Sometime during the early part of the twentieth century the foundations were laid for a new civilization. Czeslaw Milosz once described it as being ‘behind wire’. That phrase has stuck with me. That it was a new civilization, a new way of looking at man, there is no doubt. Just what that means for us, now and forevermore, is something we’re still thinking about—as we should be. It will take a long time to stew this one over and there is good reason not to rush, not to miss any of the details. The new civilization behind wire was based on a seemingly contradictory pair of assumptions. One, that human beings are dangerous. Two, that human beings are nothing. But in the end there was a master logic that held these two propositions together. The civilization behind wire was to take dangerous human beings and prove to them, in the brutal schoolyard of experience, that they are, in fact, nothing at all. Dangerous human beings, in the face of their nothingness, tend to become less dangerous. Most of the pupils died convinced. Those that staggered out of the camps alive (sort of) were a mixed and mixed-up bag. Most of them came out simply broken. Another way to look at it is to see men like Stalin and Hitler as theological figures. They were interested in the soul. They were interested in experimenting with the soul. And with a remarkable audacity that can almost be admired, if with a shudder, they wanted to defeat the human soul. Aleksander Wat, the Polish poet and philosopher who spent some time in the Gulag system, once opined in his extraordinary memoir My Century:
I want to stress this point: the essence of Stalinism is the reforging of souls. … The point was not to correct the five or fifteen million in [the corrective camps] because they were a minority and Stalin was concerned with large numbers, large percentages; the only point was the population as a whole. … The point was for everyone to feel that threat at every moment, to know that the camps were terrible and that this could not be spoken of because this was something holy, sacral.
The wager at the foundation of the civilization behind wire was a brash one, it was absolute. The bet was that human beings could be made into slaves completely and utterly. The bet was that there is nothing in human ‘nature’ that makes them any more creatures of freedom than creatures of absolute servility. The bet was that men will become slaves and like it; will, in some cases, thrive in it. It is unclear exactly what is the final outcome, the final lesson of the civilization behind wire. Did it succeed in its basic proposition and fail for other reasons? How much did it reveal man to be a nothing? How much did it shatter the last illusions of men? These are uncomfortable thoughts, unsettling areas for human inquiry. That’s why the region of literature that deals with the civilization behind wire sits in a special and ghettoized region of the mind. I’ll confess a physical feeling of apprehension mixed with something close to electricity when I pick up certain books by Primo Levi, Aleksander Wat, Imre Kertész, Tadeusz Borowski, Danilo Kis, Gustav Herling, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and so on. I’m always sickly amused that such books are often betrayed already on their back covers by the promotional quotes that invariably adorn them. It is as if we are so zealous to inoculate ourselves from these books, to mute their terribleness, that we coat them even on their front and back covers with what amounts to a tissue of protective misrepresentations, lies. We understand that this literature is important, but at the same time we want it to go away. My copy of Gustav Herling’s ‘A World Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor’ is furnished with a quote from The Observer that opines it “will be read for its humanity and beauty of expression.” I suppose that is true. But it would not have been my first choice in characterizing a book that contains the following description of the logic of the civilization behind wire:
A prisoner is considered to have been sufficiently prepared for the final achievement of the signature only when his personality has been thoroughly dismantled into its component parts. Gaps appear in the logical association of ideas; thoughts and emotions become loosened in their original positions and rattle against each other like the parts of a broken down machine; the driving belts connecting the past with the present slip off their wheels and fall sloppily to the bottom of the mind; all the weights and levers of mind and willpower become jammed and refuse to function; the indicators of the pressure gauges jump as if possessed from zero to maximum and back again. … the next morning he wakes feeling empty as a nut without a kernel and weak after the inhuman strain to which his whole organism has been subjected during the past few months, but dazzled by the thought that everything is already behind him. When a prisoner walks between the bunks without saying a word to anyone, it is easy for the others to guess that he is a convalescent with rapidly healing scars and a newly-assembled personality, taking his first uncertain steps in a new world.
True, Gustav Herling was able to preserve his remarkable humanity through his ordeals and later was able to express those ordeals with his gift for beautiful expression. But that is not why ‘A World Apart’ is an important book. It is so because it explains to us, in rather torturous detail, exactly the process by which human beings were reduced to nothing and then rebuilt into something even less. End of story. My copy of Primo Levi’s ‘Survival in Auschwitz’ proclaims that it is “a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit.” Primo Levi was a remarkable and brave man and his writings are a gift, if from hell. But the last several sentences of ‘Survival in Auschwitz’ read:
Because we also are broken, conquered: even if we know how to adapt ourselves, even if we have finally learnt how to find our food and to resist the fatigue and cold, even if we return home. We lifted the menaschka on to the bunk and divided it, we satisfied the daily ragings of hunger, and now we are oppressed by shame.
Primo Levi’s book is not about the ‘indestructibility of the human spirit’ but about its destructibility. Levi’s book is about how we can adapt to that destructibility, even in our shame, even in our recognition that we can be made into slaves in a heartbeat. Finally, my copy of Imre Kertész’s ‘Fatelessness’ carries, in a quote from The Washington Times, the claim that the book is “an ornate and honest testimony to the human spirit.” That’s simply insane actually and probably the result of a time-squeezed reviewer never having bothered to read the book. The reviewer simply saw that it was a novel by an Auschwitz survivor and assumed it could be described as a ‘testimony to the human spirit’. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Nothing about the civilization behind wire is a testimony to the human spirit, except, perhaps, in being a testimony to the fact that the human spirit can be crushed into dust more quickly and efficiently and devastatingly than we ever wanted to believe. Among the many virtues of Imre Kertész’s novel is the extent to which he allows himself, through what amount of mental effort we can only imagine, to portray the civilization behind wire as something that has become natural to those who inhabit it, as just another way that human beings live. Here is his description of an evening at Auschwitz:
Here and there, more suspect plumes of smoke mingled with more benign vapors, while a familiar-sounding clatter drifted up faintly my way from somewhere, like bells in dreams, and as I gazed down across the scene I caught sight of a procession of bearers, poles on shoulders, groaning under the weight of steaming cauldrons, and from far off I recognized, there should be no doubting it, a whiff of turnip soup in the acrid air. A pity, because it must have been that spectacle, that aroma, which cut through my numbness to trigger an emotion, the growing waves of which were able to squeeze, even from my dried-out eyes, a few warmer drops amid the dankness that was soaking my face. Despite all deliberation, sense, insight, and sober reason, I could not fail to recognize within myself the furtive and yet—ashamed as it might be, so to say, of its irrationality—increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.
The implication of that sentence “I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp” and the tortuous way that the sentence is finally squeezed out of the barely comprehensible experience that elicited it, is the very essence of the literature of the civilization behind wire. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to think that sentence through, to ponder how it could have been uttered and what it means that it was. But, there we are. The civilization behind wire did exist and it has left to us a legacy. I very much wish this weren’t the case. But it is.