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Friday, November 23, 2018

Auschwitz: A Heterotopia Space - A Reading Through Primo Levi

Words written in blood should not be read but learnt by heart. - Nietzsche

Auschwitz: A Heterotopia Space
A close reading of Primo Levi’s Survival In Auschwitz

Words written in blood are not to be read but learnt by heart. - Nietzsche

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)

We would also like to consider that the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. (p.87)

Anyone who has studied and been trained in statistics and experimental design who reads this from Levi, can see he is correct. Once you see it you can’t unsee it.

In my opinion Auschwitz - the Queen of the camps -  is a brilliant design for this experiment. Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture and customs, are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate to all needs, and which is more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life. (p.87)

Levi interprets: We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving necessity and physical disabilities many social habits and instincts are reduced to silence. (p.87) Levi goes on to speak of the Saved and the Drowned. Within the social these extremes are curtailed. Not excessive strength nor excessive weakness but in the Lager there are no curbs at all. There is no morality there, no good and no evil because there is no law in the Lager.

But in the Lager things are different: here the struggle to survive is without respite, because everyone is desperately and ferociously alone. If some Null Achtzehn vacillates, he will find no one to extend a helping hand; on the contrary, someone will knock him aside, because it is in no one’s interest that there will be one more musselman* dragging himself to work every day;

*This word Musselmann, I do not know why, was used by the old ones of the camp to describe the weak, the inept, those doomed to selection.(p.88) Viktor Frankl uses it in his Man’s Search For Meaning about his time in the Lager. Frankl was an existentialist psychiatrist, whose reading of the camps is existential. Levi’s reading is scientific and is more distant; he is also an observer as well as a slave.My reading of this word from Frankl first was its resonance with moslem and muslim..So I am reading it through Lacan and Francoise Dolto’s clinical work in Dominique as an unconscious hatred of the Other surfacing in this nickname. And Levi associates to the Other:

In the recipe book #SplendidSoups I found where mussemann (musselman) came from! It is a curry that is MUSLIM! A muslim curry! So calling the walking dead musselmann because he looked yellow and because of the prejudice of the Jews against Muslims was an intuitive association of mine and a correct one.

Many people - many nations - can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is the Lager. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us.

The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal. (p.9)

...and if someone, by a miracle of savage patience and cunning, finds a new method of avoiding the hardest work, a new art which yields him an ounce of bread, he will try to keep his method secret, and he will be esteemed and respected for this, and will derive from it an exclusive , personal benefit; he will become stronger and so will be feared, and who is feared is, ipso facto, a candidate for survival. (p.88)

Reading this last sentence through Foucault and his method of genealogy we see the bare beginnings of capitalism beginning in barter. Or with these Jewish slaves, is it a condition of the capitalistic social and economic culture they arrived from in all parts of Europe? Would indigenous people unexposed to capitalism but only to barter have behaved the same? Did the women behave this way in their confinement? At any rate the male Jews that survived, survived in a number of ways not different - except in extremes - from ordinary capitalist behavior. Only far more vicious and evil. To steal a bowl from a slave meant that he could get no soup until he got another. The only way for him to get another was to trade his bread ration for the bowl. He is starving, and this is his only choice. No one will lend him theirs even after finishing. And the slave must carry all his puny belongings with him wherever he goes or they will be stolen by another slave. This loss of one bowl of soup can easily result in a pound of flesh lost, which could lead to death.

Lacan says that with God present everything is permitted. With no God nothing is permitted. In the arbitrary environment of the Lager which prohibits all from any spontaneous, natural personal gesture. Only what is ordered is to be said, gestured, or done. An example:

Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach, I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. Warum? I asked him in my poor German. Hier ist kein warum (there is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove. (p.29)

The explanation is repugnant but simple: in this place everything is forbidden, not for hidden reasons, but because the camp has been created for that purpose. (p.29) And this is filling the definition of a Heterotopic Space as Foucault has conceptualized it.

This is also what Lacan means by The Big Other.

Levi rarely if at all uses the word inmate - he will in referring to the seriously ill at the end - for the Jews in the camps. Instead he always refers to them and himself as slaves. He is the only one I’ve read in this literature of the Holocaust who is that linguistically careful. Did translators not want to use slave/Jew together? The English translations use inmate. Quite a difference in meaning and resonance.

This is a controlled experiment composed of huge numbers of subjects. His title is Survival In Auschwitz. What does it take to survive the ultimate in human degradation on the road to death? It is micro fascism as Foucault has taught us to see. The minute everyday crushing of human response in every movement, gesture, word. The destruction of all rituals of social and civilized life, when everything is forbidden. So what is left? Homo Sacer - Bare Man - survival without living. Hobbes: Life was short and brutal.

