Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas
by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95
Edmund Wilson once described Isaiah Berlin as “an extraordinary Oxford don, who left Russia at the age of eight and has a sort of double Russian-and-British personality. The combination is uncanny but fascinating.” But even these words from such a usually restrained source fail to do justice to the variety of gifts of this civilized and widely admired man who at one time or another has been a philosopher, a political theorist, an acute practical analyst of American and European politics, a historian of ideas, a biographer of Marx and translator of Turgenev, an active and influential participant in Jewish affairs, a long-time director of the Royal Opera House, founder of Wolfson College at Oxford, and President of the British Academy. Those who have been in his presence have witnessed his intellectual gaiety; he is a man of universal learning, a justly celebrated conversationalist, a man who inexhaustibly enlarges the lives of his colleagues, his students, his friends.
The four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays and other writings that are currently appearing under the editorship of Henry Hardy should dispel the persistent myth that he has not found much time for scholarly writing among his many activities and that his work consists largely of critical and fragmentary occasional pieces that have no collective shape and express no single point of view.1 Berlin, as these volumes show, is a highly imaginative philosopher and historian of ideas who has repeatedly reminded us not to underestimate the influence of abstract ideas in human affairs, however harmless such ideas may appear when detached from their historical settings and microscopically analyzed by philosophers. He has reminded us that we cannot live without explaining the world to ourselves; that such explanations always rest on a conception of what is and can be; that whether we know it or not, insofar as we care about ideas at all, we are all participants in debates once familiar only to coteries of intellectuals.
Berlin sees his task as one of contributing to our self-knowledge by exhuming, clarifying, and criticizing the main ideas and values that lie behind our current conceptions of ourselves—of understanding historically whence we came, and how we came to be where we are now, thereby diminishing the dangers of being at the mercy of unexamined beliefs. This task requires rare psychological sensitivity, the capacity to enter into the consciousness of men far removed in space and time, and Berlin discharges it with grace and skill in the essays in the history of ideas collected in Against the Current.
In these portraits of thinkers from Machiavelli to Sorel he displays the powers of exposition, analysis, and lucidity familiar to readers of his other work. Berlin’s essays are neither chronicles nor exegetical exercises: he approaches ideas as incarnated in the men who conceived them; his subjects are never mere vehicles. Berlin is thoroughly at home with ideas in their personal and emotional, social or cultural embodiments—whether his subject is a humorless and fanatical reactionary like Joseph de Maistre or a fastidious dandy like Benjamin Disraeli, he manages to achieve an astonishing directness of contact with it.
His intellectual preoccupations and unparalleled gifts of imaginative reconstruction are brought together in these essays on men who dissented from shallow views of human nature: the ambiguous Machiavelli, the heroic and profound scholar Vico, the celebrated savant Montesquieu, as well as lesser known men, eccentric fanatics like Georges Sorel and J.G. Hamann, and the gentle visionary Moses Hess. Berlin, who has himself often stood apart from or against the fashionable trends of his own time, appreciates how all these men were treated by their contemporaries, more often than not, as “immovable, isolated rocks with their absurd appearance of seeking to arrest or deflect the central current.” All of them struggled with, or timidly grasped, or celebrated human freedom and the diversity of human values and patterns of life.
According to Isaiah Berlin, one of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought, found in Plato and scarcely questioned since, is “the conviction that there exist true, immutable, universal, timeless objective values, valid for all men, everywhere, at all times; that these values are at least in principle realizable, whether or not human beings are, or have been, or ever will be, capable of realizing them on earth; that these values form a coherent system, a harmony which, conceived in social terms, constitutes the perfect society.”
We may desire, for example, both expensive missiles to protect “national security” and freedom from burdensome taxation; an excellent secondary educational system for all but not an admissions policy which overlooks merit or the effects of past discrimination; equal rights for all but not unwanted, neighbors. These conflicting sentiments are expressions of more abstract values we prize—justice, freedom, happiness, security, loyalty. It is a common conviction (or hope) that these conflicts are apparent, that our various values can be somehow harmoniously realized—or at least ranked in importance—perhaps by the efforts of some especially clever thinker, a politician or religious savior or sociologist, or by the use of some method, scientific or philosophical, or by some technological invention.
This conviction is familiar enough, but is it true? Berlin thinks that it is not, and his criticism of it is expressed—as so often in his work—through inspection of the ideas of the historical figures he believes were especially prominent in undermining it. His essay on Machiavelli is an eloquent portrait of a man who questioned this psychologically attractive doctrine in uncompromising fashion. As Berlin claims, “it is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (“The Originality of Machiavelli”)
In Berlin’s view Machiavelli’s central aim was to provide a set of therapeutic maxims designed to help the statesman in restoring Italy to a position of security and stability, vigor and magnificence, to create “a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic.” To do so, the statesman must be realistic, “pagan”: he must be prepared to use terrible measures to ensure the general good, be willing to kill the innocent to create a show of strength, to deceive and betray and falsify. Once he has embarked on the course of transforming a diseased society, he cannot be squeamish. As Berlin expresses Machiavelli’s point,
to be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterise, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop half-way because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art or technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds.
The code of behavior the statesman must apply is not a game of skill unconnected with morality but a new ethic concerned exclusively with the good of all, with public, not personal, morality—and certainly not with the popular Christian personal morality of Machiavelli’s time, which dictated humility, kindness, compassion, sanctity, and the quest for salvation in personal life.
Berlin finds much to criticize in Machiavelli’s thought: “His human beings have so little inner life or capacity for cooperation or social solidarity that, as in the case of Hobbes’s not dissimilar creatures, it is difficult to see how they could develop enough reciprocal confidence to create a lasting social whole, even under the perpetual shadow of carefully regulated violence.” But Machiavelli’s “vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument” with the aid of a novel morality condoning murder, hypocrisy, and fraudulence raises a disturbing question which Berlin regards as “the nodal point of Machiavelli’s entire conception.” Can these different moralities—the public “paganism” of the prince and the personal ethics of the Christian—be held by the same man at the same time?
Berlin believes that Machiavelli rightly held the two moralities to be not merely in practice but in principle incompatible. He thus posed a problem of choice: “one can save one’s soul, or one can found or maintain, or serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once.” Two moralities, two sets of virtues, two ethical worlds—with no common ground—are in collision. Each is coherent and integral; we cannot have both. Machiavelli shocked his contemporaries (and many others since) by frankly renouncing Christian morality, but, Berlin claims, he did so “in favor of another system, another moral universe,” “a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes.”
Machiavelli’s problem of choice, Berlin suggests, has outlasted the specific conflict to which it was addressed and lives with us still, not merely in its obvious applications to such questions as the propriety of the conduct of our statesmen, or indeed any officials authorized to protect the public good, but more pervasively, in a wide variety of cases in which he claims we must, like Machiavelli’s men, choose between incompatible values.
Suppose, he has asked on another occasion, we were placed in charge of a hospital’s supply of kidney machines, costly machines vastly outnumbered by those who suffer from diseases from which they would provide relief: “If there is a great scientist who suffers from a kidney disease, should the only machine we have be reserved for him alone? Should we use the few machines we have for only gifted or important people who, in our view, confer a lot of benefit on society? If some child is dying whom the kidney machine might save, how do we decide between them?”2 In deciding, should we think only of the happiness of mankind and therefore reserve the machine for the scientist, who is more likely to confer greater benefits on humanity than the child? But then doesn’t this clash with the view that all human beings have certain fundamental rights, that we cannot grade lives in importance, that all have an equal claim to be saved? We must decide and yet what are we to do?
Berlin is careful to point out that this kind of conflict is not like the familiar ones we encounter in daily life; it is not like the business of adjusting the demands of work and leisure, or of choosing between a trip to the beach and remaining at home to watch a television program—a conflict that might be removed by having a television set one could take to the beach. The kind of choice in question is radically unlike that in common speech and thought, where we choose among different courses of action—what school to attend, what stock to invest in—with the help of stable, previously held values and standards: living near our families, getting the best return on our money. Such values serve as a secure basis for measuring the merits and demerits of the options.
In the dilemma posed by Machiavelli, we are dealing with a less familiar, more radical, kind of choice: there is no stable background of standards against which we can appraise the alternatives, no common criterion whereby a rational decision between them can be made. There are just the competing alternatives; we must somehow settle for one of them. As Berlin expresses it, such “choices must be made for no better reason than that each value is what it is, and we choose it for what it is, and not because it can be shown on some single scale to be higher than another.” No alteration of our circumstances, no new technology or scientific knowledge can remove such conflicts. “Whom shall I save, the scientist or the child?” is not a fact to be discovered but requires an action, a spiritual movement making one moral attitude to the problem ours—an “invention,” as Berlin puts it, obedient to no pre-existing rules. This radical kind of choice can be protracted and painful precisely because it concerns alternatives we care deeply about.
Machiavelli, says Berlin, “helped to cause men to become aware of the necessity of having to make agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives in public and private life (for the two could not, it became obvious, be genuinely kept distinct).” But, as this remark suggests, the “agony of choice” discovered by Machiavelli is double, not single: the moralities of the personal and public spheres of life are distinguishable; and they can collide. But a choice of the one affects the choice of the other. If we must have “dirty hands” in public life, we may find it impossible to remain Christians in personal life; if we are humble seekers of salvation in personal life, we may find it impossible to pursue the realization of the successful state. We are agonized in two ways: we must choose not merely what we are to consider virtuous in the personal sphere, but in the public sphere as well, and each of these very different kinds of choices inevitably will refer to the other.
And of course the same problem of choice arises within these spheres in addition to arising between them. We could well be forced, for example, to make the sort of choice described by Machiavelli as a part of public morality—to choose, for example, between values like freedom or security. Is not the man who is troubled whether taxation is compatible with individual liberty concerned with a problem of this kind? As for personal life, do we not face Machiavelli’s problem of choosing between incompatible values and ways of life when we ask ourselves whether we should become involved in social issues or “drop out”; whether we should devote our lives to active involvement in a consuming cause or to scholarly research; whether, like Gauguin, we should dismiss our responsibilities to our family and flee to an undisturbed paradise in order to cultivate our genius?3
As Berlin sums up, Machiavelli discovered that “ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”
If what Machiavelli wrote is true, “the idea of the sole, true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely Utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.” As Berlin interprets him, Machiavelli planted “a permanent question mark in the path of posterity” by his discovery of the diversity and incompatibility of human values—of “pluralism.”
These themes arise again and again, not merely in these essays, but throughout Berlin’s work. “If, as I believe,” he writes,
the ends of man are many and not all of them in principle compatible with each other, the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between a solute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.4
These contentions are of immense importance for that branch of philosophy called “moral theory,” many of whose practitioners continue to seek ways to harmonize or systematically order our deepest values. Berlin nowhere, so far as we know, rashly claims that all systems of this kind are necessarily false. Nor, on the other hand, does he merely assert that some such systems have been false. In agreement with the fundamental insight of Machiavelli, Berlin views conflict among values as a permanent feature of life which no system or theory is likely to remove.
