moral sense which constitutes a self-imposed law; for a country is considered the more civilized the more the wisdom and efficiency of its laws hinder a weak man from becoming too weak or a powerful one too powerful.
Complement Survival in Auschwitz with Levi on how science brings humanity together, then revisit Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who was trafficked through Auschwitz at the time Levi was there on the way to another camp, on the human search for meaning.
Published April 24, 2017