What is it about the musselmen who are the walking dead? Frankl will say that at some point the man decided he no longer wanted to live and in a few days it became obvious. Shortly afterwards he was selected.

There is a memory I have from my reading and my impression is that it came from the book, This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski describes a transport that has just come in. As it unloads its human cargo he sees a beautiful young woman who stands in the doorway the moment before she will step down to the platform where the selections are being made. She tucks in her blouse and he notes that she is not disheveled, her hair appears combed, her clothes neat. She stops, looks and sees the slaves who are gathering the suitcases and immediately understands what awaits her, what her future will be. She goes right away to the line of the old, the sick, the mothers, the children and joins them. An instant knowing and refusal to participate in surviving like that. Of becoming that. The walking dead.

How varied their reasons for wanting to die? Knowing that to survive they must join in being thieves, preying on the new ones before they can size the situation up, becoming what one must become to survive. Maybe they just said no, no more of this. They were the huge majority in the camps, doomed to die or choosing to die. The first ones arriving in the camps did not experience the walking dead until they became them. They will notice them turning yellow in their faces and comment on them. The later arrivals see them on arrival and see their future. This is planned of course, the first scene of terror awaiting the new arrivals.

This is invisible violence. They are also a sign which can be read in a number of ways by the new ones. They have information that the originals did not have. A choice lays before them. They may shudder and then attempt to not let it happen to them or to give up immediately. To resist they will have to be willing to take on behaviors that will help them survive, but only if they are lucky and determined.

Levi describes the three types of survival methods. I will only consider the Jews here:
  1. The most traveled road , … is the Prominenz - Prominent. The Kapos, cooks, et al. The Jewish prominents form a sad and notable human phenomenon. In them converge present, past and atavistic sufferings, and the tradition of hostility towards the stranger makes of them monsters of asociality and insensitivity. (p.91) This man will displace and scapegoat on all those under him. If he doesn’t then they will appoint someone who will.

We are aware that this is very distant from the picture that is usually given of the oppressed who unite, if not in resistance, at least in suffering. We do not deny that this may be possible when oppression does not pass a certain limit, or perhaps when the oppressor, through inexperience or magnanimity, tolerates or favours it. . But we state that in our days, in all countries in which a foreign people have set foot as invaders, an analogous position of rivalry and hatred among the subjected has been brought about; and this, like many other human characteristics, could be experienced in the Lager in the light of particularly cruel evidence. (p.91)
  1. ...there is a vast category of prisoners, not initially favored by fate, who fight merely with their own strength to survive. One has to fight against the current; to battle every day and every hour against exhaustion, hunger, cold, and the resulting inertia; to resist enemies and have no pity for rivals; to sharpen one’s wits, build up one’s patience, strengthen one’s will power. Or else, to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. (p.92)
  2. Elias the dwarf is in the third category. He is stronger, resourceful, sly,  and he thrives. Because he is insane. He is the most adaptable, the human type most suited  to this way of living. On the outside he will be confined to the fringes...in a prison or lunatic asylum. But here in the Lager there are no criminals or madmen; no criminals because there is no moral law to contravene, no madmen because we are wholly devoid of free will, as our every action is, in time and place, the only conceivable one.  ...Elias, as far as we could judge from outside, and as far as the phrase can have  meaning was probably a happy person. For those who have no sound inner resources, for those who do not know how to draw from their own consciences sufficient force to cling to life, the only road to salvation leads to Elias:  to insanity and to deceitful bestiality. All the other roads are dead ends. (p.98)

Levi will go on to tell us of Henri, who on the other hand, is eminently civilized and sane, and possesses a complete and organic theory on the ways to survive in Lager. He is  only twenty-two, he is extremely intelligent, speaks French, German, English and Russian,  has an excellent scientific and classical culture. According to Henri’s theory, there are three methods open to man to escape extermination which still allow him to retain the name of man: organization, pity and theft. He himself practices all three. (p.98)

The Soviet Union and Israel refused to publish his writings on Auschwitz. Israel received masses of survivors. People who had done what they did to survive. There is no way to unknow what you did and did to others to get any slight advantage that would enable you to survive. These people composed a huge demographic in Israel, their rage and guilt was fed to their children and grandchildren. Evil trickles down unto the seventh generation. God is conservative in this estimate. The Palestinians are enduring this displacement today, this Identification with the Aggressor. In Israel there were so very many. Those who entered the diaspora were absorbed and without political power to do the same.

Tadeusz Borowski. This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Francoise Dolto. Dominique: Analysis of an Adolescent
Viktor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning
Michel Foucault. The Order of Things
Jacques Lacan. Ecrits.
Primo Levi. Survival In Auschwitz
Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra

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