Sunday 3 March 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

In Chapter Two of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved,The Grey Zone”, the Italian author writes that human beings “tend to simplify history; but the pattern within which events are ordered is not always identifiable in a single unequivocal fashion, and it may therefore happen that different historians understand and construe history in ways that are incompatible with one another.” In short, we have built up a “us” vs “them” world, a dichotomy of “friend or enemy”.

This attitude chimes with a concept I thought it’d gone the way of the crusades many centuries ago. That of hell and eternal damnation. Well, according to a recent article in The Economist, Lucifer’s abode is still around and doesn’t show signs of kicking the metaphorical bucket just yet.

Apparently the billboards in the American South still shout out that “Hell is Real” and religions such as the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu have not let go of their own version of inferno yet. Furthermore fundamentalist Christians in the US terrify American teenagers with “Hell Houses” to warn them against drug-taking and other vices.

The above picture is very different to the Unterwelt that oversaw the dehumanisation process to which Levi and his fellow prisoners were subjected. No wonder many survivors blocked out memories of the Lagers. They were too painful to bear and too illogical to make sense of. How can you even put into words the Nazis’ tendency to scream at their victims in German, knowing fully well that they were not being understood? How can you explain the beatings, the hunger and the thirst? And had an explanation been provided at any point, wouldn’t it have validated unintentionally Die Endlösung, the final solution?

Whereas in Christian mythology, just to give an example, hell is still pretty much about fire, brimstone and lamentations, in the real world, Hades is circumstantial. For instances of this, see Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment for twenty-seven years for his political beliefs and Pol Pot’s murderous regime in Cambodia with its famous “killing fields”. It would be simplistic to say that the millions who suffered at the hands of the Asian despot underwent a worse version of hell than the South African leader. Especially when the aim of both the apartheid-led government and the Khmer Rouge was to dehumanise the individual/collective.

In this sense Primo Levi’s book is a welcome attempt to bring nuance into a situation of extremes. We are aware of what happened between 1939 and 1945 in Europe. We have read the history books and memoirs whilst others have had the fortune of meeting survivors of the concentration camps. What we lack sometimes is the nitty-gritty of what went on day after day in Auschwitz and other Lagers. We have built up the “us” (condemnatory of Nazism, fascism and any other form of racism) vs the “them” (the far right or any other group with xenophobic and racist intentions). Yet, in between these two sides lay real men and women who didn’t have much of a chance to make the right decision; right decisions often being accompanied by a gunshot or a fatal beating.

In the aforementioned Chapter Two, The Grey Zone, Levi addresses these individuals’ dilemma. Dividing them into two blocs of victims and persecutors is a reduction ad absurdum, he seems to say. It is also self-defeating. The world (or hell, to continue with my theme today) into which these people were thrown was a shock. It was also hard to work out. I mentioned the linguistic component before. The other element was that the enemy was not obvious. Yes, the soldier kicking you with his boot was your enemy, but so was the campmate who tried to steal your bread. Under these circumstances the idea of hell as a place of despair or desolation for sinners is out of synch with what really happened in the Second World War. What was the sin of the millions of people sent to the concentration camps?

As a final reflection on how the religious idea of hell as punishment for offenders is nowadays at odds with the real underworld in which those in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq still live, I’ll quote again from Levi’s book:

“… the arrival in the Lager was indeed a shock because of the surprise it entailed. The world into which one was precipitated was terrible, yes, but also indecipherable: it did not conform to any model, the enemy was all around but also inside, the ‘we’ lost its limits, the contenders were not two, one could not discern a single frontier but rather many confused, perhaps innumerable frontiers, which stretched between each of us”.

Less Dante’s black-and-white solid ice Hell and more nuanced, greyish, human on human inferno. And as a consequence, more puzzling.

© 2013

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music… Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 6th March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Many lines seem to be drawn, as some sort of hell does dawn.

  2. sadly, i like in a hugely fundamentalist town...and we have those hell houses here every year...and while i am a christian, i am much more on the liberal side and really don't fit either...what is even sadder is there are plenty of the conservatives that have no problem telling me how wrong that is...i think in many ways the religeous fight the wrong things only further ostracizing themselves and undermining a message of hell real, i will let you know when i get there....smiles.

