Having shown the clear difference of emphasis in the responses of Levi and Améry to their experiences at the hands of the Nazis, I now want to look beyond it, and explain why I think there is a deeper affinity between the two men than that contrast would suggest, and why it is of critical importance. For all that the category of hope plays its part in Levi's writing, he was not the sponsor of any redemptive vision in which hope or other humane qualities might make good the evils done across Nazi-occupied Europe, or might, as it were, 'level out' the human propensity for evil. For him, too, what had been done was not to be got over; it was an irredeemable atrocity. In this regard he and Améry are closer than they may at first appear. For Levi not only adverts repeatedly, both directly and indirectly, to the theme of hope, he also registers why social hope must be permanently qualified by the consciousness of the grave wrongs human beings have done and are ever capable of.
I go on in the rest of the present series of posts to enlarge upon this thesis. Between hope and resentment there is a middle term, and that term is 'shame'.
In Levi's Auschwitz story and reflections, shame figures in more than one way. There is a personal shame he confesses to having felt in certain situations, and having continued to feel subsequently. After being forced to witness a hanging, he and his friend Alberto are 'oppressed by shame'. Why? Because they stood by and did nothing to protest or intervene? Yes. That is a common response reported amongst survivors, even though to have done anything of the kind in such circumstances would have meant certain death. Later, having survived and returned, Levi had the worry that perhaps he and his fellow survivors had not sufficiently resisted, despite the fact that there was not much rational basis for such a regret. He had the worry, also, of 'having failed in terms of human solidarity'. He tells of himself and Alberto - who shared everything they managed to come by - not having included Daniele in the benefit of a small amount of extra water he found once, and being later, after they were liberated, chided about it by Daniele. Should Levi have been, belatedly, ashamed? He didn't know. But he was.
In any case, in connection with the horrors they had to witness at Auschwitz, Levi also wrote, in The Truce, of a shame more impersonal and far-reaching in scope:
the shame which the just man experiences when confronted by a crime committed by another, and he feels remorse because of its existence, because of its having been irrevocably introduced into the world of existing things, and because his will has proven nonexistent or feeble, and was incapable of putting up a good defence.
He returned to this theme in The Drowned and the Saved, speaking now of a 'vaster shame, the shame of the world'. Levi described it thus:
[T]he just among us, neither more nor less numerous than in any other human group, felt remorse, shame and pain for the misdeeds that others and not they had committed, and in which they felt involved, because they sensed that what had happened around them in their presence, and in them, was irrevocable. It would never again be able to be cleansed...
In these two passages he connects - notwithstanding his own emphases on hope and its cognates - to the rational kernel in Améryan resentment. Note how the second passage repeats the thought present in the first: the crime is, the misdeeds are, irrevocable. It is a thought that threads its way through his writings about Auschwitz.
There is a scene described in If This Is A Man where, after a selection for the gas chamber, the prisoner Kuhn is praying, thanking God for not being one of those selected; and Levi writes:
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it...? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
Nothing at all can ever clean again – the same thing is said in the passage I quoted just before from The Drowned and the Saved: 'it would never again be able to be cleansed'.
On the way back from Auschwitz to Turin, and passing through Vienna, Levi wrote of the anguish he and his comrades felt in that city, of 'the heavy threatening sensation of an irreparable and definitive evil which was present everywhere, nestling like gangrene in the guts of Europe and the world, the seed of future harm'. And in connection with other crimes - in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia, and South Africa - he would say, in the same vein, 'I know no human act that can erase a crime'.
Let me interject here that by this insistence he did not mean to imply that forgiveness of the perpetrators was never appropriate. Any too easy forgiveness he was indeed not inclined towards. He withheld forgiveness unless the guilty had made a serious attempt to acknowledge the error of their ways; but if they did that, then they ceased to be enemies, and could be forgiven.
(Améry's view seems to have been similar, though expressed more sharply. He spoke disparagingly of Jews who, soon after the Holocaust, were 'trembling with the pathos of forgiveness'. They were 'distasteful' to him. He thought that forgiveness, when lazy and cheap, was immoral. But he seems also to have allowed the possibility of a form of moral resolution – though he judged it unlikely to occur – in which there would be a thoroughgoing German acknowledgement of the country's criminal past and a disowning of it.)
Whatever the circumstances in which forgiveness was or was not appropriate, however, Levi's treatment of shame meets Améry's holding on to the feeling of resentment, in the language which they use in common of the 'irreparable' and the 'irrevocable'. The crime that was the Nazi genocide taints the world; it ruins the moral universe. In a poem of 1985, Levi lets the millions who have died in vain threaten the world's political leaders so: 'If the havoc and the shame continue / We'll drown you in our putrefaction.'
'Drown' is the operative word. He applies it in this case to 'putrefaction', but it evokes another image used by him more than once: of the 'ocean of pain' that surrounded him and his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz, and nearly submerged them; of the 'sea of grief [that] has no shores, no bottom; no one can sound its depths'.
Like the torture suffered by Améry, for Levi the crime is never over and its scope is unmeasurable.
[The next post in the series is here.]