To reduce such conflict hastily and artificially by logical or theoretical means is for him a species of self-deception that could be dangerous; as he has written, the notion that “it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled…seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.”5
If the “permanent question mark in the path of posterity” planted by Machiavelli is closely scrutinized, important consequences for our conception of human beings seem to follow from it. If it is an “inescapable characteristic” of our lives that we make choices among absolute claims, choices that may have fruitful or ruinous consequences for human life, then are we not in some sense unconstrained, undetermined, “free”? And if so, then doesn’t this indicate an important fact about “human nature,” about man and his actions, individual or collective, past or present? Berlin’s essays on “The Counter-Enlightenment” and on Giambattista Vico explore the historical growth and consolidation of the “pluralist” insights he commends in Machiavelli as they were extended by other thinkers to address this question.
The eighteenth-century French Enlightenment philosophers—Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Condorcet—further developed, according to Berlin, the “ancient and almost universal” philosophical doctrine of the harmony of human values by combining it with a theory of human nature and by invoking the promise of new “sciences of man”:
The central doctrines of the progressive French thinkers, whatever their disagreements among themselves, rested on the belief, rooted in the ancient doctrine of natural law, that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the constant central core in terms of which, human beings could be defined as a species, like animals, or plants, or minerals….
It was further believed that methods similar to those of Newtonian physics, which had achieved such triumphs in the realm of inanimate nature, could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made; with the corollary that once this had been effected, it would sweep away irrational and oppressive legal systems and economic policies the replacement of which by the rule of reason would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness, and virtue. [“The Counter-Enlightenment”]
In other words, human nature is fixed and determined; underneath the apparent diversities of men lies an unchanging “nature,” endowed with identical needs, motives, values. On this view, Machiavelli must have been in error: ultimate ends could not be in conflict; they are identical throughout the “species” of man, for is it not true that all men seek the satisfaction of hunger and thirst, the realization of security, justice, happiness? If Mongols, Hottentots, and Semites ostensibly differ from Parisians, the Enlightenment thinkers held, the new sciences of man will show this to be a mere surface phenomenon. Human beings can be studied as ants or bees are; what can be applied with success to nature can be applied with equal success to human nature. Everything that exists on this view can be explained and possibly even predicted by general laws.
In opposition to this body of beliefs, a great stream of dissident thought evolved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, reaching its most astonishing and virulent peak in the work of the German Romantics—J.G. Hamann, his pupil J.G. Herder, F.H. Jacobi, the Sturm und Drang poets, and their assorted idealist and irrationalist successors. These men, who form the core of what Berlin calls the “Counter Enlightenment,” protested the facile transfer of scientific methods from the inanimate realm to the human: could Newton’s methods for plotting the movements of the planets, they asked, explain the efforts of an original artist? Could mechanics or indeed any general scientific theory offer understanding of a moral dilemma, the aspirations of those touched by God, the radical choices performed by the free and creative self—in short, the complex inner life of the spirit? In the case of some of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, like the eccentric Königsberg sage Hamann, the preoccupation with the inner life led them to demand the total destruction of Enlightenment values. In his essay on Hamann, Berlin vividly describes how that thinker violently attacked not merely the claim that science has something to say about human nature but its claim to do anything useful at all.
According to Berlin, Hamann saw analysis, classification, deduction, and system as “infantile” efforts to “confine the unconfinable”; nature, he thought, could not be caught by the simple nets put up by the French and English scientists. Hamann held that only the man who feels and loves, the artist and the poet, can fully understand nature: that faith in things unseen was the foundation of true knowledge; art or religion provide truth, not the “stuffed dummy” called “reason” which creates foolish rules—“walls of sand built to hold back the waves of an ocean”—and systems which ignore “the teeming variety of the living world, the untidy and asymmetrical inner lives of men, and crush them into conformity for the sake of some ideological chimera.”
Berlin writes, “No system, no elaborate construction of scientific generalities, will, in Hamann’s view, enable a man to understand what is conveyed by a gesture, a look, a style, or to understand a line of poetry, a painting, a vision, a spiritual condition, an état d’âme, a form of life.” Hamann’s challenge in his fulminations against the Enlightenment was, in Berlin’s words, “How dare these pathetic pedants impose on the vast world of continuous, fertile, unpredictable, divine creation their own narrow, dessicated categories?” (“Hume and the Sources of German Anti-Rationalism”)
Hamann’s celebration of natural variety and the free, rich, spontaneous patterns of the will and the inner life was shared by other German Counter-Enlightenment figures—Herder, and later Schelling, the Schlegels, Novalis, Fichte—and indeed artists and thinkers in other countries like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake, Chateaubriand, Stendhal and Emerson, Carlyle.
Berlin is sharply aware of the excesses of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers—their haste, their gross errors of detail, their eccentric prescriptions, their wild mythologies—but he sees in their work sound intuitions, expressed perhaps most fully and coherently by Herder, but anticipated, with far greater force and depth, a half-century before him by the “obscure, poverty-ridden Neapolitan recluse” Giambattista Vico, a lonely professor of rhetoric “who might have had a decisive role in this counter-movement if anyone outside his native country had read him.”
According to Berlin, Vico was the most powerful of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, a man who in a single, complex vision discredited in advance the Enlightenment conceptions of human nature, the perfect society, the progress of humanity, the nature of history, a thinker who has a claim to be the founder of the history of ideas, of comparative cultural history, comparative anthropology, law, religion, aesthetics—indeed, of the modern “social sciences.” Vico set in train the idea, as Berlin puts it, that
history did not consist merely of things and events and their consequences and sequences (including those of human organisms viewed as natural objects) as the external world did; it was the story of human activities, of what men did and thought and suffered, of what they strove for, aimed at, accepted, rejected, conceived, imagined, of what their feelings were directed at. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]
Vico argued that history is neither a tissue of gossip and travelers’ tales (as the celebrated Descartes had argued a century earlier), nor “a collection of factual beads strung on a chronicler’s string,” nor (as his younger contemporary Voltaire thought) a disparate mass of instructive and entertaining truths retrieved from the past.
Closely linked to this view of history, Berlin claims, was Vico’s bold idea that human nature is not unchanging—as the Enlightenment held; that human nature is not like a fan (or a peacock tail) that opens out over the centuries, with all its qualities and properties present (but hidden) at the beginning. In place of these views, Vico appealed to a radical new principle, that the “nature” of man is his history. Moreover, for Vico, man’s history reveals that human beings have changed over time in vitally important respects: men were once savage brutes; now they are democrats; but—in his famous “cyclical theory of history”—they will be brutes again.
In Vico’s view, shared by Berlin, men have had different values at different times and in different circumstances. They have employed different concepts or categories of interpreting their experience; as these patterns have changed, so have men’s reasons for acting, their ruling conceptions of good and evil, happiness and humor, their duties, their song, art, dance. The values men cherish have changed over time, on this view, as the interests, needs, desires in which these values are rooted change, as the ideas men formulate in response to the questions they ask of the world become obsolete.
History then, for Vico and Berlin, is a process of man’s self-creation, a transforming and correcting process; “a changing pattern,” Berlin writes, “of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new, emancipating, and at the same time enslaving conceptions.”6 Each integral culture or age generates its own unique mode of expressing its response to the world which is intelligible only to those who understand its own internal rules and style. Historical change is a sequence of births and deaths of forms of life, with valuable modes of expression lost irretrievably along the way, with others cropping up continually, not necessarily more valuable than their predecessors: there is no sense, on this view, in speaking of “progress” in history. There is no need to compare and grade on some single scale of merit each cultural phase and its creations and forms of life and action; indeed, it is not possible to do so, for they are evidently incommensurable” (“Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment”).
These pluralist views were remarkably original, as Berlin convincingly shows us by comparing them to those of the reigning arbiter of intellectual taste in Vico’s time, Voltaire. But Vico also boldly challenged the claim that scientific method as it was conceived in his time could dominate the entire sphere of human’knowledge, by asserting it was not applicable to history and humane studies. As Berlin puts it, Vico thinks that
to understand history is to understand what men made of the world in which they found themselves, what they demanded of it, what their felt needs, aims, ideals, were: he seeks to discover their vision of it, he asks what wants, what questions, what aspirations determined a society’s view of reality; and he thinks that he has created a new method which will reveal to him the categories in terms of which men thought and acted and changed themselves and their worlds. (“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”)
The “understanding” yielded by Vico’s new method is entirely different from that offered by the natural sciences: the new method is not just a matter of raising hypotheses and testing them by simple observation or the use of refined experimental techniques, as geographers or microbiologists or mineralogists do. We have, Vico and Berlin claim, a special relation to the objects of our investigation in the humane studies—in history, literary criticism, political theory, in much of anthropology and sociology, and indeed in much of what passes under the name of “social science.” We are, like our subject matter, human; we can claim the understanding that participants in an activity possess, as observers cannot.
If we are to understand a text, an instance of behavior, a historical event (such as Xerxes’ conduct at the Hellespont); if we wish to know why a financial panic took place, why bureaucracy diminishes productivity, why a people rebelled against their authorities; in short, if we wish to understand anything human, we need to do more than exercise our simple perceptions—discriminating differences of pitch and color; we need to do more than examine the physical states of our subjects—their weight, or blood pressure. As Berlin has written, we need also
the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality, like the ability to understand what it is to be an artist, a revolutionary, a traitor, to know what it is to be poor, to wield authority, to be a child, a prisoner, a barbarian. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]
This capacity, Berlin claims, is distinct from, and more complex than, that exercised by a physicist in gathering observational evidence, or testing a theory, in registering points of light, or tracing the tracks of invisible particles. Unlike “simple” perception grasping empirical facts, this capacity is part imagination, part memory, part intuition, always governed by the rich conceptual patterns in which we think of other human beings, and never reducible to inductive or deductive rules of scientific research.
In the humane studies, Berlin claims, the understanding of subject matter (and possibly some ways of testing—as against discovering—of hypotheses concerning this subject matter) consists to a large degree in the exercise by investigators of distinctive, imaginative capacities of this kind, capacities—or, as Berlin sometimes calls them, “knacks”—which allow these investigators to enter into the lives and outlook of other human beings and cultures, past and present, to acquire the sense of what “fits” and what does not in an interconnected body of human activities, to acquire the sense of anachronism they employ when, upon reading Shakespeare, they know straight off the passage could not have been composed by a Manchu or a Sumerian.
The investigator using this “new method” is able to obtain an “inner,” direct grasp of events akin to self-knowledge because he, like his subjects, is a thinking, planning, acting being. The “knowledge” that results from his efforts
is quite different from that in which I know that this tree is taller than that…. In other words, it is not a form of “knowing that.” Nor is it like knowing how to ride a bicycle or to win a battle, or what to do in case of fire, or knowing a man’s name, or a poem by heart. That is to say, it is not a form of “knowing how.” It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought and action, a species of its own, based on prior personal experience, memory, imagination, and communication with other human beings.
