Auschwitz – Ivan and the Devil

This article is part of the reportage: Auschwitz – evil, memory and the 21st century

Photos by Marco Crupi.

Not long ago, I was on my way to the Franco Parenti theatre in Milan to watch an enactment of Ivan and the Devil, from Dostoevsky’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. As I rounded a corner in semi-darkness, a handful of words written on the wall in a strikingly innocent handwriting caught my attention: ‘Sensibility will save the world’. Already descending into the state of mind befitting a spectator of Ivan Karamazov’s delirious encounter with the devil, I could not help briefly wearing a timid smile, feeling not unlike a murderer who, with fresh blood on his knife, upon stepping away from his victim, had stumbled into children playing with a puppy. To think that we can be saved, delivered from our human condition: a sign of unspeakable courage or simply of an irrational or immature naiveté, a sort of adolescent romanticism? Is there really a philosophy of hope?

I was often ridiculed by others when I motivated my choice to study philosophy at university as fundamentally a need to investigate questions such as the above. I did feel at the time, as Andrea Wolf puts it, that, at the end of the day, all I could really do was to articulate a personal Weltanschauung to make sense of my reality. Fact of the matter is, each one of us is confronted, sooner or later, with questions ‘of ultimate concern’, questions about our being-in-the-world. Questions that oftentimes catch us unprepared: some end up boycotting their relationships, others become creatively neurotic, others travel or have sex compulsively. And equally often we find that it boils down to not having bothered to investigate our ultimate meaning and purpose in life. In Dostoevsky’s words “without a firm idea of what he is to live for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on the earth”.

The terrible question ‘why?’ has haunted thinkers of all times and is known for its tendency to destroy all of our mental constructions. Albert Camus famously said that if we satisfactorily answer the question as to why we should not commit suicide, we will have answered many of the questions of XX century philosophy. Then why are we to live? As all of our causes, or ‘spooks’ as Stirners has it, seem to have crumbled, leaving us ‘aimlessly wandering’ upon the face of this earth, the same question keeps looming: because, as Nietzsche wrote, he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. Auschwitz is a place where this question becomes urgent: why would one want to live with first-hand knowledge of this horror? Yet, you must find that answer or else it will torment you as if the ghosts of the countless people who witnessed and were victims of atrocious evil here were to follow you for the rest of your days. You owe that answer to them.

Relish in acceptance, recites Andrea Wolf’s weird philosophy of hope. But you are too busy dragging Ivan Karamazov’s brother Alyosha around the camp, pulling him by the arm, showing him the horror, after he has asked Ivan: “Will you explain to me why you don’t accept the world?”. Walking by Block 11, Ivan is busy answering his brother’s question by telling of the atrocities committed in Bulgaria by the Turks: ‘burning, knifing, raping women and children, nailing convicts to fences by their ears and leaving them there until morning, when they hang them’. He also tells the story of an infant who, whilst still in its mother’s arms, is fondled by the soldiers to make him laugh and when it stretches out its little hands to grab the pistol the Turkish officer is pointing at him, the pistol is fired right in his face. Children. What do they know of evil? How could you possibly accept the tears of an innocent, guiltless child? Ivan says that it’s not God he cannot accept, but rather how it seems that the world is ordered, how the horror seems necessary so that men can discern between good and evil. And that if it is only at the price of such sufferings that men will know good from evil and finally be able to live in harmony, then this harmony is not worth its price. As you enter a gas chamber Ivan concludes:

You ought to realise, novice, that preposterous things are all too necessary upon earth. The world rests upon preposterous things, and indeed it’s possible that without them absolutely nothing would ever come into existence…

In other (Nietzsche’s) words: without cruelty, there is no festival. Suggesting that it is a strange fancy to think that history is a straight line from barbarism to harmony, the festival went on after Auschwitz. Take the Iraq-Kuwait war: when Iraqi soldiers told Ahmad Qabazard’s parents their nineteen-years-old son would have soon been released:

They were overjoyed, cooked wonderful things, and when they heard cars approaching went to the door. When Ahmad was taken out of the car they saw that his ears, his nose and his genitalia had been cut off. He was coming out of the car with his eyes in his hands. Then the Iraqis shot him, once in the stomach and once in the head, and told his mother to be sure no to move the body for three days.

