Anthology – Peoples’ Plan for Life, Now and Forever …
Let me next introduce you to someone whose pursuit of a counter to chaotic phenomena has been widely acclaimed. Starting at the smallest discernable place of reference in understanding human frailty, you are introduced to
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975). It was named “best science book ever written” by the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 2006. It comprises 21 autobiographical stories, each tied to an element of the periodic table. Levi was a chemist.
“…I will tell just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of him who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail. It is among us, in a glass of milk. It is inserted in a very complex, long chain, yet such that almost all of its links are acceptable to the human body. It is swallowed; and since every living structure harbors a savage distrust toward every contribution of any material of living origin, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected. One, the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters, and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”
Mr. Levi was drawn by his experience at the extermination camp established in Poland by the Germans at Birkenau, known as Auschwitz, to writing. His first attempt at authorship was an expression of despair that such a place could have been brought into being by fellow humans. His survival was pure luck, and was not the end of his life’s story. It was the beginning. Every word he wrote is so important it should be read by all people, so extracting just a few to help make the point of this anthology is terribly painful. As you bring witness to this geyser of infinite understanding, yet humble mystification, your question becomes “What allows my own survival?” [Reader – click on ‘forward’ (for sound) arrow. In the sound file, you will read the text provided below while hearing Iain Hamilton’s Sonata Notturno.]
Survival in Auschwitz (1958) had to be written. Thirteen years after making his arduous journey back home from the camp to Turin at the collapse of the Germans’ war effort, Levi was unable to come to grips with what he had experienced. Genteel, in the broad meaning of the word, that is – sensitive to others – and gifted with a prodigious memory for anecdotal detail, he produced a large body of literature, much of it humorous, all of it filled to brimming with insight into the human experience. Auschwitz finally collapsed on January 27, 1945. Levi had been placed in the infirmary five days earlier. The final chapter, entitled “The Story of Ten Days,” contains his account of the liberation.
“January 25th .It was Sómogyi’s turn. He was a Hungarian chemist, about fifty years old, thin, tall and taciturn. Like the Dutchman he suffered from typhus and scarlet fever. He had not spoken for perhaps five days; that day he opened his mouth and said in a firm voice: ‘I have a ration of bread under the sack. Divide it among you three. I shall not be eating anymore.’
“We could not find anything to say, but for the time being we did not touch the bread. Half his face had swollen. As long as he retained consciousness he remained closed in a harsh silence.
“But in the evening and for the whole of the night and for two days without interruption the silence was broken by his delirium. Following a last interminable dream of acceptance and slavery he began to murmur: “Jawohl” with every breath, regularly and continuously like a machine, “Jawohl,” at every collapsing of his wretched frame, thousands of times, enough to make one want to shake him, to suffocate him, at least to make him change the word.
“I never understood so clearly as at that moment how laborious is the death of a man.”
“January 26th. We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to its conclusion by the Germans in defeat.
“It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist.
“…thousands of feet above us, in the gaps in the grey clouds, the complicated miracles of aerial duels began…A movement of a finger could cause the destruction of the entire camp, could annihilate thousands of men; while the sum total of all our efforts and exertions would not be sufficient to prolong by one minute the life of even one of us.
“The saraband stopped at night and the room was once again filled with Sómogyi’s monologue.
“In full darkness I found myself suddenly awake. ‘L’pauv’-vieux’ was silent; he had finished. With his last gasp of life, he had thrown himself to the ground; I heard the thud of his knees, of his hips of his shoulders, of his head….”
…January 27th. Dawn. On the floor, the shameful wreck of skin and bones, the Sómogyi thing.
“The Russians arrived while Charles and I were carrying Sómogyi a little distance outside. He was very light. We overturned the stretcher….
“Charles took off his beret. I regretted not having a beret.”