In Against the Current and in the more abstract writings collected in Concepts and Categories Berlin claims that the discovery by Vico of this special “mode of perception”—he admits that “knowledge” might be too strong a word for an activity “so obviously fallible” and in need of “empirical research to justify its findings”—marks the discovery of a central difference between the natural sciences (which need not employ it) and the humanities (which inescapably do), and confutes the possibility of a “scientific history.”
Berlin is, of course, entitled to claim that there may exist particular modes or capacities of cognition unique to the humanities. If the historian must understand what it is to be poor, the physicist is not concerned with what it is to be an electron. Still his account may be contested, and not only because he has not, as he acknowledges, explained exactly how people with radically different categories of thought “enter into” and “inwardly grasp” each other’s views. (Nor did Vico.) It may be that Berlin is tacitly assuming too superficial a conception of the natural sciences when he draws a sharp distinction between scientific “experience” and that brought into play in humane studies. If recent researches in the philosophy of science by T.S. Kuhn and others are correct, even ordinary experimental interpretations in science are laden with preconceptions, with concepts and categories, that may undergo radical change in the course of scientific development. To understand different comprehensive scientific theories or deal with new data, natural scientists might also have to use “the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality” and perform efforts of “resurrection” and reconstruction similar to those cited by Berlin as distinctive of humane studies.
If even natural scientists can, and indeed may have to, grasp radically different ways of interpreting the natural world, and if even their observations are “theory laden,” the objectivity of science in some of the senses described by Berlin is open to question. Berlin himself in his earlier writings attacked the oversimplified accounts of historical knowledge as objective that were in vogue between the 1930s and the 1950s. It seems ironic that some philosophers would argue that his earlier account could in part be transposed to scientific knowledge as well and thereby challenge some of the distinctions he draws between the natural sciences and the humanities.
The issues are far from settled and often not even clearly understood. Berlin might claim that whatever difficulties there may be in the understanding of new scientific theories they can, once understood, be objectively tested; not so for all theories and hypotheses in the social sciences and humanities. There is much current debate about the kinds of cognitive skills and commitments that are involved in the understanding, testing, and accepting of scientific theories and hypotheses. The old empiricist claim that essentially the same methods can be used to test hypotheses in both the natural and social sciences is far from dead.
It should in any case be clear why the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, taken together, are of such importance to Berlin. As he says in these essays, they, more than any other group of thinkers, saw how intellectual confusion can result from the deliberate or unconscious application of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methods and doctrines where they do not apply; and, despite their obvious shortcomings, they clearly saw that scientific methods could not adequately answer fundamental questions about human values. But perhaps even more important, they first set in motion ideas which provided the philosophical underpinning—the reasoned justification—for the facts Berlin claims were pointed out by Machiavelli: if men can choose, by their own lights, among incompatible alternatives, then their behavior could not be explained by appeal to a set of general laws—as some Enlightenment thinkers believed. They could not be the “mechanical” systems Condillac and perhaps in our own day B.F. Skinner take them to be; they could not be like computers or calculators. Their history must be an open process of self-creation, without a large strategy or inevitable trend.
This idea, half-expressed by the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, lies at the heart of Berlin’s work, and he has often expressed it with eloquence—the idea, as he once put it, that man is
incapable of self-completion, and therefore never wholly predictable: a fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonized; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guarantee, theological or logical or scientific, of being able to attain them: a free, imperfect being, capable of determining his own destiny in circumstances favorable to the development of his reason and his gifts.7
But if human beings are, as the combined insights of Machiavelli and Vico suggest, free, spontaneous, choosing beings, with widely diverse values and cultural embodiments of these values, what political arrangements are best suited to their nature? How ought they to live in political association? We shall examine Isaiah Berlin’s views on these questions in a second article.
by Peter Handke, translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 312 pp., $27.00
The Moravian Night might seem like the inevitable English title for Peter Handke’s 2008 novel Die morawische Nacht, but it is actually rather misleading. Moravia is the eastern region of the Czech Republic, whose largest city is Brno; Mähren in German, it is called Moravia in English (and Latin) after the Slavic name of its major river, the Morava. But Handke’s title does not use the word mährische, and in fact it is not Moravia that he is writing about in this book. Instead, he is referring to a different Morava River, far to the south, in the heartland of Serbia. It is on this river that the story begins and ends; here is where the unnamed protagonist of the book, known only as “the former writer,” has taken up quarters on a houseboat.
To most American readers, the difference between two Central European rivers with the same name might seem unimportant. But in this case, it is crucial to recognize that Handke is writing about Serbia and not Moravia. For Handke, one of the German-speaking world’s leading writers since the 1960s, is now perhaps even more widely known as an apologist for the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević. Starting in 1995, when he traveled to Serbia in the last days of the Yugoslav civil war, Handke has written and spoken voluminously in defense of the Serbs, who are generally—and in his view, unjustly—regarded as the instigators of a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Moravian Night ranges widely over the continent of Europe, as the former writer travels from the Balkans to Spain and back, but at its core is a defense of his highly idiosyncratic vision of what Serbia, and the Balkans in general, mean or ought to mean.
It is still mysterious just why Handke decided to cast himself as the Western world’s most vociferous defender of Serbia’s actions during the Yugoslav war. At the time Milošević died, in 2006, the deposed Serb leader was in prison in The Hague, where he was being tried for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This did not deter Handke from attending Milošević’s burial, back home in Serbia, and even delivering a speech, in which he mused: “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.
The willed ignorance of this endorsement—“I don’t know the truth”—is the keynote of Handke’s writings on the subject, starting with his controversial 1996 book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. (The original German title of this brief text names four rivers, including the Morava.) Here Handke records a brief visit to Serbia in the waning days of the Yugoslav war, just before the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. The war had made the world familiar with previously obscure places like Vukovar, a Croatian city besieged by the Serbs for three months, at the cost of two thousand lives, and Srebrenica, a Bosnian city where Serbs massacred eight thousand Muslims, the worst war crime in Europe since 1945. These events were very recent at the time of his visit—the Srebrenica massacre took place in July 1995, just three months before Handke’s arrival—but he displays no interest in investigating them. Instead, he issues unsubstantiated challenges to the truthfulness of all the reporting on these events: “Why such a thousandfold slaughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose?” he demands, as though he has seen through a conspiracy that has taken in the rest of the world.
Really, however, what the Serbs did or didn’t do is not what matters to Handke. What he is doing in A Journey to the Rivers is, rather, evolving a myth, which is immune to factual rebuttal because it operates on a “deeper” level than the daily news. And it is the news—newspapers, journalists, and pundits in America and Europe—that Handke sets out to attack, much more than Croats or Bosnians, for whom he seems to have at least some compassion. Clearly, the Yugoslav war attracted him because it allowed him to set his own intuitive and literary perception of Serbia against the images purveyed by the media, which he sees as shallow and inauthentic.
This opposition between the novelist and the journalist has a long history in German and Austrian literature, and it has often been involved with anti-Semitism. As the scholar Paul Reitter has shown, the litterateur, the feuilletonist, was often seen as the rootless Jewish opponent of the rooted German artist. This makes it notable that most of the writers Handke attacks by name in A Journey to the Rivers are Jewish—in particular, Alain Finkielkraut, André Glucksmann, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French “new philosophers” who were among the most vocal condemners of Serbian war crimes. To Handke, these belong to a new species of “contemporary philosophers who are everywhere and nowhere”—one might even say, rootless cosmopolitans. They stand in pointed contrast to the Serbs themselves, whom Handke praises in historically loaded language as a Volk: “an entire, great people, Volk, that knows itself to be scorned apparently throughout Europe, and experiences that as insanely unjust.”
Is Handke, an Austrian born in 1942, using the Serbs here as a surrogate for the Austrians and the Germans themselves—both “great peoples” who during his formative years were “scorned throughout Europe” for their war crimes? Is he trying to recuperate certain ways of thinking about nationhood—as something organic, rooted, mystical—that were banished from respectable discourse in postwar Europe? Certainly Handke is doing with the Yugoslav war what Thomas Mann did in World War I, turning a historical event into a parable about the superiority of Kultur to Zivilisation, which parallels the superiority of the artist to the mere litterateur.
This complex of ideas forms the background to The Moravian Night, and the book, in all its portentousness and grandiosity, is best understood as a restatement of Handke’s myth of the Balkans. This involves a nostalgic resistance to modern life, progress, and homogenization—in short, to everything associated with the European Union and the borderlessness it sponsors. In The Moravian Night, even the former Yugoslavia itself is not immune to the siren song of this Europe. Late in the novel, the “former writer” finds himself in one of Handke’s own favorite places—Slovenia, his mother’s native country, which he wrote about extensively in the novel Repetition.
In this book Handke pointedly avoids using the name Slovenia, however. In keeping with the book’s defamiliarizing language, he refers to it only as “the karst,” the region of the country that gave its name to a type of rocky landscape full of caves and sinkholes. Back when Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, it stood politically as well as geographically outside the European mainstream. But now, the former writer finds it pathetically eager to join the banal prosperity of Central Europe: “In the entire karst and the surrounding area everything Balkan or even distantly reminiscent of the Balkans was frowned upon, from foods to clothing to music.”
If it is possible to be un-Balkan even in the Balkans, so too it is possible to be Balkan outside them. One might say that The Moravian Night is the story of a Balkan soul in search of Balkanness wherever he can find it. The episodic tale begins in a region of Serbia that Handke refers to as “the enclave,” a word that implies both isolation from and resistance to the outside world. But the real enclave in the book is the soul of the man known as “the former writer.” As we get to know him, we learn that he has diligently shunned every human attachment, especially to women, in the service of an exalted idea of what it means to be a writer. Handke, of course, is not a former writer but still a productive one; he has published four books in German since the appearance of The Moravian Night. In other respects, however, the character is meant to resemble his creator: he is an Austrian, a famous writer, and an inveterate wanderer.
Indeed, many of Handke’s books take the form of estranging travelogues, in which a solitary figure roams through an alienated landscape. This pattern can be traced all the way back to his early, reputation-making book The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970), which is a kind of Austrian reimagining of Camus’s L’Étranger. Like Meursault, Joseph Bloch, the antihero of Handke’s story, is an ordinary sensual man who commits a murder in what seems like a fit of absentmindedness. Bloch leaves the scene of the crime and finds himself in a town near the southern border, where he wanders aimlessly from place to place, gradually losing his grip on reality and on language itself. In one passage, Handke replaces words with pictograms, to suggest how Bloch has ceased to be able to perceive the world in linguistic terms.
More than four decades later, in The Moravian Night, Handke is still suspicious of narrative, of words that tidy up and paper over the cracks in day-to-day reality. The novel begins as a group of unnamed friends gather on the houseboat of the former writer, in order to hear him recount his recent journey across Europe. This framing device connects the book with the most ancient kind of storytelling—a tale told face to face—and the idea of a journey and homecoming is inevitably archetypal, evoking the Odyssey.
