Monday, August 01, 2005

Where it's Due

There are times when I want to rip Richard Cohen a new one...then there are times when I couldn't agree more with what he says (hat tip to Ben for telling me about this):

I need to be very careful here, to say precisely what I mean and leave nothing to chance. I have just seen the play "Primo," which is performed by a single actor, Antony Sher, with material taken from Primo Levi's incomparable "If This Is a Man," the book that made the obscure Italian chemist an international literary sensation. It is an account of his time spent in Auschwitz. I could not help but think of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

I know, I know. One must never compare anything to the Holocaust. One must never invoke Nazism except in reference to the Nazis. One must isolate that era as a way of honoring the victims, keeping it pristine and removed from all other human experience because it was so uniquely awful. I know all this -- and I believe it, too.

What's more, I am not likening what happened at Auschwitz and the other camps to what's happening or happened at Guantanamo and other places where America's enemies -- real or supposed -- are kept. Our purpose is not to murder. We do not engage in slave labor. We are not evil, and our intent is to safeguard the innocent both here and abroad, not to kill them for whatever reason. I hope I have made myself clear.

Yet much of this remarkable play is not about genocide and the annihilation of many, but about shame and the annihilation of self. The famous number, 6 million, is never mentioned. When numbers are used, they are small and comprehensible -- squads, for instance. Levi, after all, was not killed right off, as most were, but was made a slave laborer, slated for death eventually but kept alive to do mostly meaningless work and so severely abused that it amounted to a minute-by-minute torture. The purpose of the torture, aside from it mostly having none at all, was to annihilate the prisoner's sense of self. For Levi and the others at Auschwitz, it meant the loss of his identity and the replacement of his name with a number, 174517. It was an inventory tag.

In the play, Sher repeats the number 174517 frequently because, of course, this is who Levi had become. We are entitled to wonder if Levi's subsequent emphasis on the importance of work -- he resumed his career as a chemist after liberation -- was not an obsessive effort to reconstruct himself, to give a kind of visibility to a man made invisible. If that was his intention, he succeeded -- at least until he possibly failed. It's hard to know what to make of his apparent suicide in 1987. By then, he had retired as a chemist. By then, he was a famous writer. By then, he was only 67. To this day, some still insist his death was accidental -- a plunge down his staircase in Turin. It's too painful to think that, in the end, Auschwitz finally claimed him.

But it was Levi's admission of shame that got me -- shame, not guilt. He was ashamed of what had happened to him, his horrible degradation, but mostly his silence. He yelled "Yes!" when the Nazis demanded it of him, and he watched the gruesome hangings of the recalcitrant and the brave while he mostly avoided eye contact, said nothing and shamed himself with his silence.

That shame is what persists after -- way after -- the torture has been concluded and the pain is gone. That shame is what my Post colleague Pamela Constable recently invoked when she wrote about a 1990 trip through Chile, where she had once worked, interviewing torture victims. She likened what she found then to what she found much more recently in Afghanistan, her latest overseas assignment. The abusers there were Americans.

The sense that torture or abuse is a momentary thing, a fleeting thing that sometimes has to be done but which, in any case, ends when the shackles are removed or the pain ceases, is a fiction. A person tortured once is tortured forever. Torture is not merely something we can do -- forgive us, but we must -- because it is quick and we are right and then it is over . . . and no big deal because, really, we have moved on. Too often, the victim has not.

So understand, please. I am not likening us to the Nazis (or the communists), and I am not comparing victimhoods. I will not permit the trifling of the Holocaust. But if Primo Levi is to have the value I think he does, then he must make the horror of his time tell us something about our time. In "Primo" -- in the body and voice of Antony Sher -- he does.

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