How Primo Levi Is Making Me Think This Summer

I am reading the collected works of Primo Levi this August vacation. My wife gave them to me this last Christmas, but I wanted to wait until I enjoyed a proper stretch of time to climb through his tower of prose with its magnificent views, astonishing niches, and intense portraits. I also knew that the presidential nominating conventions of our two major political parties would crowd out the attention I wanted to pay to Dottore Levi. So I began the three massive volumes the day those spectacles finished.

Unexpectedly starting with If This Is a Man, the writing afforded insights and bestowed concerns about our current circumstances. (Obviously, at 2900 pages, I’m not finished yet!) At the end of that first work, the editors included an appendix that Levi wrote in 1976. That was both 30 years after he had first penned his account of being inside the concentration camp complex at Auschwitz and 40 years removed from our present-day. Levi answering in that supplement the most frequent questions received when he visited schools to talk about his experiences delivered this message apt to our present-day:

“We must therefore be distrustful of those who try to convince us using tools other than reason, or of charismatic leaders: we must be wary of delegating to others our judgment and our will. Since it’s difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it’s best to be suspicious of all prophets; it’s better to give up revealed truths, even if they thrill us by their simplicity and their splendor, even if we find them convenient because they can be acquired for nothing. It’s better to content ourselves with other, more modest and less exciting truths, those which are gained laboriously, little by little and without shortcuts, through study, discussion, and reasoning, and which can be verified and proved.”

The obvious connection for me was that a 2016 presidential candidate has called for the opposite of Levi’s advice: he asserts that his followers should delegate to him their judgment and their will. Another connection arose to Jochen Bittner’s recent New York Times essay on ‘orderism’ in Europe. That movement’s characterization of democracy as coddling “moral weakness and decadence” resembled the Fascism described by Levi. Do aspects of the current political landscape look worryingly like the world Levi detailed?

Many are wary of such a comparison and not just because both the left and the right distend the term ‘fascist’ so as to deprive it of any useful meaning. The more significant caution in drawing parallels between the tendencies described by Levi and those now on display in our presidential election comes from numerous commentators who decry the lack of understanding of the emotions of those who feel left behind in America, who perceive something lost from their past or that of their ancestors. We are told (not just on this continent) that experts have held too much sway with their ‘line chart liberalism’ and self-reinforcing pronouncements. Such complaints are too weighty to be written off as bereft of reason and do not parallel fascism or even authoritarianism in the views of these critics. The over application of reason itself at least as articulated by those ‘experts’ is faulted for failing to solve or even comprehend our problems. The continued existence of these problems of drug abuse, broken families, underemployment, rising income inequality, and general dissatisfaction with life in ‘the system’ despite decades of ‘expert’ intervention is undeniable even if the causes are up for debate.

Another seemingly intransigent problem underlying this scene does portend greater troubles. The tendency of any side — emotion and reason, Democrats and Republicans, the non-college educated and the college-educated, the politically correct and the politically incensed — to see their counterpart as vile, as ‘the other’ also shadows Levi. Reading his early autobiographical works as well as some of his later essays, this phenomenon of being seen as ‘the other’ is something that Levi explains more powerfully and painfully than anyone else I have ever read, even while he makes clear that this experience is not limited to him or even to the victims of the Shoah. He also deftly describes how polarities such as the one described above lead ultimately to the verdict that the other is less than or not human at all. Circumstances that begin as seeing the other’s logic as ill-logic, their facts as lies, their leaders as horrible, even repulsive, spirals down to a tangle in which each side claims righteousness but cares most about proving their opponent not just wrong but corrupt.

Would Levi judge this tendency from both sides in this election to degrade the other, to lower their stature as the kind of vilification he saw? I think it depends upon the year of his writing. Certainly this is not 1944 or even 1939, but those movements had a long gestation. I found myself pondering how he would explain the recent New York Times video of the overheard shouts of supporters of the Republican nominee for president? What would he think of social media that condemns all Republican Party supporters, their candidate, and his various surrogates and handlers? Insults and trolling are on both sides but anyone who dares to differ with them suffers vilification from a wide array of Democrats, media personalities, and much of what is recognized as the public intelligentsia in the United States. The latter group now includes curiously commentators who throughout their lifetimes have supported the Republican Party and conservative causes. The justification for such meanness is that the health of our democracy is at stake, but this is strange medicine in that case.