Yet Handke wants nothing to do with the traditional instruments of storytelling, such as continuous plot and developed character. What interests him is the evocation of very brief moments, epiphanic instants when the trappings of the world fall away and a more immediate, intuitive truth shines forth. “Which time, which tense, which type of time was the operative concept for the former writer’s round-trip?” he asks early on, and replies that it can only be told in “seconds”:
Not minutes, not hours, and also not, definitely not, tenths and hundredths of seconds: only my, your, his, our, your, their moments, the quivering, crackling, alarming, reassuring seconds. The seconds that mean both what comes after something, what follows it, as well as the primary thing, the thing that precedes it, that combines what precedes and what follows. Praised and feared be the second.
As this suggests, Handke does not set out to give us a realistic account of a journey across Europe in the twenty-first century. Among the former writer’s audience there is one listener who regularly interrupts with banally factual questions, asking how much things cost, or what the weather was like, or how he got from place to place; but we are meant to understand that this is a low kind of curiosity. Such details are beside the point, in just the same way that it is not Handke’s purpose to visit any big cities or tourist destinations. What draws him are scenes of rural neglect and poverty, places forgotten by the onward march of capitalist progress. Not for nothing does he embark on his journey in an old, beat-up bus still painted with the defunct colors of the Yugoslav flag, a caravan of obsolescence.
The first stage of the former writer’s journey takes him to a village that has been the victim of ethnic cleansing. In this case, however, it is the Serbs—never named, but identifiable from various clues, such as their use of the Cyrillic alphabet—who were evicted from the village, rather than being the evicters. There is a powerful scene in which the Serbian passengers on the bus, stopping in the village that used to be theirs, mutely regard their former neighbors, who are presumably Kosovar Muslims. This is a highly tendentious identification of victim and victimizer, but it is partly redeemed by the way Handke deliberately refuses to openly identify either group. We are left with a timeless emblem of displacement—former neighbors turned unforgiving enemies, both attached to the same plot of ground. “Nation and hatred go together,” the bus driver observes.
This is an unimpeachably liberal sentiment; one of the goals of the European Union has been precisely to drain the national ideal of its pathos, in order to lessen the potential for hatred. But it is not really the spirit in which Handke writes about the question of nationality in The Moravian Night. His ideal is not the dissolution of national boundaries, but a harmony of nations each contributing its different timbre to a common chorus. This vision, which owes much to the early Romantic nationalism of Johann Gottfried Herder, is dramatized in a surreal way when the former writer finds himself at a tavern that is hosting a world convention of Jew’s harp players. The Jew’s harp is a primitive instrument that exists under different names in many cultures, and in this convention Handke seems to be creating his own model for a multicultural art:
Although the players had come from all corners of the globe as individuals, not as representatives of those corners, now, toward the end, each of them struck up a melody from his or her land of origin, plucking, striking, pounding out, not just any tune but one that stood for that country, such as a national anthem….
This conception of the nation depends, however, on each group retaining its integrity by remaining, in James Joyce’s famous formula, “the same people living in the same place.” That integrity is threatened by immigration, and when the former writer returns to his native town in Austria, he is disturbed to find a new population of Muslim immigrants there:
For an entire hour nothing homelike revealed itself to him, not in the dwellings and especially not in the inhabitants…. This village seemed to be inhabited by people of all human races except the one native to the region, so to speak. And the majority were…people who were, as would have been said at one time, “from the Orient.”
Crucially, Handke writes, “they were alien to him not because of their dress and appearance but because they were strangers to themselves in the region.” As immigrants, they are deracinated, unable to be their true selves. But this kind of deracination can also afflict people who stay home, if they choose to take the bribe of modern development and turn themselves into global citizens, or model Europeans.
This is what the former writer finds at the end of his journey, when he finally makes his way back to the real, geographical Balkans. The place he formerly cherished as an “enclave” is now full of people who look like every other European—wearing tracksuits, driving new cars. “At one time he had thought all these ‘new folk’ came from another planet, were extraterrestrials,” he reflects ruefully. “But no: they came from here and were firmly anchored in the here and now. The planet belonged exclusively to them.”
A world so homogenized and bourgeois has no place for the former writer, who conceives of his calling in the old, high, sacred terms. As he roams from place to place, he reflects on themes from his own life, including his inability to sustain a romantic relationship with a woman. This loneliness had something noble about it, since it was the result of his single-minded obsession with literature. Only now, late in life, when he has cast off the burden of writing, can the former writer begin to contemplate a true marriage of souls. Indeed, in the course of his journey he finds a woman—referred to only as “the woman”—who seems his perfect mate. Yet even she is sent away when the former writer’s wanderlust overtakes him, and on one occasion he either beats her up or fantasizes about doing so—the line between reality and imagination being always porous in this novel. All of this adds up to an idea of the great artist that is, if not actually misogynist, then certainly redolent of a stale masculinity.
Of course, Handke knows perfectly well every criticism that can be made of his politics and his art. He anticipates them in one of the oddest episodes in The Moravian Night, when the former writer encounters a man whom he decides to call Melchior, after one of the biblical magi who visit the infant Jesus. The magi came “from the East,” and this Melchior too is an Eastern figure of indeterminate ethnicity: Handke writes that he has “thick lips” and that when he prays he bows “to the east,…to Mecca as well as to Jerusalem.” This figure, who could be Arab or Jewish or African but is certainly not German, starts out seeming friendly, but then he rounds on the former writer and starts denouncing him. For Melchior, it turns out, is a journalist, an arch-journalist, and he is violently hostile to the former writer’s sense of his own calling as sacred:
We’ve had enough of you writers and your dignity. Any writer today must make a point of being undignified. Yes, those of us writing today have jettisoned dignity once and for all. The Holy Ghost no longer has any part in what we do.
In this way, Handke seals himself in his own self-righteousness: anyone who criticizes his art or his politics is a petty, spiritless cosmopolitan. Luckily he will always have the Balkans to go back to—if not the real Balkans, then the ones he has built for himself out of obstinacy and pride.
Adam Kirsch’s review of Peter Handke’s The Moravian Night [NYR, February 9], like Joshua Cohen’s review of the novel in The New York Times, rightfully relates it to Handke’s previous work set in the former Yugoslavia, but (like Cohen) Kirsch is so obsessed with reading through that lens that he pays scant attention to other aspects of the novel at hand.
Kirsch’s case against an author he describes as a self-righteous, obstinate, proud nationalist and as an anti-Semitic Serb lover leads him to misread a scene at a world convention of Jew’s harp players during which each musician plays his or her national anthem. Because he wants to brand Handke as a nationalist, Kirsch doesn’t quote the rest of the section in which the performances of national anthems raise the protagonist’s ire: “abusing the jew’s harp to play mendacious harmonies: that was impermissible”; the national anthems are a kind of “melodic demagoguery.”
With a defamatory purpose that veils other aspects of the text, Kirsch ignores the language of a novel that is about language (Handke describes his work, all of his work, as “a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar—of aesthetic veracity”). Let me give just one example of Kirsch’s blindness in this regard. When describing the work’s search for narrative experience that manifests itself in seconds rather than in minutes or hours, Kirsch quotes this sentence from the translation: “The seconds that mean both what comes after something, what follows it, as well as the primary thing, the thing that precedes it, that combines what precedes and what follows.” The translation makes little sense as it misses the fact that it is the seconds that combine (unify) the before and after, not the singular “thing that precedes.” Kirsch quotes the mistake without batting an eye. The translation, as a matter of fact, is riddled with mistakes and awkward phrasing, but that is uninteresting to a reviewer intent on castigating a writer for attending the funeral of Slobodan Milošević. (For specific examples of problems with the translation, see my review of the translation in the December Open Letters Monthly.)
Kirsch marshals his case with great certainty, claiming that Handke defends Austrians and Germans and Serbs as “great peoples” scorned by others for their war crimes. Because Handke works dialectically, critics like Kirsch easily find objectionable statements in his work. That they settle on the problematic statements without the dialectical context marks them as ideologues rather than readers. “Austria,” Handke once wrote, “the lard that chokes me.” Critics who don’t have the patience or capacity to read give me that same feeling.
Professor of Integrated Studies,
Philosophy, and Humanities
Utah Valley University
Woodland Hills, Utah
Adam Kirsch replies:
Scott Abbott criticizes my reading of The Moravian Night as ideological, but it seems to me that the novel demands to be read in such terms. It is hardly possible to understand Handke’s book, which is primarily set in Serbia and advances an unmistakable critique of liberal European modern life, without reference to Handke’s past interventions in Yugoslav politics. If Mr. Abbott and other admirers of Handke object to a reading that attends to the ideological dimension of the book, perhaps that is not because the ideology isn’t there, but because they would be hard put to defend it?
I am sorry that Kenneth Roth found the book of mine that he reviewed, Who Rules the World? [NYR, June 9], “infuriating.” I have of course looked with interest at his reasons, but do not find them convincing.
His first case charges “sloppiness” in my observation that the Obama administration was considering reviving military commissions while in fact they continued to operate. The observation was accurate: it referred, explicitly, to what the Obama administration was considering in 2009, citing the news reports of May 2009.
The second example is that I was “simply confused” in quoting Jessica Mathews [NYR, March 19, 2015], attributing to her the view quoted “when in fact she was criticizing that perspective.” Roth does not take into account the sentence that immediately follows the passage we are discussing. It reads: “At its extreme, this reasoning holds that the US should not be bound by international rules….” Mathews does indeed criticize the “extreme” perspective that she describes, which is clearly and explicitly distinguished from the “non-extreme” position that I quoted and attributed accurately and properly. The text elsewhere contains no qualification. If there is any interest in further details, I will be glad (with his consent) to release the extended correspondence in which the New York Review editor repeatedly made the same point, and I responded in detail.
Roth’s next point is that my “preoccupation with American power seems out of date” because its limits are so apparent—as I discussed at considerable length, but with what seem to me far more significant examples than the ones he gives. These raise their own questions. Thus it is hardly controversial (Fawaz Gerges, ISIS: A History, and many other sources) that “the emergence of the Islamic State” to which Roth refers is a direct outgrowth of what he calls a “blunder” but what I would prefer to call the major crime of this century, the US invasion of Iraq. Similarly, I never called the Russian invasion of Afghanistan “a blunder” (though it was); rather, a crime.
I won’t continue, but if anyone is interested in other cases mentioned, I’ll be glad to consider them.
To the Editors:
As a longtime reader of The New York Review who first became acquainted with the writing of Noam Chomsky when reading his 1967 article about the responsibility of intellectuals, I was pleased to see Kenneth Roth’s review of Who Rules the World? I believe this was the first of Chomsky’s books to be reviewed in these pages since The Hateful Triangle was published over thirty years ago. Hopefully, the review will introduce new generations of readers to Chomsky’s arguments and analysis.
I want to take issue with one criticism Roth makes because it actually brings into focus one of Chomsky’s major points about the responsibility of American citizens when it comes to the actions of our government.
