Guest Post by Venkat Ramanan
While held prisoner in Auschwitz, the Italian writer Primo Levi, in an effort to keep himself anchored, tried to recall all the cantos of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and explicate its intricacies to his fellow inmates. There were, naturally, gaps in Levi’s memory. He got frustrated with this lapse and exclaimed: “I would give today’s soup to know how to connect ‘the like on any day’ to the last lines.” (This is from a chapter (pp. 115-21) in Levi’s memoir, If This is a Man whose heading “The Canto of Ulysses” alludes to Dante’s description of his meeting Ulysses in hell—a place that is more than a metaphor for Auschwitz).
However, this instance of someone striving to reach for the aesthetic elements of life amidst extreme adversity is certainly not one of a kind. While what Levi made it a point to do is so exquisitely poignant, we find that many others too have done so under similar circumstances. But, isn’t it usually presumed that we reach for beauty only when things are going well? Then, why does someone behave contrary to that especially when staying alive presupposes all else? (Forego “today’s soup”, however meagre it may be?)
One way we could explain this is to contend that these instances comprise a silent rebellion or a low-key insurgency against the dehumanisation which is ineluctably part of the milieu that people like Levi confronted. In other words, the actors in these real-life dramas were simply reiterating their humanity. When we unpack what we mean by an umbrella term like “being human” in this context we can see, however, that there are at least three major elements to it and whose character ranges from the merely visceral or biological to the sublime.
Aesthetics as a means of survival, self-preservation
For some like Franz Ehrlich, a former Bauhaus student, a feeling for beauty became as materially instrumental for survival as the daily gruel. During the Nazi regime in Germany, Ehrlich was arrested as a communist and sent to Buchenwald. Ehrlich managed however to survive by plying his aesthetic sense and used his expertise to design parts of the concentration camp, including the camp commandant’s residence and decorating the gates to the camp with its slogan “Jedem das Seine.” Ehrlich didn’t perhaps fail to note the irony of this German phrase which in English means “to each his own.”
We get an inkling for the moral ambiguities attached to Ehrlich’s choice when we contrast it against those of others putting their aesthetics to pragmatic use in similar circumstances. Several such cases are recounted in Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps and with these the objective was primarily to enhance the lives of themselves and fellow sufferers, not the aggressors. One prisoner, for instance, learnt to make needles out of fishbones while in Butyrka prison. Another found a way to melt down the excess aluminium that welders around the camp discarded and turned it into spoons and exchanged them with other inmates for a “few… extra grams of bread.” (Gulag, p. 349).
If the prison authorities also benefited from such activities in some situations, it was only indirectly. Nor were all the objects produced by them necessarily utilitarian. Anna Andreeva, an artist, was asked to decorate a prison tombstone and to fix broken toys (p. 350). Elsewhere, better conditions were promised for those who could entertain both prisoners and camp officials as in the case of Georgi Feldgun who received extra food for performing on his violin. After this, Feldgun exclaimed: “Here we are on the edge of the world… and we are playing eternal music, written more than 200 years ago. We are playing Vivaldi for fifty gorillas.” (p. 351).
A reaching towards simplicity, discerning logic amidst chaos and complexity
In her book, Applebaum highlights also the “spirit of irrationality and unpredictability” that prevailed in the Soviet Gulag system and thinks that it contributed to the senseless death of thousands in the early 1920s (pp. 46-7). This would naturally have intensified the feelings of terror, confusion, and chaos experienced by those who were sent to those camps. But, paradoxically, it is the same atmosphere of the absurd that allowed the prisoners—at least some of them—to try and uncover a modicum of logic and meaning in their lives by attempting to hang on to the familiar and what had hitherto ennobled them, including music and literature. In some camps the inmates staged plays and played the classics (including Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) from memory (a la Levi) (p. 150). In others—as at the Solovetsky camp—there was even a botanical garden and a library with around 30,000 books. Then, there were those who kept insanity at bay by opting for less extrovert and more esoteric pursuits. One prisoner kept his body and mind busy during sixteen months of solitary by repeatedly washing his clothes and everything else around him—and singing all the opera arias that he could recollect. Another detainee, Alexander Dolgun kept counting while walking inside his cell and imagined walking across Moscow to the American Embassy. As he later described it poetically, “I breathed in the clear, cold, imaginary air and hugged my coat around me” while ‘walking.’ (p. 150).
