Beyond Judgment

Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

Those who experienced imprisonment (and, more generally, all who have gone through harsh experiences) are divided into two distinct categories, with rare intermediate shadings: those who remain silent and those who speak. Both have valid reasons: those remain silent who feel more deeply that sense of malaise which I for simplicity’s sake call “shame,” those who do not feel at peace with themselves, or whose wounds still burn. The others speak, and often speak a lot, obeying different impulses. They speak because, at varied levels of consciousness, they perceive in their (even though by now distant) imprisonment the center of their life, the event that for good or evil has marked their entire existence. They speak because they know they are witnesses in a trial of planetary and epochal dimensions. They speak because (as a Yiddish saying goes) “troubles overcome are good to tell.” Francesca tells Dante that there is “no greater sorrow / than to recall happy times / in misery,” but the contrary is also true, as all those who have returned know: it is good to sit surrounded by warmth, before food and wine, and remind oneself and others of the fatigue, the cold and hunger. It is in this manner that Ulysses immediately yields to the urgent need to tell his story, before the table laden with food, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians. They speak, perhaps even exaggerating, as “bragging soldiers,” describing fear and courage, ruses, injuries, defeats, and some victories, and by so doing they differentiate themselves from the “others,” consolidate their identity by belonging to a corporation, and feel their prestige increased.

But they speak, in fact (I can use the first person plural: I am not one of the taciturn) we speak also because we are invited to do so. Years ago, Norberto Bobbio wrote that the Nazi extermination camps were “not one of the events, but the monstrous, perhaps unrepeatable event of human history.” The others, the listeners, friends, children, readers, or even strangers, sense this, beyond their indignation and commiseration; they understand the uniqueness of our experience, or at least make an effort to understand it. So they urge us to speak and ask us questions, at times embarrassing us: it is not always easy to answer certain whys. We are neither historians nor philosophers but witnesses, and anyway, who can say that the history of human events obeys rigorous logic, patterns. One cannot say that each turn follows from a single why: simplifications are proper only for textbooks; the whys can be many, entangled with one another or unknowable, if not actually nonexistent. No historian or epistemologist has yet proven that human history is a deterministic process.

Among the questions that are put to us, one is never absent; indeed, as the years go by, it is formulated with ever increasing persistence, and with an ever less hidden accent of accusation. More than a single question, it is a family of questions. Why did you not…

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