It is very easy (and rewarding) for Americans to look with a gimlet eye upon the failings of other nations and political figures, say, for example, to identify the criminality of a dictator like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as Roth does in his review. Americans who write critically about such individuals can always expect a warm and respectful hearing from the political, journalistic, and intellectual gatekeepers. Chomsky’s point has always been that citizens of any country have a unique responsibility to be critical of their own country’s actions because, depending on the political form prevalent in the country, these citizens have the most influence over (and responsibility for) the actions of their own government.
If we live in a country (or are citizen-expatriates), we pay taxes to finance the activities of our government. If the country has democratic forms (a free press, competitive free elections) then the actions of the government can, at least in part, be laid to active support (or at least acquiescence) on the part of the citizenry. Unlike totalitarian societies such as the former Soviet Union, American citizens have enormous personal freedom—especially the freedom to fully inform themselves. With this freedom combined with the potential to actually influence what the government does (unlike in the former Soviet Union or, to give an example from Roth’s review, modern-day Syria) comes extraordinary responsibility.
It is from this position of responsibility and personal freedom that Chomsky has written critically about US government policy for over fifty years. It is why his omission of condemnations of the role of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin in today’s Syrian conflict is not a failing of his book or his approach. Chomsky may be prolific in his criticisms of US foreign policy, but he has never set himself up as a one-man Amnesty International. As an American seeking to awaken his fellow citizens to US policies for which in some way we are all responsible, he certainly has done more than his fair share of good works, as the substance of Roth’s review makes clear.
Michael A. Meeropol
Cold Spring, New York
Kenneth Roth replies:
Noam Chomsky takes issue with my criticism of his one-dimensional focus on what he sees as America’s nefarious role in the world. If Chomsky had entitled his book “America’s Evil History,” I would have accepted his exclusive focus. However, he entitled it “Who Rules the World?” yet goes on to write as if the United States is virtually alone as the cause of all the world’s problems.
Chomsky cites the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, which he says is “a direct outgrowth” of George W. Bush’s invasion. There is no doubt that the invasion and subsequent occupation and dismantling of the state were a disaster that greatly contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq, where it now controls the country’s second-largest city, Mosul. But that ascendancy is also the product of many other factors, such as the discriminatory and abusive laws and policies against Sunnis by the government of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Its indiscriminate bombing of Sunni areas and other sectarian abuses after the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, well before the rise of ISIS, led many Sunnis to see ISIS as a lesser evil.
Other factors include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s targeting of civilians in opposition-held parts of his neighboring country, breeding antipathy that helped to encourage the rise of ISIS there and provided a base for operations in Iraq; Iran’s, Russia’s, and Hezbollah’s backing of Assad’s indiscriminate attacks; funding for ISIS as well as extremist interpretations of Islam emanating from the Gulf; and Turkey’s border policy allowing jihadists to join ISIS.
Chomsky doesn’t mention any of this. History did not stop with US crimes in Iraq. Nor in an increasingly multipolar world can the United States control everything.
Chomsky also disputes the sloppiness I found in his book. Much of it is due to his decision to compile a series of his essays without bothering to date or update them. According to a “publication history” included in an advance copy of the book but omitted from the published version, many of the essays had appeared previously, over half on a website called TomDispatch. Chomsky notes there that the chapters earlier appeared “in somewhat different form” but the unspecified modifications evidently did not include changing arguments that are now out of date. And there is nothing in the published version of the book to let the reader know the reason for including these dated arguments. The result is a disjointed reading experience.
For example, Chomsky makes repeated references to what he perceives as a misguided and overblown US response to the Iranian nuclear threat (pp. 50, 81–82, 131, and 140–141) but doesn’t mention the July 2015 nuclear deal until p. 218. Similarly, Chomsky’s claim that the Obama administration was considering reviving the Bush military commissions in Guantanamo, made on p. 40, is never updated in the remaining 250 pages to explain that Obama has in fact used them, to much detrimental effect, during most of his tenure in office. Yes, a reader checking footnotes could have found a May 2009 citation for Chomsky’s assertion about the military commissions and surmised that it may no longer be true, but a less sloppy (or lazy) approach to the book would have filled in that crucial subsequent development.
One might justify publication of a series of dated essays if their dates were clearly indicated and the book were billed as an exposition of Noam Chomsky Thought as it has evolved. The book purports to be a study of the current world order but does not analyze each topic addressed in light of the most up-to-date information.
As for Chomsky’s claim that Jessica Mathews was embracing instead of criticizing the view that the US government advances “universal principles” rather than “national interests,” I simply refer the reader to the tenth paragraph of her review in the March 19, 2015 issue of The New York Review (available online), where to most other than Chomsky her meaning is obvious in the midst of a critique of unilateralism as opposed to the multilateralism that she prefers. Chomsky seems to find her next sentence to favor his interpretation—“At its extreme, this reasoning holds that the US should not be bound by international rules”—when in fact she is providing an added reason to reject the misguided unilateralists.
As for Michael Meeropol, I agree with his point (and said so in my review) that Americans have a special responsibility to press their government to act in more principled and defensible ways. That has rightly been a longtime concern of Chomsky. However, by dwelling on only the negative, his latest book leaves the impression that America can do no good—that withdrawal and isolationism are the best we can hope for.
I do not accept that implicit prescription. Given the enormous evil done by some other nations, and the proven capacity of the United States sometimes to mitigate that harm, I would have preferred a more holistic and nuanced assessment of America’s part in the world. That would help readers understand not only how to deter American misconduct but also how to encourage positive American conduct. We need to do both.
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010.
For much of my adult life, I believed, inaccurately, that I knew the story of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”—that I remembered it from childhood. It was about a miser called Ebenezer Scrooge who, when wished a “Merry Christmas,” always said, “Bah, humbug.” Then three ghosts came, from the Past, Present, and Future, and showed him how he was, and had previously been, an asshole. Then he saw his own grave and understood that Christmas was real, so he finally spent some of his money and bought a giant turkey for a disabled child.
I might never have realized how much was missing from my recollection had I not read in a “Christmas Carol” marathon at the Housing Works Bookstore earlier this month. My assigned passage was the one in which the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to revisit a scene from his childhood. I was totally unprepared for how sad it was. The two of them fly out a window in London and arrive at the underheated country schoolroom where Scrooge, as a little boy, has been left alone for Christmas, after all the other boys have gone away on ponies. Scrooge weeps “to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be,” reading alone in a corner. Then the Ghost shows him some of his favorite literary characters, the ones who kept him company as a child, and he laughs with delight. This is also depressing, because the characters include Robinson Crusoe’s parrot and Friday, and what could be sadder than an abandoned kid reading Robinson Crusoe alone over Christmas? As if realizing this himself, adult Scrooge, “with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character,” feels a new wave of pity for his child self—and, with it, regret for how, the previous day, he had chased away a child who was singing Christmas carols at his door.
Something about the passage seemed so familiar and emotional as I read it in the bookstore: the sad, repetitive nature of Scrooge’s early memories; his rapid transition from tears to laughter and back; his conviction, as each scene rises magically before him, that “it was all quite correct; that everything had happened so.” The Ghost in particular reminded me of someone, with his kindness and spookiness, the way he said almost nothing, except to repeat back to Scrooge his own remarks. A few days later, I figured it out, and told my therapist: the Ghost reminded me of him. He didn’t reply, only smiled gently, in a way that I interpreted to mean, “I’m an Israeli Freudian, please don’t make me talk about ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”
That night, I decided to read the full text. Thanks to my robust personal experience with depression of both the normal and the holiday variety, I immediately recognized Scrooge’s condition, in a way that I had been unable to as a child. (Dickens himself was depressive, and probably bipolar.) I realized that I had misremembered Scrooge as gleeful in his miserliness, a human version of Scrooge McDuck, whose exuberance is eternally preserved in the cultural imagination by the image of the “money dive.” In fact, Scrooge takes no joy in anything. His London is a dystopian hellscape riddled by sickness, injustice, cold, and want. Money is the only protection—frail and inadequate—against these horrors, and Scrooge’s only thought is to work as hard as he can, every day, to store up as much money as possible.
Christmas, in such a mental state, makes no sense. Suddenly, in the dead of winter, all these crazed zombies start insisting that it’s a holiday; they actually want to stop working—to stop doing the one thing any human can do to ward off chaos. (“My clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas,” Scrooge mutters: “I’ll retire to Bedlam.”) “Bah, humbug” isn’t an exclamation of glee; it’s an indictment. “What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry?” Scrooge demands of his nephew, whose debts exceed his income. How is it possible that everyone on Earth suffers from the delusion that life isn’t a giant vale of sorrow?
All of Scrooge’s thought processes, especially the miserly ones, follow the “logic” of depression. Scrooge is outraged to think that his clerk will feel “ill-used” if he has to work on Christmas, but that nobody considers him, Scrooge, ill-used when he has to “pay a day’s wages for no work.” When asked to donate to the poor, he argues that his job is to work and pay taxes, while the job of the poor is to go to prison or to the workhouse, or simply to die and “decrease the surplus population.” In the depths of depression, the idea of a “gift” loses its meaning. We’re all in a deadlock, corpses passing the same things around and around and calling them “gifts.” In this mental state, just think how Scrooge must feel when some starving urchin shows up on his doorstep, singing, “God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!” Is he kidding? “You just dismayed me!” I imagined Scrooge shouting. “You just did it!”
How is the Ghost of Christmas Past able to change Scrooge’s mind—to make him feel affection and pity for the carolling urchin? What magic happens when they revisit his childhood? I avoided talk therapy for many years, largely because I didn’t see how talking to a stranger about my childhood could possibly change my experience of being alive as an adult. I was particularly repelled by the idea of feeling pity for my childhood self. One of the worst, most boring parts of depression is self-pity, and the prospect of paying someone an hourly rate to help me experience more of it was too dire to contemplate. Then, at some point, I did it anyway. I talked about my childhood, and I even managed to feel some pity for tiny nineteen-eighties Elif, with all her books—and something changed.
At the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge embodies one of the central tenets of depression: that one has always been this way, and always will be. The Ghost shows him that, in fact, he, like every other adult, was at one point a physically much smaller person, who dressed, walked, and spoke differently, and whose defenses and carapaces hadn’t been built up yet; a person who later built up those defenses and carapaces for a reason. If change happened once, under certain circumstances—if everything wasn’t always inevitably like this—then further change is possible. When the Ghost of Christmas Future points at the writing on the tombstone, Scrooge understands for the first time that it can be erased and written differently: what seems to be etched in stone isn’t.