Levi observed the United States with a cool but friendly eye. (He was against the Vietnam War long before it was fashionable.) Would he place current conditions in the context of our long history of making the Irish, the Jews, Italians, LGBT people, and especially people of color the ‘other’ in a steadier and deeper way than even the current campaign shows? (I can’t discount the claim that certain conservative and evangelical groups along with the shrinking mass of white males also feel that they are being treated as ‘the other’.) I wondered if he would recognize this election season with its hurricane of technology, ideology, and emotion that each day rouses more hateful remarks, more dangerous threats, more condescending negation, as déjà vu.

These answers matter to me because as Levi (and others) point out the effects swirling about of angry rallies (and vitriolic Twitter threads, the broadsheets of his day) can threaten a democracy, depends at some level on the belief (or illusion as some would have it) that we are all in this together. That doesn’t mean that we all like each other, agree with one another, or that we even want to stand next to each other. Such a belief also doesn’t require us to be relentlessly politically correct on either side: I don’t want to give up Bill Maher of HBO or James Taranto of WSJ. This mutuality instead only requires that we view ourselves as fellow citizens. So democracy absorbs vilification as if was a virus, but eventually rises above characterizing some group — no matter how odious their pronouncements — to be immoral or evil. I worry that these signs suggest infection so potent as to destroy the foundations of our Republic.

No matter who wins the election our success as a country hinges upon finding a way not only to reject this vilification, but to move beyond the zero sum game in which in order for us to be right our opponent must be wrong. As Barry Johnson has noted in his work of over thirty years helping groups to resolve polarization, one limitation of an either/or approach is that it makes those who resist us into the bad guys, the obstacles, the ‘other’. Such a situation is not solved by preaching as if all that was missing was a proper understanding by the opposite camp of what the true problems are and how valid our solutions stand. A greater insistence that the other side simply lacks reason leads to an endless cycle of mutual disparagement. We cannot listen to the other side. We are so persuaded of the rightness of our position that we lose the critical curiosity necessary to solve what appears to be unsolvable.

Barry Johnson has said that in such conflicts our first move must be toward the opposite pole, toward those who hold the position that we find unacceptable. This is not an acknowledgment of any sort of agreement, but a sortie of curiosity: we need to know why and how conclusions formed that we find at the least nonsensical and naïve and at the most abhorrent and dangerous. Such a move cannot happen if we continue to term everyone on the other side as deficient in sense or probity. Here Primo Levi is also instructive: recall that he advises us to forgo the easy exciting revealed truths and instead find those “other, more modest and less exciting truths, those which are gained laboriously little by little and without shortcuts, through study, discussion, and reasoning, and which can be verified and proved.” Citizens could have that study, discussion, and reasoning with our fellows; all that is needed is the good will to experiment, to ‘seek first to understand’, to step beyond our political positions even one at a time across the states.

I think this important enough to write about as a non-politician because there are those who state that our situation is already so dire that only purges and revolutions will suffice, because there is more to that quote of Primo Levi’s above,:. “… a new fascism, with its wake of intolerance, bullying, and servitude, could originate outside our country and be imported into it, arriving on tiptoe, perhaps, and called by other names; or it could be unleashed from inside with a violence that would rout all defenses. Then the counsels of wisdom are no longer useful, and we have to find the strength to resist: in this case, too, the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not long ago, can be a support and a warning.”

I am enough of an optimist to believe that the point where ‘the counsels of wisdom are no longer useful’ describes a place different than the one we now occupy, turbulent though this spot may be. If I am wrong, then our contract with each other may not hold. Before we decide from both sides that the only answer is now resistance to the other, we owe it to our marvelous democracy to try to understand our fellow Americans, those whom we have already decided are wrong, or worse malevolent. We can take from the life of Primo Levi the proof that this struggle to understand is not only possible, but necessary. He who faced a far more dangerous divide in his day believed even after his many trials in employing first the ‘counsels of wisdom’. He had endured a situation in which various powers had rendered him and all the Jews of the world (along with other sets of ‘enemies’ like gypsies and homosexuals) the ‘Other’. He survived while most of his fellows died. Yet Levi would not return the evil and saw the danger for others of doing so. This was not reflex: he chose to be curious about why people had believed and done terrible things. He insisted upon still seeing those on the other side, however flawed and guilty, as human beings. And what worries me most about what Primo Levi is making me think this summer is the possibility that in this present political moment we seem unaware of the dangers of not making his choice.

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