This search for simplicity and reason would acquire considerable poignancy when a group of children staged the opera Brundibar at the Jewish ghetto at Theresienstadt (current day Terezin in Czechia) in 1944. As the History Today article recounting this incident notes, the children derived, in doing so, “a sense of normality” in their lives. Perhaps more importantly, they “implicitly refused to surrender to the inhumanity of the ghetto and clung on to the innocence that Nazism was so intent on stealing from them.”
Lessons in emancipated meditation on a journey towards necessary truths
Talk of inhumanity reminds us of something that is common to all the incidents we have looked at so far: a dissent against dehumanisation and an assertion of what it means to be human. We have several other incidents where this objective is revealed in its purest and most limpid form. But what differentiated some examples of these acts of defiance—whether overt or obscured—was that they expressed also a desire to strive towards necessary truths, a quest that went beyond deriving happiness. We could argue that such actions fulfilled Aristotle’s definition of “work”—if living can be called work—which consisted of an “activity of the rational part of the soul in accordance with virtue” (per Stanford Encyclopaedia). This view of work is the obverse of Aristotle’s other notion eudaimonia which can be thought of as “the best activities of which man is capable” (per Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Even if we apply a more contemporary and pejorative allusion to work as ‘drudgery,’ we see that the nexus between eudaimonia and how we deal with work persists. To illustrate this, psychologist and writer Martin Seligman suggests the example of a bagger at a supermarket who hated the tedium and monotony associated with her job. But she overcame this by using her ‘social intelligence’ to change it, by increasing her social interaction with her fellow workers and customers. Thus, the life you lead can become a good in itself and epitomise what Cicero called a summum bonum. As Seligman explains, “When one is in eudaimonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You’re one with the music.” (in John Brockman, The Mind, p. 156). And with that you can block the external world too, including one replete with horror and oppression.
Applebaum too appears to echo this idea of someone exemplifying eudaimonia when she notes that there were those “who built upon what Tzvetan Todorov, in his book on concentration camp morality, has called the ‘ordinary virtues’: caring and friendship, dignity, and the life of the mind.” (in Gulag, p. 346). One of these superior beings was Primo Levi without a doubt. But Levi himself is generous enough to refer to others he has come across in the Lagers who resembled him in this respect. In his book, Moments of Reprieve, Levi recalls the “great number of human figures [who] stood out against that tragic background… [and he in them he] recognised the will and capacity to react, and hence a rudiment of virtue.” Consequently, they were “no longer the anonymous, faceless, voiceless mass of the shipwrecked” (p. 10). (The last phrase is reminiscent of the title of another seminal work by Levi, The Drowned and the Saved.)
Another illustration of people journeying towards necessary truths and to live life the right way is to be found in the story of the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her husband Pavel. When they were deported in 1942 to Theresienstadt, what Friedl took along with her to the ghetto was mostly her art supplies. She then held art classes for the children incarcerated there. As Dr Cathy Malchiodi, who recounts this story in Psychology Today observes, Friedl “gave these children more than just a purpose or a way to cope. She purposely gave them the power of imagination to help them endure the atrocities of daily life.” Not to be overlooked is the fate of the artworks created in this communal endeavour. In the hope that they will be discovered by someone later—and the courage of those involved recognised—Friedl secured the 500 or so pieces of art in her suitcases and hid them before she was transported to Auschwitz and killed there. As one survivor, Eva Dorian, noted what Friedl Dicker-Brandeis did went beyond self-sacrifice or teaching art to children. It spoke also of “the expression of different feelings, [of] the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation.”
We get a better handle on what that last phrase alludes to when we juxtapose the actions of those like Friedl against Primo Levi’s exhortation of his fellow prisoner to pay attention to a phrase from Dante which asks us “to follow knowledge and excellence” : “… listen Pikolo, open your ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake,,,” What’s more, Levi too gets caught up in that epiphany: “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” (in If This is a Man). A sign of “emancipated meditation” is therefore to transcend who you are and where you are, whatever the circumstances—and live in the moment and live in a state of good spirit.
Works Cited/For Further Reading:
Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. Penguin Books, 2004.
John Brockman (ed.), The Mind. The Edge Foundation and Harper Perennial, 2011.
Primo Levi, If This is a Man and The Truce. Translated by Stuart Woolf, Abacus, 2002.
Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve. Translated by Ruth Feldman, Abacus, 1986.
About the Author:
Venkat Ramanan is a writer and former technology professional from Australia. His recent publications include research papers (on Jorge Luis Borges, and literature and reality) in the peer-reviewed journal Literature & Aesthetics and essays in online magazines Epoche Philosophy Monthly (part of Medium) and The Punch Magazine (with another essay to be published). Venkat’s website is venkr6b.blogspot.com and Twitter handle is @venkr6.