When I consulted Google, I found that the similarity between Scrooge’s experience and talk therapy has been remarked upon by numerous clinicians (see here, here, and here), as well as by literary critics. At first, it seemed strange to me that such a Jewish discourse should be anticipated so plainly by a Christmas story—one written a decade before Freud was born. But when I thought about it more, it started to seem less strange. Freud read and admired Dickens; his first gift to his fiancée, in 1882, was a copy of “David Copperfield.” Why wouldn’t he have read “A Christmas Carol,” which is so much shorter? O.K., he was Jewish, but he was secular. He had a Christmas tree. When I was little, my parents also bought a tree every year, and we would put presents under it, and it was a little bit magical, even though we weren’t Christian. Wasn’t that a big part of Freudianism: that magic is often displaced, but never destroyed? In the old days, people saw ghosts and had visions, and then Freud came and said that everything was actually memory and imagination: nothing was coming from God or the dead. But that didn’t mean the magic was gone. Maybe it had just been somewhere else all along.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read some astonishing books: Lucia Berlin’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” a story collection that’s raw and funny and breathtakingly great; “The Visiting Privilege,” by the bright-bleak grand master of short stories, Joy Williams; and Álvaro Enrigue’s brilliant “Sudden Death,” which will be out in February and is about a tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo, wherein they use a ball made out of Marie Antoinette’s hair. (It’s also about colonialism, utopias, and sex.) And I’ve been so distraught that there are no more Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante to come after the fourth, “The Story of the Lost Child,” that I’ve re-read the entire grand novel project.
People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, “One Day in the Life of the English Language,” or the latest book on punctuation by David Crystal, “Making a Point.” They wouldn’t be that far off. As it happens, I have a sudden rage to read a work of fiction about a proofreader: “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. It’s been on my shelf, approximately, since 1998, when Saramago won the Nobel Prize. The first sentence begins, “The proof-reader said, Yes,” and it goes on for five pages. The other book I’m eager to read is something I acquired more recently, at Parnassus Books, in Nashville: a novella titled “Parnassus on Wheels,” by Christopher Morley, first published in 1917 and reissued by Melville House in 2010, in a beautiful little paperback. The Library of Congress has it catalogued under the following subjects: booksellers and bookselling, travelling sales personnel, single women, women farmers, brothers and sisters, women booksellers, and tramps. What a progression!
If I’m being honest, most of the non-work-related books I actually manage to finish these days are the ones I read aloud, to my five-year-old. I’m enjoying “The BFG.” (He finds it a little scary.) I cried at the end of “Charlotte’s Web.” (He didn’t, and was alarmed at the idea that his father might be the kind of emotional basket case who gets weepy over a kids book about farm animals.) Lately we’ve graduated to Tintin. On my own, I’ve been re-reading Peter Robb’s extraordinary book about corruption and rot (and food and art and beauty), ”Midnight in Sicily,” and I just started Benedict Kiely’s “Proxopera,” a slim, haunting novel about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I’m very much looking forward to my colleague Larissa MacFarquhar’s “Strangers Drowning,” which has just come out. And, on a plane some time later this month, I will officially become the last person on earth to read Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.”
—Patrick Radden Keefe
My current subway book, which I’m just about to finish, is “The Long Loneliness,” the autobiography of Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement. I started it before Pope Francis mentioned Day in his speech to Congress—a fact I’m mentioning here out of a twinge of pride, although reading a book called “The Long Loneliness” on the train can be a miniature lesson in the “poverty of spirit” that carried Day through the “tireless work” that the Pope mentioned. The book may not be the most thorough account of Day’s life; she leaves out some formative events—such as the abortion she had as a young woman—and, in her enthusiasm for writing about her fellow-travellers, it sometimes becomes unclear what she did, exactly. She notes in the introduction that writing such a book, like going to confession, is hard, “because you are ‘giving yourself away.’ ” But she’s generous with her memories and feelings. She provides a front-row seat to the early-twentieth-century social-justice movements and to the scene in New York City, and she writes plainly and frankly about her own dealings with the despair, sadness, and, especially, the loneliness that she sees at the core of the basic human struggle.
Sternberg Press’s “On the Table” series, edited by the culinary historian Charlotte Birnbaum, combines exquisite design with the most delightfully esoteric subject matter: the art of napkin-folding, Bernini’s set design for the feasts held at the Vatican in 1668 in honor of Her Most Serene Majesty Christina Queen of Sweden, and a recipe for peacock-testicle pie. The most recent addition is a new translation of the Italian artist F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Cookbook,” originally published in 1932. As New York City inches toward winter, I will resist the siren song of pasta, which Marinetti calls “a passéist food,” responsible for making its consumers “heavy” and “brutish,” and dine instead on the Sant’Elia Architectural Meal, the Futurist Aeropoetic Meal, and, if I dare, the White Desire Dinner.
On another note, a friend, the writer Robin Sloan, recommended the New York Public Library’s @NYPLRecommends service to me: on Fridays at 10 A.M., you tweet at them with a book or two that you liked, and a librarian responds with two or three more recommendations. I have already read and loved one of the novels they chose for me (Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings”), so I have high hopes for the other two: “The Autobiography of Us,” by Aria Beth Sloss, and “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” by Therese Anne Fowler.
All of the Elena Ferrante books have now sent me on to finally read the so-often-recommended to me Elsa Morante; I’m starting with “History” and “Arturo’s Island.”
I’ve just read Tom McCarthy’s ”Remainder,” which is a sort of anti-novel. Technically, it has characters and a plot, but the characters are what E.M. Forster would call “flat”—in fact, they’re practically cardboard cut-outs, which is appropriate in a book about superficiality—and it’s often difficult to distinguish what is “actually” happening from what is merely a fantasy in the narrator’s brain. In the end, it doesn’t much matter. It’s a novel of ideas, but one refreshingly devoid of windbaggery.
I’m planning to re-read Orwell, especially “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which was given to me years ago one Christmas by George Trow, when I was trying to be a writer. He also gave me “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” by James Agee. Both books are written in the first person, and George was providing me with a model of how I might do that. Agee is ornate, and Orwell is not, and I could see from their books that what mattered, and it seemed to be all, was to get the thing down right on the page, if I could. Reading him again, I hope to recover parts of someone I remember being.
I’m reading Mary Karr’s new book, “The Art of Memoir,” for a second time (I saw an earlier version in manuscript). Karr is such fun to read—who else would combine the name Nabokov and the phrase “out the wazoo” on her very first page?—that it’s hard to resist getting drawn into it again. She takes you on a brilliant literary tour of great memoirs, and launches a two-fisted defense of truth in the form, and talks about the sometimes excruciating conversations a memoirist has to have with her family.
My reading habits are improvisational, mainly governed by the accidents of ownership and inclination, rather than by the schedule of new releases. But there’s a new biography of Orson Welles coming in November, “Young Orson,” by Patrick McGilligan, which takes the directorial hero from his birth to the threshold of “Citizen Kane.” I’ve only just started it and can so far confess to fascination and pleasure; the wealth of detail and the measured tempo are up to the Shakespearean complexity of Welles’s character.
Meanwhile, the New York Film Festival will be screening “Miles Ahead,” a bio-pic about Miles Davis, that stars and is directed by Don Cheadle. Advance reports indicate that it’s anchored in the second half of the nineteen-seventies, the time of Davis’s withdrawal from public performance, and that it dramatizes his friendship with a journalist (played by Ewan McGregor) who helps to coax him back to the stage. There is at least one journalist, the late Eric Nisenson, who was in fact befriended by Davis in just that interregnum; Nisenson wrote a book, “ ’Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis,” which I’ve started to read. It’s both a biography and a view of Davis’s life in a sort of self-imposed exile. Whether it maps onto the movie or just coincidentally coincides with it, we shall see.
Primo Levi did not consider it heroic to have survived eleven months in Auschwitz. Like other witnesses of the concentration camps, he lamented that the best had perished and the worst had survived. But we who have survived relatively little find it hard to believe him. How could it be anything but heroic to have entered Hell and not been swallowed up? To have witnessed it with such delicate lucidity, such reserves of irony and even equanimity? Our incomprehension and our admiration combine to simplify the writer into a needily sincere amalgam: hero, saint, witness, redeemer. Thus his account of life in Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), whose title is deliberately tentative and tremulous, was rewrapped, by his American publisher, in the heartier, how-to-ish banner “Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity.” That edition praises the text as “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit,” though Levi often emphasized how quickly and efficiently the camps could destroy the human spirit. Another survivor, the writer Jean Améry, mistaking comprehension for concession, disapprovingly called Levi “the pardoner,” though Levi repeatedly argued that he was interested in justice, not in indiscriminate forgiveness. A German official who had encountered Levi in the camp laboratory found in “If This Is a Man” an “overcoming of Judaism, a fulfillment of the Christian precept to love one’s enemies, and a testimony of faith in Man.” And when Levi committed suicide, on April 11, 1987, many seemed to feel that the writer had somehow reneged on his own heroism.
Levi was heroic; he was also modest, practical, elusive, coolly passionate, experimental and sometimes limited, refined and sometimes provincial. (He married a woman, Lucia Morpurgo, from his own class and background, and died in the same Turin apartment building in which he had been born.) For most of his life, he worked as an industrial chemist; he wrote some of his first book, “If This Is a Man,” while commuting to work on the train. Though his experiences in Auschwitz compelled him to write, and became his central subject, his writing is varied and worldly and often comic in spirit, even when he is dealing with terrible hardship. In addition to his two wartime memoirs, “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” (first published in 1963, and renamed “The Reawakening” in the United States), and a final, searing inquiry into the life and afterlife of the concentration camp, “The Drowned and the Saved” (1986), he wrote realist fiction—a novel about a band of Jewish Second World War partisans, titled “If Not Now, When?” (1982)—and speculative fiction; also, poems, essays, newspaper articles, and a beautifully unclassifiable book, “The Periodic Table” (1975).
The publication of “The Complete Works of Primo Levi” (Liveright), in three volumes, represents a monumental and noble endeavor on the part of its publisher, its general editor, Ann Goldstein, and the many translators who have produced new versions of Levi’s work. Although his best-known work has already benefitted from fine English translation, it’s a gift to have nearly all his writing gathered together, along with work that has not before been published in English (notably, a cache of uncollected essays, written between 1949 and 1987).
Primo Levi was born in Turin, in 1919, into a liberal family, and into an assimilated, educated Jewish-Italian world. He would write, in “If This Is a Man,” that when he first learned the name of his fateful destination, “Auschwitz” meant nothing to him. He only vaguely knew about the existence of Yiddish, “on the basis of a few quotes or jokes that my father, who worked for a few years in Hungary, had picked up.” There were around a hundred and thirty thousand Italian Jews, and most of them were supporters of the Fascist government (at least until the race legislation of 1938, which announced a newly aggressive anti-Semitism); a cousin of Levi’s, Eucardio Momigliano, had been one of the founders of the Fascist Party, in 1919. Levi’s father was a member, though more out of convenience than commitment.
