I’m only a few chapters in, but Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is turning out to be what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book”—a book which, upon interaction, sends vast waves of seismic activity through the mind, body and soul. I’ll give you two examples that demonstrate why this is.
First, Levi talks of those who learn of and reconstruct the life and times of the Third Reich and its despicable acts:
“Most historical and natural phenomena are not simple, or, rather, not simple in the way we would like. The network of human relationships inside the concentration camps was not simple: it could not be reduced to two blocs, victims and persecutors. People who read (or write) the history of the camps nowadays have a tendency, indeed a need, to separate evil from good, to take sides, to reenact the gesture of Christ on Judgement Day: over here go the righteous, over there the wicked.”
Why does this passage matter? Simply because those who would recount the deeds of the Nazis in such black-and-whiteness are also committing an atrocity, an atrocity which differs in degree not kind. The Jews were transported to the camps in box cars. Sixty, eighty, a hundred in each. After they arrived, the survivors—many died in transit—tumbled out and were sorted by the SS. To one side went those who could work. To the other went the old, the young, the women, the sickly, the disruptive, and anyone who aroused the ire of a guard. So it seems that those who would judge those who judged the Jews are falling into the clutches of the same great delusion; the existence in reality of “clarity and sharp distinctions”, as Levi put it. Which brings me to the second example, occurring only a few pages later.
“Take a look at the Lager, which–in its Soviet version as well—can serve as a “laboratory”: the hybrid category of inmate-functionaries is both its framework and its most disturbing feature. This category is a gray zone, with undefined contours, which both separates and connects the two opposing camps of masters and servants. It has an incredibly complicated internal structure, and harbors just enough to confound our need to judge.”
What is the name of a structure which both separates and connects? A bridge. Thus:
The grey is that which allows us to cross the chasm between the black and the white. But not everyone recognises the existence of the bridge, and so many remain stranded, unable to appreciate the things they share with those on the other side of the Great Divide.