Saturday, June 4, 2011

Primo Levi, and my belief

The success of the World Atheist Convention, held at the start of this month (June 2011) in Dublin, makes it appropriate to consider the nature of belief. Thanks to a recommendation by Claire Keegan in the book section of the Irish Times, I read the account by Primo Levi of his time in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, called “If this is a man” or, in the USA, “Survival in Auschwitz”. It’s a short book and, although it tells a story of incredible cruelty, both in terms of its scale and of the suffering that was inflicted in individual cases, it’s written objectively, with some humour and with no trace of self-pity on the part of Levi. He was a young man at the time, in his 20s, and he only survived because, apart from possessing a high degree of resourcefulness and luck, he was Italian by birth and residence and was taken by the Nazis late in the war. At that point in time they were, temporarily at least, more interested in slave labour than in genocide. He had been born into the Jewish tradition. His survival is fortunate for us too, because the book is one of the most important accounts of what happened during this infamous period in human history when so many, many others did not live to tell the tale, in any form.

After his liberation by the Russians at the end of the war Levi eventually returned to his native Turin, to the apartment where he had been born and in which he was to live out the rest of his life. He had qualified as a chemist and, as well as writing, practiced his profession in his home town. There is evidence that he suffered from time to time with depression, and this is hardly to be wondered at given his experiences.

Controversy exists over his death, which was as the result of falling from a landing in his apartment block, in 1985. Nobody saw what happened to cause the fall. Even though no suicide note was ever discovered, an inquest found that he died by his own hand. The whole question is discussed in detail in an article that was written for The Boston Review by Diego Gambetta. This is a long, closely argued and well written piece. At the end of it one is left with the clear understanding that there is no definitive evidence either for suicide or against it.

That brings us into the realm of belief. Those of us who would seek inspiration in the triumph of the human spirit, for example as demonstrated by Levi’s accounts of how he dealt with his travails and his determination not to allow them to leave him all bent and twisted afterwards, would want to believe that he did not kill himself. I contend that we are, under the circumstances, entitled to have this belief. For me, then, the reality is that Primo Levi died as the result of an accident. But there are caveats: I can only hold that as fact for as long as no irrefutable, or even strong, evidence to the contrary appears. Apart from anything else, a failure to acknowedge evidence against what I might like to perceive as truth would mean that I was fooling myself, and that realisation would be far more unsettling than the demolition of any ideal I might like to hold on to.

I do not have the right to insist that any public behavior that depends upon my version of unverified events is written into the laws of the land. Above all, it would be terribly wrong of me to attempt to impose this belief on others, or to present it to children or impressionable adults as an indisputable account of what happened.

Belief in anything in the absence of direct evidence is, truly, a private matter. Authority figures who insist otherwise are doing a great disservice to the people they are in a position to influence and, because we have a democratic system and said influenced people have votes, by extension to the rest of us.

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