Satan is not necessary

Primo Levi’s book, ‘The drowned and the saved’ is an account (an analysis really) – of living through horror: he tells us of his and others’ experiences of surviving terrifying incarceration in a concentration camp. He reveals the chilling aftermath of those experiences. He cannot ‘forgive’ that which was done to him but he refuses to countenance the vice of hatred.

In the final chapter of his book – a conclusion – Primo Levi considers what might be, for him, the most appropriate way of communicating such a devastating and ominous warning from history; he wants the young to know what happened and he wants them to know this vividly. But he is pessimistic; he notes that even by the 1980s the events he wants people to confront were ‘matters’ now associated with their grandparents: such matters were already ‘distant’, ‘blurred’ and ‘historical’. The contemporary young were besieged, in his view, by ‘today’s problems’: the nuclear threat, unemployment, technologies which are frenetically innovative – and so on. He was not sure that he – or others who wish that the knowledge of the horrors should not be diluted or left to wither and die – would be ‘listened to’. But nonetheless and despite his reservations Primo Levi thought that people like himself and similar others have, as he put it, ‘a duty’ to tell their story and a resolve that they must be heard. He asserts that ‘we’ collectively have been the witnesses of a terrible and unexpected event that happened in Europe – in a country, Germany, that had just experienced ‘the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar’: it was a civilisation that came to follow the figure and violently seductive performances of Adolf Hitler. He, Hitler, was obeyed and his praises were sung by such a civilised people right up to the catastrophe …

In the wake of the Nazi disaster that befell Europe, Levi recognises that it can happen again, and it can happen anywhere. And it has. Levi writes:

… it is not very probable that all the factors that unleashed the Nazi madness will again occur simultaneously but precursory signs loom before us. Violence, ‘useful’ or ‘useless’, is there before our eyes.

And he continues:

It only awaits its new rendition of a Hitler (there is no dearth of candidates) to organise it, legalise it, declare it necessary and mandatory – and so contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a further tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties … political fanaticism and racialist attritions …

His words foretell what has happened to Ukraine and its people.

But as Levi says, ‘Satan is not necessary.’ And he continues his concluding remarks by countering the notion that somehow war and violence are inevitable. He writes:

… there is no need for war or violences under any circumstances. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved around a table, provided there is goodwill and reciprocal trust; or even reciprocal fear.

I think he must be correct. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved through the hard work and moral resolve which can sustain a ‘good will’ – and which is allied to some basis of trust. However, the best humanistic psychologists recognise that there are, amongst us, people who really do live through the darkest regions of the human soul. They live in the realms of the sadist and the cold cold psychopath. They are unimaginative people who successfully overlook – or are immune to – the suffering of others. They are versions of Nietzsche’s iconoclastic ‘human, all too human’. And this wretched condition appears to be ‘at work’ in the leadership of Russia.

Foot note: In John Heron’s (1986) revised publication, ‘Six Category Intervention Analysis‘ he provides a comprehensive overview of the different types of ‘intervention’ that people may make in relation to others. For example, we can be, in our interactions, supportive, or confronting or prescriptive. But at the very end of his book he provides an account of what he calls ‘perverted interventions’. These he thinks are ‘quite deliberately malicious’. Of this type of intervention he goes on to say that ‘any systematic analysis’ of them would entail an excursion into the ‘black intervention arts’. And this is ‘the domain of the spy, the secret policeman, the political agent provocateur, the interrogator, the torturer, the brainwasher, the propagandist and the professional criminal.’ Interventions of this type are immoral by any standard – and plainly, in one way or another, they characterise the sheer malicious nastiness and cruelty of the Russian leadership.

1 thought on “Satan is not necessary”

  1. Well put Rob. But there is hope even in disaster. It doesn’t matter if today’s children know nothing of the holocaust. A single act of inhumanity is enough to tell them of the reality of human nature, and its potential for good or evil. Moreover, in Christian mythology the devil is an ambivalent figure. See Milton. Keep pondering Best wishes, old friend Peter


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