ruthless compassion (aroraborealis) wrote,
ruthless compassion

The Survivor

I just finished reading The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps by Terrence Des Pres. I first read this book in college, probably in my junior year, and I remember finding it incredibly powerful then, as now. I was led back to it by rereading Holy the Firm, a spiritual journey by Annie Dillard, which mentions, in passing, an Armenian practice of salting their newborn babies before swaddling them. The Armenians get a passing reference in The Survivor, too, and that's how I got back to it.

Despite being a grim topic, The Survivor is an inspirational work. The going psychological theory regarding survivors of death camps (specifically, German and Russian concentration camps during World War II) at the time it was written was that prisoners in the camps reverted to childlike behavior and became servile to the demands of the camp overseers, that they went to their deaths "like sheep", that they didn't resist because of some sort of spiritual weakness.

Des Pres takes issue with those theories and suggests that we can't use traditional psychoanalytic tools to evaluate survivors' behavior, because life in extremity, as they experienced it, is so far removed from the mediated experience of life through which psychological theories evolved that they're completely different languages. I buy his theory, although I think he's somewhat unwilling to be critical of the survivors (understandably), contrary to his opponents, who are unwilling to be sympathetic to survivors.

Des Pres critiques the hero archetype as one that our culture has deeply internalized: heroes are people who die for their ideals rather than be sullied by the gray areas of day-to-day life. In contrast to this archetype, the survivor is an anti-hero. The survivor prefers a sullied life to a fast death, struggles to the end to live, even through what may be as evil an experience as man could put his fellow man through, ever.

The most interesting insights of The Survivor are these:

First, obviously, to survive a death camp, people must look out for themselves. When you're living on the edge of life, you can't trust anyone else to take care of you. However, in contrast to this, none of the survivors made it through by being solitary. It was essential that they work together, to "organize", as they called it, to break camp rules to get more food, clothing, medicine than the camp provided. So, you couldn't depend on anyone else to take care of you. But you, on your own, wouldn't be able to take enough care of yourself to survive. The only way was some kind of balance between looking out for number one, and "we're all in this together."

Second, a way to help yourself stay interested in life (because you had to be interested in life to survive) was to help other people. This, in turn, formed networks of people all intertwined in need and aid and interest.

Third, life in the extremity of the death camps meant that life was a moment-by-moment affair. There was no tomorrow, at least not as a guarantee, and so there was no postponing of things until tomorrow. You ate what you had when you had it, you made use of what you could as long as you could, etc.

I obviously hope never to experience life in extremity, but the lessons from it seem useful as applications to a mediated life experience, and also sheds a generous light on the blessings of day-to-day life.

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