Levi gives ebullient life to this comfortable, sometimes eccentric world in “The Periodic Table”—a memoir, a history, an essay in elegy, and the best example of his various literary talents. What sets his writing apart from much Holocaust testimony is his relish for portraiture, the pleasure he takes in the palpability of other people, the human amplitude of his noticing. “The Periodic Table” abounds with funny sketches of Levi’s relatives, who are celebrated and gently mocked in the chapter named “Argon,” because, like the gas, they were generally inert: lazy, immobile characters given to witty conversation and idle speculation. Inert they may have been, but colorless they are not. Uncle Bramín falls in love with the goyish housemaid, declares that he will marry her, is thwarted by his parents, and, Oblomov-like, takes to his bed for the next twenty-two years. Nona Màlia, Levi’s paternal grandmother, a woman of forbidding remoteness in old age, lives in near estrangement from her family, married to a Christian doctor. Perhaps “out of fear of making the wrong choice,” Nona Màlia goes to shul and to the parish church on alternate days. Levi recalls that when he was a boy his father would take him every Sunday to visit his grandmother. The two would walk along Via Po, Levi’s father stopping to pet the cats, sniff the mushrooms, and look at the used books:
My father was l’Ingegnè, the Engineer, his pockets always bursting with books, known to all the salami makers because he checked with a slide rule the multiplication on the bill for the prosciutto. Not that he bought it with a light heart: rather superstitious than religious, he felt uneasy about breaking the rules of kashruth, but he liked prosciutto so much that, before the temptation of the shop windows, he yielded every time, sighing, cursing under his breath, and looking at me furtively, as if he feared my judgment or hoped for my complicity.
From an early age, Levi appears to have possessed many of the qualities of his later prose—meticulousness, curiosity, furious discretion, orderliness to the point of priggishness. In primary school, he was top of his class (his schoolmates cheered him on with “Primo Levi Primo!”). As a teen-ager at the Liceo D’Azeglio, Turin’s leading classical academy, he stood out for his cleverness, his smallness, and his Jewishness. He was bullied, and his health deteriorated. His English biographer Ian Thomson suggests that Levi developed a sense of himself as physically and sexually inadequate, and that his subsequent devotion to robust athletic pursuits, such as mountaineering and skiing, represented a self-improvement project. Thomson notes that, in later life, he recalled his mistreatment at school as “uniquely anti-Semitic,” and adds, “How far this impression was coloured by Levi’s eventual persecution is hard to tell.” But perhaps Thomson has it the wrong way round. Perhaps Levi’s extraordinary resilience in Auschwitz had something to do with a hardened determination not to be persecuted again.
On the basis of the first chapter of “The Periodic Table” alone, you know that you are in the hands of a true writer, someone equipped with an avaricious and indexical memory, who knows how to animate his details, stage his scenes, and ration his anecdotes. It is a book one wants to keep quoting from (true of all Levi’s work, except, curiously, his fiction). With verve and vitality, “The Periodic Table” moves through the phases of Levi’s life: his excited discovery of chemistry, as a teen-ager; classes at the University of Turin with the rigorous but not unamusing “Professor P.,” who scornfully defies the Fascist injunction to wear a black shirt by donning a “comical black bib, several inches wide,” which comes untucked every time he makes one of his brusque movements. Levi admires the “obsessively clear” chemistry textbooks that his teacher has written, “filled with his stern disdain for humanity in general,” and recalls that the only time he was ever admitted to the professor’s office he saw on the blackboard the sentence “I do not want a funeral, alive or dead.”
Throughout, there are wittily pragmatic, original descriptions of minerals, gases, and metals, as in this description of zinc: “Zinc, zinco, Zink: laundry tubs are made of it, it’s an element that doesn’t say much to the imagination, it’s gray and its salts are colorless, it’s not toxic, it doesn’t provide gaudy chromatic reactions—in other words, it’s a boring element.” Levi writes tenderly about friends and colleagues, some of whom we encounter in his other writing—Giulia Vineis, “full of human warmth, Catholic without being rigid, generous and disorderly”; Alberto Dalla Volta, who became Levi’s friend in Auschwitz and seemed uncannily immune to the poisons of camp life: “He was a man of strong goodwill, and had miraculously remained free, and his words and actions were free: he had not lowered his head, had not bowed his back. A gesture of his, a word, a laugh had liberating virtues, were a hole in the stiff fabric of the Lager. . . . I believe that no one, in that place, was more loved than he.”
The most moving chapter in “The Periodic Table” may be the one titled “Iron.” It recalls a friend, Sandro, who studied chemistry with Levi, and with whom he explored the joys of mountain climbing. Like many of the people Levi admired, Sandro is physically and morally strong; he is painted as a headstrong child of nature out of a Jack London story. Seemingly made of iron, and bound to it by ancestry (his forebears were blacksmiths), Sandro practices chemistry as a trade, without apparent reflection; on weekends, he goes off to the mountains, to ski or climb, sometimes spending the night in a hayloft.
Levi tastes “freedom” with Sandro—a freedom perhaps from thinking, the freedom of the conquering body, of being on top of the mountain, of being “master of one’s destiny.” Sandro is a powerful presence on the page; aware of this, Levi plays his absence against his presence, informing us, in a beautiful lament at the end of the chapter, that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, that he joined the military wing of the Action Party, and that in 1944 he was captured by the Fascists. He tried to escape, and was shot in the neck by a raw fifteen-year-old recruit. The elegy closes thus:
Today I know it’s hopeless to try to clothe a man in words, make him live again on the written page, especially a man like Sandro. He was not a man to talk about, or build monuments to, he who laughed at monuments: he was all in his actions, and when those ended nothing of him remained, nothing except words, precisely.
The word becomes the monument, even as Levi disowns the building of it.
One of the most eloquent of Levi’s rhetorical gestures is the way he moves between volume and silence, appearance and disappearance, life and death. Repeatedly, Levi tolls his bell of departure: these vivid human beings existed, and then they were gone. But, above all, they existed. Sandro, in “The Periodic Table” (“nothing of him remained”); Alberto, most beloved among the camp inmates, who died on the midwinter death march from Auschwitz (“Alberto did not return, and of him no trace remains”); Elias Lindzin, the “dwarf” (“Of his life as a free man, no one knows anything”); Mordo Nahum, “the Greek,” who helped Levi survive part of the long journey back to Italy (“We parted after a friendly conversation; and after that, since the whirlwind that had convulsed that old Europe, dragging it into a wild contra dance of separations and meetings, had come to rest, I never saw my Greek master again, or heard news of him”). And the “drowned,” those who went under—“leaving no trace in anyone’s memory.” Levi rings the bell even for himself, who in some way disappeared into his tattooed number: “At a distance of thirty years, I find it difficult to reconstruct what sort of human specimen, in November of 1944, corresponded to my name, or, rather, my number: 174517.”
In the fall of 1943, Levi and his friends formed a band of anti-Fascist partisans. It was an amateurish group, poorly equipped and ill trained, and Italian Fascist soldiers captured part of his unit in the early hours of December 13th. Levi had an obviously false identity card, which he ate (“The photograph was particularly revolting”). But the action availed him little: the interrogating officer told him that if he was a partisan he would be immediately shot; if he was a Jew he would be sent to a holding camp near Carpi. Levi held out for a while, and then chose to confess his Jewishness, “in part out of weariness, in part also out of an irrational point of pride.” He was sent to a detention camp at Fòssoli, near Modena, where conditions were tolerable: there were P.O.W.s and political prisoners of different nationalities, there was mail delivery, and there was no forced labor. But in the middle of February, 1944, the S.S. took over the running of the camp and announced that all the Jews would be leaving: they were told to prepare for two weeks of travel. A train of twelve closed freight cars left on the evening of February 22nd, packed with six hundred and fifty people. Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, more than five hundred were selected for death; the others, ninety-six men and twenty-nine women, entered the Lager (Levi always preferred the German word for prison). At Auschwitz, Levi was imprisoned in a work camp that was supposed to produce a rubber called Buna, though none was actually manufactured. He spent almost a year as a prisoner, and then almost nine months returning home. “Of six hundred and fifty,” he wrote in “The Truce,” “three of us were returning.” Those are the facts, the abominable and precious facts.
There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that “Job never existed and was just a parable.” The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem “Homily.” Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God’s test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn’t understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: “But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.”
Pagis’s poem means: “Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.” In just this way, Levi’s writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi’s books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything—every detail, object, and fact—becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. “Death begins with the shoes.” Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: “The Lager is hunger.” In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is “the voice of the Lager” and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the “useless violence” of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox—the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead.
Many of these horrifying facts can be found in testimony by other witnesses. What is different about Levi’s work is bound up with his uncommon ability to tell a story. It is striking how much writing by survivors does not quite tell a story; it has often been poetic (Paul Celan, Dan Pagis, Yehiel De-Nur), or analytical, reportorial, anthropological, philosophical (Jean Améry, Germaine Tillion, Eugen Kogon, Viktor Frankl). The emphasis falls, for understandable reasons, on lament, on a liturgy of tears; or on immediate precision, on bringing concrete news, and on the attempt at comprehension. When Viktor Frankl introduces, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the subject of food in Auschwitz, he does so thus: “Because of the high degree of undernourishment which the prisoners suffered, it was natural that the desire for food was the major primitive instinct around which mental life centered.” Along with this scientific mastering of the information comes something like a wariness of narrative naïveté: such writers frequently move back and forth in time, plucking and massing details thematically, from different periods in and outside the camps. Surely, Frankl’s rhetoric calmly insists, “this material did not master me; I master it.” (This gesture can be found even in some Holocaust fiction: Jorge Semprún, who survived Buchenwald, enacts such a formal freedom from temporality in his novel “The Long Voyage”; the book is set on the train en route to the camp, but breaks forward to encompass the entire camp experience.)
Levi’s prose has a tone of similar command, and in his last book, “The Drowned and the Saved,” he became such an analyst, grouping material by theme rather than telling stories. Nor did he always tell his stories in conventional sequential fashion. But “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” are powerful because they do not disdain story. They unfold their material, bolt by bolt. We begin “If This Is a Man” with Levi’s capture in 1943, and we end it with the camp’s liberation by the Russians, in January, 1945. Then we continue the journey in “The Truce,” as Levi finds his long, Odyssean way home. Everything is new, everything is introduction, and so the reader sees with Levi’s disbelieving eyes. He introduces thirst like this: “Will they give us something to drink? No, they line us up again, lead us to a huge square.” He first mentions the now infamous refrain “The only way out is through the chimney” thus: “What does it mean? We’ll soon learn very well what it means.” To register his discoveries, he often breaks from the past tense into a diaristic present.
The result is a kind of ethics, when the writer is constantly registering the moral (which is to say, in this case, the immoral) novelty of the details he encounters. That is why every reader who has opened “If This Is a Man” feels impelled to continue reading it, despite the horror of the material. Levi seems to join us in our incomprehension, which is both a narrative astonishment and a moral astonishment. The victims’ ignorance of the name “Auschwitz” tells us everything, actually and symbolically. For Levi, “Auschwitz” had not, until this moment, existed. It had to be invented, and it had to be introduced into his life. Evil is not the absence of the good, as theology and philosophy have sometimes maintained. It is the invention of the bad: Job existed and was not a parable. Levi registers the same astonishment when first hit by a German officer—“a profound amazement: how can one strike a man without anger?” Or when, driven by thirst, he breaks off an icicle only to have it snatched away by a guard. “Why?” Levi asks. To which comes the answer “Hier ist kein warum” (“Here there is no why”). Or when Alex the Kapo, a professional criminal who has been given limited power over other prisoners, wipes his greasy hand on Levi’s shoulder, as if the other man were not a man. Or when Levi, who was fortunate enough to be chosen to work as a chemist, in the Buna laboratory, comes face to face with his chemistry examiner, Dr. Pannwitz, who raises his eyes to glance at his victim: “That look did not pass between two men; and if I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.”
