Tuesday, February 21, 2017

If This is a Man

Survival in AuschwitzSurvival in Auschwitz 
by Primo Levi

"Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses:  he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.  He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgement of utility.  It is in this way that one can understand the double sense of the term 'extermination camp', and it is now clear what we seek to express with the phrase: 'to lie on the bottom'." (p 27)

Captured in December of 1943 by the Fascist Militia, a young twenty-five year old Primo Levi was drawn out of his life as an "Italian citizen of the Jewish race" into a nightmare that could only compare to the depths of Dante's Inferno. This book is his story of the capture, journey to, and life in the Buna section of Auschwitz. This was a "work" camp that provided slave labor for a rubber factory built for the I. G. Farben company.

Levi describes his experiences with vignettes from his period of internment. These vignettes are interspersed with his commentary on his own feelings, relations with other "haftlings" (prisoners), all of whom have become identified with a number tattooed on their arm. Primo Levi was number 174517.

One of the themes of Levi's memoir is language; its meaning and importance for life in the camp. Early on he becomes "aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man." The difficulty of being understood when you do not speak the language of your captors heightens the misery of daily activities making life more tortuous than it already was. At the end of the eighth chapter Levi observes that theft among the prisoners (a daily reality) " is generally punished , but the punishment strikes the thief and the victim with equal gravity." Further, he comments directly to the reader:
"We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words 'good' and 'evil', 'just' and 'unjust'; let everybody judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire." (p 86)

Each chapter is named and these names signal the emphasis and direction of the book, if at times only metaphorically. Thus the descent of Levi includes a discussion of "The Drowned and the Saved" and encompasses "The Work" and "A Good Day". Of course a good day for Levi is one in which he can merely revel in the smile of one other person -- never matter the hunger!

In these moments he considers the meaning of his experiences and asks "if it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional human state." He replies affirmatively, saying:
"We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing." (p 87)

In the chapter "The Canto of Ulysses" (a reference to Dante's Inferno) he quotes part of the Canto from memory, sharing with his fellow workers in the Chemical hut where he had fortunately been transferred. It is during this episode that "For a moment I forget who I am and where I am." He repeats a few lines for his friend Pikolo, but later bemoans the fact that he cannot remember the whole Canto, claiming he would give up his daily soup to remember the missing lines. His action can be seen as an attempt to maintain his humanity in the face of tremendous difficulties, thinking that:
"I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today . . ." (p 115)

Levi eventually survives the camp and lives to share his story and write even more after returning to his native home. However, it is not until after he has experienced a multitude of tortures and indignities. Not the least of which was the hanging of one inmate who made an unsuccessful attempt to escape. Of this episode Levi writes:
"To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded. Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgement.: (p 150) 
In January, 1945, the Russians arrived and Primo Levi began his journey home.

Quotation of the Day

Modern American Usage: A Guide

"[F]atalism about language cannot be the philosophy of those who care about language; it is the illogical philosophy of their opponents. Surely the notion that, because usage is ultimately what everybody does to words, nobody can or should do anything about them is self-contradictory. Somebody, by definition, does something; and this something is best done by those with convictions and a stake in the outcome, whether the stake of private pleasure or of professional duty does not matter. Resistance always begins with individuals.”

—Wilson Follett,  Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966).

Source:  Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

A Commonplace Entry


“Only a philosopher's mind grows wings, since its memory always keeps it as close as possible to those realities by being close to which the gods are divine.”  ― Plato, Phaedrus

"Phaedrus: . . . But let’s be going, since now even the stifling heat is more gentle.

Socrates: Shouldn’t we pray to the gods here before going?

Phaedrus: Yes, surely.

Socrates: Dear Pan and ye other gods who dwell here, grant that I may become beautiful within and that my worldly belongings be in accord with my inner self. May I consider the wise man rich and have only as much gold as a moderate man can carry and use.

Is there anything else we need, Phaedrus? For me, our prayer was said with due measure.

Phaedrus: Make it a prayer for me, too. Friends have things in common.

Socrates: Let’s be going."

