“It is lucky that it is not raining today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impressions of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy; but you know that this evening, it is your turn for the supplement of soup so that even today, you find the strength to reach the evening.” These words sound so positive, matter-of-fact, and so mundane almost, the reader will be somewhat surprised to learn that they were written by someone who was imprisoned at Auschwitz for more than a year and survived to write about the horror and despair of that incarceration. It is Primo Levi writing in “If This Is a Man.”
John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is the story of a Depression-era family in America who journey from Oklahoma to California to escape the misery of their home town which has turned into a dustbowl and in the hope that they can start a new life in the west. (It is a beautifully written book. It also won Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in1940 and was instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.) It weaves a somber tale, including murder, violence, and death. One constant theme in the book nevertheless is the protagonist family’s acceptance of its lot and the will to move on (at times literally) even confronted by immense odds.
In his celebrated work of fiction, “The First Circle,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the lives of the inmates of a research bureau made up of prisoners located in the suburbs of Moscow. One of these inmates is Gleb Nerzhin, a mathematician-turned-historian who – among others – refuses to participate in research that will benefit the Stalinist state. The central theme of this book is how one can maintain human dignity within a system that is designed to seek and destroy even the tiniest feeling of worth that the gulag occupants may harbor. Nerzhin manages to hang on to his self-esteem by endeavoring always to be an optimist and never losing hold of his inner self. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, “it was only outwardly that he appeared ill-fated – secretly, he found happiness in his very misfortune. He drank from it as from a spring. Here, in prison, he was discovering people and events he could not have heard of anywhere else on earth… And his wife – he knew he would return to her. After all, the spiritual bond between them was unbroken. And he was seeing her today! On his birthday! They would never allow her to visit him again, but what mattered was today…. [When he meets her], he must tell her this… and that… and so much else as well!”
Inga Clendinnen, the Australian academic and writer, describes how Primo Levi kept scribbling notes to himself about his life in the camps and hiding them in various corners of the laboratory in which he worked at Auschwitz. These were notes that were prohibited, that he could not keep and which put him in mortal danger. One could easily surmise that what motivated Levi to undertake such risky action was the hope – however faint – that one day, he may get out of the camp alive and tell the world his story.
“Then he heard a sound; it was like hope coming tentatively back: a scratching and whining. This was what one meant by dawn – the noise of life. He waited for it… And it came: a mongrel bitch dragging herself across the yard, an ugly creature with bent ears, trailing a wounded or broken leg, whimpering…. He could see her ribs like an exhibit in a natural history museum. … Unlike him, she retained a kind of hope. Hope is an instinct only the reasoning human mind can kill. An animal never knows despair…. He came out into the yard, and the animal turned awkwardly – the parody of a watchdog – and began to bark at him. It wasn’t anybody she wanted: she wanted what she was used to: she wanted the old world back.” (From “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene.)
What is common to all these heroes (including Green’s canine) is that they share what Victor Frankl called a “tragic optimism.” Frankl (who had endured years of horror in Nazi concentration camps and used his experiences to postulate a new approach to psychotherapy) described this concept in the 1984 postscript to his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” first published in 1946. There is a need for human beings to remain optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” the triad of pain, grief, and death. This optimism may help “turn the suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment” and ensure that life retains its meaning in spite of its adversity and tragedy.…. And how does one go about finding meaning? The German psychologist, Charlotte Buhler, noted that we could do this by studying “the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the question of what human life is about against those who have not.” Levi echoed this when he wrote of his gulag friend, Lorenzo, that he believed that it was due really to Lorenzo that he came out of Auschwitz alive. It was “not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me of his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”
What is also humbling is the fact these “heroes” would perhaps have not even considered themselves to be that. They would have viewed themselves as ordinary beings trying to survive in the face of extreme circumstances. As Marcus Aurelius observed, “Living calls for the art of the wrestler, not the dancer. Staying on your feet is all; there is no need for pretty steps.”

By Venkat Ramanan