Levi frequently emphasized that his survival in Auschwitz owed much to his youth and strength; to the fact that he understood some German (many of those who didn’t, he observed, died in the first weeks); to his training as a chemist, which had refined his habits of curiosity and observation, and which permitted him, in the last months of his incarceration, to work indoors, in a warm laboratory, while the Polish winter did its own fatal selection of the less fortunate; and to other accidents of luck. Among these last were timing (he arrived relatively late in the progress of the war) and what seems to have been a great capacity for friendship. He describes himself, in “The Periodic Table,” as one of those people to whom others tell their stories. In a world of terminal individualism, in which every person had to fight to live, he did not let this scarred opportunism become his only mode of survival. He was wounded like everyone else, but with resources that seem, to most of his readers, unfathomable and mysterious he did not lose the ability to heal and to be healed. He helped others, and they helped him. Both “If This Is a Man” and “The Truce” contain beautiful portraits of goodness and charity, and it is not the punishers and sadists but the life-givers—the fortifiers, the endurers, the men and women who sustained Levi in his struggle to survive—who burst out of these pages. Steinlauf, who is nearly fifty, a former sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian Army and a veteran of the Great War, tells Levi, severely, that he must wash regularly and keep his shoes polished and walk upright, because the Lager is a vast machine that exists to reduce its victims to beasts, and “we must not become beasts.”
Above all, there is Lorenzo Perrone, a mason from Levi’s Piedmont area, a non-Jew, whom Levi credited with saving his life. The two met in June, 1943 (Levi was working on a bricklaying team, and Lorenzo was one of the chief masons). For the next six months, Lorenzo smuggled extra food to his fellow-Italian and, even more dangerous, helped him send letters to his family in Italy. (As a “volunteer worker” for the Reich—i.e., a slave laborer—Lorenzo had privileges beyond the dreams of any Jewish prisoner.) And as crucial as the material support was Lorenzo’s presence, which reminded Levi, “by his natural and plain manner of being good, that a just world still existed outside ours. . . . Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”
You can feel this emphasis on moral resistance in every sentence Levi wrote: his prose is a form of keeping his boots shined and his posture proudly upright. It is a style that seems at first windowpane clear but is actually full of undulating strategies. He is acclaimed for the purity of his style and sometimes faulted for his reticence or coldness. But Levi is “cold” only in the way that the air is suddenly cold when you pull slightly away from a powerful fire. His composure is passionate lament, resistance, affirmation. Nor is he so plain. He is not afraid of rhetorical expansion, particularly when writing forms of elegy. “If This Is a Man” is shot through with sentences of tragic grandeur: “Dawn came upon us like a betrayal, as if the new sun were an ally of the men who had decided to destroy us. . . . Now, in the hour of decision, we said to each other things that are not said among the living.” He loves adjectives and adverbs: he admired Joseph Conrad, and sometimes sounds like him, except that, while Conrad can throw his modifiers around pugilistically (the heavier the words the better), Levi employs his with tidy force. The Christian doctor whom Nona Màlia married is described as “majestic, bearded, and taciturn”; Rita, a fellow-student, has “her shabby clothes, her firm gaze, her concrete sadness”; Cesare, one of those morally strong, physically vital men who sustain Levi in time of need, is “very ignorant, very innocent, and very civilized.” In Auschwitz, the drowned, those who are slipping away into death, drift in “an opaque inner solitude.”
This is a classical prose, the possession of a civilized man who never expected that his humane irony would have to battle with its moral opposite. But, once the battle is joined, Levi makes that irony into a formidable weapon. Consider these words: “fortune,” “detached study,” “charitably,” “enchantment,” “discreet and sedate,” “equanimity,” “adventure,” “university.” All of them, remarkably, are used by Levi to describe aspects of his experiences in the camp. “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.” This is how, with scandalous coolness, he begins “If This Is a Man,” calmly deploying the twinned resources of “fortuna” in Italian, which combines the senses of good fortune and fate. In the same preface to his first book, Levi promises a “detached study” of what befell him. The hellish marching music of the camp is described as an “enchantment” from which one must escape. In “The Drowned and the Saved,” Levi describes a moment of crisis when he knows he is about to be selected to live or die. He briefly wavers, and almost begs help from a God he does not believe in. But “equanimity prevailed,” he writes, and he resists the temptation. Equanimity!
In the same book, he includes a letter he wrote in 1960 to his German translator, in which he announces that his time in the Lager, and writing about the Lager, “was an important adventure that has profoundly modified me.” The Italian is “una importante avventura, che mi ha modificato profondamente,” which Raymond Rosenthal’s original translation, of 1988, follows; the new “Complete Works” weakens the irony by turning it into “an ordeal that changed me deeply.” For surely the power of these impeccable words, as so often in Levi, is moral. First, they register their contamination by what befell them (the “adventure,” we think, should not be called that; it must be described as an “ordeal”); and then they dryly repel that contamination (no, we will insist on calling the experience, with full ironic power, an “adventure”).
In the same spirit of calmly rebellious irony, “If This Is a Man” ends almost casually, like a conventional nineteenth-century realist novel, with cheerful news of continuity and welfare beyond its pages: “In April, at Katowice, I met Schenck and Alcalai in good health. Arthur has happily rejoined his family and Charles has returned to his profession as a teacher; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.” That emphasis on resistance makes its sequel, “The Truce,” not merely funny but joyous: the camps are no more, the Germans have been vanquished, and gentler life, like a moral sun, is returning. There may be nothing more moving in all of Levi’s work than a moment, early in “The Truce,” when, after the months in Auschwitz, a very sick Levi is helped down from a cart by two Russian nurses. The first Russian words he hears are “Po malu, po malu!”—“Slowly, slowly!”; or, even better in the Italian, “Adagio, adagio!” This soft charity falls like balm on the text. (But „Pomalu“ (not „Po malu“) is polish, not russian.
In russian it would be: медленно/medlenno, or: тихо / ticho, or постепенно / postepenno. Note: JSB)
Saul Bellow once said that all the great modern novelists were really attempting a definition of human nature, in order to justify the continuation of life and of their craft. This is preëminently true of Primo Levi, even if we feel, at times, that it is a project thrust upon him by fortune. In some respects, Levi’s vision is pessimistic, because he reminds us “how empty is the myth of original equality among men.” In Auschwitz, the already strong prospered—because they were physically or morally tougher than others, or because they were less sensitive, and greedier and more cynical in the will to live. (Jean Améry, who was tortured by the S.S. in Belgium, averred that even before pain we are not equal.) On the other hand, Levi is no tragic theologian. He did not believe that the “pitiless process of natural selection” that ruled in the camps confirmed man’s essential brutishness. The philosopher Berel Lang, in one of the best recent inquiries into Levi’s work, argues that this moral optimism makes him a singular figure. Lang says that Levi can be turned into neither a Hobbesian (for whom the camps would represent the ultimate state of nature) nor a modern Darwinian (who must struggle to explain pure altruism, except as camouflaged biological self-interest). For Levi, Auschwitz was exceptional, anomalous, an unnatural laboratory. “We do not believe that man is fundamentally brutal, egoistic, and stupid in his conduct once every civilized institution is taken away,” Levi writes forthrightly. “We believe, rather, that the only conclusion to be drawn is that in the face of driving need and physical privation many habits and social instincts are reduced to silence.”
In normal existence, Levi argues, there is a “third way” between winning and losing, between altruism and atrocity, between being saved and being drowned, and this third way is in fact the rule. But in the camp there was no third way. It is this apprehension that expands Levi’s understanding for those caught in what he called the gray zone. He places in the gray zone all those who were morally compromised by some degree of collaboration with the Germans—from the lowliest (those prisoners who got a little extra food by performing menial jobs like sweeping or being night watchmen) through the more ambiguous (the Kapos, often thuggish enforcers and guards who were themselves also prisoners) to the utterly tragic (the Sonderkommandos, Jews employed for a few months to run the gas chambers and crematoria, until they themselves were killed). The gray zone, which might be mistaken for the third way, is an aberration, a state of desperate limitation produced by the absence of a third way. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who judged Jewish collaboration with infamous disdain, Levi makes a notable attempt at comprehension and tempered judgment. He finds such people pitiable as well as culpable, because they were at once grotesquely innocent and guilty. And he does not exempt himself from this moral mottling: on the one hand, he firmly asserts his innocence, but, on the other, he feels guilty to have survived.
Levi sometimes said that he felt a larger shame—shame at being a human being, since human beings invented the world of the concentration camp. But if this is a theory of general shame it is not a theory of original sin. One of the happiest qualities of Levi’s writing is its freedom from religious temptation. He did not like the darkness of Kafka’s vision, and, in a remarkable sentence of dismissal, gets to the heart of a certain theological malaise in Kafka: “He fears punishment, and at the same time desires it . . . a sickness within Kafka himself.” Goodness, for Levi, was palpable and comprehensible, but evil was palpable and incomprehensible. That was the healthiness within himself.
On the morning of April 11, 1987, this healthily humane man, age sixty-seven, walked out of his fourth-floor apartment and either fell or threw himself over the bannister of the building’s staircase. The act, if suicide, appeared to undo the suture of his survival. Some people were outraged; others refused to see it as suicide. The implication, not quite spoken, was uncomfortably close to dismay that the Nazis had won after all. “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later,” Elie Wiesel said. Yet Levi was a survivor who committed suicide, not a suicide who failed to survive. He himself had seemed to argue against such morbidity, in his chapter on Jean Améry in “The Drowned and the Saved.” Améry, who killed himself at the age of sixty-five, said that in Auschwitz he thought a great deal about dying; rather tartly, Levi replied that in the camp he was too busy for such perturbation. “The business of living is the best defense against death, and not only in the camps.”
Many contemporary commentators knew little or nothing about Levi’s depression, which he struggled with for decades, and which had become desperately severe. In his last months, he felt unable to write, was in poor health, was worried about his mother’s decline. In February, he told his American translator Ruth Feldman that his depression was, in certain respects, “worse than Auschwitz, because I’m no longer young and I have scant resilience.” His family was in no doubt. “No! He’s done what he’d always said he’d do,” his wife wailed, when she heard what had happened. In this regard, one could see Levi as a survivor twice over, first of the camps and then of depression. He survived for a very long time, and then chose not to survive, the terminal act perhaps not at odds with survival but continuous with it: a decision to leave the prison on his own terms, in his own time. His friend Edith Bruck, herself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, said, “There are no howls in Primo’s writing—all emotion is controlled—but Primo gave such a howl of freedom at his death.” This is moving, certainly, and perhaps true. Thus one consoles oneself, and consolation is necessary: like much suicide, Levi’s death is only a silent howl, because it voids its own echo. It is natural to be bewildered, and it is important not to moralize. For, above all, Job existed and was not a parable. ♦