That is ending of the Phaedrus.   Here we find the beauty of a friendship portrayed eloquently. Plato assures us that they have indeed, not just in story, shared “with due measure” an outpouring of divinity together; Socrates offers this noble prayer that the beauty of soul they have turned round and round in their talking may be theirs, but Phaedrus completes, perfects the prayer making it also his own, showing in this small but decisive way that he has accepted Socrates’ offer of love, and will share the poverty and riches of his rhetoric, to guide and stir each other on the way to truth. “ἴωμεν” — “Let’s be going.” They have this way reached an agreement with each other and with themselves; they have arrived where now their conversation something holds in common, something divine. And more talk is no longer needful. “Is there anything else we need Phaedrus?” Nothing else, but to take the double riches of sharing the best things with one you love.

"Phaedrus" from the Dialogues of Plato.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

An Absurd Life

Closely Watched TrainsClosely Watched Trains 
by Bohumil Hrabal

"The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctul to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late." (p 1)

This dramatic and moving tale from the pen of Bohumil Hrabal is almost poetic in its sparse intensity. His story tells the fate of Milos Hrma, an apprentice signalman, who must deal with his own shortcomings even as he faces the onset of the German army. The novel’s young protagonist, Miloš, has just gotten out of an asylum after slashing his wrists and returns to work at the local train station, where that night he ends up taking part in the sabotage of a trainload of Nazi munitions. Through a dazzling array of flashbacks and varying narrative techniques, the reader learns that Miloš tried to kill himself after a sexual tryst that failed because of premature ejaculation, and as Miloš’ first-person thoughts meander through the current day and through his and his family’s and his town’s past, the novel paints a kaleidoscopic picture of a world that’s at turns (and often at once) disgustingly ugly and almost unbearably beautiful.

Much of the impact of Hrabal's writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals symbolize the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. The adult human world is revealed as terrifying, and, in the end, perhaps the only sane philosophy is a line delivered in Closely Watched Trains: "You should have stayed home on your arse".

One of the great achievements of this novel is that its pathos is balanced with wonderful humor and vitality, its cast of characters revolving around each other with romance, longing, absurdity, vanity, hilarious deviance, and a healthy (and/or perhaps unhealthy) dose of sexuality. Perhaps meant to be comic, the novel’s correlation between virility and political action can be somewhat troubling, though, both to male and female readers—to the former because the idea that men must rise to action is confining and to the latter because serving as ciphers for male ability is insulting. Even though it is compact the narrative displays the fragile nature of the community during wartime. Hrabal conveys the fate of his native Czechoslovakia as represented by the heroism of the protagonist of this beautiful novella.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

An Unconventional Childhood

The Spirit of Prague: And Other EssaysThe Spirit of Prague: And Other Essays 
by Ivan Klíma

"A city is like a person:  if we don't establish a genuine realationship with it, it remains a name, an external form that soon fades from our minds.  To create this relationship, we must be able to observe the city and understand its peculiar personality, its'I', its spirit, its identity, the circumstances of its life as they evolved through space and time." (p 39, "The Spirit of Prague")

I read Ivan Klíma’s wonderful collection of essays The Spirit of Prague, in connection for a Basic Program class on the literature of Prague. Klima has a simple style of writing, with a wonderful clarity and quiet authority. 

The book is divided into five sections of essays.  The first section includes the titular essay but the longest one opens the book.  In this essay, entitled with characteristic understated irony "A Rather Unconventional Childhood", Klima writes of his childhood which coincided, in Eastern Europe, with the triumph of Nazism and his confinement (as a Jew) in the transit camp of Terezin. From an early age he was a reader:

"I read. Of all the books I owned, I was most excited by a prose retelling of Homer's two epics. I read them over and over again, until I knew whole pages by heart."(p. 15)

Later, when he has been transported to the camp he uses a wry, observational tone to devastating effect:

