Extenuating Circumstances

Adam Phillips

  • Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning by Paul Steinberg, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Allen Lane, 176 pp, £9.99, May 2001, ISBN 0 7139 9540 8

In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz If this is a man – written, he says, not ‘to formulate new accusations … rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ – there is an account that is a kind of accusation of a man Levi calls Henri. There are several character sketches of his fellow inmates, but the two pages on Henri are unusually troubled. Levi tends to know what he thinks of the people he remembers, but something about Henri makes him hesitate: ‘I know that Henri is living today,’ he concludes. ‘I would give much to know his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again.’ For some reason Levi didn’t want to know the next bit of the story: what happened to Henri, or perhaps to people like Henri.

If this is a man has the sober lucidity for which it has been perhaps too much celebrated because it has such a clear animating intention. Put crudely, Levi treats Auschwitz as a quasi-scientific experiment, as an enquiry into human nature in which what people are like in concentration camps can tell us something about what people are like in general and about the roots of morality. As though modern forms of torment might be in some way especially enlightening. For Levi, being in Auschwitz was above all a learning experience. Though written as ‘an interior liberation’, his memoir documents this gruelling episode of contemporary history in order to invite moral reflection.

Morality, like biology, is a key word for Levi, who often makes Auschwitz sound like the laboratory of a mad Darwinian god; and adaptation – another of Levi’s key words – is what is being tested for. The concentration camp shows in microcosm how evolution works; how the human organism, thrown against its will into the harshest of environments, keeps itself going; and morality, in this situation, looks like something our biology has come up with to help us get on in the world as we find it. So what was at stake for Levi in writing his book was as much the notion of morality as the survival of individuals. What most interests him, at least in retrospect, is what happened to people’s morality – their regard for others and themselves – in Auschwitz.

It was this that made Henri such a problem, because Henri’s morality, at least in Levi’s account, was entirely subservient to his need or wish to survive. His life mattered to him more than his (or Levi’s) scruples. And this meant that when it came to the crunch, as it frequently did in the camps, his own life mattered more to him than other people’s lives. If morality is what we share in order to be able to share anything else, Henri is ‘hard and distant, enclosed in armour, the enemy of all’. But Henri is also ‘eminently civilised and sane’: that is to say, he represents everything that Levi most cherishes and values in life. On the other hand, ‘survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world,’ Levi writes, ‘was conceded to very few superior individuals’ – and Henri was not one of them. Whether or not ‘superior individuals’ are those who under no circumstances sacrifice their personal morality – or, indeed, whether morality at its best is something that should be indifferent to circumstance – is the kind of moot point that Levi is not keen to consider. But now we have Henri’s own version of events – Paul Steinberg was his real name – in a book written forty years after the event. A book in other words long digested, written with a great deal of hindsight, and indeed foresight; a book all too mindful of the Holocaust industry and so of the genre in which it is written. And a book all too mindful of Primo Levi – who is referred to, one way or another, a dozen times or more – who had, as it were, none of the latecomer’s advantages and disadvantages.

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