Chris came home this morning from one of his business school classes a little disturbed. It seems that somebody killed himself on campus this morning by jumping from one of the parking garages. A business student in Chris' class had seen the body and he and some fellow students embarked on an unemotional discussion about the victim - determining he was neither a homeless person or a professional based on his clothing. The level of detachment about a human life was jarring to Chris, I think. I find it particularly jarring too, largely because I've been immersing myself in Primo Levi's If This Is A Man (published in the US as Surviving Auschwitz). It is - of course, of course - devastating to read the details of life in the concentration camps from the first-person perspective of Levi, an Italian Jew. That he is a beautiful writer and a devastatingly accurate observer of human nature makes his work even more compelling. It is, of course, a difficult - Levi himself may argue, impossible - task to even try and convey the incomparable evil of the concentration camps. But with his sparse language and resigned tone, the beauty of Levi's language betrays the horrors he describes. Consider this paragraph:
We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain.
The arrival of winter means a whole new set of challenges for the interred and Levi notes, as he does earlier in the book, that language simply does not provide us the right words for describing life in Auschwitz.
Just as our hunger is not the feelin of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say 'hunger,' we say 'tiredness,' 'fear,' 'pain,' we say 'winter' and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.
The idea of there being an atrocity so great we do not even have the language to describe it.... That no matter how much you or I read about the Holocaust or even its modern versions, it is so alien to what we know as our daily experience that we cannot possibly come closer than a circling comprehension, a hint, a flash - like understanding the line of a poem but being constitutionally incapable of ever grasping its true meaning.
I don't know why the news of this morning's suicide brought back so clearly Levi's words, which I read until the wee hours of the morning, staving off sleep to absorb more and more. Perhaps because what Chris described was the way we can use language to merely brush across the significance of an entire human life, forage into the details and forensics without pausing to consider the pain or torture that must drive one to take one's own life.
Perhaps because after surviving Auschwitz, after writing volumes of indispensable literature about his experiences, it all proved too much to bear and Primo Levi, at the age of 68, finally felt it all too much to bear and jumped to his death from a building. And so no matter how different the lives of this morning's victim and Levi simply must have been, I'm struck that each reached a place of such hopelessness that there seemed only one path to silence and freedom.