Useful Qualities of Human Nature
So we do have vast and unforeseen margins of safety: … our poor body, so defenseless when confronted by swords, guns, and viruses, is spaceproof.
—“The Man Who Flies”
In the preceding chapter, we have discussed that given the nature of the psyche, perhaps “pure hell” is neither to be found in Auschwitz nor anywhere on this earth, for that matter. This chapter will illustrate how the psyche functions under extreme duress to mitigate some of the pains of being and experience. What is it about our nature that allows us to minimize pain in desperate situations? Before these mitigating circumstances are outlined, two issues must be dispensed with. First, the fact that we cannot experience pure hell in no way mitigates the crimes of the perpetrators. No one can wish Levi's experience in Auschwitz on themselves or others. Terrible suffering and death were endured under conditions of slavery. The psyche only provided a minor benefit against pure hell.
Second, the forgetting of the abyss and the terrors of existence has its salutary aspects, but we may want to remind ourselves of life's tragic aspects. Some forgetting is necessary to blunt the pain, yet there is the obligation to bear witness. That is an agony Levi knows well.
This chapter will show that Levi finds a reservoir of qualities in humans that allows us to survive extreme situations. Survival in the Lager was due mostly to luck, but there were some fortuitous attributes in the prisoners that worked to mitigate some of the worst of situations. The next chapter will ask if personal choices could help a prisoner extend his life and achieve some relief from the pain. Can the individual, of his own volition, blunt the existential terrors and the terrors of existence faced in the Lager? Once