It is impossible to make sense of this episode or of the Turkish devilries in Bulgaria without conceding that there is something in human psychology which wires us to be most ingenious and creative at humiliating, torturing, maiming and killing others. In other words, there is in men a built-in capacity to love cruelty which is beyond that which many of us educated, well-bred Europeans would be prepared to conceive. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that, as a fictional character in a Woody Allen’s movie rambles, we read about some massacre in Darfur or some school bus being blown up and all we do is turn the page and finish the eggs from the free range chickens. We live in an era in which we are bombarded by news feeds, images and videos of the horror as it happens and we linger in indifference: we are served a daily meal of violence and abuse in the news with such unrelenting rhythm that we have grown oblivious to it. People are in their nice homes having a burger and a beer and all they need to do is switch channel on the TV to be reassured that everything is fine, that a new series is coming out soon and that all they need is a new car or TV set. In his book ‘Humanity: a moral history of the XX century’ Jonathan Glover aptly recalls Milan Kundera’s words:

“The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.”

Why else would people so nonchalantly use the holocaust memorial as a background for their selfies, the ultimate display of men’s pathetic narcissism worsened, in this case, by a grotesque lack of historical memory, of mere common sense and taste?

Shahak Shapira’s Photo

Shahak Shapira’s Photo

What is more, our civilised countries’ governments in Europe and the United States tend to act only when their interests are at stake. Not to mention the more or less open support of regimes and dictators of renowned cruelty as well as the full-fledged wars waged worldwide by the United States, supposedly in response to threats to their ‘national security’, whilst waving ‘the spook of freedom’. Have we forgotten that regimes like Saddam Hussein’s were supplied with armaments and torture equipment by Western companies?

Brutal realism might be corrosive when applied to any philosophy of hope or any moral system. Moral ‘idols’ and other ‘spooks’ have been already repeatedly debunked by Max Stirner and many iconoclasts after him. Today, XXI century Western individuals are not only caught in socio-economic dynamics which are arguably exploitative and alienating, but are also caught up between new spooks of economic status and prestige and old spooks disguised as some new age spiritual bullshit or other. I am not sure I can wholly subscribe to Andrea Wolf’s view that peace is responsible for us being bloated and uninspired but I feel as though there is a malaise spreading across our liberal, mature, supposedly war-abhorring societies. The dynamics at play in our self-proclaiming civilised world are in fact signalling the triumph of the ‘every one for himself, the earth for everyone’. Reflection is stifled by the widespread acceptance of materialistic measures of one’s worth, cultural consumerism helps to dissipate the sufferings ensuing from alienation. Why would I go to the theatre to watch some character from some Russian novel tear his hair from his head when I can stay home and watch the feel-good movie of the year on my Netflix account?

Ivan Karamazov, like every one of us, does not like to suffer: he curses the devil in his hallucinations. But our civilisation’s unnatural aversion towards suffering, our utter incapacity to see it as necessary on the way to individual and collective self-understanding means that we are breeding emotionally stunted individuals. The kind of individuals that are seen taking selfies at the holocaust memorial and that are likely to be vulnerable to the spooks spouted by the next demagogue harnessing the fear of those who failed to grow up, preaching the same intolerance, violence and racism that were in vogue when people were lined up outside gas chambers. Without suffering, without a hard-earned capacity to make sense of our lives in any meaningful way, without the tools of empathy to ‘reach out to others’, there is little hope that mankind will to grow up, leave the thuggery of the schoolyard and be morally mature (as Richard Rorty once wrote). Ivan Karamazov’s challenge stayed true from the massacres of the Turks until Auschwitz, and is likely to stay true as long as we as a species are around. Living in the hope “to see the lion lie down beside the fallow deer and the one who has been slaughtered get up and embrace the one who has killed him” amounts to being caught up in an irrational delusion, a tragic misunderstanding: that human happiness, to quote Andrea Wolf once again, can be rationally engineered, that human traits can and should be corrected, that we can finally master our own destiny as individuals and as a species.

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