“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…