  3. somehow this brought to mind one of my fav books i ever's called the hiding place by corrie ten boom and she describes her time in a concentration camp during world war II and somehow she managed to bring a piece of heaven into this hell and darkness

  4. Thanks for this very interesting post. The level of religious thought can be very shocking at times - people want simple answers to things that are sometimes almost imponderable.

    A very interesting article in yesterdays NY Times about the Holocaust - the documentation of 42,500 "lesser" camps, forced labor camps, ghettos etc.


  5. This is decidedly a difficult conversation to have, with or without religion.

    More often we make decisions that are at the edge of right or wrong such as investing in a mutual fund whose major holdings deal with oil extraction.

    We tend to live with such choices because we are really good at rationalizing and put our hands up because, somehow, if we have no control to change the world, why suffer the guilt?

    We are always in the middle of atrocities and yet, we sit at our dinner table and go on sipping our wine.

  6. So many interesting thoughts in your post. I think everyone somehow has to come up with a belief system that works for them & also not pass judgment on those who have other beliefs. Only one thing is for sure: Some day we will all find out! Thanks for the discussion.

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments. One note, though. This is not a post about religion, the advantages or disadvantages of it. I only used religion, and especifically the Abrahamic faiths (although, I did manage to mention Buddhism, too) because of their belief in eternal damnation should a person sin in his or her life.

    Whilst reading Primo Levi's book (which I finished Friday gone) I realised that hell and the idea of it are not that simple. Black and white simple, I mean. There's a chapter in the book that deals with stereotypes which tries to shine a light on this whole "hell" business. According to Levi there have always been questions people have asked ex-prisoners and survivors of the Lagers. Why didn't you escape? Why didn't you rebel? Why didn't you flee when you knew the Nazis were coming? In short, why didn't you do something if you were living in this hell, or knew what you were about to experience? He offers very clear and convincing answers which you will only find out about if you read the book. I thooroughly recommend.

    But, I'll say it again, this is not a post about religion, but about the idea of hell some religions seem to have and how this idea contrasts with real life.

    I really appreciate your comments. Keep them coming! :-) I hope you have a smashing week ahead.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Me parece ya en este mundo que es un infierno para ciertas personas así que ciertos países por el sufrimiento que tienen en vivir en ciertos momentos o periodos de su vida.
    Supongo que el libro es bueno e interesante.
    Un abrazo

  9. thanks for the nice comment. :) I really needed it right now.

    I have not read any of the things you write about so I am unable to discuss it. But the singer you share today. A man of nature. I was a bit amused when I saw his naked feet. At home I am always barefooted. :)

  10. Yes, hell is a relative concept. The idea has long been pushed by religions to keep people in line but as Bob Marley sang, "think you're in heaven/when you're living in hell" it really depends upon your perspective.

  11. In some ways I find the grey(ish) human hells more frightening. The borders are not clear, and neither are the entries and exits.

  12. I agree with rosaria. Faced with such things, are you better off with faith or without it? Obviously it depends upon the individual, but it would be interesting to know what exactly in the individual it depends upon! You've set me off, I think, on a long train of thought!

  13. Thought provoking, for sure! I agree with Levi in your opening paragraph. Is anything really clear cut? There certainly is hell on earth. As for the afterlife...all we can do is speculate.

  14. Always I think sometimes the inferno or hell is in the life of someones. Like you live, how lived Mandela many years, Dachau, and others, really are hells and where you can see how humans destruyed each other . This make me sad and I dont think in religion.
    Im christian and catholic but is not about religion, always amazed me all the pain, and bad things the man (generic) can make.

  15. When I said like you live I dont say you CIL is about all of us sometimes all we have ours hell in life.

  16. Thank you for your comments. Gloria, I know that you're using the generic "you". No worries.

    Greetings from London.

  17. I believe there is a(varying) bit of the saboteur in each of us.

    I am an atheist who sees hell as the worst of the human condition in concentrated form. My father fought in the Italian army during WW2. The everyman "turns"(if it is indeed a turn) more predatory just before, during, & after war. But later the revisionism starts, subject to the vagaries of memory(& lies). ~Mary

  18. You've set the cogs in my brain whirring again!
    When you're faced with things like this, I think it's easier without faith...that only complicates everything (only my personal opinion, you understand!).

    Thank you for a very interesting discussion.

  19. Why do we need an abstract Hell when we have it on Earth? Genocide and war define it.

    A thought provoking post indeed!



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