Sunday, May 22, 2005

A classic controversy

I’m just finishing Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve, haunting palimpsests from his year in the Auschwitz camp, in particular his memories of individuals who for whatever reason showed humanity in a world where there was none. In so doing, Reprieve examines the essence of being human, and finds it in our need for freedom in order to be human.

As Michael Ingatieff says in the book’s introduction, Levi’s book

describes people who have not surrendered entirely to the infernal world around them. The men whom Levi remembered maintained their capacity to act and think like free men, and in so doing gave moral content to what otherwise would have been only feral vitality. This idea – that the test of being a human being is the capacity for a certain exercise, however tiny, of freedom – is only one of the contributions this book makes to our understanding of ourselves.

Another thing on which Levi reflects is naturally enough his own survival. Although Levi himself was to fall prey many years later to what he calls ‘the survivor’s disease,’ his own survival in the camp was due to one of those ‘small causes’ that serves to change history, or at least a life.

The influence of small causes on history is a classic controversy, he says, “classically lacking a definitive and absolute solution,” which is why they’re such compelling discussions. What if Cleopatra’s nose was longer? Or if that British soldier had shot Hitler in the First World War when he had the chance? How about if the British had not whacked on that huge tax on tea to the Americas? Or if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?

Are small causes the things that move history? Or as Ayn Rand and others argue is it in the end the power of ideas that move history? There’s a question on which to reflect on a wet Sunday afternoon.

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