‘I also experienced my first real friendships at this time which , as I later came to understand, were really only prefigurations of the adolescent infatuations that transform every encounter, every casual conversation into an experience of singular importance. All those friendships ended tragically; my friends, boys and girls, went to the gas chamber, all except one, the one I truly loved, Arieh, a son of the chairman of the camp prisoners’ self-management committee, who was shot at the age of twelve.’(p. 20)

His experiences in the camp, and later under the communist regimes of the post-war years, lead him to the conclusion that "if we don't learn from catastrophes and if we don't accept these simple principles, the moment when we might have done something to decide the fate of mankind will pass us by."(p. 27)

Klima's observations in this essay are telling and are reminiscent of other books, including: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl; Night by Elie Weisel; Fatelessness by  Imre Kertész; Speak You Also by Paul Steinberg; The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprun;  and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

The remainder of the collection includes further excursions into reading and literature, a commentary on Kafka as a source of inspiration, and a discussion of totalitarianism as seen from the perspective of Czech culture.  The erudition and intensity of these essays along with Klima's lucid style made this collection a joy to read.  I would recommend it to fans of Joseph Roth and other astute observers of mitteleuropean culture.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Taking Charge of Her Life

Miss MackenzieMiss Mackenzie 
by Anthony Trollope

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”   ― Anthony Trollope

A single woman of a certain age entertains suitors and encounters financial and other interesting issues in this engaging novel by Anthony Trollope. I recently discovered this when our book group selected  Miss Mackenzie as our first novel of the new year.

Margaret Mackenzie has spent her life until the age of 35 nursing her father and brother, both of whom have lived restricted and selfish lives as minor civil servants. The death of her brother leaves her with a comfortable fortune and she decides to use it to live more enjoyably and, if possible, get married. She takes charge of one of her nieces and, leaving London, moves to the spa of Littlebath, thus setting up the one satisfying and useful relationship in the book and escaping her terrible sister-in-law. Littlebath is a typical small community with single ladies with adequate incomes, many of whom she meets at the social events arranged by the evangelical clergyman Mr Stumfold and his domineering wife. Two of the ladies – the genteel and timid Stumfoldian Miss Baker, and the raffish and amusing anti-Stumfoldian Miss Todd – present positive models of single life which nonetheless do not attract Miss Mackenzie.

Three suitors emerge for Margaret and her money, none particularly attractive: her cousin John Ball, an undeniable gentleman but older, dreary, materialistic and attached to a disastrously dire mother (old Lady Ball);  Tom’s partner, Samuel Rubb, who is amusing, good-looking and intelligent, but lower-middle-class and not very scrupulous;  and a Stumfoldian curate, Mr Maguire.  Maguire is one of Trollope’s stereotyped evangelicals -- hypocritical, slimy and physically very off-putting.  In the course of time all three make offers of marriage and Margaret indecisively rejects all three.

Margaret encounters financial setbacks, but her mercenary suitors do not disappear. Rubb has deceived her financially but likes her personally and would stand by her. Maguire is convinced that John Ball has cheated Margaret, and thus destroyed his own chances of wealth, and starts a gutter-press campaign against him. John realizes that he is actually fond of Margaret, and gradually finds the will to resist his mother’s hostility to her. Despite her initial rejection of all three Margaret appears to consider each of them until the denouement when she makes a momentous decision.

She is helped by a rather glamorous upper-class cousin who appears from Scotland and this allows Trollope to introduce a truly appalling bazaar attended by a group of ladies from the Palliser and Barsetshire novels, perhaps to provide an upper-class counterpart to a pretentious middle-class dinner at Tom’s earlier.

While many of the characters are unpleasant and petty-minded Miss Mackenzie has sufficient good humor and common sense to buoy the reader. While she started her new life eager for social contacts and simple pleasures, these modest ambitions are largely disappointed. The novel, thankfully, is not merely a study of the oppressiveness of the conditions of life of women in the eighteen-sixties, and of the restrictiveness of class thinking. Rather it is what for this reader was a typical Trollope novel; filled with interesting characters and delightful prose. It had been too long since I had read a novel by Anthony Trollope and the enjoyment reminded me why I am always glad when I return to his work.